A Change of Country – Melody Maker 18 August 1990

Edited by Tony Horkins

With a new producer, new drummer and a change of equipment, Stuart Adamson reckons his band are a different type of Big Country altogether.  Tony Horkins checks his passport.

It doesn’t take long for the characteristic sound of a band to change in perception from one of joyous recognition to one of irritating familiarity.  Rather like the infectious giggle of a loved one in the opening weeks of a relationship turn in abruptly into the hideous cackle of a witch by the second month, the sound of a band that initially charmed you into their world, can soon be pushing you down the street and through the doors of Record and Tape Exchange before you can say “A quid’s plenty”

One such band that seemed to have suffered more than most in this area are Big Country.  where their bagpipe guitars, passionate vocals and military drums may have initially fired the imagination of hoards of music lovers searching for a New Rock Sound they soon sounded cliched, over-used and boring.

In the offices of his London record company Stuart Adamson tells me he knows it’s time for a change.  He’s thrown away the E Bow, he’s dropped the big US producer, and having cleared the cobwebs with the successful greatest hits album,serving neatly as a summary of the band to date, he’s ready for a fresh start.  And with the departure of drummer Mark Brzezicki, maybe the band are truly ready to test a new sound.

“I think with Mark going the sound’s changed.  I think that his contribution to Big Country was very distinctive.  He;’s a great one for why play one note when you can play 16.  So we’ve lost that busyness in the bottom end which that I want to make songs at the moment.  I think it’s also a change that was going to come about anyway because Mark’s always been very heavily involved in session work, and I felt it was getting more and more in the way of what we should be doing as a group”.

To most people listening from the outside, it was obvious that you had to change.

“I think it had to take something as drastic as that . Certainly we got to a point last year where we through something had to happen.  I was struggling to change things and everyone else was confused”.

Contributing greatly to a change in sound will inevitably be a change  of equipment, and the dropping of a few over familiar techniques.

” I’ve thrown away the E Bow already. I’ve been over driving the guitar a bit more to get a similar type of sound.  I’ve changed the arrangements of the songs that we used it on.  I still like playing with it, but it’s like any technological things, its a very limiting device and there’s only a certain amount of things you can do with it”.

When Big Country first started, Adamson was seen regularly rubbing his E Bow over a number of Yamaha guitars, but a change in sound has also meant a change in guitars.

“I don’t use Yamaha anymore; not for any particular reason, but because I like to change my guitars once in a while.  Originally I liked them when I saw Bill Nelson playing one.  I thought it must be a happening guitar because Bill uses one.  At that time they were about half the price of Gibson Les Pauls, and they were better guitars, than Gibson were making at that time.  I used it for years, and then came across a second-hand Les Paul I could afford.  It just sounded absolutely brilliant, and felt great to play, so I moved onto using Les Pauls.

“I also had a couple of custom guitars that Jimmy Moon made for me.  The first guitar he made me was shaped like a Fender Telecaster, because it’s such a classic shape. And I wanted it to have a very flat neck and flat frets, which is the type of thing I prefer.  I prefer a wide-ish neck.  I don’t have a very big hands, but I feel I can dig into the guitar a bit better.  The fingerboard’s ebony, the wood’s maple.  I like ebony and rosewood fingerboards better than ebony, although I just recently got an American standard Telecaster that has a great stainy finish instead of that high gloss finish, and I really like that.  I’ve been trying to play like Jerry Donahue and failing miserably”.

Do you experiment with pickups?

“Sometimes. The Moon has EMG pickups in it, and the new one I’ve got has Bartolinni pickups in it.  They’re re-wired up to a five position switch so that sounds pretty happening.  One of my Les Pauls has got Seymour Duncan vintage pickups in it, while the other one’s got standard pickups.  I’m much more into having a guitar I like, than getting a guitar and doing it all up.  Bruce is into all that but I like to find a guitar that I can pick up and it works. I prefer the feel of a guitar that’s been played a long time”.

When it comes to amplification, Stuart’s a big fan of valves.

“I only use value amps, and the equipment I take out on the road is Mesa equipment; a pre amp with a Strategy 400 power amp built into a rack set-up, and two 100 watt one by 12′s.  In the rack  I’ve got a power conditioner, which flattens out the power, a PC1 120 programmable graphic, PC2290 echo unit, Drawmer compressor, H3000 Eventide harmoniser and Lexican PCM70 digital delay and re verb unit.  They’reall switched via a MIDI floorboard made by an American firm.  I can write 120 different configurations into it  and bring them in just at the touch of a foot, using maybe two or maybe three per song.  You probably don’t even notice live, but I like to do all the fiddly bits.

When he’s not using Les Pauls and Jimmy Moon storm guitars, he’s probably playing a Levinson blade.

It’s the main guitar I;m using at the moment – an absolutely tremendous guitar.  It feels like a vintage Stratocaster, and sounds great. It’s a very adaptable guitar. I can get get it to overdrive quite nicely, and it’s just a great feeling guitar – the tremolo system’s brilliant.  Sperzel Machineheads on it and it locks at the head,so you don’t need all that iron wear at the nut, and it makes string changing easier, I’m using it with a New Jerry Moon guitar also, one of his off the self ones.

When Adamson and his guitar collection hits the studio, he uses his rack in conjunction with a range of vintage amps.

I’ve a vintage 50 watt Marshall head, an old Fender twin and an old Marshall 50 watt combo. They’ve all got very identifiable sounds.  I play in the control room.  We do a live take as a band, and sort of build up on that, improving the quality of the sounds”.

However, sounds take a real back seat when he’s working on the material at home.

“I’ve got a Tascam eight track on quarter inch at home, and that’s all I really need.  That’s about as complicated as I can manage.  It’s all one self contained unit with a desk, sort of like an advanced portastudio. (its the Tascam Model 888, launched in the summer of 1985 for £2750, and featuring a built in eight track quarter inch tape deck and 8;8;2 mixer). And I use an old Yamaha RX11 drum machine and a Rockman Sustainer unit, and a Alesis Midiverb. I don’t go for technologically advanced demos. I’ve got an Ensonig ESQ1 synth that I use sometimes, but I haven’t used that for months. I’ve had keyboards around ever since I was in The Skids, and sort of get in and out of them”.

Once the material is demoed at home, the band and producer get their hands on it.

“Sometimes it’ll change radically – speed it up, slow it down, try it in a different style, fart around with instrumentation’s and sounds – but more often than not I have an idea how the final arrangements going to sound. Sometimes it goes off in a completely different direction.  Usually then we ‘ll collate all the stuff together, spend a couple of days rehearsal, and demo it as quick as possible in a studio.  Those are the versions we’ll play to people in the record company and potential producers”.

Production at the moment has been handed over to Tim Palmer, known for his work with Bowies Tin Machime and The Mision, who’s in favour as much for his ability to take a back seat as he is for his constructive input.

“I think the most produced album we’ve had is Peace In Our Time- I wouldn’t like to give someone that amount of control over my work again, though there does need to be someone there who’s like a referee.  I’d like to work more with Tim.  I think your time in the studio should be enjoyable, it shouldn’t feel like you’re being dictated to.  It was a great working with Tim because he’s a real enthusiast, and I like people like that”.  And he lets the band do what they want to do. “I think the best producers do. I think producers like that pick bands who are very much bands. It was great fun working with him because he’s a real old Skids fan. He used to have a band at school doing old Skids covers, and he brought in a cassette of his band doing those songs and it was hilarious.

“And of course, he’s a brilliant guy, which is the way it should be “…

 

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