Laughing Stock: Full Album
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Melody Maker: September 7th 1991
With his back catalogue rereleased to haunt him and an album of remixes cutting him to the quick, Mark Hollis explains to Steve Sutherland why he must take legal measures to protect the reputation of 'Laughing Stock', his latest exploratory album.
"You say it's weird. I don't think it's weird. I think it's disgraceful!"
Mark Hollis is agitated, almost animated. This is extraordinary behaviour for a man about whom I used the word "reluctant" six times in one paragraph the last time I wrote about him. What can have happened to draw such anger from lips that characteristically tremble to form the curtest "maybe"? What outrage can have been perpetrated for him to have broken cover from his precious privacy in order to express his displeasure with such conviction?
Well, first there was "Natural History", a compilation album of Talk Talk tracks released by EMI after the band's contract with that label was terminated and they'd been released to ply their art elsewhere. EMI had been shocked by "Spirit of Eden", the innovative, improvisational and wilfully uncommercial album Hollis delivered to them in 1988. It was anything but the anticipated follow-up to "The Colour of Spring", the album of soulful hits that seemed to have guaranteed Talk Talk a future of filling stadia around the world. It was nearer the free jazz ethic of vintage Miles Davis than the soaring inanities of Simple Minds, and EMI waved Hollis farewell, presumably releasing "Natural History" as a way of recouping part of the small fortune they'd invested in "Eden".
"A compilation album is not my idea of an album," says Hollis today. "I don't like compilation albums and I didn't like that one. It certainly wasn't the selection of tracks I would have liked even if there had to be one. But, at the end of the day, they had every right to do it so…"
He shrugs his way into silence.
What really disgusts him is "History Revisited", the album of Talk Talk remixed by the like of Julian Mendelsohn and Gary Miller that EMI released after the company had lucked into discovering that, if they wacked a dancebeat under some of the band's finest early moments, the public could be duped into thinking they were buying something new and tres chic. To Hollis, a man for whom integrity is the very root and sole reason for making music, this was tantamount to artistic rape. He felt defiled, frustrated, furious and unclean — the way you feel if you've ever been unfortunate enough to return home to find you've not only been burgled and your most intimate possessions abused, but that the burglars have wantonly smeared shit on the walls.
"We're gonna take them to court over this remix thing," Hollis says and, believe me, he's near to tears. "To me, it's unbelievable they could do that. To have people overdubbing stuff you've done and putting it out…" The sentence evaporates in exasperation. It's the complete antithesis of the Talk Talk ethos. Everything he's worked for is being murdered, mocked for greed.
"I've never heard any of this stuff and I don't want to hear it…but to have people putting this stuff out under your name which is not you, y'know, I want no part of it. It's always been very important to me that I've got on with the people we've worked with. People's attitude has always been really important to me. So much of why someone would exist on one of our albums is what they are like as a person. So to find you've got people you've never give the time of day to going out as thought it's you…it's disgusting."
Hollis says he got wind of "History Revisited" before it was released back in March and sent legal letters to get it stopped. The letters were ignored so now Hollis, a man who it seems to me would do just about anything to avoid a confrontation, is taking EMI to court. This isn't business. This is strictly personal. Of course, the harm's been done — the record's out and it sold enough to take it high into the album charts. He was even nominated for a Brits Award on the back of the rereleases — a situation he finds as distressing as I find it ludicrous.
They showed film of us from 1984," he says, visibly shaking. "It was just insulting, wasn't it? I wasn't happy with it."
There are people who, ignorant of Talk Talk's evolution from Duranalikes to free spirits, will be expecting their new album, "Laughing Stock", to be some bubbly dancepop magnum opus. These people are going to be disappointed and Hollis says that's down to EMI. And so it is he's prepared to appear in court, to fight for the principle of the thing in the hope that a legal precedent might be set and others may not be forced to suffer the indignity he feels has been forced upon him.
When I arrive to interview Hollis, he is asleep on the sofa in a record company office incongruously crowded with taxidermy. He is uncomfortable talking about his music and — yes — reluctant to reveal much about himself. For this reason he's happiest doing his duty in offices like this where nothing of his personality is betrayed by his surroundings. His first suggestion was that we meet at my place — an idea which, it seems to me, suggests a positively obsessive desire to negate any possibility whatsoever of giving away unnecessary clues. That plan didn't come about because Hollis, who lives in the Suffolk countryside and visits London as seldom as possible, managed to organise a couple of meetings and the Maker interview all on the same day, thus minimising his journeys.
It's not that he's impolite or even that he begrudges intrusion. It's just that he's chronically ill at ease with the investigative process.
"I do this to be reasonable," he explains. "But I don't see that doing an interview does anything but detract from the album. I mean, the album was a year of me being as succinct as I can possibly be and me talking about it can only detract from that."
Hollis fears that words overembroider his work and that the more we say, the further we stray from the new album's purity of intention.
"The last thing I would ever want to do is intellectualise music because that's never been what it's about for me," he says. "Nothing has changed from the ethic of the last album and I would never want that to change because I can't see any way of improving upon that process. As before, silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.
So "Laughing Stock" is…
"…What it is," says Hollis.
It's not a reaction to anything, it's not a political statement with either a big or a small P. It has no axe to grind and no ulterior motive. "Laughing Stock" is just the rich recorded rewards of an organic process of working which Hollis adores.
What he does is collects a group of like-minded musicians together in Wessex Studios in North London where he can record the "perspective of instruments in physical distance rather than off the board", and then each player (there are 18 on "Laughing Stock") gets to improvise around a basic theme as he or she feels it. Imperatively, this process is continued over a long period of time ("Laughing Stock" took a year) until Hollis feels each player has expressed their character and refined their contribution to the purest, most truthful essence. Only then is the record complete.
"It's never a thing with any of these albums of knowing what they're going to sound like. It's more like knowing the kind of feel you want. The one kind of starting point we had this time was just this thing of everyone working in their own little time zone. Really, it's just going back to one of a couple of things — either the jazz ethic or y'know, an album like 'Tago Mago' by Can, where the drummer locked-in and off he went and people reacted at certain points along the way. It's arranged spontaneity — that's exactly what it is."
"Laughing Stock" will be released on the Verve label, an offshoot of Polydor that specialises in the esoteric. Hollis is pleased because the Mothers of Invention used to be on Verve although several people at Polydor are purported to be gutted at what Hollis has given them. How will they sell it?
The first time I heard the record was at a dinner given for retailers by the record company at The New Serpentine Gallery. It was an embarrassingly desperate attempt over cocktails to convince store owners that they should stock a record which, the company was trying to infer, stood for quality over likely quantity of sales. Nobody knew where to look as Hollis' muted blues confessional purposely disintegrated into shivering feedback. A similar farce was, apparently, held in a Paris planetarium.
Hollis attended both playbacks and survived. He says the Paris one wasn't too bad because, when the lights went out, it was close to the perfect way to listen to his music — with your eyes closed, watching your own mind movies. He didn't stick around in London, though — he had no desire to see people's reactions. He says he's proud of the record and, seeing as it wasn't made for other people, their opinions don't bother him.
He also denies there is any problem with Polydor: "Not at all, because the whole structure of the deal we have with this record company is understanding how we work. I suppose because it's on Verve some people will think we've been stuck under 'Jazz' but what on earth does jazz mean? It's such a vague term, isn't it? Without any question there are certain areas of jazz that are extremely important to me. Ornette Coleman is an example. But jazz as a term is as widely used and abused as soul — it no longer means what it should mean.
"Jazz has almost been bastardised to such an extent that, if you've got a saxophone on a record, it's jazz, which is a terrifying idea. It's like, where would you ever place Can? To me 'Tago Mago' is an extremely important album that has elements of jazz in it, but I would never call it jazz.
"Basically, the deal is that I promise to give them the best album I can. I think they have options across four albums which, at the pace we work, is the next 12 years. What more can you say?"
"Laughing Stock" isn't going to be a massive seller; everyone knows that and Hollis doesn't care. It's nominally divided into six parts although it's really one long piece spanning an evolution of moods. It begins with the fragmented blues scratching of "Myrrhman" (like John Lee Hooker played violas!), grows into the drizzle-burst lightning flash of "Ascension Day" where the words are little more than awkward static, and on into "After the Flood", a piece reminiscent of Robert Wyatt's Seventies fusion group Matching Mole, where a guitar of balletic grace is suddenly the cry of a pig being slaughtered, a minute-long one note feedback solo of which Hollis is particularly proud.
"Taphead" is even heavier, the guitar suggesting a blues progression but failing to follow through as if Hollis' grief is too great to even pursue the time-honoured route to anguished release. Trumpets puncture the flesh of the piece like arrows and the tension is well nigh unbearable until is suddenly dissolves into the lighter "New Grass" which is like a Haiku of King Sunny Ade, the spiritual awakening expressed through a homage to McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, the percussive axis around which John Coltrane once weaved magic.
Finally there's "Runeii", a masterpiece of simple precision. There's not one note that doesn't need to be there, not a sound that fills to flatter.
"For things to endure, they need to be in their most pure form," says Hollis. "I mean, it wears on you if you're hearing all this echo or something all the time. You just thin, 'Let me hear this thing for what it is'."
Hollis is phobic about passive listening — he hates the notion that we don't choose what we hear the way we choose what we read or what we eat. It bothers him that we have been lulled into treating music as mere entertainment, at most a diversion, at least mere background sound. He sees music as a means to spiritual enlightenment, something to enrich the soul.
"Ideally, that's the way it should be, that's for sure. At the end of the day, the greatest music, if you look to singing, must be gospel. It can't be anything other because it's just from the heart."
Although you can't make it out without a lyric sheet, "Laughing Stock" is a deeply religious work.
"It's just about virtue, really, just about character, that's all it is. I can't think of any other way of being able to sing a lyric and actually sing it and feel it unless I believe in what I'm singing about. That goes back to the gospel thing. I'm not saying all lyrics have to be about religion but, in a way, there must be that kind of thing in it.:
Well, what is there to sing about? God, sex and death — that's all.
"Yeah, well, I've certainly picked up on two of the three."
Mark Hollis hasn't a clue whether Talk Talk bear any relationship at all to rock music as we know and love it today. He's never heard Ride, never heard Chapterhouse, never heard any of the bands who swooned when "Spirit of Eden" came out, enraptured by its textures and envious of its freedom of format.
"I'm really not familiar with what is happening," he says. "I haven't heard any of them but it's not because I'm in any way dismissive of what is currently happening. It's just that I'm basically uninformed. That's all it is. I don't for a minute think that we're out on some limb and there's no one that has an understanding of what we're doing. I would hate to think that and I'm sure there are a lot of people around right now with whom we would have an empathy but it's just that I don't know who they are."
I tell Hollis that some of the bands I've spoken to cite Talk Talk as an inspiration which he thinks is great. Most of them, though, will never be as brave or suicidal enough to abandon the more accepted avenues and plunge themselves into glorious self-indulgence the way he has.
"The less you compromise, the less you're prepared to compromise," he laughs. "I look upon us as being extremely fortunate that we can work absolutely the way we wish. That must surely be the ideal for everyone.
"When I finished 'Spirit of Eden', there was a long period where I never thought I would make another record because I just didn't know where to go or anything. It's never anything I can predict. It's like, I say I'm in a four album deal but there's no way of knowing that I can ever do four albums. I do not know. The only thing that I can ever hope is that I would never make an album for the wrong reasons and just stay with that ethic. I can't see the point of making an album for the sake of it. There's nothing that I would get from it."
Mark Hollis shifts his bare feet off the table in front of him and informs [photographer Tom] Sheehan that, if he wants to take any photos, he'd better do it while we're talking because he just can't bring himself to pose.
Sheehan asks him to change seats with me so he's in the dying daylight and Hollis willingly complies.
"So there won't be a Talk Talk photo book coming out for Christmas?" says Sheehan, a mite sarcastically.
"I don't know," says Hollis, laughing nervously. "You'd better ask EMI. You never know, they might put one out with other people's heads grafted on our shoulders."
"Laughing Stock" is released on Verve on September 16. There will be no single taken from the album and no video.^ go back to top
Melody Maker: September 7th 1991
I may as well attempt to describe the dawn for you.
"Laughing Stock" begins with 18 seconds of amplifier hiss and it is instantly apparent that Talk Talk have achieved the improbable — made an album even more skeletal and abstract than "Spirit of Eden", even more organic, even closer to your inner ear. Each record they make now is an "Astral Weeks" — about its own atmosphere, an encapsulation, a world of its own.
How do they manage it? Apparently, "Spirit of Eden" took the best part of a year to create in the cavernous converted church of Wessex Studios. They turned the place into a kind of opium den, filled with candles and incense and liquid patterns projected onto the control-room walls. The sessions were slow and meticulous. Legend has it they once spend two days recording a string quartet and kept just one moment, a mistake the cellist had made. Another time brought in a large gospel choir, at considerable expense, captured some astonishing singing and then erased it all the following day. The spaces left by those decisions are important. You can hear them. Talk Talk records breathe. The detail is everything. Often, the tracks sound as if all the superstructure has been removed, like paint separated from its canvas, just a tissue of colour.
"Myrrhman", the opening song, is a prime example; a few flecks of viola and guitar held in place by the ambience of the room, delicate as a dragonfly wing. There are strokes of piano and double bass and Lee Harris — always an impressively sensitive and imaginative drummer — provides specks of brushed snare and cymbal. Above, no, amongst it lies Mark Hollis' unique and fragile voice. The sense is obscured, but his yearning tone is supremely articulate, seemingly aching for peace, redemption, and end to unknowingness.
Like Peter Green's extraordinary last works for Fleetwood Mac, Hollis appears to be reaching towards faith, seeking something to believe in. Somehow, "Ascension Day" manages to recreate the inner clamour of confusion, the turmoil of doubt, using a burning guitar sound, distorted organ and some splashy percussion. It erupts and ascends but, unable to resolve, stops dead at exactly six minutes. It's a startling moment.
Where previous albums have been CD clear and icy pure, "Laughing Stock" is bruised and grimy. Guitars buzz on the edge of screaming feedback, the strings flirt with discord, the brass is cracked and broken. "After the Flood" is tremendously brooding. In fact, there's a palpable sense of latent power throughout the album, as if, at any moment, Hollis will explode or expire from his frustration and sorrow. It's the tension that keeps it from being too solemn.
It's apt that Polydor have resurrected Verve — the label started in the 1950s by jazz impresario Norman Granz — for this release, as its explicit sense of mood places "Laughing Stock" closer to jazz than anything else, especially on "New Grass", the album's longest and most beautiful piece. Its mellow swing recalls the crepuscular fade to Van Morrison's "Madame George" or the translucent work of Bill Evans.
So, "Colour of Spring", "Spirit of Eden", and now "Laughing Stock". I make that three masterpieces in a row. It's tempting to wonder how they can possibly refine their vision any further. I hear the arguments about it being po-faced, a white, male, middle-class view of the world, but what the hell, why shouldn't it be? We should rejoice that somebody can still make records this adventurous. Talk Talk are certainly the most individual, possibly the most important group we have. Next to this glorious album most of what you have heard this year will seem inept and insignificant. Believe in it. (Jim Arundel)
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NME: 28th September 1991
Once upon a time Mark Hollis was the intense-eyed ranting lad who shouted "All you do is talk talk !". Then he became the anthemically melancholy lad who moaned "Its my life !" and never looked back from a life of anthemic melancholy.
As time goes by, Mark Hollis' music has slipped into a vat of dark, brooding melancholy so deep that even David Sylvian would join Right Said Fred rather than partake of its glummo brew.
In despair did EMI release an anthemically melancholy singles album and in more despair an anthemically melancholy dance remix album - an act on a par with releasing an Ambient House mix of Sham 69's "Hurry Up Harry", only not as interesting.
Now Hollis has gone to Verve and recorded "Laughing Stock" with 23 acoustically-oriented bass and organ and drum people. There is a slight jazz feel to this record. There are elements of soundtrack ambience. There are songs called "After The Flood". There are lyrics like "A hunger uncurbed by nature's calling". The whole thing is unutterably pretentious and looks over its shoulder hoping that someone will remark on its 'moody brilliance' or some such. It's horrible.
(4 out of 10) David Quantick^ go back to top
Polydor Promo Tape
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Select: September 1991
Talk Talk have descended into complete introspection. The three of them seem to have been cooped up alone together since 1988’s intense Spirit of Eden, developing an otherworldly agoraphobia. There’s an addled melancholy to this album that caresses yet disconcerts, making for an uncomfortable listen.
If ‘Spirit’ glanced warily through the spy hole before opening the doors, Laughing Stock cowers at the other end of the corridor as you peer through the letter box. It requires your total concentration, a lights out night in.
Talk Talk despise the music business and all its machinations. The painfully entitled Laughing Stock is an exercise in self-indulgence and nothing more. If you refuse to enter their playground that’s fine by them. There is nothing remotely approaching a single within these six lengthy songs. Convention fastens the back seatbelt as Talk Talk’s organic songwriting process becomes ever more labyrinthine. The album is avant garde, an awkward mix of ambience, pop, jazz and blues.
And it doesn’t get any easier. It’s as if Talk Talk have set traps for you which only become apparent the more you listen to it. At face value, ‘After the Flood’ is a sultry, filmic epic but after a while it begins to yield an undercurrent of harsh interference. In both ‘Myhrrman’ and ‘Taphead’ there are sharp, unwarranted and unexpected bursts of noise – the latter’s literally startling. And ‘Ascension Day’ with its guitar building to a hornet’s nest of confusion then ending all at once, like a death in the family, is their angriest moment yet.
Talk Talk are being willfully reticent and difficult. Mark Hollis’s plaintive voice burns and quivers, distorting words to mere sounds, heightening the atmosphere. It’s as if they don’t want anyone to listen to the perverse genius of Laughing Stock. Well, screw them...
Nick Griffiths^ go back to top
The Daily Telegraph: September 1991
When Talk Talk appeared a decade ago they were pasted with make-up and wrote twee, catchy synth-pop. They have mutated gradually. Now they are hermetic artists whose songs are barely songs at all, just long funeral-paced affairs in which instruments fade in and out of the mix. It’s a pleasant noise, but annoyingly passive, like waiting for a phone that never rings.
There are lyrics but Mark Hollis’s voice is so at sea amid the wash of sound that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. One is torn between applauding all this as a sonic experiment and suggesting the band rename itself Mumble Mumble.
Chris Heath^ go back to top
The Guardian: September 1991
Some listeners are moved to apoplexy by what they see as Talk Talk’s bottomless pretensions. They may have had a point with 1989’s Spirit of Eden, a baffling collection of unglued fragments. This time, though, the group have got their hooks firmly into a genuine new direction.
This violently uncommercial record operates in places rock and pop have mostly abandoned, though writer/vocalist Mark Hollis’s interest in Miles Davis’s collaborations with Gil Evans is a helpful clue. Largely cut loose from conventional melodies and chord-patterns, the music uses hazy, impressionistic layers of instrumentation to build moods of suppressed euphoria or probing melancholy. ‘Ascension Day’ is the most ‘rock’ thing here, though just as it builds up to a clashing crescendo of raw guitars, it’s abruptly cut off in favour of the peaceful, mystical surge of ‘After The Flood’. This eerie and meditative music demands a bit of effort, after which it can grow rapidly into obsession.
Adam Sweeting^ go back to top
The Independent: September 1991
Talk Talk used to be a pop group of passable accomplishment, until they made enough money to scorn the wishes of their fans and make music the way they really wanted to; meandering, tune-free, chipped slowly out of improvisation rather than carved out of old-world limitations such as structure and songcraft. Real muso’s music, rock music that wishes it were jazz – than which there is nothing worse.
Laughing Stock, like its predecessor, Spirit of Eden, wants to be Astral Weeks, but had none of its dramatic conception and takes few of its chances. The results are No Fun in spades; crepuscular moods of cello and trumpet and heavily reverbed guitar, tippy-tap cymbals, double bass, funereally slow tempi [sic], blurry textures, whispered vocals, opaque lyrics and needlessly elongated tracks. This is the modern equivalent of ‘progressive’ music with all the snobby self-regard that implies.
The ‘songs’ here, of which there are apparently six, are at best half-glimpsed through the instrumental shrubbery which, despite Talk Talk’s obvious desire to make something fluid and organic, remains deathly throughout. As for Mark Hollis’s lyrics, heaven only knows what the poor chap is on about. Analysis, one suspects, may have proven cheaper.
Andy Gill^ go back to top
Q: September 1991
One year after million selling compilation Natural History and two years after the distinctly uncommercial Spirit of Eden, comes Talk Talk's new offering. That the group should choose to follow the experimental free-form moodiness of the latter rather than the seductively melodic compositions of the former will no doubt cause their new label a few heart-searching moments but, though Laughing Stock is even more withdrawn and personal then before, it does not disappoint.
Laughing Stock is clearly a descendant of Spirit of Eden. Like its predecessor, it contains just six lengthy tracks and continues Hollis's partnership with producer-contributor Tim Friese-Greene.
Musically too, Laughing Stock sounds as if it might have been culled from hours of improvisation, belonging to some spiritual whole. Two tracks share the same upbeat jazzy drum figure repeated throughout (the splashily percussive kind so often used as a rhythmic base for instrumental exploration), there are no gaps between tracks - indeed two overlaps - while two more share an opening guitar pattern.
There are no songs in the pop song-and-verse sense, rather an instrumental ebb and flow through a sparse musical soundscape. It's quiet but intense, using the familiar Talk Talk sounds of ringing guitar, acoustic double bass, near-motionless Debussy-like piano and swelling Hammond organ (supplemented on occasion by the equally subdued sounds of harmonium, clarinet, sax and mouth organ) drifting in and out of a loosely melodic structure with its own internal dynamics. Here too are the more abrasive sparks of free-form guitar and, more than once, the emotive mouth organ and simply bluesy guitar evoking the spirit of a doomed Robert Johnson facing the hellhound on his tail.
It is into this heavily suggestive atmospheric backdrop that Mark Hollis drops his periodic vocal appearances. Lyrically, he remains as elusive as ever. Some of his skeletal, cryptic lyrics are like a verbal equivalent of Twin Peaks where the images are precise enough but their meaning has to be divined. This time, however, there's a strongly mystical, almost religious theme running through titles like Ascension Day and After The Flood. The ideas of sin, dying and regeneration recur in almost every song, with images such as love and damnation, sacraments and blood casting a heavily fatalistic shadow over the glimpses of tunes, a mood of resignation reinforced by Hollis's mournful delivery or tremulous near whisper.
Jolly party music it isn't but Laughing Stock has its own brooding appeal which grows with every play. The melancholy mood, a rare thoughtfulness and the sense of sharing something deeply personal, together with the haunting, emotional quality of the understated music, put Talk Talk heavily at odds with the commercial charts where instant success is everything. Yet precisely the same qualities will ensure that even though Laughing Stock may lose Hollis some of his newly found friends, it will be valued long after such superficial quick thrills are forgotten.
**** (4 stars)
Ian Cranna^ go back to top
Les Inrockuptibles: Septembre/Octobre 1991
Quand Talk Talk débarqua, cheveux courts et oreilles longues, on étiqueta justement le groupe tête à claques pour rallye hyper young, copains de dortoirs de Spandau Duran. Puis un jour, Mark Hollis disjoncta et quitta en lévitation le carcan pop-song, gagnant par là même notre estime. Depuis, ses albums ne font plus danser les jeunes et s’étirent gracieusement en psychédélisme léthargique, le pouls ralenti jusqu’à l’extinction des feux. Musique ambiante, nuage chaleureux et envoûtant, dernière étape avant le silence. Ou comment le rock progressif entre dans ces pages par la grande porte. Interview JD Beavallet
Aujourd’hui, il ne reste qu’une seule chose importante sur mes disques, c’est silence. C’est même la chose qui compte le plus dans ma vie. On ne lui accorde plus assez de place. Sans arrêt, la télévision parle toute seule dans son coin, la radio est allumée sans raison. On ne devrait pas se laisser envahir de la sorte, il faut absolument sélectionner et choisir ce que l’on entend. C’est également vrai sur les disques. Je préfère encore entendre le silence qu’une note inutile, une note plutôt que deux. Ce que compte, c’est la façon dont elle est jouée. La technologie, la technique, tout ça ne sert qu’à remplir. Donc à rien.
La raison d’être mes albums est la spontanéité. Voilà pourquoi il me faut des années pour les enregistrer. La seule chose qui compte pour moi, c’est l ‘attitude des gens qui viennent jouer avec nous. Je veux qu’ils jouent pour eux-mêmes, je n’ai aucune envie de les diriger, de les orienter. Mon Travail consiste donc à sélectionner des musiciens dont j’aime l’attitude, je les invites et leur donne une liberté absolue.
Je les laisse tout seuls dans le studio et ils improvisent pendant des heures. Le lendemain, nous réécoutons ces heures de bandes et nous n’en conservons que quelques secondes...Ça prend donc du temps : parfois, certains musiciens doivent jouer seuls pendant dix heures avant que j’entende cinq secondes de musique dont j’ai besoin.
Pour un musicien, tu dois être impossible à vivre.
Je pense que c’est exactement le contraire, il est très facile de travailler avec moi. Chacun a une liberté complète, contribue au résultat final. Moi, je ne suis qu’un sélectionneur, je prends dans mon équipe les gens pour ce qu’ils sont et je leur demande juste de me donner ce qu’ils veulent. Je n’exige rien, je n’attends rien de précis, je les laisse faire.
Quand nous enregistrons, j’aime utiliser d’immenses studios. Ainsi, chaque instrument peut être déplacé pour que sa position lors due mixage soit juste. Ça me permet de ne jamais utiliser l’électronique : si je veux que l’instrument soit en retrait, je fais reculer le musicien par rapport aux autres. Car la plus grande partie de nos morceaux est enregistrée live. Nous arrivons en studio avec un cadre minimum, que nous jouons live. Ensuite, nous complétons avec des improvisations. Je ne sais donc jamais à l’avance à quoi ressembleront nos disques. Je sais juste ce que sera l’ambiance, mais c’est tout. He ne sais pas où les chansons iront. Je passe d’ailleurs plus de temps à effacer, à couper, qu’à enregistrer. Mon travail consiste surtout à épurer, encore et toujours…Des heures et des heures de bandes, dont il ne faut garder que quelques instants cruciaux. Nos musiciens ne comprennent pas que nous voulions garder ces petits bouts où ils se trompent, où ils se trouvent à côté de la plaque. Car ces erreurs m’intéressent, Moi, je n’ai jamais pu supporter la technique, ça ne m’a jamais impressionné. Voilà pourquoi le punk a tant compté pour moi. Chacun pouvait devenir un musicien, chacun était un musicien. Si tu ressens quelque chose, tu n’as qu’à le jouer. Même si tu ne sais jouer qu’une seule note, ça ne fait rien, tu es aussi important que n’importe quel autre musicien. Je resterai toujours fidèle à cet esprit punk.
A l’époque, le but était de faire le plus de bruit possible. Le tien semble être de faire le plus de silence possible.
Bien sûr (silence)...Mais à l’époque, je passais pourtant ma vie à acheter des disques, à écouter obsessionnellement de la musique. C’est grâce au punk que je me suis lancé à l’eau. J’étudiais la psychologie enfantine à l’université à ce moment-là, mais j’ai tout plaqué, le punk me paraissait autrement plus intéressant. Avant ça, la musique était trop technique, elle paraissait réservée à quelques-uns, je n’avais jamais envisagé de jouer. Je sais que ça paraît aujourd’hui difficile à concevoir, mais je faisais vraiment partie du mouvement. Pour moi, il n’y a pas de doute possible. En termes de musique, ce fut la période la plus importante de ma vie. Enfin, la musique appartenait à tout le monde, il existait plein de nouveaux endroits où jouer. Bien sûr, la majeure partie de ce que j’entendais était très éloignée de mes propres goûts, mais ça ne comptait finalement pas. L’important, c’était l’énergie et l’enthousiasme. C’était un peu comme les grands festivals en plein air : personne ne se soucie vraiment de qui va jouer, on vient pour être rassemblés, pour communiquer. Et moi, j’étais là, je jouais dan des groups, ça ne me serait jamais venu à l’idée auparavant, Les maisons de disques on été totalement dépassées par les événements, débordées par tous ces gens qui réclamaient de la musique. J’avais toujours pensé qu’elles ne comprenaient pas grand-chose à ce qui se passait mais, là la vérité. Eclatait au grand jour. Elles étaient déboussolées, n’avaient plus le moindre repère et signaient n’importe qui. Elles n’avaient aucun moyen de juger ce qui était bon ou mauvais, elles prenaient tout en bloc. C’était formidable.
Etais-tu, pour la première fois, autorisé à faire preuve d’originalité ?
L’originalité était tout pour moi. Je N’ai jamais eu envie de former un groupe tourné ver le passé, je ne vois pas où ça peut te mener.
Je parlais au niveau personnel.
Mais ce n’est pas moi qui compte. La seule chose importante, c’est de faire de la musique. En Angleterre, mes disques ne se vendent pas. C’est une situation idéale pour moi. Le reste de l‘Europe me fait vivre et pourtant, je conserve un anonymat total chez moi. J’ai le possibilité des faire les disques comme je l’entends, on m’en donne les moyens et je peux quand même être monsieur Tout-le-monde. Si j’étais reconnu dans la rue, je souffrirais de claustrophobie, comme si on m’enfermait. C’est un énorme danger que d’être trop concerné par soi-même et je suis ravi d’être anonyme. Moi, J’habite à la campagne, loin de tout. C’est très important pour mon état d’esprit. Mais dès qu’il faut enregistrer, je dois partir, revenir à la ville, à Londres. C’est extrêmement important de marquer une cassure. A la campagne, je ne me sentirais pas suffisamment à cran pour pouvoir enregistrer…J’ai quitté la ville il y a six ans, je voulais retrouver le sens de la communauté. Là où j’habite, je peux entrer dans les boutiques et parler aux gens. Ce n’est pas seulement l’argent que tu vas laisser sur le comptoir qui compte, cosmopolite de la grande ville me manque. J’ai besoin de revenir régulièrement à Londres, pour reprendre le contact.
A vos débuts, Talk Talk était un groupe très différent : la musique était techno-pop, commerciale, l’image se rapprochait des néo-romantiques, vous étiez très propres, très polis vos disques se vendaient aux midinettes.
L’étape à laquelle nous sommes aujourd’hui parvenues n’est que la suite logique de nos débuts. Seules les contraintes ont changé. Pour notre premier album, nous n’avions eu que quatre semaines de studio, un budget très serré. Aujourd’hui, on nous laisse deux ans et nous pouvons dépenser autant d’argent que nous voulons. Voilà la plus grosse différence.
Ça n’explique pas la différence d’image.
Notre image était effrayante, je sais, mais ce n’était pas de notre faute. Nous nous étions longuement battus pour obtenir un contrat et sitôt après avoir signé, nous avons été assaillis par toutes sortes de pressions. Ça venait de tous les côtés, on a essayé de nous faire entrer dans un petite case avec laquelle nous n’avion rien à voir. Les directeurs artistiques des maisons de disques souffrent tour d’une même maladie : créativité, de leur propre personnalité, ile préfèrent essayer de les adapter au marché. Ils veulent une vague imitation de ce qui marche à l’époque, te poussent dans cette voie. C’est ce qu’ils ont essayé de faire avec nous au début. Les neo-romantiques étaient à la mode et nous avons subi d’énormes 0pressions. Elles ont durée jusqu’au début de l’enregistrement du second album.
Avais-tu honte d’accepter ces compromis ?
(Silence)…Je me suis retrouvé dans une position où je n’avais pas le choix. Mais je ne veux pas que tu croies que j’ai agi contre mon gré. Même si nous avons eu des problèmes à faire notre premier album, même si le producteur nous a été imposé, je ne peux pas renier ce disque. Même notre image ridicule a finalement eu des aspects positifs. C’est grâce à elle que j’ai compris que plus jamais je n’accepterai de jouer le jeu (sourire)…Si je n’avais pas accepté, je n’aurais jamais su qu’il fallait refuser et se battre.
Les pressions ont-elles également affecté votre musique ?
La seule erreur, c’est d’avoir accepté le producteur que la maison de disques voulait absolument nous imposer. Nous n’aurions jamais dû les laisser faire. Notre image nous a également longtemps porté préjudice. Quand nous avons signé avec EMI, notre image se rapprochait de celle des Doors, nous nous sentions en accord avec cette période du psychédélisme. Mais la maison de disques nous a nettoyés (sourire)…Ill fallait absolument briser l’image ridicule qu’ils avaient pensée pour nous. Je n’ai jamais été à l’aise dans le costume qu’ils nous taillaient j’avais l’impression de jouer dans une farce. Mais il fallait accepter certains compromis pour être plus fermes sur d’autres questions, comme notre refus d’apparaître sur les pochettes. Car pour moi, c’était ça le plus important de tout. Ma vraie image, c’est ma musique.
Les gens qui achetaient vos disques pour cette image proprette auraient-ils été surpris s’ils vous avaient rencontrés en privé ?
En privé, nous avons toujours été les mêmes, aujourd’hui comme hier. Les costumes blancs, les cravates, tout cela était absurde. Nous, nous portions des chemises psychédéliques, nous avions les cheveux très longs avant que la maison de disques nous envoie chez le coiffeur. Et très vite, nous sommes revenus à notre craie image, à ce que nous étions vraiment. He ne pouvais plus accepter de jouer le néo romantique pur faire plaisir à EMI. C’était à la mode, ces gens-là pensaient que c’était donc bon pour nous, que nous serions plus faciles à vendre ainsi…Ils ne savent pas ce que c’est de faire un disque, l’idée même de créativité n’a aucune valeur à leurs yeux. C’est pour cette raison que le punk a été si positif, car ils ont été renversés. Mais ils ont vite repris leurs esprits, nous sommes revenus à la case départ, avec les mêmes schémas, les mêmes petites cases, les mêmes moules. Regarde MTV : en 1981, je me souviens qu’ils voulaient renverser tout le monde, combattre le système des radios commerciales…Regarde-les aujourd’hui, encore plus formatés et obtus que ces radios.
On a ressort l’an passé toutes sortes de remixes house de vos anciens morceaux. C’était pour vous confirmer à ces formats ?
Je vais traîner EMI, notre ancienne maison de disques, devant les tribunaux. Il ont livré nos chansons à des DJ’s pour les remixer, ont sorti des compilations de dance-mixes de nos propres morceaux sans même nous en parler. Je refuse d’écouter ces disques.. C’est un scandale de donner ainsi mes chansons à des gens avec lesquels je ne travaillerais même pas dans mes pires cauchemars. Il on abâtardi mon travail, l’ont sorts à mon insu, ils devraient avoir honte. Mes chansons ne sont pas des cobayes, c’est répugnant de jouer ainsi avec. Quand je sors un disque, c’est que je le considère définitivement achevé. Je ne vois donc pas ce qu’il y a à enlever ou à rajouter, ce ne sont pas des cobayes.
Ta musique d’aujourd’hui est un secret bien gardé. Vous vous faites très rares dans la presse, comme si tu ne laissais les gens venir à tes disques qu’au compte-goutte.
Ça ne m’inquiète absolument pas que beaucoup de gens ne connaissent pas notre musique. D’ailleurs rien ne m’inquiète. J’aime que les gens viennent à nous petite à petit, qu’ils nous découvrent par le bouche à oreille. Nos disques ont une durée de vie très longue, ce qui est le plus beau compliment qu’on puisse leur faire. Les gens doivent y venir d’eux-mêmes, je ne veux pas les pousser. D’ailleurs, je ne pense pas que les interviews soient une bonne chose. Tout ce qui compte, ce sont mes disques. Moi, je ne peux pas être à leur hauteur, je ne peux pas être aussi succinct et clair qu’eux. Tout ce que je peux faire, c’est leu porter préjudice. Si j’avais le choix, je ne parlerais jamais à la presse. L’anonymat est une situation rêvée pour moi, celle qui me donner le plus d’espace. J’ai beaucoup de chance de ne plus écrire de tubes. Pour moi, le vrai succès est de pouvoir faire les albums dont j’ai envie. Je ne désire rien de plus.
Ta maison de disques, l’entend-elle de cette oreille ?
Chez EMI, nos disques ne faisaient pas l’unanimité. Il y avait mêmes des gens qui ne pouvaient pas nous supporter. Au moins, notre nouvelle maison de disques sait où nous en sommes, ils ont pu voir avec notre précédent album Spirit of Eden, dans quel état d’esprit nous nous trouvons. Je sais que nous sommes un groupe difficile pour eux, nous n’avons pas choisi la facilité et des gens nous en voudront forcément. Il est temps que ce milieu soit un peu plus créatif. Car je suis incapable de parler à des gens qui ne réfléchissent qu’en termes de produits, de formats, de calibres. Peu de gens aiment la musique dans les maisons de disques.
On a beaucoup parlé à propos de Talk Talk, de ‘suicide commercial’…
Bien sûr, notre réalité est un suicide commercial. Nos deux premiers albums ont été d’énormes succès mais je n’ai pas la moindre honte de ces disques. A cette époque, j’avais envie d’écrire des chansons, je voulais me limiter à ce format pop. Mais je n’ai jamais pris la décision nette d’arrêter d’écrire ainsi, de commettre un ‘suicide commercial’.
Nous avons juste évolué de façon naturelle. J’ai vieilli, j’ai été influencé par de nouvelles amitiés. Au début, c’était impossible d’établir une vraie relation avec un musicien. Nous les utilisions, tirions le meilleur d’eaux et les jetions s’ils nous convenaient plus. Mais au bout de dix ans, des amitiés sont nées, elles m’ont considérablement changé. C’est grâce à elles si nous n’avons jamais stagné. Au lieu de renouveler sans cesse nos musiciens nous préférons apprendre à mieux connaître notre cercle, à combattre ensemble la frustration…Car c’est elle qui nous pousse en avant, nous éloigne de tous ces formats limités. Même si nous ne savons pas toujours ce que nous voulons, nous savons ce que nous ne voulons surtout pas, nous pouvons donc le repousser ensemble.
Cette évolution entre un pop-music formatée et un musique sans réelle structure passe tout de même par une cassure, entre The Colour Of Spring et Spirit of Eden. D’où vient-elle ?
Apres The Colour of Spring, nous sommes partis en tournée. Ça a été la dernière de notre carrière. Jusque-là, la routine s’était installée depuis trois années : album, puis tournée…La grande différence vient de là : nous n’étions plus limités par le temps, nous n’avions plus la moindre échéance dans le futur. Nous avons donc pu commencer à travailler comme nous l’entendions, à improviser. Pour moi, les tournées étaient beaucoup trop rétrospectives. Dés qu’un morceau est enregistré, je n’ai plus la moindre envie d’y revenir. En plus, j’ai décidé d’avoir des enfants et ma famille passait au-dessus des concerts. De toute façon. Notre musique devenait de plus en plus difficile à reproduire sur scène. Les morceaux de notre nouvel album seraient d’ailleurs physiquement impossibles à jouer en concert.
Ces tournées t’ont-elles également conduit à des excès ?
Oui, il fallait que je sois ivre en permanence, c’était très inquiétant. Nous jouions six jours par semaine et je devais donc être totalement bourré six soirs par semaine. Ce n’était même pas un plaisir, mais une nécessité : sans alcool, j’étais incapable de monter sur scène. Quand nous avons commencé, c’est l’enthousiasme que me faisait grimper sur scène. Mais ça, je l’ai vitre perdu. La routine, la répétition l’avaient vite tué. Le seul moyen que j’avais d’apprécier notre musique, d’avoir l’impression d’y entendre un peu de fraicheur, c’était d’être défoncé en permanence.
C’est à ce moment-là que les drogues dont leur apparition ?
Ça, il faudrait que tu le demandes aux autres membres du groups. En ce qui me concerne, ce n’était que l’alcool. C’est la seule substance qui m’intéressait, j’en prenais plus que de raison. Je m’écroulais à la fin de chaque concert, ça ne pouvait plus durer ainsi. Je n’en pouvais plus de vivre dans une bulle, de traverser des pays sans même les voir. Ma vie devenait très malsaine.
Etes-vous totalement `å l’écart ou vous sentez-vous des affinités avec d’autres musiciens, comme It’s Immaterial ou Blue Nile ?
Je n’ai jamais entendu parler d’eux. Je ne connais personne qui écoute de la musique actuelle, si bien que je n’ai pas le moindre moyen de me tenir informé. Je refuse d’écouter la radio de regarde la télé, j’y entends trop de choses que je n’ai pas envie d’entendre. Par contre j’ai de bons guides dan d’autres domaines musicaux, des amis qui m’orientent ver des choses plus anciennes. J’ai totalement arrêté d’acheter des disques récents le jour où j’ai commence à en sortir moi-même et pourtant, j’écoute toujours autant de musique. En ce moment, j’ai trois passions : Ornette Coleman, Robert Johnson et la musique contemporaine, des gens comme Messiaen, Ligeti, Penderecki ou Stockhausen…Tous ces gens qui travaillent sue un musique sans forme réelle. De la pop-musique, je ne sais absolument rien, je suis incapable de te dire ce que se passe. Ma musique et aujourd’hui plus proche de jazz ou de Robert Johnson que de tout ça. Dans le jazz, j’aime que chacun des musiciens puisse jouer dans son propre espace.
Tu te concentres totalement dans ton rôle, sur ta propre voie et parfois, au cours du morceau, tu rejoins les autres et tu fais en leur compagnie un petit bout de chemin. C’est pour cette raison que je considère Tago Mago, de Can, comme un disque très important. Le batteur cogne dans son coin, ne ralentit jamais, n’accepte aucun compromis. Lui suit une ligne droite à vitesse constante et les autres vont et viennent autour de cet axe. Sans vouloir intellectualiser notre musique, j’aime que chacun puisse voyager à son rythme, seul ou parfois en groupe.
Est-ce une attitude calculée, réfléchie ou cette façon d’enregistrer est-elle naturelle ?
Ça peut être forcé, car ce n’est pas aisé de s’enfermer ainsi dans son coin. Mais en studio, tous les instruments sont branchés en permanence, il n’y a rien de prémédité, de calculé…Si l’un de nous a envie d’essayer une idée, il la met immédiatement en application. Parfois, c’est plus réfléchi : sur le premier morceau de l’album, par exemple, on a l’impression que le batteur installe ses fûts pendant que les autres ont déjà commencé à jouer, qu’il ne sera prêt que pour le second morceau. Ça, je l’ai voulu, c´était prévu. Idem pour le long solo du troisième morceau. Une seule note, bloquée pendant plusieurs minutes, j’en rêvais depuis des années (sourire)…
Es-tu agacé par les étiquettes ‘rock progressif’ ou ‘new-age’ accolées à votre musique?
Rien sans ce monde ne m’agace. Si des gens pensent que nous ressemblons à King Crimson, c’est qu’ils y voient des ressemblances. Moi, j’y vois plutôt le Velvet underground. Car il faut savoir que l’originalité n’existe pas. Toute musique naît forcement d’impressions ressenties à l’écoute d’autres musiques. L’originalité, au mieux, c’est la diversité, l’éclectisme. Le new-age, je ne sais pas ce que c’est, je ne connais que le nom. C’est une philosophie ? Très bien. Elle prône l’exploration de soi-même ? Ah oui, ça l’air formidable (rires)…
Et toutes ces références obscures à la religion ?
Mes paroles parlent avant tout de valeurs et d’attitudes. C’est une constante, les seuls sujets sur lesquels je peux chanter avec conviction. Le mot ‘soul music’ a pris un sens totalement différent, de ‘musique de l’âme’. Mais aujourd’hui, je me sens proche de ça, du gospel. C’est le cœur qui change. En ce sensé, oui, mes paroles sont religieuses. Mais pas d’une religion spécifique, seulement humanistes. Voilà où s’arrête ma religion. De toute façon, mes paroles sont écrites à propos d’un personnage qui n’est pas moi-même. C’est lui qui ressent les sentiments, qui les exprime. Et curieusement, quand je chante ces textes, quand je ferme les yeux, je ressens exactement les mêmes choses qui lui.^ go back to top
Oor: 5 October 1991
Spirit of Eden stond zowel voor de opbouwende als de vernietigende krachten die het leven bepalen. Op Laughing Stock lijkt Mark Hollis de man achter en het enige overgebleven lid van Talk Talk, definitief gekozen te hebben voor een wereld van hoop. Door Corne Evers.
De werkelijkheid van de platenbusiness is vaak die van de jonge, enthousiaste muzikant die op een gegeven ogenblik aan het succes mag ruiken en uiteindelijk voor de verlokkingen van de commercie door de knieën gaat. Money for nothing, chicks for free heet het dan, veen bezwijken maar niet Mark Hollis. Na met zijn groep Talk Talk hits te hebben gescoord met nummers als It’s My Life, Such a Shame, Dum Dum Girl, Life’s What You Make It en Living in Another World, bouwde Hollis in 1988 op de langspeler Spirit of Eden breekbare emoties en melancholieke sfeerbeelden uit tot een concept waarbij de popmuziek bijna geheel het loodje legde.
Tegen de inktzwarte hemel glijden geruisloos de twaalf tekens van de dierenriem voorbij. Sterrenbeelden doemen op uit niet en verdwijnen weer. Het knipperlichten van verre planeten. Het planetarium in Paris is een wereld van rust. Buiten bestaat niet meer. Een gitaar laat zich voorzichtig horen, geluid kringelt als sigaretten rook omhoog, het zachte getinkel van een piano. “Place my chair at the backroom door” klinkt die bekende, klaaglijke stem. Help me up, I can’t wait anymore’. Myrrhman. Dan de rest. Laughing Stock. De muziek doet vreemd aan, een aaneenschakeling van sferen, sommige behoorlijk rauw, waarin jazz, klassiek en zelfs blues een rol spellen maar nauwelijks nog als zodanig herkenbaar zijn. Abstracte gitaarerupties wisselen af met emotionele zanglijnen, vaak is er sprake van een hypnotiserend soort broeierigheid. Songs in de traditionele zin van het woord, zijn er niet, er is geen refrein, geen koortje te bekennen, alleen die stem die zingt over kwetsbaarheid, over mededogen, over het geloof in een christendom zonder leugens, zonder hypocrisie. En er is een puls, een altijd voortdurende puls, als een hartslag, soms duidelijk, soms nauwelijks waarneembaar, maar hij is nooit helemaal weg.
Na afloop, als de laatste tonen zijn weggestorven en het licht weer aan, is het even stil. Er wordt beschaafd geklapt. Slechts een enkeling reageert ronduit enthousiast. “mijn God” zegt een Zweedse journaliste in een geaffecteerd soort Engels. Het afgrijzen in haar stem liegt er niet om. Je hoort haar denken: ‘Hoe ken iemand zoiets maken?’ Mark Hollis zit weggedoken op de achterste rij, duidelijk verlegen met de situatie. “ik ben blij dat je er bent”. Complimenten van mijn kant worden beantwoord met nerveuze excuses. “Sorry, misschien is dit wel niet de meest geschikte plaats om de plaat te horen.”
Een popster zal mark Hollis nooit worden. Zonder dat hij daar nou zelf bewust naar heeft gestreefd, is hij in de loop der jaren de verpersoonlijking van de antipopheld geworden, een muzikant met een gezin en zijn werk in de studio, die verder het liefst met rust wordt gelaten. Niet uit onvriendelijkheid, oh nee, Mark Hollis is de vriendelijkheid zelve, gewoon omdat hij naar eigen zeggen niets te melden heeft. Hij doet sowieso al maanden over een songtekst van een paar regels. “Het is zoveel moeilijker om iets in tien woorden te zeggen dan wanneer je duizend woorden tot je beschikking hebt. In mijn teksten zit mijn leven. Ze zeggen veel meer over mij dan welk interview dan ook. Ze zijn het resultaat van mijn observaties en representeren de waarden ik geloof, op het humanitaire vlak.
In wat voor wereld leef jij, Mark” vroeg ik hem ten tijde van Spirit of Eden. We zaten in Artis. Op het tafeltje tussen ons was het een druk komen in gaan van mussen die zich luid kwetterend van ons ontbijt trachtten meester te maken en zich daarbij van geen mens iets aantrokken. Alsof ze voelden dat ze van hem niets te duchten hadden, een dromer die houdt van het leven, van alles wat kruipt, zwemt, loopt en vliegt, een dromer in zijn eigen wereld.
Dat is een behoorlijke moeilijke vraag, weet je?
Geef me die maanden drie maanden en dan stuur ik je een antwoord.
Drie drie maanden werden drie jaren maar eindelijk is Mark Hollis er dan in geslaagd om zijn antwoord re formuleren: Laughing Stock. De teksten zijn directer, eenvoudiger dan ooit. Ze ademen een diepe spiritualiteit, vertrouwen. Als ik mocht kiezen, dan zou er een God bestaan, absoluut. Ik geloof in een menselijke vorm van christendom, in religie, welke religie ook, die is gebaseerd op de vrijheid om zelf keuzes te maken, op respect voor elkaar.
:Later, aan boord van de boot die ons over de Seine door Parijs bij avond voert, eet hij zonder morren de glibberige omelet met vette frieten die een hufterige over hem voorzet, nadat Hollis hem er bij herhaling op attent had gemaakt vegetariër te zijn. We praten over muziek, over jazz, over klassiek, over zijn bewondering voor Coltrane en Gil Evans, over Ligeti en het wonder van de compositie waarin slechts een toon wordt gespeeld. “ik geloof in eenvoud”.
De Zweedse vraagt hem of hij er nooit aan gedacht heeft dat mensen wel ween met onbegrip op zijn muziek zouden kunnen reageren. Hollis haalt zijn schouders op: “Ik verwacht niets van niemand. Die enige van wie ik iets verwacht, ben ik zelf. Ik kan niet weken aan de hand van de verwachtingen die andere mensen hebben. Iedereen heft het recht datgene wat ik doe aantrekkelijk te vinden of het af te wijzen. Er zullen best wel mensen zijn die het absolute rotzooi vinden. Ik zou ook niet anders willen. Zolang als je met je werk dat kunt doen wat je graag wilt, zit je nooit op het verkeerde spoor. Mensen vonden Spirit of Eden van dapperheid getuigen. Maar zeg nou zelf, wat is er nou dapper aan om gewoon verder te gaan vanuit een natuurlijke ontwikkeling van de dingen? Spirit of eden was wat ik altijd had willen doen. Het is eigenlijk het tegenovergestelde van dapper. Ik ben een heel gelukkig mens dat ik de mogelijkheid heb om aan mijn eigen verlangens tegemoet te kunnen komen, zonder dat me allerlei beperkingen worden opgelegd.
Als muziek ‘sferisch’ wordt genoemd, bedoelt men vaak dat de gehoorde klankenreeksen ingetogen van karakter zijn, dat ze een meditatieve uitstraling hebben. Laughing Stock is anders. De plaat kent momenten van rust, als het Hammond orgel van producer Time Friese-Greene (het enige ‘vaste’ Talk Talk lid naast Hollis) even niet kreunt en jammert maar in plaats daarvan pastelkleurige melodielijnen trekt. Vaker echter is er sprake van een uitbundige vorm van expressie, als de instrumenten plus de stem van Hollis in wilde vegen over elkaar lijken te zijn gezet, zoals een schilder ver op het doek ken ‘smijten’ ogenschijnlijk onstuimig en aan een primitieve innerlijke dwang tegemoetkomend maar tegelijkertijd heel bedachtzaam, met elke kleur nauwgezet op de juiste plaats aangebracht. Mark Hollis zou zelf het woord ‘bedachtzaam’ niet willen gebruiken. “Ik zoek niet naar iets, in die zin dat ik echt niet al weet wak ik wil gaan doen, op het moment dat ik de studio in ga. Er zijn op dat moment bepaalde dingen belangrijk, dat wel. In die geval was dat bijvoorbeeld New Morning van Bob Dylan, uit 1971, geloof ik. Op een gegeven moment heb je dan de band in de ruimte voor je en dan ga je aan het werk, zonder trucs, gewoon: wat je hoort, is wat je krijgt. Ik hou daarvan, zeker met betrekking tot de vocalen op dit album. Ik wilde niets kwijtraken, door het toevoegen van allerlei echo apparatuur en dergelijke. Er komt een moment dat je daar een punt achter zet, alleen nog maar een soort basisgeluid wilt. Het enige echt belangrijke om een bepaald soort atmosfeer te creëren, zijn tijd en rust. Ik denk echt dat rust het belangrijkste element in muziek is. Ik vergelijk dat altijd met film, met het werk van den Franse regisseur Marcel Carne, die voor mij echt de absolute top is. De twee dingen in zijn films waar hij het meest mee werkt, zijn rust en karakter, De verhalende lijn komt voor hem pas later. Zo zou ik ook muziek willen maken, nooit iets spelen alleen maar om het spelen. Ik heb altijd geloofd dat een noot beter is dan twee en uiteindelijk gaat dat naar een punt dat niet beter is dan iets Stilte moet altijd hoger gewaardeerd worden dan wat anders ook. Bij een plaatopname moet de hoogste prioriteit uitgaan naar die momenten waar geen geluid nodig is.
Het rijtje invloeden dat Mark Hollis noemt, is al jaren overanderd: Miles David, Gil Evans, Ravel, Satie, Debussy en nog een paar. Gevraagd hoe hij met deze invloeden omgaat, hoe hij de prikkels die hij van de muziek van deze componisten krijgt, in de studio voor zijn eigen creatieve proces aanwendt, is een diepe zucht in eerste instantie het enige antwoord. “ik weet het niet. Het voorbeeld van New Morning, wat ik je gaf, dan zijn er elementen op zo’n plaat die ik graag in mijn eigen muziek zou horen. Wat de drummer Can van doet op Tago Mago, die deel afgemeten manier van drummen, dat spreekt me aan. Maar ook het feit dat daar vier mensen samenspeelden die allemaal verschillende ideeën hadden over wat nu de off-beat was en wat de on0beat, maar die ieder voor zich in hun hoofd precies wisten wat ze aan het doen waren en die elkaar op diverse punten langs de muzikale lijn ontmoetten. Miles Davis en Gil Evans, ik heb altijd enorm gehouden van het illustratieve aspect van hun muziek.
Hij zakt even weg, een afwezige blik in zijn ogen. ‘Techniek is voor mij nooit belangrijk geweest. De mensen met wie ik werk, hebben een hoop technische bagage tot hun beschikking, daar niet van, maar dat is nooit de reden geweest om met ze te werken. Het was altijd meer een kwestie van houding, het gevoel dat iemand in twee noten kan leggen. En als datgene wat ik te zeggen heb, met een noot kan, dan gebruik ik maar een noot. Dat is het volgende stadium. Het gaat dan niet over virtuositeit maar over attack.”
Waar dat moet eindigen, weet ook Mark Hollis niet. “Ik zou best heel minimaal willen werken. Ik denk dan bij sommige tracks hoe aardig het zou zijn om het allemaal heel simpel te maken. Het probleem is dat je echter altijd de dynamiek van het geheel in de gaten moet houden, omdat je dingen wil doen die heel breekbaar zijn en andere dingen die daar helemaal aan tegenovergesteld, enorm gewelddadig zijn. Dat is waar je rekening mee moet houden, wil je tenminste dat de plaat echt van de ene sfeer in de andere kan overgaan.”
Optreden doet hij nog steeds niet. “Ik wil niet. Op de eerste plaats is het onmogelijk om dit soort materiaal live te spelen, de verschillen in dynamiek zouden een te grote belasting voor de muzikanten vormen en ik zou minstens twintig mensen op het podium moeten hebben. Een ander en eigenlijk veel belangrijker punt is het gegeven dat ik anderhalf jaar aan de arrangementen van Laughing Stock heb gewerkt. Het laatste waar ik nu behoefte aan heb, is om het eerstvolgende jaar vrij te moeten houden om alles opnieuw te arrangeren. Dat zou de omgekeerde weg zijn voor mij. Laughing Stock is nu verleden tijd. Ik wil graag verder naar de toekomst.^ go back to top
Oor: 5th October 1991
Spirit of Eden stood both for the constructive if the destructive forces that determine life. On Laughing Stock Mark Hollis, the man behind it and the only remaining member of Talk Talk, seems to have finally opted for a world of hope. By Corne Evers.
The reality of the record business is often that of the young, enthusiastic musician who at any given moment may smell success and ultimately be brought to their knees by the lure of commerce. “Money for nothing, chicks for free” it was called then, many succumb, but not Mark Hollis.
After scoring hits with his group Talk Talk with songs like "It's My Life, Such a Shame, Dum Dum Girl, Life's What You Make It and Living in Another World, in 1988 Hollis created the LP Spirit of Eden where fragile emotions and melancholic atmosphere were made into a concept where pop music is almost entirely unexplained.
Against the ink black sky the twelve signs of the zodiac glide silently past. Constellations loom from nowhere and disappear again. The flashing lights of distant planets. The planetarium in Paris is a world of peace. The outside no longer exists. A guitar can be heard gently, sound like cigarette smoke curls up, the soft tinkling of a piano.. "Place my chair at the back room door" sounds that familiar, plaintive voice. “Help me up, I can't wait anymore '. Myrrhman. Then the rest. Laughing Stock. The music is strange, a concatenation of atmospheres, some pretty raw, in which jazz, classical and even blues play are role but are barely even recognizable as such. Abstract guitar eruptions alternate with emotional vocals, often there is a mesmerising kind of fog. Songs in the traditional sense of the word, there aren’t, there is no chorus, no choir in sight, only the voice that sings about vulnerability, about compassion, about faith in a Christianity without lies, without hypocrisy. And there is a pulse, a continuous pulse, a heart beat, sometimes clear, sometimes barely perceptible, but never completely gone.
Afterwards, when the last notes have died away and the lights back on, it is equally silent. Civilization has collapsed. Only a few respond with downright enthusiasm "My God," says a Swedish journalist in an affected sort of English. The horror in her voice does not lie. You can hear her thinking: "How did someone make something like this? 'Mark Hollis sits huddled in the back row, clearly embarrassed by the situation. "I'm glad you're here." My compliment are answered with nervous excuses. "Sorry, maybe this is not the most appropriate place to hear the album."
Mark Hollis will never be a pop star. He has now self consciously striven, over the years, to become the personification of the anti-pop hero, to become a musician with a family and his work in the studio, and further to preferably be left alone. Not out of hostility to, oh no, Mark Hollis is kindness itself, simply because he say he has nothing to say. He works for months on lyrics of a few lines. "It is so much harder to say somthing in ten words when you have a thousand words at your disposal. In my lyrics is my life. They say a lot more about me than any interview. They are the result of my observations and represent the values I believe, on the humanitarian level.
“In what sort of world do you live, Mark?", I asked him at the time of Spirit of Eden. We sat in Artis. On the table between there was pressure from loud twittering sparrows who tried to seize our breakfast and in so doing were attracted to something of the man. As if they felt they had nothing to fear from him, a dreamer who loves life, everything that crawls, swims, runs and flies, a dreamer in his own world.
That is quite a difficult question, you know? Give me some months, three months and I’ll send you a reply.
Three months, three years, but finally Mark Hollis managed to formulate his answer re: Laughing Stock. The lyrics are more direct, easier than ever. They breathe a deep spirituality, confidence. If I could choose, would God exist, absolutely. I believe in a human form of Christianity, in religion, any religion, which is based on the freedom to make choices for themselves, on respect for each other.
Later, aboard the boat that carries us over the Seine through Paris at night, he eats without complaint the slippery greasy omelet with fat French fries without murmur, after Hollis's repeated studies have made him vegetarian. We talk about music, about jazz, classical, his admiration for Coltrane and Gil Evans, Ligeti and the miracle of composition in which only one tone is played. "I believe in simplicity."
The Swedish journalist asks him whether he ever thought that people would react with incomprehension to his music. Hollis shrugs: "I expect nothing from anybody. There’s only one of whom I expected something, muself. I can’t soak in the light of other people’s expectations. Everyone has the right to find what I do attractive, or reject it. There will be people who find it an absolute mess. I also wouldn’t want. As long as you can do what you like with your work you’re never on the wrong track. People felt Spirit of Eden of was brave. But honestly, what’s brave in just moving on in a natural progression of things? Spirit of Eden was what I always wanted to do. It's actually the opposite of brave. I am a very happy man in that I have the opportunity to satisfy my own desires, withouth all kinds of restrictions being imposed.
If musical spheres are mentioned, it’s often meant that the sounds heard are of a subdued character, that they have a meditative aura. Laughing Stock is different.
The album has moments of calm, like the Hammond organ of producer Tim Friese-Greene (the only 'fixed' Talk Talk member alongside Hollis) not just moans and wails, but pastoral melody lines. More often, however, there’s an exuberant form of expression, as the instruments- plus the voice of Hollis – seems to have been put down in wild sweeps, like a painter flinging paint on the canvas through a seemingly impetuous and a primitive inner compulsion, yet at the same time very thoughtfully, with every colour in exactly the right place.
Mark Hollis would not use the word ‘mindful’. "I don’t search for something in the sense that I really didn’t already know what I wanted to do when I went into the studio. There are at that moment certain important things, though. In that case it was at New Morning by Bob Dylan, in 1971, I believe. At some point you have the band in the room with you and then you go to work, no tricks, just ‘what you hear is what you get’. I love it, especially regarding the vocals on this album. I wanted to lose nothing by adding all sorts of echo equipment and such. There comes a time when you do move beyond a certain point, but there is only a basic sound. The only really important thing needed to create a certain kind of atmosphere; is time and rest. I really think that peace is the key element in music. I always compare it with film, with the work of the French director Marcel Carne, which for me is really the absolute best. The two things in his movies he works with most, are quietness and character, where for hin the narrative line comes later. So I would also want to make music, never just play to play. I have always believed that one note is better than two and eventually gets to a point that one is not better than nothing. Silence should always be valued higher than anything else too. When recording a record the highest priority should be given to those times when no sound is needed.
The list influences that Mark Hollis cites, has long been static: Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Ravel, Satie, Debussy and a few others. Asked how he deals with these influences, how he uses the stimuli that the music of these composers prodice, in the studio for his own creative process, a deep sigh is at first the only answer. "I don’t know. In the example of New Morning, which I gave you, there are elements you would hear in those albums that I like in my own music. What the drummer of Can isof doing on Tago Mago, which is a measured drumming, appeals to me. But also the fact that there are four people playing together who all have different ideas about what is now the off-beat, and what the on-beat, but each of them in their head know exactly what they were doing and met each other at various points along the musical line. Miles Davis and Gil Evans, I've always loved the enormous illustrative aspect of their music.
He just tails off, a distant look in his eyes. "Technique has never been important to me. The people with whom I work, have a lot of technical skills at their disposal, but that’s never been the reason for working with them. It was always more a matter of attitude, the feeling that someone can explain in two notes. And if what I have to say, I can say with a note, thenI use only one note. That is the next stage. This is not about virtuosity, but about approach. "
Where it should end up, Mark Hollis doesn’t know. "I would like to work, at best, very minimally. I think that with some tracks how nice it would be to make it all very simple. The problem is that you always need to watch the dynamics of the whole, because you want to do things that are very fragile and other things that are the complete opposite, very violent. That's where you need to consider, you'll want at least that the record can pass from one atmosphere to another.”
He still won’t tour. "I don’t want to. First, it is impossible to play this kind of material live, the differences in dynamics would be an excessive burden for the musicians and I would need at least twenty people on stage. Another, and actually much more important point, is the fact that I have worked for 18 months on the arrangements of Laughing Stock. The last thing I need to do is to have the next year off having to keep re-arranging everything. That would be going in the opposite direction for me. Laughing Stock is now history. I would like to continue into the future.^ go back to top
NME: October 12th 1991
They were born in age of synth-pop and teenybop gunslingers, but Talk Talk were always sullen and strange....and now they're 100 percent Obtuse Damn Bugger Weird. Simon Williams meets a serene, laid-back Mark Hollis, and discovers his favourite word is 'organic'.
The story of Talk Talk is a strange and twisted affair. Once upon a time, their peers were Duran Duran, Cava Cava, Wank Wank and all those double- barrelled teenybop gunslingers with scary big suits and a terrifying taste for (barfo barfo) synth-pop.
This just happened to be something Talk Talk were extremely good at, although, with Mark Hollis' pinched, nervy face poking at the camera, the Talkies managed to avoid tumbling into the sun-bronzed Smash Hits glamdom.
While their contemporaries made naff vids in exotic locations (Duran), bought Porsches (Spandau), grew crap haircuts (Kajagoogoo), or turned into gossip column phalluses (everybloodyone, especially Visage), Talk Talk stayed sullen and strange and made mildly marvellous albums which saw them weaning themselves away from all the other clowns in the pop circus.
By 1988's 'Spirit Of Eden' LP, the weirdness was absolute. Conscientiously rejecting all the handy tips on How To Make Records, Talk Talk booted themselves onto the touchline of the left field by making the kind of album which gives product managers ulcers, and then threw a few gallons of four star onto the flames by taking a rather early retirement from touring.
"Even at the time of 'The Colour Of Spring' (1986) it was getting increasingly difficult to play the material live" says Hollis, with a surprisingly cock-er-nee tinge. "We were looking at rearranging songs, but having spent a year and a half making the record, the LAST thing you want to do is go back in and rearrange it ! There's a lot about playing live that I've never got on with, but I do think it's really important, and I'd hate to give the impression that I think all bands should be studio-bound."
Not surprisingly, the band's long-term relationship with EMI found itself aground on rocks the size of Norway. Even less surprisingly, when Talk Talk tunnelled through a loophole in their contract and out into the daylight at Polydor, EMI started ransacking the vaults and flogging old Talk Talk hits by the pound. The band were helpless to act when a Greatest Hits package sent them soaring into the Top 20. But when a crass compilation of dance remixes was released to cash in on Talk Talk's odd, unwitting relationship with Club Culture, Hollis finally sent in the lawyers.
"I've never heard the stuff and I never want to," scowls Hollis. "I never even considered that anyone would do that type of thing. To have work put out under your name which has got nothing to do with you..." the singer tails off, looking profoundly exasperated. "I mean, we were nominated for Best Band at the Brits last year and they were showing footage of us from 1983, with absolutely no regard for what we're doing now."
The important thing is that, excepting imminent court cases and several thousand deceived punters wandering around in the belief that Talk Talk are a bona fide pop act, Mark Hollis has landed on his feet. Polydor have resurrected the old Verve jazz label for the band, and the new 'Laughing Stock' album sees Talk Talk cruise even further into their own vague otherworld.
With its middle names of Abstract, Obtuse, and Damn Bugger Weird, 'Laughing Stock' is a six-track meander through calm territories littered with easily aggrieved volcanoes of sound.
Hollis denies that any particular 'theme' has prevailed over the past eight years, but when the word 'organic' - bandied around Talk Talk's press file like shouts of 'tits' at a rugby club karaoke night - stumbles into conversation, the singer's eyes light up with the luminosity of a fireworks display.
"Organic is a really nice word, basically because it means natural. What you see is what you get. The thing that anyone wants to do is to create something that exists outside of the time it was created in. And the only way you can do that is to work without sounds that are stylized, work with them in their most basic form. Part of what I like about sound is that quality isn't down to size, it's down to its idiosyncrasies."
There's certainly no shortage of them with Talk Talk. What is ironic is that, while their sound is in virtual free-form, the composition is maddeningly painstaking.
"That's a result of having stopped touring and just having an open-ended amount of time." nods Hollis. "It wasn't like we've got six months to get it all done and then tour again, it gave us the chance to try anything, and not care if you get 100 musicians in and only use one of them."
So speaks an artist from the luxurious heights of a five-star deluxe pedestal. With a bidet. And big, fluffy dressing gowns. Like The Blue Nile (only a bit more unsettling), Talk Talk have worked themselves into a position where they can do what the bugger they like without fretting about deadlines or panicking about people's perceptions.
They're making (theoretically) Q-generation music for the thirty- somethings, who'll tap their toes erratically and think 'Laughing Stock' is fab simply because it's the latest Talk Talk CD, while obscure teenage collectives like Bark Psychosis have taken Talk Talk's creative rumblings to heart.
Talk Talk genuinely deserve to be where they are now. The good thing is that Hollis, far from evolving into a blinkered farthead, is fully aware of the benefits.
"I think of us as being in a fortunate position here," he frowns, snuggling into the sofa. "But I wish more band were in this position; everyone would benefit, certainly the public and the bands, and at the end of the day record companies would do no worse."
Suggest that music is a cry for help and Hollis will holler "Cor, no !" in a thoroughly shocked manner, like an Eastenders extra. For all the extremes tested by Talk Talk's sound, this is no emotional outlet for an angst-ridden talent quivering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
"I don't know whether that's necessarily true anyway. You don't need to be a manic depressive to write your best stuff. I'm sure that's just a myth."
"Yeah, that's right! Hahaha! Very good!"^ go back to top
Melody Maker: October 26th 1991
For every minute of music you hear on Talk Talk's new album, 'Laughing Stock', there's an hour of music abandoned. Cliff Jones talks to Mark Hollis and engineer Phill Brown about how it was pieced together.
Talk Talk, like a wayward but brilliant child, are out to test the patience of their public once again. Their fifth studio album, "Laughing Stock", sees Mark Hollis and his band of sniggering cohorts pushing things as far as they dare before the teacher's ruler descends on their collective necks and brings them back into line.
With the delicate free-form beauty of 1988's "Spirit of Eden", Talk Talk isolated many of the fans they picked up on release of the million-selling "Colour of Spring". "Spirit…" was considered by many to be too cryptic, too awkward for mass consumption.
Disappearing into the studio in November last year having left EMI and signed to Polydor's Verve label, they returned seven months later with a record that picked up where the former left off. It refined the sound collage technique almost to the point of abstraction, a series of fragile ambient soundscapes.
The criticism now levelled at Talk Talk is that "Laughing Stock" is little more than a side step, an attempt at avoiding the issue of where to go next, and as such certainly can't be seen as a progression. For Hollis, though, it represents the opposite, the development of the theme pioneered on "Spirit…" to its conclusion. As for alienating their public…
"Of course it's at the back of your mind all the time, the desire to be appreciated for what you're trying to do, but ultimately I want people to understand it and come to an opinion having at least considered it properly. To me this is our first real CD format record and I don't think it's asking too much to expect people to at least concentrate on what's there, actually listen with a totally open mind.
"The record is meant to be listened to in one sitting and you can't appreciate it totally unless you do that. I'm not in the position where I need to make the sort of album other people want any more, I can decide what to do and how those ideas get developed, but I hope in the end to be understood for the music I do decide to put out and meaning and sense the music has. It's almost useless asking me questions about it, the music speaks for itself.
"If you don't understand then I won't help by just talking about it. We're doing something that's outside the conventional form and as far as I'm concerned we only stand out because that form has become so narrow, so constricted. We break the unspoken rules, but then nobody really likes rules do they?"
For many this apparent abandonment of convention in favor of the free association techniques that characterise "Spirit..." and "Laughing Stock" seemed sudden. Hollis maintains that there has always been elements of their new approach there waiting to break the surface.
"I do understand why some people say these last two albums are a complete departure, but for me I can trace the idea right back to 'Colour of Spring' and beyond. The early Talk Talk material was very synth-based, but I hate the things. I only used them to help make multi-textural music when we couldn't afford real musicians. 'Colour…' was that initial progression. For these albums we just tried to achieve the atmosphere in a different way. The experimental side where we let things take on a form of their is there on tracks like 'Chameleons Day' on 'Colour of Spring'. On 'Spirit' we had no idea where we wanted to go with the record and it eventually just grew, had a life of its own. For 'Laughing Stock' we wanted to work from the very start using the techniques we used on 'Spirit', getting an organic feel."
Hollis comments on the powerful influence the atmosphere had on the creation of the album.
"The studio was oppressive to the point of unreality — an all day every day existence. I wanted to be totally immersed in the environment to the point where all normal everyday concerns were wiped out. For seven months it was the case that we only left the studio to sleep. Nothing else existed except the recording, the studio and the nucleus of me, Friese-Greene, Phill and Lee Harris. That sort of intensity helps the thing develop.
"What we did on this album is what we call rehearsed spontaneity. There are no demos, no plans at all. I go in and put down a basic outline of something using my Country Gent guitar and then we fly other stuff in to build up the dynamics, the space. That's the key — space — it helps to build and resolve the tensions. Silence is the most powerful instrument I have.
"All the stuff is unrehearsed and may not even have been done for that song. If a note from another track sounds right we transfer it. I'm after creating an image that goes into all the dimensions, not just the plain two dimensions of most music. That's why I treat my voice like an instrument. I don't want to create this perfect ambience and then have the vocal ride over the top without any thought."
The album itself is a strange collage of intense sounds, mellow tones, minimal percussion and unfathomable vocals all held, suspended perfectly, in Hollis' created landscape. Ambience proves one of the record's key aspects, as Hollis explains.
"It's all down in the end to the placing of sounds in an overall space, an ambience and the creation of that space is as crucial to the overall sound as what you actually put in it. A lot of what we do is accidental, built around mistakes. I'm looking for notes and sounds that are unique and the idea is how to build things, other little sounds around them. The whole idea is to build up tension and then be able to release it using the different sounds and the control of the space they sit in. In a way it's a very dynamic thing, a natural sense of the ability to create and break tension. It's amazing how little you actually need to achieve that sort of emotion. For example, on this records we recorded over 40 different musicians and kept only 20. Of those 20 we only kept sections or sometimes only individual notes because they weren't the right ones for the effect to work. For every minute that ends up on the album, there's probably an hour's worth of stuff that didn't make it."
Recorded at Wessex Studios in London, "Laughing Stock" saw Talk Talk once again united with engineer Phill Brown. Brown, a man of considerable pedigree having engineered under Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer, recalls the Talk Talk sessions as totally unlike anything he'd encountered before.
"I thought the sessions for 'Spirit' were intense until we got into the latest one. The whole thing was incredibly disorienting. We were working to create a vibe most of the time, and although that sounds very 1967 there were elements that were very psychedelic in the true sense of the word. On 'Spirit' we worked with oil projectors in the studio and a great deal of darkness. For the new one it was like that from the start. Oil bubbles breaking on the walls, candles, incense and definitely no daylight. You'd get to the studio and within an hour be totally unable to remember what time was or how long you'd been in there. Very subdued, very strange.
"We worked hard at creating an ambience and just about all of it is natural room, as we only used a little spring reverb on Mark's voice and an EMT plate reverb on the album to give a wetness here and there. All the rest was achieved using miking techniques and flat eq on the SSL desk. I find you lose a lot of signal if you start eq-ing, so I like to get the signal right using positioning and the right mic.
"On the drums, for example, we tried six different mics, valve and solid state, and ran off a test reel so we could compare all six. The drums were in mono on the record, and we eventually settled for a Neumann U47 and an STC placed 30 feet from the kit. The same was true of the guitars and just about all the instruments including Mark's voice, all distance miked at over six feet from the source. We also had mics there to help us get a sense of the room, a feel of the depth. When you listen you can hear the space and you're somewhere in the middle, these four musicians playing around you."
Having cut his teeth working with the band on the last album, the sound montage techniques were relatively better understood for the making of "Laughing Stock".
"To give you an idea of how it worked, on this album we had six basic tracks recorded onto the Studer 24-track. Drums in mono, guitar, bass and keys. The rest, and sometimes we were using up to three slave machines — that's over 60 tracks — were just noises and little snippets that helped create the whole. We'd fly stuff off other songs and edit stuff onto others. In some cases we'd take Tim's keyboard lines and edit them together into one, do the same with Mark's and then sequence the two into a track."
What of Hollis' legendary "difficult" side and the apocryphal tales of his studio behavior?
"Well, he's not difficult — it's just that he has a real solid vision as to what he wants. The story about how he got in a 25 piece choir on 'Spirit…', got them to sing this beautiful part and then came in the following day and erased it all is true. He says things can sometimes be 'too perfect'. He goes for an atmosphere and that is a delicate and personal thing. The key to this whole album is space, and I think we created a very special ambience on this one."
"Laughing Stock" and a series of CD EPs featuring all the tracks on the album plus alternative versions are out now on Verve Records.^ go back to top
Vox: November 1991
Mark Hollis takes minimalism to its limit with a one-note solo on Talk Talk's new album Laughing Stock. Still a solo, like life, is what you make it, and - hey man! - it's the space between the notes that really matters. Betty Page talks ambience with the reclusive muso who maintains that "the mistakes are the best things..."
Mark Hollis, the enigmatic founding father of Talk Talk, gives brother Ed (of Eddie And The Hot Rods fame) credit for his own musical education. Along with a love of Otis Redding and Ornette Coleman, Ed instilled in his little Bro' the spirit of punk - the enthusiasm, the anarchy, the belief that anyone can be a musician. All of these qualities make Hollis and Talk Talk tick.
Hollis is remote from the notion of Pop Stardom. He listens to no contemporary music, preferring instead the blues of Robert Johnson, classical composers of the early 1900s, plus Stockhausen and Ligeti. He's more concerned with the intense production process of a Talk Talk record than promoting it. "I don't have to do anything, but I don't want to be unreasonable," Hollis explains, quietly but precisely. "It comes down to what it is - it's called choice." He's has ensured that choice is a luxury he can afford: Talk Talk are in the fortunate position of not having to compromise. However, the band only reached this state of grace after an ignominious start in 1981: then signed to EMI, their first LP The Party's Over gave the wrong impression, the press dubbed them 'the new Duran Duran' and when 'Talk Talk' (their first single) was released in 1982, it achieved only a mediocre Number 52 chart placing. Hollis, with Lee Harris (drums), Paul Webb (bass) and Simon Brenner (keyboards), felt misunderstood.
A new album was released in the summer of '82, another single 'Today' made a respectable Top 20 showing, but the band were already looking to Europe and America. Although signs were good, Hollis didn't see things EMI's way. Talk Talk were not going to be a pop group.
In 1983, after false starts with several producers, Mark Hollis linked up with Tim Friese-Greene, a marriage made in heaven. Simon Brenner departed and Talk Talk became more of a collective. On its release in early '84 the album It's My Life achieved Top 40 success in the US, selling over a million copies worldwide.
"That was the album that put us in a position to become more insular," Hollis remembers, "because we made it in England with no contact from the record company. That LP didn't really do anything here, whereas in Europe it did really well. I'd got the freedom I wanted, and retained the anonymity."
Though EMI couldn't seem to understand Hollis and his band, at least the musicians were left alone to their own devices. After exhaustive touring, Hollis withdrew, writing and arranging with new soulmate Friese-Greene during 1985. The resulting LP, Colour Of Spring, was less melancholy than its predecessors, and the celebratory 'Life's What You Make It' duly found its way into the Top 20 during 1986.
The great leap of faith came with the last Talk Talk LP for EMI, Spirit of Eden, which used improvisation as its ethos, and was closer in spirit to freeform jazz or modern classical music than anything remotely rock or pop. Laughing Stock continues where Spirit of Eden left off, using musicians purely for their attitude rather than their ability as players.
"They're all talented people, but if I didn't like the person, it wouldn't matter what he played he wouldn't get on the record," Hollis continues. "It's about letting people play for themselves - you give them the freedom to play anything, then take from what they've given of themselves, and assemble that. On these albums everyone is important because they are undirected in what they play. You could never make this LP without any of them. It is of them.
"It's quite often the mistakes that are the best things, and that' s why so much of the LP would be so hard to recreate. The best mistake was a bit where Friese-Greene walked in the studio and tripped over a guitar. It sounded like a class bit of playing. Dissonance is important - where your ear bends. The most important thing you can work with is silence... I've always believed that one note is better than two, two notes are better than three, so it's never hard to choose because you're looking for very small fragments."
"That one note guitar solo on the third track - we wanted to get to that stage with this album and it was one of the most important achievements for us." For Talk Talk, the precarious balance between artistic freedom and commercial necessity is being maintained. Polydor are happy to let them get on with it. Hollis is none too pleased though, with EMI's recent treatment of the band's back catalogue. Last year EMI released Natural History, a 'best of' compilation, but then came the insult: History Revisited, an album of remixes so far removed from the originals that the band are taking legal action against EMI. The record company also re-released TT's singles 'Life's What You Make It' and 'It's My Life'. In bizarre fashion, the songs were bigger hits second time round.
"It was quite strange to have stuff out that was that much out of date... and then the BRITS thing. I found that insulting. You get a nomination for Best Band and it's for stuff that's seven years out of date."
Hollis looks uncomfortable. He's being filmed because he hates photographs. Trying to ignore the intrusion, he makes one more statement: "At the end of the day the record is what I have to say. If you understand it, you do, if you don't, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can't add anything. Can I go home now, then...?"^ go back to top
Best: November 1991
Sans doute pour mériter son statut de tete pensante de Talk Talk, Mark Hollis a réussi l’incroyable tour de force de changer le group-roi des night clubs en un rigoureux maniganceur de musique expérimentale. Il a expliqué à Hervé Picart cette reconversion unique.
L’itinéraire de Talk Talk reste absolument unique dans les annales du rock. D’ordinaire, les groupes commencent par se faire remarquer par une musique bien alambiquée qui certifie leur originalité. Ils tiraillent un temps dans la marginalité et l’expérimentation underground et quand cette différence bien soulignée finit par leur attirer le succès, ils se rapprochent alors de plus en plus des goûts du grand public et du milieu de la route, édulcorent leur chère originalité, abdiquent toute audace et rentrent gentiment dans le rang, mais c’est du premier rang qu’il s’agit souvent, Talk Talk, lui, a tout fait à l’envers. Il a commencé par être un groupe new wave gentillet, d’abord à peine démarqué d’Ultravox du temps de son premier album, en 1982. Puis les succès énormes d ‘Such a Shame ‘ et ‘It’s My Life’ en 84, amplifiés par celui de ‘Life’s What You Make It’ en 86 firent de lui élément indispensable de la programmation de discos et des boums. Et nos trois compères de se retrouver en haut des charts comme trois poissons sidérés au comment d’un bouleau. Il faut dire que quelque chose ne cadrait pas trop entre tous ces hit dorés, ce faste Top 50, et la personnalité fantasque, lunatique, insaisissable de Mark Hollis. Et voilà qu’en 88, tout change brusquement avec ‘Spirit of Eden’, suite de morceaux, atmosphériques hautement compassés, brumeux, sophistiqués et moroses, le genre de disque invendable (il ne se vendit effectivement pas beaucoup !) qui n’avait aucune chance de passer un jour en radio. Talk Talk venait de parcourir ainsi à rebours la carrière usuelle du rock : il avait débuté dans la facilité et les romances mercantiles pur aboutir à une musique originale, drue, exigeante, carrément progressiste et tout à fait hors de portée du grand public. On s’était dit alors que, déçu par ce bide, Hollis allait se repentir de ce détour, certes méritoire mais bien aride, ver les cimes escarpés de la progressive planante, qu’il allait s’imposer un juste retour de trajectoire, ne serait-ce que pour se refaire une santé financière. Eh bien, pas du tout. Avec ‘Laughing stock’, le tout nouvel album, il persiste et signe, EMI n’ayant pas vraiment souhaité l ‘accompagner plus longtemps dans cette voie, il est passé chez Polydor pour pouvoir plus à son aise distiller ses ambiances flottantes et ses romances bizarres. Loin d’avoir été une erreur de parcours ‘Sprit of Eden’ était donc bien à considérer comme une totale et définitive reconversion, Talk Talk passant ``a jamais des facilités pour pistes de danse ``a la vocation quasi monacale de la musique profonde. Pareil itinéraire méritait quand même quelques explications, que Mark Hollis s’est forcé à nous donner, lui que l‘exercice de l’interview rebute pourtant franchement.
L’homme ne se cache plus derrière ses fameuses lunettes, façon Lennon, et semble avoir acquis plus d’assurance que par le passé. Il possède toujours la même voix hésitante, engoncée, un peu bégayante, mais celle-ci contraste désormais nettement avec le tranchant d’idées bien claires et une inédite certitude de soi. Auparavant, s’il était si peu à l’aise, c’était sans doute qu’il s’était vu contraint de jouer un rôle qui n’était pas fait pour lui. Cet adepte raffiné de Satie et Debussy faisait un piètre figure pour les paparazzi de Top 50. Cette Fois, il se sent enfin à sa juste place, avec à nous proposer une musique qui lui ressemble totalement. Certes, il a bien une façon curieuse de s’asseoir dans son fauteuil, avec les genoux qui touchent terre et les fesses en équilibre périlleux sur le rebord du coussin, mais c’est là la dernière trace de bizarreté visible chez ce garçon qui il ya a quelques temps, la bière aidant, n’était pas à une excentricité près. Il explique donc avec détermination qu’en fait son groupe n’a pas vraiment subi une métamorphose :
« Pour moi, il n’y a pas eu de rupture entre ‘Colour of Spring’ et ‘Spirit of Eden’ dont ‘Laughing Stock’ est le prolongement, En fait, Talk Talk aurait pu faire dès le départ ce genre de chosées s’il avait eu le temps et les moyens pour les réaliser. Mais il se trouve que jusqu’à ‘Spirit of Eden’ nous avion toujours travaillé avec une date butoir qui empêchait tout dépassement, avec un budget resserré qui nous interdisait de revenir en arrière sur ce qui ne nous plaisait pas trop ou d’expérimenter les idées qui nous venaient à l’improviste. Si bien que les trois premiers disques contiennent juste une ébauche, les résultat le plus propre que nous pouvions rendre pour la date imposée. Cela impliquait pas mal de solutions de facilité, et ne donnait évidemment du groupe qu’une image très restreinte. A partir de ‘Spirit of Eden’ nous avons pu travailler sans limites ni contraintes, et toutes ce idées qui restaient jusque-là inexploités ont pu voir le jour, et comme elles nous intéressaient plus que le reste, il n’est finalement resté qu’elles. On peut en fait dire que Talk Talk n’a été vraiment lui-même qu’à partir de ‘Spirit of Eden’ ».
Il n’en reste pas moins que l’on est passé d’un group distillant des chansons très ordinairement faites, quoique brillantes, à un Talk Talk qui sur ‘Laughing Stock’ semble délibérément refuser de faire quelque chose qui pourrait ressembler de loin à une chanson.
« Il est exact qu’avec ‘Spirit of Eden’ nous avons commencé, à nous détacher de la forme traditionnelle de la chanson, et que ce processus s’est amplifié sur cet album, tout complément parce que la chanson nous est apparu de plus en plus comme une forme contraignante et appauvrissante. Imagine : tu éprouves un émotion, avec une ligne musicale toute naturelle et spontanée qui l’exprime parfaitement. Pourquoi alors s’obliger à la mettre en forme pur faire une chanson ? Elle était très bien comme cela, la chanson ne peut que la dénaturer. En fait, nous nous sommes mis à travailler, d’une façon plus proche des jazzmen, avec cette façon parfois très informelle qu’ils ont de rechercher le point de communication musical parfait entre différents musiciens. He trouve que très curieusement la façon de fonctionner du rock est trop rigide. Il faut s’en tenir au groupe constitué, à des chanson, à des durées, à des instruments précis. Que d’obligations pour une musique que se voulait si libre ! Moi, je recherche quelque chose qui soit aussi souple que les ides. C’est pourquoi Talk Talk reste un group à effectif variable, sans sonorité déterminée. Sur cet album chacun des morceaux a même une sonorité totalement différente des autres, à croire que ce n’est pas le même groupe qui joue. Mais en fait ce sont `å chaque fois des émotions si différentes que je veux exprimer qu’il serait absurde de passer par le même, configuration instrumentale. »
On peut néanmoins supposer que ce changement de cap a dû provoquer réticences, grimaces et mines défaites autant chez les fans du premier Talk Talk que chez les commerciaux chargés soudain de vendre...ça.
« Il ya a eu effectivement des réactions de rejet, reconnaît Hollis et notre changement de label en est certainement un résultat. Le fait est qu’avant il y avait dans les compagnies des gens qui s’occupaient de la musique et d’autres du business, et qu’il n’y a plus maintenant que des gens de business. Ils ne pouvaient pas, ou ne voulaient pas, comprendre notre démarche. EMI aurait sans doute voulu que nous refissions du Talk Talk comme avant. Qu’importe ? A présent ils n’ont plus ni l’un l’autre. Je crois que beaucoup de gens se sont dit à tort que ce que nous faisons à présent n’était pas accessible, et donc pas vendable. Mais je crois qu’au contraire qu’il n’y a pas plus facile d’accès que la musique que nous faisons maintenant, car il suffit de se laisser aller, de se laisser porter par les courants d’émotion, sans avoir aucun préjugé, ni aucune connaissance spéciale à l’avance. »
Mais ne revient-on pas dans ce cas-là au problème des concerts, car ce genre de musique ne peut se laisser déguster dans le brouhaha d’une halle ordinaire ? Problème que connut aussi la musique planante allemande et qui fut pour elle une sérieuse pierre d’achoppement.
« Le live ne m’intéresse pas, et je ne risque donc pas de me poser la question, coupe net Hollis. Le concert est souvent une dégradation de la musique, on l’appauvrit pour l’adapter à la scène, aux limites de musiciens, de matériel, de budget. Je conçois à présent mon travail comme celui d’un écrivain : une fois que le disque est fini, je n’ai aucune raison d’aller le refaire cent fois et en plus mal. L’œuvre est close. Je n’ai donc plus qu’à passer à autre chose, là encore, je ne veux pas me laisser enfermer dans la routine disque tournée. Ce n’est pas parce que l’on a toujours fait ainsi que je dois continuer à le faire moi aussi. »
On le voit, Mark Hollis a bel et bien décidé de mener loin des sentiers battus sa musique de plein champ. Il est vrai qu’une création si originale ne pourrait se contenter sans se renier des conditions ordinaires de la musique. Attitude évidemment très belle par son exigence et sa pureté. Espérons que suffisamment d’entre vous auront le courage de le suivre. C’est là une voie trop splendide pour qu’elle se perde dans le désert.^ go back to top
International Musician: November 1991
Talk Talk revive the spirit of free form and the sound of silence. Interview by Cliff Jones
Mark Hollis crouches on a battered leather easy-chair, his slight frame pulled tight, arms bound close around his knees. From beneath an unruly head of hair, nervous eyes peer out, simultaneously expressing affection and reproach. Almost at a loss to explain the intensity of his own music, he talks around things, never daring to get too close to anything concrete.
Hollis has just emerged from seven solid months in the studio, a new album, Laughing Stock, and a new deal with Polydor’s Verve label in hand. The fact that talk Talk’s fifth studio album is even more cryptic than its predecessor Sprit of Eden is no real surprise to those familiar with Talk Talk’s unease with today industry-based approach to making music. Throughout the recording, rumours and half truths filtered through with amusing regularity. Depending on who you believed Hollis was either mad or so utterly broken that the album was like nothing else ever head. In reality Laughing Stock sees Hollis and his co-conspirators delving further into free form experimentation, a perfect refinement of the improvisational feel the band captured to such stunning effect on 1988’s Spirit of Eden. For Mark Hollis at least one thing is simple; this album represents the pursuance of one idea to its conclusion. Whether Talk Talk ever record again is immaterial, at least for now, the cycle is complete.
“When we made our first album all we wanted ot do was make four-minute pop songs. As you go on and mature you being to look at different ways of doing things, different ways of making music and exploring your own reasons and motives. It all changes and you just change with it. The whole free-form thing grew out of stuff that we did on Colour of Spring – tracks like Chameleon Day where there was a definite element of simply feeling the direction it was meant to be going in, and accepting what came out. After Colour of Spring with all its accessibility, we didn’t have any idea about what to do next, or how the new record would take shape, It was a real bank canvas. Sprit of Eden sort of grew, had a life of its own, and the final record is a testament to the looseness of the form.”
“When it came to Laughing Stock we wanted to get into that way of working from the very start. There were no demos, no plans, no set formula, we just generated this atmosphere and let the thing take on its own shape. Saying that, though, you can go back to our early stuff and see a link. People often say that there’s this huge gap between It’s My Life and Colour of Spring, but we had a lot more money to make that album so we used real musicians. I hate synths, they’re horrible things, but if you want to make multi-textural music they’re a cheap way of doing it. When you get the opportunity to move on your take it, and with Laughing Stock we took it further again.”
A record without any tangible reference points, hooklines or choruses, nor even any memorable tunes, may not be the stuff of commercial success, but then that was never the idea. If Spirit of Eden could be seen as a free-form experiment, Laughing Stock is one step removed again, representing music in its purest form; a collage of intense sounds woven together with sot organs, minimal percussion and a lot of Mark’s favourite sound – silence.
“So much of what we do is built round mistakes – either that or you decide on one or two notes you want and the rest is down to positioning of those sounds in the thing as a whole. That’s the most important thing as far as I’m concerned – the space and the placing of sound within that space. It’s amazing to think how little you actually need to make your point. It’s not really what you put in as much as what you leave out, and it’s a very delicate balance. The whole ambience on a record like Spirit of Laughing Stock is down to refining that idea of use of space and purity of sounds, Sounds as individually powerful things almost to the point of abstraction.”
“There’s no conventional sense of continuity like you might expect, say, on an early Talk Talk record, because it’s these moments – the one-off’s that you’d normally ignore or have to ignore – that take on the main form or body of the piece. For example, for every minute that turns up on this album there’s probably a hour’s worth of stuff that never made it, not because it wasn’t good, simply that it didn’t fit. Finding these sounds that git is difficult and time-consuming. For example, we’d record 40 people during the sessions and keep maybe 20. Even of those 20 we might only keep little sections or individual notes. Twenty seconds from a 20-hour reel.”
Hollis smiles as he reflects on the apparent churlishness of this approach, but for Talk Talk it seems this sort of freedom is an essential part of what they now are. Never has a free-form album been ‘created’ in such a painstaking way, and therein lies the paradox, how can anything that’s taken so much time and painstaking effort be considered free-form? “Well, for us it’s all geared up to this method of doing things, this sort of rehearsed free-form, rehearsed spontaneity, and I suppose we deliberately consider the way the sound and the silence are worked together. But I do want to use sounds to build tension, and then be able to resolve it to emotional effect.”
“We took free form playing and then only took the pieces we needed. I suppose you could say we edited things with a free idea of how things should go together based on the ambience we created. The effect and the emotion of the music, the tones, the harmonics, the dynamics of sound, all come form the tension and release thing. It’s all about these natural dynamics, and in our methods we can use all the power of the studio to pinpoint and amplify these effects. I use vocals like an instrument, because I don’t ever want to have this really effective sound with the vocal riding over it all without thought, The voice is the most subtle instrument I have. I want it to sit in the track, not outside it. It has to be part of the whole, the building up and the dying away into space. In that way silence is the most important element I can work with.”
The recording of Spirit of Eden was done intermittently, with a three-month break between sessions allowing those concerned some respite. With Laughing Stock the sessions were continuous, driving Hollis, Friese-Green and co into a darker environment.
“It was oppressive to the point of unreality – an all-day, every-day existence. But I want to be totally immersed in the environment, to the point where the normal concerned we have with living are wiped out, and all the remains is the room and these four people. For seven months we only left he studio to sleep. Nothing existed outside of that, nothing at all.”
“It’s incredibly arduous the way we work. It really is a deep thing. On this album, because of the way we recorded Spirit of Den, everyone knew what it would be like and that a total and absolute commitment to the task at hand was necessary. It was ‘all or nothing’ as far a we were concerned. The hard core of Time Friese-Greene, myself, Lee Harris and Phil Brown (the engineer) were all aware of this commitment and essentially it was this body that created the album. There were people who came down to play who just didn’t have the right feel, or who we didn’t like as people. They were got rid of pretty quickly. I don‘t care how good they are, if the attitude’s wrong they don’t get one. When you work in this way, you work to please yourself, but at the very back of your mind you feel this desire to have other understand the attitude and the sense behind what you’re creating.”
Just as Hollis maintains that he has matured in his approach the writing, so the music that influences him as progressed. A long time fan of Can and the German progressive sound of bands like Neu, he now draws influence from a more complex source.
“I don’t really keep up with things. I’m listening to a load of stuff Friese-Green lent me, basically composers from the Second World War onwards. Stuff that’s free in its composition and performance – Messiaen, Stockhausen, Legate, Cage – just because they seem to have this understated approach where the music is everything. As for as my guitar-playing goes, I only really listen to John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, the late 40s and early 50s sound. There’s not tangible beat to that stuff, and you can’t predict when they’re going to change chords or go off into something else. I like that.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what to say when I get asked all these questions, because for me the music says it all. I’m not the important thing. You have to concentrate to understand it, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask, really, Asking me questions isn’t going to get things any clearer, because there really is no grand scheme behind any of this. I suppose, I you want to see where it all comes from, it’s a rebelling again conventions that constrict the form. We got against what’s established and open things out a little. It’s only because we form is so narrow at the moment the we stand out. We’re breaking the unspoken rules about what’s expected – but then nobody likes rules, do they?”
Laughing Stock was recorded at Wessex Studios in London during one continuous session. Studio One features a live room measure 15m x 10m x 5m, isolation booths, and a 6m x5m control room housing a 48 channel SSL 4000 desk with total recall. Famed for its ambience and mixture of old technology with new, the studio proved ideal for the making of such an album. Along with several generations of mics (valve and solid state) there is an original set of EMT plate reverbs and an old valve spring system, which was used to give Mark’s vocals a slight depth.
Engineer Phil Brown has now worked on two Talk Talk albums, the first being Spirit of Eden. According to Hollis, he is responsible for creating much of the ambience on the records. He began his career working with the likes of Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer, with a strong of credits including The Bones’ Beggars Banquet and Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower. Many of the techniques used on Laughing Stock were the result of pioneering experiments during the late 60s.
“We went into making these albums in a very sort of ’67 way, but with all the advances in technology since to help us create something unique. IN a way, the way in which Mark and Tim choose to work was very reminiscent of the whole ‘60s ‘vibey’ thing – psychedelic, in the true sense of the word. We got into the whole intense atmosphere approach on Spirit, using oil projectors, strobes and candles in the studio to give this very dark, floating environment. On Laughing Stock it was like this from day one. We immersed ourselves in darkness and it was extremely subdued and moody. It was usually 11am to midnight, and that went on for seven solid months. You would walk in from bright sunlight, and within an hour you were so disorientated that you didn’t know what time it was, what day it was, or how long you’d been in there. You coud only think about the music.”
“Mark knew the sort of feel he was after, and although there were no demos there was an overall seed of an idea in his head. The atmosphere we created brought it out and let those ideas develop. Usually it was myself, Tim and Mark at the controls. Everyone else was sort of barred from the studio. Mark was always aware of how strangers could disturb the atmosphere, and it was a very delicate and fragile thing sometimes.”
Much of the atmosphere of both Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock is the result of unconventional miking and positioning techniques. As Phil explains, these were experimented with until exactly the correct sounds and feel was achieved.
“Because Wessex is a large studio you can use mics very effectively, moving the kit about from wall to wall, corner to corner, listening for that perfect sounds. When we’d settled on a good live sound we went about miking, experimenting by stringing up about 6 in a line about 30 feet from the kit – a U47, a U48, an STC, a valve 67, a Sony and an AKG 202. We had Lee playing for 15 minutes and laid down this test in mono, all on six separate tracks. We the compared the sounds flat at the desk, and eventually settled for the U47 and the STC. These were the only two mics on the album for the drums, and we never used them together, only separately.
“All the drum tracks are in mono. These mics were set up exactly 33 feet from the kit, giving it this great live feel. Because of the 33 m/s delay from the drum mic, we had to make sure there was no delay into the monitor mix. I had a couple of U47s six feet off the kit for that, and a D112 on the bass drum for a bit of sub-bass. I’ve used distance-miking before, but never to this extreme. Bent then Laughing Stock was extreme all round!”
“Everything was distance miked, between six and ten feet from source and for a majority of the time we had the EQ on the SSL flat. They’re great desks but it feels like you loose 40% of the signal as soon as you start EQing so we kept it flat and made all adjustments using the mic positioning. On the guitars, Mark used his Country Gent, a ’61 through a Vox AC30, a Fender Tremolux, this little 5-watt Fender Champ and a Boogie bass. We used a AKG C12A, the same as those used on the Stones albums at Olympic. The same with the vocals. The way Mark records we needed a mic that could cope with the peaks and quiet parts. In the end we had just one U89 and a little spring reverb for a touch of wetness. You don’t need to EQ if the signal is good to begin with. That’s the real art.”
“We also room-miked with Sony C48s or Neumann U89s there for ambience to capture the reflections of the sound within a space. You can almost imagine you’re in the room with these guys placed in it. Mark Felton came in to do some harmonica and we had him amplified and vamping through one mic, but the actual one picking up his sound on tape was 15 feet away down the room. It gave a real sense of definite position to the sound.”
The way both Sprit of Eden and Laughing stock were recorded owes much to the sound-montage techniques pioneered by some of the progressive jazz players of the late 60s and 70s, although one central difference operates in the Talk Talk scheme of things, They chose to build their sound up from pieces of other songs and sections recorded for entirely different tracks.
“Originally” continues Phil “we recorded the drums and keyboards onto a 24 tack Studer reel with Dolby SR and then made a copy which we could work with. Some of the guitar parts that happened were so great we just flew them off the safety onto the master. In that respect we did a lot of the moving about of little snippets, which saved editing and enabled us to end up with something that sounded more natural. For example, Tim played eight piano tracks, we would edit his best bits together to make one good take. Mark would also do a similar eight of ten takes of piano and we’d do an edit. On the final versions we edited Tim’s and Mark’s takes together. I challenge anyone to find the join.
Ultimately Laughing Stock stands as a very unique personal testament to the ideas of Mark Hollis, for it is through his musical direction that the eventual arrangements are fashioned. In the case of Talk Talk this has led to many apocryphal tales. According to Phil such apparent abandon is ultimately justified. “On Spirit we had a 25 piece choir who came in and sang this wonderful part, but Mark thought it had the wrong vibe so he came in and erased it all the next day. He ended up with a four piece boys’ choir, but it does sound very special. This is how he works, he’s very straight down the line about what he’s after. He has this saying that sometimes things can sound ‘too god and there’d be times after we’d done some amazing take when he would say ‘yeah, it’s great, but it’s too good to use, it doesn’t have the right atmosphere’.”
“Atmosphere is the key to this album: the creation of space, its control and use. To give you and idea of how important the ambience was, we had on average two tracks for the bass, two for the guitar, a stereo piano and a mono drum track. The remaining fifty or so tracks were full of little sounds we’d flown-in or recorded to enhance the basic them. It was complex and exhausting but ultimately rewarding.
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Hot Press: 14 November 1991
Ever since Talk Talk turned their back on fame and fortune they’ve been drifting ever further into their dark, ethereal musical underworld. As they continue to fight their pop past Paul Byrne asks Mark Hollis whether they shouldn’t just change their name to Whisper Whisper?
Ask most cult bands would they like to be a successful pop band, and behind closed doors they’ll swiftly pant ‘Where do we sign?”. Ask any established pop band would they like to become a cult band and they’ll have you swiftly thrown out of the hotel suite, ordering another bottle of champers while they’re at it. Not so Talk Talk.
Here’s a band who had it all. After an ignominious start as ‘the new Duran Duran’s misinterpretation aided and abetted by a misdirected and consequently misunderstood debut album, ‘The Party’s Over’ it was to take Talk Talk three more albums and three more years to shake that tag off. But shake it off they did.
‘Colour of Spring’ released in ’85 (sic) was the majestic, towering album that talk Talk’s growing legion of fans had always known the band could make. And everyone reckoned it was the album that Talk Talk had always wanted to make. Not so…
“After the success of ‘Colour of Spring’ we found ourselves in the position we’d always dreamed of” explains Mark Hollis, the main force behind Talk Talk. “suddenly we had a situation where money for the studio was no object: we could take as long as we liked. Then we were able to make that album we always wanted to make.
When Mark and his cohorts eventually emerged from the dark recesses of the studio and delivered to Talk Talk album that they’d always wanted to make to the band’s record label, more than one EMI executive jaw hit lush EMI executive suite carpet. Gone were all the traces of such niggly standard-issue pop parts like beginnings and endings, choruses and hooks, danceable beats and clear-cut lyrics. In their places ‘Spirit of Eden’ offered spontaneous improvisation, yearning wails of pain and desire, pregnant pauses, psychedelic meanderings, mournful strings, discordant guitar feedback and all sorts of other lost-in-my-muse soul searching noises that tend to make record company executives twitch their fingers inside their shirt collars and shift in their leather swivel chairs a lot.
“With ‘Spirit of Eden’ it was just that we had the freedom to move into this constructive freeform style of playing which up till then we just couldn’t afford to do” continues Mark. “Sure it was different than what EMI had been expecting, a lot different, but it was what we’d always wanted to do.
Didn’t any of them try to strangle you?
“No, though I’m sure they would have liked to [laughs]! Basically you’ve got two types of people in record companies. You’ve got the ones who actually like music and like to see things happening a little differently, and then you’ve got the other who see anything different as being difficult. You just hope you can find a label with the proper balance.”
Which Mark duly did. As ‘Spirit of Eden’ was the last album under their contracts for EMI, Talk Talk quickly signed with the smaller home-of-the-weird label, Verve, an operation Mark feels was tailor-made for his particular brand of uneasy listening.
“We’re very fortunate with Verve in that they have a good understanding of why I work and about the way in which I work. The bloke who was responsible for signing us I‘ve known now for about nine years, so there was no question about what sort of music we’d be doing.”
The band’s new album ‘Laughing Stock’ takes up where ‘Spirit of Eden’ left off. Against using improvisation as its ethos, the album once more finds Talk Talk sailing blissfully off into the unknown, each musician using their own initiative, steering the music through freeform jazz and contemporary classical music., Hollis occasionally adding a few lines of comfort and despair in his fragile and tender voice.
Often sounding like there’s no one driving, Mark’s recipe for recording involves bringing the barest bones of a song into the studio, letting the musicians bend it, stretch it, squash it, cook it and generally rip it to shreds, before setting about trying to sort out the sparks from the farts. Or as Mar puts it, search for the ‘right mistakes’.
“The mistakes are often the best parts” he laughs, ‘they can take a song in a totally new direction. As the first few overdubs are brought in much of the original idea can disappear. It’s a very haphazard, evolving process. It’s pretty much impossible to have any real idea of what your end product is going to be like. You just go with whatever feels right – everything just finds its place as you go along.”
Because of the sheer unpredictable nature of the best, Mark realises that his chosen method of putting an album together can be enormously expensive. He also realises that as Talk Talk become more and more embroiled in their lush musical underbelly, in the process becoming increasingly alienating for the average pop fan, his record sales, and subsequently his budget, will inevitably get less and less. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You just work within what is available to you” he states. “This is the music I want to make. I really wouldn’t know how to work in such a way that you had to consider what other people might or might not want to hear. I can’t understand how someone can work that way.”
Although Mark is extremely happy with the current state of play, his previous label’s persistence in milking the band’s back catalogue has driven the mild-mannered troubadour to the only, angry words throughout the entire interview. ‘Natural History’, a straightforward ‘Best Of” brought out by EMI last year, was hard enough for Mark to stomach, but when the label this year released ‘History Revisited’ a remixed ‘Best Of’ well…
“Fuck that! I really flipped’ Mark spits. “I don’t consider that to be our record. That’s somebody else’s work, not ours. Apart from the first thing of people coming in and bastardising your work, I think to then actually sell that as our work – it’s not only immoral against us, but I think it’s conning members of the public too.”
Ironically, of course, the ‘Natural History’ album became a million-seller, with two re-released Talk Talk singles “Life’s What You Make It’ and ‘It’s My Life’ becoming the band’s biggest hits. It was the sort of success that saw Talk Talk having insult added to injury by being nominated at the BRIT Awards for Best Band of 1990.
“It was all very unnerving” muses Mark. “All this material coming around again from year back – it just didn’t represent Talk Talk anyone. It was like having this image of yourself being heated up and being sold as the new you or something. We weren’t a part of it, and the whole affair disgusted me. And then to have his bastard remix album…”
But as the shit hit the fans, Mark made sure the write hit EMI. Meanwhile Mark Hollis is happy to take Talk Talk ever further into the depths of his soul. AS for the mocking accusations of pretentiousness, Hollis isn’t particularly bothered.
“I don’t really expect anyone to have to like what we do” he finishes. “I appreciate that there will be people who will have this album just as much as those that will like it. But you know, I’m getting older all the time [laughs] and the right trousers just don’t fit me like they used to.”^ go back to top
Record Collector: December 1991
James Neiss looks at the career of one of the most interesting acts to have emerged during the past ten years,.
Since 1982, Talk Talk have established themselves as one of the select few bands of the past decade who have succeeded in selling records on their own artistic terms. Indeed, since their "Natural History" collection caught the industry unawares by quietly selling more than one million copies worldwide in 1990, their new album "Laughing Stock" became one of the most keenly anticipated British releases in years.
Yet even as little as two years ago this situation seemed as unlikely as it did enviable. Having evolved from synth-pop lightweights into brooding progressives over just four albums, Talk Talk seemed a spent commercial force to many onlookers after 1988's demanding "Spirit of Eden". However, despite enduring press suspicion and serious record company conflict, the group have emerged - integrity intact - as one of the last decade's most wayward, wilful and fascinating bands.
At the core of Talk Talk is singer/writer called Mark Hollis. Born in Tottenham in 1955, Hollis quit Sussex University and a degree course in child psychology in 1977 deciding instead to return to London and concentrate on songwriting. His urge to pursue a vocation in music was no doubt partly inspired by his older brother Ed's role as manager-cum-producer behind perennial pre-punk favourites Eddie and the Hot Rods, and indeed Mark even roadied for that group before forming his own band, the Reaction. With Ed's assistance, the Reaction secured a deal for a lone 45 with Island, who released "I Can't Resist" in June 1978. The single has since proved popular with mod revival collectors.
Of even more interest is the track the group contributed to the "Streets" compilation on Beggar's Banquet the following year. This song, co-written by Mark with his brother, was none other than a prototype "Talk Talk", albeit in a very different arrangement to the track which would evolve into one of Talk Talk's finest moments.
Following the disintegration of the Reaction in 1979, Hollis took time out to concentrate on writing more sophisticated material. Finally, in 1981 Island Music were impressed enough to book him some demo time, and to help out on the sessions Ed Hollis recruited drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb. Rehearsals with Hollis's new material went well, and after Simon Brenner was introduced on keyboards the four-piece band duly became Talk Talk. A formal publishing deal with Island subsequently allowed the group to refine their sound through extensive demo sessions, some of them overseen by veteran Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller.
Keith Apsden left Island Music to manage the group, and after witnessing their live debut in London in October, BBC DJ David Jensen offered the band a session slot on his Radio One show. A version of "Talk Talk" from this session later emerged on a limited edition of the same song's commercial 12" release. Impressed by the Island demos and further live shows, EMI signed the group a month later, although unfortunately the company - still flushed by the runaway success of Duran Duran - were intent on moulding Talk Talk in the same image.
While they never completely embraced the fading New Romantic trend, Talk Talk's name drew unenviable Duran parallels, which were cemented by the hiring of Colin Thurston to produce the first album, as he had done with Simon Le Bon's band. Perhaps surprisingly, EMI's doppelganger strategy failed to break Talk Talk - although it took a pair of stalled singles for the truth to dawn. After "Mirror Man" had flopped, "Talk Talk" itself only managed a modest chart placing of 52 on the back of a national tour supporting - no prizes! - Duran Duran. Both critically and commercially it was hardly an auspicious start, although the two singles retain a measure of interest since they both feature non-album tracks on the flipsides.
The band's first album, "The Party's Over", appeared in July 1982, and reached 21 after a powerful third single, "Today", finally provided Talk Talk with a persuasive No. 14 hit. The LP went on to sell over a quarter of a million copies, although an extensive American tour supporting Elvis Costello produced only modest results. Unhappy with Thurston's production, the band themselves had taken control of the sessions halfway through, but despite this bold move the album contained little that suggested Talk Talk were a force to be reckoned with. Bathed in solid slabs of synth and thudding Linn drums, much of it now sounds naive and dated. While "Talk Talk" and "Today" are still fresh, several other strong songs were ill-served by their arrangements. Tellingly, this would be the first and last Talk Talk album on which writing credits were shared by the entire band. The group's new found success prompted EMI to issue a remixed single of "Talk Talk", the song this time climbing to No. 23 in October. "Another World" (backed with "Candy") also appeared as a single in Germany, an odd choice (even given its obvious disco appeal, and the term isn't used flatteringly) as this Paul Webb composition was easily the weakest track on the album. In any case, only completists need seek copies out, since neither side differs from the album versions.
Meanwhile the first of several profound upheavals within the group was taking place. Eager for Talk Talk to become a looser, more flexible creative unit, and anxious to shake off EMI's marketing straitjacket, Hollis elected to abandon synthesisers as the musical foundation of the band. Exit the hapless Simon Brenner, and as his role was now obsolete, the reshuffle reduced the band to a nucleus of just three - another odd move, on paper at least, since it left Talk Talk consisting of a singer, bassist and drummer.
Several new songs were recorded with Rhett Davis soon afterwards, yet although the non-LP single "My Foolish Friend" made No. 57 in March 1983, and clearly showed that the band were maturing, nothing further was heard for almost a year. Instead, Hollis spent 1983 writing new material and assembling a floating pool of musicians to record the second album, a process completed by the recruitment of producer Tim Friese-Greene, whose arrival proved to be a watershed in the band's career. Friese-Greene (an engineer-turned-producer who had already guided Blue Zoo into the charts) was not just an accomplished keyboard player but also a compatible personality - which was useful, as the internal chemistry of the band was already proving to be more important to Hollis than mere technical prowess. So strong was the rapport between artist and producer, in fact, that the pair swiftly co-wrote two tracks which completed - and indeed made - the LP: "It's My Life" and "Dum Dum Girl". Although this writing partnership has been responsible for every Talk Talk track released since 1984, Friese-Greene chooses to remain officially outside the group, Hollis instead describing him as an "Al Kooper-type figure".
"It's My Life" appeared as a single in January 1984, peaking at a disappointing 46 despite being one of the finest songs in Talk Talk's repertoire - a fact underlined six years later when EMI chose it as the first trailer for "Natural History". The album, released a month later and also called "It's My Life", was a vast improvement on their debut, with the two Hollis/Friese-Greene collaborations and Hollis's own "Such A Shame" and "It's You" providing the highlights. "My Foolish Friend" was a notable absentee, an omission only made stranger by the inclusion of its inferior flipside, "Call In the Nightboy". More importantly, the album demonstrated that Talk Talk were becoming adept at slower, more pensive material, even if the featured versions of "Renee", "Tomorrow Started" and "Does Caroline Know" would all be eclipsed by subsequently-released live versions.
Friese-Greene's production imbued the material with an ambitious sound and arrangement which, though less obviously commercial than before, seemed far more natural for the band. Guitars also appeared on a Talk Talk record for the first time (courtesy of ace sessionman Robbie McIntosh), though in fact the distinctly Floydian solos were performed on treated keyboards. Despite its promise, however, the LP was still the work of a band in transition - no doubt one reason why it stalled at a disappointing No. 35 in the U.K. Another was that the group, already deeply embarrassed by EMI's past image-mongering, now began to cultivate a resolute non-image which would only deepen as time passed.
The second single from the album, "Such A Shame", drew heavily on Luke Reinhart's cult novel "The Dice Man" for inspiration, a fact flaunted on both the sleeve and video. EMI's attempts at charting it included a double-pack 7" in a poster sleeve, featuring a bonus single of Jimmy Miller demos dating back from June 1981. Frankly the three tracks ("Talk Talk", "Mirror Man" and "Candy") are unremarkable, though some may prefer this stringless version of "Mirror Man" to the take on the first LP. What really makes "Such A Shame" attractive on 45 is the flipside, "Again, A Game . . . Again", a superb track which, unaccountably, has never been reissued despite matching anything on the album.
Despite the relative failure of the "It's My Life" LP in the U.K., mainland Europe took the band to its collective heart and it went gold all over the continent. A remixed version of "It's My Life" also climbed to No. 35 in the States, allowing the album a five-month ride on the U.S. chart and helping EMI recoup the hefty £250,000 recording budget. The group capitalised on this success with an intensive touring schedule, reflected in a single issued on EMI Holland coupling two live-for-TV tracks cut at the Veronica Rock Night in September. Both "My Foolish Friend" and "Tomorrow Started" come highly recommended, easily outstripping the studio originals, though strangely EMI didn't release them in the U.K. Since several other countries did, however, neither track is particularly hard to find, with the German-pressed remix maxi-single of "It's My Life" remaining the best source. CD freaks can search out the Dutch 1990 reissue of "Such A Shame" (released in place of "Life Is What You Make It" in Europe), on which this version of "Tomorrow Started" appears as a bonus.
After a third single ("Dum Dum Girl") stalled at No. 74, all went quiet, and the group fell into a familiar pattern of releasing and touring albums in two-year cycles. Later in the year, however, "It's My Mix" appeared in Italy and America (ST 6542) and became a steady seller on import. This mini-LP featured the following extended and/or remixed versions: "Why Is It So Hard?" (Extended U.S. Remix); "Talk Talk" (12" Remix); "My Foolish Friend" (12" Remix); "It's My Life" (12" Mix); "Dum Dum Girl" (12" Mix); and "Such A Shame" (12" U.S. Remix). Though any such collection is of obvious interest, nothing here bar "Why Is It So Hard?" qualifies as a must-have. The track (recorded for Michael Apted's movie "Firstborn") is hardly classic Talk Talk but it doesn't deserve its current obscurity. As for the others, none even remotely improve on the originals, but sadly EMI weren't listening - as we shall see ...
After writing and recording throughout 1985, the band's stunning single "Life's What You Make It" appeared in January 1986. A Top 20 placing earned the band a memorable appearance on 'Top Of The Pops', and propelled their third album, "The Colour Of Spring", to No. 8 a month later. The LP, which eventually went gold, was a record of rich textures and rare emotional depth which featured eight brilliant Hollis/Friese-Greene compositions and absolutely no padding. After the widespread success of the second album, EMI allowed the group a bigger budget and an extended schedule, and by now their synths had been abandoned in favour of a rich Hammond organ sound courtesy of Steve Winwood, while the stellar supporting cast also included Danny Thompson, David Rhodes and two choirs, with Robbie McIntosh and Ian Curnow surviving from "It's My Life".
The extensive session credits for "The Colour Of Spring" belied the 'arranged freeform' approach to recording which Talk Talk were now able to indulge. With a certainty of approach that seems remarkable in the current musical climate, Hollis and Friese-Greene initially compose skeletal melodies together, after which Hollis alone pens the lyrics. The duo then lay down contributions from a diverse selection of guest musicians and select the best of these before constructing a final arrangement. This is a jazz ethic largely inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman and Can, whereby distinctive elements meet and diverge many times over; and it's also a discipline very much dependent on the personalities of the musicians. Regardless of their ability, if a player doesn't seem in tune with Talk Talk's nebulous vibe - whether creatively or personally - their contribution is rapidly erased.
Both "Life Is What You Make It" and its successor, "Living In Another World", were issued in two different 12" form, "Life ..." gaining an "Extended Dance Mix" after the original version had charted, and the latter suffering an overblown "'U.S. Remix" as well as a limited 7" picture disc release. The album also spawned two more singles as the year wore on, though thankfully both "Give It Up" and "I Don't Believe You" escaped further studio tampering. The 12" format of the latter actually features an excellent remix of "Happiness Is Easy" by Paul Webb and Lee Harris, its funky-drummer backbeat and spaced-out ambience still sounding startlingly contemporary in 1991.
All four singles feature excellent B-sides, in fact, with 'Life ..." carrying the best of them in the haunting "It's Getting Late In The Evening", easily one of the best pieces the group have recorded and one that clearly pointed the way towards their next album. Equally stunning was the live version of "Does Caroline Know?" on the flip of "I Don't Believe In You", recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in summer 1986, on which the extended eight-man line-up fleshed out this previously unremarkable song quite beautifully, even adding a verse of "Mirror Man". Interestingly, this track also documents the only concert to date at which Tim Friese-Greene has performed with the group.
Talk Talk launched a major world tour to promote the "Spring" album in April, and one ultra-collectable item is a BBC transcription disc recorded live in 1986, although a price tag of £200 makes any copy something of an indulgence. Strangely, for a band so popular in mainland Europe, no vinyl or CD bootlegs have yet appeared; and while an '86 show at London Hammersmith Odeon appears to have been filmed with a view to commercial release, to date only one track, "Give It Up", has emerged on the "Natural History" video.
Although "The Colour Of Spring" brought the group to the brink of a major international breakthrough, Talk Talk again retreated into seclusion. During this period Mark Hollis quit urban London for rural Suffolk, and it was to be another two-and-a-half years before EMI took delivery of "Spirit Of Eden", an album which sent blood-pressure soaring sufficiently at the label for it to be transferred onto Parlophone instead. "Eden" was the first album for which Talk Talk had been given an open budget and schedule, yet although it took a year and a small fortune to record, the results were far from commercial. The six tracks were edited down from many hours of improvisation to form a suite which defies categorisation - the solemn atmospheres and free-form dynamics evoking comparisons as diverse as Miles Davis, Debussy, Neil Young, Delius and Eric Satie. Ultimately, however, it sounds like nobody else, and though to these ears "Eden" is both a bold artistic statement and brilliant music, its dark-night-of-the-soul ambience presented a stern challenge to casual listeners. Mainstream it wasn't, but then chart placings and rotation airplay were the very last considerations for a group whose promotional plan initially included no single, no video and no tour. Finally Hollis relented to all but the last, though that didn't stop the album peaking at 19 and sliding rapidly after that. Sadly, the eventual single, an edited version of the moving anti-heroin song "I Believe In You" failed to chart, though the inclusion of an otherwise unavailable flipside in "John Cope" ensured that it sold to the faithful.
To many onlookers, it seemed that Talk Talk had committed commercial suicide with "Spirit of Eden", and that in ploughing their lonely furrow so deep they had also buried themselves. Though EMI were keen to retain the band, their contract had now expired, and so when the band left for Polydor it was hardly surprising that their former label chose to cut their losses by issuing a singles collection in May 1990. What was a surprise, however, was "Natural History" quickly taking up residency in the Top 40 and logging up over a million sales in less than a year.
Beyond the fact that it contains much music of rare craft, it's difficult to pin down quite why the album should have taken off so spectacularly, though the prevailing musical climate of "anything goes" must certainly have worked in its favour, with Talk Talk's music now praised as timeless instead of being damned as unfashionable. Also, OMD's 'Best Of' package had been a similarly unexpected smash two years earlier, and the fact that too many of Talk Talk's singles had proved to be near-misses in the U.K. possibly provided some perverse foundation for their belated success. More useful was the hit status enjoyed by a re-released "It's My Life", which made the Top 20. Yet while the compilation served the band perfectly well, it sadly contained no surprises. Completists can check out the American CD (which adds the two live tracks from the "It's My Life" single reissue), but it's a pity that EMI didn't add any outstanding flipsides to the European running order. Indeed, the fact that several of these are not available on CD does the group a grave injustice.
Also worthwhile is the video counterpart to "Natural History" a fascinating and frequently humorous document thanks to Cure confederate Tim Pope's extensive involvement. Considering that the band seem unlikely to play live again, however, it is a shame that "Give It Up" was the only in-concert clip that the compilers saw fit to include, for sadly the nature of "Spirit Of Eden" and the new "Laughing Stock" material effectively precludes any future live performances. Since Hollis has no desire to simplify the material, or tour on the back of oldies, Talk Talk currently look like being about as regular an attraction on the live circuit as the Beatles after Candlestick Park.
Perversely, the runaway success of "Natural History" resulted in more strife than celebration for the group, for as sales rocketed skyward so too did EMI's avarice. When "It's My Life" was reissued it seemed only natural to commission a contemporary remix to appeal to the all-important club audience (though radio stuck by the original), yet even a brief glance at the discography printed below reveals a case of marketing gone mad. EMI subsequently commissioned a slew of remixes for each successive single, and while these new versions doubtless stimulated sales, few them did the band any creative favours. Certainly Talk Talk were quick to disassociate themselves from them, and since they're not sanctioned (and since the list seems endless) I'll gloss over them here, except to say that easily the worst of the bunch is the "Talk Talk Recycled" medley a crass segue of four reissued singles which suggests since it appeared on the flipside of "It's My Life" - that EMI had their masterplan prepared long in advance. Promo-only CD copies (Talk 90) currently fetch £10.
Another wasted opportunity was the multitude of 1986 vintage live tracks used to pad out the CD singles. Though the programme began well enough with excellent versions of "It's My Life" and "Renee", the quality soon dropped, with several cuts even being faded prematurely. Though this was no doubt in keeping with the BPI's 20-minute guideline on singles, why we have to suffer, say, a truncated live take of "Living In Another World" in favour of 10 minutes-plus of Julian Mendelsohn's yawnsome remix of the same song is anybody's guess.
Worse was to come the following year with "History Revisited", a remix album with which the band were so disgusted they promptly sued EMI. "It's a distortion - more like History Reinvented", manager Keith Aspen commented, yet if anything he's being generous. "History Revisited" is a shabby collection which has about as much to do with Talk Talk as any posthumous, re-tooled Jimi Hendrix LP, and its appearance makes a mockery of Parlophone's 1988 claim in "Q" magazine that "Talk Talk require sympathetic marketing". While the idea of a remix album isn't bad in itself, the fundamental flaw is that Talk Talk got most of their complex originals right first time around. The songs simply don't work with a different beat slung underneath, regardless of the BPM factor. At best the results sound like bizarre jams, and at worst like S/A/W flipsides. Indeed, "History Revisited" almost smacks of revenge on the part of their former label, the only creative remixes present being Gary Miller's "Such A Shame" and "Talk Talk" and BBG's "Life Is What You Make It", while the only sound reason to invest is the inclusion of the Harris/Webb mix of "Happiness Is Easy", which still sounds more contemporary than many of these latter-day reworkings.
If EMI really couldn't resist squeezing more money from the back catalogue then surely a collection of quality live tracks and B-sides would have made a more than adequate alternative. Better still, they should have let Talk Talk release "Laughing Stock" and get on with their career.
On a more positive note, "Laughing Stock" appeared in September on the Polydor offshoot Verve (nominally a jazz imprint), swiftly confounding those punters who were expecting material similar to Talk Talk's 'recent' hit singles. Indeed, the album is, if anything, even further removed from the mainstream than "Spirit Of Eden", sounding far rougher and frequently bordering on the very furthest reaches of free-form abstraction. The LP again features just six long Hollis/Friese-Greene pieces: "After The Flood" stands out as the most immediately accessible track, with the press quick to pick on Hollis's already infamous one-note guitar solo as a neat encapsulation of the band's working methods.
Also like its predecessor, "Laughing Stock" features nothing even remotely resembling a hit single. Nonetheless, Verve have bravely released a clutch of three limited edition picture CDs, all featuring at least one new song or alternate take. And while it's doubtful that either these or the album will match the astonishing sales enjoyed by their back catalogue, it's a safe bet that Hollis and Talk Talk - now apparently minus Paul Webb - will continue to create innovative, challenging and genuinely moving music for a long time to come.
Thanks to Keith Aspden and Mark Hollis for their help in the preparation of this article, and also to EMI for supplying the discography.^ go back to top