You are here

Will Mowat: Soul Music

Interview | Artist By Richard Buskin
Published January 1994

Will Mowat's career to date looks like a musician's dream come true. A routine programming assignment turned into full membership of Soul II Soul; now he's working with Godfather of Soul James Brown and producing a new album for rising African star Angelique Kidjo. Richard Buskin talks to Will about his approach.

After joining a band as a keyboard player in 1977, Will Mowat's next experience in the music business came when he was recruited by Chase Musicians, a major importer of synthesizers during the early‑'80s — best remembered for its heavily discounted prices. Next came a stint managing Aosis Studios, which happened to coincide with a programming assignment for U2. After a spell of sporadic session work, he embarked on a joint enterprise producing jingles which in turn led to further programming and sequencing assignments, session work with the likes of Living In A Box, D‑Mob and Dusty Springfield, and, by 1991, an approach from Soul II Soul's Jazzie B to contribute to his outfit's next album, Just Right. Against all expectations, within three weeks Mowat also found himself writing material with Jazzie, since when he has become a stable part of the lineup, enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the 'Godfather of Soul' James Brown, and, most recently, completed his own first production project, Paris‑based Angélique Kidjo's Ayé album for Island Records. Mowat produced and played on five of her tracks, recorded at Harry Son in Paris, as well as Soul II Soul, Master Rock and Britannia Row in London.

How did your programming work with U2 come about prior to the Unforgettable Fire tour?

"They had approached the Rock Shop for an Oberheim programmer — in those days you were a Prophet programmer, an Oberheim programmer, ARP or whatever. I liked Oberheims and ARPs from my days at Chase so the Rock Shop got onto me and I was coerced into flying to Dublin. This was in the autumn of '84, just when MIDI was coming in and I really knew bugger‑all about it. So I read the manuals on the plane over to Dublin, and then when I arrived at U2's place it was a case of — without having previously heard the music — transferring the same sounds which Brian Eno had produced on the Fairlight over onto the Oberheims for Edge to trigger. After that they did their first warm‑up concert at The Academy in Brixton, and I went along to fine‑tune a few things.

"That was my first true programming session, and it made me realise just how much power you can wield as a technology guru. Of course, if artists genned up just a bit more about their gear then they could do everything themselves, and that's largely what's happened now."

Technology VS. Music?

As an artist, writer and producer, how important is the available technology to you as part of the overall creative process?

"Well, what comes first is the idea. That spark which sets the whole thing on its way. Technology — hardware and software — is just one piece of the puzzle. For some people it's a fairly large piece of the puzzle and for others it's a tiny, tiny piece. The healthy way, the right way, is to have the idea first and then set about discovering what you need to bring this idea to fruition."

In your case, however, considering the kind of work you've generally been involved with throughout your career, is technology not a large part of the puzzle?

"For me, the creative process is down to chemical reaction between people, as well as that sort of instant reaction when my hands are on a keyboard; I hear a chord and that sets me off. I'm not a purist, but I don't submit myself to the studio and then allow the studio to dictate how the material should develop."

In many cases today the creative process appears to have less to do with machine‑aided composites than with melodic inspiration, and there's a heavy emphasis on perfection.

"Well, I think melody is still around but it's on a back‑burner at the moment, because the commercial market wants rhythm. But I think you're right — technology has pushed us into making perfection a sort of religious cult. I'm probably as guilty of this as other people, and it's got to a point now where you deliberately try to put the rough edges in and keep them in. You don't need to use technology if you don't want to, provided that you've got the budget. That's the crunch; having the budget to do what you want. I've always wanted to use a real drummer, a real bass player, real strings and so on, but they're horrendously expensive to hire in. If you've got a home studio, you're the only musician, and if you want to make some nice music, you have to use technology — and you have to buy very wisely. That is why things like the SY77 and M1 get mentioned so often; people want to see them as workstations, able to do a lot of things. The less money you have to spend, the more important the technology is to you.

With an extensive [£100,000] budget for the Angélique Kidjo album, did this rule apply?

"For me, yes. The first inclination of both label and artist was to go with technology — with a drum machine in particular — to give it that tight, computer‑driven flavour. I wanted to try something else so I said, 'Look, on my leg of this album I'm going to use a real drummer.' That's what we did, but then, of course, I took the best bits of that real drummer's [Andy Gangadeen] performance, sequenced them up and added the keyboard parts! So we chose a sort of middle road between technology and free style, providing this feeling that it's not being sequenced while having the advantage of it being very tight."

Did you not feel that any drummer could play that tightly?

"No, it wasn't that. When we went in the studio with Andy, we had already decided that we were going to sequence.If we had gone in with the intention of having a really tight, but steam‑driven rhythm track, we'd have spent much more time doing drop‑ins. Also, I've yet to come across anyone who can drum so tightly that you can get him to play to a click track, before you add another loop on top, sequence the keyboards and so on. Modern listeners' ears have been trained to hear milliseconds, simply by virtue of the fact that most of the tracks released today are sequenced.

"We wanted Ayé to be a techno album, as well as being very melodic and musical. We wanted the groove to be there and we wanted the dance element to be there, and you can't really have technology — if technology means music that sounds like it's been made by computers — sitting on top of a steam‑powered drummer.

"As a new producer, I am learning that the decisions you make at the beginning of a production can have many ramifications. For instance, on the Angélique Kidjo album I made a number of key decisions very rapidly one after the other; the general direction, the feel, the personnel, the recording medium and, less importantly, where it should take place. By going 48‑track digital on half‑inch it certainly meant that I had this wonderfully compact medium, very clean and quiet, and her voice could really stand out with no hiss, as could all the keyboard and synthesizer stuff. But that snap decision had number of down sides, one being that we had to make clones of the recording when we travelled between Paris and London, and each time it cost £400 to make duplicates. At the same time, some of the studios that we used didn't have 48‑tracks and I wasn't prepared to hire in a machine, so we used two 24‑tracks with Dolby SR. The result was a lot of mechanical to‑ing and fro‑ing which we had to do, dumping stuff across in sync using a Lynx synchroniser, checking the integrity of the product to make sure that it looped properly, and because it was on 48‑track I couldn't simply pop into a cheap little studio and try out all of my keyboard ideas. Instead, I had to do all my keyboard work in 48‑track studios. Thinking about it now I should have perhaps done the project on two 24‑tracks with Dolby SR, enabling me to do a dump onto a slave reel.

"Then there was my decision to use a real drummer. I was absolutely definite about that and so was everyone else. We wanted to try for an underlying James Brown‑type groove, and it came out incredibly well, but there's a definite conceptual difference between using a real drummer and a machine — and it has massive ramifications from an artist's point of view. After all, when you're producing something you are virtually dictating the direction of that artist for the next two years or so. He or she has to live with your work, the video guy cuts to your music, all of the publicity shots, everything, is done to the music that you've produced, so you have an incredible amount of responsibility."

Real Strings

Talking of real and synthesized brass, do you think you can successfully use synthesized brass, piano or strings with the intention of passing it off as the real thing?

"Not really, no, although it depends on how much things are being used. I mean, you can do brass stabs which sound just like the real thing, but you see, going back to what we were saying before, if I wanted real strings I would use real strings. We've had a session of ten string players in this room and what a beautiful, beautiful session that was. We'd written something out on the synthesizer using the sampler, we had our arranger in, and then the musicians came in and played — and it was fantastic. You just can't get away from that real sound. So, provided that you are able to choose between the real thing and the technology, it doesn't matter that technology hasn't got it right, because you can ring your fixer and get brass and string players in. Technology is a sound in its own right — that's the only way to treat synthesizers."

But I don't think everyone does that.

"I quite agree. Take your typical MOR‑type artist — easy‑listening stuff — who has record company money behind him, and who can use the London Symphony Orchestra if necessary, yet on his latest record you can hear that they've just gone out and got a synthesizer and a sampler producing this nasty synthesized background which really is so crass.

"It's not so bad in this country because, like it or not, we do come up with fairly good quality productions here, but listen to some of the European productions and it's an embarrassment! When I did the brass parts for the James Brown record, OK, I layered two brass sounds which I thought would sound as realistic as possible, but I never intended to pull the wool over anybody's ears. They weren't even intended to be heard by anyone, because they were intended as the guide for the real brass, but for a couple of the songs we left the original brass parts as they were, simply because the feel was right. Now, when you're talking about commercial music you can do that sort of thing, but there's certain other music where that really, really jars and you do need to use the real thing. Glenn Nightingale's larger‑than‑life guitar work on the Angélique Kidjo album is just irreplaceable, and the disadvantage of doing everything yourself is that you're giving everything in your music the same viewpoint. If you open it to all comers as I was able to do on the Angélique Kidjo production, you come up with a product which is larger than the sum of the parts. You can always judge a production by that criteria; does it sound more than what was put in?"

What, for you, are the most pleasing aspects of your work?

"In everything I do as a musician, I always try achieve that 'lump in my throat' feeling. I can be as cynical as I like, but there are things in almost every song which I want to be there, and that's even more so when you're a producer. I have a physical thing too: when I play a certain combination, when something is so right, I get a cracking sound in my right ear. Now, this may well be down to me tensing myself, but this only happens when I have a certain feeling, and so if I hear that cracking sound I know that I've hit it."

Do any specific examples come to mind?

"The James Brown track 'Moments', which is an incredibly long track with lyrics by Haitch, is basically a sermon, and in the background there's just some percussion, a pad, and then there's a brass line that comes in. Now, it doesn't come in as often as I originally wrote it, but it's the chemical reaction between this very intense talking and this driving pad — because I really love pads — and then the brass comes in towards the end, and it's really almost everything that I've ever wanted to do in a few notes.

"Again, on the Soul II Soul Just Right album, right at the end of 'Intelligence', over the fade, a pad comes in, and once again it gets me every time. I don't know any more than you do as to why a certain song has come out this way, but it has and I'm just glad that it's me doing it and not some other guy!"

"I think melody is still around but it's on a back‑burner at the moment, because the commercial market wants rhythm."

James Brown

In terms of your writing, how did you decide what would be best for the artist when working on James Brown's Universal James album?

"That was really like a dream. James Brown's always been a hero for Jazzie, and when Mr Brown — because that's what we called him...

...You had to call him 'Mr Brown'?

"Oh, yeah, always 'Mr Brown.' Even all of his entourage call him 'Mr Brown'. After reading some complimentary things which Jazzie had said about him in a book, Mr Brown contacted Jazzie and said that he would like to work with him, but due to other commitments we had to pass on that. So, when the next album came around, Mr Brown contacted Jazzie again and asked if we would like to write and produce a couple of tracks for it. 'Yes,' goes back the answer, so then Jazzie and I looked through our collection of ideas to see if anything would be suitable and, sure enough, there were two."

What 'collection of ideas' was this?

"Well, back in February of '91, soon after I had begun working with Soul II Soul, I spent a month at Jazzie's house knocking out loads and loads of 30‑second ideas with him. Basically, Jazzie would play me something, I would sample up a bar or two, and this would provide us with some basic ideas as to a bassline and chords, which I'd then lay down. That's how we first collaborated; we ended up with literally hundreds of ideas, and amazingly we still refer to them now."

So a couple of these were deemed suitable for Mr. Brown's album...

"Yes, and I fleshed them out in an afternoon. What we initially did was to go back to the early '70s, listening to some of the tracks with the idea of doing modern versions of them. So Jazzie just gave me a load of records and I listened to maybe two songs, but already I knew that here was a chance for me to not so much recreate what James Brown had been doing but rather to come up with something of my own.

"As I mentioned, we went back to a couple of our ideas from '91 — which were really nothing more than just a groove — and began to build on these. Haitch [of Soul II Soul] wrote the lyrics, and we got in Bazil Meade from the London Community Gospel Choir to voice those lyrics in a James Brown voice, which he did amazingly well. We then sent what we had done over to James Brown, they were accepted and they asked for one more. Then they came back and asked for another one and then they came back and asked for another two, and in the end Jazzie, Haitch and myself co‑wrote six songs for the album. It really was like a dream, because after the first two songs it was a case of,'Oh, look, he's asked for another song,' 'OK,' and a couple of hours later there it was..."

What was the process for doing that?

"Well, we already had an idea of how his voice sounded, we knew what Soul II Soul were about, and we felt that we wanted this one to be a bit more up‑tempo than the last ones. The way I often tend to work is to start with a drum sample, and then chords and then bass, so I did this and it triggered something in Jazzie's mind to go and look for some totally left‑field ideas on the records which we could incorporate. This in turn triggered Haitch to come up with a theme. The first brass lines that came into my head were all accepted, and in the end I had to score them for a brass section. From the germ of an idea, layers of other things were added until it became almost larger than life."

Where was it recorded?

"Everything was done here [at Soul II Soul], except the vocals, which were recorded at Bobby Brown's studio in Atlanta and at A&M in LA. Jazzy, Eugene [Ellis, Soul II Soul's engineer] and myself flew to Atlanta and recorded Mr Brown, then flew back to London and mixed the first three tracks here. For the next batch of three songs we flew off to LA to record him. He walked in the room with his lyrics — having practised to the demos we'd sent him — went behind the microphone, gave us about five versions of each song and left."

Did he suggest any alterations?

"He didn't touch the music and hardly touched the lyrics — he just put in a few different words that he thought suited him better — and then added all of the ad‑libs that make him great. However, I really got the impression that, because he had complimented us by asking to do our songs, we were his guests in a way and so he was being very, very nice to us, whereas I imagine that if we had been doing his songs it would have been a different ball game. The man's tough, he's a bed of nails — you can see that.

"Soon after, we were asked to support him on the German leg of his tour, which we did in December of '92. He looks great for his age, and every night he performed for two hours on stage. I remember in Frankfurt he walked off stage, saw me, called me over and he immediately started talking about the mix that we'd just done for the first single. He said that he wasn't going to go with the version that we'd done featuring real brass, but was going to go with my original synthesizer brass, because he felt that it somehow suited the song better. He said that that was what I had originally intended and the real brass dragged it down a bit. This was after two hours on stage and we hadn't discussed it for six months, and there he was talking to the right man — me — about the right thing."

Opinions On...

  • SEQUENCING: I'm still using Notator SL on the Atari Stacy — it has to be the fastest program to use; not as sexy as Notator Logic, but I baulk at the amount of pre‑programming that has to be done before an advanced program like Logic is configured so you can get the most benefit from it. Logic is fairly daunting with its folders within folders, three‑dimensions and MIDI environment; I wonder if such sophistication gets in the way between the musician's idea and its realisation. Having said that, Logic Audio on the Mac is the way I'll be going as soon as I've decided I can't live without the audio side — and as soon as Apple have decided what they're doing with the Power PC.
  • EFFECTS: I'm going through a 'dry up and compress' stage at the moment using less reverb and making the sounds more 'in your face'. I like what FM radio does to dance tracks by way of compression and I sometimes put 6dB of 'squash' over the mix to get an instant atmosphere going.
  • PRODUCTION: Take risks and experiment. Listen to anything done in the '70s to give you the courage to follow your instinct. If you want to pan the hi‑hat hard left and a tom fill hard right, that's fine so long as it doesn't sound too contrived or gimmicky. If you have a great song, you can get away with minimal production — the weaker the song, the harder the production has to huff and puff.
  • SYNTHS — LIKES: I've got a semi‑decent collection of analogue gear and I'm still waiting for a realistically priced ARP Omni 2 and a Mutron Bi‑Phase. I'm also waiting for the next generation of piano‑sample expanders — the next step on from the Emu Proformance.
  • SYNTHS — DISLIKES: Long black keyboards with LCD displays that claim to be workstations give me spots so I stay clear of them. And I found the Emu Vintage Keys a disappointment — I've asked Dave Bristow to convince me otherwise by coming up with some better sounds than the ones it comes with!

Equipment List


  • Atari computer with Notator software
  • Rhodes MK80 master keyboard: "This sends me 'round the twist. It's got a fantastic keyboard feel, but its Local Off mode switches off the front panel instead of simply disengaging the keyboard from the sound generating part. Obviously a software mistake which has never been corrected."
  • Akai S1100 sampler & Expander
  • DAC 6000 optical drive
  • Studio Electronics MIDI Moog
  • Studio Electronics OB rack [See our review of Studio Electronics' brand‑new analogue monosynth, the SE1, on pages 36‑40 in this issue]
  • Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth module
  • Korg M1R: "Great, so long as you know what it sounds like and don't use it too much!"
  • EMU Proformance piano: "For what it is, the best piano module; clean and easy."
  • Yamaha TX816 synth module: "Great for certain stuff. I used it a lot with Living In A Box, but I don't use it for Soul II Soul apart from sometimes maybe giving a harder edge to the bass."
  • Oberheim OB8 synth
  • Roland TR808 drum machine
  • Roland TR909 drum machine
  • Roland CR78 drum machine (all non‑MIDI Roland drum machines MIDI'd)
  • Event synchroniser
  • Russian Dragon:"A great box which gives you the difference between two clicks, enabling you to tell which one is fast and which one is slow. Hence the name Russian Dragon — it tells you if things are rushin' or draggin'!"
  • Roland Rack Vocoder: "A good example of using a bit of equipment just because it's there. The touch of genius is not to use it all the time, but to just bring it in here and there for a few seconds, so the listener thinks, 'What the hell is that?' and then wants to listen to the record again!' [See our article on Power Vocoding starting on page 80 in this issue]
  • Roland 48‑channel line mixer with patchbay: "This often enables me to be writing and programming the next session while the last one is being mixed."


  • Akai S1100 sampler
  • Atari computer with Emagic Notator software
  • 2 x Apple Macintosh computers
  • Novation keyboard
  • Yamaha TG100 synth module: "Something I hardly ever use. It's like peering through the wrong end of a telescope into a cathedral (or, in the case of the TG100, more like peering into a broom cupboard!)"
  • Roland Octapad percussion controller
  • The Holding keyboard controller: "I don't know who it was manufactured by in Japan, but it's never seen the light of day. A case of 'Great idea, guys, but...'"

Looking for:

  • Roland MKS80 synth module with programmer: "You can get any number of MKS80s, but there aren't many programmers about!"