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CRAIG ARMSTRONG: Songwriting For Massive Attack, Madonna & U2

Interview | Songwriter By Paul Tingen
Published July 1998

CRAIG ARMSTRONG: Songwriting For Massive Attack, Madonna & U2

Although Craig Armstrong has been building strong writing and arranging credits since the start of the '90s with such artists as Massive Attack, Madonna, Suede and U2, it's only in recent months that he's come to the fore as a solo artist in his own right, with his new album The Space Between Us. Paul Tingen notches up some Frequent Flyer miles to talk to him.

It's one of those interesting little coincidences that, as I'm flying to Glasgow to interview the latest rising star in the firmament of the classical‑rock crossover movement, the British Airways magazine High Life I read on the plane contains an article about the 'rock meets classical' issue. Paul McCartney (and his Standing Stone and Liverpool Oratorio orchestral works), Ryuichi Sakamoto, Frank Zappa, Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello (who collaborated with The Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters) are all mentioned as recent examples. The article argues that the rock/classical crossover — maybe we should call it R&C, for simplicity's sake — is coming of age and gaining artistic and commercial credibility, finally consigning the ill‑fated pioneering efforts of ELP, Rick Wakeman, the Moody Blues, and Jon Lord and Deep Purple (Concerto For Group And Orchestra) to the past. The article gives classical composers who incorporate rock influences (and rock technology), such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and John Adams, only a cursory mention, but obviously their R&C efforts have been as ground‑breaking, and sometimes as ill‑fated, as those of their rock counterparts.

Recently, though, a third type of crossover artist seems to be emerging, and this is the kind of hybrid composer who cannot easily be defined as belonging in one camp and crossing over to another. Karl Jenkins, of Adiemus and Delta Airlines TV ad fame, is one example; as a former member of the Soft Machine he has his roots as much in rock and jazz as in classical music [see SOS June 1997 for a full interview]. Simon Jeffes, the leader of the Penguin Café Orchestra, who died late last year, is another example. And many of these hybrid composers/artists (it's even unclear what we should call them) have made their name in another crossover territory, namely multimedia — writing film scores, advertising jingles and the like. The person I'm about to see in Glasgow appears to be the prototype for this type of 'hybrid artiste'. On the rock music side he has a credit list that will out‑cool almost anyone: he was instrumental in the creation of Massive Attack's second album, Protection (1994), co‑writing, playing piano and doing string arrangements; he was once voted Young Jazz Musician of The Year; he recently co‑produced the next Pet Shop Boys album, and he's done string arrangements for the likes of U2, Suede, Tina Turner and Madonna. On the classical side, he's worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Tron Theatre, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and various other established ensembles, and on the multimedia side he recently won a BAFTA award (together with Marius de Vries and Nellee Hooper) for his score to the movie Romeo & Juliet. He also provided the soundtrack for the Claudia Schiffer ad that's currently on TV, which advertises a car nobody can remember the name of. (Few people will remember the music either, for the suggestion of a nude Schiffer draws all the attention...)

All this has put the man in question in the public ear, but not in the public eye. His name is Craig Armstrong, and journalists desperate for an angle like to take the one of him being the man everyone has heard, but who no‑one has heard of. All that may soon change, though, because earlier this year his first solo album, The Space Between Us, was released. As you might expect, it's the archetypal indefinable late '90s crossover affair, inhabiting the territory that lies somewhere between classical, ambient, film music, trip hop, dance music and rock. Lush strings compete for attention with sample‑ and effect‑driven atmospherics, usually backed by lazy looped and sampled beats that echo Massive Attack's work. Credibility is provided by the two guest singers: The Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser, who sings the first single, 'This Love', and Paul Buchanan, who croons over Armstrong's rendition of The Blue Nile song 'Let's Go Out Tonight'. Moreover, behind‑the‑scenes credits on the album include programmer, engineer and producer Marius De Vries (who has also worked with Madonna and Bjork), mixer Mark 'Spike' Stent (Massive Attack and Bjork) and the ubiquitous (on these kinds of projects) orchestra leader and violinist Gavyn Wright. To further underline the Massive Attack connection, The Space Between Us was released on Massive's new Melankolic label (via Virgin), and features re‑workings of two tracks from Protection: 'Weather Storm' (which Armstrong co‑wrote and on which he plays some fabulous piano), and 'Sly' (on which he did the string arrangement).

You may be down, and when you listen to a certain piece of music you look at the world as a better place again. I'm into that.

Reconciling Oppositions

CRAIG ARMSTRONG: Songwriting For Massive Attack, Madonna & U2

Glasgow is unusually and unseasonably hot, and with regret Armstrong and yours truly descend from the sunlit café which was our rendezvous to the vaults of his rather dark and cramped studio. Still, it seems a more apt place to discuss the ins and outs of his late '90s crossover projects, as well as his opinions on late '90s music technology.

The room is fairly narrow, with a small recording area at the far end, centred around Mackie desks (a 32‑track version with 24‑track add‑on), and Akai samplers (S3000XL and S3200XL), plus a 32‑track Digidesign Pro Tools system and Emagic Logic sequencer running on a Mac. Armstrong, a 38‑year old father of three, who looks very much like your regular, easy‑going, pub‑going guy, reacts with some vehemence to my mention of the points made in the BA High Life article: "Well, it's true that in the '70s rock and classical was a very unhappy marriage. I think the main reason for that was that they were looked at as very different and opposing music categories. But today the whole issue has become irrelevant. I don't feel as though I'm working with either rock or classical music. When I'm writing music I do not make distinctions like that. I don't sit there thinking: 'OK, let's put a bit of classical music on top of this.' It's just much more organic. We have moved far away from sticking some Rachmaninoff over a beat. Some people may still be doing that, but for most people it's a much more diffused experience. You can't say any more that this is classical and that is rock. The whole discussion is really passé."

Armstrong's CV anticipates this reaction — his whole career appears to have centred around breaking through musical boundaries and reconciling musical oppositions. His fascination with both old‑fashioned pen and paper composing and modern music technology is just another case in point. His first big move was typical: having grown up in Glasgow listening to rock and pop music as a kid, he opted to move to London at the tender age of 17 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He remembered: "I suppose I was ahead of what's happening now. When you think back to that period, which was the late '70s, everything was very compartmentalised. One person would be listening only to classical music, and another only to rock music. But now when you visit people's homes you'll find classical, rock, jazz, and drum and bass records. One reason why I never got into those separations may be that I didn't feel affected by the class issue. If you listened to rock music while you were at the Royal Academy you were looked down on. But I come from quite a poor background and I listened to music very much as a blank page. I did not have any cultural baggage around it. So I could listen to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Beethoven without making much of a head switch. It was only when I went to college that I realised that this was quite an unusual attitude in those days."

During his college years, the young Armstrong took a keen interest in all manner of avant‑garde music, from Stockhausen to Birtwistle, and developed his interest in electronic music and musique concrete when he studied Electronic Music and Studio Techniques at RAM in London, and electronic music techniques with a grant from the Scottish Arts Council. His crossover adventures took another left‑field turn when he was named Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 1981. He remembered: "I must admit that I never listened to much classical music. I was very much into pop music. What interested me in classical music was the extreme, experimental side. So I had a really large knowledge of 20th century classical music. And as a pianist and composer I moved into the direction of avant‑garde, atonal improvisation and Steve Reich‑like minimalist repetitive music. It was this kind of music for which I was named Jazz Musician of the Year, even though jazz is hardly my area. My interest in electronic music came, really, from this friend of mine who had bought a Grundig tape recorder when we were about 10 years old. I still remember the absolute excitement of that. That really pulled me in. We were recording plays on it, with one track for the dialogue and another for the sound effects. So this is where my fascination with using found sounds started, which has today transmuted into using lots and lots of atmospheric samples."

I cling on to the beauty of music, because life can be very difficult.

Environmental Samples

CRAIG ARMSTRONG: Songwriting For Massive Attack, Madonna & U2

So the foundations for Armstrong's later career in general, and The Space Between Us in particular, were laid very early. Nevertheless, he's taken a long time to achieve his current status and success. During the '80s he was involved in all manner of activities which he now says were forced upon him by circumstance: "I don't disown them, but when you have kids you have to pay the rent, so I had to take any kind of work that came to me. They were not career decisions. It almost feels like those things were done by someone else. So I tend to say to people who interview me: 'forget what happened before 1990.'" (Some of what Armstrong did in the '80s is worth mentioning, nevertheless, not least the work he did with Midge Ure and his membership of the band Texas.) What happened around 1990, then? It turns out that running out of money on a recording project and a chance meeting with Nellee Hooper were two key events in the upward progression of Armstrong's career: "I had a recording contract in the US with a band called The Kindness of Strangers. Someone suggested that we work with Nellee Hooper, so I met him and we got on really well. Halfway through the project we ran out of money, so I decided to score the rest of the album. That was how I got into writing orchestral music. And it was through Nellee that I went on to work with Massive Attack on Protection in 1993, and that in turn led to the work with Madonna. I did this Marvin Gaye tribute track with her and Massive, called 'I Want You', and she really liked what I'd done, and called me to arrange the strings on Bedtime Stories."

With these credits and connections under his belt Armstrong was able to do what he calls "create a career", rather than just respond to what was offered to him. He mentions, as another deciding factor, that he went solo after leaving Texas, and after The Kindness of Strangers folded. "I thought I was old enough to be myself. I think I had a tendency to hide myself behind others". He admits to a personality that doesn't like the limelight, commenting that "I think many musicians have that. One half of them wants to be the best in the world, and the other wants to hide in the bedroom with a piano."

Quality will usually surface in the end, though, and Armstrong's unique combination of skills — fine‑tuned during many years in the commercial wilderness — have carried him to where he is now and make him the archetypal late '90s R&C artist. At the core of these are the pop sensibility developed in his youth, the classical skills acquired at the Royal Academy, and his keen interest in electronic sounds and technology. Armstrong elaborates: "I've learnt over the years to write for orchestra. I've listened a lot to Mahler and Ravel and really studied their scores. I can get really into how they do things. At the same time, I'm very inspired by musique concrete, the experiments that Schaffeur did with tape recorders in the '30s. That was an early form of sampling, really. It was his work that laid the foundations for the experiments of Stockhausen and Ligeti that later took place in Cologne. And so, now that sampling technology is readily available, I incorporate it more and more into my orchestral music. It's harder and harder for me to go totally acoustic."

Musical Mathematics

CRAIG ARMSTRONG: Songwriting For Massive Attack, Madonna & U2

Armstrong explains that his musical ideas come to him as much from doodling at home at the piano, as from working to drum loops and rhythm tracks in his studio, Massive Attack‑style: "With three kids at home it's too easy to forget a good idea, so when I'm at home I record ideas on a Walkman. In my studio I always record my ideas into Logic. One of the great things about this program is how easy it is to record stuff into it. Any idea you have, you just whack it down. In my studio I'll either work around piano ideas on my Roland RD1000, which has some excellent piano sounds which I used on my album, or I'll be working electronically with samples or the synths I have here, and I'll write a piece around atmospherics and sounds. I love that approach to making music. Ever since I encountered that tape recorder when I was about 10 I've been buying equipment and experimenting with it. At college I learnt to program a [EMS] VCS3, but sadly I sold it when I ran out of money. Take my advice: never sell an instrument you like! I also bought many other synths, like [Roland] Junos and JX3P, [Yamaha] DX7 and so on. I still have quite a few analogue keyboards. One of my favourites is the Jupiter 8, which I used a lot on the Pet Shop Boys album. I also have a Super Jupiter, Roland 106, Roland JD8000, Nord Lead, Roland JX10 and JD990, Waldorf Pulse, [Emu] Vintage Keys, an original Minimoog, Roland S770 sampler, and Linn 9000 and Roland TR808 drum machines. I occasionally still sample their sounds in the Akais, and then treat and sequence them in there."

But apart from his beloved RD1000, the heart of Armstrong's studio setup is formed by his 32‑track Pro Tools system. He elaborates on the ins and outs: "I don't have tape recorders any more. Everything I do goes straight into Pro Tools or Logic. I access Pro Tools through Logic — I find that the easiest way of working. I'm totally happy with this system. I think the sound quality is absolutely amazing. And the great thing about Pro Tools is that you have all the effects at your fingertips the moment you enter your sound. I don't mind the computer interface. I think it's like with a lot of technology — much simpler to work than people say it is. It just takes a little bit of getting used to. I recorded all the Pet Shop Boys we did here in Pro Tools, and also most of my album.

"What I do is map everything out in Logic and Pro Tools, using the JD990 for the string sounds, and then I record the sequenced sections into Pro Tools as well. I save everything on a [Iomega] Jaz drive, and take that with me to the studio where the orchestral recordings are being done, usually Olympic or Air. They also have a Pro Tools system and it comes up exactly the same. That's just great. I also use Jaz drives for backup. The only tape recorder that's left in my studio is my Tascam DA30 MkII DAT recorder."

The album that Armstrong is co‑producing with the Pet Shop Boys is based around a musical and is planned for release later this year. Sadly, he's not allowed to talk about its exact nature. The only thing he's prepared to say is that he's been using lots of analogue synths, because "I loved the simplicity of their earlier tracks that were based around analogue synth sounds. The simplicity comes because it seems to me that when you have a good analogue sound, it takes up a lot more space, so you don't need as many sounds."

By co‑producing the Pet Shop Boys, Armstrong has spread himself into yet another territory, making his activities yet more diverse. His ideal is that, one day, "all the influences that go into my work come together. I'm looking for that moment when everything blends together as if it's one mathematical equation, where everything hits the same point. At the moment, when I'm writing classical music it still is a bit more classical than on The Space Between Us. The Pet Shop Boys aren't interested in writing classical music, because they want to appeal to as many people as possible. They write great songs, but I would like to do something that is quite abstract and still appeals to lots of people. I haven't done that yet. So my next album will be a lot more experimental, and I will try to create something genuinely new, whereas The Space Between Us was really a very lyrical album, containing music that's like a kind of oasis to people and to which they can chill out.

When you write music you have to follow your soul.

"I see music as a positive force in life, so I think there's a responsibility attached to being an artist. People all over the world are listening to my record, and that gives me a responsibility. I cling on to the beauty of music, because life can be very difficult. And so for me the purpose of music is that it is an uplifting thing. It comes from the spiritual side of people. That's why hymns are so uplifting. I think that recently many people have gotten bogged down in the dark side of music. But with the new millennium coming up, I think that people will start to look forward again and be a lot more positive. You may be down, and when you listen to a certain piece of music you look at the world as a better place again. I'm into that. I think Massive Attack also do that. It doesn't have to be pretty music, but I do like music that leaves some hope after you've listened to it. That's the music I like to write. The music on my album is a bit melancholic, but I think it's a positive thing, rather than a negative thing. It's certainly music for adults. Young kids won't like it. I think it's spiritual music, to do with real life."

In his efforts to reach the moment where all his influences come together in 'one mathematical' equation, Armstrong is prepared to travel far. This year he's off to India to study Indian music, and add yet another colour to his already vivid palette: "For me the great thing about music is that it's infinite. You can keep on learning and learning and learning."

Personal Sampling

Armstrong states that he likes to "use electronics for what they do. I don't use them to beef up the orchestra." Instead, he likes to use samples to create effects and atmospherics, something that's especially apparent, on his album, from the stand‑out tracks 'Glasgow' and 'Childhood', wherein he frames his orchestral and piano sounds in a soundscape made up from a wealth of environmental samples: thunderstorms, rain, talking, treated percussive sounds, and so on. Armstrong: "They're virtually all my own samples that I recorded with a DAT machine, and then treated in my Akai samplers, which have great filters. I will go anywhere to record my samples. I don't like using sample CDs. I don't think it works. The sounds that you take from them don't have a history, they don't mean much to you, so things will tend to sound flat and impersonal. On the other hand, when you sample something yourself, say from a record that you really love, and you change that about, you will have made it your own, and it will fit differently in your track. Incidentally, the thunderstorm‑like sounds on 'Glasgow' come from the [Clavia] Nord [synthesizer], but the rest are samples I recorded."

Massive Music

Much of Armstrong's music appears to be driven by what he calls "found sounds", a description that suggests the influence of not only musique concrete, but also of Marcel Duchamp's ready made artworks — pieces of everyday suddenly promoted to art and exhibited in a gallery. This influence is also apparent in the sample‑driven rhythm tracks on The Space Between Us. However, the loose, spacious, lazy beats also betray very strong influences from Massive Attack, probably not least because much of the programming was done between Armstrong and Massive‑programmer Marius de Vries. The Scotsman comments: "Massive Attack were one of my favourite bands even before I worked with them. Of course, when Nellee asked me to work with them I jumped at the opportunity. They sent me the rhythm track for 'Weather Storm', and I wrote all the piano stuff to it. That piece has a very special, contemplative atmosphere, and for my solo album I wanted to capture that with strings. With 'Sly' I took some tiny elements from the Massive original and expanded them with an almost classical approach. Of course, through working with them I also have been influenced by them very much — I think they were in turn influenced by the strings and piano bits that I did for them. But I like that minimalist, understated approach to doing rhythm very much. I'm not really a fan of very busy music. I prefer to have lots of space and lots of room for you to think in. I love those old Visconti films, for example, where there is a kind of saturated elegance. I find that quite inspiring. My music is quite European, maybe even Scottish in that sense. I like that. When you write music you have to follow your soul."