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Rhythm & Fiction
An interview with The Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan
“Technology” and “mysticism” sometimes seem like terms that sit at opposite ends of the spectrum—especially when it comes to music. But one reason I wanted to write a history of drum machines in the first place was because of the mystique those devices have always held for me.
A great example of this can be found in the work of the Glasgow band The Blue Nile. Fans of albums like 1984’s A Walk Across the Rooftops and the 1989 follow-up, Hats, will know immediately what I mean. Both discs are cinematic and otherworldly—film music with no film necessary. The inherent tension between the ticking sequencers and the distinct, all-too-human vocals of Paul Buchanan never lessens, and commands the ear. Perhaps the description of Hats that Trouser Press’s Ira Robbins gave sums it all up best: “as dense and moving as a midnight sky…seldom has studio technology been used to such warm and personal results.”
These are pristine, high-tech records; not for nothing did some suggest that the The Blue Nile were a Steely Dan for the Eighties. But the technology the trio—Buchanan, Robert Bell, and Paul Joseph “PJ” Moore—and engineer Calum Malcolm used to make these albums has remained something of a mystery.
If you’re hoping to read a complete expose here, I’m sorry to disappoint. Paul Buchanan is far too cagey for that. “I wouldn’t wish to deconstruct too much,” he protests. “The measure for us was always what worked emotionally and visually, and that relies on a fiction for the listener.”
But what a fiction it was, and still is. The Blue Nile were nothing if not deliberate in the studio—in fact, it’s been more than a decade since the release of Buchanan’s solo debut, Mid Air! Yet that only seems to add to the aforementioned mystique.
And since The Blue Nile were one of those bands that might not have existed were it not for a (borrowed) drum machine, it made sense to track down Buchanan for my book Dancing to the Drum Machine. His manager, Joe Cokell, arranged the interview that follows, and Buchanan graciously agreed to answer a baker’s dozen questions about drum machines and their role (or not) in The Blue Nile.
In the earliest days of The Blue Nile, I have read that you borrowed a drum machine from another Glasgow musician, and used it to tape rhythm tracks for your live sets. I’m wondering first of all if you recall whom you borrowed it from, and if it might have been one of these—a Roland CR-8000? (I ask because in an interview, you mentioned that you used the “Merengue” preset, which was part of this machine’s arsenal.)
The photograph looks very like the first drum machine I remember—and it was the one we borrowed ( though maybe a little bigger than I remember ). It wasn’t programmable, so we used the presets to rehearse against. The Merengue would be one. I don’t remember who was kind enough to let us borrow it.
I wondered as well if you could talk about the way this machine might have begun opening up space in the band’s sound. (In the same interview mentioned above, you said, “The drum machine was so insistent and the songs so well known that you could kinda hit a chord every few minutes and people were pretty happy.”)
I suppose it did help incline us towards space, or leanness—though there were other factors. For example, that I was a very limited guitar player. And I think we just enjoyed playing with each other and hearing what the others did. That was the biggest factor. We abandoned chords.
Something that both Will Sergeant of Echo and Bunnymen and Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins said about drum machines has stuck with me. Both of them insisted that it was the drum machine that gave them the confidence to play live—that without it, they never would have become musicians—and that drum machines, more than synthesizers, might have been the more revolutionary technology of this time, for this reason.
Both were important. We did not have a drummer, so a drum machine was a way to play without one. Synthesizers depend on how you use them—PJ was unique.
Obviously, you had played already in a pretty proficient band [The White Hats] with a live drummer, so I assume your experience with drum machines was a bit different. But I wonder if you could speak to the confidence issue, as regards the use of a drum machine — especially playing live?
We never did that. After the days of playing cover versions against taped rhythms from the Roland, we always played live with a drummer.
Finally, on the subject of this early machine, I have to assume that being that dependent on a taped set of rhythms meant that an accident was just a faulty cassette deck or erased tape away. Do you have any horror stories (as so many people seem to) from those days?
I would guess we had a back-up cassette, but we must have lucky with the tape and the machine!
What was the first drum machine you ever owned, and why did you buy it?
Hmmm....one of the other guys would have procured that..it was either a Drumatix or a Boss Dr. Rhythm, I think…probably the former.
The drum sounds on the first Blue Nile album, A Walk Across the Rooftops, sound like they might come from a variety of sources. Some certainly are sampled, and [drummer] Nigel Thomas, I assume, played some of the parts live. There are songs, however, where it does sound like a drum machine is used—I assume a Linn LM-1 or LinnDrum.
I don’t know how much you recall about the machine or machines used on Rooftops, but I’m interested in any details you can recall.
You’re right that we made the drum sounds in many different ways. Without giving too much away, because I do not want to spoil the picture, there are next to no drum machine sounds used. We eschewed the Linn drum machines because they were so popular.
In between Rooftops and the next album, Hats, technology changed a great deal in music—in drum programming in particular. Sampling drum machines (the Linn 9000, the early Akai MPCs, E-Mu’s SP-1200, etc.) became the norm, and there were even the beginnings of computer recording at this time.
I can hear pretty distinctly what I think is the Roland 808 on a couple of tracks on Hats (“Over the Hillside,” “Seven A.M.”), but it sounds like there are other machines being used as well. Once again, any recollections you might have of the machines used in the studio or demo-wise—and why you might have chosen them—would be welcome.
Again Dan, I wouldn’t wish to deconstruct too much. The measure for us was always what worked emotionally and visually, and that relies on a fiction for the listener. There is a chemistry between different drum machine sounds too.
We didn’t have an 808 then, for the same reason we didn’t have a Linn.
I’ve heard lots and lots of stories about the difficulties of getting drum machines to cooperate in a live setting. Based on what I’ve read, the tour of 1990 certainly had its share of challenges generally, but I wondered if the challenges of operating (and playing along with) programmed percussion were part of that situation — especially given the importance of reproducing the sounds on the records accurately? Specifically, were there standalone machines used on that tour that you recall?
No, there were no drum machines or sequences at all; we played it.
Something you later said about the difference between Hats and 1996’s Peace at Last was that trying to make a record that precise again would have been impossible. I’ve assumed that drum machines and drum programming were a part of that precision, and that this explains, at least in part, the move to more acoustic-sounding drums (some of which, I guess, were played live) on Peace at Last?
I didn’t think it was impossible—in fact, I knew it had become more possible, but I also didn’t want to be identified by that. Then Robert and I separately saw the same Gibson acoustic guitar in a store in New York on the same day.
The approach for the drums was a combination of real drums and machines.
For the 2004 album High, I have read that you actually used an old drum machine for a lot of the rhythm programming. I’m curious about what machine it might have been—and I also wondered if you could talk about the deliberate choice to use such a machine, since by that point, any of a number of other percussion options (including computer-based programs) were available.
I think we probably were heading back by then, playing against various old machines. Maybe a [Roland TR-] 909?
Every machine has its own feel, and we probably liked having it in the room to programme manually.
Speaking of this, there are some folks who still swear by their hardware—the standalone drum machines. Many prefer knobs and faders, and the whole tactile experience, and even insist that their old drum machines still keep more accurate time than any computer recording software.
Hmmm..whatever works for the individual. I think we learned to play around the machines and around each other within that—to fall in the right space. Whatever works for each individual is best, I guess.
On the other side of that spectrum, of course, are the people who argue that plug-ins are indistinguishable from the real thing — and that they are infinitely more convenient and practical besides, allowing more time to be creative.
So I wondered where you fall on this continuum, and if you think there is still a role for the standalone drum machine today (including whether you still keep one around)?
I still prefer to begin on a guitar or piano. Thereafter, clicks of any kind can be a very mixed blessing.
I would say drum machines are friendlier to have in the room and have personalities, but plug-ins are seductively easy. They both have their strengths, and of course neither is the same as a drummer.
Yes, there are still one or two old drum machines around like old friends, but then I still miss my four-track…
Tune in for more exclusive interviews about drum machines and electronic percussion, coming soon! Meanwhile, follow me on Twitter (@danleroy) and Instagram (@danleroysbonusbeats), and check out my website: danleroy.com. And be sure to visit Paul Buchanan’s own website!