Interview 2004 - by Rudy Adrian
AP Let’s begin at the beginning with some history. How did you first get into EM way back and when?
MS My first real experience of EM came when, as a child, I heard the theme music to “Dr. Who” (a cheap, but surreal show in the UK that started in the 60s). The sounds fascinated me (as well as the great theme). It was also the “atonal” qualities of some of the sounds that appealed to me too, the “other-worldliness” of their atmosphere. As I became a teenager in the 70’s I started listening to bands like ELP, Floyd, Zeppelin etc, the usual suspects. But I never quite got away from the weird stuff…obviously Pink Floyd at that time were a good supply of strangeness. A friends older sister played me Tonto’s Zero Time…this was a major discovery for me…an all-electronic composition. A year or two after that, I was laying back in bed (after a spectacularly unsuccessful girl-hunting trip at a local rock disco), listening to John Peel on BBC radio… hoping for some Floyd…. and he played “Mysterious Semblance..” from Phaedra. By chance, I had found heaven. To me, it was quite simply the most emotional and rather unsettling piece of music I had heard to date. From then on, I became hooked on German electronic music. Eventually, it became clear to me that I needed to express myself as a musician rather than just as a listener. When I could afford it (not for the first time, I was bailed out financially by my girlfriend), I bought a Yamaha synth…in 78 I think. I have been searching for the lost chord ever since.
AP Did you ever really feel an affinity for the so-called sound and philosophy of “cosmic music”, or were you more oriented towards the more earthly plain (i/e scoring w/ the girls and making money, smile)?
MS Hmmm…”cosmic music”…”girls”…”making money”… I’ve never been able to make that connection unfortunately. In fact, there seems to be no other form of music LESS likely to acquire those admirable goals than EM. I continue to do it because I feel a real “drive” to. I don’t know why exactly, but the urge to create this music remains as strong as ever. On the other hand, I don’t believe I have any deep philosophical agenda to pursue either. For me, music is about emotion, pure and simple. Most of the time I find creating music a very depressing experience, the only thing that keeps me doing it is, as I said, this strange self-destroying desire to hunt down that “perfect” piece… I know I shall never find it.
AP What were the names of your early cassette only releases and what kind of equipment did you use back then? Did you tend to improvise like early TD, or work within more structured compositional structures?
MS The first 2 cassettes released, simultaneously, by Martin Reed’s Mirage label were Ursa Major and Embryo. Followed quickly by Phantom…they were all put out in 1980 I think (although recorded a year before). The equipment for all 3 was basic… a Yamaha CS30 synth, Hohner K4 String Machine, phaser, flanger, all recorded onto a low speed Revox A77 which doubled up as tape delay machine. Improvising was all I could do at that stage…everything was new to me then, the technology, music, composition, even the playing (I had only ever played guitar originally). I would record a sequence line first, moving it, changing it constantly. Then I had to try and remember those changes while I added chords and/or top lines. The whole process was wonderfully organic, if a little primitive. When I listen to those pieces now they sound very raw, but they have heart…and the energy of youth.
AP In retrospect I do think that Thoughts Of War stands up as a fine example of early, second generation EM. How did it come about that you got it released on a Norwegian label, as opposed to some UK outfit.
MS Actually, Martin did release it as a cassette originally, but very soon after that Jarli Lastad, the mad Viking who ran Agitasjon in Norway contacted me saying there was a guy in Oslo who wanted to release T. O. W on vinyl and was prepared to pay for the pressings etc… so naturally I said yes. This was Tormod Opedal of Uniton Records.
AP Do you have any idea how many copies it sold (I may be straining your old memory banks here)?
MS I honestly have no idea…I would guess about 600 or so…based entirely on the number I’ve sold since of the CD re-release, but I may be wrong.
AP The Uniton deal was for only that album, what happened after that one had come and gone? I think I lost track of you for a bit back then…
MS Actually, Uniton released Assassin in ‘83 until Jive Electro signed me up in ‘84 and re-packaged it. My first “full” album for J/E was Legion, released in ‘85. Then in ‘87 I put out Crash Head, also on J/E. During this period I also got involved in writing songs for other artists, occasional soundtracks and some library music. In ‘95 I released Nocturne on the Sonic Images label…this was the last album I recorded as a solo artist (to date anyway).
AP Since that time you’ve done a variety of releases for a couple different labels, major and indie. How would you compare the two types in terms of recording freedom, sales potential, business ethics and amount of money you have made for the various deals (that answer could well result in a doctoral thesis on the industry I realize, but maybe you can give it a go)?
MS Hmmm. I think I’d rather talk about Jennifer Lopez… Jive was actually considered a “major independent” at that time in the 1980’s. I’ve always found that I could record whatever I wanted really. The only constraint being studio time and equipment hire costs. The experience (a first for me) of working with other people, engineers, producers etc was a huge learning thing experience. Not the least of which I had to come to terms with the fact that other people can have equally good musical ideas as me. It was a shock I can tell you. Musician’s egos are fragile at the best of times. Once I had got round this (after, I am ashamed to confess, some legendary tantrums) I really began to learn more about music…both technically and artistically. I loved that period…the proverbial “kid-in-a-sweetshop” scenario. I never felt any corporate pressure to change my music in any way. Obviously these kinds of record companies exist to make money…so by ‘89 when they decided that J/E wasn’t doing this it was folded. So basically, TD, Michel Huygen and myself were label-less. I never really felt bitter about it. They tried…and failed… simple as that…EM never became the big seller they hoped. I guess they never recouped the advances and studio costs that went into our albums… a common story. Legion alone amounted to about £65,000 in studio costs, and I believe the maximum sales figures worldwide were about 20,000. Now I’m no mathematical prodigy, but even I can work out that those figures don’t add up once you add promotion, advertising, packaging etc. Since then I have effectively “worked for myself”.... releasing albums as and when I feel like it. Clearly I can’t put anything like the funding behind it as a major can… but as I said before, If I was motivated by money, I would have chosen a different form of music altogether. My own experiences with record companies have generally been good… lucky for me I guess.
AP Of all your previous releases, which ones still remain in print today?
MS T. O. W., Embryo, Ether and Down Time…all are on CD.
AP What is the situation in terms of the rights to all these old albums?
MS All the old cassettes are mine, as is T. O. W. The rights to Assassin, Legion and Crash Head were bought up (at least the licenses were) by C + D Services. Nocturne is owned still by Sonic Images. Collide is mine as are all 3 Redshift albums.
AP A couple years back you formed the group Redshift. The overall response to them has been quite good. Was the intent with that band to “go back to your analog roots”?
MS Not specifically. I think one of the many reasons was as a reaction to the tedium I felt with all the “normal” E. M that had started to show up around the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. There were bands and artists (particularly in the UK and Europe) who were creating shockingly bland music…you know… cheesy little ditties over badly programmed drum machines using horrid thin digital preset sounds. People were releasing 5th rate soundtracks, to 4th rate films, that already had 3rd rate soundtracks written for them. In short… The Sci-Fi Anorak had hijacked European E. M. The “frontiers” style of E. M had been suffocated by all this “easy-listening-for-midi-nerds-elevator-music”. I was yearning to hear some darker, more unstable synthesizer music again, but no one seemed to be doing it. Around that time I purchased a few old analogue synths (some I had already owned years before) and started to really fly. It was as if I had totally forgotten how inspirational these instruments really were. I started to record some of these sessions (initially it was a solo thing). By chance I came into contact with Ed Buller who played me some earlier Node sessions on DAT. I was absolutely knocked out by what I heard…at last, someone was producing this huge, organic, threatening and above all, EMOTIONAL electronic music. Ed (and also Martin Newcomb of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology) managed to track down a Moog 3C modular for me. Now obviously, I had heard many recordings that had used this instrument over the years… but nothing prepares you for what it sounds like in the same room. It is quite simply a stunning sound… so rich, so powerful, and yet capable of so much delicacy too. I’ve been playing synths since the late 70s. I must have owned or hired dozens and dozens of different machines… and I’m telling you now… none of them even gets CLOSE to the beauty of a Moog Modular. It demands that you create music on it, there are no presets…keeping the same sound for any length of time is impossible… this for me is a virtue. All these computer plug-ins that are released now, you know…the ones that claim to be replicas of old synths… they make me laugh… they are truly terrible… these companies should be sued for making those claims… they aren’t even close to sounding like the real thing. I can only assume that it is hoped that the musicians who do use them have never heard a real analogue synth… or if they have, that they are tone deaf. I played a gig at KLEM ‘95 in Holland (under my own name to promote the Nocturne album)… and because I needed 2 other guys to help out we thought it would be interesting if we dropped in a more free-flowing sequencer based piece half way through. The crowd reaction told us all we needed to know... they went crazy for it. Moreover, it was more satisfying for us as musicians to play. When we got home the other 2 said, “why don’t we keep up with that style as a band?” (James and Julian by the way)… so effectively Redshift was born there and then. I had already finished most of the first Redshift album so the timing seemed right.
AP You’ve done some live solo gigs over the years, as well as more recently shows with Redshift, how does the audience compare from one decade to the next in terms of size, gender types and occupation (OK, this is another higher education-type question, but for me these are very interesting things to ponder...)?
MS I have a feeling it’s the same audience basically. Therein lies the problem with E. I feel that the easy listening mafia has really put off any new blood being attracted as listeners. When I first got into E. M in my early teens it sounded good to me because it was weird, dark, and yes…”cosmic” if you like. If I had been subjected to Turn of the Tides or whatever as an introduction to E. M. you would probably now be interviewing a Country and Western banjo player instead. The hardcore E. M audience are all getting older, some seem to have become rather jaded at a lot of the mindless pap being released and have left the scene (who can blame them?). Another strange anomaly is that the vast majority of E. M. fans are male. I have never really understood this. Good E. M. is surely amongst the most emotional music ever written. Maybe the lack of lyrics is the problem. It causes so much disappointment backstage after gigs too.
AP You ultimately ended up starting your own label. Often musicians find it problematic to handle both the making of, and selling of their own music. What was your reason for this?
MS Money. I had to be realistic about this. There was no way I could match the sales of Legion and Crash Head without a major company like Jive behind me. Some people did offer to release the Redshift albums, but the figures were ever so slightly in the rip-off area. It basically worked out that the label making the offer would rake in over 7 times the amount per CD than the artist would. It seemed totally unfair, and maybe another clue as to why E. M is slowly dying. It simply can’t afford those levels of individual greed.
AP In terms of CD sales, how many copies did the Redshift releases sell?
MS Not spectacular…the first Redshift has had a couple of re-presses, so it’s around 2,000 in total, say 50 of those as complimentary copies. Ether has done about 1,500, and Down Time about 1,200. (Well I did say we weren’t in it for the money!)
AP How large of an actual audience do you think there is for this current “neo-electronic space music” sound?
MS Well, call me Mr. Overoptimistic if you like, but…I have always believed that if this music got more airplay, sales would definitely increase. As a rule people don’t buy music they have never heard… so without airplay E. M relies on “word-of-mouth” alone. This doesn’t work. Tangerine Dream was regularly in the British album charts during the 70’s. They were also on radio a fair amount. During the 80’s, as their music became soulless and bland, the radio stations lost interest in them and their sales plummeted. Can you spot the connection? I live in hope that an enterprising D. J. will hear Redshift by chance… get totally chilled by us and start a new craze. You never know… after all, that’s how it happens for most forms of music.
AP I’ve heard rumor now of a new Redshift release for ages. What’s happening with that?
MS There is a live album ready to go and a studio album half way finished. All that is stopping us is… Yeah, you guessed…legal crap with an old publishing company. It’s taking forever to sort out, but it will get sorted… eventually.
AP As one of the “old masters” of EM, do you now have a grand plan to explore the outer reaches of the cosmic, and conquer the pop charts in mind for that one (tongue firmly in cheek here), or perhaps some more humble plan for the future?
MS A little less of the “old” please… In fact, just call me “master”. In many ways I feel as if I have all I want from life, I’m with my partner of choice, and I do exactly what I want when I want. The quest for extreme riches has abated considerably, that sort of thing doesn’t seem so important any more. Musically I feel drawn to creating these strange concoctions even though the process is quite painful. The end result usually is a desire to start the next piece and make it better… a never-ending circle with an unattainable goal. And like so many musicians, I keep at it even though I don’t understand why. As I recall, back when I was a teenager, I only wanted to be a musician in the hope that I would meet the blonde girl from Abba. There can be no finer reason for a life-quest such as this.