The proudly-Scottish singer and songwriter, renowned for his fondness for traditional battle-dress, discusses his 1995 ISDN "Compression" album with Wendy E. Ball, recorded during his time of collaboration with Adrian Sherwood:
"How the idea started was that, coming from the Borders [***Ed.: ...of Scotland, specifically St. Boswells...***] and then going away and living abroad in the States for many years, I always wanted to come back, have a family and live here again. But I was concerned that there wasnít a music industry in Scotland and I was hoping, twelve years ago, that there was at least the start. So I thought I'd come back having timed it right. Just shows you how wrong I was!
"So I had to figure away and was thinking, "How do I still hook up with my friends who were thousands of miles away?" Iíd heard a story from a friend of mine, who was an engineer in New York, that Capitol Records in LA were doing a recording with Frank Sinatra in his house and he was having guest artists coming in through the telephone line. So I thought Iíd find out more about it. I was really desperate to make this album with my friends before they all dispersed all over the place.
"I hadnít the money to go back out and live there for six months to do it and I couldnít get a record company to pay for it so I contacted BT [***Ed.: ...a big phone company in the UK...***] and I found a really good bloke called Ray Pritchard who was into my music and stuff. He said that they were trying to launch ISDN in 1992-3. I said to him "Look, Iíll make you a deal. You install the ISDN lines here and Iíll give you my music to promote so that you can show off what itís capable of doing." Thatís really how it came about."
So when did this, this come out?
|The "Compression" album
"1995. It took about a year. The whole ISDN system was just up and running and so, for instance, we did the first [link] through to Africa and rhino and all sorts of things would run over the lines and they'd be out! So there were things that were kind of difficult to get back on line quickly. You know, until some, some wee lad goes out there with a pair of wire clippers and puts it back together again, you know? So, eventually I managed to install ISDN lines in a studio which Iíd used in America called ĎHouse of Musicí in Orange, New Jersey. Thatís the home of the P-Funk - the funkadelic lot of the top black musicians that inspired Prince and all that other stuff. They were my pals there and so it was easy for them to come in and do some stuff."
Would it not need a lot of logistical organisation, you know, when itís sort of midnight in New York?
"I had a huge phone bill to begin with. Now ISDN is a penny a minute or something and itís really cheap, you know. At the time it was quite expensive. It was like, a pound a minute and we were on-line for eight hours sometimes! They [BT] paid for that just 'til we got to the stage where we'd got the recordings done. After that, then I had to try and finance the thing myself.
"It was interesting to say the least that, you know, I could sing Umhlaba Jikelele with someone in Africa and they were singing with me. I also organised this live television shoot with ISDN as well, so that I had a TV monitor here and I had a cameraman running out with the long cable that went about fifty metres back to the studio. They had a PA out in the streets, and I was speaking in real time, telling him the shots I wanted and telling the girls to sing, when to come in on the beat and stuff. This was amazing. There was a real friendliness about the thing and thatís what really pleased me - because then I realised the potential of that and especially sound quality ... you could hear everything so clearly."
Has it been repeated, the experience?
"There was this group Future Sound Of London. They got a lot of glory for it but we were actually first because I put the ISDN lines into On-U Sound. On-U Sound with Adrian Sherwood was doing the big dub. They did a lot of reggae and they were a purist kind of dub funk lot that had a lot of respect in the industry but werenít, like, the big commercial end of things. Future Sound Of London after we had done it brought out a record that they had done through ISDN but not to the extent we had."
You were talking about the track Braveheart?
"Yeh, Braveheart. I did a live ISDN show in Glasgow. I really donít think people knew what the hell I was doing to be quite honest. But I had the video screen up, we had the video, we had Doug Wimbish from Living Colour, Skip McDonald from Tackhead and the heavy duty lads playing live in London."
What about the relationship between the audience and the performer? Is that not lacking a bit?
"Well, you see, what I did was to compensate for that. I stuck a mike up in the room and I stuck a mike up in Glasgow so the, the audience could shout along and, shout things to the bass player or the drummer and they could respond to it, which is really the whole point of communication doing a live gig. If the audience were just sitting and watching a screen and listening to incoming sound, and they werenít actually able to participate, but if they whistled and they clapped and they shouted something for Keith LeBlanc, he'd lifted his drumstick and he waved it at them and he played something.
"It allowed that contact element that maybe might not have been there unless Iíd done that. But I was aware of that and I thought, "Well, theyíre just going to think theyíre watching a tape. How are they going to know itís live?", I mean one bloke was heckling away there and he was adamant about it, you know. And Doug just turned round and said, "What the hellís wrong with you man. Sit doon!" You know. Well, heís American but he said it in those terms and the guy was just sort of dumbfounded that he could see them in the club in Glasgow and was telling them to sit down!
So no, the potential of it is amazing and Iím glad Iíve done it."
(Re-edited extracts from an interview originally transcribed in the Scottish Borders Memory Bank)