I Voice ropes in an old friend to discuss the nature of live electronic music and what that means today. Tim Sheridan joins Christian Pickersgill to get to the bottom of this heated debate...
There is a pressing question that has troubled the musicians and press of the european music industry for some years now. "What is 'Live' Music?" It seems a straightforward enough query but it has been troubling both Musicians and their union representatives for over ten years. Not a coincidence that these questions arose in tandem with the rise of the DJ and electronic music in general and have reached a peak today together with the popularity of laptop DJ tools and software programs such as Ableton, Traktor and Mainstage.
It's no surprise to the industry that for some time a discontent has been brewing about acts billed as "Live" and what that both constitutes and costs. However this concern is now crossing over to the dancefloor and the everyday follower of the rave. There was a period when perhaps the novelty of seeing new equipment in a club stopped too many questions being asked. But now it is fair to say most clubbers have an opinion on this burning question. What is "Live" ? We have all seen it, the transition from sweating, dancing, working DJ... to cool, collected and let's be honest... looking like they are checking their emails... Laptop DJs of today.
One could argue the rise of new technology always promotes revolutionary unrest. The simple use of CDJs and CDs was quite a stir that seems almost quaint now in retrospect. However while the minutiae of the technological details of DJing are in almost constant discussion.... the impact upon the musician is larger, wider and goes back much further.
Simply the birth of the Roland TR 808 and 909 machines in the 1980s was a scene of destruction upon the world of the humble drummer. Huge clumsy drum kits flooded the second hand market as bands cut their costs AND became new and cool in one savage move of firing personnel. In fact as technology has developed we have seen a clear downturn from the huge bands and studio costs of the 1970s, to a bedroom revolution where a single and most importantly untrained individual can accomplish what previously took a team of many people and a lot of money in the past. The advantages of this are clear. The downside less so.
There is obviously a wider question of a perhaps philosophical nature and certainly a sociological one ; that technology is encroaching on our society in many extreme and new ways. This is happening across the whole spectrum of society, not only music. However the use of a microcosm as a model may open our eyes to the bigger picture of the impact of technology upon our selves and our structures. We could certainly ask ourselves "is there a line?" is technology, like consumerism, when left unquestioned and unchecked a good thing? Will there be a technological 'crash' to mirror the recent economic one? Certainly in our line of work there is a tacit feeling that all technology is 'good' and to be embraced without question. There is always a danger in the unregulated and unquestioned.
So we asked The Voice's old friend Tim Sheridan to join us in this musical conundrum. He is launching a brand new project that, put quite simply, is a fully live digital band. "The VVWI Limited Love Orchestra." This concept appears to very clearly bridge the gap between technology and musicians and while it is certainly not the first to do so, it is happening at a time when the question has never been more pressing. We asked him for his definition of "Live" and as usual, he had a lot to say on the issue.
T.S “For me "Live" is very simple, although I can see why it appears complicated. If somebody is presenting anything that is pre-cooked, anything that is already finished and recorded in advance... then I would not call it a live performance. And that includes a musician playing alongside a backing track... which to me is, how can I describe it? er... a form of non-vocal Karaoke. My feeling is that unless every note can go wrong at any time, unless every beat is a risk... then it is not live. It is safe. Live is the absence of a safety net. What is the point of going to a circus and watching the trapeze without the risk of death? Or going to a top restaurant and being served pre-cooked frozen food?
Don't get me wrong, I personally enjoy seeing a musician on stage whether they have a backing track or not. But I think the thing that is angering musicians certainly is the distinction. A lot of what we are seeing now is just new, it's not wrong! but it is wrong to use the word "Live". So perhaps to outsiders it seems a petty argument, but I understand the thinking behind it from a musician's perspective...”
So far so fair. Perhaps the question is one of language only. Or perhaps what he does not mention is the issue of "authenticity". An issue that is perhaps stronger and more widespread than we take credit for. In this age of plasticity and hyperbole'... the search for authenticity seems an almost spiritual quest for some. The need for something to be "real" or to be "as advertised" is a cry for help from people drowning in falsehood and consumerism. Truly "The Underground" of all art forms is based on this quest for truth. The artists that are deemed authentic and true are always lauded with great affection and attract a fiercely loyal crowd.
We asked Sheridan what his new band comprised of and if the question of authenticity was a priority:
T.S “I think if the foundations of what you do are true, then everything that comes up from the foundations is authentic. Basically "The Limited Love Orchestra" sounds quite grand but it just four of us. But we all play. Although I am the weak link in it! We are drums and vocals, bass, wind instruments and keyboards but all are MIDI and all are fed into 3 computers for FX and mixing. So while we utilise often exactly the same technology as say... a DJ, the source of the music comes from a musician. It is performed and the technology is used just to enhance... it doesn't drive the thing. Technology to me, bottom line, is just a tool. I'd make music out of rocks and bones if I had to. It's all about the person behind the tool. Are they in charge of the technology, or is the tech running the show? It's like in a Film, the best CGI is the stuff that you don't notice, it has served it's purpose so well it appears 'real'. It's the hand that wields it that matters. I suppose what I am saying is that with us it is all about the Monkey not the Organ Grinder haha!”
Which reminds us if the moment in Stanley Kubrick's "2001, A Space Odyssey" , where the ape discovers the bone as a tool and hurls it into the sky as it morphs into a spaceship. Both are tools. But are we still monkeys? Sheridan seems to think so:
T.S “There is no difference in what we are doing than say... Kraftwerk. It's all been done before. They were performing live with new instruments, electronic instruments, long before the sequencer. It's an important distinction. A sequencer, as you may imagine, sequences notes. It allows music to be repeated indefinitely. So before sequencers you had to play every note. If you wanted a percussion sound to go through the duration of a track you had to get a musician to play every note of it. As music became more minimal and more about the overall production and less about the ego of individuals... you couldn't find a musician to do such a boring and simple job. It was either beneath them or cheaper to use a machine. So as part of the ongoing language debate... we use loops. Sequencers basically. Meaning a circular repetition of a part that plays almost constantly, but we make the loop in front of your eyes... or is it ears? haha! So we certainly tread the line and a purist would say that is cheating, so you can never make all the people happy all the time. But my criterion is that a musician uses the tool in front of an audience. It is not pre-recorded. So for me nothing has changed, we are the same performing monkeys but with shiny new toys hahaha!”
“These arguments are not new, in the era of Music Hall it was too expensive to hire a full orchestra so amplified stringed instruments were developed. Crazy instruments with brass horns grafted onto Cellos for example. When the Mellotron and Chamberlin came out in the 1960s there were strikes by some musicians. It's basically an early machine with a keyboard that played loops of tape and could reproduce strings and woodwind and other ensemble sounds. So everyone was up in arms that it was putting musicians out of work. Also The Fairlight in the 1980s from Australia, essentially one of the first samplers... again there was protests. Sampling in all it's forms was a big issue too. My opinion is that this technology is at it's best when in the hands of musicians, which is usually where it ends up eventually. Once they have stopped panicking hahaha!”
So technology in the right hands is a good thing but what about the "wrong" hands. Is this simply a case of the musician being a snob and anyone who is "unqualified" musically is excluded? Surely the point of these leaps in technology are all about putting music making into the hands of the people and out of the hands of an elite? The very ethos, lost though it may be, of Acid House was one of togetherness and a DIY ethic. Do It Yourself! don't wait for a music industry to feed you it's produce. Over to Tim:
T.S “Yeah I would say the difficulty of these questions orbits around the issue of snobbery and elitism. Absolutely the means of production should be in the hands of the workers. I am a massive steaming communist and I am all for that. I think things should be judged purely on merit. Do you like it? does it make you feel good? Are you happy with it? Sadly I think both technology and music in generally have been hijacked a bit by people who are more interested in fashion and being cool than actual notes and rhythms. It's a shame but it is more about who is doing it than what you are hearing.
Technology is used sometimes by people without much to say as a substitute for skill. After all, a lot of technology is about "labour saving". I mean, think about mobile phones... ask yourself ; "how many phone numbers are in my head?" When I was young I had oooh... maybe a dozen phone numbers in my head? now I struggle to recollect my own if my phone is gone haha! but you see what I mean? so in some ways technology replaces skill. In my opinion the perfect situation is technology wielded with a skillful hand. Which is why we are a band for example, I am a total techno-idiot in some areas, so one of our member is a qualified Apple Mac teacher and studio producer.... not bad on piano too!
I am certainly not a fan of elitism. Of musicians using their...er... certificates of qualification... waving them about to say they are more entitled to perform than someone without them. I mean I had a grounding in formal music but I abandoned it at a very early stage and taught myself a lot of things. Some of the best electronic music I have heard is made by people who couldn't read a single note of written music. Again... I think it is a great meritocracy. A great leveller. There is only two types of music ; Good and Bad. All the rest is opinion and the entire thing is totally subjective. So technology is a liberator for those who are considered "amateur" by snobby "professionals". And it is perhaps a good way of spotting which "professionals" are not snobs because they embrace the new.”
Sheridan has always had a foot in performing live electronic music. In fact he has been doing so since the mid 1980s. A line can be drawn through Acid House, with The Utah Saints, through Acid Jazz and Funk and his work with the legendary Jerry Dammers and even his chart band Dope Smugglaz was entirely live electronica. His new project "The VVWI Limited Love Orchestra" is a step away from the decks and back into music performed live. Although nothing new, we do struggle to think of a comparison, certainly in the light of today's laptop scammers.
While many, many dance acts are billed as "Live", they really are not. They are certainly held together with a sequenced program that is inflexible and pre-decided. Sheridan suggests that one "test" of someone's claim to being "Live" is simply to ask them to speed up or slow down mid track. Perhaps he is right... the technology has taken some if the skill away from music and replaced it with ease. Why bother learning the guitar when a computer can do it for you? why risk anything going wrong when you can cheat?
Most importantly, does anyone actually care? Ultimately it is a dancefloor of democracy and people vote with their feet. A schism seems to have appeared in the meantime. Those who enjoy bands... live music of all kinds. And those who prefer to dance. If anything sometimes the appearance of a live element in a club can be greeted poorly. People sometimes prefer the constant beat on a crystal clear sound system than a rough and ready noise produced by a band outside of the protection of their producer and studio. Some people actively seek and prefer the grittiness of live music, it's edgy state of risk, rock and roll. Does it always have to be one or the other or is there a middle ground?
T.S “It was the intention of our band to be a band.... risky and flawed.... but the sounds we make are from the studio. Triggered by MIDI. So we hope... and it's our main intent... to sound very much like a DJ. Ideally if you closed your eyes you would have difficulty making the distinction between when the DJ ends and our band begins. We wanted to have that high production value. Not to sound under-produced and rough. But to be as shiny and clean as the tracks that have been playing all night. But we want to add to that with improvising musicians and the experience of seeing it done live. You know, to see a GROUP. People interacting musically. See the sweat and skill too. I agree with you about "production values". I learned this very acutely at Manumission some years ago. They were obsessed with live music. Which is very clear now with Ibiza Rocks... but what was it... 5 or 6 years ago? they were, in my opinion, trying to force live music into a situation that wasn't ready for it. I had what could be seen as a really, really difficult or really, really easy job haha! I had to DJ while bands would come on and off throughout the night. Don't get me wrong... some of these bands were amazing. Like The Strokes, Electric 6... some big acts. But the environment was all wrong.
And I may be over simplifying it but to me it seemed pretty much all about sound quality. If you even have one... that's just one! most acts have several microphones... but you bring one microphone into play and immediately you get feedback, noise, loss of quality. I mean it's obvious! it is not a studio! but what I found was I would be DJing, which by this time was quite advanced with better stylus technology, sound systems tailor-made for clubs and also using digital stuff like CDs, so therefore very high fidelity. I would be DJing and then it was time for the band... there would be a scream of feedback... a muffled voice perhaps... the music stops dead.
The bands don't understand that clubbers don't like it when you break the groove. I mean quite naturally bands are used to being the focus of attention. So no band, and I am talking over a period of 3 seasons so that is many many bands.... none of them start immediately. They shuffle around a bit and during that, what? only a few seconds sometimes... during that changeover I would watch the room empty in a flash. Not because the band was bad but because the moment was lost. The momentum of a club night is continuous. You don't have long pauses of silence or noisy interruptions at DC10? no it's hours and hours of a seamless mix. I mean clubbers lose interest sometimes if DJs change over haha! so bands didn't have a chance. And actually the worst thing about it for me was coming on as a DJ after the bands. Because often the room would explode into dancing and cheering just because the clubbers were hungry for that clean Bass drum and computerised sound. So it felt genuinely awful for these great musicians to get a lukewarm response if any response at all... and on top of that people cheering the fact they had ended, not cheering their set! it was terrible because I am a musician and I really felt bad. So you could say I started this project for two reasons. One was the fact that guys with laptops were being billed as "Live" really annoyed me! haha! sorry but it's true. And Secondly I genuinely feel there is a space for musicians in clubs if it is done correctly. I've had over 20 years to observe it and sometimes get it wrong haha! but I feel this time I have a handle on the thing.”
So in true eccentric style, rather than earn their dues in the back of bus touring tiny venues and rehearsal rooms, the VVWI band are playing their debut gig on the main stage of one of Europe's biggest and most talked about clubs, "matter". Situated inside London's huge Millennium Dome and designed from scratch and run by club legends "fabric".
Surely it is a sign of the times that such a huge prestige venue would send out a message that "Live" is highly desirable and it is a future clubs are keen to invest in? Has our scene stagnated somewhat? The emergence of so many dance producers billing themselves as "Live" whether you agree with the terminology or not, is certainly an indicator that things need to move onwards and forwards. The desire is certainly clear. Producers wish to be seen as live acts, that much is certain. However the argument over what that word means will rage on for some time we think. We leave with the opinion of Tim Sheridan on this as we discuss with him the future of this dilemma and possible solutions:
T.S “Yes I agree with you that it is clear that artists want to be seen as "Live". There is a tacit consensus that "Live" is somehow "Better" than not being live. I don't adhere to it myself but I agree it is out there. I enjoy well produced pre-recorded music a lot! I won't stop DJing or enjoying DJs and neither will the clubbers I think. I'm doing a live band because I always have. This is just the latest version of something I started in ... oh God! like 1985 or something! hahaha! Old bastard! It's a shame that the argument seems to be one of semantics. In the same way I always said that "Minimal" is just a word. People invent a vocabulary for music for marketing reasons sometimes. Sometimes my music would be charted or sold as "Minimal" and I would be mortified! mainly because I have no idea exactly what that means and I certainly didn't intend it and it's not fair on those producers who want to be considered minimal. They are far better qualified that I am. So they are just labels of convenience. I for one won't dismiss an artist if they say they are live but have some loops going on. It's either good or it isn't! Maybe it's more about how much drugs you take hahaha!
It's scary being in a band again after the comfort of Djing. I mean... just physically playing an instrument for hours is very hard! really. Playing the drums is like Jogging sitting down. But like all difficult things it is rewarding. I have to say... if I see a great turntablist. I mean a top notch, shit-hot, hip hop chappy giving it some proper cut and paste... I don't see the difference between that and a guitar solo. It takes great skill and is enjoyable to watch even if you can't dance to it. I'd love to see more dance music... and by that I mean very definitely music you can dance to, married to some musicianship. I always enjoy anything that adds and enhances a club, without taking the good bits away if you get my meaning. I don't think the flood of laptop fellas being called "Live" is the end of anything.
I hope House Music will never die. It may just get more alive in fact.”