Consisting of two big-name producers, a Hollywood composer and an academic — plus masses of modular gear — Node are the ultimate synth supergroup.
A 19-year gap between albums marks an extraordinary period of down time for a band. But in the case of electronic quartet Node, whose membership consists of two record producers, a Doctor of Music and a Hollywood film composer, they can probably be excused for allowing their day jobs to encroach on their productivity as a unit.
Node are Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Warpaint), Ed Buller (Suede, Pulp, White Lies), Dave Bessell, who teaches Music Technology at Plymouth University, and Mel Wesson, who has collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the scores for the likes of Black Hawk Down and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Pooling their talents, together they have just released Node 2, their second album of atmospheric, Tangerine Dream-like soundscapes, improvised and recorded live using an array of vintage modular synthesizers.
Ask the original members — Mel Wesson is new on Node 2, replacing Gary Stout, who has relocated to Africa — to explain why there has been such a long break between Node albums, and they laugh and blame scheduling problems. "Life just got in the way,” says Bessell. "We're all crazy busy doing other stuff. I don't know if we ever had a proper plan, but if we did it kind of got sidetracked. It's really very difficult to get everybody in the same room, or even in the same country.”
"I don't think we ever thought we were on a break,” says Buller. "We just went off and did different things, and it turned into almost 20 years. But we've been talking about making another record for 10 of those years.”
When Node did manage to assemble in the same room, though, they worked quickly, jamming entirely live to two-track ("Like Can,” says Flood). This second album was basically created — editing notwithstanding — in a couple of intensively productive sessions in December 2011 and October 2012, the first lasting two days and the second a comparatively leisurely five days.
"The thing that's really important about Node is nobody interferes in what each other's doing,” Buller points out. "We just played, and in a weird way that allowed the freedom for it either to work or not work. That's why it became exciting — you'd listen back to some stuff and there'd be two minutes of rubbish and then a minute of stuff that you just couldn't believe you all managed to play together. It was just a case of getting rid of the rubbish and getting to the point where you could just enjoy playing. It got better and better and that was so liberating. 'Cause myself and Flood make records with bands and this approach was completely different. Bands have to be directed, either internally or externally, but there's always a focus. That never happens with Node, and that's what became fascinating.”
The very first incarnation of Node comprised childhood friends Ed Buller and Dave Bessell, who together made an album which the former insists "nobody will ever hear”. Buller and Flood, meanwhile, share the same production management company, and got chatting at a Christmas party in the early '90s. "Just about making records and the business of improvisation,” says Buller. "I was moaning about how with only two of us in Node, it was very hard to generate enough music that way. Then fast forward three or four months, I was making Dog Man Star at Master Rock with Suede, we had some down time, I had my synth set up, I rang Flood, and we just all arrived one day. Gary, who used to be in the band, was my engineer on the Suede album.
"So it was literally all hands on deck, let's just see what happens,” he adds. "One of the things that we agreed, day one, back in '94, was: we're just gonna play, it's literally two tracks. You fly by the seat of your pants, and the idea behind that is sometimes you're gonna come up with things that you wouldn't come up with if you sat down and designed it.”
The result was the 1995 album Node, recorded live to DAT over three days in Master Rock Studios and four at Wessex Studios, and edited using Sound Tools, the precursor to Pro Tools. "The approach this time around was pretty much identical,” says Bessell. "We went to two-track, but it wasn't a DAT this time, it was straight into Pro Tools.”
Sessions for Node 2 took place at Assault & Battery 2 in Willesden, north London. The studio is co-owned by Flood and Alan Moulder, and resides on the same site as the now defunct Morgan Studios, where the former started his recording career as a very efficient teaboy — hence his nickname — in the early '70s. "Next door was Morgan and this was a chemical factory,” he recalls. "Then Zomba built this into a series of studios. They sold up and a property developer bought this plot, but left the studio in mothballs. Then me and Alan Moulder just decided we'd have a mix room, and then the bigger room and so we've just taken over the whole building.”
Grouping together here on day one for the Node 2 sessions, however, the four realised that despite all the advances in recording technology that had taken place since they'd last recorded together, providing a basic MIDI pulse to sync their individual, modular-based setups was to prove tough and entirely frustrating. "One day pretty much was spent swearing and kicking the tyres,” laughs Bessell. "We used to hold everything in time with an old Atari [ST 1040], which worked perfectly, and this time we could not get the damn computers to sync everything properly.”
"It was a real nightmare,” says Buller. "The MIDI on the Atari was rock solid. We were turning the MIDI into gate pulses and everything was driven off those. Whereas this time round, I'd just spent a small fortune on this fancy Moon sequencer system and I thought, 'Great, I'll go with MIDI and just use triggers,' and of course it didn't work the way I thought it would. We got there in the end, because the stuff is really quality gear. But it did mean that we lost a whole day.”
"What was interesting is how each person adapted to the technology developing,” says Flood. "I was still running on the same technology from 19 years ago, and everybody else had moved into different systems. What's happened is, with the advent of computers, there's far more options, and this started to prove the stumbling block. You had to remove all the options for each individual setup, in order to get everybody to communicate. Whereas before, it was just one Atari lobbing out pulses, and you just had to do MIDI-to-CV conversion and everybody was happy. It's an interesting one that you've got to move into the 21st Century, but sometimes don't chuck out the baby with the bath water.”
For Node 2, the foursome gathered together what they claim to be the largest collection of vintage analogue synthesizer equipment seen in a recording studio since the 1970s. In addition, however, Buller, Bessell and Wesson's setups were augmented by laptops.
"This is one of the most important things about this band,” says Flood. "There's Mr Luddite, myself, sat in the corner, with no computer in sight at all, going right through to Dave, who's cutting-edge, with his synthesizer modelling and sound architecture and everything like that. And it's to show that if you're using it as an instrument, it has to be controlled by the human, whereas so much of modern music and the way that it's made, everybody is a servant of the computer. That's why grooves all sound the same. Pop records all sound the same. And people are just using their eyes, not their ears.”
Going around the room, then, Flood's setup consists of an ARP 1613 sequencer, a Roland System 700 and a Moog 3C. "Whereas Ed will have one common clock and then he'll have maybe half a dozen sequences all running in different time signatures,” he says, "I'll tend to work on one sequencer as being the core and then others maybe I'll bring in. Ed will tend to be much more multi-sequence-driven, and then it's just how we listen to each other. A lot of the times I'll set a sequence going and then I'll be off noodling with some other thing somewhere which generally involves the Putney [EMS VCS3].”
The analogue element of Buller's setup revolves around three Moog Modular systems that he bought with his first royalty cheque from Suede in the early '90s. "I got rid of pretty much all of the rest of my gear to focus on having the [Moon] sequencer,” he says. "I really like doing the sequencing, so me and Flood tend to split the duties: he's the bass player and I do the top stuff. That's sort of how it works, but we actually end up going all over the place.”
Elsewhere, he runs nine MIDI keyboards triggering heavily effected soft synths. "I use a lot of Kontakt stuff and there's some GForce software that I really like — their string machine stuff is great. Basically I have access to lots of different sounds that I can play immediately. One of the things that I've found out by listening to a lot of film music is you can play the same chord progression on different sounds and it has a totally different effect. So you sort of orchestrate it.”
Meanwhile, Mel Wesson's modular gear is centred around a Moog 3C and a PPG 300. "Ed's modular is the big sequencing beast, and for me, it's kind of a supporting role that I can run little sequences through,” he says. "Then I've got stuff that I use for textures. I had a Minimoog and an EMS Synthi AKS, but I don't think I played a note on the Minimoog, it's all sound stuff and loads of delays. I've owned Synthis for ages, and I've never ever tried to get one in tune to play a melody. It's just a noise machine, and you'll hear that all the way through, just bubbling along in tracks. You'll hit the button and five minutes later it's still going on its strange multi-LFO cycle thing. I love my PPG Wave 2, which is the early one, and that features on a few things.”
Dave Bessell, nicknamed The Prof by the others, has the most modern setup. Analogue synth-wise, he uses the Macbeth M5n semi-modular and the MosLab System 32 modular. As the only guitarist in the outfit, he plays his trusty Les Paul through a Laney Lionheart amp, mangling the signal so that it sounds un-guitar-like, through an Ibanez Tube Screamer and Digitech Whammy. "I do research into audio synthesis stuff,” he says, "and my research area is physical modelling, so I sneak some of that stuff in there which I've written myself [in Max/MSP], which actually sits really nicely with the analogue stuff 'cause it doesn't sound digital. So my laptop was doing two things: physical modelling, and then I used it occasionally to get the guitar to talk CV to the modulars.”
Often, Bessell was manipulating his custom physical modelling software in real time. "Say you've got a flute model,” he says, "you can change the size of the flute as you're playing. It can go from being normal size to 30 feet long and it never sounds like a flute. The whole point about physical modelling is you can mess with it. So some of my models involve combining things from real instruments in ways that can't be done in the real world. I've got one which is a pizzicato gong and another which I call a 'clariflupet', which has got part of a clarinet, part of a flute and part of a trumpet. And it sounds like a hybrid of those three — or not, if you mess with it.”
With these dizzyingly complex gear arrangements set up and sync'ed, Node got on with the business of actually making music. Generally, their method was to first agree on a tempo and a handful of chords or a scale. "Then we all go off into our corners,” says Buller, "put headphones on and it's a competition to say, 'Ready!' first. Flood always loses. Me and Flood always take longest, 'cause we use a lot of sequencers and they're bastards — just to get the polyrhythms right, to get the delays right. But basically, we all wander off into our little world to get our little palette of sounds and our bits, and then we're ready to go and it's like a gig. We play it usually three or four times, but I was pleased to notice on this record that quite a lot of the first performances ended up being the ones.”
"You might find that there's a theme that somebody's running,” says Flood, "and after one or two goes, everybody's going, 'Oh that's pretty good, let's concentrate on that as being the main focus of the thing.' Or you might go, 'We've got to have a chord change in the middle of it.'”
"Quite a lot of it is modal,” says Bessell, "rather than major or minor scales, and each mode gives it a flavour. We don't always get as far as chords. Chords appear, but we don't always agree on chords.”
"No... and that's an interesting point, actually!” says Buller. "In fact, the first one we did on the second set of recordings, Flood had this pretty little melody and me and Dave between us were fighting over whether we were making the melody prettier or dirtier. So Dave would be like, 'Well I'm bashing out these chords,' and I'd be like, 'Well, I'm bashing out these chords,' and that's actually what made it interesting. The tension between the two.”
"And then I'm just sticking with this pretty little melody,” says Flood, "just keeping on going regardless. So there's tension, and the thing is when you're doing this, you're using the instruments as sequencers or keyboards or effects, but you're constantly using your ears. You're never ever using your eyes. So it's like that moment when you're in your conventional band where everybody's looking around at each other going, 'How are we in this place?' Nobody's looking at their instruments, they're all using their ears.”
When recording, Node played through individual monitor setups, cranking them up to the level where the sonic effect in the room was almost physical. This aural barrage would have the knock-on effect of affecting the performance of the spring reverbs in some of the modular synths, adding to Node's concept that their performances are very much living, breathing creations in a constant state of evolution.
"Any spring reverb is gonna react sympathetically to what's in the room,” Wesson points out. "So that's another constant state of flux. It's like taking these animals out of a cage and you're just letting them run. And you find that you're actually chasing the machine, almost, and it's leading you on. It's a fantastic experience. It's like using these things how they were designed to be used.”
"They are performance instruments,” Buller stresses. "But you have to set it up to be a performance instrument, and everybody does it in their own way. Like, if you walk over to Flood's little collection, there's no way anybody but Flood would patch it up that way. One song we had, he was using the ARP 2600 for a bass line, and it was just completely out of tune, but he's like, 'I'm not moving, I'm gonna get this to work.'”
"It was two LFOs beating against each other,” Flood explains with a grin.
"This is what we have to put up with,” Buller smiles. "And the thing that's really liberating is that if Flood was actually producing himself at that point, he'd have yelled at himself and said, 'For fuck's sake, use something sensible like a sequencer.' But because he was having fun, he could make the LFOs work. And that's the thing that's different about Node is that we enjoy ourselves doing it. So what you're hearing is a live performance of us enjoying ourselves.”
Given the wayward nature of modular synths, of course, sometimes the machines are difficult to control, resulting in slippage in the grooves of the sequencers or tuning problems. Node, however, entirely embrace the more random characteristics of their synths. "The 700 has a very different feel to the ARP or any of the Moog ones,” says Flood. "And so it's a bit like you've got a drummer who's pushy and a lazy bass player, and so you work out amongst yourselves what sits.”
"Sometimes it's out of sync, and we like the out-of-sync-ness,” says Buller. "That would happen a lot. Flood would start it, he'd go, 'Hang on… stop… restart now,' boof, and one of us was like, 'Oh, I preferred it before! What did you do?' It's completely random. It's the gear responding to the clock and doing it in a slightly different way.”
"With the track 'No Signal',” Bessell adds, "by any normal standards there are certain parts of that that are way out of tune. But somehow it works. It's microtonal, essentially. But because we're working with our ears, when we listen back, we think, 'There's no logical justification for why that works, but it works.' And you cannot design that stuff.”
"We're custodians of a sequence of happy accidents, basically,” says Buller. "Part of the skill is to be able to spot when you've got something.”
These improvisations were generally edited down in Pro Tools into the nine tracks that make up Node 2, but in some cases no editing was involved at all. "We edit it down,” says Buller, "but not a great deal. On this album I think there was less editing than on the previous album.”
"There's one track on that album,” says Bessell, "and I won't say which one, but it's almost 100 percent exactly as we played it and we just edited it for length. There's a tiny edit at the start and a tiny edit at the end, just to make it start and end properly. But apart from that it's completely as it is. And the other extreme is there might be four or five edits from three or four different takes.”
"The reason you're editing sometimes is because of a technical problem,” Buller adds. "We are dealing with very temperamental equipment, and there'll be a quiet bit and I'll reach for a scratchy pot that will destroy that moment. It literally destroys the whole thing, so you need to edit round that. Also, because of the kind of gear we've got, we can't reset it to exactly where it was. So over the course of recording the track three or four times, it morphs. And we have to work around that as well, 'cause nothing destroys the vibe quicker than, y'know, 'Right, start again, patch up, retune.' So we try and grab it while it's there.”
In the end, Node is very clearly a labour of love for the four. Which of course begs the question: do they plan to leave it another 19 years before they get around to making Node 3? "That's an interesting question,” Bessell ponders, as the others grin around him. "We haven't even dared to think about that yet. There's Node Unplugged obviously…”
"But of course!” Buller laughs. "It would just be us and four Stylophones.”
Node 2 is available from DiN Records
In approaching Node 2, with Gary Stout unavailable, Buller asked his old friend Mel Wesson if he'd be interested in joining their ranks, having known the composer since the days when Wesson worked in a music shop in London's Denmark Street. At the time, he was learning how to use the shop's Roland System 700 modular synth, and Buller would pop in to join him. Another visitor to the shop was Hans Zimmer, who, 14 years later, asked Wesson to get involved with his soundtrack work. "My world is always the dark, ambient work,” Wesson says. "It always tends to be the more electronic, non-orchestrally driven stuff. I'm a big synth geek.”
"Mel arrived at the perfect time,” says Ed Buller, "because the thing that was always stopping us was that there were only three of us. 'Cause we're not your traditional boy band where you've got to go through interviews [laughs]. Mel just fit perfectly. It's interesting, 'cause listening to this record, I think it is a bit more cinematic, and I suspect that's probably Mel's influence. He was the catalyst. Mel arriving made the record happen, basically.”
"It was very interesting,” says Flood, "because even though we are a band of people who play sequencers and synths, we are a true band in all senses. Like in the idea that Mel adds something different to the music, just in the way a conventional band would be.”
Any effects used in the making of Node 2 were applied at source and not in post-production, meaning that the musicians were reacting to the various delays and reverbs as they played. "It's a combination of digital and analogue,” says Ed Buller. "The delays are very important rhythmically for me. I don't like them too clean, I like them a bit gritty. All the soft synths go through [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig. It's the Holy Grail for me for processing 'cause it's modular: you can add an amp, add a speaker, add a fuzzbox. If you use it in the right way, it adds a lot of character. That's the funny thing, 'cause the sort of music that we're obviously referencing is the stuff done in the '70s where people didn't DI synths. They went through amps and everything was very sort of organic and messy.”
"It's an important point,” Flood stresses. "I've slagged off soft synths, but the way Ed uses them means they all end up going through something different. And one of the things that you tend to find with electronic music is people just take them DI'd and they don't do anything to them, which is a bit lazy. Y'know, if you've got a guitar, are you just gonna sit there with it DI'd all the time? So it's all these combinations make it a very rich tapestry of sound.”
Often the four were using effects in real time to bring certain sounds in and out of focus. "The main effect I used was the Eventide Space reverb pedal,” says Flood. "One minute I'll be right up front, in your face, and everybody else will be in the background, but then it'll all change. That's as much a part of the interaction sonically.”
"You listen to what everybody else is doing,” says Mel Wesson, "and you think, 'Oh this doesn't need anything on it now,' so you pull that one forward.”