In October 1993 FM found techno puritans Pop Will Eat Itself recording in the unnaturally plush surroundings of a rented Gloucestershire cottage. Now, no longer signed to RCA and with the departure of founder member Graham Crabb, they have a new direction and a new studio.
The Poppies have always demanded control over their music. For them, the feel of the original song is all, with or without any big time record producer sprinkling the magic dust. It's a philosophy that has resulted in conflict, but the band are unrepentant. "The tracks sounded great but the vibe on the demos was missing, too polished. It was impossible to get the sound of the demos through an SSL mixing desk," explains guitarist Richard March of their old working methods. Now back to their roots in Birmingham, a leaner, hungrier Pop Will Eat Itself are walling themselves into a place of their own and preparing to take us all on - in their own time.
Underneath an old office block in East Birmingham the new Pop Will Eat Itself are building themselves a studio. An eight by five metre rented lock up has been partitioned into three rooms; one storage area, a control room and a larger live room. The budget of ?2500 had to be stretched as far as possible, and they looked at a number of options before deciding on building a space for themselves. As Richard says: "After Christmas, we thought about renting another place and worked out that a year's rent here would cost us the same as two weeks in a rehearsal studio, so we took a couple of weeks out, and rolled our sleeves up and got to work building this place up.
The basement has been converted into smaller rooms by interior walls, which means that the bands first priority is to make sure that the neighbours don't get a preview of each new release. To soundproof the interior walls Rockwool has been placed between wooden battens, capped with chipboard then covered with carpet. The cement ceiling stops vibrations reaching the upper floors, and so far the and have been successful in keeping the rest of the building unaware of their rehearsing and recording. Although the studio is less than a month old, the Poppies are very happy with it. "It's fundamental to us to have somewhere we can come to where the gear is all set up and we can just go ahead. It was very frustrating having gear in lock-ups all over the place," explains Richard.
Some of their knobs are missing
Gear-wise the Poppies know what they like and like what they know. An Atari 1040ST runs Emagic Notator SL which syncs to the two ADATs via a Unitor SMPTE lock. The master keyboard, a Roland JD-800, controls the two remaining Akai samplers, an S1100 and an S1000. Numerous other keyboards of all ages and states of repair are present, including the band's prized Jupiter 6 and Roland TR-606 Drumatix. All the gear does double duty, both on stage and in the studio, so numerous keys are missing from most, except for the shiny new Soundcraft Spirit 32:8:2 desk and Alesis Monitor Ones, which were bought brand new for the studio.
We repair to the local hostelry, where a pint or two of Brew XI and a plate of chips gets the band in a talkative mood to explain their individual approach to creating material for the next album project. Fuzz (drums) says: "It depends on where the idea originates. We all work individually at home creating samples and tunes, and once we have something we like we'll play it to each other and see what happens. A lot of this [next] album has come from us just messing around, keeping the vibe going - trial and error with samples."
I venture that Pop Will Eat Itself are renowned for being a collective, something that makes it harder for them to work with producers who may have a different approach. Clint Mansell (guitars, vocals) says. "It depends on what you want, I suppose. People may come in and not get what you were looking for. Even if everybody else thinks it's entire shit, who's to say that they are right and you are wrong?"
Best ears in the business
For a studio to be successful, some work has to be done on the sound of the control room - it's essential so that your mix will sound great wherever your music is heard. I asked Fuzz if the band had taken any advice on the design of the control room. "We had a professional guy come down before we started to build and he advised us on where to put the speakers and things, then he came down again when it was finished and just stood around with these best ears in the business and told us what to do to make it sound better and how to avoid some problems. We haven't yet built the bass traps that he's recommended, but we will when we come round to doing the serious vocals."
There aren't any mics in the new studio, so I asked Richard about getting the guitars onto ADAT. "We DI the guitars through the Zoom 9030 all the time - there's no particular sound. " Richard explains. " A lot of the time we get a guitar sound, sample it and timestretch it. Then play two samples, one tuned an octave down and one an octave up. We add some delay to it and it sounds just massive. Part of it with us really is that we aren't interested in the musicianship: we are interested in the sounds, layering samples together and things. A lot of the things we do don't need top-quality equipment in the way we use the gear. It doesn't matter if the mic's distorted at the start as it'll sound completely different by the time we are finished with it."
I wondered if Pop Will Eat Itself, a band so based on technology, had considered a hard-disk system such as Soundscape, but Clint isn't keen: "It's all down to what you know really, isn't it? It's working for us this way and you can spend a lot of time not making music while you figure out your new system. There was something in Future Music with Orbital where somebody asked them if they were struggling with the new album and Orbital said the same thing - they weren't struggling with the music but coming to terms with upgrading to Mac - it takes your time. But, having said that, I heard their new single the other night and it sounded great!"
So a new Pop Will Eat Itself, a new studio and a new direction. What's next for the Poppies? Can we expect a return to the charts with a brand new Pop Will Eat Itself anthem? Clint explains the new philosophy: "We've never really been that interested in classic songs, some guy pouring his heart out over an acoustic guitar." So no chance of the Poppies supporting Oasis then? "The problem with music now is that you can hear the lyrics and there's far too much tune. There's something fundamentally wrong when people of all ages like a certain band. I just can't understand the kids of today!"