Title: Taken from the Max
Author: Tony Mitchell
Publish date: August 16 1986
TAKEN FROM THE MAX
The empire strikes back… Impure purists THE ART OF NOISE beat it to New York for a session of serious wordplay with TONY MITCHELL. Serious photoplay by JAYNE HOUGHTON
WHY SHOULD a group who have courted anonymity with the same feverishness that others reserve for the pursuit of fame suddenly want to perform as a live band?
This was one of many questions which was not in my mind as I fought my way through the throng at the bar of New York’s Ritz Ballroom, and the reason it wasn’t in my mind was that I already knew the answer.
The Art Of Noise feel the need to prove something that can’t be proved simply by making very clever records with Duane Eddy and Max Headroom.
It is the logical progression from their parting with ZTT and signing to China. They were tired of being regarded by one and all as nothing more than an idea dreamed up by Paul Morley and Trevor Horn over cocktails.
And yet, despite this understandable desire to receive the credit due to them for the anarchic ‘Into Battle…’ and the chart-breaking ‘Beat Box’, Anne Dudley, JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan still don’t want us getting too close to them.
They delight in going unrecognised, refuse to be photographed in any way that would make this possible and giggle mischievously every time someone in their audience calls out “Hello Trevor” to JJ (whose resemblance to Mr Horn begins and ends with the fact that both wear glasses).
And yet, here they are, churning out their hits and mixes to this capacity crowd on the eve of the New Music Seminar, warming up for a stint at Hammersmith Odeon later this week, and trying out a line-up that includes a drummer, a percussionist, three girl singers, a video intro from Mr Headroom and a spot from Mr Eddy.
All (except for Max) absolutely live.
I mention this again because they are very anxious that you should comprehend. There may be Fairlights on stage. but there are no hidden tape recorders or Sputnik sequencers doing the hard work. Even the Noisettes have had to learn new words, like “nwark” and “pphhnnoooip” that were originally uttered by machines and must now be vocalised by humans.
Impressed? I thought you would be.
BUT BACK to this anonymity thing. Gary Langan’s desire for it is evidently so great that he is not available for interview after the gig. Unless, of course, he was disguised as the sofa in manager Dai Davis’ penthouse suite, in which case I guess he’d furnished himself with the perfect alibi.
Anne Dudley is available, however, and she’s joined in due course by JJ, whose sporty blazer and cultured demeanour suggests that he might just have flown in from the Henley Regatta.
The best way, to talk seems to be to get yourself in on the joke. Interviews are treated as opportunities for wordplay and little more. You can slip in the odd serious question and get the odd response if you’re lucky.
Here’s Anne being serious:
“Playing live is specially difficult for us because we don’t have a Tony Hadley at the front, or a Jeff Beck, or some kind of front man people can identify with. I think that’s what put me off the idea of touring for a long time. I felt people didn’t want to come to see an instrumental band. They want to see people yelling their heads off, screeching around playing guitars. They don’t want to see me playing keyboards — it’s a bit boring.
“But eventually my objections were broken down. It happened when we went to do The Tube. Suddenly we felt like a band on the road, on the coach to Newcastle.
Here’s me being serious. Don’t you think that be having three girl backing singers, you’re just aligning yourself with every other live act? Isn’t that the kind of cliché you should be trying to avoid?
“Yeah, but clichés in live work nowadays means backing tapes and sequencers, and we don’t do that. We use Akai samplers and the drummer and bass player are both triggering sampled sounds. I certainly don’t feel obliged to apologise for the girls. It’s good to have them along. They do good backing vocals, tell great jokes and lend me their lipsticks.”
This is when JJ arrives, which more or less puts paid to any further seriousness.
I gather the ‘Paranoimia’ corroboration with Max Headroom came about through a chance meeting in a restaurant?
JJ: “Yes, it’s remarkable the people you can meet in restaurants when you don’t mean to.”
Anne: “It was a very good restaurant.”
Do you want to give it a plug?
Anne: “Certainly not.”
JJ: “You plug them and they get very crowded and you can’t get in yourself. I made that mistake once before. Never again.”
Anne: “And so he said, I’m terribly clever and witty and I like your track. And he really kinda gets down to that track, old Max, he gets down and boogies.”
JJ: “Is your pause button meant to be in?”
Don’t worry. I’ve got a photographic memory. So let’s talk about the rest of the band.
Anne: “Well, they’re all called Dave.”
JJ: “There’s Dave Simon Morton on percussion.”
Anne: “Dave Paul Robinson on drums.”
JJ: “Dave Dave Dave Bronze on bass. And the three Noisettes, who’re called Davina.”
Anne: “Davina Pepe Lemer, Davina Linda Taylor, Davina Katie Humble…”
JJ: “Oscar Charlie Delta Tango…”
What have you been doing on your days off in New York?
JJ: “I’ve been frequenting 24-hour cafes to see if they actually are 24-hour, and I can report…”
Anne: “Have you stayed there 24 hours, then, in one space?”
JJ: “Yes, just to see.”
HOW LONG can you go on being living enigmas? Surely your anonymity will evaporate as you play more gigs?
JJ: “I assure you that people will not know who we are for a good deal longer than you might expect. I was standing by the door at the end of the Ritz show and everybody walked straight past me and didn’t recognise me.
“We didn’t encourage people to want to come along and see ‘personalities’. They wanted to see a show and listen to what the hell we were going to do. And they had no idea what was going to be going on. Now, their curiosity is satisfied and they still don’t have to know who we are and what underpants we wear and all that stuff.”
So you’d argue that you’re purists, because you demand that music takes precedence over personality?
JJ: “Oh, very much so. Impure purists. Absolutely. Wholeheartedly. In as much as we are shallow, we are deep.”
Has incompetence become a virtue in music?
Anne: “Well, it appals us. We’ve worked with so many people in the studio, we’re well aware of the inadequacies of most musicians in the bands around. We must be the hardest people to work with.”
JJ: “We’ve had three drummers…”
Anne: “We demand the best… and we get it.”
Does it irritate you that less competent bands have to resort to using skilled, professionals such as yourselves to compensate for their inadequacies?
JJ: “Yeah, but it’s nothing new. Look at the Bay City Rollers.”
Or Elvis Presley.
JJ: “Absolutely. He didn’t sing a thing on his records. It was Dirk Stevens, the famous Welshman. He did all Elvis’ vocals. Elvis just looked great. As long as he had his gear person with him and his hair person with him, he was OK. Tragic, really — Dirk went unknown.”
I’ve certainly never heard of him
JJ: “Well, it just goes to show, doesn’t it? I mean, you say Dirk Stevens to people and they say, Oo? But when you say Elvis Presley, they know exactly who you’re talking about.”
Isn’t there a danger that you’ll be hoist on the petard of your own technology, and that despite all your efforts, people may still not think you’re playing live?
Anne: “D’you mean we’ve gone to all this expense for nothing? Oh, my God.”
You could have done exactly the same thing with tapes.
Anne: “I don’t know how you can say that.”
I’m being devil’s advocate.
JJ: “But you’re not, because devil’s advocate should actually be… should actually… you’re absolutely right. But we wouldn’t do a thing like that. Nobody’s ever done that.”
Anne: “What’s the fun in that — three weeks posing around America playing to sequencers and tapes?”
You played three gigs over here before the Ritz. Have you had and revelations?
Anne: “Yeah. The audience like us.”
JJ: “We didn’t anticipate this. Just because they’ve bought the records means nothing. Actually, buying records is the last thing by which you can judge whether people like your music or not.
“‘Beat Box’ and ‘Moments Of Love’ became anthems here, but they were kind of frustrated by the fact that we didn’t tour, so you still don’t know what people really think. In the one public appearance we made in LA, this guy was overheard to say, I’ve been a fan of The Art Of Noise for three years — that is not them. And there we were.”
Do YOU think you appeal to intellectuals?
Do you know what kind of people buy your records?
JJ: “We have a day-by-day analysis of just who buys the records. We know exactly what’s going on — and it doesn’t help in any way.”
Anne: “I think it’s a mistake to analyse it. Some guy came into the dressing room and said. It’s a very interesting demographic split you’ve got there. And I thought demographic split?”
JJ: “But it’s the American mentality, isn’t it? It’s, Well, you sold 44,000 records yesterday, 19,950 went to black people, 1,150 went to Indians… And you say. Yeah? Whaddya going to do if they all turn out to be white tomorrow? Well, gee, we’ll have to do something about that.”
Do you think you might be a studentish band in Britain?
JJ: “We’re a very big college group here in the US. This album has been in the college network top ten since it was released.”
And you were voted Number Two Black Band at one point?
JJ: “Last year in Billboard. If one backs away from the personality syndrome, it allows one to be voted, unvoted and promoted into all these places one didn’t know existed.”
Any feelings about how you’ll go down live in the UK?
JJ: “Yes - we’ll probably sink without trace, which is just how we want it. Most of the press in England has had its say about how good and now how bad, we are, so it’s our launching pad.”
I wasn’t thinking particularly about the press…
JJ: “No, no, nor was I. Just my feelings about those complete and utter, utter, utter…”
Anne: “Hang on, he’s one of them. But I’m sure he’s never written anything nasty about us.”
I’ve never written anything about you at all.
JJ: “Well, you’re tarred with the same brush, you bastard.”
People are bound to say The Art Of Noise haven’t been up to scratch since parting with ZTT, just because of the kudos associated with the label. Although that’s taken a bit of a denting of late.
JJ: “Well, there hasn’t been anything. There’ve been statements like ‘Noiseless ZTT.’.”
Anne: “And ‘The Art Of Silence’. We liked that, actually.”
JJ: “Even in being absent, we were being referred to.”
Are you afraid of the anti-intellectual element in the music press?
JJ: “Never come across it. We don’t read the music press, you see. Nor do we listen to pop records.”
There’s a school of thought which holds that musicians shouldn’t be too articulate or intelligent.
Both: “Watcha… mean… by… that… John?”