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Three Questions With Landscape

Landscape, the synth-pop pioneers known for their 1980s hits "Einstein a Go-Go" and "Norman Bates" formed in London in 1975. Members Richard James Burgess and John L. Walters were kind enough to answer Three Q's about the early days of synths and more.

Without further ado...

Landscape with a Roland MC-8.
Landscape with a Roland MC-8.

Synth History: Landscape took part in the emergence of synth-pop in the late 70s and early 80s. How was the growing prominence of synthesizers perceived back then in the music industry and among audiences?

Richard Burgess: The reaction to synthesizers was very mixed, much like the reaction is today to AI in music. The UK musicians’ union seriously discussed banning them because they were concerned that they would replace musicians -- especially when the Prophet 5 polyphonic synth came out.

Initially people seemed to think synthesizers were cheesy and poppy – like that track “Popcorn”. They were often used as gimmicks on pop ditties. Then, there was the “synthesizers can replace everything” syndrome and the Wendy Carlos synth remakes of classical pieces. By the time we were being discussed as a “synth-band” things had settled down and diversified quite a bit – there was the German movement, which was sometimes perceived as cold and mechanistic but at the same time there was underrated and under discussed Tonto’s Expanding Headband - Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff - who did the programming on Stevie Wonder’s classic 70s albums – gorgeous, lush warm sounds and arrangements. And then there was the advent of sequencers -- initially the analog step type that produced the Giorgio Moroder type of sound but that ultimately developed into more sophisticated devices such as the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer that Landscape used. The MC-8 was really the first computer composition and arrangement tool and being a random access device was revolutionary because, for the first time, large and small sections could be copied, pasted and modified extremely easily and quickly.

John L. Walters: In the 1960s and 70s synth progress happened in little isolated pockets around the world, in academia, private studios and radio stations. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which included Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, did pioneering work in mainstream media. Keith Winter, an academic from Cardiff, collaborated with my friend and mentor Neil Ardley on The Time Flowers, 1971.

I once applied unsuccessfully to study at Ircam, the Boulez-led electronic research institute under the Pompidou, where composers like Jonathan Harvey did amazing work like Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco; Suba (Mitar Subotić) studied there in the 1980s. EMAS did electroacoustic concerts at St John’s Smith Square, where Richard, Chris and I would go to hear amazing quadrophonic works by John Chowning - the guy behind FM synthesis and the DX7, Trevor Wishart, Barry Anderson, Lawrence Casserley, Stockhausen, etc. We met Larry Fast, rehearsing with Peter Gabriel in the Bath countryside, which seemed riddled with synths; John Lewis from the Radiophonic Workshop, who did the programming for M’s ‘Pop Muzik’; and David Vorhaus / White Noise, an early user of the EMS Synthi VCS3 who had invented a sequencer - MANIAC - and the highly expressive Kaleidophon.

Early keyboard synths were expensive, difficult to keep in tune and a lot of faff, and we used to joke about bands who had rigs with multiple keyboards that all sounded the same. Some rock musicians were suspicious of synths because they weren’t authentic. Queen had a little note on their early albums that promised ‘No synthesizers!’.

Certain musicians did amazing things with them: Herbie Hancock, working with David Rubinson, used synths and sequencers to make sounds that are sometimes called afrofuturist on Crossings and Sextant; Joe Zawinul was the early adopter par excellence in Weather Report, where he used synths in ways that were musical, imaginative and unexpected, like the inverted keyboard. I saw Kraftwerk perform at the Roundhouse in October 1976, when they were still regarded as a joke by some musicians and journalists.

Richard Burgess Landscape.
Richard Burgess of Landscape with the MC-8 and a 100M module during the recording of Tea-Rooms.

Synth History: Do you remember some of your first experiences with synthesizers and some of the early synths you used on your records?

Richard Burgess: Yes. My first synthesizer was the EMS Synthi A, which was the briefcase version of the legendary VCS3 synthesizer. It was in a briefcase sized plastic case and came with no keyboard. It had the pin matrix system of routing, which was functionally like using patchchords and was great because you could patch anything to anything. I did my first drum synthesizer experiments on that machine, and I built a great foundation in the principles of analogy additive synthesis just by playing with the Synthi A. It was addictive, like a hardware version of TikTok, you never knew what you could do and often you never knew what you just did and couldn’t get back to it if you lost the settings. So much fun.

The early synths on the Landscape LPs were the SDSIII synths that I used to trigger from my acoustic Pearl drum set. I made the triggers myself out of the carbon microphone inserts from the old telephone handsets, they cost about 20p from the electronics store, I wired them to a female jack socket and taped them to the inside of the drum shell. Primitive but they worked beautifully and that’s what you hear on the Landscape album and live on the Old Grey Whistle Test performances. I had ten SDSIII modules. It was from this setup that I devised the sonic structure for the SDSV. I created the individual component parts of the sound using the different modules and was able to mockup the SDSV sounds that we also duplicated on an ARP 2600 and eventually built from components for the prototype and, ultimately, the production models. On the track “The Mechanical Bride” I also used a Moog drum, as part of my acoustic drum set with synth triggers, with the velocity sensitivity set to affect the pitch and the filter. The Moog drum was not widely used but it was an incredibly versatile device that I loved.

Beyond that, we had a Roland ProMars that John used, a Jupiter 8, several Roland System 100M patchcord modular synths - that I had modified to 10x the rise time of the VCAs and that I absolutely loved but they were stolen during a burglary at my London house. I had a Roland TR-606 drum machine when they came out and I recall that we used a Roland CR78 for the “lounge” drum beats on the Tearooms of Mars medley. We had to synch the CR78 to the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer and we did that by generating a square wave from the MC-8 and got them in synch by trial and error. Fun times. We had an endorsement deal with Roland by that time and we could get the new synths as they came out. Chris used the game changing Yamaha CS80, which is a big part of the sound of Landscape during the Landscape and Tearooms period because of its velocity sensitivity and aftertouch that could be routed to various functions. He also used his Fender Rhodes 73 electric piano that he fed through distortion boxes and a ring modulator. Chris also used a little Casio FM synth for very high tinkly sounds. I recall a Minimoog synthesizer as well. Pete, John, and Andy fed their respective instruments – trombone, soprano saxophone, and bass guitar through all manner of effects pedals and units that all added to the “synthesized” sound.

This was a time of rapid development in the world of synthesis, I had just acquired the Fairlight CMI. John and I recorded the first digital samples on a commercially available recording with that - Kate Bush’s Never for Ever. Roger Linn had released the LM1 and subsequently the LinnDrum. The DX7 FM synthesizer was about to hit the market, as were the Roland Juno 6, 60 and 106. The biggest transformation at this time was really MIDI. Most of our work was done pre-MIDI and the synchronization of the various synths was done through the Control Voltage and we had to stick to synths that were one volt per octave to accommodate the MC-8 and MC4 MicroComposer.

John L. Walters: I encountered both the MC-8 and the Lyricon wind synthesizer on the same sunny day, at a music trade show in Russell Square in the summer of 1978, and they blew my mind. The MC-8 was running a set of modular synths playing a composition by Ralph Dyck, the guy who invented it, and in another room, Ray Kitchen’s MusicAid company was demonstrating these amazing wind synthesizers, the Computone Lyricon and Wind Synthesizer Driver, a lyricon that output control voltages so you could plug it into another synth like a keyboard. I picked up leaflets for the MC-8 and the Lyricon that you can see on the Landscape website.

I’d already heard about the Lyricon - Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter played it beautifully on Black Market, and Tom Scott played it on Steely Dan’s Aja - but seeing one and then getting my hands on one made me realize it was an instrument I had to use for my own music in Landscape.

The MC-8 appealed to me as a genuine composer’s instrument – as opposed to a sequencer, which had never appealed to me. On an MC-8 you could write a score, plug it into a set of synth modules and play it. That’s a commonplace concept now, but in 1978 it was science fiction made real. I raved about the MC-8 to my bandmate Richard (Burgess) and to my mentor and teacher Neil Ardley. We all ended up doing good work on the device. I borrowed a Lyricon - and subsequently bought it in installments - and started playing it on the road with Landscape. You can hear me playing Lyricon on the Live in Norwich tracks on the Landscape A Go-Go box set, on three albums and the Landscape III tracks. Richard and I taught ourselves to program the MC-8 and we first used it seriously for "European Man" – drums, percussion and the busy System 100 synth ‘string’ parts. There was a day when Richard was suddenly taken sick, and I programmed all his acoustic drum parts on the MC-8 for a BBC Radio Manchester session. "Shake the West Awake" began life as a demonstration instrumental piece for Lyricon, SDSV and MC-8 – it’s on an obscure cassette somewhere!

As well as learning how to play the Lyricon I did some research and wrote an article for Tony Bacon’s mag Sound International headlined Wind of Change. I then bought a Lyricon Wind Synthesizer Driver from Computone and hooked it up to my monophonic Roland ProMars synth – that’s the ‘flute’ sound you hear playing the instrumental hook on "Einstein a Go-Go". We also used ProMars for the bass synth on "Norman Bates" and Richard hired it when he was producing Spandau Ballet’s Journeys to Glory – I think they used it on "To Cut a Long Story Short" but Richard will confirm.

Richard and I also spent a lot of time with the Fairlight CMI, programming on Never for Ever, as he has explained, and teaching ourselves how to use Page ‘R’, though we never got to use it for Landscape. We programmed a version of the unrecorded Landscape tune "Ruthless Loofah" using a Kate Bush voice sample and a Steve Hillage guitar sound, but I have never managed to find even a rough cassette of it. It might be on an eight-inch floppy somewhere.

After a while we replaced the MC-8 with the MC-4, which was a bit easier to use and back up, and I really enjoyed getting into quite complex programming on Shock’s "Dynamo Beat" and Landscape III’s So Good, So Pure, So Kind - also in the box. Peter Thoms’s tune "Computer Person", on From the Tea-Rooms of Mars, is played by an 80% computerized version of Landscape: Chris is the only person playing ‘by hand’ on a little Casio synth.

So my synthesizer experiences were all about two different ways of controlling the sounds – by programming note by note, and through an expressive wind instrument. In my Sound on Sound article The Search For Expression, Lyricon inventor Bill Bernardi told me, "The sound is not as important as the control over it."

Landscape for Roland.
Landscape for Roland.

Synth History: What are the best parts and the hardest parts about collaboration in general and being in a band?

Richard Burgess: Being a drummer, I am by nature a collaborator. Not many drummers get calls to play solo gigs, so you are always collaborating with other musicians. As a songwriter and producer, I collaborated, likewise as a manager and I carry that over to everything else I have ever done. Some people are great to collaborate with and some are not. To be a good collaborator you need to not be too dogmatic or possessive of ideas and to have an open mind about another way to do things. Being curious is essential. I think the adage, “kill your darlings” is useful because hanging onto ideas that you love can create obstacles in the flow of whatever it is that you are creating. It’s at least useful to experiment with taking favorite bits out to see how that helps the overall.

On the other hand, approaching creativity from the perspective that there are no bad ideas is most productive way in a group setting. In my opinion, there are two distinct stages to the creative process: The creation of the raw ideas and the editing of those ideas into a coherent work worthy of prime time. My gut feeling is that they use different mechanisms in the brain, and it is less productive to edit as you go and more productive to get as many ideas as possible out first before moving into editing and arranging mode. Obviously, a mix and match approach can work, and some people might do better combining the two modes, but I find that allowing the raw ideas to flow is the hardest part of the process and once I have those, piecing them together is more of a technical exercise. I can edit and arrange at the end of the day when I am tired, but my best ideas come earlier in the day when I am not tired. Creating small extra pieces to complete the whole work is less of a problem once you can see the basic shape of the piece. I think it is very hard to create when you are in rational/logical mode. Somehow you need to find a way to suspend that mode of thinking. I liken it to the mental equivalent of unfocusing your eyes so that you are seeing but not focusing.

Being in a band is like a four- or five-way marriage. It can be bliss and it can be hell. When it’s good it is the greatest experience any creative person can have because you are able to feed off of everyone else’s creativity and create a whole that is truly greater than the parts. Hell is a creative impasse.

John L. Walters: I’m both a composer and a writer, and they are both solitary occupations. But as soon as you have something you want to share with the world you have to start collaborating, whether that’s playing in a band or making magazines, which is what I’ve been doing for the past three decades.

Trumpeter Ian Carr - like Neil, a great mentor - said that the jazz ensemble was a great metaphor for democracy: there’s both structure and freedom; there may be a leader, but each person plays a vital part, and can contribute a solo, and their expertise is valued. That works in magazine publishing, too.

I have to admit that the MC-8 initially appealed to my megalomaniac ‘Dr Evil’ instincts – ‘ha ha, at last I can write whatever I like without pesky musicians telling me they can’t play it!’ You can hear aspects of that instinct in "Shake the West Awake" on Tea-Rooms, with its ‘synth horn’ parts getting increasingly ‘impossible’ as the track fades. But the finished tracks on our albums are seamlessly collaborative: they sound the way they do because all five of us worked long and hard on them.

Synth History: Bonus Q: What do you think is the overall best drum machine in existence?

Richard Burgess: I confess that I am not up to date with drum machines these days because I moved away from them in the mid 1980s when it became possible to create drum tracks using samples and MIDI. My personal favorite of all time was the Linn 9000. I still have mine and it is a truly amazing machine -- integrating drums sounds and programming capabilities and MIDI for all the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements into one machine. Roger Linn went on to work with Akai on the MPC series of machines and through many generations they have proven to be formidable devices, particularly in hip-hop.

I ran into Roger Linn at the Grammys one year and I mentioned to him that I still had a Linn 9000. He put his hand on my arm and said, “I am so sorry.” It’s true that the machine was beset with problems in the beginning but if you kept it maintained it was the most powerful and precise device around for many years and I made many hit records using mine. Even when I transitioned to computer-based MIDI software in the early eighties, I still ran my drums, bass, and other timing-critical parts off the Linn 9000 because I tested it against other devices and I found that its timing was rock solid whereas other devices would wander and be inconsistent. I don’t find that to be a problem today because of the many times greater processing power we have available now.

John L. Walters: I’m not a great fan of drum machines. I like working with actual flesh-and-blood drummers.

However I have a soft spot for the Roland 606, which Richard programmed on "Colour Code" off Manhattan Boogie-Woogie. For a while I had a Dr Rhythm – only a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from a metronome – which I used to demo the back-to-front drum pattern I wrote for "Einstein a Go-Go".

Landscape's 5-CD Box Set, Landscape A Go-Go, is available now.

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Photos provided by Landscape / Cooking Vinyl.


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