‘Fill The Room With Synthesisers’ – The Radiophonic Workshop In ConversationPosted: June 28, 2017
Here at last is the transcript of my encounter from a couple of weeks ago with a quartet of members from the reformed Radiophonic Workshop, recorded while gathering material for the above BBC report on their first album of new material in over thirty years. Burials In Several Earths comprises an extended set of drifting, ambient excursions crafted from hours of playing and improvising together as a group and is now available as a lavishly packaged vinyl boxset with beautiful artwork – or a double CD version if you’re particularly into retro technology.
Ahead of their recent show at London’s Science Museum, I tracked them down at a secret rehearsal studio somewhere just outside of London, a small building near a busy railway line, crammed with an eye-watering amount of vintage analogue equipment that remained frustratingly silent throughout, due to an ongoing and pervasive technical problem that the band were trying to unpick. I arrived to find Paddy Kingsland (‘a couple of keyboards, an autoharp from the 50s with all the guts ripped out of it, computer and guitar’) on the phone to some sort of technical support helpline, while Peter Howell (keyboard, guitar and wind controller), Roger Limb – (keyboards and a U-Bass ‘which often raises people eyebrows – it’s a bass but not much bigger than a ukelele’) and more recent member, Workshop archivist and de facto bandleader Mark Ayres (‘surrounded by more synthesisers that is probably legal and a Macintosh computer and various gadgets’) all offered suggestions and scratched their heads. It seems that even several decades at the cutting edge of technology can’t prevent the odd hitch now and again. Their loss was my gain, however, as it gave them an enforced break in which to answer my questions, interrupted only by the remarkable squeaking sounds coming from Roger’s chair and the occasional passing express…
[Sudden sound of train siren]
Mark – Your next album there, Robin!
Have you ever had Steam Railroading Under Thundering Skies? A fantastic record, it’s literally old recordings of western trains in the US and thunder and rain and that’s all it is! It’s beautiful, no manipulation or anything, just those sounds!
Peter – You go to all this trouble to make this special sound and then the natural stuff sounds great! […] I was over in the Canary Islands on holiday and the exit ramp of the ferry that lets the cars on was moving to and fro because of the movement of the ship and the sound was brilliant! So I recorded it and put it through [synthesis app] Metasynth and there is a whole piece to be derived from those sounds, they were all harmonics of metal squeaks [vocally imitates this to his best ability] – a brilliant sound! Jane thought I was completely mad. I said ‘that is amazing’, she said ‘Amazing? It sounds bloody awful!’ [laughs]
Mark – One man’s bloody awful is someone else’s art!
Roger – In Maida Vale there were some good wind noises. There was, what was it, the door to the ladies?
Peter – I made a Fairlight sample out of it! I called it door wind. It sounded like a soprano! The most incredible sound!
Roger – Well, it did come from the ladies loo!
[Brief interlude while Paddy receives another phonecall from tech support and I record the sound of Roger’s squeaking chair, which was becoming such an intrusive presence that it was deemed prudent to make use of it – ‘when in Rome’ etc.]
So, Burials In Several Earths, a brand new album and the first release of new Workshop material in over three decades. Could we start by talking about where the title comes from?
Mark – There was a quote from [Francis Bacon’s 17th century utopian novel] New Atlantis pinned on the Radiophonic Workshop wall in the early days, Daphne Oram put it up – ‘we also have sound houses…’ I was mixing the record and I had no idea what the titles were [going to be], because it was pure improvisation. And I thought that New Atlantis might be an interesting benchmark, so I sat down and read it one evening and if any interesting phrase that might be a track title jumped out at me I made a note of it. I ended up with about 20 possible track titles and I went through them and I thought ‘okay “burials in several earths” that works for that, “things buried in water”, that works for that’. So that’s how the tracks got their titles. It was not inspired [directly] by New Atlantis but the titles came from it – and they fit pretty well.
Could we talk a little bit about the album’s gestation? In the old days obviously, composers at the Workshop would work to commissions and deadlines, whereas this is more communal and improvised in nature.
Paddy – It’s hugely difficult for us to work without a deadline because we’re so used to it and so used to somebody saying ‘well, we need this amount of music and it’s got to be this kind of thing’ – happy, sad, horrific, whatever it is – ‘in a certain time’. Without that deadline it’s quite difficult to get started on something! [So] when we had the opportunity to just experiment in another studio, not one that we were operating all the equipment in, we kind of jumped at that chance! It happened that we were working with other people as well and so it was all the more exciting. We had Martyn Ware [ex-Human League / British Electric Foundation / Heaven 17 plus a LOT more] and also Steve ‘Dub’ Jones of Chemical Brothers engineering/production frame, so quite good people working with us and we didn’t have any kind of preconceptions about what we were going to do. We just played for an entire day and came up with, I don’t know how many hours it was, but lots of material; which then Mark spent time going through and selecting bits and putting them all together. It made it a lot easier to come up with ideas and bounce off each other – a bit like improvisation except that we were more or less improvising with sounds rather than perhaps [just] the music side of things. So simultaneously trying different sounds out with each other as well as coming up with chords and all of that.
Mark – We usually work individually as media composers or whatever when we’re doing commissions. All these guys had their own individual studios [at the Workshop]. When we did our first concert at the Roundhouse a few years ago, I remember Peter and Paddy taking themselves off to work out the chords and voicings for Doctor Who. We left them alone for about half an hour and suddenly we could hear this chuckling and we went back and they said ‘do you know we’ve never actually done this’! They were doing the Lennon and McCartney thing, sitting opposite one another with their guitars and they’ve never done that before in their lives! This is a whole new phase, the first time we’ve all come together and worked together and so one of the things we did was that we teamed up with various groups of other people to see what would happen. So we’ve worked with various people like GhostPoet and in this particular session we were set up with Martin and Steve – and it was just fill the room with synthesisers and see what happens. And that’s a whole new way of working! Paddy and Roger have done a thing with Tom Middleton so there is a whole lot of that stuff as well which may come out one day. Roger and I have been working with Paul Hartnoll from Orbital, Peter and I did a session with Phil Manzanera, so we got all this stuff in the bag now and we just working out quite what to do with it going forward. But it’s very exciting, little groups of us getting together and not knowing what’s going to come out of this. Normally if you’re going to one of these things you try and turn up with a little bit of an idea in the back of your head. This one we didn’t. We all looked at each other and said, well, what do we do? So we all started fiddling and after about two minutes I waved through the glass and said ‘you’d better start recording’ because interesting things were starting to happen. And that’s what we did.
Very different from the traditional working to a strict brief or set of parameters, of course!
Roger – [finally abandoning his noisy chair] My view on this is that when we were working on commissions, the deadline was often quite frantic and sometimes you’d arrive at a place and say ‘oh, I wish I could explore down that passage, that path a little bit more because that was an interesting collection of sounds or an interesting way of working, but quite often you didn’t have time. At least this way we found or at least I’ve found that you can experiment more and spend time – time is always precious – but we’ve less constraint than there used to be and that’s quite an interesting way of working that we that we’ve discovered now rather than when we were actually at the [original] Radiophonic Workshop.
Roger, your background is as a jazz musician of course. So you must be quite used to improvising?
Roger – Well, I still do lots of jazz gigs and the thing is I’ve been doing jazz gigs since I was 15, I suppose. And other things – [for example] I’ve conducted choral unions! The thing about being a musician is if you’re lucky enough to do things in different fields, nothing is wasted. Though I might conduct the Messiah, I think the experiences I had playing jazz in Ronnie Scotts is [also] part of the background, if you see what I mean. As I said, nothing is wasted, there is a lot of music rattling around in my head and sometimes one compartment overlaps with another one.
Paddy – Desmond Briscoe who started up the Workshop with Daphne Oram used to say ‘you’ve got to fail sometimes, you can’t succeed all the time’. And if you have room to fail, you’re not frightened of failing; you eventually come up with something quite good! So working in that way, we didn’t mind if we made mistakes or started again, because we had that room to experiment properly. You’re not going to get anything good out of it if you play it safe all the time! The good stuff comes out when you’re on the brink of failure!
I often think wrong is actually just a version of right that maybe hasn’t been taken into account yet!
Paddy – The happy accident! It’s what a lot of our catalogue is based on!
Peter – Entire careers are based on serendipity! But going back to what Roger was saying, the fact that when you’re working to a deadline you don’t have time to take things to their logical conclusion. I remember several occasions when I got terribly involved with doing something, [but] the actual project or commission I was working on was not a very big one, it was only twenty seconds opening [music] or something like that. I got so involved in what I was doing and so intensely into it that I took the decision that it was far too good for them and they weren’t going to have it! [laughs] And so I actually put those tapes away, which was an hour and a half of development that I’d been doing and then had to think of something else for the twenty seconds! The sad thing is that those tapes don’t come to anything when you’re working for the BBC in the [original] Workshop, whereas nowadays those recordings would come to something and [this] album is an example of that of one of those things. It’s an extension of a long-form idea that’s taken to a logical conclusion, one that would not of been possible in the old days.
The next level – a continuation, then? To me it’s a lot more ambient and drifting in nature, compared to the older releases.
Mark – A lot of the early sound effects which Delia [Derbyshire] and Dick Mills did – Dick Mills was master of the ambient sound effects for Doctor Who and various other shows – a lot of it was ambient. We’ve been doing lots of different things, I mean there are six of us in the band we’ve been doing different things in little groupings and side projects and things and seeing what comes out really; and this was the first one which came together. But yes, people have said to me it wasn’t what they expected, some people thought they were going to get something more like The Fourth Dimension, which was Paddy’s album; some people thought it was going to be like Through A Glass Darkly, which is Peter’s album – piano, synths and guitar. I think the fact that it’s not what anyone was expecting is probably quite a good thing! And yes it is very ambient – the tracks end because that’s where we stopped and had a cup of tea. That’s the way we did it – we waffled on for half an hour and then we all thought well, that’s enough of that! In fact on the end of ‘Not come to light’, which is the shortest track on the album, if you listen very carefully you can hear people talking in the background. It’s lost in the reverb but what we’re actually saying is ‘that’s quite enough of that – put the kettle on!’ And that’s the way the album came together and I just thought it was fun to leave that in. Because it’s a little bit of a little part of the creative progress, what’s going on in the background.
Peter – We are working on lots of other new stuff that falls more into the category of individual tracks and is less extended and so harks back a little bit to more thematic content. So we’re able at long last now we are in the present situation of choosing what sort of things we do, and it’s really nice to have a bigger pallet at your disposal.
Mark – If you look at the [older] Radiophonic Workshop albums like 21 or The Soundhouse, there’s [solo] tracks by Paddy, by Roger, by Peter, by Elisabeth [Parker] et cetera, so we do have individual tracks. Our live set is built up of tracks that with we’ve each written, that we then bring to the band and work up as a performance. So everything we do is slightly different from the way that the Radiophonic Workshop traditionally worked. We’ve got the side projects, we’ve got the full band stuff that we doing – we’ve got about five projects in our back pocket, the question is finishing them to be honest and getting them out there!
Peter – That’s the trouble I especially have – finishing things! I love new things, but it’s not all positive because the negative side of it is that you never finish anything! I think [it even helps] having the deadline of a concert. We’ve got a concert coming up in July and I’ve written a new track for it and it’s been a really good discipline because I know I’ve got to get it all sorted by then, otherwise it [just] would’ve drifted on. So it’s still valuable to have deadlines!
Mark – And then he’ll be disciplining us because we’ve got to learn it!
Paddy – We’ve met with a lot of popularity and I think people seem to like [our work] very much and they’re very interested in it, but I think the reason they’re interested in it is because of those wonderful people like Delia Derbyshire and John Baker who came before us – and also we worked with them – and people like Brian Hodgson. We are standing on their shoulders, really, because they started it all and formulated all this kind of way of working. We are reaping the benefits and having people coming in and enjoying it, [but] we should say a word for them too, I think!
This brings me quite next nearly to my next question. Obviously many of those original Radiophonic staffers such as Delia Derbyshire, John Baker, Daphne Oram and others have now passed on. What do you think they would have made of all this?
Paddy – They’d laugh!
Would they want to join the band as well, do you think?
Roger – We’ve often thought of that, actually, what would Delia make of all this? I think because she was such a feisty lady, she probably would quite enjoy the idea. I don’t think she would come up on stage and do anything, but she would be very happy for us, I think. John Baker, he was a bit of a jazz musician as well, he went and did a few jazz gigs. I don’t know that he’d enjoy playing with us on stage, perhaps he would. I don’t know whether he had the overall, shall we say, arching ambition or discipline to do what we’re doing and of course he was quite a bit older than us. We’re old enough but he was at least 5 to 10 years older!
Talking of the discipline, though, if you listen to ‘Reading Your Letters’ [Baker’s famously complex eight second composition using the sounds of water bottles], the amount of cutting and splicing and microscopic edits that must’ve involved is staggering to think of! Surely that’s a huge amount of discipline?
Roger – It is, but it’s very much inward-looking if you know what I mean – it was just him and his tape machines and a studio. But certainly disciplined – he was obsessed, driven by it if you like and like a lot of [these] people probably close to genius. He certainly set the trend and made some wonderful stuff, but of course the main problem was – and we’ve talked about this many times – the techniques of the Workshop changed at the beginning of the 1970s and the whole business of tape cutting became less used. We went on to synths and multitrack working and eventually sequencing and digital recording, so [first wave members such as Delia and John] were not there at that time. I don’t know – they probably would quite enjoy using [these newer techniques] but it wasn’t their scene at the time.
Mark – It is interesting that the Workshop’s history does range from the early tape music experiments through to the theme tunes and all those sort of concept albums like Through A Glass Darkly and things like that – a real gamut of musical taste and technique. And that’s what we try and bring to what we do now. We don’t do the full performance art tape music because a lot of people that come to see our gigs want to hear the ‘Astronauts Theme’ or ‘Hitchhikers Guide’ or of course ‘Doctor Who’.
Peter – I tell you what they also like to see – an inordinate amount of gear on stage, which we’re standing in the middle of at this second and has taken us about three or four hours to set up! I’m glad to say we don’t take that long when we do festivals, but I think we want to put ourselves apart from those bands that are very, very sparse when you go and see them and [when] there is very little on stage. We are quite the reverse because I think people like to see the gear and they know it’s all being played live and an enormous amount of what we do is live. So I hope they’re getting their money’s worth!
The Radiophonic Workshop have inspired a lot of electronic music over the years, with artists such as Aphex Twin and Orbital naturally springing to mind. So I’m wondering if any modern musicians and producers have influenced you?
Mark – I think we’re all inspired by what goes on around us. I’m of the generation of Aphex Twin and Orbital, I am of that generation inspired by these guys who I’m now having this great pleasure of working with. I get people coming up to me at seminars and saying I listened to your Doctor Who music in the 80s and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now, which is exactly what I was saying to these guys and to Dudley Simpson 20 or 30 years ago! So it just keeps on going and that’s great.
Roger – I’ve always enjoyed listening to Brian Eno’s music. He’s a wonderful genius. Though I go back to Joe Meek! I actually worked with Joe Meek in the early 60s, he showed us round his studio and his bathroom echo chamber and this wonderful machine that he played ‘Telstar’ on, so I do go back that far. I wouldn’t say that I wanted to copy or emulate him in any particular way, but I did feel I was stepping inside a little bit of history for a few days!
Mark – There is some amazing stuff out there. There are still people doing musique concréte and tape music and some fantastic experimentation. Brian Hodgson, Dick Mills and I were up at Delia Derbyshire Day over the weekend and they had loads of kids and adults coming in and doing workshops on how to put [sounds] together. Nowadays if you got a mobile phone with GarageBand on it you can do the kind of stuff that was being done back in the 60s and 70s and beyond, not using the exact same techniques but using digital facsimiles of those techniques. You can record sound, you can play with sounds and if like us you think there is music in everything from a squeaky chair to a trombone or a string orchestra or anything, if you hear music everywhere you can go out and you can make that music. Why not? Do it!
Going back to artists such as Orbital, I was recently attempting to explain the Workshop’s effect on the history of electronic music to some students by using a clip of that duo performing their amped-up version of the Dr. Who theme at Glastonbury festival from a few years back. Every time I watch that clip, I wonder what Delia would have made of their version. Would she have chided them or would she have been delighted to hear it and to see several thousand people dancing to something she’d had a hand in?
Peter – I don’t know that Delia would worry really because let’s face it she was doing a version of something written by Ron Grainer. And somebody who’s done a version of somebody else’s composition isn’t likely to worry if somebody else does a version [as well]! In fact Delia actually heard my version of the Doctor Who theme and she was very generous about it and she wasn’t at all upset that hers had been changed into mine, it was just a matter of moving with the times. No, I don’t think she’d worry, actually, I think should be quite excited about it!
Mark – Delia did say that your version of the Doctor Who theme was closer to the score than hers was. And she was very complimentary about [it]. She did write a letter of complaint to the BBC about one of the later versions, though!
Peter – Did she really? I didn’t know that!
Mark – She was in two minds about all sorts of things!
Roger – She was very down to earth person underneath. We think of her as all these wonderful ethereal sounds and she went around in flowing robes from time to time, but she was very down-to-earth really, wasn’t she?
Mark – Delia was a mathematician [as well as] a musician and she did sit with a book of log tables next to the desk to work out crescendos and diminuendos and all that kind of stuff. And tape cutting you know when a crotchet was 15 inches and a quaver was 7 1/2 inches – that was maths and they had to work all that out back then. We’ve kind of moved beyond that in terms of synthesisers and things, but Delia was well into working out the harmonic series, she was very mathematical the way she worked, but that’s not quite so necessary these days. Techniques have moved on!
— Radiophonic Workshop (@radiophonicwork) June 14, 2017
And with that, I thought I’d better let them get back to untangling their technical issues. I was sadly unable to attend the Science Museum show that followed a few days later, but I’m told it was a great success, so can only assume the problem was fixed and they were able to keep those techniques moving. Either way, Burials In Several Earths is out now and The Radiophonic Workshop look set to be unveiling quite a few more surprises in the coming months. Follow their activities here and here. Of course, a notable holiday-enforced absence from all of the above was amiable raconteur Dick Mills – the longest-serving member who also serves master of ceremonies during the group’s live performances – who was spending quality time with the Grandchildren that week. However, I did manage to catch up with this most affable and engaging member of the Workshop’s ‘first wave’ at the recent Delia Derbyshire Day in Manchester and will hopefully be bringing the fruits of that encounter to these pages soon. Though I’ll be needing a strong coffee before I have a crack at transcription and might have to publish in instalments! ‘Once you get him going’, etc. etc…