Out to Munch

You get the impression the Poppies (as they're affectionately known) do not take themselves seriously, and likewise, do not expect their audience to either. It's partly to do with their appearance, attitude and apparently shambolic collection of influences.

Formed in 1986, they originate from Stourbridge, a hitherto obscure Midlands town now famed for PWEI, The Wonder Stuff and Ned's Atomic Dustbin. In interview they're none too forthcoming about their use and abuse of technology in creating their mish-mash of sound.

Aurally, it's a frenetic fusion of guitar dub, techno grunge and white rap, all interspliced with a fair degree of sample piracy and dancefloor fervour. Commercially, it's gained them a fair chart success and the usual `cult following`. An acrimonious split with RCA at the beginning of the year has left them operating on their former head of A&R's new label Infectious.

So what do the band feel about the categorisations that the music press so frequently attach to their music?

"Our style is eclectic," admits Richard, "which, if you didn't like us, could be construed as thrown together." "But it isn't - honest," counters Fuzz.

I'm sat between Richard March (bass and guitar) and Fuzz (drums) from PWEI. They're both clearly unsure why anyone would be interested in their approach to music and jokingly offer to discuss the merits of `rolling technology` in preference.

"I find all this equipment as a necessary evil," explains Richard. "We're not techno boffins, really - we just mess around with all the buttons; not really knowing what we're doing - and try to get away with what we can."

A frank admission, but PWEI's adoption of technology has not been immediate. Their brand of chainsaw pop was originally guitar based and only around the time of Love Missile F1-11 did they embrace the new dance-orientated technology. This integration surfaced with the album The Poppies Go Box Frenzy, produced by Robert Gordon at FON studios in Sheffield.

"We've tended to use the cheapest stuff possible," explains Richard, "Starting out with an Akai X7000 sampling keyboard and Roland drum machine. We have to do things on a real tight budget, so when we buy something we usually have to sell something to pay for the stuff that we use. Sampler, Keyboard and sound module - along with a portastudio and 8-track."

So who initiates the ideas for tracks? Richard explains: "We all sit at home with our little computers, sketching out ideas. Then we'll pull all the gear together and work on everyone's ideas together."

Isn't it hard with so many individual inputs? "No, never," Richard insists. "We never have too many ideas. I suppose everyone exercises a certain amount of quality control over the material. When you've got ten ideas, you may only show two which are actually going somewhere, rather than include the others which are just pointless doodlings."

"What I like about technology is the fact that it's all at your fingertips, and you can therefore move things around. While you're working out arrangements you can sample guitars or vocals and it enables you to work on your own more easily. The only other way is to set up as a band and play it live, which takes for ever and ever."

Fuzz, a dedicated double-decker bus lover has brought a new sense of dynamics to the Poppies' sound. So how does he integrate his playing with the machine-orientated side?

"Well, generally, rather than using loops so much nowadays, I just come out with a drum line that suits the whole track instead of having to patch two or three together. That's where I come in and it just adds a different, and I suppose tougher, sound."

"When recording, the way that I prefer it is to work on getting a decent set of sounds myself - sounds that I like - then try to badger the engineer into allowing me to keep the sounds like that and get him to work it as much as he, or she, can. And have a big hard stoney room to play in, catching a lot of the ambience rather than the specific drums themselves, because you can always boost the sound by sampling your drums off and triggering them off tape."

"I use Yamaha DC10 head triggers, which are taped on to the drum heads, and put those through an Alesis D4, which is just used as a trigger box - and the sounds are fired from an Akai S950."

The 12 built-in audio triggers are a useful inclusion in the D4, making it a strong contender with other stand-alone units such as Akai's own ME35T.

"I use the D4 essentially as a trigger interface and don't bother with the sounds." explains Fuzz. "Although it serves a dual purpose, 'cos while we're writing we can use some of its sounds without using sample space."

"When we're playing live there might be a percussive loop but not generally any beat loops as such. On the old tracks I've replaced most of the drum loops, if not all of them."

Live, the Poppies use an 8-track tape machine (Teac 38) with separate tracks for bass, assorted sequences, vocal sample and click track.

Fuzz: "Which is played at an irritatingly high level 'cos I'm nearly deaf, and it pisses everyone off because it's a big thick ringing cowbell, which permeates the whole stage area. I don't have it in headphones 'cos I like to move around a bit, you know - I want to have a good gig as well. So headphones would quickly find themselves dislodged from my ample ears."

The Poppies' sound is infiltrated by obscure and random sampling - anything that fits the mood. Cue the stamped logo on their Cure For Sanity album which reads "Sample It, loop it, f**k it and eat it." Richard: "People in the group sit in front of their TV's with the tape machine constantly on pause, snatching interesting sounds - stuff off adverts too. I suppose you could call them soundbites, if you like."

Other artists' records are also fair game for lyric snatching - the last LP The Looks Or The Lifestyle included subtle use of vocal lines from Holidays In The Sun, No More Mr. Nice Guy and Bohemian Rhapsody. Another track, Harry Dean Stanton has some suspiciously Smiths-like guitar...

"I know what you mean, but it isn't really," announces Richard. "It's simply tremolo guitar being MIDI triggered. The tracks title comes from the fact that we originally used a vocal sample of Harry Dean Stanton talking in Paris, Texas. That has since been replaced and we've stuck with the title because nobody could think of a better one."

"Sampling's a strange issue, really. On one of the new tracks we've sampled something and everyone's arguing about whether we should declare it or not."

The pair are obviously cautious about letting the cat out of the bag on this one, but Richard drops his guard. Is it an obvious take, I enquire?

"No, but it's quite a long bit. It's just a little part from the end of a Black Sabbath track."

"You've said it now!" reprimands Fuzz. "But at least we're being honest. Do you declare it or not? Every case has a different outcome. Five years ago it was generally recognised that if a sample was less than 8 seconds, it was OK. But now that's changed and it can be just one second, but if that second makes the basis of a song, or is a significant part, then it has to be declared. It also depends on who you're dealing with."

The home set-up housed temporarily in Fuzz's flat is pretty much typical of those used by the rest of the band. It includes an Atari computer running C-Lab's Notator and Unitor, Akai S950, Yamaha DX21 keyboard, mixer (Soundmaster Pro Line 16-8-16), Jupiter 6, Yamaha SPX50D and Alesis D4. Richard: "We've all got little multi-timbral sound modules, such as the Roland Sound Canvas and Dr. Synth, because they're easy to use. They're used for basic presets before we start to refine the sounds. There's nothing really spectacular that we use - Graham (Crabb, one of the vocalists) has got a little cheap (?35) Tandy `toy` keyboard, and he spends hours putting sounds from that through a Zoom FX processor, then sampling off that so you get these weird nasty sounds."

Do you consider yourselves to have any different attitudes towards making music?

"I don't know." confesses Richard. "We don't really hang out with any other musicians. I guess everyone's got their own way of doing things, but I don't think there can be too many radically different ways of putting something together, whatever kind of technology you're using."

So, to what level do you prepare your tracks before going into a studio? Richard: "Well, hopefully, they're all pretty much prepared. On the last album, all the programmed stuff was done, so it was just a question of putting it down on tape with the live bass, drums and vocals. We do work pretty quick - the last album took four and a half weeks recording and three weeks mixing. However, we do spend hours and hours messing with one inconsequential sound in the background of a drum loop. And at times we're in danger of disappearing up our own backsides."

The Poppies have been lucky to work on a number of occasions with the well-respected engineer/mixer and producer Flood. His work is evident with the likes of Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb and U2 but as Richard recalls, PWEI were initially impressed with his work with Renegade Soundwave, which led to his input on their second album, This is the Day, This is The Hour, This is This.

"We liked that stuff and felt that it was going in the same sort of direction that we were. We didn't know much about him, but he took over the project. We were all computer illiterate and didn't really know how to work a sampler and stuff like that. He did all the programming, and it was like, if you sit around with someone in the studio for long enough watching what they do, then you learn so much."

"The last album we did with him (Pop Will Eat Itself's Cure For Sanity) was like a nightmare for us, 'cos we weren't prepared enough before we went into the studio and made it up as we went along. We had this wall chart of how bad things were going! There were three extra sheets at the bottom for when Flood started smoking again! We'd like to work with him again on the new album, but he's kind of busy."

Does the new material mark any change of direction soundwise?

Richard: "Not really. Of the two tracks one is pretty musically laid back with a hard vocal while the other is more thrash." Fuzz: "Yeah, laid back, just relaxed with a marked absence of any loud guitars, It's very gentle although lyrically tough."

Richard: "On one of the new tracks, while Fuzz was recording drums, we went to the pub and when it came to mix there were some bars that weren't in time. It wasn't Fuzz's fault, he'd played it really loose and then we'd gone in and piled loads of sequenced stuff on top. It sounded dodgy so it ended up having to be patched a bit."

As a parting shot, I enquire what the two think they would be doing now if they weren't involved in PWEI.

"Probably signing on the dole and trying to do this." admits Richard realistically. Fuzz: "And I'll have been made redundant, 'cos the place I used to work (Dudley Bus Garage, in fact) as a mechanic, is closing down. I used to own my own double decker bus - I suppose I could start up my own museum..."