After a period of record company hassles, Coldcut are back with a new album, a new singer and a new style. Wilf Smarties explores Philosophy with Jonathon More.
Coldcut are DJs Matt Black and Jonathon More. Matt is an ex‑computer programmer and biochemist, and Jon was an art teacher and silversmith. Both have roots in the London DJ scene, and first met in December 1986 in a record shop. 'Say Kids, What Time Is It?' kicked off the UK DJ sampling scene, the release itself being heavily sampled by others, including MARRS on 'Pump Up The Volume'.
In 1988 'Doctor in The House', featuring Yazz, hit the charts. Yazz went on to have the biggest‑selling 12‑inch of that year with 'The Only Way Is Up', produced by Coldcut.
'People Hold On' reached number 11 in the charts, featuring Lisa Stansfield on vocals, and another star was born. As with Yazz, Coldcut then went on to produce her first solo release, 'This Is The Right Time'. You know the rest.
Among a host of other credits are an amusing collaboration with The Fall, and remixes for acts as diverse as INXS, Blondie, The Eurythmics and The Orb, plus work for TV and radio. Matt's interest in pursuing computer graphics and virtual imagery is well documented and, having been with Kiss FM since its inception, Coldcut's Solid Steel broadbeat dance program still goes out between 1 and 3am every Saturday night.
They have only recently signed to Arista, following a series of disagreements with Big Life, a fact which explains their absence from the record shops in 1992. They've not been idle, though, releasing several breakbeat‑style albums on their own Ninja Tune label, and Kleptomania, a sampling CD, through the Advanced Media Group. They have also recorded a new Coldcut album, due for release early in 1994.
I wouldn't normally start an interview with a review, but the material on Philosophy is so different from what you have probably heard of Coldcut's output, I thought I'd better put you in the sound picture first. Conceived and executed during an obvious period of transition, it comes tantalisingly close to being a classic Adult Oriented Dance chill out album. (The AO label coming from the fact that is full of tunes rather than ambient noises and 303s). Shades of Steely Dan, Sade, Herb Alpert, Henry Mancini, and a cast of thousands are built onto backbeats paying respect to Blue Note Jazz and Reggae influences. The whole is threaded through with an undertow of the wackiness that characterises Coldcut's earlier output. Matt and Jon have uncovered yet another viable vocalist in Janis Alexander. Whether she will follow in the footsteps of Lisa Stansfield to ultra‑meganess remains to be seen. Philosophy opens with an easy jazz interlude in which some of the sample ornaments seem a little gratuitous. (I later found out that this is because they used to support a vocal melody now removed). Four lazy swingy songs follow: 'Chocolate Box' is a simple tune based around a four‑chord sequence descending in semitone intervals, cleverly arranged to hold the listener's attention. 'Pearls Before Swine' is a very fine tune penned by Janis. Understated would be an understatement when describing 'Is This What We're Living For'. 'Leaving Home' is cool, with nice vibes, sax and bv's. Very, very easy listening.
The mood is broken by an obvious attempt at commerciality, called 'Dreamer', which was the most recent single. Following that is 'Peace And Love', with a gospel arrangement befitting such a title.
The album gets back on course with the pleasant 'Kind Of Natural', which fades all too quickly, just as you're getting into the bass and organ work. A cool jazz piece, 'Angel Heart', follows, with an insinuating 6/8 feel. Unquestionably the major track on the album is a reworking of the classic 'Autumn Leaves'. This is distinguished by a lavish yet restrained, original live string arrangement (more about the derivation of this later). I loved the helicopter sound!
Not on the review cassette, but scheduled for the CD are a further two tracks and another two mixes. 'Autumn Leaves', the next single, is re‑released with new mixes by Irresistible Force and Nellee Hooper on January 15th. The album should follow close behind.
I spoke to Jonathan More at Coldcut's temporary HQ at Livingston Studios in London. Sporting a jaunty straw hat despite the fact that what had passed for an English summer was all but over, he offered the following insights into what has happened to Coldcut since the halcyon days of Lisa Stansfield and Yazz — "I've learned a lot about law!"
As well as bemoaning the fact that laws are seldom written in plain English, he offers the following advice to aspiring artists about to enter the murky world of contracts.
"Keep a diary, never believe anything you're told, always double‑check, double‑check and double‑check that you've double‑checked."
Coldcut recorded an album which was delivered in the autumn of 1992 and was rejected by the label. What were the problems with the Big Life deal?
"They wanted us to change our name, that was the main thing, above everything else, and that was not on! There was a lot of argument about the music, the musical direction"
For the recording of Philosophy, Matt and Jon teamed up with Paul Brook and David Skipper of The Real Drum Co, who were heavily involved in the programming of most of the album. While Jon was always present, Matt took an executive role, popping in every few hours to say yea or nay, between designing computer games and waging legal battles. Using elements from the RDC kits and other samples, a library for the album was carefully constructed.
The starting point for the Coldcut/RDC collaboration was a set of sequences originally done in Coldcut's own 8‑track studio using a C‑Lab sequencer. The sequences were then transferred onto Vision on the Mac, which Paul and David use.
"We split the breaks in quite a lot of the tracks into 16 or 20 pieces. For example, in "Autumn Leaves', there are four breaks running at the same time. Originally they all had different swings, but we re‑assembled and re‑programmed them so that although they still played the same part, they all fitted together feel‑wise.
"On some of them we purposely made them shambolically loose so that it was close to falling over. To that we added other sounds from their kit selection. We made various combined sounds and tried to use them with the different breaks."
How did the tracks evolve — did you start with a beat?
"Mostly from a bass line or a loop — with 'Chocolate Box' we started with a hi‑hat loop. On the first round it sounds like a jazz band, but with a 909 kick and a really deep bass. Then it kicks in with more sampled drums. The original idea was that the first bit would be an intro, and the second the main track, but we never got around to separating them because it sounded really good when the two were joined together.
"I was using the sampler on the Neumark DJ sampling mixer quite a lot, so you'd get the drums sorted, bass lines going, then I'd just be sampling stuff off records and trying those ideas out."
Apparently a favourite recording route was to loop within the Neumark, run it onto the 8‑track, and only then stripe with SMPTE. Strange. Then again, much of the playing was live. Is Jonathon a good musician, then?
"No, I'm crap. If I want something I can find people who can play and I'll say what I want. Sometimes I'll bash out something that suits. When it's just loops it's not too difficult."
I asked if he felt using a computer took the heart or soul out of the music in any way.
"Any tool that you've got, be it guitar, computer, keyboard, or chisel, can be either made to work soulfully or not. Give two people a piece of stone and a chisel and one will make something. Give me the bits and I'll make something, and I'll invest as much loving care and attention in it as I can; that's the way I work, or hope to try and work."
Amen to that. Where did the samples come from?
"We used records out of the collection, really. When we were looking for material for DJ Food (breakbeat albums available on Ninja), we would find breaks that were totally choice, so there was a little pot there just ready to be plastered together. A lot of stuff came out of that."
While appropriate permission to use samples was always sought from third parties, Jonathon did not consider that drum loops needed clearance.
"There is also an argument that bass lines can't be copyrighted. In reggae you get the same bass line in lots of different records where the melody will be completely different."
I'm not sure I agree with him when we're talking about a hook bass line as distinctive as the break in Chic's 'Good Times'. I enquired as to what essential retro‑tech they employed.
"We've still got the Korg MS20 and Roland MC202, which is quite fun. It's got a more mellow sound than the TB303. We recorded 'Doctor in the House' using the (MC202) sequencer, and promptly forgot how to do it, so we sampled it off!'
Did you run sequences live during the mixes of Philosophy?
"I made sure that we recorded everything — ultimately on a Mitsubishi 32‑track digital multitrack. If we didn't have enough, we'd share tracks. It was only on the single, 'Dreamer', that we had things running live.
"The reason we had to go for 32‑track digital machines was that on 'Autumn Leaves' we used a 32‑piece string orchestra. A lot of them came from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Three takes at Abbey Road and that was it."
How much did it cost to record?
Seemed like a bargain to me. More of us should have a go at it – the MU would certainly approve. Most of the vocals were recorded in studio two at Livingston. I asked how many singers were auditioned for the album.
"Not a lot, actually. A guy we work with suggested we try this friend of his called Janis. I called her up, she came to the studio and sang us one of her songs accappella, 'Pearls Before Swine', which is on the LP. I really liked it. I thought it was an interesting, mad kind of tune we could really do something with. She had the top line, but no music, or anything more than that. So we took those bits and shaped them into a song."
A bit like remixing?
"Yes. And her songs fitted very nicely with the songs we already had — they had the sort of vibe that I was looking for."
- Akai S1000 sampler.
- Emu Proteus 1 & II sound modules (for single strings, flutes and so on).
- Roland R8 drum machine with Ethnic/Jazz Brush sound cards.
- Roland JD800 synth.
- Waldorf Microwave ('Growl Bass' mainly).
- Opcode Vision sequencer running on Apple Mac.
Ten minutes drive from Brookside Recording Studio I caught up with Paul Brook and David Skipper in a pleasant Georgian backwater of Leamington Spa. Much of the inspiration for the album came from '70s American Jazz‑Fusion. Coldcut wanted not only technical support, but also help in confirming musical authenticity. Were they looking to Paul and David to reproduce and expand upon loops originally lifted from records?
Paul: "I think it was a much looser brief. Basically they were looking for whatever would make a track work. They often had a backing track already. In some cases tracks were written from scratch, in others they were adapted hugely from the original. 'Chocolate Box' was a case in point. It's a fairly straightforward song where one part repeats round for the whole song, so the challenge was to try to introduce enough variation so that people wouldn't get bored.
"It starts with a swing feel, and then goes to a straighter, funkier feel. We found other loops, Art Blakey drum loops and so on, that fitted really well into transitional points. The link was a grungy hi‑hat loop that Jonathon found."
"With jazz sequencing, quantising doesn't really work, it's got to be a feel thing. I'll often put the bass in with the bass drum, or shadowing it very closely, but in terms of other instruments, using quantising templates isn't so useful. The best way is to get one or two bars to feel right, even if it takes a couple of hours.
"I never clip percussion notes to exact 1/16 lengths. This is just asking for MIDI timing trouble, as note‑offs and note‑ons will coincide. A favourite trick used a sizzle cymbal from the jazz kit. We cut the front of it off and put it at the front of every two bars of the loop, so it sounds as if it's been snipped out of a loop where the cymbal has been crashed the bar before. That adds an air of authenticity.
"If you've got a long enough loop to work with you can use an enormous amount of information — little 8th and 16th samples, buzzes on the snare drum and so on, and even in some cases just the silence between the beats, and lay it all across the keyboard. We didn't do any enveloping on the drum hits from records at all. We left them wide open so the hiss would be on the bass drum, snare drum and so on. Putting those in with pristine hi‑hats gave quite an interesting effect."
With percussion they found it important to avoid the downbeats, and to drag the feel relative to the drums.
Paul: "This straight away gives the track more slurp. That's Jonathon's favourite word for it. Another tip readers might like to try is where an open hi‑hat leads into a snare: cut the open hi‑hat slightly short so you have this little bit of tension before the snare comes in. It makes the snare sound late but it isn't, and it also adds extra emphasis to the snare.
"We started out with the drums on one track, but eventually ended up spreading them out, hi‑hat on the first track, bass drum on the second, snare on the third, so that we could shift things backwards and forwards in time individually.
"Vision can assign voices to separate tracks in record mode, which is a really neat feature. The usual problems were encountered with MIDI timing because of the density of sequence data, but the sequencer resolution was close enough for jazz."
Paul and Skip programmed not only drums, but also most of the bass lines. I asked them in particular about the string arrangement in 'Autumn Leaves'.
Paul: "We bought a CD of John Taverner's The Revealing Veil, and just took little bits of that. It's got a lot of cellos and suchlike with weird middle‑eastern sounding harmonies. Matt was playing simple melodies with it, but because of all the parallel harmonies, it took on this 'Jerusalem' flavour. A lot of that ended up on Paul Rabinger's final string arrangement."
So that's how they did it! And apparently the helicopter noise I remarked upon earlier was in fact the sound of a drumstick played across a plastic ice tray, detuned and looped.
Paul: "This album was a learning experience for everybody. I'm sure they learned something about jazz and percussion, and we learned a hell of a lot about how to put these elements together to make something that sounds different. They were great to work for, very, very demanding because they know what they want."
I put it to Jonathon that, unlike some other sample CDs I've reviewed, Kleptomania gave the impression that Coldcut had got pretty close to their bottom drawer in the samples they provided.
Jonathon: "I thought if people were going to use it differently to us, what does it really matter? In fact, it was quite nice, because we re‑sampled some of the stuff from it while we were doing the LP.
Did you make much money from it?
"If you take into account all the work sampling that stuff and the value of the records, it was a pretty poor return. We've done a thousand now, because they're about to re‑press it. We've made about two grand and a quarter from it and we're going to do another one pretty soon."
The Kleptomania sample CD is distributed by AMG (Tel: 0252 717333. Fax: 0252 737044).