Once Killing Joke's bass player, Youth has
established himself as a major figure in dance music production, with two BPI
Producer Of The Year nominations to his name.
PAUL TINGEN drops in on his Brixton studio.
An ordinary, detached, 19th century house in the heart of Brixton, South London. On the outside nothing suggests that it is anything other than home to a regular, honest, righteous, hard working (or non-working, as is equally likely these days) British citizen. Well, far be it from this writer to suggest that the people inside are anything but honest, righteous, and hard-working, but regular they certainly ain't. For starters, this house contains two recording studios, a demo studio, and a mastering room. So far so good. This is, admittedly, not unthinkable. London is swamped with recording venues, both private and commercial. Yet not many of them, surely, are stuffed full of crystals to create the "right creative vibration". And not many of them are choc-a-bloc with antique Eastern art and furniture, and have walls and ceilings covered with Indian rugs and carpets. And not many will have a garden containing two enormous, Giacometti-like statues of women, covered in half-burnt candles and set in a mystical looking environment of sculpted garden stones.
In short, this Brixton house looks, feels and smells like a typical hippy hangout. It looks as if it has just come out of time-warp, and landed here straight from the late '60s. It has a cozy, homely, but also rather absurd feel to it, and it is owned by one of the prime exponents of the punk era. Remember that bass player in Killing Joke, with a vague air of Sid Vicious about him, who in the early '80s played the part of every parent's nightmare to perfection? Singer Jaz Coleman gave the impression of being the kind of guy you wouldn't want to meet in a deserted alleyway after midnight, but Youth looked like the out-of-control-angry-young-man you wouldn't even want to meet in broad daylight at a bus stop. Yet, despite his appearance he must have had a gentle heart, because the most notable offence with which Youth was ever charged was apparently 'filthiness'...
Youth is sitting crosslegged on some cushions in the front room of his hippy-dance studio kingdom, and comments in a slightly camp, London accent: "This list really only covers the last year, man. It may look like a lot of work, but there's a lot more than this. Since I've set up this place I've been able to work more often and on more different things. My girlfriend [singer Zoe] complains that I'm a workaholic and that I'm obsessive about what I do. I always have far more ideas than I can possibly get done, even whilst having this label and doing all these different types of production and mixing."
Having come a long way since then, musically and artistically, let alone in sense of dress, Youth wastes no time in making clear that the main driving force behind all his activities is not a career plan, but a passionate belief in the power of music to make the world a better place. "It's very easy to be cynical about music, because it touches emotions and most people try and repress those emotions," he says emphatically. "It's a very easy target. But I think the truth is simple: if there was no music, people would want to die. You're talking about spirit. People may take music for granted, but they couldn't live without it. Music has an incredible effect on people's lives and on society as a whole, far more than people realise and far more than the government wants us to know. Why do you think that 90% of sonic research is done for military purposes?"
"We tend to think that people experience things in the same way, but that's not true. Everybody is totally unique, so what I try to do as a producer or mixer is to capture that pure point of uniqueness, that pure expression of someone I work with and communicate that in such a way that everybody can experience it. I look for emotions like happiness, sorrow, frustration, depending on what the song is trying to say, and try to express that in the song the way I see it. Not in the way that one's expected to see it or that the media tells one to see it. You have to communicate that uniqueness in a language that everybody else can understand, without losing that uniqueness. "My other aim is to break down prejudices in style and taste which basically cause a lot of unhappiness. If you start being judgmental about a person because of the way they look or the music they like, you're on a sorry road to a lot of unhappiness very quickly. You're not going to get a lot of joy out of life. So it's a great thing to be able to go to a club and hear some acid house one moment and Phil Collins the next, and you get into both without getting embarrassed. And when Kylie Minogue comes on you're already dancing to her music by the time you realise it's her. That's great. It makes you re-evaluate what you think is good and bad. When that conclusion hits you it filters through to the rest of your life and you stop being judgmental about people's colour and about all sorts of other things that you might have very firm ideas about. Hopefully what I do makes people question what they thought was real. By doing that you're moving mountains and you're literally causing nuclear explosions in people's consciousness."
Youth is warming to his theme and talks with as much energy as the late afternoon (he arrived two hours late for the interview because he'd worked till 6am the previous morning) allows. To make his point, he's not above mentioning that he was into Gary Glitter, Suzie Quatro and The Sweet in his teenage years, before getting into Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin and "early conceptual progressive music" like Can and Amon Duul. And after that there was of course punk, followed by "reggae, heavy dub and New York rap." It's one of the great strengths of current dance music that any type of music is now accepted as raw material to work on, and that people can assume any image they want, be it punk, rocker, hippy, disco diva or whatever. Long hair, short hair, nobody seems to care anymore. It's by the grace of this rather remarkable fact that Youth can present himself as a '60s style hippy and be a trendy hero of the UK dance scene at the same time. Enter here also, of course, his work with Bananarama and Wet Wet Wet, which only a few years ago would have stigmatized him as hopelessly uncool.
Sometimes you feel like he's on the verge of losing it, or at least losing the interviewer. For example, Youth is currently working on an instrumental solo project called Black Sun for an American label, coming as close to a solo record as he did with Empty Quarter and Brilliant (with KLF's Jimmy Cauty), in the mid and late 1980s. Asked whether he envisages releasing a solo record he says: "I don't think I could ever make a good record as Youth, because I don't know who Youth is." He laughs a bit sheepishly as he sees my raised eyebrows, and explains: "I can only see Youth in context with other people. Youth is a mask in itself and when I do other projects I use other masks like Blue Pearl, or The Orb, or whatever.
"But it's always a team effort. There will be a programmer, an editor, and engineer. We all work on one thing. Although obviously I get the mix or production credit and am responsible for the end result. When I do a mix or a remix I do an impression of a piece of music. I just give my impression of what I hear, what sounds I hear, what gets my heart beating. That's the hardest thing, to express yourself honestly and objectively. Because music doesn't lie. With music you see someone naked. It's very apparent what and who they are."
This is a central theme in Youth's universe: keeping check of what a piece is actually trying to communicate and getting rid of unnecessary frills. Like trendy sounds: "You can't use a sound because it's a great sound. You have to use a sound because the song demands it, because it's going to enhance the atmosphere which the song projects. If you start doing it the other way around, man, it's just showing off. It's entirely insular masturbation. I've got nothing against masturbation, but I think it's something you should keep to yourself, really. Are you just using a sound because you've heard it on another record and you think it will make you sound cool, or are you using it because it sounds like a thousand stars exploding and you want your track to sound epic?"
Youth asserts that technology is no more than "a tool for contemporary artists. Technology is like a paint brush. Anything that allows your imagination to go a little bit further is great. Look at what The Beatles were doing with Mellotrons and tape recorders. It's exactly the same as what people are doing today. When James Brown had his band with Bootsy Collins in the '70s he told them to play like machines and play as tight and minimal as possible and play like a loop, going round and round and round. So what's new?"
Youth agrees that learning to handle modern technology can be troublesome: "it's like learning a language. I had to do it. I had to become fluent in that language to realise the sounds that I hear in my head. And the depth of knowledge required today to create the kind of sounds that we're talking about is far more encompassing than it ever was," but disagrees that this means that a lot of modern musicians are in danger of becoming technologists: "You could use the same argument for the musician learning to master his instrument. Does that turn him into a craftsman?"
"I can be a keyboard buff. I can get into technology at a scientific level. But science is a kind of spiritual thing anyway, I think. You have to keep yourself in check, because what you think is your saving can be your downfall. It's entirely down to you and how you keep things into perspective. The sound has to be practical for what you're doing. It's important to have no rules and keep an open mind. Sometimes I like really clean sounds, sometimes I like dirty sounds. I do like a bit of earthiness. It's elemental. I like a bit of fire, a bit of air, a bit of water, a bit of earth. I like a nice balanced diet of sonic food." He's is off on a tangent again. Still, he does touch earth again to say that he prefers the Atari (with Notator/Unitor software) because "it's the language that people use in London in all the bedrooms where all the real work is done. They use Ataris because they're cheap and they do the job. Macs are an elitist medium. They're only for people who can afford to buy them. I'm not interested in elitist languages. I'm interested in contemporary things that everybody uses. When a new Casio machine comes out, I buy it.
"I know, Atari's crash, freak out, do all sorts of things that they're not supposed to do all the time. But even Macs crash sometimes. I'm really glad that Ataris do all these things, because sometimes they do things that I love. Like I'll leave one for a couple of days and when I come back and it hasn't crashed, it might have changed the sequence, moved a note or something. I'm sure that computers are like organic things. You create intelligence with all that circuitry. It's like a plant that starts doing its own thing."
"The DDA AMR24 which we have downstairs is the best, but the SSLs, for example, are built in a way that you can't sweep across the solo buttons with your hand. I use solo buttons in the mix creatively to change the arrangement. There's no computer automation which automates solo buttons. That's ****ing crazy. So I have to stay up 'till 4 or 5 in the morning going through all the muting and recreate a solo I did. Or I have to do it manually and can't automate it, which means that I have to listen back to the mix off tape and if I want to change it I have to go back to where I was five minutes ago, and I'm wasting time. It pisses me off."
As a result Youth has opted not to have automation on his DDA. "I'm fed up with automation. Working without it means that I have to work harder on mixes and stay up longer, but I enjoy it more. I get more involved and it's more challenging, and generally I find that the mixes are better." Another complaint he has about desks is the distance between the parametric EQ pots, where it's physically difficult to twiddle two knobs at the same time, playing around with them until one gets an interesting setting. "It's all too close together. The basic architectural lay-out is a problem. I appreciate that desks are labyrinths of nightmares to design, but equally I think it's basically very simple. It's been turned into some mystical science, and it isn't. It's very basic sound processing. We're still in the stone ages. We're still in the territories of frontier research. We haven't even started. The way these manufacturers present themselves, in the media with all the hype and bullshit, it's as if they've already arrived. But they haven't."
With these words Youth heaves himself to his feet and suggests that he takes me for a quick tour of the building before he gets back to work. First he shows me the DDA studio in the basement, which sports a Tascam analogue 24-track, Lexicons 480L and PCM70, an Akai/Linn MPC60, and Genelec and NS10 monitors. A visiting M1 is subjected to his derision, much to the amusement of the programmer. Upstairs he shows me the 16-track studio, home to a Tascam MSR16 and a Soundtracs PC series desk, and the small editing suite with its Macintosh and Soundtools digital editing. Finally there's the demo room, with a Tascam M312B desk, Atari, S1000, Midiverb II, SPX50D, NS10s', and, surprisingly, a DX7II. The latter instrument is being played by Jaz Coleman, who's making a gothic-sounding godawful racket together with Geordie Walker on electric guitar. Apparently Killing Joke have joined the ranks of the many bands to reform of late, and Coleman, Youth, Walker and an as yet unnamed drummer are scheduled to release an album in the middle of next year. After Coleman and Walker finish playing, having proudly demonstrated the fruit of their afternoon's work to Youth, who gives no indication as to whether he likes it or not, Coleman turns towards me and orders me to go and get him a bottle of wine in a local off-licence. Before I can say anything, Youth comes to my rescue and rebuts Coleman: "Why don't you go and get it yourself, man." Some people change, but others clearly don't. Maybe the Buddha should give it some thought.