Dance-rockers the Sneaker Pimps have spent years in the studio together. For their next move, they're going to split up — virtually...
The Sneaker Pimps' new album Bloodsport is only their third, but they have seen enough of the music business to last most bands a lifetime. "We've been on just about every label you can imagine," says keyboard player and co-writer Liam Howe. "Even with this record, which we're putting out ourselves in the UK, you're involved with a handful of different record companies, and we're going through Tommy Boy in America and V2 in Europe. At this stage, there are more creative possibilities putting a record out yourself for a smallish market like the UK. Of course, we can't do it in the States because we don't live there and we don't have the resources, but to put a record out in this country isn't very difficult. It's a more creative way of controlling your interests. There's no-one to answer to and you can put out what you want."
"We have also done a lot of remix work over the last couple of years," adds fellow Pimp Dave Westlake. "On and off, we've taken turns with pop acts and Natalie Imbruglia and people like that, and also completely unknown people. It's been partly keeping us busy whilst we've been fighting with record labels, and partly to help us be self-sufficient so that we can do our own thing. It means that we can make our own choices."
Creative independence is clearly important to the Sneaker Pimps. Their debut album Becoming X saw them lumped in with trip-hop acts such as Portishead and Massive Attack, and met with much critical success. For their follow-up, Splinter, however, they parted company with the soulful female singer Kelli Dayton who had fronted the band, and guitarist Chris Corner took over vocal duties as they steered into darker musical waters. They've escaped further line-up changes in the making of Bloodsport, but the new album boasts more of a driving rock edge, albeit still undercut by some experimental production techniques and brutal sonic manipulation.
Although the band's sound and equipment base have evolved a lot, their approach to writing songs has remained constant. "We've always started with an instrument, be it the guitar or keyboard or whatever," insists Chris Corner. "I think we're really interested in the strong melodic core of the tune, and once we've got that, then we start playing around with sounds. We always try to get the song first."
"We have a sort of modular approach," adds Dave. "While Liam and Chris might be writing the songs there will always be ideas that are happening in the studio that aren't connected to the songs, just sound sets or 'pizza bases' as we call them. We're constantly chucking out ideas. If we're between albums as we are now, we'll just come in here and mess around and make sketches, and one day, one of the songs that's been written will get married to a set of sounds."
"I suppose we consider the two disciplines quite separate to start off with, almost," agrees Liam. "We keep changing the look and the line-up, but what stays the same in terms of the way we make the music is that there's three people who write it: me and Chris and our friend Ian, who has lyrical input. But we have to have songs which can exist outside of the studio, which are not to do with sounds. The real truth of music is tonal. The pleasure of modern music goes beyond the melodic and becomes percussive, I think. For me the actual tonal arrangement and melodic structure is where the real magic lies. And once you've got that, you kind of mash it through the synth mill and see what happens. Even if a song is inspired by a beat or something, it'll go back to the drawing board, and we'll ask 'OK, we have a set of lyrics and a melody. Does it stand up?'"
"I think generally the rhythmic area is dealt with next," continues Chris. "I would get my head into drums and bass lines and stuff, and then we'll thrash out some synth structures and sequences and samples."
"It's quite modular, we tend to swap positions, so there's no one beat expert or vocal arranger," adds Liam. "We tend towards jobs, but generally we can mix and match. If we get bored of one aspect, someone else jumps in the seat. Gone are the days where it's like 'You're the drummer, I'm the synth player...' If one of the four of us has been working on the drums, someone else will come in and work on the atmospheric points, or the vocal."
"Recently we've made more of a decision to stick with really rigid structures and to go back into dance structures again, which on the second album we were quite keen to avoid," says Dave. "On this album, we're a lot keener on metronomic-sounding rhythms and that disciplined tempo thing. It makes a statement as much as anything else does. The second album had a lot more live drums, but even when we use live drums, they're still put through the electronic mill quite a lot. Even on the most live-sounding things we've done a lot of chopping up. We always like things when they rest right on the edge between organic and mechanical, I suppose. To have the fluidity of tempo that you can have with live drums, but then to have something rigid interrupting it, is quite an exciting rhythmic tension, and we tend to do that quite a lot. It goes for all the organic instruments actually, we're always chopping up guitar parts."
"We aim for the area between pure electronic and pure rock or acoustic, organic music," agrees Liam. "It's the bit in the middle that's exciting, I think. An acoustic kit on its own isn't, but quite often a pure electro kit on its own isn't enough to throw you off in a different direction either. It's a combination of the two things, if you can get it right. It's a dangerous area, but when bands do get it right, that's what's exciting."
As well as producing their own records, the Sneaker Pimps team handle a lot of remix work under the name Line Of Flight. "Some jobs you do for the love of it, and others you do to pay the rent!" admits Liam Howe. "We wouldn't approach a job unless we thought we could do something to it, I think that's the most important thing as a remixer. You have to look at something in a light and go 'Well, OK, what are the positive elements of this track?' and then take those bits further. I think it's impossible to try to do a remix of something where there isn't a single element you're interested in. But depending on how your mind works, you can find interest in the most obscure things. It might be the squeaky bass drum pedal which is the exciting bit, and the vocal is awful."
"We try to keep the vocal more often than not, but we wouldn't do it as a hard and fast rule," says Dave Westlake. "I always like the kind of slightly brave things people like Aphex Twin would do with a remix, where they just take the piss with the original."
"We do have quite a melodic approach when we do remixes," continues Liam. "It's always good to challenge the melodic components of the track, even if you're underpinning the vocal with an entirely different musical score which is in a different key, or however it's modulated from the original. The challenge is to try and harness the vocal or transform it and then somehow make people listen and go 'How on earth did you make this track, while keeping the vocal?' I think that's the interest: to turn a happy song into one where people are going to burst into tears. Even though you've kept the same words and melody, it's the way you've contextualised them that creates a whole new being.
"The least creative aspect of remixing now is a dance tune being remixed by another dance act, you're just ticking off the genre boxes on the DJ pack — have we got a trance mix, have we got a deep house mix? You just tick them off and there you go, that keeps little dance shops going, which is fair enough, but it doesn't really light my fire."
As you might expect from a band with a background in dance music, the Sneaker Pimps' studio is well stocked with vintage analogue gear. However, they're moving away from a traditional setup with a MIDI sequencer triggering synths and samplers towards a system where vintage gear is simply recorded as audio into Logic to be sampled and manipulated, while virtual instruments are also playing a central role. Their main recording medium is a Digidesign Pro Tools system, with Emagic's Logic Audio running as a front end. "We use less and less MIDI," says Liam. "It's a shame to say it, but there was a time when we used MIDI and CV/gate to control the synths, and the problem with that is that it takes a whole day to make things work. You run out of inspiration before you even get the thing bleeping, which is a disaster. So the great thing about just doing little audio clips and dropping them into Pro Tools or whatever medium you're using, or even dropping them as REXes into Reason, is that it's just such a quick system, and you can keep your line of vision clear rather than getting bogged down by technology. I think everyone who's got even a small amount of gear can get lost — even with a laptop these days you can get distracted so easily with this plug-in and that plug-in.
"Recently, though, we've tended to do less audio recording and more virtual instruments and live automation, which has got to the stage now where it's so easy to do that you don't have to bust a blood vessel trying to do it. What we tend to do these days is get two programs like Logic, for the virtual instruments, and Reason for your beats and synths, and then sync them up on one computer. The two applications run happily together. That environment's really simple: you've got two applications running, you've got all the freedom of digital audio on Logic or Pro Tools, but we use Logic mainly because of the instruments. You've got all your virtual instruments, and then you have all the slightly more old-school mentality of Reason. Simplicity reigns on that program, and so you can bash something up in two or three hours."
When a number of different people are working on different projects simultaneously, you might expect that the advantages of total digital recall would also come to the fore. Surprisingly, however, this is not crucial to the Sneaker Pimps' way of working. "If you're anal, complete recall is great, but I think we're not too massively precious on that point," says Chris. "One day we'll get a different sound to another day, and that's fine, because that just reflects the mood you're in at the time. I'm quite happy about doing that."
"You don't necessarily want totall recall," insists Liam. "You want to be surprised by things when you switch them on — that's why we have a soft spot for old analogue gear. I think the biggest stumbling point with total digital recall is that it never works, especially if you're doing a whole session on Logic or two applications. The idea of taking that session to another computer and it coming up first time with all your plug-ins and all your sampler settings is great, but I've never had it happen once in all my computing years. We were saying the other day that because Logic is written by Germans, they expect you to be so neat and tidy with your files, that it's not a problem. Unlike Pro Tools it can be reading files from all over the place, and so when you take a session elsewhere, you wonder why it hasn't got the bass drum or whatever, and it turns out that was in a different folder. It's even worse now there's sampler instruments, which are two more folders you have to copy across manually, by hand, for a session."
"Our first album Becoming X was made on two Akai S900s, and that was it," states Liam Howe. "All you could ever sample was a minute for each track because we never used multitrack tape, it was always sequenced live from Cubase or Logic. The limitation was really good, it's a good discipline and a good lesson to go through. We've been making music since the dawn of time — the first synth I got was an SH101 in 1983 — and going through all the limitations teaches you what's good and bad. I wonder what it's like now to just turn up, and you've got 100 audio tracks and 50 virtual synths, anything you want.
"I'm not fussed about D-A and A-D converters. Quite often I find the crappier ones are more exciting, they sound better. Often the cheaper stuff sounds fresher and more exciting than the pro stuff. It's the same with 24-bit, I gave that up very quickly and went back to 16-bit, mainly because everyone can run a 16-bit session and not everyone will be able to run at 24-bit until domestic playback systems change, which I can't see happening. If anything, quality issues have regressed, and we're now playing MP3s, and most music is heard through little speakers on computers, so hi-fi is a thing of the past.
"The longer we work with stuff, the less interested we get in the real technicality of an instrument. You start to judge things by the sound alone, which is a difficult thing to do when you know that it's a cheap guitar. It's really important to go 'OK, it doesn't matter whether it's cheap, or pink, or whatever.' If you try and somehow put it out of your mind and concentrate purely on the sound of it. Quite often cheap things sound better than expensive things. I still prefer tiny amps; I think the distortion on little things is nicer. We have this little Zoom effects unit, and the best thing about it is that it has this little speaker in it. Just miking up the little speaker with an SM57 sounds bigger sometimes than a whole Marshall stack."
"We've also got a tiny little Marshall amp that we put the bass through," adds Chris Corner. "It's got a characteristic sound, it's got a tiny little reverb on it and it sounds lovely if you stick a nice sub-bass under that."
"We very often use the bass guitar, but not to hold the bass frequencies of the song," explains Dave Westlake. "We use the bass guitar for a kind of rugged sound, but we very often underpin it with synth basses. I think using the bass guitar as the bass part in a song can be a little limiting, sometimes, but we do like the sound of a good hard picked bass guitar with the top end cranked up."
Clearly, the Sneaker Pimps are moving with the times, and their medium-term plan involves a much more fundamental commitment to the software-based studio. "We got this studio in 1998, and we're not going to be here for that much longer," explains Liam. "We're going to be moving to separate little home setups, and collaborating using broadband and Rocket Networks. We feel that the world of having a studio has almost become outmoded. When I was a kid it was all I ever dreamed of, you'd see pictures of Peter Gabriel's studio and you'd think 'I'd love to have all that gear,' but with the way that virtual synthesis has developed, and Rocket, there's a new mentality. We've had a little play with Rocket and it seems cool. Everyone seems to be saying that Rocket is the future, but it's not quite time for it yet. I think in two years' time every studio will be using that style of system, whether it's Rocket or something else, as long as broadband is good enough to throw actual audio files around."
"We spent so much time together here in the studio and we were touring as well," adds Chris. "It was like we were never away from each other, so I think it's going to make it much more attractive to work together again. I think we have enough confidence separately, now that we've sort of learnt our trade, and we can go our own ways and have the confidence to do our own thing and then come together and show each other what we've got, and then combine that, as opposed to everyone having to be around throughout the process of formulating those ideas."
In a remote, networked system such as the Pimps are planning, there's a good argument that every band member should have the same setup for maximum compatibility; however, there's an equally good case for having different equipment to broaden the band's overall sonic palette. It sounds as though the Sneaker Pimps will be searching for an adequate compromise between the two extremes. "At the moment I've just got a couple of G4s and a couple of synths, but no mixing desk," says Liam. "I got rid of it in a slightly brave 'I don't need this any more!' move, and now I want the mixing desk back. I think that's just habit, and sometimes there's not a problem with having a habit. It's what you're used to, and it's a bit churlish not to use it if it's sitting in the corner."
"I think we'd each like to have different setups so that you have different things to bring to the table," elaborates Dave. "I want to be entirely 'soft'. I'm going to try to do everything I can simply within one computer, and have no outboard at all."
"I'm probably less 'soft'," says Chris. "I'll have a couple of mics and a small mixer, just to get some interesting recordings done, and then do it all in the laptop."
"I think we'll be too sentimental to get rid of a lot of the old analogue stuff," says Dave. "There's silly little machines that you cannot replicate with a plug-in, and you can't get any of the other machines to replicate, like the OSCar, which has a very specific sound to it, and this funny little Kawai synth we've got, which has the most distinctive sound."
Although most of the Sneaker Pimps' activities will be devolved to their separate setups, there will still be a central base where gear can be stored, and where the band can come together to mix in collaboration. "Ideally, if there were four or five bands who shared the same mentality, the best thing you'd have is a studio share," says Liam. "Say you have four bands, that's one week each a month. You'd have a big studio like this and you'd share it, because you don't need it every day. Probably about three-quarters of your time is spent creating things in a smaller environment, but there's no substitute for a decent studio for mixing. Even though we've done some new tunes entirely virtually, we've found that no matter how hard you try mixing it on a little pair of speakers and a pair of headphones, it's never going to sound brilliant. You have to shift lots of air in order to hear what it's going to sound like, especially if it's dance-orientated. For something which is going to be an important commercial release, I think it's important to look at the whole body at the end as a corpus, and then mix it with the same person in the same room on the same speakers, as a single run. For other projects which are a bit more experimental, or less commercial, it doesn't really matter, and sometimes the difference between the tracks can give added interest.
"With Becoming X, our first record, we recorded the vocals in a cupboard. That was all done in a bedroom. When we got this studio there was quite a shift sound-wise in the way we did things, because before we were in a tiny bedroom and we didn't have the choice. After that we had the choice, and you can hear it on Splinter — there's live drums, and we really got into the idea of recording things and experimenting acoustically with instruments. It was a fascinating thing to do, and then with Bloodsport we've gone back into the boxier, limited spectrum that Becoming X had, with less live performance and more programming. If you've done both, you can then choose, and most people aren't lucky enough to have their own studio.
"I think there are two processes which are distinct. There's the process of creation and experiment, which I find I do better when I'm on my own. It's a bit private sometimes — when you're testing something out it might sound shit, so you prefer to do it in a more private space. And then there's a more communal mixing process. So a tune goes through its genesis, which is a private matter, and then to the modulation of that idea and the input from others, and eventually you steer it into the kind of track you want. But that initial seed has to be, at some point, private. And that's where having you're own space is important."
"It's going to be ideal for us, because we aren't particularly interested in live recording," continues Dave. "I think we're finally coming round to admitting, after dabbling with it for a while and learning quite a lot about it, that we don't want to waste too much time thinking about different mics and techniques for a drum kit and stuff like that. It's just way too dry. We'd rather record something really badly and do what we can with it."
If there's a Sneaker Pimps recording ethic, it would seem, it's not so much 'fix it in the mix' as 'obliterate it in the mix'. It may not be classic recording technique, but it sounds like a lot of fun.