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Bon Harris: Techno Pioneer

Programming For The Smashing Pumpkins By Sam Molineaux
Published August 1998

Bon Harris: Techno Pioneer

Sam Molineaux discovers an early techno pioneer thriving in the heart of Hollywood; living proof of the maxim 'what goes around comes around'.

Back in 1983, five years before the official birth of techno in the clubs of Detroit, a couple of Essex teenagers started fooling around with modular synthesizers to create their own brand of minimalist, beat‑driven electro music. They called themselves Nitzer Ebb (an entirely made‑up name) and, eschewing the disco‑friendly synth pop that was in vogue in Britain at the time, turned for inspiration to bands such as Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, Killing Joke, DAF and Die Krupps.

With their futuristic outlook and combination of post‑punk rock and forthright electronic rhythms, the early Nitzer Ebb became somewhat unwittingly associated with the emerging European industrial dance scene. However, thanks to a string of consistently precocious albums coupled with relentless touring (including worldwide stadium tours with Mute labelmates Depeche Mode), they eventually moved into a class of their own, deliberately at odds with most of the popular music of the day, electronic or otherwise.

So many artists have suddenly decided they're going to 'go electronic'. But it's not really an integration, it's them singing over the top of an electronic track.

The UK music press, increasingly lost for words to describe them, rewarded Nitzer Ebb with little more than indifference. But outside their country of origin it was a different story. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Nitzer Ebb enjoyed a huge underground following, both in Europe and in the prospering US club scene which welcomed their synth and percussion‑led techno‑rock.

Their first two albums, That Total Age and Belief, are still hailed as seminal dancefloor classics. The subsequent Showtime and Ebbhead saw them embrace a less rigid, funkier synthetic approach. By the time of their fifth and final album — 1995's sadly inaccurately titled Big Hit — they'd begun to experiment with a combination of live instruments and electronics, both to broaden their sound and to add interest to their live performance. At this point, the band had finally given up on the UK and relocated to the States. But tensions during the recording of Big Hit and the follow‑up tour eventually took their toll and the band split up.

These days, vocalist/guitarist Douglas McCarthy is back in England lending his voice to Recoil, the pet project of Depeche Mode's Alan Wilder. Meanwhile programmer/percussionist Bon Harris is living in Los Angeles and experiencing something of a career renaissance thanks to the popularity of what has become known there as electronica (see 'La Musica Electronica' box).

"People see us as one of the originators of that scene, and we're getting a lot of props from being around way before" says Harris, who admits that, although he is delighted with the current US interest in electronic music, he has a bit of trouble understanding what all the fuss is about.

"It's certainly nothing new, but I suppose like life, music tends to go in circles and things come back into fashion."

Harris' musical career is also undergoing a turn of the wheel. He's working on various film and video game soundtracks (see the 'Game On' box), and has a new recording project, Maven, which in many ways picks up where Nitzer Ebb left off. It's a more organic hybrid of synths and guitars (provided by John Napier of LA industrial/dance band Ethyl Meatplow), but this time with Harris on vocals.

"There's still a very strong electronic edge to it, but I'm also trying to interweave live played elements with the electronics. I'm not so much into just having a studio band these days, so this is definitely going to have a strong live element, with a full band and a full performance. I really believe that the more you can have that's live, the more true the experience is. There are a few obvious similarities to Nitzer Ebb, simply because I was a central part of that band and I gave it everything I had, but the Maven material is a different side of my vocal style than anyone's ever heard."

With nearly an album's worth of songs in demo form and currently two very interested labels, Harris is hoping to start recording in Los Angeles before the summer's out. And it's likely that Flood will be at the helm — the highly unconventional, not to say enigmatic producer, who was responsible for all but the first of the Nitzer Ebb albums.

"We're both really busy so there's always a chance that that might not happen, but he digs what I'm doing and I dig what he does," says Harris of their potential collaboration.

Pumpkin Eater

The Smashing Pumpkins (with Billy Corgan, left) and their new album, Adore.The Smashing Pumpkins (with Billy Corgan, left) and their new album, Adore.In the meantime, both Harris and Flood have both been working with Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan — himself a Nitzer Ebb fan and a fellow believer in breaking down the barriers between musical genres. When Harris and Corgan bumped into each other at a party just before Christmas, they got talking about a possible collaboration.

"Billy was trying to do something different, to take the Pumpkins in a different direction," recalls Harris. "Towards the end of the last record (the Grammy award‑winning Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness) he was delving into technology and getting into the synth world and he was saying he wanted someone with a little more experience to come in and just see what their take would be on what he was doing. So he offered me a couple of tracks which I went away and reinterpreted for him from a very synthetic standpoint. I took them back to him and he really liked what done."

Bon Harris: Techno PioneerConsequently, Harris was drafted in towards the end of the sessions for the Smashing Pumpkins' new album Adore, was provided with his own studio space at Hollywood's Sunset Sound and given the task of adding a new electronic edge to the Pumpkins' sound.

"Everything was backed up in Pro Tools so they'd burn me a CD of Sound Designer files of whichever tracks I wanted from the multitrack — normally I'd just have vocals, bass and drums — and Billy would just say 'Go for it, whatever springs into your mind, just do'. So using Logic Audio to sequence, I was basically bedding my stuff underneath and around what was already there. As I finished each song, I'd record the analogue sequences as one long track, burn those down on a CD and give them back to Billy."

For his sound arsenal, Harris relied almost entirely on modular synthesizers: his trusty old Roland System 100M and an Oberheim Xpander, along with a modern Doepfer A100 and the recently‑launched Clavia Nord Modular.

"Much as I like working with old modular synths, you can pretty much only do one sound at a time. You have to record that sound immediately and do a patch sheet. It's a very old‑fashioned and time‑consuming process. Things like the Nord Modular make it a little more feasible to do it with a deadline".

Vintage + Digital

The only purely digital instrument Harris has in his setup is a Kurzweil K2000, which he uses primarily for its sampling and DSP capabilities.

"With the Kurzweil, you can take virtually any sound, bend and distort it and do whatever you want, until it's no longer recognisable. It was a good system — vintage analogue synths on the front end and then quite sophisticated digital editing and digital processing on the Kurzweil on the other. It provided a lot of possibilities for manipulation."

Harris worked on just over half the songs on Adore, subtly reinterpreting certain areas and adding some drum programming in places, but never to the extent of detracting from the Pumpkins' alternative rock style. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Nitzer Ebb will certainly notice Harris' influence, particularly on the album's first single 'Ava Adore' with its solid synthetic pulse. Presumably Billy Corgan was happy with the results?

"He pretty much liked everything I did and he seemed very happy most of the time," says Harris. "But there were so many slave reels for each of these songs, so many guitar and drum parts, it was inevitable that the mix process was going to involve a lot of weeding through the things. We both knew that, great as some of the ideas were, they might not make it into the final mix just because there were so many other good parts vying for position. Some of the songs are very acoustic and stripped back, and didn't really warrant my input at all."

During the recording sessions, this combination of quite heavily electronic and almost entirely acoustic songs seemed a little bit at odds for one album's worth of material, but, as Harris explains, with Corgan at the production helm and Harris' old associate Flood coming in at the mixing stage it worked out very smoothly.

"It's quite a testament to the mix job that nothing really jumps out at you as being super‑different, which was some of the craft of Billy and Flood getting together for the mixes. You're aware of there being a different approach, but no one thing or the other is highlighted. It's very much a subtle integration all round, and it's really forged its own sound, it's not like 'Here we go, this is electronica!'"

Something Old, Something New (Part I) — Bon's giant Roland 100M modular system shares studio space with the all‑new Clavia Nord Modular, a laptop PC, and a top‑flight Power Mac running Digidesign Pro Tools.Something Old, Something New (Part I) — Bon's giant Roland 100M modular system shares studio space with the all‑new Clavia Nord Modular, a laptop PC, and a top‑flight Power Mac running Digidesign Pro Tools.

Smashing Boundaries

But as a genre, electronica is already beginning to spill out of any strict definitions. While alternative rock bands like the Smashing Pumpkins welcome synths back into their fold, former techno acts are bringing in real instruments to enhance their live performance. And at the same time solo artist/producers are realising their own rock‑pop‑electronica fusions. This middle ground is essentially what Harris and McCarthy were investigating back in the last few years of Nitzer Ebb, and it's an area Harris still sees as having great potential.

"So many artists have suddenly decided they're going to 'go electronic'. But it's not really an integration, it's them singing over the top of an electronic track. That's one of the reasons why the new Pumpkins thing is so good, because it's not like that. Similarly, it's what I'm working on with my own project, although I'm coming at it from the electronic angle, and trying to build upon those foundations."

Something Old, Something New (Part II) — on top, the Doepfer A100 modular system, fully analogue throughout, while underneath lurks the entirely digital Pro Tools I/O hardware and Alesis ADAT.Something Old, Something New (Part II) — on top, the Doepfer A100 modular system, fully analogue throughout, while underneath lurks the entirely digital Pro Tools I/O hardware and Alesis ADAT.

On The Ebb?

So does all this mean that Nitzer Ebb is no more? Harris: "We haven't disbanded as such, but it's highly inconceivable that anything will happen for a very long time."

Nevertheless, the recent reawakening of interest in '80s synth pop has led to a number of newer electronic acts expressing interest in reinterpreting some of the early Nitzer Ebb material. There's apparently a 'best of' remix compilation in the pipeline (once a legal dispute involving their first two albums and their US and UK record labels is settled). Meanwhile, acts such as Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, both currently on major venue tours of the US, are reaping the rewards of having been there at the outset.

Something Old, Something New (Part III) — A well‑worn Korg MS10 sits atop a Sony DAT and Bon's highly prized Kurzweil K2000R, as well as an Oberheim Expander and Roland S50 dating from Bon's days with Nitzer Ebb.Something Old, Something New (Part III) — A well‑worn Korg MS10 sits atop a Sony DAT and Bon's highly prized Kurzweil K2000R, as well as an Oberheim Expander and Roland S50 dating from Bon's days with Nitzer Ebb.

"I think it's great that someone like Gary Numan can still be around and doing his thing. He does have certain enduring qualities, and he's still good at what he does," says Harris. "There are lots of great bands and lots of great sounds around at the moment, especially in the current electronic scene, but I don't see many of them really pushing the envelope of the genre anywhere. There are still not really any songs and relatively few personalities involved. I think Portishead are one of the few examples of a band with personality that uses electronics in an interesting way, and there's Tricky, who's awesome — but not much of the more straight up electronic stuff is actually forging its own sound."

While working at the forefront of a newly flourishing electronic scene has brought its share of new challenges and increased diversity, Bon Harris' musical philosophy remains unchanged.

"Even working in the commercial realm, as I have been lately, I still find myself incapable of doing something totally throwaway. It's got to be real, and there has to be an undeniable emotional presence in what's happening, otherwise it isn't music. All the music I listen to has that streak of sincerity and honesty in it. The moment that you don't feel like you mean it, stop!"

LA Musica Electronica

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, 'electronica' is the all‑encompassing US term for the latest wave of synth and dance music that exploded on to the American music scene last year, effectively stamping out the last dying embers of guitar‑based grunge rock.

Although America has had its own flourishing electronic dance music and hip‑hop scene for years (mostly centred around cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York), it has really only been in the last 12 months or so that it's moved up a gear and entered the mainstream — and then largely due to the influence of British groups like Prodigy, The Orb and the Chemical Brothers. Now even the formerly rock and pop‑dominated West Coast has opened its arms to techno, rave, trip hop, jungle, drum & bass, big beat, and all their various offshoots.

"It's been a while coming, but it has been percolating underground for some time," notes Harris. "The first time we came over to tour, which was in 1989, there was a very strong scene, but it wasn't massive. So it's been going on a while, but now it's seeping into the mainstream where you're getting commercials and movies with very heavily electronic soundtracks. It's definitely rising to the surface."

Game On

Recently, with video games achieving acceptance with a more mainstream and less nerdy audience, manufacturers such as Sony, BMG Interactive and Activision have started looking to more established composer/producers and current Top 40 acts for their games soundtracks. Sony's new Gran Turismo, for example, features cuts from Garbage, Manic Street Preachers (remixed by the Chemical Brothers) and Ash; their new 'psychedelic tunnel game' N20 is set to a soundtrack of remixes by Las Vegas big‑beat protagonists Crystal Method; and BMG have just announced their World Cup Team video game Three Lions with music from Ocean Colour Scene.

The potential for licensing existing music is great and offers lucrative promotional opportunities for the groups involved, but it's also an exciting area to be working in at ground level, particularly for a musician like Bon Harris, who can fill in time between larger projects writing video game soundtracks from his own desktop studio.

Harris has recently completed the music to Activision's new road‑rage action game, Vigilante8 (a sequel to their popular Interstate '76).

"I was lucky on the Activision projects in that they can use CD‑quality audio which means you don't have to mess around reducing the sample rate or bit resolution of the music you give them; you pretty much just write a song, record it to DAT and they burn it onto the CD from there. It's a condensed version of working on one of your own album songs, except you're working to a brief from somebody else," he explains.

"You get a character description and sometimes a description of the scene: make it fast, make it aggressive, this is the character, and so on. For one of the projects I worked on, they wanted '70s funk music but futuristic, so you just have to interpret whatever the hell futuristic funk music might sound like! I looked around at some of the beats that are in vogue nowadays, and found that there's actually lots of similarities to the older stuff — they're just faster. more processed and more compressed.

"It was actually quite fun and it's interesting when you pull it off. I put a cut‑up beats type of framework on the whole thing to give it the futuristic feel, but then added more conventional '70s wah‑wah guitars, brass sections, Hammond organs and the like, which I used a lot of samples for."

Since recently moving into a new production space on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, Harris has also begun delving into film music; at the time of this interview he'd just completed a submission for a new Kenneth Brannagh directed movie currently in production.

"Really, whatever comes around, if it's an interesting project that I want to get involved in, I'll work on it. I don't necessarily take a film project 10 times more seriously than a video game. You usually have less time to invest if you're doing a video game because, on stuff like that, the budgets are smaller, but if I'm into it and I think it's a good thing to be associated with, then I'll do it."

Bon Harris' Hit Kit

  • OBERHEIM XPANDER — "This was one of the first professional synths that I bought. Pretty much whatever budget we had for equipment at the start, a lot of that stuff has made it through 15 years of use."
  • DOEPFER A100
  • ROLAND SYSTEM 100M — "You patch it together with patch cords, it's very large, not very portable, and it looks like a telephone exchange when you've finished doing it; it only does one sound at a time and is terribly arcane and awkward, but I love it! If there's a particular sound I'm after, I can pretty much get it on the System 100M. I've often thought if I was banished to a desert island and told I could only take one piece, this would be it."
  • CLAVIA NORD MODULAR — "This is a synth I'm using a lot at the moment, mainly because I'm working much more in commercial areas. The thing I like is that when you've finished wiring up a sound with the virtual patch chords on your PC, you send it to the tiny keyboard and then you can just take that under your arm to the studio."
  • DIGIDESIGN PRO TOOLS — "When you're using analogue synths, Pro Tools is a good way to go because it speeds up the process somewhat. You can take a minimal amount of input, record that and then start chopping it and further processing it. I've got it hooked up so my K2000 is on the network with the Mac, so anything that I cut from a Pro Tools track can be sent over SCSI to the Kurzweil and processed that way."
  • KURZWEIL K2000 (WITH SAMPLING OPTION) — "I remember before the K2000 came out, Flood and I would have these 'wouldn't it be great if' conversations, and we were saying wouldn't it be great if you could basically have a modular synth but for samplers, like the early editions of [Digidesign's] TurboSynth. So pretty much as soon as the Kurzweil came out Flood and I looked at each other and went 'There's your real‑time TurboSynth!'
    "I also use it as my main sampler — it's a little more complicated to use than an S1000, but I think generally the sound quality is better and there's so much you can do in post‑production with it. It reads Akai files, Roland files, Ensoniq files — it's a real workhorse. Most samplers I've had before, until you put a disk in, they don't have any sounds, whereas the Kurzweil's got some really great sounds straight off. That's a big time‑saver when you're working on commercials and soundtracks."