Eyeless In Gaza
Although using pre-recorded backing tapes onstage has great potential in terms of complexity or depth of sound, its greatest disadvantage is inflexibility. A very simple format of using just a click track on tape to drive analogue sequencers and for a drummer to play against gives perhaps the most flexibility, since sequencers can then be switched in and out at will, and the tonality of the sequences changed giving a greater space for spontaneity and improvisation. Alternatively a rhythm box can be used instead of tape to perform a similar function, syncing up a drummer or actually providing the rhythm tracks, and with an external click to drive sequencers. This takes you clear into the domain of machine driven set ups.
Until recently, Eyeless In Gaza were an avant garde duo, whose live performances were made somewhat remarkable by Pete Becker’s antics, which involved playing basslines on a Wasp synth with his left hand, whilst playing a makeshift drum kit with his right. For various reasons a change of direction has occurred and though the band are still only two the other partner being Martyn Bates on guitar and vocals their live performances have been augmented by the use of a UMI sequencer interface.
Briefly, for those of you who have not see our review of this system (see June/July ES&CM) the UMI, used in conjunction with a BBC B micro computer, enables you to split 16 part sequences between two keyboards, and to drive a drum machine as well. Sequences can be created in real time, arranged in any order to achieve complex and structured song patterns, and then stored on floppy disk.
Eyeless In Gaza’s live set up now consists of DX7, Juno 60 (with MIDI interface) and a Roland TR909 in addition to Peter on bass and Martyn on guitar and vocals. The versatility of the UMI enables the band to have a great variation in the live presentation of their songs something which conventional live bands rarely achieve. Pete; “Using the UMI, I have the DX7 playing a bassline when I’m actually playing the Juno, or when I’m playing the bass then the two keyboards are either playing like a brass or string arrangement. I like to use these things to make it sound as though you could imagine a horn section or strings playing it’s not used in an overtly electronic way. What we do is more like a conventional group thing, it’s just that there’s two people missing.”
Perhaps the most off-putting thing about using machines in live situations is the idea that they may not be user friendly and could lead to embarrassing breaks between songs. As yet Pete has encountered no major problems in spite of the fact that prior to their present set up the band had never used a sequencer onstage before.
“All the songs are stored on disk. You start one song and it plays. Three minutes later it stops by itself and then you have to key in the information for the next song which takes about ten seconds. So it’s perfectly usable in a live situation, and if you do it sensibly you can even have two or three songs running together with one song stopping, then a four beat gap, then the next song.”
The UMI interface which Eyeless use is one of the early models, and since they purchased it another model, the 2B has come on the market. Hopefully therefore, the few problems which Peter has run up against will have been put right on the newer system.
“The only thing that I’ve got against the UMI is that it doesn’t remember tempo. On the hardware box it’s got a little knob that you turn and on the VDU it’s got a readout of BPM. So in between numbers I have to go back to the main menu, which means hitting one knob, and then looking at the screen and turn the knob which is quite fine and it tends to shoot up to 300 bpm then back to 30 when you want it to be 100. So you tend to panic about people waiting for the next song.”
Prior to the TR909 drum machine which they use in the present set up, the band used the TR808 for a while, though their reasons for changing were more to do with programming-capacity than with the actual sound of the machine.
“We could only get about five songs out of the 808 which worked if you wanted a sort of chick-boom-chick-boom thing going all the way through; it was OK for hypnotic dance stuff. But what we do now is big pop and I wanted to get away from all that, so memory was all important. I can get a whole live set out of the 909 which is about an hours music.”
Although the sounds on the 909 are a bit better, only the cymbals are digital and it still needs some additional treatment to make it come alive through a PA.
“I take the bass and snare out separately, and depending how many channels there are on the desk I usually take the stereo-out for the rest of the mix. That’s just so they can be Eq’d, because the bass drum sounds like it’s got 300 pairs of socks in it and you really have to get that treble spike to come out. Then when we hire rigs we usually put the snare through something like a Roland D200 delay to give it a longer, more resonant sound. It’s never going to sound like a guy hitting a real kit, but for us now that’s just about OK.”
The biggest problems come out not from interfacing with the computer, but from interfacing with the sound crew.
“Sometimes the guy behind the desk may get a bit confused because there’s only two guys onstage, and on one number, I’m playing bass and the next number I’m playing keyboards. And sometimes the DX7 is playing a bassline and the next number it’s playing strings, so I’ve got to get a middle ground on the EQ so that it sounds good whether there’s a string or a horn part coming out.”
More than tapes, sequencers and computers are prone to the ‘tin box’ stigma, and it can be a bit uncanny suddenly having all this wonderful music materialising out of thin air. However the biggest worry tends to be that equipment might malfunction.
“It’s a bit weird because you’re always thinking is this machine going to go wrong? But than the drummer could get totally drunk so there’s really no difference.”