Future Music

THE EMPEROR MACHINE

…aka Bizarre Inc’s Andy Meecham

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Inspired by his love of British synth pop, house and electro, Andy Meecham’s teenage fascinatio­n with analogue gear led him to work as a sound engineer at Blue Chip Studios in Stafford. It was here that he joined forces with Dean Meredith’s techno outfit Bizarre Inc, which crossed the club/mainstream divide to score numerous top 10 hits in the early ’90s including Playing With Knives and I’m Gonna Get You. Jaded by label interferen­ce, Meecham and Meredith disbanded Bizarre Inc in the mid-’90s to record as Chicken Lips, founding Lipservice Records for their own production­s. Born out of his love for vintage samplers and synths, Meecham then focused his attention on his solo dance project The Emperor Machine. Sharing Llama Farm Studio alongside avid synth collector Richard Hale, the producer’s rarely lost for inspiratio­n.

What first got you hooked on electronic dance music?

“It’s mainly down to my sister who bought the John Foxx album Metamatic. Amongst her 7-inch collection was also a Kraftwerk single that was absolutely bizarre, and one of my earliest memories is the start of the track Reflection­s by Diana Ross. It’s got this weird delay on it that kind of got me hooked. My uncle was also a collector of instrument­s. He had an HH mixer with a delay on it and I used to plug a guitar in and make these weird Doctor Who-type noises. As I got into my teenage years, Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock blew me away.”

You had a string of mainstream hits in the early ’90s as a member of Bizarre Inc, which must have been quite an exciting period in your life?

“It was a great time during a period where there wasn’t a lot of dance music being played on Radio 1. I remember doing an interview with Lisa I’Anson and saying you need to play more dance music, at which point she gave me such a dirty look [laughs]. Bizarre Inc went up really quickly and went down the same way, so it was a bit of a ride.”

Were you corrupted by that experience?

“We signed to Warner Brothers and I can remember the A&R man saying we needed to make more songs like I’m Gonna Get You, but we didn’t want to do that. We were being told to chase the success, and when we moved over to Mercury Records the same thing happened. We never set out to write hits like I’m Gonna Get You and Playing With Knives, so we got a bit disillusio­ned with it all and created Chicken Lips out of frustratio­n. I remember having a conversati­on with Dean [Meredith] at the time saying we needed to get back to the clubs because that’s where we had the most fun. ‘Let’s forget all this major bollocks,’ were his exact words.”

You have an amazing amount of gear. Do you consider yourself a collector?

“I’m more of a player really – it’s the sound that I’m after and that’s what led me to buy all the synthesise­rs. I moved most of my gear into Llama Farm Studio with Richard Hale and he’s a collector. When I first met him all of his equipment was covered in dust and in storage, so we decided to move my gear in and turn the barn into a studio.”

But you still have a home studio?

“The farm is being rewired because Richard wanted to build an extension on the side of it. So I’ve come home for a bit, but I’ve always had bits of equipment here, usually Akai MPCs because they’re what I like to write on. I’ve basically moved as much gear as I can and crammed it into the back room, but there’s still quite a lot left at the farm and I can’t wait to get back there because it will be really cool when it’s finished.”

What’s the originatio­n of the new album title Music Not Safari?

“Originally, I wrote a track called Moscow Not Safari – I think I was just playing with words and doing a bit of a David Bowie. I did come to a conclusion about the title at one point, but I’ve completely forgotten it so there’s no point pretending to be super-cool now. ”

If anything the album’s more spacey than earthy. Is that an inevitable consequenc­e of the sounds you’re using?

“I wanted the album to be quite electronic, but not electronic­a, and make music that I’m really into from ’80s boogie and funk/disco to a tougher electronic sound. I wrote some of it at the farm with all the synths around me and mixed the album at home. Ultimately, it’s the sound of the synths. I was signed to a label once and they didn’t know how to categorise me, which I found quite interestin­g. I don’t know if I’m a house music artist, electronic­a, future disco or new disco, but I’m massively into disco and all those great producers like Patrick Cowley. From my point of view, some of the riffs have a Depeche Mode vibe, probably because I’ve been a massive fan since the beginning.”

The cover art features the Akai MPC3000. Is that just iconograph­y or did songs on the album originate from that device?

“I wrote it all on MPCs to begin with. I’ve got two MPC2500s and the MPC3000. I wanted a robotic sound but not too quantised. When we were talking about the artwork I sent an image to a graphic designer called Luke Insect and he came up with the idea of an MPC rotting away in the jungle.”

The MPC was designed by Roger Linn of Linn Drum fame and manufactur­ed by Akai. Are you a fan of companies collaborat­ing in that way?

“There was the Dave Smith collaborat­ion with Pioneer for the DJ Toraiz SP-16 sampler. He makes amazing synthesise­rs but only put a filter on it. I know Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim rereleased some synths but I haven’t got any from Sequential. They’re too expensive and I’d rather buy something vintage for the same amount of money, but I did use the Oberheim SEM and Two Voice on the album.”

Do you find that with many of the vintage synths there’s only a handful of practical sounds on each?

“I see it like having a toolbox – some synths do things better than others. For example, the strings on the Polymoog sound better than the Roland Alpha Juno-1. The Oberheim Two Voice is quite mechanical sounding but I really like the filters on that and use the Roland System 100 and SH-7 a lot for bass sounds. I walk into the studio in the morning and say ‘hello boys’, switch everything on and they all warm up amidst the sweet smell of machine dust. Then I’m hooked and I’ll play until I come up with something I really like.”

On the topic of MPCs, Music Not Safari doesn’t sound like an album cultivated from samples…

“All the beats on the album come from the MPC then they’re dumped into Logic at which point everything sounds a bit less MPC. I like using the MPC because I’m fast on it and speed is important. I’m not a fan of mouse clicking to be honest. I like hardware and machines, so I’ll write most of the tracks using drum breaks or samples.”

The MPCs are okay for sample time?

“I’ve got 32MB on the 3000, so that’s maxed out and the 2500s are maxed out as well. I get an idea, record it in and usually have the 3000 running drums and the 2500 recording riffs because that does have more sample time. Once it’s all dumped into Logic I’ll replay the riffs to either fatten them up or add some variation. I wanted this album to be instrument­al and full of riffs and sounds that could be played out.”

Are you also using any softsynths?

“Not really. I use Logic as a tape deck by recording everything in and chopping it up as if all the regions are a piece of tape. There are probably loads of tricks that I don’t know, but I’m not a fan of having millions of plugins. I tried that route but it was just too much. Digitally, all I need is a compressor and limiter. For flange/delay, I’ll use old external stuff like the Boss DE-200 or Roland RE-501. With those, I’ll come out of Logic, record and go back in, because I think it sounds better that way.”

There’s definitely a toughness and thickness to your production­s. Is that the definitive advantage of analogue?

“I can hear the difference but it doesn’t matter. Some thinner sounds work if you want a skinny Italian disco vibe and want to use softsynths for that. I bought the Roland AIRA System 1 fake analogue device and really like that, but the filter wasn’t right and it didn’t have the warmth that I’m used to. I’ve used softsynths in the past. If it does the job that I’m looking for I don’t really care, but I definitely prefer the analogue sound to digital and that’s probably down to all the discrete circuitry. Having said that, I recently bought the UAD Apollo X4 audio interface and that’s amazing – it made my synths sound even nicer. But analogue must mean something otherwise they wouldn’t put an analogue filter on so many digital synths.”

What made you buy the UAD Apollo x4?

“My old audio interface blew up. I was using an RME Fireface, which I thought was the bee’s knees, but one day it didn’t work. I had an Apogee Duet for backup but it almost sounded hollow. I read that the x4 had zero latency, so I got a new laptop and basically thought I’d create a studio under my arm. When I heard the sound I couldn’t believe it. I think the word I’m looking for is ‘true’ – I got back what I recorded in, and that’s not always the case.”

Do you run the synths through a lot of outboard?

“It depends on the mood I’m in and how rushed I am. I try not to EQ the synths too much because I think there’s enough filters on them to get the sound I want. I always go through a desk though. At home I’ve got an Allen & Heath GS3000, which has got valves on it, and at the farm there’s a Soundcraft DC2000. Sometimes I’ll go through a synth or a guitar amp if I can be bothered to plug stuff in and mess around. Again, it’s about knowing your tools. If you’re a mechanic you know what a torque wrench is or the best screwdrive­r for a socket.”

It sounds like you’re highly familiaris­ed with your gear and what each device can offer…

“It depends how clean you want the signal and how coloured you want the sound. It’s hard to explain

“Bizarre Inc went up really quickly and down the same way… it was a bit of a ride”

because there’s not a massive difference but you can hear it dynamicall­y. I quite often put stuff through the four-channel mixer on the Roland System 100 because it sounds nice and has a built-in spring reverb. If I want a cleaner sound I won’t go through that because it creates hiss, but then once you flange hiss it adds dynamic – so I know what I want and how to get there if I need to.”

The album’s rich with basslines but they rarely seem to derive from the same source

“Whereas some people will use any old sound to write a riff, I can’t work like that. I like to get the sound I want first because that inspires me to write the riff. I used the Moog Prodigy on the first two tracks because I wanted a warm sound, but I also used the Korg Minilogue XD, which is a great little synth. I’ll always go to the SH-7 or System 100 for basses. At Farm studios, Richard had the System 700, which was massive. That sounded amazing, but somebody made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Do you have a lot of artists visiting Farm Studio to buy gear?

“Todd Terje came to have a go on the System 700 and I’d never seen anyone patch as quickly as he did. He loved it and wanted to buy one of the sequencers. I actually recorded him using the System 700 and put it on my track RMI Is All I Want. The 700 has this groove to it and the sound of the oscillator­s and filters are enormous. It’s a joy to play on because it’s not like some tiny Eurorack; it has big quarter-inch jacks clunking in and out.”

We’ve read that you prefer not to quantise. What’s behind that decision?

“It’s about the feel really. Some things sound good quantised but it goes back to me writing riffs into the MPC and recording them all live. I’m quite anal with stuff like that and try to do little hi-hat changes on the fly. So I don’t like quantising riffs, although drums are different because you can get some swings going on there. You’ll be surprised how the whole track starts to come alive if you can refit the drums around the feel of an amazing riff.”

Some prefer to mix as they go, presumably because they feel they can shape the track better, but you feel you’ll lose the vibe doing that?

“I monitor mix as I go because if I’ve had to loop stuff there’ll be clicks and pops and I’ve got to correct that anyway. Mixing as you go can work if you’re trying to stack loads of synths together, but I prefer to do it more towards the end. I guess I’ve learned that I know what something can sound like when it’s finished so don’t try to spend too much time mixing when I can focus that time on writing or arranging. Also, my ears get shattered after a while – they’ve been punished over the years.”

You also believe it’s important to set deadlines, which must take a lot of discipline?

“It does, and learning how to move on quickly. I had to do two remixes of the last single in a week, which

was ridiculous but not anybody’s fault, so I’ve had to learn how to make decisions quickly. I just prefer to do things in block sessions. I spent two hours with the SH-101 this morning, recorded everything and picked the best bits afterwards.”

Without having a structure in place do you feel it’s too easy to meander around without getting anything done?

“Yes, because you can love something you’ve created but spend so long on it that you start to hate it in the end. When that happens, you’ll quite often listen back to the original demo and find it sounds really good. So my advice is to stay within some boundaries you’ve set for yourself – as long as you have the lifestyle to do that.”

Looking through your incredible gear list, Roland play a prominent role…

“I really enjoy Roland oscillator­s and filters for bass, but in the early days I think cost had a lot to do with it as well. I always loved the American synths, but they were so expensive. I love the look of the Roland gear, especially the older gear and the colour scheme, but I’ve primarily gone with whatever I had in the bank. I bought the VC3 because of Doctor Who, but had to buy that with a credit card. There’s no way I was going to have that sort of money stashed away, so I thought ‘sod it’, let’s get it on the never, never. My dad helped me buy the SH-101, which was the first synth I ever had, then I bought a Juno-6 because I wanted a polysynth.”

Have you often been tempted to buy gear just because it’s associated with a favourite record?

“You know how it is when you listen to a record and flip it round to see what synths were used. I’m quite fascinated to know what made those sounds. The Oberheim SEM and Two Voice sound completely different to the records, but you can hear those riffs straightaw­ay. It’s the same as rock aficionado­s who can tell the difference between a Telecaster and a Strat.”

What modern synths of yours stand up to the vintage gear?

“I’ve got the new Korg Monologue and Minilogue XD and they’re amazing. I’ll take the Monologue out live and the third track on the album, House Des Lowe, was entirely written on the XD. I was inspired by it as soon as I bought it, so decided to quickly MIDI it up to a bigger keyboard. I see a lot of people raving about the new Dave Smith stuff, and would like to get some, but my head usually gets turned by something vintage.”

Is there a downside to vintage gear in that you have to spend a lot of time maintainin­g it?

“The Polymoog went weird recently and started to distort, plus some of the keys stopped working, so I bought myself an earth strap from Amazon, put it on my wrist and took the thing to bits. Inside I found all these Polycom cards, so I pulled them out, reseated everything and couldn’t believe that worked.”

What do you think was responsibl­e for them going wrong?

“I’ve found that you need to keep analogue switched on regularly. If they’re not warm they start to get crackly and won’t play nice, but with most of this stuff the joints just dry or get dust in them. If you leave them plugged in but not switched on so they’re still earthed, then clean them out and reseat the parts, you can definitely get them to come back to life. If something’s really knackered there’s a guy called James Walker who has his own synth repair service. I believe he works at Soundgas now, so I don’t know if he’s still fixing synths. There’s quite a few at the farm that need doing, like the PPG Wave. The sounds you can get from that are amazing and it comes with a big screen called the Waveterm.”

A couple of other devices stand out, notably, the Roland SP-404A Linear Wave Sampler…

“It’s a tiny little sampler that streams samples off your SD card with instant load times. I’ve used it for gigging because I wanted something that I could turn on that holds and loads up massive samples.”

What about the Simmons Clap Trap – is that as useful as it sounds in terms of creating a variety of claps?

“Definitely; it sits next to my Space Echo. We used it a ton on the Chicken Lips stuff – you just send a trigger and it claps away. It’s got a really squelchy clap sound and Dean had a habit of playing it for hours because it’s so addictive.”

Are there one or two pieces of gear you find yourself constantly leaning towards no matter the project?

“The System 100. I’ve got it in a position now where it’s at desk height and I’ve put it next to my new Tannoy Gold 5 speakers. I love to get inspired by it and the EMS VCS 3, but because that’s semimodula­r I know that once I start I’m bound to be there for a few hours. If I’m looking for weird noises and bass I’ll turn to those, and if I want to create melodies, chords and pads I’ll go straight to the Juno-6 or Polymoog.”

When it comes to playing the album live, how are you managing that without relying on your army of studio hardware?

“I’m playing the whole album live other than the first three tracks. I was using two MPC2500s, but they’re way too heavy and I was getting charged at airports for being overweight. Now I’ve bought the Roland TR-8S for all the drums and basslines and the MPC Live, which is full of loops from original tracks that I can mute in and out. I’ll use the Korg Monologue to play riffs and all of that fits in the backpack. I’d love to go on stage with analogue synths like I used to, but it’s just not worth it any more. Too many times I’ve got back, opened the flight case and the guts have dropped out of them.”

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

The Emperor Machine album Music Not Safari is released 20th March on Skint Records. For more visit: facebook.com/ theemperor­machine

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