The rhythmic gospel according to Neil Conti, dancer in the street with Jagger & Bowie and cerebral chopster behind those poets of intricate pop, Prefab Sprout Simon Braund hears him preach upon the politics of production and the imminent death of feel. ..
Pop music. Funny stuff really, isn’t it. One minute it’s the soundtrack to your perfect love affair, throwaway couplets and bubblegum melodies that seem to articulate your every exquisite yearning. Next it’s the knife blade of cruel irony, stabbing your broken heart with its mocking frippery and uncanny ability to cut to the quick of your personal tragedy with a single, murderous hook-line.
The next minute, of course, it’s seeping out of the radio, passing between your ears and eliciting no further response than a desire to seriously kill 2 Unlimited. Okay, there’s a world of difference between excruciating techno drivel and the cream of Smokey Robinson or the Walker Brothers, but it is the peculiar talent of ‘pop’ music to be all things to all men. You can fall in love to it, you can split up to it, you can suffer the throes of emotional turmoil to it and you can hurl your Blaupunkt forcefully through the windscreen in terminal irritation to it. Great eh? Except these days it’s not so great because, as evidenced by the Blaupunkt-shaped holes in an increasing number of windscreens, nobody seems to do it right any more. Dance music? Schmantz music. Take That!? Take this and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Boys II Men? May the avenging spirit of Marvin Gaye visit hideous retribution on your extended families. Charles and Eddie? Go away, go away, GO AWAY!
And come back… Who? Well, why not Prefab Sprout for one? Surely a band who understood the politics of pop as well as any and better than most. That blend of the evocative and the frivolous, a heart-breaking lyric allied to the perfect beat. Remember that? The thing that made you tap your foot and smile? Yes, something has gone horribly wrong somewhere and it’s a loss of direction that certainly hasn’t escaped Neil Conti, a man whose place in Prefab Sprout, apprenticeship in the live cauldron of early eighties London, and (relatively) unsung ability to groove like a bitch, qualify him admirably for a good whinge. Although, it must be said, a whinge of epic articulacy and breadth. The Prefabs might be Neil’s high-profile gig and his talent for perfecting perfect pop might be his most celebrated attribute, but he’s a musician who’s seen a lot, done a lot and witnessed a lot of What makes music vital dissipated and forgotten.
“I don’t understand why some things are just not talked about in this country, like the way drummers are taught, or the way they’re encouraged to think about what makes a good drummer. They seem to miss the point and it’s something that really worries me. Why is it I can go to the States, be in a pretty small bar, listen to a band and know that the rhythm section is always going to be at least up to a certain standard? Okay, taste-wise that’s a personal thing, but there’s something weird about the way drums get taught here… In fact not just drums, rhythm in general — I’m talking about rhythm guitar, bass, everything. Rhythm guitar is a dying art. What a good rhythm section can bring to music has been lost and I count myself as fortunate to have been around, with bands like Kokomo, before it disappeared. Kokomo, Jesus, those guys… When those guys played a groove! You’d never get a machine to do that in a million years. It’s something very special. I always imagine a rhythm section as all those guys standing next to each other and between them there’s a piece of elastic and they’re all pulling against each other. In the middle there’s the downbeat, or whatever the technical point is where the machine would be, and they’re all going like this…”
Gesturing with his hands, Neil manages to create an image not of a group of musicians linked by a huge rubber band, but of the push and pull around the beat that’s essential to a good groove. Extraordinary!
“There’s so many things about basic rhythm section playing, like playing behind a singer… You hit the verse, the singer comes in, down! Blat! on the downbeat, the whole band drops as soon as you do that. Why doesn’t anyone ever teach this type of thing? Like when someone’s soloing, a guitarist or a sax player, and you can feel when they reach a point where they need a bit of help: ride cymbal! Give ’em a bit of a kick up the ass. I don’t want it to sound like I’m setting rules here because there are no rules, but these things are useful to know — they’re basic rhythm section tools.”
But is that the sort of thing that can be taught? Don’t you have to acquire it through experience?
“Well, when I say taught I really mean being exposed to it — people ought to be exposed to these things.”
Unfortunately, and you sense that this really does exasperate Neil, the opportunity to expose yourself to these things in a live context is not that easy these days.
“When I ﬁrst came to London I used to go and see these bands like Kokomo and I’d just sit there and watch them. There were so many good bands around then, but the live scene has really changed. How many opportunities are there for up and coming musicians to actually go and see something really useful. Especially on TV, it’s terrible. I mean, thank God for Jools Holland — that’s what we need more of.”
In fact, what we need more of is the type of grass roots live scene that Neil cut his teeth on. A scene which he has frequently attempted to revitalise, initiating ad hoc and more permanent jam nights in a number of London clubs. His early experience of a variety of different styles is a subject that he returns to constantly. He obviously counts it as invaluable in the development of his own musical personality and he laments the fact that young musicians today are missing out on it.
Originally a pianist, he became infatuated with drums through a cousin who played with Mott The Hoople, and following the perennial avenue of pots, pans, crap kit and parental disapproval, eventually ended up in London sleeping rough in his Cortina, soaking up the atmosphere and, eventually, getting a gig.
“I joined a reggae band, God knows why — at the time I was going through my Billy Cobham phase. I joined this reggae band and they were strict reggae, dub! No f**king around, really straight and every eight bars I’m going Vladimir, Vladimir, Vladimir, Vladimir, Dosh! I lasted about a month. It was great, though, just what I needed — I had to learn. I realised that when I came to London I had to go back to the drawing board and that everything I knew needed cleaning up. I started going round and watching bands and I started to grasp this thing about a drummer being a solid… I hate the word timekeeper because that sounds so inhuman, and it’s not just keeping time — there’s something more than that.”
What he grasped was that playing with other people is a damn sight harder than playing with yourself and if you want to learn how to do it well you have to play with anybody and everybody.
“Because I’m in Prefab everybody assumes I’m a certain kind of drummer and, Jesus, I can understand that; if you’re in a band you’ve got to put up with people’s preconceptions. But before I joined Prefab I was playing… I don’t know, a lot of fusiony kinds of things, jazz, funk, soca, calypso, and it was all really useful. Those ﬁrst few years in London before I joined Prefab I just played everywhere in every band I could. I was playing in a new wave band, a straight- ahead jazz band, a soca band, a funk band. ..”
But it was the calypso band that stamped its mark heavily on a certain aspect of Neil’s technique.
“It gave me the most f”*ked up hi-hat technique. I’ve got the weirdest way of playing the hi-hat because I actually hit it really hard on the edge on the downbeat, but a lot of the other beats are on the top. In the studio sometimes it sounds like there are two hi-hats — it’s really weird. But that came from hours of just sitting there not playing the snare, just playing a calypso beat on the hi-hat. I must have spent a good two years playing soca, calypso and reggae. It was really interesting, because the drummer’s job has got nothing to do with the icing on the cake, it’s nothing to do with ‘colouring’ the way it is with a lot of American fusion. It’s about rhythm; absolute solidity with feel; building up tension by basically not doing anything. A lot of people think that the more ﬁlls they do the more tension they create, but it’s exactly the opposite. The longer you go, the more you’re teasing people and then when you do a ﬁll, Bang! It’s fantastic. That’s something I learned from reggae drummers. I spent hours watching those guys. I used to tape them and I’d tape myself and I used to think, ‘Why is it that what they do sounds different from me? Why is it when I play it doesn’t sound like a record? Why? What is it I’m doing wrong?’ It was because I was doing too much, that’s all it was. It took me ages to work it out, but that’s learning. It really was like being at college those years.”
Unfortunately, these days that sort of comprehensive education is not available, and to Neil the consequences are obvious.
“I can’t bear it when things are sloppy, and this may be a bit of a controversial thing to say, but there’s a lot of sloppiness in this country. I think there are a lot of sloppy horn sections around. I go to see bands and the horn sections are always late and they wonder why they don’t get work, they wonder why people use American horn sections.”
In essence, Neil’s beef comes back to what lies at the core of popular music — a respect and feel for the rhythm.
“A lot of musicians seem to miss the point of how to get from A to B in terms of the important basics of their instruments. Let’s take an example: I can play a gig with Neil Hubbard and he’ll play what we call a one-liner, but the groove will be just so funky because of the way he plays it, because of his attitude. I was at a jam the other day with some young guys, early twenties. They’d obviously been playing a bit round London and they were jamming away, having a good time. Then this guy walks through the door, Eddie Van Halen type, long hair and his entourage of girls. He’s got his axe, which is one of those new horrible things and everyone’s going, “Go on, go on!” So he waits for his go, he plugs in and just stands there. The guys play some tune and then it’s solo time, the keyboard player takes a solo and then nods to this guy: alright! Weeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiii, wiiiiiiiiiidlidlidlidlillile, wiwiwiwiwiwiiiiieeeee, all the hammer-ons and everything. Okay, that’s his thing, I’m not arguing with that, but at the end of it he ﬁnishes his solo, that’s it mate, just stands there. Rhythm? What’s that? What we’re talking about is not just drummers. I’d feel the same way if I played another instrument. We’re talking about rhythm.”
Now, the live scene might have changed signiﬁcantly over the last thirteen years, but in comparison to how recording has changed during the same period, we’re talking ‘shift of emphasis’ versus ‘new planet’. And having recently completed an album in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint, recording is very much on Neil’s mind.
“The great thing about it was that Allen Toussaint’s studio is really, really old. I mean, this guy’s produced people like Dr John, The Neville Brothers, The Meters and going to his studio is like going back in time. He’s got a very standard multi- track and a Harrison desk, which is very warm-sounding, and an old drum kit. I couldn’t even tell you what it was, but it sounded fantastic. It really forced me to analyse how records are made these days. With Toussaint it was like, either you play well or you don’t, that’s it. There’s nothing between you and the listener’s ears. There’s a bit of tape, but it’s always recording exactly what it would sound like if you were standing next to the kit. Suddenly that puts the onus back on the musician to play well.
“When I go in with Steve Lipson to record a Prefab track — and I’m not putting Steve down because he’s a great guy and a great producer — we’ll do ﬁve takes and I can play whatever I want because he’s going to take the good bits and edit them together. Now, at the end of the day do you come out with something that really has continuity? If you imagine someone recording a speech then cutting it up, some of it will sound odd because you’ve edited it. And that’s kind of how I feel about drums: it’s another thing that I think people are really missing the point over. Producers who are used to programming have forgotten what a drummer can bring to a track in terms of giving it momentum, giving it ups and downs, push and pull. A lot of sessions I do now, after all the editing has been done, they’ll even check it with a Russian Dragon and actually move separate beats digitally. I mean, hang on, aren’t you throwing away the whole reason you used a human being in the ﬁrst place? Human beings aren’t perfect, isn’t that what you want?
“I ﬁnd the whole thing a bit odd. When a drummer’s really on top of the tune, when he gets to the end you can feel the subtle change, you can feel where it’s starting to go. And this is something that isn’t just being lost — people don’t even know about it. It’s like people are keeping it a secret. There are very few producers I work with who are really aware of the energy that a drummer can bring to a track.”
I don’t know about you, but Prefab Sprout have always seemed to me to beneﬁt from a very ‘live’ sound. They always give the impression of having had complete control over their production. In this light, has Neil ever felt actively dissatisﬁed with a Prefab recording?
“Not dissatisﬁed. I’d be dissatisﬁed if it was something like a horrendous sound, but that happens very rarely. I’m never dissatisﬁed, but then there’s feeling really satisﬁed, to feel that I’ve put something down that is really useful, something that helps the song. I’m not talking so much about the sound that digital equipment gives you — it’s the recording process. The Way that people make digital recordings affects the way musicians play and that worries me. So many times I’ve been in the studio and I’ll feel that I’ve really got something down — not in a self-indulgent Way, not because I’m thinking, ‘Oh f”‘*kin’ ’ell, I sound f‘**kin’ great on that track’, but because I actually think the song works. It’s like sticking your hand into a glove; the song is the glove and you’re ﬁtting the drums into it. And then I just watch it being taken apart. It’s so soul-destroying, so frustrating.”
I think it’s safe to say that a can of worms has been well and truly opened here…
“I read a really good interview with Todd Rundgren a couple of years ago and he said, ‘I’ve been through every possible recording technique you can imagine. I started off recording bands, I went through multi-track, I Went through doing everything separately, I went through doing the Whole album myself, I’ve been through everything and I’ve come right back to square one: getting a band in the studio and getting them to play.’ He said, and I really like the Way he put this, ‘I feel almost religiously that there is an ultimate way to record music and that’s it. You can’t mess with it.’ In other words, maybe we’re worrying too much about how we record music and not enough about the playing.
“When I listen to a record, I like to imagine the people actually there doing it. When I listen to a James Brown record with Clyde Stubbleﬁeld I think of this guy sitting there giving it some. When I listen to a programmed track with a vocal on top I get a vision of someone with a microphone standing next to a machine, and it’s not very exciting. Maybe it’s great to dance to when you’re E’d out of your head, but then I think if you have to take drugs to enjoy music there must be something wrong with the music. There is some great dance music around, but there’s also a huge amount of shit, an unbelievable amount. All my favourite music, you can take drugs to it if you Want, but you don’t have to. I still get high listening to James, Brown and Ry Cooder and Little Feat. I’m not against machines, but you need… something.
“There are tunes on Steve McQueen that if you checked them you’d ﬁnd they were all over the place! But it’s the warmth that comes out which is important. A lot of that stuff was done as a rhythm section and it wasn’t a case of everyone checking it, soloing the drums and going, ‘Ohh, there’s a little bit there…’ That’s not what music’s about. The public aren’t all musicians, they don’t listen to a track and think, ‘Oh blimey, that hi-hat’s a bit out.’ I mean, what’s going on? Everyone’s making music for producers and I don’t get it at all. Anyone who’s a musician or a producer can sit down, listen to a song and say this bit’s out of time or that bit’s in time. Great. So what…”
Reading this it might strike you that Neil Conti has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but what could be interpreted as belligerence is more the product of a ﬁrm belief that popular music is being screwed up and a genuine desire to understand why and what can be done about it. Yes, he can talk a blue streak, yes he can be overbearing and stubborn, but he’s never arrogant or truculent. And the humour with which he invests his studio-nightmare anecdotes (the tent over the hi-hat to counteract a millisecond echo off the wall, for instance) is ultimately Winning. Hopefully you’ll get the impression, as I certainly did, of Neil Conti as a man who is passionate about creating music that people can relate to and enjoy.
“I just spend all my time trying to find opportunities to do what I enjoy doing, which is playing in a rhythm section — on albums, on tour or in the pub. There’s something very special when a band plays together. I always like to describe it as a conversation; you can’t get machines to have a conversation. There’s something wonderful when someone looks across at someone else and grins, there’s something going on there that’s magical. I notice a lot of my friends who aren’t musicians really pick up on that, the vibe in a band. And if the band have a good time the audience always has a good time. I’ve never seen a band have a good time when the audience didn’t. Why can’t we translate that to the studio, though? Why can’t people just go into a studio and play?”
Funky Drums From Hell
Proving that he is far more than just ‘the drummer out of Prefab’ (if his work with Bowie, Mick Jagger and Level 42 were not proof enough), Neil has recently released a CD of over ninety rather slammin’ grooves called Funky Drums From Hell.
“I’ve often heard people who’ve sampled seventies drummers and heard them using the same things over and over again. I thought, they’ve got nothing to use. When I was approached to do this I thought, great, because I was brought up playing funk. It was brilliant because it was a chance for me to play all my favourite soul grooves, because those are my inﬂuences. People see me in Prefab and they think all I listen to is Deacon Blue and Everything But The Girl, but my inﬂuences are The Crusaders and The Ohio Players, Richie Hayward and Jim Keltner.
“I was so into it, I ended up playing for twenty hours! At one point, about six in the morning, I hadn’t heard anything in my cans for ages so I went into the control room and everyone else was crashed out. I just pressed ‘Record’ and went back out and carried on.”