We started with electronic instruments for several reasons: Both Paul and I could play piano to one degree or another, and neither of us had ever learned to play guitar. (Since this was before we had a computer sequencer, synths at that time had to be played on a keyboard.) Much of the music we both liked (Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, DEVO, Fad Gadget, D.A.F.) was all or mostly electronic. We liked the totally new and different sounds (at that time) that electronics gave us. We were both control freaks enough to want to make our sounds instead of just accepting what the instruments gave us.
And once we started, there was never much reason to change. It worked well for us, and it became a recognizable part of our sound. We learned to write songs and do shows with electronics.
But I think that the most substantial factor was the very way that we went about making songs. Many typical
guitars originate their songs by getting together and just sort of aimlessly playing stuff ('jamming', I believe it is
called) until it coalesces into a song, and then they polish it up from there. The composition process and the live
performances are both very much about the subjective experience of playing instruments. To some extent, the song itself
comes second to the musicians and their experience.
Then there is the way that many other artists (often solo artists, like Laurie Anderson) use, in which whether there is only one person working on the song or more, the song itself is what you start with; an idea for a song. That idea is pursued and developed, and the instruments are used only to facilitate achieving the development of the song to a "finished" state. The experience of people playing instruments with their fingers is irrelevant; the music is the most important thing.
In the first method, the sounds you use are not all that crucial. You get the sounds that your instrument are capable of making, and nothing else. This is ok because it's the instrument that matters. In the second, when the song calls for a sound that you can't get out of a guitar, or a snare drum, or a saxophone, you need to make something new. If the song calls for a series of sounds and notes that are impossible or impractical to play by hand, then you need to let the sequencer play them. This is necessary because you're going for a sonic/musical phenomena which has exactly the desired effect on the listener's feelings, and the limitations of a physical instrument are not an obstacle to be stopped at.
Now, most people who use the first method (especially JAZZZZZZ people) will tell you that without that body-machine bond of the musician physically playing an instrument, you don't really have true art, or true music. To which I say "nuts". First of all, Mozart heard his music in his head. (he had no choice) He wrote parts that he couldn't hear for people to play back later. A room full of people with machines in their hands was his sequencer. Second, while I would never belittle the power of the experience a musician has playing his/her instrument, I would point out that to really get into the experience, you must hop a level down INTO the creation of the sound, and in doing so, you lose your sense of overview. You've become part of the song, instead of creating the song. You've become one of the instruments. Many artists can jump back and forth and do both, and to them I tip my hat. Indeed, I do this in my live shows, and I find it quite enjoyable. But I submit that those two things don't really happen at the same time. Usually, people who compose by jamming also compose by committee, and that's a whole different world. It's often JAZZZZ.
So anyway... For a few years we used a combination of keyboard synthesizers and very limited analogue sequencers and drum machines. Later, we had MIDI modules and computer sequencers available, and, of course, the Big Revolution... SAMPLERS. Once the samplers became affordable, the new are had really begun. We no longer had to sound like a synthesizer band. We could sound like whatever we wanted. This was also the beginning of latter-day Industrial Music. Now your 'snare drum' could be concrete breaking. Your 'bass' could be a cello. (Listen to Front242's "Manhunter".) Now sound design was the issue, not playing instruments. If we wanted the sound of a guitar, we used it. I'm not suggesting that you can effectively use samplers to sound like someone playing a guitar. (Why would you want to? Just hire some guy to play.) But if the moment called, in your creative opinion, for a guitar sound, then you used one. If the moment called for a deep, dark, swirling sound that didn't sound like a synthesizer, then you made one. Playing an instrument had never seemed quite so remote to us as the day we use a bandsaw for a 'string' line.
By this time, we had been identified as an "electronic" band, and in those days (1987) that still meant something. Electronics had completely invaded pop music (Madonna, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood...) but there was still a powerful guitar rock stranglehold on much of pop music. Using ALL electronics was still considered odd. Now, however, no one thinks anything of it, and I'm glad. You can't get notoriety by the fact that you use "gadgets" instead of guitars anymore, which means that you're judged on the nature of your music, and the nature of the response you get from the public at large. That all pleases me no end. I don't have to answer questions about all those "black boxes" anymore, and no one tells me to "just play a guitar" anymore. I mean, with all the partially or mostly electronic acts who have become monstrously popular over the last 15 years, there's really no reason to even talk about it anymore. I'm just writing this to give some insight into the history of the band, not because I still think it's an issue.
What that all boils down to is that I've always used electronics because I feel that music transcends the devices used to make it. I won't be a slave to a machine. (piano, guitar, whatever) I want the music I hear in my head, not the music that some machine (guitar, trapset, saxophone) leads me to. We just have better machines now, ones that don't enslave you quite as much, partially because you're not using your body to make the sounds, and partially because you can make almost any sound with them. Obviously, whatever you use is going to have an influence on what you compose. But being stuck here in the decline of the 20th century as I am, electronics have always been the best option available to me.
- Kurt Harland - 07/97