Billy Currie – Rocking down the road..

….toward a new style of transportation.

This article, by Robert L. Doerschuk, appeared in Keyboard (US) magazine, april 1989. We scanned this article and OCR’d it for you. Please let us know if any errors in the scan still exist.Note that all (c) are with the magazine and the author. We have added a couple of images for illustration purposes.

After a few days in the sun on baja’s sandy shore, Billy Currie spent the rest of his winter vacation nursing a seriously reddened nose and avoiding daylight as a houseguest of I.R.S. Records Chairman Miles Copeland. He seemed amiable enough over Copeland’s phone, despite his bout with beach burn. Still, knowing that Currie was at a crossroads of sorts, with his band, Ultravox, on ice, and his first solo album just breaking into the charts, it seemed to us that this singed young synthesist might not be in the mood for bad news.

Billy Currie, ready to rock in his London h9me studio (L to R): Korg Ml atop Yamaha KX88, viola resting atop Atari 520ST, Sony DAT player, Alesis HR-16 drum machine atop Sequential Prophet-VS and Roland D-550.

So, as we embarked on our interview, we decided not to mention the review of that solo effort, Transportation, in last month’s Keyboard. Since our March ’89 issuewas just rolling off the presses, we knew that Currie hadn’t yet confronted our assessment of his efforts: “Cliched sounds … placed in contexts that make little musical sense …. Gnat-like sequences that tinkle annoyingly … “

We could go on, but frankly, it’s too painful. Though our opinion of Transportation stands, so does our belief that Currie is an artist of talent and integrity, as well es, apparently, a good guy. For these reasons, not to mention that Keyboard reviews do boil down ultimately to just one person’s opinion, Transportation deserves a fair hearing from Ultravox fans and followers of adult contemporary music. And Currie, a major figure in the early days of British techno-rock, should have his say in Keyboard on this obviously important milestone in his career.

Transportation represents a fusion of Currie’s two distinct musical outlooks. Its extended structures and wide timbral range echo his interest in classical music, while the electronic instrumentation reflects his rock credentials. Though these traditions have interacted in his work over the past ten years, never have they fused as tightly as on this project. In this sense, whatever our reservations might be, Transportation is an excellent indicator of Currie’s current outlook and future directions.

As noted in our Jan. ’82 profile of the Ultravox keyboardist, the classical side of Currie stems from his early years studying viola and poring over orchestral scores in Huddersfield, his home town in northern England. Just after gaining admission to the Royal Academy Of Music in London, he shifted gears, abandoned his classical education, and began playing Hammond organ in a rockband. In 1975, he joined Ultravox, a London-based group then just beginning to pioneer the practice of transforming the energy of punk into more musically satisfying forms.

With Currie alternating between viola and keyboards, they hit on a powerful synth-based style that would later become known as tech no-pop.

The tight yet atmospheric synth work on such Ultravox albums as Vienna and Rage In Eden gives way to broader coloristic gestures on Transportation; as a painter of electronic colors, Currie has moved from pointillism to soft brush strokes. With little of the band’s rhythmic insistence on this album, this shift in orchestrational approach might seem inevitable. But it’s also true that Currie intended that his work on Transportation contrast with most of his Ultravox performances.

“I was fairly shrewd about that,” he chuckles. “The melody in ‘Airlift’ is quite Ultravoxy, so that any Ultravox fans who hear about this record will probably get some satisfaction. The chorus to ‘Rakaia River’ could be in an Ultravox song too. So, yes, I did detour a bit from the band, but not entirely. And where I did, it was mainly in terms of rhythm. I did the whole thing with a more radical, really crazy rhythm end.”

From day one on the Transportation sessions, rhythm was a major concern for Currie. “I was afraid of how I would tackle it,” he admits. “I’ve got a blank spot in that area, even with the band. I used to get frustrated with the rhythm side of Ultravox, yet when I started doing Transportation, I thought, ‘God, I have to do this on my own. Can I do it?’ That’s one reason why I got involved with the funk guys, to try and suss rhythm a bit more.”

Currie’s “funk guys” were actually neighbors of his in Notting Hill Gate, a section of London heavily populated by musicians. Both had played with Curiosity Killed The Cat, and continued to harbor deep interests in 70s-style funk with Funkapolitan. It was this fascination with R&B rhythms that drew Currie into their studio in the summer of ’87, just after the last Ultravox tour. At that point, after ten successful years, Ultravox was eye to eye with an uncertain future. “We had some problems with the rhythm section,” Currie says, “and we wound up kicking out our drummer, Warren Cann. Poor old Warren; he was actually a good friend of mine. But there’s always someone to take the crap when things start getting bad, and Warren took the crap. It was quite bad, really; we don’t even talk to each other anymore.”

To fill in for Cann, the band had brought in Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki to play drums on last album, U-Vox, which was released only in England. Though Brzezicki is an excellent player, he couldn’t provide the rhythmic cohesion Ultravox needed. “The problem is that Mark was too good,” Currie says. “Because he’s so amazing, he stamped a non-Ultravox thing onto the album, and it ended up not sounding like us. That was a tough album because we had just finished a two- or three-month tour under pressure of knowing that things weren’t working out. • Even before going on that tour, I knew that I just wanted to get out of that band and get on to my own thing.”

So, buoyed by a new rhythmic assurance, and restless to find a musical voice beyond his role in Ultravox, Currie finished three tracks at his friends’ studio, then sequestered himself in his own studio and went to work on Transportation. His initial conception of the project was quite different from the finished product. “I didn’t think of it as an instrumental record at first,” he points out, “although I had been thinking about doing an instrumental album as far back as ’83, when I did some fashion show music for my wife, who is a clothes designer. Actually, I originally wanted Transportation to be a band album, with some musicians who were into dance and funk music. I really enjoyed that influence, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I had to do this whole album myself.”

The further Currie got into the project, the more he felt himself being transformed by the experience-not just as a player, but on a deeper human level. “Doing the album by myself was so peculiar,” he explains, “because I was the total controller. It was quite a spacey experience, like travelling from certain points within yourself. It really changed me. It made me a lot more confident, because when you play in bands, you think in terms of areas: This area belongs to the bass player, so don’t get in his way. Everybody guards his own little territory. Ultravox had gotten a bit like that, actually. It was a sorry state.

“But on Transportation, I had to prove to myself that I was the boss. I couldn’t cop out. I had been very frustrated with the band, but now I had to ask myself whether I could actually do as well on my own. It made me realize a lot about myself. I came to understand that I’m very pushy; that’s why I’m quite often the leader when it comes to things like writing. Now, all of a sudden, I had no one to lead but myself. So even though I was working in my own studio, I couldn’t relax, because nothing would get done. I had to push myself.”

This meant not wasting time with dreaming up elevated concepts or searching for a perfect sound with which to unleash inspired ideas, but simply getting on with it. So, with no particular theme in mind, Currie sat at his Atari, booted up some Steinberg software, and began creating the piece that would eventually appear on the album as “RakaiaRiver (Mountains To Sea).” “This is mainly a piano piece, based on a Technics piano sound,” he explains. “It was a nice way to get used to the Steinberg program. I was very excited about being able to play something into the computer, then adjust it’ until it was exactly what I wanted. From the first time I’d ever worked with a computer, back in 78, this was always what I’d wanted to do.

“I didn’t want to worry about the sound,” Currie adds. “That’s why I did a lot of piano: I wanted to focus more on the harmony and the feel. That slightly sleazy vibe in the second verse of ‘Rakaia’ was influenced by the funk stuff I’d been doing; I never thought I’d be able to do something like that, but it came together very easily. It seemed a very good way to start the album.”

Currie worked smoothly on the rhythm tracks, seeking to emphasize them with a series of percussion samples, most of which were provided for his Akai S900 by programmer Mel Wesson. “Yeah, I was a bit lazy as far as percussion samples were concerned,” Currie confesses. “But I did take a sample of one stone scraping over another stone, which I used in ‘India.’ And I also got a guy to come in and let me sample the sound of him tap-dancing. I got a wooden board for him to dance on, but that was a bit dull. So hewound up dancing on the tile floor in my-studio. If you listen to the rhythm on the title cut, that’s actually the sampled tap-dancer.

“I did do most of the non-percussive sampling myself,” he continues. “In fact, I ,, often put my own viola and violin samples into the S900. The whole solo in ‘Transpor-., tation,’ along with the classical guitar at the end, is a sample of me playing viola in a rather serious style through the Steinberg. Because I am a viola player, I know how to put the right kinds of nuances into the computer. Doing that is actually quite stimulating for me.”

Currie’s fascination with sampling an individual viola does not extend to using samplers to duplicate acoustic ensembles. Perhaps becaus.e of his background in orchestral playing, this is where he draws the line, even where top-of-the-line samplers are used. “The problem is that when I listen to orchestral music played on a Fairlight or a Synclavier, it’s all a bit of a muchness,” he says. “It’s got a particular quality and character. I would love to use a Fairlight for certain things, like some of the brass and plucky sounds on the new Enya album [Watermark, Geffen, 24233], which were obviously done on a Fairlight. But quite frankly, after a few tracks of nothing but Fairlight, I’m bored stupid. I mean, I played in an orchestra for four years. Why the hell should I be copying one?”

So none of the sounds on Transportation were designed to aggravate string players. But Currie’s fellow synth players may be intrigued by the colors he builds around his mainstay instrument, the PPG Wave 2.3. “I’ve had the PPG for quite a long time,” he explains. “Ultravox got the very first one, in fact, back in 1982. It can be frustrating, always packing in [i.e., breaking down]. And it’s not a particularly powerful sound, as related to newer things like the [Roland] D-50 or [Sequential] Prophet VS. But I can always get something interesting from it, something that changes the character of the mix.”

To boost the intensity of the PPG sound on tape, Currie frequently runs it through outboard chorus and other effects, or mikes it live in the studio through an amp. “That’s a trick left over from working with the German producer Conny Plank, who died several years ago. God, that was terrible. He taught me so much. One reason why I got such a great sound from the ARP Odyssey in the old days on, say, ‘Sleepwalk’ [from Vienna] was that Conny would grab it, run it through a Mesa Boogie, and mike it up quite cleverly. I wish I could still be working with him today.”

The Prophet VS also plays a prominent role on Transportation, along with an Oberheim Matrix-12. More subtle touches were added on D-50 and Yamaha TX816. “I got the D-50 right before the end, so I didn’t use it that much,” Currie recalls. “That glassy Balinese sort of sound on the main melody to ‘Traveller’ comes from the D-50, along with some strings from the Yamaha rack. I’ve stored some good sounds in the TXs, although I rarely bother to go into the FM system, because, to be honest, it’s such a bloody headache. The D-50 is a complicated little bastard too. It can annoy the hell out of you. There are some good sounds in there, but I avoid them like the plague because everyone uses them. And it’s like the Korg M1 in that, when you start changing these sounds to make them different, the entire sound can fall to bits, since the instrument doesn’t have much memory capacity.”

Currie was already well into the album when the idea of travelling began to emerge as its motif. Without having consciously planned for it, he found that the music seemed to reflect different locations or feelings about moving from place to place. “I’ll give you an example,” he says. “I started ‘English Home’ from a base that captured the feel of modern English orchestral music. A lot of that came from the bass sound, a kind of plucked cello bass. I got it from a Fairlight Series Ill, which I was actually using for drums on another track. It gave me the idea for ‘English Home,’ so I stored it, then used it later for that piece.”

Though the idea of transportation clarified only gradually, Currie admits to being guided to some degree by his awareness of what American adult contemporary stations are playing. “Frankly, that did give me a boost while I was making the record,” he says. “I thought a lot about what was happening in the States, because it’s not happening in Britain at all. Still, I was like a dog with a bone. Whether Transportation got played in Britain, I was determined to see it through.”

Inevitably, Currie’s growing enthusiasm for making Transportation an instrumental project led him face to face with the dreaded demographics monster. Even people who had worked with him closely apparently had trouble understanding his notions on how the albtim should be marketed. “My manager listened to some of the early mixes, before I brought Steve Howe in for the guitar parts. Then, for the first time in my life, he started trying to pigeonhole my music. He said, ‘I can’t sell this! It should be on a classical label!’ Then my American manager listened and said, ‘Why don’t you try to put this on Lee Abrams’ label (Cinema]?’ It was then that I realized that I preferred to keep Transportation in the rock .area. So I went back to the studio to dirty it up a bit.”

Despite all that, Transpor-tation frequently finds itself filed next to mellower brethren in the new age bins, much to Currie’s chagrin. “Even the blurb stamped on the front of the album says’ richly flowing melodies,”‘ he fumes. “And I think, ‘What the hell is this?’ Because my stuff isn’t ‘richly flowing.’ It pisses me off a bit. I mean, I’m pleased that there are stations like the Wave in America. But a lot of what you hear on them is middle-of-the-road, played by musicians who really aren’t that competent.”

Doesn’t that attitude create problems with radio people who might otherwise give Transportation a sympathetic hearing? Currie snorts. “Well, I don’t want to be difficult. Some people do say I’m trying the audience too much. But that’s the whole idea. I want people to put the headphones on and get slung around a bit” 

A selected Discography

Solo Transportation, I.R.S. (dist. by MCA), 42239. With Ultravox Collection, Chrysalis, 41490. Lament, Chrysalis, 41459. Quartet, Chrysalis, 41394. Rage In Eden, Chrysalis, 41338. Vienna, Chrysalis, 41296. With Other Artists Pleasure Principle (w. Gary Numan), Atlantic, 38120. Solo In Soho (w. Phil Lynott), Warner Bros., 3405. Visage (w. Visage), Polydor, 16304.