Exclusive interview – Alan Wilder (ex-Depeche Mode/Recoil) talks on synths, music creation and his upcoming auction
Steelberry Clones got a talk with none other than the synth legend Alan Wilder (ex-member of Depeche Mode and now front man of the electro/synth experimental act Recoil). Few can match the track record of Alan Wilder and few have had such an impact on the synth scene for the past 30 years, or so. Alan Wilder´s Recoil continues this tradition into the 21st century exploring the boundaries of electronic music, and since Alan now is in full preparation of delivering probably the world´s biggest Depeche Mode memorabilia auction at the Zion Arts Centre, we simply had to pose some questions to him regarding his music creation legacy, gear and plans moving forward.
“Collected” is the name of Alan’s big auction on Saturday 3rd September, for detailed information on how to join please follow this link:
So in just a few weeks time, over 400 lots will go under the hammer as Alan Wilder sells a large selection of musical / studio equipment and memorabilia at auction. Many items are very collectable and hold special value having been used extensively in the recording sessions for classic Depeche Mode and Recoil albums, as well as live performances on the ‘Black Celebration’, ‘Music For The Masses’, ‘World Violation’ and ‘Devotional’ tours.
But for most synth/electro fans this is truly not just any ordinary auction, but a clear reason why we needed to pose some questions to Alan about the auction in general and about his music making legacy in particular.
Why are you running this auction? is it for charity, or something else?
It’s for the charity of Alan Wilder unfortunately. Let’s be honest, divorce is an ugly thing and the record business has been in crisis for some time now. Having said that,I’m not over sentimental about retaining every little detail of my musical history. In fact I still have a large collection of essential items, all the releases I have played on, many photographs and unique personal things. But really, I need more space (and peace) in my life and this goes part of the way to achieving that. Indeed I found it an evocative and cathartic experience to sift through all the collectables – the actual sorting and cataloging process brought back great memories and I was able to re-live some key moments which I had inevitably forgotten about, reminding me of how lucky I have been to have enjoyed such a career, doing something I’m passionate about.
Will it not be hard to let go of many of these unique items – any particular items that are special to you, that we should keep an extra eye on at the auction?
Yes – many do hold wonderful memories of course but I don’t find myself actually using most of the equipment for example. One of my new year’s resolutions for 2011 was to start streamlining my set-up at The Thin Line Studios. My needs have altered since laptops, soft synths and plug-ins have come to the fore, and therefore passing on some vintage gear and historical items seemed like a good way to start. The Steinway grand piano and the ‘Devotional’ drum kit are two things I’m letting go with a heavy heart. Thankfully I have a second piano, and can’t really justify having two at the moment. And if I feel like picking up drumming again, I guess I can easily find myself another (cheaper) kit. As for something to keep an eye on in the auction, I think the unreleased box set known as DMBS 1-4 is likely to spark major interest. Known as the ‘Holy Grail’, these are the 4 extremely rare white labels from the Depeche Mode boxset that was never released. It was recalled at the last minute for unknown reasons. The Emulators with my own sound samples, the guitar used by Martin Gore for the ‘Devotional’ tour, and my touring wardrobe & stage clothing should all prove very popular. We have art proofs and one-off posters, and already we can see that album acetates are extremely desirable, being so rare. Only one or two are ever produced for a record release and I have quite a few of these iconic records. A few selected teaser items are currently on sale via eBay, and more will be added as we approach the auction. (http://shop.ebay.com/depechemodeatomegaauctions/m.html?_trksid=p4340.l2562)
Will you be joined at the event by any of your old band mates (DM)?
Not a chance:)
How can you part with your first synthesizer, the Minimoog?
I guess you could say that the mini-moog does hold particular value as it’s been with me for such a long time, throughout my career. It was the first synthesiser I bought around 1977, pre-Mode, when I was a member of Dafne & The Tenderspots. It was a big deal for us at the time as it was quite expensive and we couldn’t really afford it until we secured our record deal. It is still probably my all-time favourite synthesiser due to the famous fat 3-oscillator sound, and of course it’s an absolute classic. I continued to use it for many years on early Mode recordings such as ‘Construction Time Again’ and ‘Some Great Reward’ and even had a midi update added during the eighties. However, I also own a ‘midi’-moog, which is the rack-mount version of the original mini-moog. It pretty much sounds the same and serves my purpose in the studio. I found that I wasn’t using the original moog any more, and like many of these items, it has been sitting around gathering dust. Much better then that all these old synths should be cleaned, restored, repaired and passed on, to people who will dote on them, use them again – individuals who will fully appreciate their history and the symbolic (as well as practical) value they hold. And, the moog will no doubt increase in value, like most vintage gear. These synths are like old cars that need to be driven. The way I feel about most items in the auction is how I feel about the gold discs for instance – I never wanted to display them on my walls in some ostentatious way, and I think often the musicians themselves are not too bothered about those things. Gold discs mean a lot more to those who are more peripheral or outside of the original experience, but who are very passionate about what they represent.
Regarding the patch discs for the Emulator’s and Akai’s – have you made some backup of those sounds somehow?
Yes, of course, I have a copy of the sounds for myself.
The sequencer EDP Spider, was that your first sequencer? And does it work? It’s not clear on the web page – they are prone not to work.
I believe it does work but I didn’t have the unusual connecting cable to actually try it out. I guess it was my first and only non-computerised sequencer! Not that I used it much – although it was used to create the bass sequencer part for the Aggro mix of DM’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’.
Conclusively, if you are Depeche Mode fan or collector of vintage synth gear this is the one event not to miss out on. Now moving on to the music creation side of things we wanted to ask Alan all those questions about his gear, music creation and plans for the future, that comes when having the opportunity to talk a guy that has been a part of shaping the modern synth scene.
Recoil has been on quite an extensive tour recently, can you let us know how it was received and what your forthcoming plans are?
The European shows went really well at the start of the tour, particularly in eastern parts and Germany, Hungary, Poland, France etc. The US shows were a bit up and down, but generally quite successful I would say. I do think USA is the most difficult territory to tour, and it was a bit of a relief to follow that down to South America where the fans are so passionate and the crowds always wild, excitable. It was quite an experience there.
Regarding on-going plans, this year has been so busy with other personal things which have sadly got in the way of making much new music. I have never undertaken a Recoil project with a particular idea in mind, usually just a very vague notion. My approach is always both experimental and methodical so I just start throwing different sounds and loops together until I get a spark. I may say to myself that I’d like to work more with live musicians or perhaps not include too much spoken-word but these loose rules are never set in stone. I prefer to allow the music to flow completely naturally. I hope to get going soon. Time will tell…
I know that Vince Clarke and Martin Gore worked on remixes for the Depeche Mode remix album, plus that they have been active producing techno tracks together, any chances to see some involvement in these types of projects from your side as well going forward?
I often collaborate, as I am doing right now for a couple of tracks on an upcoming Talk Talk tribute album (due early 2012), but no plans to work with Martin or Vince. The TT project is very interesting with a lot of good artists involved. More will be revealed in the near future.
We interviewed Swedish EBM act Covenant, where Daniel Myer is now a permanent member. How did Daniel influence the work of Recoil, what will be his role going forward and how was it like working with him?
Actually he and I have become good friends. I admire his approach where he just gets on with things without getting too precious. He has boundless musical energy and a high output as a result, which is impressive. I guess he has inspired me to be a bit more spontaneous, make music on the move, and I love his Architect project and also the new Haujobb work (some mixed by Paul Kendall). Daniel is very imaginative when it comes to remixes. He produced some excellent re-workings of a Recoil track called ‘Want’ (available for free download by the way) (http://emr.emi.com/go.asp?/.mute.recoil.forms.download/bEMU001)
We (Recoil/Architect) hooked up for many live shows during 2010/11 and Daniel even joined Recoil on stage recently (along with Nitzer Ebb) for the Short Circuit Mute event at The Roundhouse, London.
Could you elaborate a bit how you interact with your project partners in the studio. Are you the ‘producer’ or are you equal peers in the creative process?
I am both producer and collaborator. I nearly always begin with some musical ideas (although occasionally I may include a voice sample, like The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet used on ‘Jezebel’) and I try to choose people who are technically proficient, who I also think will be empathetic with the Recoil approach. Good examples would be Joe Richardson and Diamanda Galás – both incredible singers with open-minded attitudes. The basic music (I wouldn’t call them songs at that stage) should at least lay a framework and some atmosphere to hopefully inspire the vocalist. Once a singer has come up with some ideas and we have recorded them, I then re-work everything, trying to wrestle it into a final piece. What we end up with can vary from a fairly straight song through to anything else that feels natural, or that just ‘works’.
In the open letter ‘Music for the masses – I think not’ – you talk about the change of business model for the industry. But the change is also about the other end, the listeners. Considering that the studio is now inside the laptop, distribution is done via Soundcloud/Bandcamp and marketing via Facebook/Twitter the slogan would be – “music made by the masses”? Or will the big money win in the end?
Hopefully not. I am increasingly disillusioned with record companies and what they don’t do for artists anymore, but not disillusioned about music and opportunities for good music to become available – even if it yields little income for the artists:( We all have to adapt I guess, and leave the record moguls to invest only in their pet projects, manufactured acts, A&R whims and fantasies. The rest of us will just get on with what we can, trying to generate revenue in other ways using the on-line tools at our disposal (or perhaps more live performance), with the more entrepreneurial types will coming to the fore I suppose.
From a more electronic music production perspective we have some more specific questions for you; there seem to be a fatigue of software instruments and using the mouse as the major way of interacting, on one hand there’s a growing number of knobs and button controllers as well as the new button matrix controllers (Monome, Launchpad) but also the multi touch screens (iPhone, iPad, Lemur) and the object controllers (Reactable), and on the other hand there seem to be a revival for the analog and in particular analog modular.
What’s you take on this development with a background as trained musician on piano etc. and using hardware synthesizers for decades? How much do you just play instruments or are you happy in the producer seat arranging in Protools/Logic etc?
For someone who plays piano, drums, a little guitar and enjoys the tactile nuances of performance, I actually do most of my work ‘in the box’! And I’m ok with that – I never really got on with mackie control and, even though we use launchpads live, for what I do in the studio I prefer the more meticulous editing approach. My main sound sources however are sampled performance loops and sections. I like to utilise the digital technology to manipulate these, retaining the human performance feels contained therein to try and create new, never-before-heard combinations. Soft synths don’t interest me much. Plug-in effects can be useful but often I apply very little to my original samples because they have all their inherent effects already built in. I’m interested more in dynamics, the jigsaw-like relationship between each musical part, the space and the overall atmosphere generated from a given soundscape.
I haven’t heard much music which sounds like it was inspired by a piece of kit. On the contrary, most of what we hear is cliched and predictable (but that has always been the case). As far as new-fangled toys, controllers & plug-ins go, I’ll look over the shoulders of those getting all gooey about them and occasionally dip into something of interest but I don’t see the toys themselves coming up with the ideas.
As always, the human brain and one’s imagination are by far the best tools.
The equipment used for ‘subHuman’ is quite well documented on your web and in interviews. Any new stuff you added recently?
No – I use less ‘stuff’ in fact, more idea discipline.
You seem to have used lots of analog and vintage synthesizers over the years but what about analog modulars apart from the VCS3?
I’m neither a modular expert nor a synth purist. I like twiddling the knobs and chancing upon happy accidents, and I enjoy feeding samples into analogue processes for filtering, envelope shaping and so on.
I enjoy old-school units like the Roland Space Echo for example.The Roland RE-201 Space Echo is truly a Vintage (1973) piece of music technology with lots of appeal even today. It’s not a synth, but a Tape-Echo machine for creating true analog echo effects. The RE-201 is a simple system in which a small loop of tape records an incoming signal and immediately plays the recorded sound back over a couple playback heads before being erased over by new incoming audio. A real analog system with warm, gritty and almost noiseless operation, the Space Echo can provide warm, unpredictable and highly tweakable echo effects.
In the early Mode days, the inaccuracies and idiosyncrasies of Daniel Miller’s ARP 2600 or Roland system 100, with their respective sequencers, would make for almost random events. The tuning was wonky, and the triggering of sounds via cv/gate, creating odd envelope shapes and squirting filters, could pleasantly surprise you in a way you didn’t expect. You don’t get that with digital units. I do miss some of that these days but I also remember how long it could take setting all that stuff up, and the frustrations when the boxes just wouldn’t do what you had in mind.
You have made a few longer pieces (‘1+2’, ‘Hydrology’, ‘Black Box’) which are more evolving, introducing several themes. They remind us a bit of symphonic pieces, with themes coming and going. Do you have a vision making longer tunes?
Well I always have an often clouded vision when making music, and allowing that to migrate and evolve as you go is one of the great joys in creating. At times, I end up combining several ideas into one long piece where others might divide them into separate songs. I do enjoy music which takes time to unfold, and which doesn’t conform to the standard pop/rock structures.
What about the super quality sound mentioned in the open letter ‘Music for the masses – I think not’. Have you made any attempts making music that really make artistic use of the hi-fi of 24/96k?
There is a bit of extra ‘air’ and presence/warmth when working at higher digital rates but most people don’t ever hear music in that format and the processing memory needed to run everything is far greater, inevitably slowing down the computer. Since I work mainly on a laptop these days, I tend to stick to what the majority will end up hearing (24bit, 44.1khz). If I do experiment, I’d rather go super high bandwidth to see what can be achieved. We did work at much higher rates for the ‘subHuman’ 5.1 mixes for example.
One final question. We know you are using lots of samples from all different sources. On ‘Allelujah’, there’s this bass line and resonant organ hit – is a sample of Redshift?
No – I’m not familiar with Redshift