Title: Art of noise
Author: Andy Basire
Source: Making Music
Publish date: July 1999
Art of Noise
Andy Basire talks to the ex-Eighties sampling pioneers about their latest concept…
As forerunners of the sample-led, faceless dance movement (releasing the pre-electro acid classic “Close To The Edit” way back in 1984), and reckoned, by the sort of people who obviously have nothing better to do with their time, to be the third most sampled act of all time (after James Brown and Kraftwerk), or even just as the creators of “Moments In Love”, still one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever made, The Art Of Noise have already assured themselves a place in pop history, regardless of what they’ve since chosen to do to that legacy.
Their latest offering is a “soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist, about the life of Claude Debussy”. Not that anyone would expect the AON to simply record some pop songs, but surely a marriage between the classical world, spoken word and modern dance music is destined for ‘concept album’ hell…?
Paul Morley, the (surprisingly self-deprecating) man responsible for the inexhaustible supply of incomprehensible (though generally entertaining) guff that always accompany the band’s releases, and genuine paid-up AON member, dons his journalist hat and turns the tables.
“Is this a concept album, then? What do you consider a concept album? ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is a concept album…”
We’re talking about ‘The Seduction Of Claude Debussy’, though.
“It’s silly, anyway,” chips in his co-interviewee, the quietly well-spoken (a bit like the posh mate’s mum you always secretly fancied when you were a kid) but slightly more fractious Anne Dudley: “a concept is an idea, and this is certainly an album with an idea.”
“It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end,” Paul continues. “There’s a lot of albums released nowadays have got no shape to them, they don’t have any sort of journey - and we wanted this to be a trip.
“The reason we picked Debussy was because he really opened up the possibilities of classical music, rather than that big Wagner/Mahler ‘reaching for the sky’ kind of attitude. There’s not one ounce of pomp on this album.”
Then, no doubt mindful of the recent Rick Wakeman revival, he deadpans: “We did decide quite early on that we wouldn’t be doing this on ice, though,” and smiles.
Anne frowns. Then says: “It will be interesting to see how people view it, because we have been very… [long pause] I almost used the word respectful, but of course we haven’t been, but I think we have integrated the Debussy successfully. I honestly believe you could listen to this album and have no idea it was based on something classical.”
I obviously look sceptical (probably because I don’t agree), and ask if an album containing operatic-style vocalising could be construed as anything other than classically based.
“It’s not opera, it’s classical singing:” Paul corrects me, while Anne gets a bit irritated.
“And that’s just one of the sounds - a beautiful sound, in fact:” she snaps.
“We have a classical singer, which represents the old, and then a rapper, which is the most modem form of singing, so there’s a nice shape to that.” Paul says. “But I do know what you mean, and if people read that we’ve made an album of opera and drum & bass they’re going to think, ‘Oh my god’. But the combinations do work, for positive reasons.
“It’s always struck me as odd that you can’t have as much conceptual fun in pop music, of all places. You are, after all, just making entertainment. I think if people hear it they’ll adore it.”
Anne is still miffed. “It’s not opera anyway,” she huffs, “the vocal stuff on this album is not opera - these are songs for solo voice and piano, and much more intimate than opera.”
So it’s not opera, then.
Paul: “It’s late 19th century popular music, in a sense.”
“And,” Anne stresses testily, “they’re very beautiful lyrics by great poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. But it’s a very subtle, intimate sound - classical music doesn’t have to mean The Three Tenors. So don’t use the word opera, or operatic, because it’s not the right word. Classical music embraces a whole range of emotions and styles - it doesn’t have to be bombastic.”
She folds her arms and retreats ever so slightly into her seat, no doubt wondering why she has to waste so much time explaining herself to tossers that don’t even know the difference between opera and classical singing.
Just the right time, then, to ask why they’ve also insisted on having a bloody John Hurt commentary running throughout.
“There wouldn’t have been enough of a narrative thrust without it,” Paul shrugs. “And it’s another sound, another vocal,” adds Anne. “If you look at it in colours, I always saw John Hurt’s voice as a very dark brown and Sally [Bradshaw, the classical vocalist in question] as a pastel blue. It’s just another element of the palette…”
“It’s just the thing for a concept album,” Paul leaps in, deflating things a little, and making Anne laugh. “The one thing you really need for any self-respecting concept album is a big deep brown voice orating profoundly.”
KNOBS & SWITCHES
The other half of Art Of Noise Version III, Trevor Horn and Lol Creme, are, as befits such in-demand people, not present, but they agreed to fax over the ‘knobs and switches’ info (another term that Anne balks at, insisting they’re purely incidental to the music-making process).
What arrives makes interesting reading, and proves conclusively that the days of musicians needing to be in the same room together are comprehensively dead. (Or as Anne puts it: “The beauty of Art Of Noise is that not everyone needs to be involved all the time.”).
Recording all the guitars onto ADATs in his house in LA, Lol Creme then sent them to England for Trevor Horn to load into the computer and fiddle with. Stuart Levine also popped along to Lol’s pad and played some sax parts (on a sax previously owned by Paul Desmond of Dave Brubeck fame, apparently).
Then there were the recordings done at Trevor’s studios in Bel Air, which led directly to the “Dreaming In Colour” track, with Sally Bradshaw’s vocals added at his English studio (using a Neumann V67 valve mike). Anne Dudley’s grand piano was recorded through a couple of 1952 Neumann M7s, and the whole lot was then MIDI’d into a Mac with Notator via a Euphonix console. And finally there were the Sessions in Castle Rathaldrew, which were recorded onto Trevor Horn’s Power Book (with Power Mix) and ProTools travelling rig.
Of course you can’t talk to the Art Of Noise about gear without at least mentioning the notorious 60,000 quid, meter-and-a-half-wide keyboard that boasted a whole one-and-a-half seconds of sample time…
“Oh absolutely,” Anne grimaces, remembering the Fairlight CM1 with no little distaste, “but it was a piece of old crap, really. You’d put in these lovely shiny bright sounds and it would come out sounding like… [she makes an unpleasant windy sound]. Gary [Langan who along with JJ Jeczalik was part of AON Version 1], was so brilliant with it - he’d add some delays, EQ things, and frankly saved that instrument from an early demise. It took all his ingenuity to make this dreadful sounding pile of shit sound of anything at all.”
And of course there was always the non-musical input that was so integral to the band - only, what exactly was it that Paul Morley did?
“The Art Of Noise was always supposed to be a different kind of group - it was never supposed to be a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist,” he explains. “It was supposed to be a more modern group, and we all had different roles within that framework and different specific responsibilities. I had the non-musical input: coming from a background of being a rock critic and a fan of music I’d help evaluate things.”
“People have this idea that everyone involved with a band has to be a brilliant musician,” Anne concurs, “but we wanted someone who could stand outside it and offer some objective ideas and criticisms.”
Is Paul’s input ever met with a, ‘But you’re not a musician, what the fuck do you know?’ response?
They both laugh…
Regardless of how this album is received, the Art Of Noise are already thinking of the next step - and, it’s worth noting, they are fully conscious of and equally very grateful for their place in the great scheme of things.
Anne smiles, relaxing now the ordeal is almost over. “I think it’s just thrilling to still be here, for people to still remember what we did 15 years ago. We’ve been lucky - you can’t go through your life with this huge chip on your shoulder, barking, ‘We started that, you know’. Everybody takes something from somebody and develops it. That’s what music is, it feeds on and then regurgitates itself. Whenever I hear a sample crop up in something. I think it’s good. I’m always chuffed.”