Five Go Mad in Somerset
This fixation with the first meal of the day has since come full circle with 1993's Vitamin Enhanced limited-edition, six-CD boxed set - the source of the introductory quotation which bears an uncanny resemblance to products of a well-known cereal manufacturer, although press rumours regarding its withdrawal for fear of legal litigation were unfounded. To set the record straight, the daughter of a Kelloggs UK lawyer bought a copy, prompting a letter to the band, by which time the offending item had already sold out. Eating habits aside, Ozric Tentacles' esoteric choice of track titles - such as 'Synth On A Plinth', 'Fetch Me The Pongmaster', 'Shaping The Pelm' and 'Dance Of The Loomi', further reflect their healthy sense of humour. Yet this doesn't detract in any way from the dedication with which they've pursued their craft over the last 12 years, selling over a quarter of a million copies of their eight 'proper' albums in the UK alone since their heady free festival days not bad going, considering that they were still issuing home made cassette-albums, complete with crude artwork, as late as 1989.
These tapes blueprint the instantly-recognisable Ozrics sound of late, and given that demand was so great that third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation copies soon began to circulate, it is perhaps inevitable that they would eventually attract record company attention their debut album Pungent Effulgent being released on ex--Hawkwind member Dave Anderson's Demi-Monde label in 1989.
However, this liaison proved short-lived, and subsequent albums have since been released on the band's own label, Dovetail, the logo of which is a dovetail joint - a subliminal emphasis on joint? Ironically, Hawkwind recently approached Dovetail with a view to being signed, to no avail.
In April 1993, the Ozric Tentacles' crossover album Jurassic Shift crashed straight into the UK album charts, selling over 50,000 copies in the process and forcing a previously non-committal music press to sit up and take notice. The group were finally elevated from quirky festival band status to that of respected and influential musicians. As principal composer and producer, 35-year-old guitarist and keyboard player Ed Wynne is the man at the helm, ably assisted by bassist Zia, flautist 'Jumping' John Egan, keyboard player 'Seaweed', and drummer 'Rad. The last two are now filling the musical shoes left by Ozric stalwarts Joie Hinton and Merv Pepler, following their departure to concentrate on their techno offshoot Eat Static. But as the nucleus of the band, Ed is the obvious choice to aid me in unravelling those tentacles...
Arrangements were made to meet at Ed's country residence, a former water mill which happens to house a 24-track studio. Raving successfully followed the mug-proof instructions, I found myself at The Mill studios in darkest Somerset, a picturesque building almost completely obscured in ivy and set in idyllic surroundings.
The Mill's original mechanical workings have been retained, since it is a listed building, and protrude into the studio's spacious live room. Comfortably ensconced in the adjoining control room, I confess to experiencing difficulty in concealing my envy as Ed recalls The Mill's transformation into a working studio. "We've been here for just over four years now and designed the studio ourselves using local trades people from the village and a few friends to help with the conversion work. Some of the building was pretty derelict. It hadn't been lived in for about a year and a half.
"The floor has about six different layers of barrier mats, rubber and levelling material. The drum booth has a separate flooring to the rest of the place, although it's the same construction. The wall around the booth has a wall cut into it with a gap of about a centimetre so that the sound doesn't travel across the floor from the drums. With all the doors closed, we could just about manage to keep Merv quiet, which was brilliant, as he's the loudest drummer I've ever worked with!"
Practically no outside professional assistance was sought even for the notoriously tricky aspects of studio design: "We were planning to get some people in to help with acoustics, but they said they were going to charge us £5,000 just for consulting them! You don't need to worry in an old building like this, because there's usually no parallel walls. The walls are about a foot and a half thick, so it was just a case of sorting out internal sound-proofing, which is fairly obvious - things like double-glazing the windows and putting rockwool between walls. It seems to work really well." That said, The Mill had its fair share of teething troubles: "Jurassic Shift, the first album we recorded here, was strange, because it was a totally new setup and the studio hadn't really been tried and tested. When we set the drums up for the first time and put all the mics in the right place, it didn't sound too good when Merv started playing, so initially there was a lot of experimenting. Consequently, the album took quite a while to record, the deadline started approaching very fast, and it all became a bit of a panic towards the end."
Having gained an insight into The Mill's construction, I asked Ed how he set about equipping it: "The only things I had to get were the speakers, the desk, and the 24-track. We got incredibly good deals on all of them through a friend with studio and hi-fl connections. The speakers [Tannoy DMTl5s] were cheaper than they should have been, and still hadn't been released when we got them. Tannoy were interested in finding out what we thought and sent down some prototypes, so I said, 'They're great you re not having them back!"' In choosing The Mill's Trident T24 console, Ed consciously steered clear of automated mixing: "We did it with our Strangeitude album, and it took a lot longer. I think it's a concept of continually polishing until you have the perfect mix, whereas with manual mixing there's a normal take or a good take. If you get a good take, where you've done something a little bit naughty or mad, it's sometimes more interesting. Little mistakes can happen which can be beneficial in the long run." The forthcoming album resolutely remains an analogue recording made on the Otari MK8O 24-track. Ed is something of a traditionalist, avoiding the temptation of going digital with the advent of popular mediums like the Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA88: "They're only 8-track, and I use 12 tracks for recording the drums alone! I know they can be chained, but I'm still a little suspicious of this. I often do things like splicing and editing tape which you can't do on these digital machines. I suppose you could with something like Digidesign's Pro Tools, but then you're talking about loads more money, and it turns into a situation where you have to have a computer screen in the studio, which does my head in!"
Ed's reasoning behind the decision to build the studio was to save money in the long term: "I wanted a studio almost as soon as I could talk! I started with 4-track, went to 8-track, and thought of going 16-track, but then it occurred to us to go to 24-track, as we were moving house anyway and had a bit of money. So instead of paying for studio time, it was seen as a kind of investment. Jurassic Shift cost the price of a 24-track studio, but from then on, every album only costs the price of four or five reels of tape. It's well worth it, providing we carry on doing it and people keep on buying our records. Now it's just about paid for itself." Ed went on to reveal how he records a typical Ozric Tentacles track: "It depends whether it's sequencer-based or band-based. If its to do with the band, I start by setting the drums up, getting them to sound pretty posh and plugging everyone else in - at least drums, bass and myself on either keyboards or guitar, just to guide it. We then spend a couple of days just messing about, with a DAT player handy to capture anything that sounds good, and something usually emerges from that.
"Or I'll go about it very logically and do a sequencer-based thing, putting down MIDI codes and structuring everything. I enjoy both methods and quite like combining the two, because 'Rad's good at playing along to click-tracks."
It's been said that, musically, Ozric Tentacles "have formulated an updated strand of progressive rock for the rave generation, combining all the quirky melodrama and advanced musicianship of 1970s fusion with the spacey, dance-floor Nirvana of the '90s." Bearing in mind that Elvis Costello once said talking about music is like dancing about architecture, Ed bravely attempts to define his musical vision as, instrumental music for the expansion of the mind, if that's what you want. I suppose there's a general light-hearted message about feeling all right. It's not trying to dig down into the depths of what is going wrong in the world, but just giving people a little bit of relief from everyday life." Translating this philosophy into music can take many forms: "Sometimes I'll be wondering around doing day-to-day stuff and tunes will just appear in my mind. If I'm lucky, I'll get them into a sequencer or onto tape to remind myself of it and that can spark things off. Buying new synthesizers or samplers, hearing new sounds and thinking, 'that'll make a good intro' is another way.
"Often, we'll all get together in the studio with no ideas other than to jam and sec what forms. At the early stages, we try not to have too much of a concept of the completed track, and at some point it will be finished when a form has developed." The Ozrics' free festival circuit days and regular touring has undoubtedly benefited them in terms of jamming, " almost to a telepathic level - we can sense something's about to happen and we've got a pretty good idea what it's going to be. If somebody starts leading in a particular direction we can all clock on to that - and hopefully, it'll sound intentional!"
Amazingly, if any band member makes a mistake, the unwritten rule is that they repeat it and take it as a starting point for whatever might happen next: "I certainly do it on the guitar. If I do something that sounds really 'out to lunch', I'll do it three or four times, just to let people know it's a mistake.
"When we're in the studio and this happens -say the drummer drops a beat and it sounds really odd - as often as not we'll actually use that, and spend ages learning exactly what mistake he made and fit overdubs to it, just to create something really strange. If he goes so completely out of time that it's impossible to overdub onto, then we get the analogue synths out and trigger various sounds from the drums, so we at least get some sort of synthesized something exactly in time and it ends up sounding like a really clever bit of music! I think it's similar to the Persian carpet makers who always leave one little mistake in their pattern, just to give it a bit more character.
'Each new track has to be interesting for us with some new twist in it, otherwise we wouldn't bother, but there are very few rules anything goes as long as it works journey-wise with a nice shape to it, enlarging and tapering off to a conclusion."
Ed is not the first member of the Wynne family to experience success in their chosen vocation. His father is the sculptor responsible for the 'interlocking hands' emblem that appeared on a special edition of the 50 pence coin, still in circulation today. This artistic talent must have rubbed off on his son, since it becomes obvious that Ed is a gifted performer when listening to any Ozric Tentacles track. His initial entry into the musical arena, though, did not bode well for the future.
"My parents sent me for piano lessons when I was seven or eight years old, but I couldn't make head or tail of reading music -the bloke gave up, threw his hands up in despair and said I was the most totally unmusical person he had ever tried to teach! I carried on, but I was just into writing stuff, playing about on the piano and not learning his horrible little tunes with dots to read. This just seemed like a hassle when I wanted to get on with playing. I still can't read sheet music. It just looks like a load of tadpoles sitting on a fence!"
Fortunately, Ed was not put off by his music teacher's comments and has since spread his musical wings beyond the realms of 'ivory tinkling' - on the Jurassic Shift album he is credited with playing koto and has an interest in ethnic musical instruments dating back to his extensive travels in Thailand.
"I love travelling and find it a very inspirational thing to do. I took some portable recording equipment with me to Thailand to record jungle and nature sounds, which I've used a lot in various bits of music. I've run out of jungles, so I need to go back to somewhere that sounds nice and collect a few more - with a DAT machine this time!
"I almost prefer ethnic instruments to Western ones. The koto's great because it's basically like a harp - an oblong board with strings going across it and one bridge for each string which you can slide up or down, creating any scale or tuning you want. So I just tune it to the track, roll about on it and it sounds amazing although probably not to Japanese people!
"There's a track called 'Kick Muck' on the Pungent Efflugent album with a shanai solo that I played on a Thai version of the instrument Basically, it's a reed with a pipe and a bell at the end with a few holes in it, so you just blow it and waggle your fingers about a bit, suss out what scale the track's in, varispeed it to the right pitch and go for it!"
Ed once described himself as a creator of "keyboard textures" and there are some magnificent atmospheric sounds and passages to be found lurking on Ozric Tentacles recordings. A sizeable collection of electronic instruments has been amassed to assist in fulfilling this role.
"I've recently had my Roland D50 seen to. It came back all clean and nicely polished, with all the gaffa tape marks removed, so I've been getting right back into that and it's the most astonishing synth, sound-wise. The D50 and the Korg Wavestation are my two most favourite synths in the whole world - apart from the Waldorf Wave.
"We expressed an interest in the Wave before it was available, so they let us borrow a prototype for a couple of weeks. I wasa little shocked at its size, but the sounds it niade were like nothing I've ever heard before, so I recorded a few onto DAT and spun them in on a couple of tracks on the Arborescence album. There's one track which starts with a very low mumbling, grumbling type sound - that's the Wave being its usual mad self! I went through all its sounds and came across nothing normal. You play a chord and hear a little grunt in one speaker whilst a kind of whistle moves across the other over a sizzling, distorted voice like a radio cracking up in the background - with all this other ambience whizzing about! I don't know if it took off particularly well, because it just seemed like a synthesizer for loonies to me!"
More recent acquisitions on the keyboard front include a Novation BassStation (reviewed SOS July 1994 and July 1995), which Ed sees as a kind of "MIDIfied Pro One", and the Korg Prophecy, "which is an absolute joy - one of the most amazing synths I've ever played, to be honest. A testament to its versatility is that I can now just take the Prophecy out live instead of the Pro One, which was my basic effects machine." Not that Ed is about to put his beloved Sequential Circuits analogues out to pasture just yet: "They're getting on a bit and are a little unstable for live use, so they stay in the studio now, but I don't think I could make a track without my Pro Ones. They're on almost every single piece of music that I've ever done. All the bubbly sounds like the resonant swoops and what we call the 'waterfalls' - a kind of fast, cascading series of relevant notes - are Pro Ones. Pretty much all of the repetitive step-time sequences are still done on the internal sequencer. They're also good for bass drones and we still use them for lead synth sounds. I've often had to put a recorded bass drum into the Pro One's audio input to filter it and make it more 'clicky."'
Ozric Tentacles' instrumental musical style naturally interacts with visual accompaniment, as can be seen at their concerts with the ever-popular Fruit Salad light show, and would be ideally suited to television and film soundtracks. Given that bands like Tangerine Dream successfully carved themselves a niche in this lucrative area, I wondered if Ed has considered following suit. "For sure. It's very comfortable because you just sit at home enjoying yourself! I've done music for various archaeological programmes for Channel 4, starting off with one about Egypt a few years ago. I did some ethnic, flutey stuff, with Pro Ones all over it, as usual. It was pure luck that I got involved. Someone suggested to the director that I should do it, but he already had two other people in mind. I gave him a tape anyway and he listened to all three of us without knowing whose tape was whose and thought mine was best, so I got the job. That was great, because it gave me a foot in the door, and they do pay well. One of the commissions enabled me to buy my 8-track setup and also financed my trip to Thailand, soit was quite nice while it lasted."
Observant 'fans' of the childrens' TV show Byker Grove masquerading as SOS readers may be under the impression that Ed's television connections have not entirely been severed - and, to a degree, they'd be right. Here the Ozrics are credited with additional music mercifully not the title theme - for which they receive no payment whatsoever. There is, however, method in their madness: Sam Muir, who runs the Newcastle-based Audiophile Company responsible for the show's post-production, also happens to be something of an electronics wizard, playing a role in developing Roland's latest RSS Roland Sound Space) 3D processing system.
Ed takes up the story: "He's said he's going to give us one, which will be amazing! It can interface with a computer, so you can graphically draw what is happening to the sound, which could be quite useful."
No doubt Ed will put the device to good use: "I'd love to do a soundtrack for a space film about going to other planets, so if anybody wants one, then please give me a call, because I haven't done any recently!"
Back on Earth, it would appear that Ed does very little outside his musical activities, as evidenced by the sheer quantity of Ozric Tentacles material currently available - but he protests "I do try and get outside for half a day when it's sunny to avoid 'studio tan' syndrome." But even when outside, Ed takes a Yamaha QY2O pocket sequencer for those awkward occasions when musical inspiration strikes. Our meeting drew to a conclusion as he played some new tracks in their infant QY2O-state, already sounding very impressive.
There are currently unconfirmed plans afoot for an Ozrics single - their second in a 12-year recording career: "Maybe we'll do a more traditional thing this time and get friends like Eat Static in to do some remixes. I'm splanning on doing an album with Merv [ex-Ozric, now of Eat Static) under the guise of Nodenn Idtun - a completely synth-oriented thing I once did with Joie (Mervs partner in Eat Static). We brought out one tape and played the odd ambient gig, then Merv joined us and it became a free-style experiment". Meanwhile, aside from the uncertain single, work has already begun on the next Ozrics album, which is due for release in the late Autumn of this year, followed by a UK tour. Given his prolific nature, I wouldn't be surprised if Ed composed the majority of the next album on the morning of my visit! BETHE MILL STUDIO EQUIPMENT LIST PROCESSING: