Title: Method acting
Author: Alex Murray
ALEX MURRAY MEETS NEW ZTT BAND ACT AND UNCOVERS THE SECRETS OF MODERN TECHNO-POP
ZTT like to keep things in the family. Literally. Claudia Brücken, late of the label’s other great band Propaganda, and now in these post-Frankie day, vocalist with its current bit for the high ground, Act, just happens to be married to one of the label’s co-founders, Paul Morley. Who also just happens to manage Act. Cosy. But where does that leave the other half of Act’s double-act, Thomas Leer? Isn’t the wiry Scot a little wary of losing his independence? After all, he charted his own singular course through the choppy waters of synthpop for nigh on 10 years, almost-making it time and again with tracks like “International” and “Number One”, while all about him, less sophisticated exponents of the art hit big. Almost-making it, incidentally, as a solo artist. So what’s he playing at pairing up with the ex-Propagandist?
“I’d had enough of being an undercover pop star. I’d spent year doing all the things a popstar does – appeared on shit European TV shows, did radio interviews, appeared with people who were pop stars. But I wasn’t. I was outside the
We meet at ZTT’s West London shrine to hit-tech, Sarm Studios, where Thomas, Claudia and Trevor Horn’s right-hand man, Steve Lipson, are putting the final touches to Act’s first album, “Hit”. Thomas looks tired, and rumpled after an all-night session (of working or drinking, it’s hard to tell), but he manages a smile at the suggestion that he’s finally settled for an easy ride to success on the back of ZTT’s erratic but impressive pop machine. After all, aren’t people going to think you’ve done this…
“Because I’m a failure? People can think what they like. ‘It’s no’ like that… I was fed up with being a solo artist anyway. After I left my deal with Arista, I approached ZTT – I knew coming here’d give me access to certain things, a certain way of working. Top of my personal agenda was to find a female singer, so when I found Claudia was leaving Propaganda, it all sort of fell into place… We spent six months experimenting together – Claudia has never written before – and then we started on the album.”
But by coming to ZTT weren’t you risking a lot? After all, there’ a family feel to ZTT in more ways than one – that unmistakable house style for example. Certain artists have been steamrollered by it…
“You mean Trevor and Steve’s production, big, lush, sounds, right? But production techniques are not absolute. Besides, I like some of that. Someone said to me ‘oh, that sound is so unfashionable now’, but I don’t identify with fashion in sound – there’s just sound and you use it. I can’t speak for the artists who’ve gone before me, but perhaps they just weren’t interested enough in their work to keep control of it. This is my project. I don’t hand it over to anyone. I’ve been in this business too long to be intimidated by superstars.”
True enough. But what, I wondered, was the spur that first urged young Thomas on his quest for sound, and into the arms of elections?
“Drugs,” he grins. “It was 1972, I was 17, and doing a lot of them. Hearing sound in my head anyway. Then someone played me an album by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, one of the first bands to use electronics, and all of a sudden, it made sense… I wanted a synthesizer, but at the time they cost about £1000, so I got a mate who worked in a school science lab to make me all these little boxes, ring modulators and stuff, with nails in so you could play ‘em by touch. I figured out what order to put ‘em in from an old VCS3 manual… I taught myself from ground up…”
And he’s certainly come, technologically speaking. Via that familiar pilgrimage through Korg MS20s, Wasps (‘You could trigger mine just by looking at it’) and Roland 100Ms. Thomas’s monophonic excursions into what would come to be called synthpop brought him record company attention, and just about the time everyone else was getting their first poly, Arista bought him a Fairlight.
“I took a fairly punk attitude to it actually – I’d spend evenings tuning into the worst AM radio stations I could find, sampling at random, and then, when I’d got about 20 samples, I’d go though ‘em looking for interesting noises… gradually, I’d build up a bank of sounds. I never did see the point of sampling guitars, or sounds you could get anywhere else…” When Thomas left Arista, they reclaimed the Fairlight.
“Typical record company.”
Undeterred, he hired on, began writing material again, and approached that most untypical of record companies, ZTT. The Sarm connection helped: he no writes on Fairlight, Linn 9000, Akai S900, DX7, and current fave, Roland’s new S50:
“I love it! The first machine I’ve wanted to learn to program in years, it’s got such potential… The only digital synth that really has an analogues richness. Maybe because of the built-in delay lines, so when it goes to tape, its already got its own ambience…”
Thomas writes at home, from scratch into the Linn or the Fairlight using their familiar sequence/chain/song format to build songs, or dumps across into the open-ended IBM/Voyetra 64 track sequencer package favoured by Steve Lipson, for more spontaneous ‘organising’. (‘I’ll be honest with you – It may have 64 tracks, but I’ve never used more’n’ten’)
At Sarm, (‘All I have to bring with me is the disc – it beats carting the gear about!’) Steve Lipson puts the already well-evolved ‘demo’ into the Synclavier mega-sampler, and works his peculiar magic on it:
Steve’s the best operator in the world, especially when it comes to injecting, ‘feel’, and presence to a track. He takes my idea which is this,”.
(Thomas holds his hands a few inches apart) “…And makes it sound like this.” (He throws his arms wide.)
Thomas insists that a few studio tricks are employed, though when Claudia comes to lay a lead vocal across her guide, around which the track will have taken shape. Mysterious black boxes are wheeled in, including one mike pre-amp with the ability to add brightness and presence to an almost supernatural degree:
“I’d tell you more, but I don’t know what they are either.”
Act’s press release describes their sound as “suave Punk”, a sophisticated subversion for the Eighties. It’s a definition which cries out for the acid of live performance, and, sure enough, Thomas and Claudia are rising to the challenge with the promise of a tour to back up this “late-summer” release of “Hit”. With a “real band”, drawn from the ranks of some of the famous players who joined the de facto ZTT house band of percussionist Louis Jordan and keyboardist Chris Senior during the LP’s long (six-month) gestation.
Ex-Gang Of four guitarist Andy Gill may be too busy to repeat the distinctive fretwork he’s brought to the album, but ex-Associates and Cure bassist Michael Dempsey will be there, as will ex-ABC drummer Dave Palmer. Suave Punk indeed.
A final word to the wise, Thomas?
“We’re still exploring the Act sound. We’re giving ourselves enough rope…”
Or should that be family ties…?