Midge Ure: a man with a gift.
This interview with Midge Ure, frontman of Ultravox was published in Sound on Sound, november 1985. Author: Ian Gilby, Photos: Ralph Denyer
In between tours with Ultravox and appearances on Live Aid, Midge Ure somehow found the time to discuss the writing and recording of his first ever solo LP ‘The Gift’ and his No.1 single with SOS Editor Ian Gilby.
“I originally talked about doing a solo album three years ago when I released my first solo single (a version of the Walker Brothers’ hit ‘No Regrets’), but I never found the time. It wasn’t until November ’84 that I began planning this album and then the Band Aid Christmas single took priority, so I shelved the idea. What had initially started out as a two- to three-month project eventually turned into a six-month one because of my involvement with Band Aid – and that is much longer than I like to take over recording any album.”
The songwriting itself was staggered over a similar period since Midge had no reserve of reject Ultravox songs to fall back on. “What most solo albums are usually comprised of,” he explained “are rejected songs from previous band albums. Ultravox only write the right amount of material for each album we’re working on and we tend to scrap things as we go along; we don’t ever finish a track and then say it’s not good enough to make the album.” And that for Midge, meant writing a whole new collection of songs for the project.
With The Gift, Midge Ure manages to produce an altogether more convincing music than we’ve come to expect from Ultravox of late. Listening to the album, it’s easy to recognise specific elements of the Ultravox group ‘sound ‘, in particular the famed tiers of synthesized string parts, but as Midge says, “it’s very difficult to separate the two. What I hear on my solo album as being Ultravox‑ish is me! I can’t change that fact. That’s how I sound.”
Judged simply as a statement of what he is personally capable of creating outside of the inevitable musical confines of a successful band structure, The Gift is certainly a fine achievement. Stylistically, the album covers a wide range of material from out‑and‑out instrumental music — the oriental flavoured ‘Edo’ (surely destined to accompany innumerable future TV documentaries on the Far East); to an excellent cover version of a rock classic — Jethro Tull’s ‘Living In The Past’; then to the powerful, yet sad, social commentary of ‘Waste Lands’.
Mixed with these are several instantly memorable tracks (‘She Cries’ is one) that would undoubtedly make potential hit singles (were they released), so I asked Midge who was responsible for the choice of the less than obvious first single release ‘If I Was’.
“I chose it” came the reply. “I just think it’s a good pop song. I don’t discriminate between pop or rock music, I just believe that a good song should always be well‑crafted and, to my mind, that’s true of ‘If I Was’. There’s some better stuff on the album sure, but as an initial single it’s quite a good track. People don’t expect to hear me singing an out‑and‑out pop song I’m sure and I felt it was a suitable thing to immediately establish the solo album as different from Ultravox. It was either that or releasing one of the instrumental tracks…” With the single nestling in the No.4 slot of the UK charts at the time of writing, it seems the British public firmly agree with his decision.
Living In The Past
Midge’s appreciation of a well‑crafted song is the main reason for including on the album a cover version of ‘Living In The Past’ — a Jethro Tull tune that first caught his attention at the ripe old age of fifteen. “It was around the time when I was forming my first bands back in Scotland, and that song really stood out for me. Probably because it was one of the first ever songs by a bonafide rock band to successfully cross over to the singles market and become a hit. And it has stuck in my mind ever since.”
Midge’s version of the song departs radically from the original recording except for his vocal rendition which emulates the dry, up‑front production style so characteristic of Tull’s original. The result, for me, is one of the best Ure vocal performances yet captured on record and, in an age when even the best vocalists are rarely heard without their voice first being processed through expensive ADT and reverb devices, to expose himself like that was a brave move indeed. It only goes to show how surprisingly good a vocalist he actually is.
“I went for a very intimate vocal sound on that track in particular” he said. “To achieve it, I had to sing quietly, close‑up to the studio microphone which I don’t normally do. I usually stand well back and belt it out, especially when I’m going for the high notes like on ‘Vienna’.”
The overall arrangement of the song is quite different to Jethro Tull’s. The bass part, for example, is newly composed and played by Level 42’s Mark King who really has helped add sparkle to the track. How, I asked, did Mark’s involvement in the project come about?
“I happened to bump into him last year when Ultravox and Level 42 were appearing on the same TV show and whilst having a few drinks at the bar, I asked him whether he’d kindly play on my solo album if I ever got around to doing something in the future. He accepted, I mainly think because he really enjoys playing different types of music, though people only know him for his slapping funk bass style. He actually played the bass on ‘If I Was’, which is probably the simplest bass line in the world — and you wouldn’t expect Mark King to play anything like that — but it’s very effective on the record.”
A solo record is usually a chance for established recording artists to show their expertise (or lack of it) on instruments with which they are not generally associated. Fortunately, Midge was wise enough to recognise his own musical limitations and, instead, enlisted the help of those more able to translate his ideas of how a particular bass or drum part should sound, into a musical reality. A decision that has produced an altogether more enjoyable and certainly less indulgent collection of music.
So, apart from Mark King and himself, which other musicians contributed to the recording? “They were mainly bass players and drummers. People like Mark Brzezicki of Big Country, who’d impressed me on a recent Steve Harley session I did; Nigel Ross‑Scott, who plays bass with Reflex, and Lindsay Elliott, who used to drum for Cockney Rebel and who I’ve known for some time.”
“I handled the keyboards, guitars and vocals myself but I did make a conscious effort to get away from the sequenced bass lines that Ultravox are so well known for. I thought the best way of doing that was through the influence of other musicians. A solo album, for me, should always be a solo effort and that’s certainly true of The Gift because every idea on it originated in some way from me. But I see no point, for example, in bringing in a musician of Mark King’s calibre and forcing him to stick rigidly to the notes you’ve already composed! That would be a dreadful waste of his talent.”
“With the drummers, for example, I already had guideline drums programmed into a Drumtraks purely to give the players an indication of where the build‑ups and fills would occur in each song. But they were then totally free to expand on that guide, which they did, and the end result was always more interesting having the benefit of the human touch.”
“Every song used a pre‑recorded click‑track to drive sequencers but I didn’t want to use only machinery because you can tell it’s just a machine. It would have been too easy to use programmed drums. Half the challenge of making the album was working with the other people. And that was the most exciting part as well.”
The Gift features three instrumental tracks: ‘Edo’, ‘Chieftains’ and ‘Antibes’ — which was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat using a Casio CZ‑101! Hardly what you’d expect from a musician whose public profile is so closely allied to the role of frontman/vocalist. What comes as even more of a shock to the system is Midge’s revelation that his initial intention was to produce an album that contained five songs and five instrumentals!
Somewhere along the line, however, matters were diluted somewhat but he decided to retain three of the instrumentals, even though he was well aware that “more often than not, when you get a couple of instrumentals on an album, it means the guy’s run out of ideas!”. The reason for their inclusion? Simple: “I like instrumental music. I find it very easy to listen to and it allows you to use your imagination in a way that most pop music doesn’t. It’s refreshing.”
Part of the power and appeal of instrumental music undoubtedly lies in its ability to conjure up images in the mind. Yet it functions superbly too as a reinforcement to the visual image. This is never more prevalent than in the hypnotic television advertising and jingle markets where a good music track is recognised as being a vital element of a successful commercial.
MIDI I find baffling… I really do.
Prime examples of this approach have been the stylish Levi jean commercials that exploded across our television and cinema screens a few years back. Anyone remember the first ‘Rivets’ advert featuring an Ultravox‑style synthesized soundtrack and filmed explosions in a sun‑drenched quarry? Well, the man responsible for the music was Midge Ure, though that first foray into the advertising business wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one as he explained.
“I don’t know if I’d ever do it again. Working with advertising agencies is the pits… just awful! You’re usually dealing with half a dozen people who all agree with each other, none of whom have a clue what they’re talking about, musically. Nevertheless, I rattled off the music quickly and was really pleased with it. I think it went very well with the visuals because I was given the finished visuals to write the music to, which is a rare occurrence, so I’m told. Normally, you’re only given a written outline of what the finished visuals may be like and have to create something to complement them.”
The Creative Input
Creatively‑speaking, Midge Ure never appears to be stuck for an idea, whether it be for a song or one of the many Ultravox promotional videos he has produced. But what, I asked him, shapes a song’s development?
“Well, there are a million ways to come up with song ideas. They may be sparked off by a particular riff or chord sequence or simply a mood. But once I’ve got a basic idea or a feel for a song, then that starts to dictate how the lyrics are going to follow. I might, for example, have a seed of an idea in the back of my mind but no clue how to go about recording it. So, I begin crafting the music in the studio, working layer by layer until eventually, the lyrics start to form where the verses and chorus will appear. It all becomes apparent as you’re doing it usually — a bit like painting by numbers.”
As the lucky owner of a fully‑equipped studio in his back garden, I wondered whether the Ure songwriting method was helped at all by the nature of multi track recording?
“Very much so. Using my own 24‑track studio as a writing tool is great. I still use a Yamaha keyboard with a built‑in drum machine, which I keep at home in my kitchen, purely for coming up with basic song ideas, but nothing ever takes shape until I actually start working in the studio.”
“I begin by putting down a SMPTE timecode on one track, and recording a very basic snare and bass drum part on tape as a guide. Then with everything I put down after that, I’m always looking to get a high quality sound on tape as it will potentially be something I keep.”
“I tend to do a lot of track bouncing — even though there are 24 tracks available — to build up a sound. I may record four or five instruments all playing the same phrase but in various octaves, then do a stereo bounce of the lot, simply to get closer to what I hear in my head. I used to do that a lot on string machine parts with Ultravox but on The Gift I used mainly sampled string sounds from the Emulator 2. Working that way, you force yourself to make decisions halfway through the recording process of how things will sound in the mix and bounce tracks when required. It’s very good training having your own studio.”
Good training it can be, but it can easily create a whole new set of problems for the musician if not careful. “Initially, when my studio was built, like everybody else, I thought I’d do everything in it myself. But you get too involved. Everybody I’ve talked to who has a home studio tried at the start to do it all themselves but ended up getting too involved in the technical side of things. Then their playing side goes all to pot! That’s why I have an engineer come in and help me when I wish to do some real recording.”
Concentrating on the musical aspects of the recording seems to have paid dividends for Midge and listening to the album (recorded in his Chiswick studio and mixed at Air Studios in Montserrat), there’s nothing amiss in the audio quality department either.
Birth Of A Track
Taking, as an example, the oriental‑sounding instrumental track ‘Edo’ from his album, Midge set about explaining just how it was pieced together in the studio.
“It started off as two romantic melodies — the very ‘breathy’ sounding one and the one played on a koto in the middle section. At the end of the song the two melodies cross over perfectly and I was very pleased with that effect. But it didn’t start to sound Japanese until I started to use a koto on it (laughs)! Although I love the koto sounds you get on a Yamaha DX7, for instance, I wanted to use a real koto, so you’d hear the fingers scraping across the strings. If you listen to ‘Edo’ on headphones, the track really opens up when the koto comes in because of the ambient way it was miked up. Once it started to sound Japanese, I just followed through the imagery and used Japanese flutes and various instruments which I sampled from a collection of compact discs I had of Japanese tunes.”
Sampled sounds are used tastefully and to great effect on many tracks from The Gift. So what did Midge think of the technique?
“I find sampling great fun but it’s got a jokey image through people over‑using the classic ‘Orch 4’ Fairlight preset which we’ve all heard a million times before. I like the idea of sampling odd items like pots and pans to form rhythm tracks. In fact, we recorded my metal garage door being banged and sampled that on the Emulator 2, then wrote a pattern into the drum machine and used that to trigger the Emulator. It produced this odd Burundi‑like rhythm which I used as the basis of another instrumental on the album called ‘Chieftain’. I also sampled the anvil sound on ‘The Gift’ using a Powertran MCS‑1 as my Emulator 2 was away having its software updated.” Something else Midge found himself doing whilst recording the album, was sampling the guitar. “I’d record a guitar solo played through a Rockman and break it down into one‑ or two‑note pieces, mainly string bending noises or really fast vibratos. Then I’d sample those bits I wanted and play them back at half speed from the Emulator keyboard, totally out of context. Then I’d start constructing the solo again but by playing it from the keyboard, in stereo, using those samples.” If you’re intrigued to hear this technique in action, take a listen to the guitar solo on the track called ‘When The Wind Blows’ from The Gift. It’s quite an arresting sound.
The Technology Trap
As a recording artist, one benefit of owning your own studio is undoubtedly the freedom it brings you to experiment with equipment. And one criticism levelled at people, like Midge Ure, who utilise the latest technological instruments on their albums, is that they often lack imagination when it comes to using such devices to anywhere near their full creative potential. The studio, Midge reckons, certainly helps him overcome that problem:
“It took me over a year to get into the PPG, for example. I really started to hate the thing and it was so complex to use, as ordinarily, you never have the time in someone else’s studio to learn how to use it. But having one around my studio and having time to actually use one, everything just suddenly clicked into place and I began enjoying it and appreciating the sounds it made.”
“The DX7, on the other hand, I still think is impossible to programme! I can’t be bothered with it. It’s capable of producing some great sounds I admit, but Casio have now come up with some synthesizer that’s just as good I feel — and a lot easier to work. I’m a great advocate of user‑friendly instruments you know!”
Continuing on the theme of instrumentation, Midge had this strong viewpoint to express: “Just because there’s a wealth of keyboards, drum machines and samplers on the market doesn’t automatically mean your guitarist sitting in his bedsit has got to go out, sell his guitar and buy the stuff. He doesn’t have to use it. It’s there if he wants to use it.” “It’s like MIDI. He doesn’t have to get sucked into it or feel he has to understand it if he doesn’t want to. MIDI, I find baffling… I really do.” (Well there’s honesty for you!) “It’s too in‑depth for me. If it had been around when I bought my first synthesizer then I would have grown up with it. But to start to understand all the aspects and parameters of MIDI now is beyond me. My head is full of musical notes and arrangements, and I shouldn’t have to be worrying whether or not there’s a ten millisecond delay on such and such a MIDI channel.”
Midge Ure may not like being drawn into the technical side of MIDI but, like everyone who relies so heavily on the application of hi‑tech instruments in their music, he must come to terms with it. Just as he has had to learn about timecodes and click‑tracks in order to run his studio.
“Using drum machine and sequencer codes is an absolute nightmare at times but I find myself unable to avoid getting caught up in that side of things. Even so, it’s still less baffling to me than MIDI!”
“Timecodes are a fundamental necessity for synchronisation purposes. Without them, you run in to all kinds of problems. For example, one of the album tracks we recorded without laying down a timecode first, so we couldn’t sync up the Emulator’s sequencer to play a sampled cello part that I wanted to put on the track. And I couldn’t physically play the cello part using the Emulator 2 because I’m not a good enough keyboard player. So we ended up scrapping the whole track and starting again.”
Whatever the problems encountered during the making of the album, The Gift conclusively proves that Midge Ure is a fine songwriter who is not afraid to use whatever tools he has available to realise his ideas. And that is something he can be proud of.