NITZER EBB Analog Synths & Ambient Samples Put A Polish On The Industrial Grind by Alan di Perna There's a vague

threat in the dark way the bass line unfolds beneath toxic kicks from a painfully distorted snare sample. The rhythm is spare, its sonic spaces like blackened windows in a bad neighborhood. Then comes this voice -- snarling, insinuating, making Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet seem like Mr. Rogers. A nameless anxiety constricts your throat. You're waiting for the Lightning Man to strike. And this is just Showtime, Nitzer Ebb's latest, most restrained album. Their earlier records are even more intense. "We were trying to grasp more traditional song structures on Showtime," explains Bon Harris, the percussion-playing half of the Nitzer duo, identifiable by his five o'clock shadow haircut. "On our earlier stuff, we couldn't really bring out too many moods. It was far too fast and in-your-face. We wanted to pull things back a bit and give each sound more space. Most bands start off with a fairly general song-oriented approach and then start exploring the avant-garde. We did it the other way around. We're going into more normal things, but it's okay because the music hasn't lost its edginess." Why this newfound maturity? Well, Nitzer Ebb were awfully young when they started out. They were at a very impressionable age during the late '70s/early '80s upheaval that brought us such electronic iconoclasts as Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. "I remember going through a period of about six months where we were Throbbing Gristle," laughs vocalist Doug McCarthy. "We'd just play around at home with tape loops, repeating one line over and over on guitar." McCarthy is recalling his and Harris's early teens, when the two were friends in Chelmsford, Essex, near London. Long before they summoned the courage to play a gig, the duo would get together and work out their music privately. "At that time, we were listening to a lot of German bands, like Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft, Die Krupps, and Malaria. And we were into groups like Bauhaus, Killing Joke, and the Birthday Party. All of these bands were really performance-oriented, very aggressive live. That's what made us want to be in a band. When we saw these groups, we were 13 or 14 years old. You'd go to one of these shows and people were just beating each other up in the name of dancing. Just having fun. That release was something we wanted to tap." McCarthy was only 15 when Nitzer Ebb played their first gigs in 1983. The following year, they released a single, "Isn't It Funny How Your Body Works," on their own Power of Voice label. It

came out at a ticklish time. In '84, the industrial electronic dance music ahd ceased to be a fad, but hadn't quite become an established genre. "Some reviewer said we were two years too late," Harris recalls with just a hint of acrimony. "We were still right into electroinc music when it wasn't trendy to like it anymore," continues McCarthy. "It had had its big peak. But as far as we were concerned, it wasn't finished. Then, a few years later, house music and acid house came along and justified what we were saying. If anything we were two years too early." More indie singles followed. But Nitzer Ebb's debut album didn't come until 1987, after they had signed with Mute in the U.K. and Geffen in the States. That Total Age is rife with frenetic but precise sequences and sampled machine-shop clangs. Their follow-up, 1989's Belief, is much in the same mold. But on Showtime, a different game is afoot. Arrangements, while still electronic, are more minimal. Tempos aren't as rigidly quantized. Industrial overkill has fiven way to an atmospheric moodiness. The feel is still anxious and postmodern, but with more of a David Lynch/Alfred Hitchcock slant. Harris and McCarthy have discovered that the familiar can be more menacing than the strange. They've found the chill within the '50s lounge jazz, the foreboding behind traditional clarinet or saxophone sounds. "What Bon and I did for the album was make a list of genres -styles that we wanted to steal," McCarthy says. "The list literally ran through everything: '50s rock and roll, rock, rap, jazz. And we structure the songs around our ideas or interpretation of what each of those genres is like." What helps make Showtime's song-oriented approach unusual is the fact that Nitzer Ebb is one electronic band that doesn't really compose or perform with keyboards -- or, for that matter, any other instruments that encourage conventional melody-and-accompaniment. Instead, Harris and McCarthy spend a lot of their time programming. "Neither of us is actually musically trained," says McCarthy. "We can't play keyboards as such, so a lot of our music is generated from editing pages of a computer [an Atari Mega 2 running Steinberg Cubase software]. We did our first single, 'Lightning Man,' by starting with a straight sequence and then just playing with it. We shuffled the timing around a bit. Then we started dropping notes out of the parts, which we wouldn't have been able to do if we had just been playing the parts. Even if we had been, it wouldn't have achieved the same results. It's interesting to approach a melody that way. You've got it all in front of you, so you can choose which parts of it you want to keep." Their drum parts, though, are often entered into the sequencer in real time, using Simmons pads. "We started doing it that way on the last album, and we're gravitating toward it more and more," says Harris. "You can spend a lot of time mucking around

programming, whereas if you just set up the pads, you can run through the song for half a day and get a lot variations. Some of the mistakes you make are better than anything you'd planned." McCarthy explains the the song "My Heart," from Showtime started off. "But there was no actual time signiture. It didn't have to be 4/4. Bon got the pads up and came out with what turned out to be 7/8. Of course, we didn't know it was 7/8 at the time. It took us about two hours to work that one out." Like a lot of electronic groups these days, Harris and McCarthy find themselves turning more and more to old analog synths. They made especially heavy use of a Moog System 700 modular rig, an Oberheim Xpander and OB-X, and a Sequential Pro-One on Showtime. Characteristically beefy analog timbres were part of what they were after. But they also used analog to get some of natural instrument sounds, such as the trumpet and harmonica on "One Man's Burden." "You can get ridiculously close to real instruments on the old analog stuff," Harris marvels. "The old stuff doesn't look like it's going to sound like that, but it can. And it's more interactive than modern synths. You're not just pushing the same button all day. You've got this big thing in front of you, and it actually does stir your imagination." Not that Harris and McCarthy are exclusively into analog. The calrinet and trumpet sounds on "Lightning Man," for instance, are factory E-mu samples transferred to and played back on an Akai S1000. "We had shied away from doing that in the past because it's so obvious," Harris explains. "I mean, who doesn't use brass samples on their records? But this was one case where the song really dictated it. The track had this cheesy, gangster movie feel, and we wanted to go whole hog with it. The horn samples work well there because the basis of the track is so electronic, but the whole atmosphere is not completely electronic." In trying to evoke such older styles as jazz and '50s rock, the duo began thinking about ambience more than they had in their strictly "industrial" period. Here, too, sampling proved a valuable tool. "A lot of times we were working with samples of entire phrases rather than single notes," Harris explains. "so we could get the ambience of the room where the phrase was played. With other sampled sounds, we would edit away the instrument itself -- a bass guitar, for example -- and just use the ambience fromthe sample. Bits like that can really add to the atmosphere of a recording." In many cases, the real power play was to combine sampling with analog modular synthesis in a symbiotic relationship. "When you're working with the old modular synths, you pretty much have to sample the results every time you get something you like," McCarthy cautions. "Who knows if you'll ever be able tog et it back? Those systems aren't the most stable devices in the world. So every time we got a good sound or sequence, we'd think, 'Better sample a bar or two of this, just in case it goes out of tune.' We had numerous disks with these two-bar phrases of things that were good."

Almost most all sound sources, sampled and otherwise, were routed through the System 700 for further processing. This is what's responsible for some of the wildly modulated timbres on such tracks as "Nobody Knows" and "Rope." At certain points, the modulation gets so heavy that you can't really hear what notes are being played. You're left with a sound that exists somewhere in the grey area between riffs and textures -- a Nitzer Ebb specialty. "Even if something was sounding all right," McCarthy notes, "we'd bung it through the System 700, just to see what happened. It could be an instrument, a mixer, an effect, the drum kits.... The possiblities are pretty inexhaustible. We did that on nearly every song. Our motto was, 'Reach for a modular synth when you're stuck.'" The Nitzers' fondness for old modular gear is something they share with the man who has been instrumental in their career: Mute Records owner Daniel Miller. Miller, of course, is a key architect of the '80s synthpop sound. He produced the earliest outings from Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Fad Gadget. He released a few seminal recordings of his own, under the name the Normal. And he turned Nitzer Ebb down when they first sent him a demo in 1983, only to reconsider in '86. "He's the main man," says Harris affectionately. "But we won't work with him in the studio anymore," McCarthy adamently adds. "He takes too long! He's got this agelss approach. You know how, when you first start out, you think, 'Wouldn't it be a wheeze to stay up all night in the studio?' But after a couple of years of it, you start thinking, 'Oh my God, I want to go home; it's 7:30 already.' Well, Daniel Miller has still got that boyish excitement when you get him in the studio. He still likes to say up all night in there, because he's got an artist's opinion. So if you want to spend more time and money on a project, as long as you can justify it, he'll do it. He hasn't got any qualms about spending money. And if he's there, he'll spend loads of it. If he goes on a project, the budget's a nightmare." Harris and McCarthy generally prefer to work faster. Both Belief and Showtime were completed in about six months. But still, they're not the most linear guys in the world themselves, as McCarhy admits. "We took the tracks on Showtime through a lot of changes. Looking back on it, there were some songs where the only way we could have learned what we wanted to do was to go in completely the wrong direction before we could arrive at what was right. That's why we try to keep all the tracks in the sequencer until the final mix, rather than recording them on tape. We're always changing things. We work by a process of eliminiation." For the past two albums, they've been aided in this process by Flood, that producer with a single name but a multiplicity of credits, including U2, Erasure, Cabaret Voltaire, and Nick Cave. McCarthy praises Flood because he "can understand our musical vocabulary, which involves saying 'thing' a lot, as in, 'This track needs more of the wibbly thing, you know?'" Harris, for his part, likes the way the producer "understands that thin line we like to treat between the melodic and the atonal."

But will the masses -- particularly the American massess -ever understand? Nitzer Ebb got a chance to test the waters last year when they made their first visit to the States, opening for Mute labelmates Depeche Mode. Their live show preserves the stripped-nerve aggression they imbibed at early '80s Birthday Party shows in London. There's lots of shouting and pounding on drums. How did this sit with the Modes' teen pup audience? "On the whole, they were either shocked into silence or jogged into moving about," McCarthy responds. "We had a good feeling of perversion -- that we were manipulating these kids' musical point of view. Some of them are so young that these are the first gigs they've gone to. So they haven't got that inbuilt thing of having been perverted by the general music press or radio by being told what is pop music and what isn't pop music, what is listenable music and what isn't listenable music. So they don't differentiate between us and Depeche Mode that much. They see us just as bands. If they like us and they like Depeche Mode, then we're a band just like Depeche Mode. From that point of view, we're making quite good inroads with the young audience -- 13 and 14 or so." Which brings us back to Nitzer Ebb's old nemesis: categorization. True, things have improved since the days when "latecomers" was the only pigeonhole the press could find for them. But use the term "cyberpunk" around the lads and they make barf faces. "All that stuff doesn't mean anything to us," McCarthy shrugs. "I guess there are labels that the press gives to bands like us. Our label at the moment is that we're an industrial band, which I don't particularly think is applicable. Especially with the music that's on Showtime. But there are the kids who go to industrial concerts, and I guess they're a part of our audience. There's also a surprisingly large element of the audience that is uncategorizable. We did go through a stage where we formulated who we were and who we were playing to. But it became stale, because we felt like we couldn't go outside of certain parameters or else we'd no longer appeal to the people we were supposed to appeal to. So we decided to make the music for ourselves, not for any audiences." What's next? Harris and McCarthy plan to make an EP when they get off the road with Depeche Mode. But as yet, there's no definite game plan for the project. More vintage analog timbres? Maybe. More sampling? Probably. But are Doug and Bon worried that the great return to analog signals the end of an era? That electronic pop is becoming an '80s nostagliga sound? "Bands like us are there to prove it isn't," McCarthy replies. "The reason why electric guitars don't sound like the '50s is that people have continued to try to make new music on them. We intend to keep doing the same with electronic instruments." * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

LESS CAN ROAR: NITZER EBB LIVE Streetwise: That's a good way to describe Nitzer Ebbs concert setup. It's powerful but minimal -- just the thing for an opening act subject to the perils of disappearing sound checks and the need to set up and tear down in a hurry. The rig is also ideally suited to the duo's stage aesthetic, which evokes rap performances more than tradtional rock arena shows. "We want the equipment to be as compact as possible," says Julian Beeston, the elusive "third Nitzer" who joins the group on percussion for live gigs. "We don't want mountains of keyboards onstage. If it all fit into one rack, we'd be happy." Actually, the're pretty close to that ideal. Beeston and Bon Harris each have an Akai S1000 sampler triggered by an assortment of Simmons pads, which both play standing. Neither percussionist has a conventional drum kit, though Beeston has a Premier snare drum with a Simmons pad mounted inside, and both setups also include cymbols. Apart from vocals, all of the band's music emanates from a modest pile of equipment at stage left: an Atari Mega 2 running the Cubase sequencer and driving an Akai S1000, a Yamaha TX81Z, and an Oberheim Xpander. For the song "Getting Closer," one of the Xpander's stereo outputs goes through a Yamaha SPX90 multi-effexts unit, and the other goes through a Rat distortion pedal. That it for gear. "Most of the music is on hard disk -- a PMR drive for the S1000," Harris explains. "We start each song on Cubase. It changes the sounds on the synths and sends a patch change to the S1000, which then loads up the appropiate song. We have so many tape loops and old analog synths on our records that sampling is the only practical way to reproduce it all live. We wanted to do it before, with the S900, but that just has monophonic outputs, so we would have needed quite a few of them. Also, there was a problem of loding the samples for the songs. When we found out that the PMR drive and software for the S1000 would let you do it remotely, we knew we'd foudn a viable solution. And of course the S1000's outputs are polyphonic, which is very important for us." With this setup Nitzer Ebb have all they need to shock the house. "One of the things we've always had to fight against is the notion that if you don't have a guitar, it's not a real band," says McCarthy. "That's one reason why our show is so energetic: to prove that you don't need guitarts to be a good, exciting live band." -- Alan di Perna