Having nearly made it in the '80s with an awesome sound on a par with Trevor Horn's productions, UK electronic music stalwart Mark Shreeve is back, with his sights set on Hollywood. Here he discusses vintage gear, multi‑million pound albums, and Samantha Fox.
The age‑old adage 'never judge a book by its cover' certainly rings true in the case of Mark Shreeve. Standing before me at a recent London music trade show, my first impression of Mark, both resplendent and menacing in head‑to‑toe bikers' leather, bore little resemblance to the man within.
Our second meeting took place in more sedate surroundings — in Mark's unassuming semi‑detached house, whose exterior, perhaps intentionally, does little justice to the well‑equipped recording studio it contains. Inside, no fewer than 17 synthesizers and sound modules of varying vintage are ergonomically arranged around a central Allen & Heath Saber Plus 28:24:2 mixing console, and various ancillary recording equipment lines the walls, including three synchronised Alesis ADAT digital 8‑tracks and extensive outboard effects.
Of course, Mark's gear wasn't always this impressive. In 1973, when he first embarked on recording his own electronic music after hearing Tangerine Dream on John Peel's Radio One show, Mark's equipment comprised a solitary Yamaha CS30 analogue monosynth (which he retains and uses to this day), a string machine, and some crude effects and recording facilities. He sent his first demo tape to the now defunct electronic music cassette label Mirage, who subsequently released his first three albums on cassette. In 1981, Mark's professional music career began with Thoughts Of War, his debut vinyl album for the Uniton label.
Extending his setup to include a Sequential Circuits Pro One monosynth, Roland Juno 6 polysynth and Roland TR808 drum machine, Mark recorded his much‑acclaimed Assassin album for Uniton in June 1983. This featured an excellent interpretation of 'Assault On Precinct 13', director John Carpenter's classic theme to the film of the same name.
Following a very well‑received performance of Assassin at the first UK Electronica festival in Milton Keynes, Mark won a major recording contract with world‑wide distribution, care of the newly‑formed London‑based Jive Electro label — a big breakthrough for a relatively unknown musician. Jive's intention was to bring electronic music to the masses, with an impressive international roster headed by Germany's mighty Tangerine Dream. Assassin was subsequently re‑issued to coincide with Mark's appearance at the 1984 UK Electronica.
As a result of the Jive deal, Mark was given access to the company's Battery Studios in north‑west London, as well as all of the then state‑of‑the‑art instrumentation the studio contained, such as the Fairlight CMI music computer, and PPG Wave 2.3, Yamaha DX7, Roland Jupiter 8, and Oberheim Xpander synthesizers. These were employed to devastating effect on Mark's 1985 album Legion, whose recording costs reputedly soared into seven‑figure territory!
Even by today's standards, Legion sounds both impressive and contemporary. The title track was released as a single, and featured regularly on the soundtrack of Channel 4's popular American Football programme. As far as Mark's 'legions' of fans were concerned, life was looking very rosy indeed for their hero.
Despite Legion reaching Hollywood ears (via the soundtrack to the motion picture Jewel In The Nile, it would be another three years until Mark's next opus, Crash Head, would see the light of day, at a further cost of around £50,000. All was not well in the Jive camp, and events between the two albums make for fascinating reading.
"At that time, lots of people were made to leave Jive. We were going to do a kind of big concept album with me writing all the music and employing people like Phil Collins and Def Leppard, but the guy whose idea it was to get all these musicians involved was sacked.
"Jive Electro was stopped, because they suddenly discovered that Tangerine Dream weren't quite the pull they once were — at least in the UK. It didn't matter to Tangerine Dream so much, because they were like a self‑contained unit, whereas I was involved with projects other than my own music and became part of the furniture at Battery Studios, doing pop music and soundtracks.
"But Jive still wanted an album from me, so I was trying to put Crash Head together at the same time. I thought one or two of the tracks we did initially were not really me, and too influenced by the pop stuff. I wanted to do some extra tracks, so it was put off for another year. By that time, Jive Electro had been sold, and I was on the straight Jive label. In the end, it was like they'd spent all this money and felt obliged to release the album. The first I knew about it was when someone rang up and said he'd just bought my new album!"
Crash Head is an incredibly powerful and polished recording — almost heavy metal on synths, in effect — featuring the talents of respected rock guitarists of the day. I suggested that Mark must be a 'closet metaller' at heart. "Well, it struck me that when heavy metal bands used to book into Jive's studios they always came with an entourage of beautiful women, so I thought, 'I'll have some of that!', because when I looked around at the synthesizer players, they never had any! No, seriously, I would have been a Richie Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen if I could — but I can't play the guitar well enough!"
Although Mark's time at Battery Studios proved quite fruitful, I couldn't help but wonder if he was saddened that Jive Electro never really fulfilled their promise of bringing electronic music to the masses: "Compared with what I'd been doing up to the point of signing the deal, Jive Electro was just a dream come true. At the time I thought that even if it didn't work out, at least I could no longer use the excuse that I didn't have the right equipment — because Battery was one of the top studios in the country.
"Like many other people, I hoped that electronic music would catch on with the boost from Jive. When I signed up, they told me they thought there was a market for it that had yet to be tapped. They placed large adverts in the music press — not just for my music, but for Tangerine Dream's stuff as well.
"However, you have to get some kind of airplay. That's how Tangerine Dream became big in the first place — because of John Peel and Radio One. Klaus Schulze also used to get a lot of airplay — not necessarily over here, but certainly in mainland Europe. People don't generally buy a record just because of an advert — and why should they? I wouldn't buy something I hadn't heard. In the end, it doesn't matter what a record company or an artist does. If no‑one hears it, no‑one can form an opinion as to whether they like it or not."
Obviously electronic music is not alone in facing this perennial problem, yet here in the UK there is currently only one weekly radio show devoted to the genre — BBC Radio Derby's Soundscapes.
To all intents and purposes, Mark dropped out of the musical limelight following Crash Head and his subsequent departure from the Jive organisation. So how did he end up in the enviable position of owning his own state‑of‑the‑art home‑based studio several years later? In a nutshell, this can be attributed to a successful sideline in library music, with several CDs currently available.
Mark pointed out that this can be traced back to 1984, and the Oracle album for Bruton Music, with whom he continued to work until 1991: "A representative of Bruton came to me and said that he'd listened to Legion and that apart from all the 'weird shit' all over it, they'd like to remix it as a library album. They took off all the jet planes, the atom bombs and the babies being murdered, and stripped the tracks down to the bare essentials.
"Having already recorded all the main tracks for Legion, I had no input whatsoever into my first library album. That was a one‑off at the time, and became one of Bruton's most successful library music albums, with pieces ending up all over the BBC and elsewhere."
As Mark explains, by the time of Crash Head, there had been a complete reversal, with all the tracks being written for library music and then 'worked up' for the album. Nevertheless, this method of working proved no less fruitful. Mark notes that "library music worked quite well for me for a long time" — and the contents of his studio bear witness to this statement. A glance around reveals a mouth‑watering selection of electronic instrumentation, including an Akai S1000 sampler and many synths, among them an ARP 2600 modular, Korg Wavestation, Kurzweil K2000, Oberheim Xpander, PPG Wave 2.3, Roland Juno 60, Studio Electronics MidiMini, and a Moog IIIC modular system (see the 'Getting a Moog On' box elsewhere in this article) to name but several 'classic' synthesizers. A Roland Jupiter 8 has recently been sold due to space limitations!
1995 sees Mark's career coming a full circle, thanks to a new recording deal with Chris Franke's Sonic Images label. Chris has not fared too badly either since parting ways with both Jive Electro and Tangerine Dream back in 1987. Now residing in Los Angeles as a successful soundtrack composer and musician in his own right, Franke's company production offices and recording facilities command an impressive view of the surrounding Hollywood hillside — check out Ashok Prema's SOS May 1994 feature for photographic evidence. For Mark, the Hollywood connection is no accident, as his new album, Nocturne, is unashamedly aimed at America. But the deal itself came about by pure chance, as he explains: "Just by chance, Ash Prema mentioned to his good friend Chris Franke that I had finished a new album. I then got a call from Chris, who told me about his new label. Funnily enough, I already had a Sonic Images sampling CD‑ROM without having any idea that it was anything to do with Chris Franke.
"I thought it would be nice to try something from a different angle. Sonic Images might have another way of getting this music more widely distributed — it's certainly a different setup over there, and that's partly why I got involved with them.
"Chris Franke has turned out to be a very good businessman, and he's also very well‑known in the soundtrack world — both the film industry and the Los Angeles‑based TV industry — so I'm hoping there may be a break there. He's got so much work that he'll have to give me some of it!
"I've already done three soundtracks, but only one of them was 'Hollywood', so to speak. The other two were laughingly‑titled 'budget films' — in other words, they came in at under £10 million, which is ridiculous! Although it used American actors, the first one was Norwegian‑based and was a horror movie, even though it wasn't particularly frightening! The second was a comedy that wasn't that funny, and the third one a thriller that wasn't that thrilling!"
As to the inspiration behind Nocturne: "I like electronic stuff, and a little bit of classical music, and all these things are evident on Nocturne — more so than on my previous two. At the time, I was really getting into bands like Nirvana to listen to for pleasure, and I've always loved bands like Talk Talk, Simple Minds and the Sex Pistols. I like a wall of sound — anything that is stupendously over‑the‑top with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. I also admire people like Portishead who can really reduce everything. I wish I could do that, but it just doesn't seem to be my style."
That said, Mark does appear to be mellowing at the ripe old age of 'thirty‑something', as reflected by Nocturne's uplifting title track. Amused by my comparisons with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II and Pink Floyd, Mark admits that he played the track's guitarist 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' for inspiration. But then, comparisons with Floyd are no bad thing, given their recent smash live album success. On the strength of Nocturne, Mark Shreeve deserves a slice of the pie, too. The Hans Zimmers of the world should watch their backs — there may soon be a new face to contend with in Tinsel Town!
Those wishing to catch Mark in action may do so at KLEMdag '95, Europe's largest electronic music festival, on October 7th in Nijmegen, Holland.
Mark has fond memories of the Legion sessions, not least because the fortuitous Jive Electro association led to him working alongside one of his heroes — Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream. Given that Chris is often referred to as 'Mr Sequencer', I was somewhat taken aback to learn of the melodic nature of his involvement with the album, as Mark recalled: "I got to the stage with Legion where I had one more track to do, which I'd already demo'd at home. We eventually did a backing track in the studio and I was scratching my head thinking, 'What else can I do with it?'
"I was talking with Jive's A&R guy, and just as a joke, I said 'wouldn't it be great if we could get one of the guys from Tangerine Dream in to do the rest?' Before I'd even finished the sentence, he was on the phone to Chris Franke. Three days later, the man himself was there in the studio!
"A Jupiter 8 was hired in for Chris to play the melody line, and that was the only bit of near sequencing that he did. It was all sort of against the beat and written into a Linn 9000 left in Open Record Mode as he was playing — I would never have thought of that.
"He's also responsible for the Jupiter 8 hard sync lead sound with loads of pitch bend at the end of the track. He played it live, but I recorded it into my Roland MSQ700 sequencer without him knowing.
"I've never seen anybody get such great sounds so quickly from synths. The other two guys involved with Legion — programmer/producer Pete Harris and Battery's engineer — had been working in studios for years, and were just in awe of this guy and the way he used the equipment. He knew how to use it as a musician, rather than as a technician."
- ARP 2600
- Korg M1
- Korg Wavestation
- Moog IIIC modular
- Oberheim Xpander
- Oberheim Matrix 1000
- PPG Wave 2.3 (with Waveterm A sequencer/sampling unit).
- Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus (with Kenton Electronics MIDI retrofit)
- Roland Juno 60 (with Kenton Electronics MIDI retrofit)
- Roland D550 (with PG1000 programmer)
- Studio Electronics MidiMini
- Yamaha CS30
- Yamaha DX7 MkII
- Akai S1000
"AND ON DRUMS..."
- Emu Procussion
- Roland DR660
- Akai MPC60
- Analogue Systems TH48
- Atari 1040STE (4Mb) running Emagic Notator SL software
- Alesis ADAT digital 8‑track recorder x 3 (with BRC remote controller and AI‑1 digital interface)
- Allen & Heath Saber Plus 28:24:2 desk
- Sony DTC1000 DAT
- Tascam DA30 MkII DAT
- Behringer stereo compressor
- Behringer stereo noise reduction
- Behringer stereo noise gate
- Ensoniq DP/4 digital multi‑effects
- Korg Stage Echo
- Lexicon PCM60 digital reverb
- Lexicon PCM70 digital reverb
- Roland RSP550 digital multi‑effects
- SPL Vitalizer
- Yamaha REX50 digital effects
- Urei 7110 compressor
- Audio Architecture Function Junction Plus 16 x 16 programmable MIDI patchbay
- DAC removable hard drive
- Diki Devices CD‑ROM/removable hard drive
- Kenton Electronics Pro2 MIDI/CV converter
Not a lot of people know that Mark Shreeve was responsible for co‑writing former Page 3 model Samatha Fox's biggest hit single. 'Touch Me (I Want Your Body)' peaked at No. 3 in the UK charts in March 1986 — yet it was a fluke of the grandest order that the song ever made it onto vinyl, as Mark explained: "I'm really tight with cassettes, so when I was doing demos for the Legion album I recorded two tracks on a used cassette at home which I then took in to Roddy McKenna, Jive Electro's A&R man, to see if they were worth pursuing any further for my album. A couple of days later he rang back raving about a third track which he thought had a really commercial bassline and chord structure. It turned out he'd listened past the two tracks I'd given him and latched onto the end of an old track that I'd recorded over!
"It was originally a 13‑minute piece of 'cosmic' music dating from 1982, knocked up on a Pro One, CS30 and a Dr Rhythm drum machine — the chords, bassline and some of the phrases eventually became the basis of 'Touch Me (I Want Your Body)', although the original was probably about 10 bpm slower than the finished track.
"I didn't know anything about the structure of pop music at all. Most of my compositions back then were about 15 minutes long. I don't get going until after about two minutes, by which time a pop song's nearly over!
"Then, when I was doing the Legion album, we started working up this track with all the others, but with the idea that we'd have some vocals on it. Roddy said I had to write some lyrics — and my lyrics were pretty much like my music. I think it was originally called 'And Still They Scream', a sort of blood and torture type of thing over this bouncy rhythm!
"They called in John Astrop, a producer and writer who had also been in a pop band. He went downstairs and came back with the 'Touch Me (I Want Your Body)' words. I thought to myself, 'No‑one is going to buy this stuff in a million years' — boy, was I wrong!
"The female guide vocalist that John hired in had been in the Eurovision Song Contest band Bardot. She had an amazing voice, but in the end, the record company agreed with me that it was not quite in keeping with everything else on the Legion album.
"Over the next six months Jive were just looking for singers. About 60 or 70 were auditioned, both over here and in New York. Finally, they heard Sam Fox was into singing, and must have thought what better song could she ask for than 'Touch Me (I Want Your Body)'! The whole thing really came about through a series of chances."
- Ursa Major
- Fire Music
- Thoughts Of War
Y Records 1983
Jive Electro 1984
- Oracle *
Bruton Music 1984
Jive Electro 1985
- Energy Fountain *
Bruton Music 1986
- Oracle *
Bruton Music 1987
- Energy Fountain *
Bruton Music 1987
- Crash Head
- Riding The Edge *
Bruton Music 1989
- Power House *
Bruton Music 1990
- Pulsar *
Bruton Music 1991
Centaur Discs 1994
Centaur Discs 1994
- Crash Head
Centaur Discs 1994
Sonic Images 1995
The Mirage, Agitastjon and Y Records cassette‑albums are long since deleted, as are the Thoughts Of War, Assassin (both Uniton and Jive Electro versions), Legion and Crash Head vinyl albums and cassettes. All have become collectors items.
Albums marked with an asterisk denote library music CDs, Oracle and Energy Fountain having first been released as vinyl albums and later re‑issued on CD in 1987. Although these library albums were never intended for public consumption, they can be obtained through C&D Compact Disc Services of Dundee, a specialist importer/distributor of electronic music, whose Centaur Discs label is responsible for re‑issuing the Jive Electro albums on CD format in 1994.
Recently, Mark has been able to indulge his love of analogue equipment. One of his latest purchases was Analogue Systems' 3‑channel TH48 analogue sequencer (reviewed in SOS April 1995). In a quick demo, he proved he had already mastered the device, using it to control his ARP 2600's pitch, filter and envelopes so that it generated a rendition of the riff from Jean‑Michel Jarre's Equinoxe V.
The jewel in the crown of his collection, however, has to be the recently‑acquired (and much‑sort‑after) Moog IIIC modular system — the same model used by Klaus Schulze on his 1978 album X ‑‑ which Mark had sourced from the United States at the overdraft‑battering price of £10,000! Despite the cost, Mark is keen to stress that such purchases are not a result of collector's lust: "I wanted the Moog simply because it's got a sound I love. I'm not a collector, and although I understand why people do collect them, it's annoying for people like me who want to use them when they've gone up so much in price. The problem with the Moog modulars is that not many were made. I heard that Japanese collectors were starting to buy them all up, so I thought I'd better get one now, before it was too late.
"In a way, I guess the collectors have increased the interest in these old synths. Even a lot of the young dance bands are interested in them — although I can't fathom why someone would want to pay a grand for something like a Roland TB303. They've got such a weak sound compared to the Moog."
I mentioned Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese, who believes that the currently fashionable warm analogue sound is not really down to the sound source of analogue synths, but the sound of their analogue filters. Froese has gone so far as to suggest that "if you give up analogue, you give up a big portion of your musical ability". Mark expanded on this theme, with his own viewpoint: "It's like vintage cars — it comes back to this business of collectors and users. Collectors are the ones who unwittingly put up prices by trading in them. As far as the users are concerned, I agree with what Edgar says, except to add that the instability of the oscillators is also appealing. On something like a Korg M1, even if you treat the basic sampled waveform, it will always replay in exactly the same way. It's like a sonic photograph. If you program a sound on a MiniMoog or an ARP 2600 — anything that's truly analogue — you're fighting for control most of the time, and it's this 'danger' part of the sound that turns people on. It's the detuning, whether you want it or not, that gives movement to the sound. It's as near to a living sound as you can get, and I think human beings react better to something that sounds less than perfect."
Drawing upon Mark's classic car analogy, the analogue market will hopefully bottom out one day. Nevertheless, it's reassuring to find at least one Moog modular system being put to use, as opposed to festering in a museum somewhere.