I managed to corner Martin just before we came home for a few questions post tour:
SF (me): So firstly I guess the burning question is why do you like to do things the hard way? Surely everybody uses laptops these days?..
MS: I've got nothing against laptops onstage. But our way just sounds better. And it looks better. And it's more fun. In our opinion, anyway!
As has been commented by wiser people than me,watching a laptop gig can look like you're being entertained by someone emailing their mum. You wouldn't expect a guitarist or a drummer to turn up at a gig with just a laptop, so why should a synthesizer player be any different?
I suppose I understand that some people just can't be bothered with all that lugging of equipment around, but that's kind of part of the fun too. It's an adventure! I refer the Right Honourable Gentleman to the answer i gave a few moments ago - it sounds and looks better - it's a performance - and when you're onstage, aren't you supposed to be entertaining people?
SF: How do you deal with the issues with live synths? Tuning etc
MS: Haha - it's like herding cats. It can be a real nightmare, but again, it's part of the fun. Maybe i'm just a Masochist! Analogue synths are obviously very sensitive to temperature, humidity, power supply irregularities etc, but again, comparing things to a guitarist, who has six strings, [on each guitar he takes] each one of those can go out of tune or break - guitarists allow for that. When it happens, you just deal with it. I use five tuners onstage, and sometimes things are fine, sometimes things are a bit wobbly. Just like real life.
Interestingly though, it's probably more often the modern analogues that i have more issues with than the vintage ones. My MS-20 never goes out of tune, and the RS-09 and Polysix are both pretty reliable. The Dark Energy, Dominion X and Leipzig on the other hand are like wandering children - I have to watch each one all the time! To paraphrase Adrian Uttley from Portishead you just work on 'wide tuning'. It's what gives things character though, it makes it more real!
SF: You have a great many different synths in your live setup, how do you choose what to take out?
MS: They're chosen based partly on size and reliability, and partly on their ability to recreate live the various things we've done in the studio. The Polysix covers all the arpeggiator duties, the SH-101s and Dark Energy do all the short sequenced bits and pieces, RS-09 does the lush string machine parts and the Pulse+ and Leipzig handle the huge basses.
To be honest what we take out is kind of the heart of the studio setup anyway - we've consciously tried to record stuff in the studio in the same way we perform it live, using many of the same instruments. As most things don't have memories, it's never going to sound the same, but at least we know we we can do it live! I mostly take out things that can do specific jobs really well - and be reliable. The SH-101s are amazing workhorses, they're really flexible and sound great doing little sequences. The MS-20 has just a beautiful and beguiling tone. The Leipzig is just so raw sounding and fat and fun to play.
SF: Can you talk us through a bit of the logic behind the setup?.. How are things controlled sequenced etc?..
MS: The MPC-1000 is the brain. It runs the sequences on the Dark Energy and Dominion, and bass parts I can't play on the Pulse+, it sends (via the Pulse+ MIDI-CV converter) gates to my SH-101 and Polysix, it sends drum note info to the TR-707 which just acts as a sound module really. The rimshot data sent from the MPC to the TR-707 clocks the other SH-101. On some songs most things are live, and we're playing. On others, it's mostly sequences and we're doing more sound manipulation, or for example playing pitch information to a clocked signal.
SF: Do you have any contingencies in place in case of failure?..
MS: Well, everything we take is also chosen to be able to cover for something else. Things do occasionally flip out, but mostly it's all very reliable. We had problems with a Juno 60 that I would have chosen to take on tour over the Polysix but we're lucky to have those options, so the Polysix made the cut. Had the Polysix then had problems on tour, I would have used my SH-101 for arpeggios, and the Matrix 1000 which sits in the rack, for the big pads and melodies on tracks like Play With Fire and The Last Time. It's all worked out quite carefully so we can do that.
SF: Having just done your first tour, is there anything you would do differently next time?
MS: Well, we've been gigging around the UK for a couple of years like this, so it's not really the first time we've tried to do this - the only difference being on the German tour that there wasn't the easy option of going back home to pick up something else in an emergency. Actually, we were so well prepared, we had all kinds of backup, so we weren't too worried. And there are reports that you can even buy things in Germany too, but we didn't test this hypothesis..
The main thing I think I'd revise is the number of bits of gear that require fiddling with between songs. Without memories, the vintage stuff obviously needs adjusting to get the right sounds. With one or two synths, or if your songs allow you adjust as you're going along, it's manageable, but with five or six that need adjusting, and songs that need to start with the right sound spot on right from the beginning, it's too much! And that's not even thinking about mixer levels, effects settings and actually playing! You mitigate for this somewhat by keeping synths for different things - basses, staccato sequences, melodies etc, but it's still a bit of a headache, so i will be slightly less precious about it next time, and keep it to a couple of things without memories.
Tom Whitwell shows us his new modules and some new prototypes