It's quite surprising how hard it is to find information on someone who has worked with so many top artists. How have you managed to stay elusive in this industry?
Hm... I think this is a question for my shrink, if I had one. I guess it's a combination of 25+ years of career mismanagement mixed with zero talent for self-promotion. It’s definitely not something I did on purpose. I’m usually locked in my room doing music, and right now I don’t have a manager. I’ve had many over the years, but for now I’m self managing. I’m sure you could find my Facebook page pretty easily.
You've been quoted as stating that you can’t remember a time when music wasn’t part of growing up. When did you know you wanted to be a musician, and how did you transition from traditional instruments to synths?
My father was a musician so I was always around music. When I was five he said, "Pick an instrument to study," and I chose drums. He said, "That's not an instrument… piano or violin?" I picked violin, which was a poor choice, and ended up switching to piano around 13, but I was always a student of pop records. If I wasn’t going to make classical music, I wanted to make pop music and potentially reach a broader audience. I spent my days listening to and studying pop records. My father was also into experimental electronic music and even used to make computer music pieces on punch cards! We built some PAiA synth kits together (that occasionally worked) and he eventually bought a 4 track TEAC tape recorder and an ARP 2600, which I still have. I was very fortunate to have those tools to play with as a kid.
You’re constantly cited for your programming and use of synths, with most people talking about how you helped define the synth-based sound that R&B and pop music took on in the 80s. Why do you think your sound became influential?
To some extent I think a lot of us came up at a time when those instruments were becoming available… we were the first generation to really be able to exploit heavily programmed music. It was also an interesting time when European electronic music and American R&B were influencing each other. Having said that, we did have to jump through an awful lot of hoops to get those boxes to do what we wanted them to do. I had a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer, which I think was the first MIDI sequencer. I step sequenced everything because the quantization was horrendous. Before sequencers, I would record at half speed (playing an octave lower) to get it to sound inhuman and mechanical. We'd record at 15 ips and play back at 30 ips. Needless to say, we wasted A LOT of studio time.
How do you incorporate iZotope products into your process?
I’ve had Ozone since version 2 and use it mostly for the limiter. It’s one of my main plug-ins that I use to finalize the mix on the stereo bus. Alloy I use as a standard channel strip for dynamics and EQ. I really like the Exciter distortion channel too but stick to the limiter in Ozone. I really love the FFT waveform option in it. It’s a real visual help.
How did you get hooked into playing with Scritti Politti?
My first record was a dance/electronic cover of The Archies' song "Sugar, Sugar" which was released on Rough Trade records. Scritti Politti, which existed before my involvement, also made records on Rough Trade. Geoff Travis who ran Rough Trade hooked Green [Green Gartside] and I up to try collaborating, and we just clicked.
When you entered Scritti Politti, your work with synths strongly influenced the group, but how did working with Scritti Politti change your sound?
Well… we suddenly had a budget and were working with all the best musicians, in the best studios, with the best engineers. It was amazing. Green was pretty great about allowing experimentation in the studio, and since he was the one with the checkbook, he was running the sessions. If you could come up with some Rube Goldbergian way to record something, which I usually could, he was game. Those records were basically recording school for us. We got to play with all sorts of ways of doing things, at great expense I might add. Those records took a very long time to make.
There are some internet rumors that a new Scritti Politti compilation is due later in 2010, which will include some new tracks you’ve co-written. What can you tell us about that project?
That’s basically it…. there's a Best Of compilation coming out and Green and I did a couple new tracks for it. I'm actually not sure of the release date though.
After Scritti, you went on to work as an independent producer as well as a staff producer for Warner Brothers. How did you make that jump, and which position did you like better?
There are pros and cons to both. As an independent producer, you’re always worrying about the next gig, but you are also free to work on whatever project comes your way. When I worked at WB, it was on an exclusive basis so to some extent you take yourself out of the marketplace. I had some great opportunities while I was at WB though. I got to work with Meshell Ndegeocello on 2 records. I worked with Chaka Khan and I also worked with Roger [Troutman]. I'm not sure I would have had those same opportunities had I not been working there. The downside of staff producing is that you end up trying to fix projects that have some problems which no one has been able to figure out. From my experience, that never tends to work out well.
Talking about Troutman, how did you meet him and what lead you to work on his album Bridging the Gap?
I was a huge fan of Roger's work... and a big fan of early 80s R&B, in general. He appeared on the Scritti Politti album Provision as a guest so we had a history. I hooked back up with Roger to do a few songs when I was staff producing at WB records in the early 90s, but it was a bit of a strange time for him. It was between his early groundbreaking and very successful records, and his later re-emergence as a guest and as sample fodder for hip-hop records. I learned a huge amount from him about record making. He was a genius.
Were you involved in helping Troutman get those crazy vocalized synth sounds?
Hell no… that pre-dated me. I think "More Bounce to the Ounce" came out in 1980, which was the first hit he had with the talk box. All his talk box harmonies are built up one track at a time – like a vocalist. It was fascinating to see how he worked. I was so in love with what he did that he told me I made him believe in the talk box again.
Do you/Troutman have any tips for getting cool vocoder/talk box sounds?
Roger met a pretty tragic end a few years back… before the whole Auto Tune/vocoder craze took hold. He used a custom made talk box and I have never heard anyone do what he did with that thing. It was truly amazing. He was extremely careful not to overuse it though. He made sure it was surrounded by different vocal textures. For example, one line would be sung, then the next line might be sung and doubled with the talk box, then there might be a background vocal answer, then another with the talk box in harmony so that it didn't get too tiring. It's something I still think about when I'm working with modern tracks that use a lot of Auto Tune and vocoder effects.
The list of people you've worked with is impressive and varied, ranging from Chaka Khan to Ke$ha. What projects stick out when you look back at your career?
Honestly… I just love making music and I can enjoy writing with a talented unsigned artist as much as working with someone who's had a lot of successful records. The session we got to do with Miles Davis back in the Scritti days was pretty amazing though.
You have two cuts on Ke$ha’s latest album as a songwriter and producer as well as a cut on Adam Lambert’s album as a songwriter. What was it like working with artists who have a ton of buzz at the moment?
I actually met Ke$ha when she was an unsigned artist and I just knew she was a hugely talented singer/songwriter and wanted to work with her. We pretty much clicked musically from day one, and there was a long period when she was trying to get a deal and I could not understand why no one was signing her. It always seemed like a no brainer to me. The Adam Lambert tune was a song we wrote, that thankfully he liked and recorded on his album.
And finally… Dave Spiers of G-Force wanted us to ask you “Why are you so reluctant to appear in any videos?”
Haha! See question 1.
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