Sounds Talk In
Interview by Steve Peacock
Photographs by Barry Plummer
| In the short time since their first album was released Roxy Music
have achieved fame and acclaim beyond the wildest dreams of most bands. They
spent almost a year preparing themselves and getting the album together and did
very few gigs up until a couple of months ago. Since then they've been on the
road pretty continuously, and recorded their single "Virginia Plain" almost
between gigs. The result is a track that has much more obvious power than
tracks on the album and manages to throb with energy without losing the quirks
and subtleties that are hallmarks of their style.
Last week their tapes and synthesiser man, Eno, was playing with his devices in a Maida Vale flat and he talks - only halfjokingly - about their next project being to make the cheapest album ever: no tricks.
"WE'VE HAD this funny experience recently, we've been working at the BBC now and again doing 'Sounds of the Seventies" and what happens there is that go in, and you have about two hours to do five numbers, and we've found that they've really come out fantastically well. We've done things at the BBC in about 35 minutes that are better than things on the album that took two or three days, much better: one of the reasons for that is they're coarser, and they've got a fantastic amount of freshness about them, and you can hear people making mistakes. In a studio, if you make a mistake you automatically stop and start again, but at the BBC you don't really have that option, so if people make mistakes they work with that, which is a much more organic way of making music anyway: you get a beautiful development within the piece which may be very different front the original concept."
Has this development come out of doing live work a lot more, too?
"Partly yeah. Until quite recently, six weeks ago I suppose, we were sticking to a very rigid set, and one of the reasons for that was we couldn't ever hear what we were doing on stage - monitors are the biggest problem we've got and they're still the biggest problem we've got, because if you can't hear what everyone's playing then you have to stick to what you know is safe, you can't risk moving anywhere else bccause you don't know where you're going. It was like sticking to a recipe book, very closely. But in the last month or so we've had a much better monitor system and the set has started getting a lot different - it's a much better set now, more lively and in the last couple of weeks it's started getting really good. That's partly because we've had the audience behind us, which helps immensely if you go on stage knowing that people are going to recognise what you're going to do, it's easy to move away from it. If people know the framework moving away from it is much more acceptable. We've had some really nice audiences recently, especially up North, and they come with just the right amount of expectation about it - they know the numbers aren't going to be the same all the why through, most of them chop and change quite often, so the thing that used to happen doesn't any more, where people used to start dancing and then an oboe and piano bit would come, and they'd be left hanging over the edge.
You've been working fairly consistently the album came out?
"We have, yes, I suppose in most people's terms we've been working pretty hard - five nights a week and rehearsing - and the gigs haven't been that well planned, up North one night and somewhere in the South the next, so in terms of actual working time it's been about 16 hours a day. I think it's a strange business actually; being used to a much more relaxed form of life, to spend seven hours in a van, then 45 minutes playing, and then another seven hours getting back is so peculiar - the whole scale of it is so odd and so wrong in a way. There's ten people moving around, sometimes 11 or 12, half a ton of equipment; two cars, a big lorry, a total of 180 man hours possibly, all for this few minutes of music. There must be another way. One other way would be for all gigs to be like the Rainbow, with their own sound system, but that would require a kind of standardisation that most people wouldn't accept."
One of my main reservations about the album was that the band hadn't been out on the road enough to have developed that basic confidence that most bands who've played gigs for a few months have naturally. But judging by the single, that feel seems to be there now.
"I think that's true of the album, certainly, more so of some tracks than of others. Some of them can work without being ever presented live, because they're very personal sort of things anyway. But there are other things like "Remake/Remodel" that are completely live numbers really, and without seeing what kind of feedback you get from them it's difficult to know what to do with them. There are some tracks though that I really like and I think couldn't have been better, like "Ladytron" I think is very good and "Chance Meeting". But the main thing about being on the road, as I was saying, is being confident enough to make mistakes and live with them because in a sense you reach the stage where there's no such thing as making a mistake, all you do is take a new departure and decide to move in another direction. There are very few things I do now which I treat as mistakes - about the only thing now I count as that is forgetting to put tapes on at the right time. We change the order of numbers round quite a lot and I occasionally forget, but anything else is interesting, I think, and can be used. It's funny that it took so long, for me to be able to realise that; it's something I've always accepted in other forms of art that I've been engaged in, that your accidents are often the most valuable things you do and you look at them very closely, but ... well I, think, it's down to monitors."
Right. because oven if you know what you're doing when you deviate from the plan, if the other people can't hear it...
"... if they just vaguely hear that something's gone wrong but they can't hear exactly what it is so they can't respond to it, there's this dilemma about whether to respond to what you know should be happening or to what you guess is happening. That sounds like a very specific situation but it's something that happens all the time, and that's another thing that I find strange about rock music, that it's so dependent on its technology all the time. There are bands who can play, and play successfully in a much simpler fashion, with much simpler equipment. Brinsley Schwarz for example, who I like very much, obviously aren't going to encounter the same sort of problems as us, because technically they're not as ambitious. Musically they are, but not technically. But it's always been a contention of mine that I should use what's newest at the time to see what it's worth."
Though you were saying before that the technology available is always well behind the ideas.
"Yeah, nearly everything I use now I have to have custom-made, which I object to doing really, because I'd much prefer to get things off the peg and use them. There's no magic in having things custom made, it's just much more expensive. There's a thing you can do, building up very large layers of sound with just one instrument in real time so you can actually do it in performance; I could do that on stage, in fact I used to, but it means carrying around two Revox machines and setting them up so carefully that it's just not feasible to do it any more - you just can't have that much of a gap between numbers while you wriggle controls and so on. So I've got to have something made which is costing about £75 or £100, which is just like a glorified echo unit. They should exist these things; I've been working in that area for about eight years and I know a lot of other people who're interested in it, but nobody produces them."
So when you're working with that sort of stuff, you have to be both a musician and a technician, designing your own instruments.
"Yeah, and I've never been either really. I mean I've never been a musician in the sense that I've never been able to play anything; I got interested in music very young and when I was about nine I became aware of rock music because my sister was older than me and she used to collect Little Richard records and so on and I followed it all the time, but I was good at drawing, you see, and I went to art school. And when I got there I realised there were a lot of composers around who were writing music that didn't need skilled musicians to perform it, so I started doing that, and then I started writing my own, and after a while I realised that there were a lot of areas where an unskilled person could operate by using judgement rather than skill. So as a replacement for musical skill, I've got a complex technology, a good memory and fairly good judgement. But I'm still surprised about being a performing rock musician playing a synthesiser, because I know very little about electronics and I can't play any instrument. My next venture is going to be moon rockets, because I know nothing about them either."
Were you originally brought into the band as a kind of sound effects man then?
"Well originally I came along in my capacity as a tape-recordist, because I had a Revox, to do some demos. First of all I started playing around with the tape recorder, using it as a specialised kind of echo unit, putting different speeds of echo on things, and then I started playing with the synthesiser because there was one there. I'd never actually seen one before, though I'd worked in electronics before in a gross sense, just tape recorders really, but I just started using it and I found it fairly easy. They're not really designed for human usage actually, they're designed for people with no fingers, in fact. Turning a knob requires you to use all your fingers for the same thing which strikes me as a drastic waste of time. When you're playing a guitar you can use all those fingers separately, but when I'm playing I'm a two-fingered being, which seems terrible to me, so I'm having a new synthesiser built that's designed to use all my fingers and both my feet as well. And if I can think of a way to use my toes I'll do that too. But the way they're generally used is either as a gimmick, to put a spot noise in here and there, or as a kind of extended organ, which is the way Keith Emerson uses it mainly - all his work is keyboard based: but that's something I couldn't do if I wanted to because I can't play a keyboard."
Can we talk a bit about the way the band was launched, with the album coming out, you were doing some big gigs, and there seemed to be an awful lot of enthusiastic publicity...
"Well there wasn't much, really, certainly not much that was engineered by us. We've always been conscious of making contacts, simply because we didn't want to do things the hard way, we didn't want to have to spend two years trucking around and living squalidly on the assumption that that was what made great music, because I don't think it is - I think there are other ways. I mean the thing that reminds me of is the artist-in-his-garret thing which is also a superfluous idea. So we were conscious obviously that having friends would help, but we never conned people. Then there were a number of interesting coincidences: just before the album came out we played at Lincoln, then the same week as it came out we were on "Sounds of the Seventies" and "Whistle Test", and then a couple of weeks later there were three articles about us in different papers in the same week, which was all by accident really, the timing. It must look so fishy, I agree, as if the management had sat there saying "we must give these boys a boost" and by magic got all these things for us, and it really wasn't like that. But it was then I started worrying because I thought people's expectations might well exceed our abilities - on a good night I think we can live up to a lot of it - but on a bad night we certainly can't and until recently we've been having as many poor nights as good nights."
The thing was that I liked the band and the album, but I had quite serious reservations, and there was all this stuff coming out about you that seemed to be totally untempered ecstasy ... I thought you might have been suffering from overkill publicity, though it doesn't appear to have done you any harm.
"Well I was getting to the point where I was thinking we ought to pay someone to write bad articles about us, because I know how it affects me if I see all that written about other bands, you see, which is why I was scared about it. You remember when Curved Air came out? I mean they're a good band, but because of all the stuff that was written about them I couldn't listen to them for four months or so because I automatically suspected hype - and I hate all that kind of thing. Once there's been so much written and said about a band, there's no excitement left in discovering them for yourself any more and the only kind of participation you have left is to find fault with them, which is exactly what I did with Curved Air."
Do you think them was a danger of you thinking you'd made it early on so you didn't have to try so hard that what you were doing was pleasing people, so stay with it?
"Yes, but don't think it happened because we were all aware that all this stuff was potentially dangerous, and it made us try harder because we'd suddenly been put somewhere and we had to live up to it. I think we are living up to it now, to a fair extent - judging by the audiences we've had, they certainly think we're that good, and I think we're approaching that. The other thing about not moving, I can see how that would affect some people, but I don't think it'll happen with us because none of us have got a very big investment in the approval side of the business. It would obviously be uncomfortable, but it wouldn't hurt that much to do things that weren't approved of any more."
When I last talked to you, you were saying that from the starting point of the album, the music could go two ways - either the 'Ladytron' idea or the 'Remake/Remodel' way. Do you think the band has developed in either direction or are both things still fairly equal?
"It's doing both actually, and 'If There Is Something' has become a strange creature too, it's modified into something else completely which isn't either of those two, and isn't a cross between the two either. It's Grand Music, if you know what I mean, it's got a feeling of grandness about it which is hinted on the album but which has developed even more now. I don't think, in fact, that what we do is going to get any more specific, in fact I hope it's going to get less specific. The only style I'd like to have is one that deals with other styles if you see what I mean - I'd like it to be said that our style is to be able to work with every style and to work them, integrate them into our way of playing."
Rather like the Bonzos, but in a different way.
"Exactly, yes. They're great heroes of mine. I think it's partly because none of us could encompass playing the same kind of thing for a long time and if we start off being expected to come up with surprises and to come up with things we haven't done before, that seems like a very healthy business to begin on. If you begin on the basis that I imagine Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin began on, with a very definite style, the restriction on your movement is immense. Whereas our album is unspecific enough to allow us to go anywhere from there, as we wish."
A case of Roxyfied music, really.
"Right. We have got a lot of ideas up our sleeves actually - particularly presentation ideas. My ideal situation would be where we played about once a fortnight, and we could work on each performance in terms of thinking about just that hall, that many people, this length of time think about every variable in each situation and gear your whole act to that, instead of the way we have to work at present, going round presenting essentially the same format to every place. But to be able to hire halls like the Talk of the Town is my dream - did you know they've got the best stage in London? But it would be ideal to sit down on Monday and plan the act for the Saturday after next - get clothes made, props made, everything, so it's like a complete pantomime so it could be a completely organised and unique event that was never repeated. Of course, if you were richer still you could do it every night, so you could go and play in a little club in Redcar and do an act that would never be seen again - I'd love to be able to do that, do something unique at each place so that a kind of mythology would grow up. "Did you see them when they were all dressed up in tuxedos and had 15 dancing girls", or "Did you see them when they had ten members of the Hitler youth marching round the audience"."
"Stagewise, bands have really only just begun, they did have a period of course in rock and roll when the stage act became paramount but then it all dropped off to this kind of assumption that if you played the music in the clothes you spent the day in, there was something more sincere about it, which I can understand - it obviously sprung from the Crosby Stills and Nash country type influence, where a lot of those people were simple, I don't mean naive, but simple people who naturally played music, and it was a natural form of expression for them. For us to do that would be so dishonest and unsatisfying, because there are so many other things going on in our minds at the same time, and we're surrounded by so much. If you're intensely conscious as one must be living in London in 1972, of the history of music and the history of style and theatre and so on, to neglect all that is just unsatisfying after a while - you want to do something about it and you, want to make a statement in that area."