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JAMES ASHER: Down To Earth

Interview | Artist By Martin Walker
Published August 1997

James Asher made the transition from library music to successful commercial releases by tapping into an underlying demand for world‑flavoured, rhythmic new age music. Martin Walker takes a world view...

James Asher has had a long and varied career in the music business — his first single was produced by Pete Townsend in 1979, and he went on to return the favour by playing drums on Pete's 'Empty Glass' album. After writing and recording 23 albums of library music, as well as gaining a clutch of production credits, he has gone on to explore the wider horizons of world music, releasing a series of very well received albums. In 1990, his first commercial album release, The Great Wheel, reached number 13 in the Billboard New Age chart, staying there on and off for about two years. His second album, Globalarium, featured world artists such as Hossam Ramzy on Egyptian percussion and Joji Hirota on shakuhachi. The most recent, Feet in the Soil, is "an uplifting celebration of danceable energies centred in the earth", drawing inspiration from Aboriginal and African lifestyles, and has sold over 40,000 copies since its release last year.

Although James started his professional career as a drummer, he now considers keyboards his main instrument, albeit from a highly rhythmic standpoint. "I started learning violin when I was seven, and experimented with keyboards when I was 12. I always had a sense of self‑expression on keyboard that I never had on violin, because nobody really taught me anything on keyboards, so it was wide open to interpretation. Playing drums has made me very rhythmically oriented. I always build things up from rhythm — that's my starting point."

Chilling Out

James has also been involved in writing music specifically for meditation purposes, and there is far more to this than meets the eye. "I've written music that has supported 'guided meditations', and here part of the job is being done by the voice. It's a process of supporting the voice — you're obliged to not occupy so much of the space. It's an interesting exercise to afterwards remove the voice and see what you're left with. By definition, there should be a lot of 'space' in the music. Most stuff that has a healing quality also has a hypnotic element. In one of the meditations, I was aware of deliberately changing the normal 60bpm of a human heartbeat to about 47bpm, and I observed my own physical breathing reaction to it; it did definitely slow down quite a bit."

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"I write now in two distinct commercial styles. One is world beat, and Feet in the Soil is a good example of this. It's a mixture of didgeridoos, hand percussion, djembe, flute, cello — that kind of thing. I still write music, as I have done for some time, in a more spacey, more conventionally new age style, although from a commercial point of view there's much more demand in the percussive area, because the spacey side of things has been around much longer, and therefore there's a much greater glut of product in that genre. I would never abandon doing the more spacey stuff, but in the past I've made the mistake of trying to put each of those genres into one product, and seen how it confuses people. I do tend to keep them separate now. I don't see them as elitist or purist world music products — I enjoy stuff which has a strong groove element, and which people who are not world music aficionados could enjoy. If you look at the success of Deep Forest or Enigma, they may have world music elements, but they're addressing a much broader audience. It's a bit like walking round Sainsbury's and seeing how many more exotic foods are regularly on their shelves. What was yesterday's extremist thing is much more acceptable now. Everything converges, and we're more global and broader in our tastes generally."

Sample Elements

Choosing the sounds themselves is an important part of the process with any form of music, and I wondered whether James' ideas arrive after the sounds, or vice versa. "Ideas are very much suggested by sounds. I like to have lots of them [see gear list]. It's not as though you use sounds up, but there's a kind of creative relationship you have with a sound when you use it the first time, which is special. If it becomes a favourite you might well revisit it, but there's something about the first time you hear a sound that's very atmospherically suggestive. With MIDI you can fool about with alternatives, or layering with other things, but it's the initial sound that inspires."

There's a kind of creative relationship you have with a sound, when you use it the first time, which is special.

Since Feet in the Soil is drum‑based, using not only selections from sample CDs, but also live percussion players, the distinction between live and recorded often becomes blurred, as does the distinction between organic sounds and machine sounds. "The first thing is to have good 'feel' in the original rhythm, and then it's what you do with it afterwards. Provided what you record acoustically is good quality, and you mix it tastefully, it's not always that discernible what started with you and what joined in halfway through. There are so many good samples around that started organic, so in many ways it's academic to make a distinction between what's organic and what isn't. These samples are not 100% organic because they didn't originate in your front room, but there's still real playing there, and there's still a lot of 'feel' in the better sample CDs. It's amazing what's available — I'm just staggered by how good it's becoming. Sophisticated CDs like Liquid Grooves, for example, where you've got all these different permutations of the way a sample is offered. You've got the original beat, you've got a treatment with reverb, sometimes without the bass drum — a lot of flexibility. Then you've got add‑ons, and now even remixes of grooves with processing. There are so many variations on how you approach the rhythm, and that's really how I think sample CDs should be, rather than having large sets of people playing, where you have to battle to hack out what you need. Bongo Massive is an example — you scratch your head to work out how to use it. Liquid Grooves is really ready to go."

The Great 'Scape

James is a thorough convert to digital, in the form of the Soundscape system, and this has revolutionised his approach to recording. "If you're using something with the quality that Soundscape has, you've got much more available space to play with, because the accuracy of the sound leaves you with such an open palette in which to place things. If you compare its recordings to analogue multitrack, my Fostex G24 1‑inch tapes have superb sound quality, but the realism and presence that you get from recording the same thing to Soundscape gives you a different level of clarity. Also, it has phenomenal EQ and the ability to manipulate relative volume levels very easily throughout a track.

"Of course, it has its own in‑built reverb, which is very fine quality as well, but the great thing is that you don't have to commit yourself. You can always go back a stage and reveal the original. That's the great joy of Soundscape — although you've got eight tracks always available you can have more tracks in standby, in ghost mode, and just call them up as you need them."

Digital technology obviously now plays a large part in Starfield Studios, but this was not always the case. "I've always fought shy of computer‑controlled sequencers, through not liking to see too much, far preferring the dinosaur approach of hardware sequencers just because they're in my blood and I feel comfortable with them. So it was quite a major step for me to choose something like Soundscape. A friend whose opinion I respected suggested I look into it, and when I tried it out I was incredibly impressed by how friendly the user interface was — it was totally obvious from just looking at it what different functions were available as options. I'm currently using an early Version 2, although I haven't really got properly under way with that. I'm still using Version 1.18 as my main tool for editing and processing of up to eight tracks of audio. I'm really used to that. Version 2 is a giant step forward, with an extra unit and an accelerator card. You've then got the ability to have 24 tracks and a virtual configurable mixer page. But, like anything that's powerful, it's a two‑edged sword: it has fantastic scope and new permutations and possibilities, but you've also got to spend the time to get used to it, and absorb and become conversant with those facilities."

I see it as a very positive and exciting reality that people can have the direct experience of taking music to outlets, and seeing for themselves how it goes down.

Unlike previous versions of Soundscape, the new version only runs under Windows 95. After using a 486 PC, James thought the forced move to Win 95 seemed a sensible time to upgrade to a more powerful machine — a Pentium 200MHz MMX. "It was more out of blind ignorance and fear as to what would happen if I tried to squeeze more out of my 486, which was becoming increasingly archaic. When I bought it, it employed the famous catch‑phrase 'Pentium upgradeable', but when I queried this recently with my dealer I was told I'd have to speak to Intel themselves! It was a downhill path from there on. Goodness knows what clashes there might have been between the old and new Windows‑format files." After using Win 95 for just two weeks he's already found plug and play "too clever for its own good" when it auto‑detects devices attached to it. "The first baptism by fire occurred when I tried to connect something to a serial port. Not only did it not work, but suddenly the computer became convinced that it didn't have a mouse any more. Discovering keyboard command shortcuts proved the only way to sort things out."

Taking On The World

James has been involved in new age music for a long time now, and admits that it is still a confusing term for some. "It rings all sorts of different bells for people. Where some people associate new age with travellers and protesters, others see it as the flowering of positive new philosophies. It has very different connotations. The way it's been in the past has left a lot of negative tracks for it to make its way through now. There have been unfortunate associations with new age, particularly in this country. There's a judgemental attitude from some people, putting it down as an old 'hippie' kind of thing."

James is far more impressed with the attitude of other countries. "America has to be relevant to the new age thing because of the size and the volume it can cater for. I admire the more open‑minded approach that the Americans have in this area. I went into a Tower Records in San Francisco and there's a new age bin just like there's one for every other category of music. It would be foolish to try and summarise the whole of Europe — I've only just touched on some of it, but it does appear that Germany and Italy are healthy markets, each with individual slants. Germany has always had a tradition of supporting music and musicians, and in Italy it is more of a lifestyle thing, with regular cover‑mounted CDs showcasing new releases."

I asked for James' thoughts on why a similar situation hasn't arisen over here, and why new age music is largely sold through the smaller specialist shops. "Radio doesn't help a great deal. I'm only aware of two stations that have notably played it. One is Radio Derby, which has a range of about 50,000 people, and then Kevin Greening used to play music on GLR before he moved to Virgin. I don't know if he's still playing it now. These are tiny minority outlets. You also get the odd rather derisory program from Radio 3, having a slight chortle."

Part of the charm of new age, particularly in the UK, is that it allows local musicians a foothold in the music industry, via direct marketing to specialist shops, without needing to secure a record deal. "I see it as a very positive and exciting reality that people can have the direct experience of taking music to outlets, and seeing for themselves how it goes down. It's more instant and real as a form of communication than somebody delivering a product to a record company, who in turn process it in their own way before it gets out. There's also a meshing of several areas — ambient, soft psychedelic, trance, tribal, world music. There's a lot of interplay between all of those, according to whatever edge or angle people have on things; how 'hip' they want it to be; how much they go towards the hard‑core 'healing' side. To typify it, you've got 'dolphins and flute' at one end of the spectrum, and Japanese drummers really going for it on taiko drums at the other — all of that is inter‑related, in a sense, through the new age banner."

A friend suggested I look into Soundscape, and when I tried it out I was incredibly impressed by how friendly the user interface was.

One of the biggest new age phenomena in the States at the moment is all things Celtic. Quite why this is so can partly be explained by the American love of everything Irish — and they seem to go for any form of Celtic music in a really big way. "Hearts of Space is an American label that had been peaking with individual artist's albums between 50,000 and 75,000 units. They suddenly took a quantum leap when they brought out a compilation called Celtic Twilight, which sold 300,000. This probably made them review closely how they wanted to proceed with different forms of music."

Crossing Boundaries

James has found out personally that being focused is very important. "In my experience, consistency is a highly desirable thing. Distributors and labels need to be able to quickly and easily identify what sort of product they're looking at. Something that's a bit of flamenco, a bit of ragga — a bit diffuse — confuses everybody. But the problem is often more to do with artists not having a coherent idea of what they're trying to communicate. Apart from the music itself, having a good title is another key thing, as is having a strong cover image. It's also important that the music delivers what the image promises on the outside. There are an awful lot of musicians who really don't know these things, and refuse to take responsibility for what they're doing. They offer it up as if it is someone else's job to deal with — "Oh, the label can handle that". If you're not clear yourself about what you're putting together, how on earth do you expect a member of the public, who is stressed out with information from all sides, to identify what's being offered?"

Once the music itself has a strong identity, James feels that the far more basic factor for wider acceptance of new age music is that it needs more public exposure. "You have huge marketing machines promoting the Spice Girls in every form, and you see them on every television show and hear them on the radio. This amount of exposure has to translate into how much people know about a thing, want a thing, and then will buy a thing. New Age has an extremely low profile — there's no airplay, and no TV show refers to it other than 'the weird and wonderful', 'the occult and psychic phenomena'. If this is the only way it gets exposure, not surprisingly it remains very low‑profile. Our Price records would have it on the bottom shelf in the most obscure place, because it turns over the slowest, because it is least supported by the whole commercial mechanism. This is the reality of what happens in this country, and it doesn't make any difference what the innate value of the music is, or its ability to appeal to different people — if nobody's heard it other than the minority of people who actively seek it out, it remains a sub‑current."

Looking Forward

Reaction to Feet in the Soil shows that it communicates to a wide audience, with positive feedback from India, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, as well as America and the UK. "People really enjoy drumming, because in an age when you've got far too much information coming at you, there is nothing more genuine to get back to than the beat — expressing something on a drum. In America there are drumming circles, and spontaneously at open‑air events people will have a jam. It has a lovely quality — there are no rules, and it's characteristically more American, in being less formal. We could do with more of that in the UK. It's a lot more gratifying than wondering why this function won't work with that function in the Utilities page on the PC."

James is currently working on an Indian‑inspired percussive project, and is very much looking forward to working with two people who will be pivotal to it. One is Sumeet Chopra, a talented tabla and keyboard player (whose sample CD, Karma Chopra, is available from AMG). "He has a very interesting vision of how the Indian culture can blend with more modern groove‑led music — that's what his sample CD is all about, and how I first knew of him. The other person is Johnny Kalsi, a dhol player who heads the Dhol Foundation, which is a very interesting and innovative concept. It has about 200 members in this country, and through this I also met Peter Lockett, an English percussionist who has a fantastic command of tabla and taiko drums. If you have inspirational drumming and percussion playing it provides a very exciting and inspirational backdrop to melodic parts. But when people are getting on with their lives, doing other things, the important thing is 'Does this music touch me, or move me, and would I be motivated to put it on again?'".

In the case of James Asher, it looks as if plenty of people have already been motivated.

Favourite Gear

Those with sharp eyes may have noticed James' name in Paul Wiffen's review of the Akai MPC2000 hardware sequencer in the April '97 issue. James has been an enthusiastic user of hardware sequencers for some time, starting with the Akai MPC60, then the 60 II, and finally the MPC3000. Having edited his sounds in the digital domain with Soundscape, using its large and comfortable waveform editor, James bounces his data into the digital input of the MPC3000 and plays it from there. "My only deep regret is that there is no digital output, and no possible retrofit. The new MPC2000 has both digital In and Out, but it's no substitute — it's only got two MIDI outputs, and won't read song data from the '3000. I'd like to see a new professional version of the '3000 with digital In and Out, and better memory expansion possibilities — up to 32Mb would be nice."

James' Digitech Studio 400 effects unit also works in the digital domain, and is an ideal partner for Soundscape — sending tracks in for additional ambience or compression. James describes it as "excellent value for money, and one of the first with a digital I/O board." Another recent addition is the Korg NS5R: "I like the Korg a lot, for its compactness, and for the number of sounds it has. It's great to be able to put a daughterboard in it, and the editors for both the daughterboard and the Korg work well, and make me glad that I took the foolish step of embarking on the whole PC road."

Starfield Studios Select Gear List

    Emu Proteus 1 & 2
    Korg M1
    Korg Prophecy
    Korg Wavestation EX
    Korg Wavestation SR
    Roland JV90
    Roland JV80
    Roland JD990
    Roland JP8000
    Roland JV1080
    Roland Jupiter 8
    Roland XP50
    Yamaha CS1X
    Yamaha DX7 II
    Yamaha RM50 drum module
    Yamaha TG500
    Roland S770 (16Mb)
    Roland SP700 (32Mb)
    15Gb sound library
    Akai MPC3000 sampler/sequencer/drum machine (10Mb)
    200MHz Pentium MMX running Soundscape and Cubase Score
    MOTU MIDI interface
    Soundscape 12‑track (x2)
    Fostex G24 1‑inch 24‑track
    Sony DTC 1000ES DAT recorders
    Philips DCC 951 DCC recorder
    Sony VO 7630 Umatic video recorder
    Panasonic AG 6200 video Recorder
    A&GS3 72‑channel with MIDI muting
    Tascam MM1 20‑channel sub‑mixer
    Alesis Quadraverb effects
    Aphex Type 'C' exciter
    Boss SE70 effects
    Digitech Studio 400 effects
    Drawmer DL221 compressor
    Drawmer DS 201 gate
    Francinstein aural processor
    Roland RSP550 effects
    Roland SRV330 reverb
    Roland SRV2000 reverb
    Sony DPS M7 modulation processor
    B&W reference
    Tannoy Ardens

Commercial Discography

The Great Wheel (Lumina Music/ Music West 1990)

Globalarium (Silverwave Records 1993)

Dance of the Light (Aura‑Soma Music 1994)

Feet in the Soil (New Earth Records 1995)

Rivers of Life (Aura‑Soma/ Dance of the Light Records 1996)