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AS ONE (KIRK DEGIORGIO): Adidas Ads, Folklore & Blue Note Jazz

Interview | Artist By Christopher Holder
Published February 1998

AS ONE (KIRK DEGIORGIO): Adidas Ads, Folklore & Blue Note Jazz

Kirk Degiorgio, aka As One: head of the cult techno label Op ART, producer of the recent Planetary Folklore LP on Mowax, co‑composer for the notorious Adidas 'Prince Naseem in America' ad, and proud owner of a huge collection of Blue Note jazz LPs. Phew! Christopher Holder discovers that Ipswich is nearer the centre of the universe than he thought.

I caught Kirk on an eventful day. [Phone rings, stage left] "Ah, that'll be the guys from Doepfer." [Moments later] "This afternoon...? Excellent." (Kirk was expecting a huge modular synth system any time now). "50 or 60 modules!" (Apparently, a number of Serge sound processing modules were winging their way over from the States, as was a rare 1972 Moog 8‑channel mixer, bought from an Internet‑based virtual auction).

Though his name may be initially unfamilar, Kirk Degiorgio commands enormous respect on the dance scene as one of the first people to spread awareness of the original Detroit techno sound at the turn of the '90s. Enthralled by the tracks being produced by the likes of Derrick May, Kirk, who was then a DJ, brought records back from a trip to the States and began playing them over in the UK. Suitably inspired, he then began to make his own music in the same vein under the name As One, but reasoning (with some justification) that major labels were unlikely to touch it, he founded his own, ART (now known as Op ART). Nowadays, of course, independent techno labels are ten a Eurocent, but at the time, this was a bold move — and Kirk's risk also paid off. His first release was a collaboration between himself and Black Dog, his second was an early Aphex Twin LP, and the third was Carl Craig's first UK release. Kirk's future was most definitely assured.

I know R&S Records have a Waldorf Wave in their studio, and it's just propping open a door! It's a crying shame when you think of all the money they paid for it.

And it's no wonder that I found him chirpier than the dawn chorus, as things seem to be going as well in the present as in his illustrious past. Prospects for his new As One LP Planetary Folklore (released via the well respected Mowax label) seem rosy, demands on his time to write music for advertising are on the up following his successful commission to write the music for the recent high‑profile Adidas commercial featuring boxer Prince Naseem, and in spare moments there's always DJing and tracks to work on for an upcoming release on the famous Belgian techno label R&S.

Setting The Scene

AS ONE (KIRK DEGIORGIO): Adidas Ads, Folklore & Blue Note Jazz

When you talk to Kirk, you get a rare insight into the techno scene when it was still in nappies; and when you lend an ear to his current long player, it's easy to appreciate how much the Detroit sound has matured (and mutated) in less than a decade. Looking around the country now, you can scarcely conceive of a dance music landscape that's not littered with over‑crowded shanty towns of tiny independent labels, extreme fragmentation and a tired and jaundiced core of die‑hards clinging to the pure and minimal. It's easy to forget now, but techno was at one time new, radical and exciting. Over to Kirk for more on those days...

"I moved to London from my home town of Ipswich to go to college and I landed a part time job in Reckless Records, Soho, which is or was one of the best sources of second‑hand records, especially at that time. The store sent a couple of us record‑buying in the States in 1990; so we were in Chicago and Detroit soon after the boom of house music. We bought some rare stuff on labels like Trax and Transmat. I had actually already met Derrick May when he was touring the UK with Inner City, and he gave me his address in Detroit. So we went there and we met up with the original pioneers of techno; they were really good to us and we stayed with them for a while. When we went back to Chicago we stumbled on this warehouse, Barney's Warehouse, which was a huge distribution outlet. We ended up buying about 700 12‑inches! They had all the original Electroplex catalogues; it was an amazing place."

Pilgrim's Progress

White from wrong: Kirk bought and sold an Oberheim OB8 before settling on this 4‑Voice.White from wrong: Kirk bought and sold an Oberheim OB8 before settling on this 4‑Voice.

It was this pilgrimage that proved cathartic for Kirk the producer as well as Kirk the DJ.

"The only previous studio experience I had was with Black Dog. Those guys were from Ipswich as well and used to be a breakdance crew when I was DJing up there. They asked me to come up to their studio and contribute some ideas. Even though they had quite a minimal setup, I was totally fazed, it was like a different world. When I went to Detroit, I expected to see some amazing studios — but they had the same sort of setups, maybe even more basic in fact. That's what did it for me. As soon as I got home, I sold all my records, collected maybe two or three thousand quid together, and bought my first equipment. That was in 1991.

"It helped that we got on so well with the Detroit guys, because that was the sound that we preferred, rather than the European techno sound. What helped even more was that Derrick May left a load of equipment in the UK when he was on tour with Inner City — he just couldn't be bothered to take it back with him. So I actually borrowed his [Yamaha] DX100 and a Kawai K3 that he had. My friend and I shared that equipment when we first started. It had all of Derrick's patches in the DX100, including that over‑used bass sound and other stuff you'd recognise."

This kind of head start is enough to make all those who've spent weeks trying desperately to get an approximation of the Is What It Is and Nude Photo bass lines weep in agony, but as Kirk explains, he wasn't really in a position to appreciate it at the time, having only the most basic understanding of what gear produced what kind of sound:

"My initial setup was pretty minimal. I bought an Akai S950, and given that my only first‑hand experience with gear was of a [Roland] TR808, it took me a good three or four months to get my head around it. I bought a Roland D5, which was terrible. I just used it as a MIDI controller; I couldn't find any sounds that I liked on it at all. I got a Fostex 8‑channel mixer, which had mute switches, and that played quite a significant part in my early stuff. Then I had a [Oberheim] Matrix 1000, which was by far the best thing that I owned. I immediately noticed that the sounds I got from that were different from the other gear. That was when I began learning about the differences between analogue and digital."

Soul Trader

A rare glimpse of the Moog parametric EQ, along with the Mutator filter bank, Tascam DA30 DAT and Footprint power amp.A rare glimpse of the Moog parametric EQ, along with the Mutator filter bank, Tascam DA30 DAT and Footprint power amp.

"From a very early age I was into soul music. I grew up listening to bands like Earth Wind and Fire, and that heavily influenced the type of sound that I wanted in my own recordings. I think George Massenburg was the engineer for some of those recordings, and I was thinking, 'oh God, it's going to take forever, and I'll need heaps of money to get that quality of sound'. On the other hand, almost the whole point of techno for many producers at that time was getting a lo‑fi bedroom sound, but personally, I wasn't happy with the usual home studio compromises from a very early stage.

"The first restrictions came from the sequencing side. I started out on an Atari with C‑Lab Creator. Creator made you think in loops and I found it hard to break out of that mentality. I think I made a mistake here; I bought Creator because everybody else told me to buy [Steinberg] Cubase and I wanted to be different. Other than what I borrowed from Derrick, I swapped some records worth about 25 quid for a broken [Roland] TB303. The only thing wrong with the 303 was the envelope, which I suppose is quite serious, but I could still get a basic sound out of it. I used that, sampled it and reversed it on my very first release, which was on B12 Records, in 1992. Then Grant [Wilson‑Claridge] from Rephlex Records, Aphex Twin's label, was really desperate for a 303 so I lent it to him, and I haven't seen it since. I think he probably sprayed it gold and said Aphex made it or something!

"Obviously, my equipment tends to grow every time I have a successful album; it's the only way most people get along. My first release got me a little bit of money, so I bought a bit more kit. My music was Detroit‑orientated, but I had wanted to use breaks as well, although at the time, I didn't even have a drum machine; I used to borrow other people's drum machines to sample. So I went ahead and bought the TR808 and had it MIDI‑retrofitted. My basic setup for the following year was mainly the DX100 — as a master keyboard, of all things; it's not even touch‑sensitive! — with the Matrix 1000, my old mixer, sampled drum sounds, and the 808. That's the basis of my gear from which I did all my early material on my own label.

"From the success of the first ART release and the subsequent Philosophy of Sound Machine compilation I was able to ditch the Fostex and buy a Mackie 1604, which was a great improvement, but still wasn't anywhere near what I was after; and I made the switch from an Atari to a Mac, running Opcode Vision via the Studio 3 MIDI interface. About that time I bought my first major bit of analogue kit. I really loved the Oberheim sound of the Matrix 1000, but was frustrated by the lack of editing possibilities, so I saved up a lot of money and bought an OB8. I was disappointed, I have to say. It only featured on a couple of tracks before I sold it on. I found the OB8 sound very '80s, which I guess was no surprise, as it was made then, but because of the Matrix 1000 I had thought that it would be exactly what I was after. I have since found out that in the '80s Oberheims were mainly used in rock music, — Prince, Van Halen, stuff like that. The Oberheim I wanted, which I've now got, is the 4‑Voice. So that was another learning experience.

OBI Gone

Kirk's Minimoog, bought from an amazing ad which read simply, "Minimoog, boxed with manuals, hardly used". Lucky sod...Kirk's Minimoog, bought from an amazing ad which read simply, "Minimoog, boxed with manuals, hardly used". Lucky sod...

"After about three or four months I traded in the OB8 for a Kurzweil K2000. I realised that I was going to need a decent MIDI workstation first and foremost before I got into buying the old stuff. I also needed a decent master keyboard with some solid sounds. The Kurzweil was a total surprise; I was really impressed with how different it seemed. I used it a lot, and only recently sold it. The second As One album was mostly the K2000 and the Matrix 1000, and my setup stayed that way for some time.

"Around 1993, the scene changed and the original Detroit feel got lost, leaving mostly European‑influenced ambient techno. That was quite a barren period for me. I was trying to experiment with breaks and people didn't really want to know at the time. Thank God for drum & bass, because that revitalised interest in breakbeat, and interest in my music. At the time, though, it seemed like the music from hell! I didn't like any of the early rave stuff, and even today I don't like the majority of drum & bass. Most of it's too fast, and it sounds sped up and gimmicky. I picked up on a couple of artists though; one of them was [fellow eclectic techno artist] Photek, and coincidentally enough he was from Ipswich, or at least he was living there at the time. I was also back in Ipswich for a while in '95, so I got in touch with him, and we bounced a lot of ideas off each other. I saw the way he worked on Cubase, and his Roland S700 series sampler. It was from that experience that I switched to Cubase myself. Soon after that I did a few demos and got signed to R&S Records, and for the first time I was given a decent budget to work with — so the first thing I bought was a Waldorf Wave!

"After the OB8 fiasco I did my research before buying the Wave. I knew I didn't want loads of equipment, but I did still want a MIDI instrument, and I didn't want to go down the clichéd analogue route. So I thought the Wave would be the perfect hybrid, and that's exactly what it is. Saying that, if you talk to someone who has spent £6,000 on a synth, they're obviously going to defend it, even if it's a pile of crap — but I honestly think it's an amazing synth, if a bit unfinished. Waldorf have been pretty astute: instead of risking their whole company on the one flagship, they've left the Wave alone for a couple of years and built up the range from the bottom, with the Microwave and the Pulse, which is also a fantastic synth. I'm a subscriber to the Waldorf forum on the net, and they have promised a completely new Wave operating system early this year. It's just as well; people are running out of patience a bit. There are a lot of Wave owners out there whose synths aren't working properly, even to some sort of acceptable standard. I've never really had a problem with mine — my LEDs occasionally don't extinguish and light up properly, but there's been no sound malfunction. I think I've been lucky, because most of the Wave owners I've spoken to tell a different story. I know R&S have a Wave in their studio, and it's just propping open a door! It's a crying shame when you think of all the money they paid for it."

Personally, I wasn't happy with the usual home studio compromises from a very early stage.

Keys To Success

AS ONE (KIRK DEGIORGIO): Adidas Ads, Folklore & Blue Note Jazz

Kirk's next significant purchase was a Digidesign Pro Tools system. With the freedom offered by hard disk recording, he is able to get the most out of the performance aspects of the vintage analogue keyboards, unfettered by sampling time. A Minimoog, ARP Odyssey, Fender Rhodes, Solina string synth and Oberheim 4‑Voice, make for a desirable collection of classics.

"For the analogue bits that I've got, Pro Tools has really come into its own, because these analogue synths are all about playing live. But if I do have a repetitive line, I will sample it, and there's only one sampler that I'd use to do that — the Emu E4. It retains more of the bottom end of the analogue gear. The only thing that it won't preserve is the Minimoog's bottom end, which is a shame, because it's got to be my favourite bass sound ever. So I've compensated for that by getting hold of an old Moog parametric EQ, which is incredible. The bottom end I lose from sampling the Mini is brought right back by the parametric EQ, and ends up 10 times more powerful; it's phenomenal. I have to give Carl Craig credit for that one, because he put me on to that piece of gear. He said that if you're ever sampling analogue synths you've got to find one of these things. He's been after one for years, but never found it — and I found one immediately, in lovely condition!

"Going back to the E4, it's by far and away the best sampler I've ever used; again, not just because I've spent five grand on it. By comparison, I think Roland's samplers are very accurate, but they don't add anything, while the E4 adds a bit of punch, particularly to the drum samples. My drum programming involves the standard drum & bass method of sampling and chopping it up, so it can take a while to get the right attack and feel to those individual edits. I find the process helped by the E4. I doubt whether I could live without it now."

Herb'Ll Remedy

AS ONE (KIRK DEGIORGIO): Adidas Ads, Folklore & Blue Note Jazz

Most people, when they think of techno's early ancestors, immediately quote Kraftwerk, and then maybe the early electro and new wave progenitors. Kirk, however, looks to Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and Tonto's Expanding Head Band. If, like me, you were given a few moments to explore the sounds of Kirk's almighty collection of Blue Note 12‑inches, you'd probably find yourself a disciple of some of these past artists as well. He sticks on one example of Herbie Hancock going solo on an ARP 2600 and ARP analogue sequencer (with Minimoog and Rhodes overdubs); if more people had only known about this, it surely would have been bastardised with a 4/4 909 Hard Kick years ago. Kirk is packing shelves of other stuff like this, which all helps to explain his musical direction and the transportation that's taking him there.

"It seems that the marriage of electronics and jazz stopped years ago, when Herbie stopped experimenting. It would be nice to pick up the baton, as it were, and carry on. Obviously, you're never going to find a keyboard player with Herbie's touch, but the techniques and the attitude of experimentation might carry on."

Baton Change

Kirk has spent years getting to the point where he feels worthy to pick up that baton. Years of combing through sleeve notes and pictures to find the equipment responsible for the sound, years of research and seeking advice, years of acquiring his own production skills and years of equipping his studio with the necessary kit. It's a story of relentless progress, but it's peculiar to find a producer forging ahead with such purpose while keeping one foot so firmly embedded in the production values of the past. If there's a lesson here, it's got to be that progress is an intensely personal journey — there's no hard and fast rule to artistic satisfaction, other than the pursuit of new challenges. Kirk's comrade‑in‑arms Carl Craig is a case in point. Being a leading proponent of the early Detroit DIY techno ethic, he's moved onto glossier production values and even 'real' musicians. "Carl's Songs of Revolution was really well received, but his next LP, Landcruising, took some stick from the critics," recollects Kirk. "I think that was really harsh, because production‑wise that was an amazing album. The criticism did smack a little bit of the media saying, 'Carl Craig should stick to doing underground techno, and shouldn't worry about this production lark.' People wanted him to continue making badly produced techno classics, and that's not what he wanted. When I discussed this point with him his words were, 'I don't want to be using a Mackie for the rest of my life', you know what I mean?

For me, the most telling anecdote that epitomises the individuality of progress came from Kirk himself, regarding his mentor, and music electronics pioneer, Herbie Hancock. "I read an interview with Herbie in an American magazine. He was asked something like, 'of all the hi‑tech gear you've used in your entire career, what was your favourite?' Do you know what his answer was? The [Emu] Proteus! Here's a man who is famed for his Minimoog and Odyssey solos, who's had a huge Moog modular system under his control, and he tells us that the Proteus is his favourite synth. The Proteus ... can you believe it?"

Incidentally, the much anticipated arrival of the Doepfer monster modular never happened. Dangnabbit. It didn't arrive... can you believe it?

Select Gear

  • Moog Minimoog: "I picked up the Minimoog from an ad in Loot. It said 'original box, hardly used' — I couldn't believe it. This guy had formed a band in the late '70s, but then the band had split up and he had had it in his loft ever since, virtually unused!"
  • Moog parametric EQ
  • Moog 1084 mixer (serial #1!)
  • Moog drum controller
  • ARP Odyssey
  • ARP Pro Solus
  • ARP Little Brother expander
  • Waldorf Wave
  • Waldorf Pulse: "For people who want a Minimoog but can't afford or find one, I'd recommend the Pulse. It's a well designed piece of kit, and it's so cheap for what you get."
  • Oberheim 4‑Voice: "This was apparently owned by Billy Curry of Ultravox. It's third‑hand now, but the guy I bought it from in auction said it was played on Vienna. Lovely to look at; a bastard to tune."
  • Solina string synth
  • Fender Rhodes
  • Emu E4 sampler
  • Mutronics Mutator filter bank
  • Latronic Notron Sequence.
  • Yamaha ProMix 01
  • Yamaha SPX990 multi‑effects
  • Spirit Absolute Zero monitors
  • Spirit Absolute 2 monitors
  • Apple Mac running Steinberg Cubase and Digidesign Pro Tools
  • Doepfer modular synth: arrived two hours too late for the author to get his mits on it.</div>

The Planetary Folklore Album

"It was quite important to get this record on a label that would understand what I wanted to do. I talked to James Lavelle of Mowax, and didn't have to explain anything to him: the fact that I wanted the CD packaged like a vinyl 12‑inch, or why I wanted sleeve notes and the '60s op art design. He understood straight away, and let me get on with it."

Anything To AD?

If you haven't caught up with Kirk in his early ART guises or in his As One alter ego then you're sure to have heard his handiwork on the TV. Kirk and his production partner Rohan Young have been responsible for the soundtrack to Adidas' Prince Naseem advertisement, amongst others.

"The first one I did was for Adidas, for Euro 96. It didn't come to the UK in the end; it went to the rest of the world, but not here for some reason. Landing that gig was pure pot luck. Adidas were running out of time to get some music together, and it turned out that the engineer was a fan of my music. He played a track of mine to the suits and they went for it. They wanted permission to use it that evening — they phoned me at midnight!

"I know a lot of people send demos to ad agencies. I don't want to dishearten people, but that's not really the way into it, it's just one of those things where if they want you, they'll come looking for you. I consider myself very fortunate to have got that gig. Since then, I've done the Naseem ad for Adidas, two Fanta ads, and others for for the likes of Michelin and Microsoft.

"Fortunately, we're now established enough to charge demo fees, because I can tell you it's not a laugh spending a couple of weeks doing a demo for no return, and finding they've completely re‑cut the picture anyway. I think the most important thing is being handed a good brief, or knowing when to ignore the brief and go for something you know is right for the ad. It's a dangerous game to play, because the ad men want to take the credit for the entire concept. It's all about serious psychology and diplomacy. You can't be precious about your music either. I'm really careful about my own material that I do for recording purposes, but for adverts you'd be a fool to start saying, 'I'm not going to do that cheesy line'. That's what you're there for; you're doing a job for someone. If you're professional about the work, it can be a good laugh, but it can also be frustrating when you get people who give you the most ridiculous brief. There was one time when they said to us: 'we want an authentic Cuban track, but like, with Metallica over the top'. 'Erm... right, OK'. We actually hired a Venezualan percussionist — you couldn't get more authentic than him. He studied about 140 West African rhythms and played a perfect Afro‑Cuban line for us. When they heard the demo, they said, 'oh no, we wanted something techno‑sounding, but like Metallica... and can you do some Indian chanting over the top'! Oh god. Half the time they're the ones struggling for ideas, and they're hoping you're going to spark it off."

Surely, though, I wondered, the material benefits must outweigh the disadvantages — that is, it must pay well? Kirk:

"It can do. If I compare it to some other industries, yeah, it's very lucrative. But it all depends on what territories the ad goes to. If you get a worldwide one, it's great. The Naseem ad was pretty high‑profile, but probably the highest profile ad must be Aphex Twin's Pirelli effort. He made it common knowledge in the music press that he got a hundred thousand quid for that — which is great for us, because we just had to quote that to up our fees! But that £100,000 figure is pretty unrealistic. We've been paid really well, but a lot of the stuff we now do is through a company that takes its cut — which is fair enough, as they get the contact in the first place. Also, I work with Rohan which splits the money again, so really, I'm getting 25 percent.

"After the fees, you're looking at PRS royalties every time the ad is played, although if you do an overseas ad, you probably won't see any performance royalties for at least 18 months. Everything is registered with the equivalent royalty societies in overseas countries, apparently, so I'm sure I'll be paid what I'm due ... eventually."

I asked Kirk to talk through the creation of the Prince Naseem ad, the one that was really responsible for putting him in the commanding position he enjoys today.

"At that time, I had a (Kurzweil) K2000, so I took that and a few other bits and pieces to Scramble Studios in London. The audio quality had to be spotless, so we were using all their top‑of‑the‑range gear: a Lexicon 480L reverb, Eventide Ultraharmoniser, and an AMS digital delay — I'd kill for one of those. We patched it all into their AMS Neve Logic console. We were lucky because the director, Stewart Douglas, is quite young and is into music as well. He sat with us, and initially we were thinking, 'we don't want the ad people around', but he was great. He gave us a good brief, didn't interfere and we just went to work. We worked on it solidly for two weeks, and in the end I think we matched the mood of Naseem and the surroundings, the menace and his arrogance as well, with a straight‑ahead techno track. It's pretty much a 4/4 track with a bubbly 303‑ish line from the (Waldorf) Pulse, a menacing bass line, and some nice wah‑wah guitar. There's loads of filtered and backwards drums as well. It was one of the most enjoyable things I've worked on."

Carl Craig — Band For Good?

Carl Craig has raised (and furrowed) a few eyebrows with his new direction, which sees him teaming up with a number of musicians, combining the sounds of jazz with the urban techno flavours of the Motor City. Anyone who caught his live set at Tribal Gathering last year had an opinion; I wondered what Kirk had to say.

"I wasn't actually there, but I've heard so many different reports. I've heard people say that they loved it, and others say they didn't like it at all; it's great when people don't know how to react! The word from Carl himself is that he knows what he wants to achieve, and he's very excited about using these musicians [a double bassist, percussionist, and so on]. One observation he did make was that he's had problems with engineers miking the musicians up properly and that some of the tunes that didn't come through so well; they were let down a bit technically.

"Carl is interesting because he's coming from the opposite standpoint to me. He's a black American musician who grew up with European music; he loves bands like Depeche Mode. It's weird that he's applying electronics with jazz musicians in this way — it's going to come out completely different to what I'm doing. I think his is a more pure electronics approach. He's working on the Innerzone Orchestra album now, I imagine with the musicians he had at Tribal Gathering. Knowing Carl, he'll take the concept a lot further. I can't wait for that."

ART Beat

With Kirk's latest release coming out on another label, Mowax, what of the future of his own oufit, Op ART?

"I haven't had much time, especially this year, to put much energy into the label. I'm really struggling to find material I want to put out. My label has never been prolific; three or four releases in a year is the most we've ever done. I've got this grand motto that I only release records to make history, because in the past the releases, without wanting to sound too grandiose, have sort of done that. The first one was Black Dog and myself, the second was Aphex Twin, and the third one was Carl Craig's first independent release in the UK. Then I was the first person to back Steve 'Stassis', who is still an incredibly under‑rated producer. Since then I've released stuff with Autocreation, Fourth Wave and others. I tend to just pick and choose; I don't put material out just to make the label survive. Thus far, it's managed to survive on its prestige, and that's quite a rare achievement."