Myles MacInnes has given the dance world a wake-up call with his Destroy Rock & Roll album, blending house music and '80s soft rock to surprising effect.
Since it's hardly the centre of UK dance culture, it's perhaps surprising that the most successful groove-oriented album of recent times — one-man operation Mylo's excellent Destroy Rock & Roll — was produced on the Isle Of Skye. But following its release in 2004, the debut offering from 25-year-old Scot Myles MacInnes has proved to be an insidious commercial grower, wowing not only the dance music cognoscenti, but also mainstream pop stars like Kylie Minogue, who commissioned the producer to remix her recent hit 'I Believe In You', and Elton John, who has declared that "every home in the UK should own a copy".
The soft-spoken, self-effacing MacInnes admits that, in some ways, growing up in such a far removed location made it harder for him to tap into popular culture. "It wasn't the best place for radio reception and things," he says. "Atlantic 252 was the only station that you could get reliable reception on and it's still quite dodgy getting FM in parts of the island."
If the influence of MOR radio is evident in certain parts of Destroy Rock & Roll, with its appropriation of samples from such '70s and '80s soft-rock staples as Judie Tzuke's 'Stay With Me Till Dawn' and Kim Carnes's 'Bette Davis Eyes', then MacInnes is unashamedly honest when he comes to declaring his love for it. "I think I was into soft rock anyway, irrespective of the fact that that was all you could get on Atlantic 252," he laughs. "I was into things like Poison and Bon Jovi, which I thought was fashionable at the time! I remember being shocked when Bon Jovi came back in the early '90s and they'd cut their hair off and stuff. I thought it was a real shame."
It was at the end of the '80s that the primary school-aged MacInnes's ear was first pricked up by early house records whenever he managed to pick up the Top 40 rundown on Radio One. "I got into stuff like MARRS's 'Pump Up The Volume'. Then I had friends who were a little bit older who'd come up from Glasgow with Derrick May house tapes and stuff."
With his mother being a piano teacher, there were always instruments around the house as MacInnes was growing up. Nevertheless, he resisted the lure of classical training in favour of a self-tuition ("I just kind of taught myself the basics, the whole idea of how chords work and interact") and began playing guitar, drums and keyboards in various bands. Moving to Oxford and then onto LA to study philosophy, he absorbed other influences — "I was listening to a lot of music made in Los Angeles about Los Angeles, like Steely Dan and Elton John's early albums, plus other Californian things like gangsta rap and DJ Shadow." Nevertheless, he didn't actually make any music until he'd ditched the course and returned to Scotland, armed with a fresh determination.
"I was beginning to think really I should be doing music," he says, "and I was kind of aware that when Daft Punk or whoever were my age, they'd already made their first album. I mean, I was only 22, but I just felt that it was time to get on with it."
Inspired by Daft Punk and other early contemporary dance notables like Royksopp and the Avalanches, MacInnes bought a second-hand iMac from a friend and got to work. "It was £350 and had a six-gigabyte hard drive," he recalls. "Then I downloaded the free eight-track version of Pro Tools. The first demos I made had samples and drums out of Rebirth and keyboard sounds out of Absynth. They were very, very basic. The 303 in Rebirth I still use all the time. Even recently I decided to do an acid thing with my Kylie remix and I went straight for that. Only problem is I've just bought a new G4 laptop and they don't do Rebirth for OS X yet."
Three years ago, MacInnes was working in Glasgow as a journalist for the BBC when a friend let him hear a Real Player audio clip from an obscure spoken-word album called Sounds Of American Doomsday Cults Volume 14, which featured a deluded preacher damning the influence of a long list of '80s pop stars on US youth ("Huey Lewis & The News, The Thompson Twins, Sheena Easton, Bananarama"). Layering the sample over a pounding four-on-the-floor beat, MacInnes created his first single and Destroy Rock & Roll 's title track.
"The first track that I actually did was an obvious kind of pastiche of French filter house with a sample from a Toto track called 'Salt Lake' in it," he says. "I sent it off to Wall Of Sound and they got back straight away saying they were really into it. Then Echo heard it and said they'd clear it and stuff. But unfortunately it just got totally blanked by Toto — so I've not idea if they heard it and hated it or whatever."
Come January 2002, there were two deals on the table from the aforementioned labels. MacInnes, however, had other ideas and hooked up with two friends to form Breastfed Records, an independent operating out of Glasgow. "It had got to the stage of me having a lawyer look over the contracts and things. Then I was just chatting with these guys that I already knew and I was totally struck by their ambition and the fact that they very much wanted to do the same thing as me — have a dance label which wasn't afraid of doing things which were unabashedly pop.
"So the two other partners put in an initial investment of a few grand each and we went from there. They offered to make me an equal partner, which was an incentive for me to join them when I already had offers on the table. Then we had a surprise hit with a record we made together — Linus Loves's 'The Terrace' in June 2002 — and we licensed that on to Ministry Of Sound, so that provided us with a bit of cash for the label. The timing was extraordinarily lucky."
Freshly flush, MacInnes upgraded his kit, while still remaining a devoutly software-based musician. "I didn't spend a great deal, to be honest," he points out. "I got a G4 which I managed to get at a discount for about £1200 — the dual 833 with the 60 gigabyte hard drive. So, yeah, a huge step up from the iMac. And I got proper Pro Tools, though it's still just the LE M Box version. But at least I had 24 tracks of audio instead of eight."
So why choose Pro Tools over Cubase or Logic? "I think just because when I first had the iMac I was able to get the free version off the 'net. And also I bought an Atari 1040 in 1999 when I was in Oxford, and I'd had a few frustrating experiences with Cubase not properly installing and stuff."
MacInnes admits that he does see Pro Tools — like Macs — as being something of a luxury item. "Yeah, I mean with people downloading software, it's almost become routine that people expect that they can get stuff for free. But people are happy to pay over the odds for a Mac which has the equivalent power to a PC which is maybe half the price. And it's the same with Pro Tools — people will pay for it when they could have DP or Cubase or even Logic for a fraction of the price. It's interesting."
More than two years on from his purchase, the producer says he doesn't feel any need to move up from the M Box to something like the Digi 002. "I like to keep it simple, really," he states. "The way I work, I never need anything more than stereo in and out. The only reason I would think I'd need eight in and eight out would be if I was trying to do a live take of a band or something. But the album was put together really without recording anything at all. It was constructed out of samples, and the keyboard parts and drum parts and bass lines were all just created in Reason and recorded as loops in Pro Tools. The whole album was more or less recorded without plugging anything in."
What's more, Mylo admits (with just a hint of embarrassment) that when he first tried to record vocals, he wasn't exactly sure how to plug in his newly purchased AKG C2000 mic. "This girl came to sing for me and my friend Will [Threlfall] who's also a producer. So we set up the microphone and we thought we'd make a pop shield out of a pair of girl's knickers which I found in my underwear drawer — which we soon found out had been worn but not washed! She thought it was absolutely hilarious, luckily enough. I can't believe I told you that, actually..."
Limited hardware (and underwear) resources aside, MacInnes's setup involves no outboard equipment other than his master keyboard. "For MIDI I've just used the same synth I've had for donkey's years, which is the Yamaha SY35. Rock solid for MIDI. I bought an Access Virus keyboard very recently for the live show and I've started using that as a mother keyboard instead, because I can alter the parameters using the controls on it. Previously to that, if I wanted to change a parameter, I'd either have to use automation or record it while changing the parameter with a mouse, which can be fine, but it's just a bit more fiddly and it's something you have to get used to. It's nice to have that hands-on approach.
"The trouble is that sometimes you end up sticking something on a loop, playing around with it, recording minutes and minutes of you tweaking the parameters and then you have to fit that into the track. So that can be equally fiddly and it never sounds as good in the final track as it does when you're actually doing it. I think what's great about live tweaking is you have the combination of something which is programmed and the spontaneity of being able to radically alter and morph the shape of the part. But I still find that sometimes what sounds fabulous while you're doing it, you record it and it sounds really stale and trite in the actual track."
Mylo is typically unfussy when it comes to his choice of monitors. "I've got some pretty dodgy Spirit Absolute Zero monitors that I've had for a long time. They're quite flattering. But I'd quite like a pair of NS10s because everything sounds absolutely horrible on them, so the principle is that if you get something sounding good on them, then you know that it'll sound really really good everywhere else. I think nine times out of 10 what's wrong with a mix is that you've got too much going on in the low to mid range. And that's something which sounds absolutely unforgivable on a pair of NS10s, so it's easy to deal with that."
Following the album's completion, MacInnes buried himself in the lengthy and laborious task of transferring the songs to a live environment, a process that he admits wasn't without its teething problems. "It was quite difficult at first. The principle we used was to keep the drum parts and loop parts as they were. We tried using laptops but it was terrible because they just kept on crashing. So we went and got an Alesis HD24 which allows us to have every part as a separate out, which is fantastic because our sound engineer can mix them according to the room and all the rest of us. That's improved us drastically.
"We just have three people in the band — one [Lewis Harley] who always plays the bass lines, and between me and William [Threlfall] we play various keyboards and guitar parts, sometimes adding to what's already there on the record and sometimes just playing what was there originally. We've tried to keep it as live as possible and we've had to kind of grow up in public. The first gigs were technically pretty lousy. We had a few disasters like when we played at the Space Terrace in Ibiza and it was absolutely awful. We were using an MPC and some of the most bizarre things were coming out of there, even though we knew what we had there was just a stereo track. I can't really explain what went on there."
One musical characteristic that features throughout Destroy Rock & Roll is the warm, rounded drum sounds. MacInnes explains that they're largely the result of a combination of pilfering and experimentation. "I got an Emu sample CD which I went through and chose drum sounds from and then I put them into Recycle and chopped them up. Then, when I got Reason 2.5, I put them in there and put a bit of distortion or compression on them, those crunchy kind of effects. The reverb and distortion units in there are really professional-class, they're great. A lot of the other drums are just combinations — two or three kicks or snares together. A lot of the individual sounds are maybe from quite famous tracks, but if you put two or three sounds together then it kind of masks that."
The album also reveals Mylo to be something of a master of the manipulated cut-up, no more evident than in the distinctive chopped and reshuffled sample in 'Rikki'. "It's a just sample that I chopped up in Recycle," MacInnes explains. "Anything that had any internal rhythm and structure, I kept on putting chops in 'til basically I just had hits. It was probably a three-second loop and by the end I had 25 constituent parts that I inputted into Dr. Rex, the loop player in Reason. Then it maps each constituent part to a different key on your MIDI keyboard, and you can play each little hit in whatever way you want. The sample's not been cleared, but apparently I don't even have to because it's so far removed from what the original record was. However, I don't yet have that officially from my lawyer, so I better not tell you what it is!"
Conversely, other elements on the record that sound like obvious samples — for example, the vocoder vocal hook throughout 'Drop The Pressure' — turn out to be tailor-made. "Yeah, actually, 'Drop The Pressure' is clean because it's a speech loop that I fed into the vocoder. It's just me with a microphone. But effectively I treat it as a sample, especially in the live show, because I couldn't face the idea of doing live gigs everyday of the week as a singer. I realised that I hadn't used the vocoder in Reason — and I wouldn't want to do a whole album with it — but I wanted to experiment with it, so I just had fun kicking this loop around.
"What I spent a lot of time doing was experimenting with the carrier signal and treating it with delay and phasing. But what I realised as I was going along was that even though I'd started playing it quite low, it just started sounding brighter and better as I went right up the range, which was quite a fortunate thing. I just wanted the vocoder to get higher and higher and sound more and more ridiculous. It's quite an unsubtle pisstake of vocoder music in a way."
Perhaps the most shamelessly poptastic moment of the album is 'In My Arms', which marries the musical hook of 'Bette Davis Eyes' to Boy Meets Girl's 'Waiting For A Star To Fall'. "They're both cheesy pop records really," MacInnes laughs. "I'm totally aware that in the great scheme of things, it's basically the same idea as that Whitney Houston vs. U2 bootleg 'Take Me To The Cloud Above', which is absolute cack. So I don't know how I got away with this. Maybe it sounds a little bit more self-aware or something. It does sound a little bit cooler, but I don't know why. I had cold feet about putting it on the album when I realised how I felt about it. I was talked into it by other people and now I'm really glad that I did because it's a track that people really like."
Given the number of recognisable samples used in Destroy Rock & Roll, you might imagine that the sample clearance process delayed its release for months. Not so, says Mylo, who admits that as a label Breastfed were fairly bold on this front. "Effectively the record was out before we did it," he says. "Basically the clearance was done by us at the label, though we do use a sample clearance agent in London sometimes. The difficulty when you've got two samples on a track is that quite often both parties can try to ask for a hundred percent of the publishing. So you've got to get them down to at least 50 percent or you're going to be paying out — for every record you sell, you're going to lose more money.
"With 'In My Arms', eventually they both went for 50:50. At the time we were in talks about the publishing, so our contacts at Universal Publishing and Sony Music were able to pour oil on the waters for it. I think if we'd have just been doing as a tiny independent label from Glasgow, then the outcome would've been very, very different. The 'Bette Davis Eyes' intro is actually a replay — we redid it on a real old Juno, so we just had to clear the publishing on that one. We managed to replay a lot which we'd have had to pay for, so generally it's been pretty cheap."
Although it can be a notoriously thorny issue, MacInnes insists that sample clearance needn't be as problematic as it first might appear, citing the split-second snippet from Prince's 'Kiss' used in 'Guilty Of Love' as an example. "Even though that's clearly Prince, because it's just one hit — it's a snare and a grunt — it's got no intellectual copyright status of any kind because it's so primal. So even though it indisputably Prince, apparently we're OK, we don't have to clear it because it has no musical content."
One artist who had no problems clearing a sample of her work was singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke, whose 1979 hit 'Stay With Me Till Dawn' provides the backbone of the ethereal 'Need You Tonite'. "I really like the song," Mylo says, "but I particularly love the string break in the middle, so I created a track out of that first and then put the vocal parts in later. It's really simple again — I'm probably only using five of the 24 tracks on that one."
Despite MacInnes's dabblings with recording singers, only one track, 'Musclecar Reform Reprise', actually features a guest vocalist — in this case Tamara Barnett Herrin. Even then, her involvement was actually the result of a remix. "The way it happened was I just gave the bleeps and parts that had been in the instrumental track to Anu Pillai Freeform Five and they came back and they'd written a lyric for it and everything. At the time I hadn't even met Tamara — now she comes out and plays with us live sometimes — but I was over the moon when I heard what they'd done with it. The rest of the album is so obviously sample-based that having even the slightest bit of real performance on it does put a different spin on it."
When it came to the mixing of Destroy Rock & Roll, MacInnes effectively handed the files over to his friends and label partners Will Threlfall and Kevin Kennedy for their input. "We mixed the album on Kevin's NS10s and basically he did a lot of it on his own. How it sounds now in comparison to how it sounded coming out of my studio monitors is incredibly different. He didn't even so much change track levels as much as fly in little dips and change EQs and apply compression throughout. Not too heavy compression either. In fact it was often a case of taking compression off that I'd put on in the original sessions.
"Normally I use the Waves C1. Now with my new laptop, I've got no plug-ins, so I've just been using the Digidesign compressor which seems to be OK. It doesn't look as good, but I think in terms of how it sounds, it's probably about the same. Compression's such a simple technique that I think that unless you use more advanced compression like multi-band or whatever it's not worth spending a lot of money on it."
In the wake of his recent success, Mylo's been inundated with offers of remix work — so much so that he's finding that it's interfering with his own music. Currently he plans to turn down any further remixes for the time being. "I'm finishing a Moby one today and I don't intend to do another one until the summer," he says. "The first big one I did was of Elton John's 'Are You Ready For Love', and then they just began to pick up."
When it comes to reworking a track, MacInnes insists he doesn't have a tried and tested formula. "If it's a song," he explains, "as long as I don't dislike the song, I'll try and just stay quite true and use the verse and chorus or both. I think it's quite an easy way out to take a loop of the vocal and repeat it, which is the way a lot of remixers in dance music work. I don't think I have a formula yet and I don't really intend to get one. I think I'm still trying to work out what works and what doesn't. Also it's very different working to a true deadline that you can't get around. You end up with these crazy all-night sessions and you don't have as much time to deliberate as you do with your own music."
To date, the remix Mylo has been most pleased with is his out-there acidic 303 take on Kylie's 'I Believe In You'. "I love Kylie and of course I love pop music," he states, "but maybe it was just the mood I was in, or maybe I felt that the original was as good as you could do it in that disco direction. But I decided to do some new parts that were much more dissonant — so it went from the fairly sickly and simple bubblegum chord progression to these chords I used which were really really weird, going up three semitones four times until you get back where you started. So with that and an acid-y noise on it, it was quite a strange thing. Apparently Kylie liked it, though, and she sent us some tickets to a concert."
Nevertheless, not all of the producer's admirers have been so forthcoming with their approval of his work for them. Despite his enthusiastic endorsement of Mylo, Elton John wasn't actually aware that the pair had already enjoyed a collaboration of sorts. "He's been constantly talking about the album in the press," MacInnes laughs. "But when I finally got to meet him, he didn't even know I'd remixed one of his tracks!"