Take some Cajun banjo, an Italian opera singer, and a dash of Robert Fripp. Mix these diverse elements liberally with electronic dance music, and serve as the third album from the Grid, Evolver. Nigel Humberstone talks to the hi‑tech duo on the making of this album, and their forthcoming classical project.
This is the second time I've met The Grid, the underground dancefloor duo of Richard Norris and Dave Ball. This time it's at Eastcote Studio, London, where they're finishing up on the final day of laying down tracks for their new album. It's only a stone's throw from the offices of Virgin (their previous record label), but the pair are now signed to Deconstruction, a transition which occurred almost immediately following Virgin's decision not to take up any further recording options. 'Texas Cowboys', the first release on their new label, has already rewarded Deconstruction's faith in the duo with Top 20 success.
With a certain amount of 'major record company' pressure to write 'single' songs behind The Grid, I asked them how the new album, Evolver, differs from their last offering on Virgin, 456. Are there any new approaches?
Ball: "There's a more defined sound — a harder sound, really." Norris: "Also, with 456, there were songs that were more traditional, in the sense of a verse‑chorus format. This is more like 'Crystal Clear' or our 12‑inches; fairly linear, but with a lot of events and light and shade. It comes from muting various bits and bringing in different elements — so now it's very, very layered, with ever‑changing textures.
"The last album was fairly hi‑fi and technically quite specific, but not 'in your face'; it was more of a 'listening' record. I think that we've always wanted to do that, but also step it up — so that you can hear it in a club and listen to it at home."
Norris and Ball's compositional techniques come from their track‑laying procedure. Norris: "We'll normally start with drums or some kind of melodic element, then just build the tracks up in loops and sequences, and put them down on the multitrack all the way through the piece. This approach probably comes from the fact that we've always been a sequencer‑based, rather than a computer‑based band. [Norris has just moved up to using a Macintosh, whilst Ball has an Atari.]
"So we leave the arrangement right to the last minute, when we're in the SSL studio. We'll do loads of different passes, and work from those." Ball: "Even something like 'Swamp Thing', which sounds structured, is derived from layers — a lot of parallel lines that we'll flick between with the automation. We're going to be mixing at Metropolis 2, which is one of the best‑sounding rooms we've heard. All the last album was done at Olympic, which has a nice room but sounds more 'hi‑fi'. Metropolis has more of a 'clubby' sound, with their big Genelec monitors. It sounds like you'd imagine it playing at the Ministry of Sound."
Norris: "This new album is very much just the two of us, whereas the last included masses of people. We've been using a lot of found sources and have got boxes of DATs. Cable TV has been a bit of a godsend, it must be said. We've been getting obsessed with it; we go home at night, record a load of films, bring them in the next morning, watch them and make notes. A month's worth of samples from cable TV will last you a lifetime.
"But there's all sorts of sources. I was in Thailand at Christmas, and got loads of cassettes of monks and religious music. And of course we do masses of sessions with other people."
For the new album, Norris and Ball have decided to move away from the mass guest appearances featured on 456 (Sun Ra, Dieter Meier, Zodiac Mindwarp and Dagmar Krause), but their musical alliance with Robert Fripp has continued, and his unique guitar work is evident on a number of the new tracks. Norris: "We initially had no plans to include him, but he was very keen, and rang us up saying that he was looking forward to working on our next album!"
So what was Fripp's input to the new tracks? Ball: "It's been quite extensive really. He came over to Eastcote studio with his amazing rack, which is basically a customised affair of all his favourite effects pedals configured to his specifications."
"He's got these two TC Electronics delay units," cuts in Norris. Ball: "You shouldn't be talking about them." Norris: "Ooops, I know. But they're seriously modified; he can get up to a 67‑second delay time on them. It's brilliant, because his approach has opened up a new way of working for us, since we've discovered how to emulate what he does with his machines on our S1100 — and we're not going to tell anyone about it!"
Fripp seems to be popping up everywhere, with his work appearing on a whole host of other people's records. I assume he must be easy to get on with?
Ball: "Yeah, but he's also the kind of guy who will take an idea and attack it. And it's like 'wow, we never thought of that'." Norris: "He's a bit of a lateral thinker; you can say 'play something ugly' and he'll know what you mean. And he'll have these different degrees of 'ugliness' or 'prettiness'.
"He was involved with around five tracks, but a lot of it you wouldn't recognise as guitar, which is one of the main reasons we like it. We're really up for the idea of abusing technology as much as possible; using it for things you're not meant to, pushing the frontiers of instruments. And Fripp does the same things with the guitar that we try to do with synths."
What kind of techniques? Norris: "Things like putting synths through guitar foot pedals, which we've been doing quite a bit lately. We've been using this RAT fuzz pedal on a few things, and the synth just ends up sounding like nothing else. I've also got a Boss digital delay pedal, which we've been putting very simplistic piano lines through and coming up with a completely bizarre cross between Philip Glass and Richard Clayderman!"
Ball: "We've really been using the effects pedal as the instrument, feeding something into it — using that as the starting point and then treating the result further."
The main bulk of The Grid's creative work is carried out in a commercial studio, but Norris does have a home setup where ideas are put together.
"If we're doing stuff at home it'll be the Macintosh with Cubase and the Opcode Studio 3 through a Soundcraft Folio mixer (12:2), which is great. It's got a really clean sound. We've done stuff for TV using that, and some of our demo mixes have sounded as good as the SSL ones — so that can't be bad.
"Our main units are the Waldorf Microwave, Prophet V, Matrix 1000, Akai S1100 and Casio FZ1, which we still use a lot, because there's different things you can do on an FZ1 that you can't do on an S1100 — and it's got this different quality. I've heard people slagging off the bass end of it, but if you know what you're doing, then it's alright."
Despite an initial scepticism about Emu products, The Grid have recently added a Vintage Keys and a Procussion to the Proteus already in their setup. Norris: "The Vintage Keys bypass filtering appears quite a lot on the new album. I'm really into the 'sweeping' effects that you can create with it."
Of course the Prophet V is still featured heavily, but how about the old VCS3?
Norris: "It's not used a lot, but we have been using the Yamaha CS5. It's really cheap, but good for cutting analogue sounds with a real 'acidy' effect. We still use SH101s, but we've also bought the Novation BassStation [see review elsewhere in this issue]. It's good having MIDI with it, although it's not a TB303 — but then I didn't really want it to be. The Deep Bass Nine is good too, because you can put additional sound sources into it and use the filter bank. What we like about the Novation, though, is its pure sound; it's very distinctive, and so when you're trying to fit it in a track it's very specific. But if you tried to take it out gigging you might have problems, because it is very flimsy."
Norris: If Jimi Hendrix were around today, he'd be using a sampler, and I'd like to hear remixes of those kind of things — great players, rather than programmers, actually utilising the technology and creating new sounds.
"We've also incorporated a male opera singer," announces Ball. "We've always felt that operatic voices are universally liked, and seem to get a gut reaction from people. It's an area that we've been working towards, going for a kind of 'earthy' sound, like the banjo [featured on the recent single, 'Swamp Thing']. We like putting those things with very hi‑tech sounds — much the same as when we used the raw harmonica sound in 'Texas Cowboys'. It's quite interesting putting something that's really traditional with this barrage of machines. The opera idea came from that way of thinking; we gave it a whirl, and it really worked.
"The guy has an incredibly powerful voice, but at first he was completely bewildered, because he'd never been in a recording studio in his life, and had never worked on any contemporary music. Of course he had no microphone technique, and was most confused when we asked him to do some operatic cliches. Eventually, we got him to understand what we meant, and he did this brilliant thing where he took lines from various operas and sang them in the key of the track that we were working with. And it sounds great — I mean, I haven't a clue what he's singing about because it's all in Italian, but as a texture it sounds great."
Norris: "The whole exercise was about trying to mix up a few genres; he's singing over a cross between a dub reggae backing track and Terry Riley Systems Music electronics — so there are all these clashes. We also treated the voice, and chopped the samples in such a way that at times it doesn't even sound like a voice any more. Instead, it sounds like this amazing rhythm that's being generated electronically."
Norris and Ball spoke earlier about their adoption of a new synthesis technique influenced by Robert Fripp. Although reluctant to go into too much detail about the process, they reveal that they will be utilising it for their next project — an impressive offer from BMG to re‑interpret works from their extensive classical catalogue.
Ball: "Basically, we're going to be sampling sections of various classical pieces, looping, treating and manipulating them, and adding synthesis to it all." Norris: "It's more like film music than classical music in the end, but we're trying to be quite sympathetic to it — we don't want to be Enigma or Deep Forest, or anything like that. We don't want it to be 'cheap.' I want to make records that you can still play in 20 years time, that won't be specifically linked to 1994. It'll sound like contemporary classical music, except that our approach to the music is different from a classical musician's; it's more to do with tone and texture than it is to do with the actual virtuoso performance. That's not where we're coming from, even though that's how most classical music is recorded." Ball: "We'll still be using our Akai S1100 — it's fitted with 20Mb memory, which is totally adequate. In terms of textures, we'll be mainly using the Prophet V, Vintage Keys and other analogue bits. BMG are very keen on the whole project, and the choice of material ranges from Bach and 15th century choral music to Aaron Copeland.
"The brilliant thing about getting involved with this is that it's raising our musical awareness, because you've got to listen to all these CDs, and Richard never really knew what classical music he was into until he got about 50 CDs and worked through them. It's a good way of educating yourself."
Norris: "It also means that we're not going to approach it with the kind of snobbery that a lot of people would. For us, it's very intuitive and it's more like film music, because it's mood music, in the best sense of the word. We see it as 'environmental music' and the pieces that we're working on are the ones that are very, very evocative and less plinky, plonky clever music."
When offered a remix, how selective are you, and what approach do you normally take?
Norris: "We turn most things down, at least half, because we get offered a lot of stuff that is either real pop, or is stuff from a genre that isn't already dance music and all they want is a dance remix. And we tend to turn most of that down, because there's nothing in there to use. We go for a more sympathetic approach than most remixers, where they'll just take two things and build a new track. We like to keep a lot of the original elements, because if you appreciate the music that you're being given and you like the sounds, then you should have some respect for them, rather than totally trashing the whole thing and making a new track."
What sort of timescale do you normally work to?
Ball: "A couple of days. The first day is spent re‑recording and sampling from the multitrack, and then we have a day for the mixing. Recently we've done Sophie B Hawkins, Neil Arthur, Carter USM's last single, Leigh Bowery, and Sylvian/Fripp (the Darshana EP), which, at 17 minutes, must be one of the longest remixes in history."
Norris: "That EP shows two completely different approaches to remixing. On our version, we really had some respect for the vocal and what Fripp was doing on it. What we didn't like was the drums, so we beefed them up, and gave the track a sound that was more dancefloor orientated. Future Sound Of London, who did the other mix, took two sounds off it and created a completely new track — which is OK, but it's like that's a FSOL track now, it's got little to do with Fripp and Sylvian. There's a lot more to remixing than just doing a dance 12‑inch. There's the whole spectrum of music out there, and what I'd like is to see amazing jazz musicians with samplers. If Jimi Hendrix were around today, he'd be using a sampler, and I'd like to hear remixes of those kind of things — great players, rather than programmers, actually utilising the technology and creating new sounds. The palette of sounds available through samplers is so much wider than it would be with a traditional instrument."
- Atari and Macintosh computers
- Opcode Studio 3 Mac MIDI interface
- Steinberg Cubase software
- Emu Proteus 1+
- Emu Vintage Keys
- Korg M1
- Moog MIDImoog
- Novation BassStation
- Oberheim Matrix 1000
- PPG Wave 2.2
- Roland D50
- Roland Juno 6
- Roland Juno 106
- Roland JX10
- Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 (Rev 3 with MIDI retrofit)
- Waldorf MicroWave
- Microwave Cards: Bass Collection; MetraSound I & II; C. Bruse Drum Card; Dave Gould Techno Card; Rob Papen Techno Card (Dave Ball's favourite)
- Yamaha CS5
- Yamaha FB01
- Alesis HR16
- Emu Procussion
- Roland Octapad
- Roland R8
- Akai S1000
- Akai S1100 (20Mb memory)
- Casio FZ1
- Casio VZ10M
- DAC 128Mb Optical Disk Drive
- Boss Digital Delay pedal
- Dunlop Crybaby
- Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress
- Filter Matrix
- Mu‑Tron C200
- RAT Fuzz pedal
- Roland RE‑301 Chorus Echo
- Roland RE‑201 Space Echo
- Soundcraft Spirit Folio 12:2
- Yamaha WX7 MIDI Saxophone
- Roland SVC350 Vocoder
Performing live is an important aspect of The Grid's continual development within the dance music scene. Assessing what works in that environment, and noting the reactions of the audience is an essential part of their recipe for creating a successful track. The underground dance scene is their market area; a vibrant arena with frequent 'crossovers' to the mainstream charts.
Ball: "With regard to preparing the album, doing lots of live shows has been really useful, because you see which bits of your songs get the best reaction, and what really works. We recently previewed the latest single, 'Swamp Thing', at the Ministry of Sound, where we used a live banjo player. Because most people hadn't heard the track before, they were initially stunned — but by the middle breakdown, they were really into it and going mad."
The Grid's general procedure for playing live is to have a pre‑recorded backing tape of the drum sounds, bass and various sequences, on top of which they will play live synth lines and percussion. The relationship between their music and visuals has always been an important one; they work closely with video graphic artists Mu Media, and incorporate banks of TV screens and computerised lighting in their live show. Mu Media work extensively with powerful Amiga computers running 3D and real‑time animation software packages. In order to synchronise the sound with pictures, the Grid have adopted Hi‑8, a digital audio format that is rather overlooked (apart from its use in Tascam's DA‑88). This delivers both audio and visuals with surprisingly high‑quality results.