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M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

Sound On Sound caught up with M People's Paul Heard, before the band headed off on their European tour. Christopher Holder puts aside his preconceptions to learn more about songwriting, production, musicianship and family sedans.

Earlier this decade the M People were hailed as groovy messiahs. A Mercury Award and a Brit Award confirmed their critical acclaim — what Roni Size in '97 was to drum and bass, M People were to house. They were the cutting edge of chic... but times change. Already this year a Jools Holland special dedicated to the group and a guest appearance on Cilla's Surprise Surprise look to have condemned the M People to the realms of staid middle‑aged, middle‑class mainstream pop fodder. What's going on?

I'm grappling with these questions while trying to negotiate the labyrinthine halls of the band's Kings Cross rehearsal warehouse, when there, in the cafeteria, I come across Paul Heard, sitting solitary and zen‑like in what appears to be his own personal pool of sunlight, a coffee‑drinking, shaven‑headed, Silk Cut‑smoking oracle. Cool? This guy's mug of Gold Blend had turned to frappé before he had time to stir it.

"I don't think the essence of the M People has changed at all over the years," Paul muses. "We're first and foremost about songs. If we were considered underground early on, that's only because we weren't popular. We've always aimed to write songs that would stand the test of time — for instance, 'How Can I Love You More?' on our first album, Northern Soul, does that, in my opinion. Sure, as we've become more popular, it's been exciting playing to huge audiences around the world, but when you sit down in your bedroom with a keyboard or a guitar writing songs, you realise that nothing's really changed."

Eh? With reports of six‑month lock‑ins at the Strongroom and slicker production values than Jurassic Park IV, I had the M People down as squillion‑pound‑an‑hour studio junkies, and not bedroom noodlers like the rest of us mere mortals. Maybe it's time we got the whole story...

Mike Stand

M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

We've got to turn the clock all the way back to 1990 to trace the inception of the M People. At the time Mike ('putting the M in M People') Pickering was enjoying a high‑profile residency at the legendary Hacienda Club in Manchester, and was one of the UK's house DJ heavyweights. Pete Harcourt, one of the founders of the band's label, DeConstruction Records, was on the lookout for production partners for Mike and his nascent M People project. Harcourt's good pal, Paul Heard, was approached and so began the start of a long and fruitful partnership. As far as band histories go, that's pretty potted. I'll let Paul fill in some of the gaps.

"I remember that it was during the 1990 World Cup in Italy that I was first contacted by Mike (Pickering's) manager of the time, Pete Harcourt. Mike and I got in touch and began working on M People tracks. Early on we used two or three different singers for the first album, Northern Soul, and hadn't necessarily intended having a permanent vocalist as a band member. But even at that stage we were big fans of Heather's band, Hot!House. We had previously heard Heather sing at the Albert Hall when her band was playing support to Barry White. I remember that she was this tiny, quite timid girl on stage, who kept her eyes closed, and hardly moved a muscle — this was absolutely years ago. We loved her voice, and asked her to sing for us on Northern Soul. Halfway through making that album we decided to make M People a threesome, effectively crystallising the band." [Subsequently, percussionist Shovell swelled the ranks to four.]

"Northern Soul was an experiment; we didn't know what the results might be. As far as the songwriting went, Mike and I hadn't discovered what each other's tastes were, but I think that from a very early stage we realised that the strongest point of the band was Heather's voice. So from then on we began writing songs that were geared to her personality. It took the recording of Northern Soul and two or three different singers to figure out what M People was about and what we wanted to do."

Home Is Where The ART Is

M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

OK: Mike, Paul and Heather have discovered what they're about and what they want to do. But how do they do it?

"The way we get our songs together when we first started and the way we do it now hasn't changed. We try to keep it as low‑tech as possible; we try and steer away from accumulating loads of gear. I think people would be surprised at how little gear we actually have. We write most of our songs from my home studio. I work on an Akai MPC3000 [sampler/sequencer], along with an Akai S3000 sampler and a few synths. I'm not into computer‑based sequencers and hard disk recorders. I think that the danger with computers is that people get lost in layers of pages and the thousands of options. You can see and edit things on a computer that might actually sound alright, but look a bit dodgy! I think you can lose sight of what you're trying to achieve. For us it's important to keep things simple and get the parts and the arrangements right, without getting too wound up in the details of the sound — that comes later in production.

"For the first few months of songwriting it's just about the basics — the melodies and some arranging. Mike's got a dictaphone which he keeps with him all the time. If he's at an airport or on a train he's always got that in his bag, and he can surreptitiously sing away to himself. There isn't really any one particular way we write a song. It might start with a melody, or, for instance, with [their recent hit] 'Just For You', I was trying to capture the mood and atmosphere of some of the soul music I was listening to at the time. So I messed around with a riff I'd had for years, got a few chords together, and we decided to write a song with that sort of feel. It ended up coming together really quickly. 'Moving On Up' began with the rhythm track, Mike took it away and wrote the verse, while the hook came right at the end. Every single song's different."

When you sit down in your bedroom with a keyboard or a guitar, writing songs, you realise that nothing's changed.

Still Small Voice

M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

"As soon as we start writing a song we start to record it, and we do most of the vocals at home. We record onto Tascam DA88s. We've got five of them, actually. That way we can take them on tour and use them to record our shows. The first time we record the vocal is often the best, and I think that it's crucial to capture that initial attitude. I know that many bands spend a lot of time in the studio trying to capture the vitality that's on their demos. It's easy to lose. Even if a song is only half written we always record Heather's vocals, and very often they're the ones we end up using. Often the structure of the song can also be influenced by those early vocal takes.

"For the latest album we tried three or four vocal mics and settled on a Neumann U67, which we hired for four months, and we used a Focusrite Red preamp so we could record straight to tape. Our Spirit 8‑buss mixer is good, but basic, so recording direct to tape through good outboard gets us better results.

"Heather has become a lot more comfortable in the studio over the years. She's a very private person and part of the reason that we used not to get great performances out of Heather in a commercial studio was that there would be loads of technical people hanging around, which would affect her.

"When you've got a singer like Heather you have to be a bit of a psychologist to help her get the best performance. When Heather sings a song she has to become that character. I think you see that on Fresco especially — there's a lot more variety in the way she sings there, a lot more light and shade, more changes in mood. There are songs that become very hard for her to sing because they are very emotional for her; sometimes she'll be on the verge of tears.

"From experience we've found that she's at her best when it's just Heather, Mike and myself in my flat. Then it's very private, very intimate, and she can feel comfortable about trying things she might not normally attempt if there was an engineer or tape op there. That's the most important thing for her, to be totally relaxed. To prepare, she'll take her jewellery off, and has the room blackened out — she doesn't like being seen when she's singing in the studio.

Part of the beauty of working at home is that if Heather's not in the mood to sing that day, you're not worrying about the studio costs.

"Part of the beauty of working at home is that if Heather's not in the mood to sing that day you're not worrying about the studio costs — although normally you can tell if she's in the mood, because she'll be singing away to herself downstairs in the kitchen before the session, and you can just tell."

Recording Al Fresco

M PEOPLE: Songwriting & Musicianship

"For Fresco I recorded most of the vocals, the basic drums, bass and piano lines at home. But I don't get too technical about the process because I really enjoy, especially now, getting musicians in and having them embellish what I've done. After the initial recordings we've got a programmer who comes in, Steve Sidelnyk, and he takes my drum parts and puts them into his lap top. He's into sampling his own kit, so he's got a extensive library of drum sounds. He and I will spend a couple of days working on sounds. For some of the parts we'll use my original sound, while for others we'll use his, so by the time we hit the studio the drum tracks and the groove of the song will be rock solid and will pretty much sound like the finished product."

After all this careful pre‑production M People did further work on Fresco at a residential studio called Ridge Farm in Surrey, The Strongroom in East London and Chung King in New York.

"We've always done our recording in The Strongroom; it was the nearest studio to where I was living at the time we first made a booking. We've tried other studios since, but we keep going back there. For instance, at Ridge Farm it's great for food, swimming and putting on weight but we found that we lost the immediacy of recording. Time would just pass, and I said to the band that maybe we need that urban edge of recording in the city."

For the recording of a number of the Fresco tracks, Paul and Mike headed to New York to collaborate with engineering luminaries such as Warren Riker (The Fugees) and David Sussman (Mariah Carey).

"The main thing about the studios in the US is that there's very little comfort level. They go there to work. We were massively impressed with the commitment of the people working with us. When singers come down to the studio in the UK, you sit around and after a while you offer them a cup of tea just to smooth things over. In New York it's, 'no no, we're here to work, we want to do at least two hours before we take a break'. Impressive."

Perfect Pop?

Whatever your opinion of the M People, it's hard to think of another more influential dance combo this decade. They've spawned a raft of wannabes and lookalikes, and they've written some of the most perfectly formed, radio‑friendly songs around. Now was my chance to find out how it was done. Here I was sitting at the feet of the master — all I had to do was convince him to impart the secret of the dark art of writing the perfect pop song. After all, there's got to be some sort of formula for pulling on the listener's heartstrings while keeping the end‑product tight and punchy.

"Writing any song is a very personal thing. It's got to move me. If it moves me, analysing what the song is composed of seems unimportant — it's more the overall feeling the track gives you. What I mean is that it's more than just the melody, more than just the lyrics, more than just the vocals — it's the overall mood it evokes. Music can have so many different effects on you. It can lift you up or it can make you think, and if you've captured a moment in time then you can stand by that. We get people writing to us telling us what a song means to them, and very often it's different to what we were actually getting at, but that doesn't matter. If you can move someone, or make a difference to just one person, then it's achieved something. That's the perfect pop song."

DAT'S The Way I (Don't) Like It

The M People have always taken their touring and live work very seriously, and have never allowed their gigs to degenerate into glorified PAs, where everyone plays to a DAT backing.

"At the time we started there were a lot of club bands playing along to DATs, but not too many dance bands like us. Everybody thought that we wouldn't translate live, but first and foremost we've always been musicians. I've played bass in a number of bands, Mike's a sax player, and the attitude seemed strange to us, because when you look at the dance bands over the years — James Brown, for instance — they've always translated their studio recordings into a live situation with live musicians. At the time, people were saying, 'isn't it great!', but we were just thinking 'that's the way it's meant to be.' Early on we played at this big awards ceremony in San Francisco. All the other bands plugged in their DAT machines and got on with it, but when we were on, we came on stage one by one playing live. Everyone was pretty gobsmacked. But people have got into it, especially in The States. We went on to do a college tour after that date, then arenas, and now in the last couple of years we've been playing stadiums."

Searching For The Hero

The M People have undoubtedly been one of the UK's great dance music crossover successes of the '90s. Since Italia '90 the band have sold over five million records, and their stellar careers show no sign of waning, with their latest LP, Fresco, already having sold over a million copies worldwide. For many, the single 'Search For The Hero' epitomises the spirit of the M People. The single is essentially a ballad given the M People treatment. Key dance elements such as TR909 rhythms, burbling TB303 line and lush strings are married in classic M People fashion to acoustic elements such as interjections from a soprano sax. The lyrics are also typically honest and soul‑searching, with the delicious huskiness of Heather Small's voice taking centre stage. Amazingly it took a family sedan to bring the song, and consequently the band, into true public consciousness. Yes, that Peugeot advert — you know, the one where the be‑suited bloke manages to save a little girl who seems blissfully unaware of a rogue petrol tanker bearing down on her, sideways. The ad tapped into the very heart of the young middle class: the idea of the preciousness of life and the family, the realisation that I can be someone more remarkable than an estate agent, and all I need is a Peugeot 406 to do it. M People's Bizarre Fruit LP, from which the single was taken, was henceforth given heavy rotation on the Sony mini‑stacking systems of 30‑something dinner parties all across the country!

"When we wrote 'Search For The Hero', Mike and I were working on a certain groove that we'd heard off another record, which eventually turned out to be 'Search For The Hero'. I remember that at the time we had a real problem in getting the song structure right. There were sections of 5/4 bars, and the way that Mike was singing it and the way I was trying to interpret it made it difficult to bring it together. It took us a few weeks before we were both happy with the way the song moved and developed. The bridge section came early on, while the melody, the lyrics and the verse came next. But it was one of those tunes which we had to rework a few times. We nearly even started from scratch to try and get it to flow properly.

"It was also difficult finding the right vocal range for Heather to sing in. Heather hasn't got a massive range and for each song there's normally only one key that will suit her, and finding that key wasn't so easy for 'Search For The Hero'. We recorded the vocals with an AKG 414 mic in my home studio, as well as a lot of the original drum tracks, which I programmed on my Akai MPC3000.

"The bass drum on 'Hero' was a mixture of a TR909 kick drum and a sampled acoustic bass drum. It's like having a real bass drum but the 909 adds that solidity that can unify the kick. A real kick can be a little flabby otherwise.

"I programmed the bassline on the sequencer and when it was time to record I gave it to our programmer at that time. He was a boffin who liked his synths and he had this old French‑made [RSF] Kobol synth — a lot of our bass sounds came from that. It was very temperamental and hard to keep in tune, but we used that sound in combination with a Nord Lead — the Nord supplying the sub element, with the Kobol giving the bass that warmth.

"We devoted a lot of tracks to the pad sounds — at least six. There's one pad sound that goes all the way through, while others were layered on top as the song developed. A bit like on 'Last Night 10,000' off Fresco; as the song shifts up into different keys and into different moods, a new pad comes in and sits on top of the other ones. We ended up with three or four pads that change the texture. It's actually very subtle but it does make a big difference. When it came to mixing we did a lot of riding of the faders as well, changing the balance of the pads, to alter the textures, making the sound more muted or fizzy. It's hard to hear sometimes behind the vocal, but it does change the mood.

"As an album track it wasn't considered to be the first single — that was going to be 'Sight For Sore Eyes', but we always wanted it to be a single at some stage on that album. We weren't overjoyed with the first mix, even though it was the one on the album, so when it came to releasing it as a single we went back into the studio to give it a fresh edge. We'd been playing the song live by that stage, so we went back to the DA88 tapes we had of the live versions, to lift some of the nice piano and soprano sax parts. So along with those and some extra backing vocals, we came up with the single version of 'Search For The Hero'."

In retrospect, the Peugeot advertisement gave the M People the sort of mass exposure that a lifetime of touring could never bring, but I wondered whether the idea was immediately greeted with enthusiasm.

"We were touring in Brazil at the time and we were about to do a concert in Rio. We had about an hour free between press and TV interviews and this fax came through, saying we'd been given an offer for this Peugeot ad. We get quite a few offers for ads, and a lot of them we just turned down flat, because they're not the right thing. But the Peugeot ad was different. The ad was based on the song rather than the other way around. It's almost an ad for the song, with great visuals. What's more, it's a cool ad, and if it reached more people and gave more people the opportunity to hear our music then all the better. I remember seeing it for the first time after News at 10 and Peugeot filled the whole break. It wasn't just a 30‑second slot, it was the full four minutes — unbelievable. Like a really expensive pop video. Far more than we've ever spent on a video, I can tell you."