The Meaning of Live
Massive interview with John Archer from The Way To Go Out era.
Author: Cathy Gray, Sonics.
Date: April-June 1985.
Original URL: N/A.
John Archer doesn’t only play bass with Hunters & Collectors. He also owns the band’s PA (why is it always bass players who are so sound-sensible?); has definite ideas about the value of recording live performances rather than creating massive overdub sculptures; and is thrilled by the availability of things like Sony’s ‘consumer’ digital processors, which can give high-quality results without requiring the finance of the Big Record Deal.
Sonics spoke to John early this year, just after the album Jaws of Life had been released. Since then, the band has put together a live LP, recorded at Melbourne’s the Venue and accompanied by a video cassette.
Sonics: You’re a band with a reputation for live performance. Is playing live particularly important to you?
JA: It’s probably the thing we’ve got most together if we’ve for anything together. I’m glad about that; I’d rather do that well than anything else.
Sonics: You own your production too, and credit your mixer, Rob Miles, as part of your lineup, which is unusual.
JA: Yes. We’ve known Rob for ages; he works on all the recordings too, especially now as we’re doing more of our own. The PA is mine; the lighting and trucks are the band’s. It’s taken a few years to build up; we decided to starve for a few years.
Sonics: Did you feel you were running the risk of making a mistake and ending up with stuff you had to use just because it was yours?
JA: The PA isn’t very big, basically a two-way J-bin and horn system, but right from the start, I’ve always made sure I got absolutely the best piece of equipment I could afford, even if it wasn’t very big. Even if I only had a six channel mixer, I’d make sure it was the best I could get rather than an average 12 or 16-channel. Or I’ll have a mono PA but a good graphic. Both the desks are Yamaha – foldback is an old (antique) PM700 – but they’re good, and quite workable. It’s grown slowly but hopefully methocially. We’re very careful to make sure that everything in the production actually does something, and isn’t just another couple of thousand kilos to cart around. We’ve still only got a three-tonne truck. It’s enough – only just, but it’s enough.
Sonics: Do you own your effects too?
JA: Yeah. And Rob, the front of house guy, also has his own little rack with some useful things like Aphex B Exciters – really quite cheap units, but the things you can do with them….I haven’t played with them enough yet, but live they’re brilliant for clarity. We use one on vocal and one on bass mic. I like it on the bass.
Sonics: ON PLAYING BASS AND HEARING YOURSELF.
JA: I try to vary the way I play, rather than actually changing any settings or using effect pedals. I don’t have much ‘velocity’ – I’m no Stanley Clarke – but I try to push things around in terms of feel – sometimes a bit too far and it just gets out of time! – but I try to choke it, for example, with the heel of my hand like you would on a normal six string guitar, hit it in the wrong place. Just try to get more variety of sound out of something that is traditionally a constant element. It’s sort of a case of having to do that because there’s less of us now.
Sonics: Do you spend a lot of time trying to get the sound you want, or just have a guitar and an amp you like, turn it on and go for it?
JA: That’s more what it’s like. It’s not a great bass, it’s a real cheapy – an old Ibanez. It has idiosyncrasies, like it buzzes a lot in some venues, so I’ve got to stand facing the right way. I’ll probably have to get a proper bass one of these days. If I could get another with the same sound that didn’t buzz and weighed half as much, I’d be happy.
As far as amps go, I use Marshall top and JBL cabinet. I like the valve amp, and I’ve only got one 15″ speaker, so it just pushes along.
Sonics: Are you loud on stage generally as a band?
JA: I don’t know (laugh), it’s hard to tell. We’re not as loud as X, but louder than the Violent Femmes -much louder than Jonathan Richman.
Sonics: Your brass section is a rather unusual lineup – trombone, French horn, trumpet.
JA: I don’t know what it’s not more conventional because they all have unique tones. We did have saxophone earlier on but it didn’t really fit in at all, because the noise a sax makes is so broad in spectrum. I think you either have one or two and that’s it, or you don’t have them at all, they’re such an expansive noise.
Sonics: In a situation where you have acoustic instruments like brass, if everything gets too loud, you can have problems hearing each other.
JA: Yeah, that’s true. However we’re using sidefills with a fairly broad sort of mix in them, in stereo/panned pretty much in the way the brass are standing, and a little bit of drums and a little bit of bass, plus a little bit of guide vocal in there. And two wedges in the centre for Mark’s vocal – that’s all that’s in them. And a drum monitor.
It all seems to work fairly well, I don’t think we need any more foldback. In fact too much can become a bit of trap – so unwieldy. Like Dragon’s setup (described in Oct/Nov ’85 Sonics), which I suppose is OK if you can afford it, but it just doesn’t seem like a band any more – more like a machine. In our case, if the bass isn’t loud enough I just turn it up.
Sonics: On Simplicity
The mix is very strong on drums and bass.
JA: A lot of the time that’s all there is – drums, bass and vocals – as simple as you can get. It can get a bit hectic when everyone’s playing at once, and you’re sort of crossing your fingers trying to work out where you are. That used to be more of a problem than it is now – it used to be more a situation where everyone was playing all the time. We had more guitars, more of everything, and like someone once said – and I think they hit the nail on the head – it was like watching a zoo burn down! All sorts of screams and crashes.
Sonics: So you’ve simplified it?
JA: Yes. Plus it happened anyway when a couple of members left, and we had a few rehearsals and started working on some new songs. Probably we shouldn’t have the same name, since we’re really starting all over again. It’s the same core of people, but I think the music’s changed quite a bit. We didn’t know if it would work or not, but it seems to be gathering momentum. We’re enjoying life! (Laugh).
Sonics: It’s interesting you say that, because there seems to be an element of bitterness in the Jaws of Life album – something brutal, or cynical about life.
JA: No. It’s not cynical, but Australia is a pretty brutal sort of place to live. If you get out of the cities and drive around a bit – and we do a lot of that since we can’t afford to fly – you see a lot of brutality; you run over a lot of kangaroos on the Nullabor. Most of the place is a desert, and it has a big influence on you, although you don’t realise it until you go overseas and see it in retrospect. We went to England for six months – and starved – and that really changed my whole perspective on Australia. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Not now.
Sonics: On Germany
You recorded Jaws of Life in Germany with Conny Plank producing. How did you get onto him?
JA: When we first signed a contract with Virgin, we went over to England to play live, which we thought would be the right thing to do, but it wasn’t. We were originally going to record with Mike Howard, who we’d worked with on the EP before in Australia, but he was busy, so they started hunting around for other producers and turned up Conny Plank.
Conny’s worked with some interesting people in his time and produced some innovative music – Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Can, Killing Joke – plus he has some interesting approaches to recording. For a start, he thought the most important thing was feel. Oh yeah, we thought – fine.
So we went over, but the band was in a bit of a state of political upheaval at the time, which meant we felt we didn’t really give him a fair shot at producing a good album with us.
Sonics: So you wanted to work with him again, but you recorded it somewhere else didn’t you?
JA: That’s right. We were going to record with Conny too, but he was busy. SO we went over to Can’s studio, since he’s friends with them, and worked with a guy called Renee Tinner. As an engineer, he was totally unflappable; we were pedantic in our usual fashion I suppose – or silly in our usual fashion – about how things should be, but he didn’t seem surprised at all. We had quite a bit of fun.
The studio itself took some getting used to. It was just one room – no separate control room – in an old village film theatre. They’d got some army blankets – 1000 or so – and lined the roof and walls with them; and there were all these hippy murals around the walls – really spacey!
So in this very large floor space they just happened to have a desk and a multitrack up on end, as well as quite a few effects and bits and pieces, and you could record anywhere from the far end of the room back towards the desk. Renee would monitor with headphones when you were actually playing, just to make sure it all got down onto the multitrack OK and you’d record the first take that way – without EQ – then come back and listen to it. If you needed to EQ anything, it would be done at that point – as you listened – so the next time you recorded it, the EQ would go onto the tape. And that was it.
Sonics: Which means he was always very in touch with the sounds you were making.
JA: Quite literally, yeah. We thought it was pretty silly when we first saw it, but when we got to working with it, it became incredibly practical – a very easy way to record. If you talk to any major producer around the world, they’d tell you it was mad, but it’s not.
The other good thing was that, because Conny wasn’t there, we found ourselves experimenting a lot for ourselves. We did rough mixes and listened back to them, so when we took the tapes to Conny to mix, we had a much clearer idea of what we thought was important.
Sonics: What was Conny’s studio like?
JA: It’s a 400 year old barn that he’s gradually turning into a studio. It’s been evolving for at least ten years now, since the first Kraftwerk hit, which made him a bit of money.
Sonics: Much ‘High Tech’?
JA: I guess so, and a few low tech objects you wouldn’t find anywhere else! There’s an MCI 28-channel desk, and a 16-channel effect-return desk that one of his technicians built, which is probably better than the professionally built one in a lot of ways. A couple of 24-track machines. Fairly standard sort of studio in a lot of ways – nothing weird about it.
Sonics: On the growth of the songs
Jaws of Life feels like a lot has been laid at once.
JA: It has. A lot of it effectively was live. There were songs we had trouble with and had to go back to putting bass and drum track down – for the first time ever really – because they were all new at that stage. We hadn’t played any of them live. For those – like Carry Me – we started with the rhythm tracks and overdubbed bit by bit. We’ve never done that before and we certainly don’t like to do it that way, but we had to at the time.
Sonics: It does have a consistent feel though – hangs together.
JA: The lyrics help a lot, because Mark (Seymour – singer/guitarist) wrote them almost in a thematic sense for the first time. Vaguely beer-drinking…
Sonics: And trucks! So how do the songs grow?
JA: Mark writes practically all the lyrics. He probably writes more lyrics than we write songs. When we rehearse someone might have an idea or a riff or rhythm or whatever, and we just try and see if it works. Then if Mark has a set of lyrics that might fit, he’ll try them, and I suppose one in three works.
We chuck a lot of stuff out, and have a lot of rehearsals where we don’t get anything done. But it’s important, I think, not to let that worry you. They’re just the odds.
Sonics: On two-track recording
JA: The recordings we’re doing now, we’re doing live to two-track digital, sort of like going back to the 50s and 60s in a lot of ways, but using modern mics and mixers and effect units which are all pretty cheap. We’re trying to learn how to do it anyway; there are lots of new possibilities, new restrictions. I think it’s a bit of a lost art actually. It used to be the way things were done, and there were some magic recordings made like that.
Certainly, I think it’s going to be the way for a lot of bands to go in Australia, because it’s so cheap. And there are many bands who will never be able to get a mega-dollar recording contract with Virgin Records or whatever to go and record in London or even in some of the bigger multitrack studios in Sydney or Melbourne. If they’re prepared to have a bash at learning to record on two-track, rather than being told how to record in a multi-track studio, then it’s got to be the way to go.
Sonics: What do you actually mean when you say ‘learn about recording to two-track’? Do you need to do a lot of takes?
JA: Not necessarily, although I’ve been doing recordings with a few bands in Melbourne recently – Harem Scarem, Olympic Sideburns – and just getting the mix right may take a day of even longer. But compared to a 24-track studio that’s still incredibly short, and once you get to that stage it can happen very quickly – maybe only two or three takes per song.
It just takes a little while to get to understand how each band works – the way the instruments work together – and the psychosis of the band. That takes a day (laugh).
The important thing about having number of people in a band is not how complicated it is, but whether you catch the feel. The problem we have is not to do with the limitations of technology or whatever, or because we’re using two-track; it’s usually just getting the right take, and getting the feel consistent. But that’s no less a problem with 24-track. You still can’t correct feel. And what can happen with 24-track is that you don’t realise you haven’t got quite the feel you wanted until much too late. At least with this, you listen back to it, and it’s right or it’s not.
Sonics: Any you do it again if it’s not!
JA: And because it’s cheap, there’s a lot less pressure on you; you’re not spending $180 an hour. We’re using Sony 501 digital processor with one of the new hi-fi recorders to record onto. And the interesting thing about that is that you could conceivably use it as a four-track recorder, with sound on the two hi-fi channels as well as the digital sound.
I want to experiment with that sometime in the future- recording live shows. The hi-fi might play back a few seconds out of sync with the digital, but you could correct that – and it might be useful.
Sonics: There’d be a delay between the live mics and the direct mix anyway
JA: Depending on how that works, you might not even have to correct it, if you put the mics the right distance from the stacks.
Sonics: On intimidation.
Have you always been interested in technology, or was it more of a know your tools of trade situation?
JA: I suppose I have. I did a mechanical engineering course at Uni, although I really didn’t know what I was going to do at the time; I just thought I’d better do something. I scraped through without much sense of direction, but despite the fact that I’m using very little of what I learnt, I’m glad I did it. I wish I remembered more.
Sonics: It’s still an attitude of note being frightened of finding things out.
JA: That’s true. In fact that’s another thing I like about the two-track thing: it frightens a bands a lot less, I think. We usually set up in a rehearsal studio – put the band in a normal rehearsal situation and record in another room, hopefully as normal a room as possible – and that doesn’t intimidate people too much.
I think there’s too much pedanticism about things like ‘spill’ in a multitrack situation anyway. So much so that it tends to dilute the feel and you get something terribly sterile as a result.
Sonics: Multitrack recording is like anything else – a tool to be used. Trouble is it’s become too much of an essential tool – people can’t conceive of recording any other way
JA: It’s quite involuted – the technology determines the type of music that will be created – and there’s something wrong with that.
Sonics: By the same token, a band like Midnight Oil tried for several years to do a pretty straight representation of what they were doing live and it didn’t work. The last couple of albums I reckon have used multitrack recording to catch the feel of the band live rather than the live feel, and it’s been much more successful.
JA: Yes that’s true. We tried that too and it didn’t work. Oil are doing something incredibly full-on live and you can’t reproduce that on a radio without it sounding confused, so you’ve got to get someone like Nick Launay who can restructure it in another form that also works. Having stripped our band down to something much simpler, we’re trying to see if we can get – not the same thing – but learn to work with another medium again I guess.
Sonics: An Ambience
In your experiments with two-track have you tried just using ‘ambient’ mics?
JA: Certainly. I recorded one band just using four mics on the drum kit – two overheads, a kick and snare bottom – with 90% of the information coming from the overhead pair – a crossed pair to keep phase problems under control. If you use two mics say a metre apart and one cymbal goes off, the sound will reach the closer mic first and when you combine them they won’t be in phase, so you have to keep them close together.
We do that live too, but it’s especially important in recording because it might sound find in stereo but as soon as you combine (left and right overheads) to mono, it all goes slurp and disappears – starts sounding like a transistor radio.
That’s actually something we need to learn a lot more about – how to get something to work on a transistor radio. There are some things a transistor does incredibly well; sounds from 1 k up to 4 k it handles with remarkable fidelity really. For us it’s a problem, because a lot of the songs are just bass, drums and vocal, and they might work fine live, but not on radio – they just shrivel up.
The single, Throw Your Arms Around Me, is a classic example. It’s a fairly laid back sort of song, and doing it live to two-track means there’s just not enough information when you play it on a transistor or a car radio – most of it seems to disappear under the noise of the car and you just hear the vocal by itself – which is a bit funny. For songs like that we might have to go back to using a multitrack to reinforce things – maybe play the bass line on a guitar as well or something.
Sonics: And on the cosmos….
You credit John and Paula’s Hardware St. Studios on that single. Is that where you recorded it?
JA: Yes. It’s a little studio in the city in Melbourne we’ve been using – mixing in their living room – so we’re much indebted to them.
Sonics: And Planet Brain Enterprises?
JA: (laugh) A nasty reference to me I think, on the part of the band. Totally uncalled for – very snide!
Sonics: Very cosmic!
JA: I might have to register the name…..
Sonics: Before somebody else does.
Thankyou to Stephen for typing up this article!