Chris Cowie: HOOKED ON TECHNO

Beyond malt whiskey, Scotland's cultural contributions seem relatively sketchy to those who don't look beneath the surface. Most people think of Scotland
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Beyond malt whiskey, Scotland's cultural contributions seem relatively sketchy to those who don't look beneath the surface. Most people think of Scotland

Beyond malt whiskey, Scotland's cultural contributions seem relatively sketchy to those who don't look beneath the surface. Most people think of Scotland as the birthplace of the Loch Ness monster, bagpipes, kilts and haggis — and as a country whose biggest contribution to 20th-century pop culture is Sean Connery. Scotland fares even worse when it comes to musical offerings, as few recent Scottish artists have remained in the public consciousness since Sheena Easton and the Bay City Rollers.

But unbeknownst to all but the most detail-oriented dance-music fans, Scotland is also the homeland of Chris Cowie, who started the highly influential Bellboy and Hook Recordings labels and shaped the development of trance, tech house and progressive house during the '90s via hundreds of recordings made under various pseudonyms. Although Cowie has hopscotched from Aberdeen to London to Barcelona during the past few years, he remains Scottish to the core. Like Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live character Scott McBlottoson, Cowie heartily rolls his r's in a thick Scottish burr as he punctuates his speech with proclamations like, “It's crrrrap!” His left forearm bears a tattoo of the Scottish flag, proudly and prominently displaying his patriotism. He even turned down several lucrative millennium-eve DJ gigs abroad to play in his hometown of Aberdeen for free. “I'm only going to see one millennium,” he says. “I wanted to welcome the 21st century in my own country.”

Cowie's debut dance-music release was the 1992 ZTT Records 12-inch single “Rise,” a collaboration with future Hook and Bellboy partner Stuart Emslie, produced under the moniker Solid State Logic. He also produced Condensed (Limbo), the 1993 debut album by techno duo Havana (Tony Scott, aka Percy-X, and Richard Miller) before establishing the Hook and Bellboy labels later that year. But Cowie's breakthrough was the trance anthem “Neuro,” which he recorded as X-Cabs in 1994. “Neuro” was later licensed to the Additive label and dozens of mix compilations, selling more than 80,000 copies worldwide of the vinyl single alone. He was also one of the first Europeans to recognize the talents of American trance and progressive-house artists, signing Sandra Collins, Christopher Lawrence and Taylor to Hook long before any American labels showed interest in them.

Since starting the labels, Cowie has recorded, remixed and produced more than 500 tracks. Even though he's managed to bang out an average of one track a week for nearly 10 years, the quality of his productions remains high. Unlike many trance anthems of the late '90s, Cowie's prior work was surprisingly cheese-free, and most of his tracks still sound fresh today. Many of his recent tracks — such as “Frisky,” “Junk Funk” and “Silver” — defy genre categorization and are favored equally by techno, trance and progressive-house DJs.

Part of the reason that Cowie's name isn't better known is because, until recently, the bulk of his work was released under pseudonyms such as Canyon, Dawntreader, DeNiro, F2, Frank Le Fever, Scan Carriers and Vegas Soul. The reason for all the pseudonyms was simple: “Having an identifiable sound is what made the Hook label in its early days,” says Cowie. “Instead of flooding the market with a bunch of records with my name, which just would have confused people, it made more sense to create various aliases. I was into the Detroit thing: keeping it underground by using dark, mysterious pseudonyms.”

At the dawn of the new millennium, Cowie decided it was time to establish his own name, and since then, he's released a variety of singles, mix CDs and an artist album credited to himself. This year, 4 Foot 11 released the three-part Exposure series, which includes Cowie's mixes of various Hook tracks. System Recordings also put out Cowie's two-CD collection of original productions, Best Behaviour. But Cowie hasn't abandoned the pseudonyms altogether, still releasing the occasional X-Cabs single and anonymous techno tracks on the Hook/Bellboy imprint Aquatrax. “Diversity is the key to survival,” says Cowie. “I knew that someday the trance bubble would burst. Sometimes, you need to aim beyond the dancefloor if you want to sustain a career in music.”

Cowie's music has influenced the sounds of many world-renowned DJs, including Paul Oakenfold, Danny Tenaglia, Laurent Garnier and Jeff Mills. A skilled DJ himself, Cowie seemed more content to focus on his studio work, the labels and the occasional live performance during the '90s. But lately, he's been circling the globe to increase his exposure and establish his reputation as a DJ, bringing along a Stanton Final Scratch unit (Cowie was one of Final Scratch Pro's initial beta testers) loaded with hundreds of his own tunes and remixes. Remix spoke with Cowie after a recent appearance at Los Angles' Red (his first Los Angeles gig in nearly five years) about his role in the development of several dance-music styles and his unique approach to production.

Best Behaviourfeatures one impressive tune after another. How do you create a track?

I'll get a rough idea together using my samplers and Atari computer, which has [Steinberg] Cubase software. The Atari is very basic, but it does the job. Once I have the bass line and some of the drums together, I'll start recording the individual instruments into tracks in [Digidesign] Pro Tools on my Mac. Sometimes, I'll EQ a sound on my mixer before I record it; sometimes, I won't. It depends on how I feel at that particular time. I send a MIDI Clock from Pro Tools to the Atari, and it works like a dream. It follows the song-position pointer perfectly. I have [Emagic] Logic 5.0 on my Mac, but I don't really use it. I still use an analog mixing desk. I'll either mix a song on the desk or in Pro Tools or a combination of both. I'm getting better at doing mixes in Pro Tools. The best thing about mixing in Pro Tools is, I can recall my mixes again six months later. The advantage of mixing on my console is, I can change anything I want instantly. But I'm getting faster on Pro Tools.

Are most of your productions based on samples?

I don't use any synthesizers whatsoever. I've tried. When they come out, I'll give them a shot, but I can't get anything out of them, because everything that comes out of my Roland sampler has a particular sound that I like. When I use an [Access] Virus or [Roland] JP-8000, I can't get it to fit what I've done with the sampler unless I sample the line and put it in the sampler. On some of my productions five years ago, I was using just a little Mackie 16-channel mixer, a Roland S-750 sampler and an Ensoniq DP/4 effects processor. The sound of the Mackie board fits really well with the Roland sampler — it's as if they were made for each other. I still love my DP/4. It's not all sparkly, but it blends in with the sound instead of sitting on top of it. I used to put delays on everything: hi-hats, bass lines, percussion. When I use delays on Pro Tools, they sound too clean. I bought a TC Electronic D2 delay, and it's crap. It sounds too good. I have a Bel delay, which is good for dubby reggae delays. I think it's an 8-bit unit, which was good for its time back in 1982.

How has using Pro Tools changed the way you work?

Since buying a Pro Tools system, my production quality has gone up, but I'm worried about losing the heart. Pro Tools has slowed me down. I can do a tune in a day on an analog mixer. The problem with Pro Tools is that you have this huge rack of plug-ins, so you end up trying them all out, and you lose the moment. When I first bought Pro Tools about two years ago, I nearly had a nervous breakdown because I bought it with Logic as the front end. I was still using an Atari with a Mackie mixer. I went through four months of writer's block due to technology. I slowly figured out how to use it, but there's still too much to learn. The problem with programs like [Propellerhead] Reason is that you never get to know and love a certain piece of equipment, like the way I know my Roland S-750 sampler. I know that inside out. The new samplers can do a hell of a lot more, but none of them sound as good. I'll stake my reputation on that.

What do you still like about working with analog mixers?

To me, the desk has always been an instrument in its own right. I've created a lot of tracks just by doing live mixes of a four-bar loop. I'll put the faders full up, use the gains to get a level, EQ everything, bring the faders down and then put the faders up on the tracks that I want to start with. Then, I'll do a live mix for six or seven minutes, capturing the energy that is going from me to the desk on a DAT. I'll even loop drum fills so I can bring them in wherever I want. I'm using a Soundcraft Ghost these days, but the Mackie was great because I could punch things in and out easily. I always have my bass drum in channel 9 and my hi-hat in channel 10. Everyone's obsessed with automation, but if you really listen to a track, you won't hear the vocals or bass lines going up and down in volume. There's nothing like using your own hands and ears. It's so spontaneous. I love that way of working. That's why I could do three tracks in a night. I hate arranging, but sometimes you need to do that. If you listen to some of my old stuff, you'll spot the four-bar loops because there won't be any fancy drum fills or extra bass drums. But there will be a lot of movement in the track with pitch bend in the sampler or whatever.

A lot of your tracks also feature interesting filter effects.

I discovered filtering in the sampler when I was working with Havana. Listening to early Detroit stuff on the R&S and Underground Resistance labels, I realized that they were sampling chords, so I got out my Zero-G sample CD and sampled a few chords. In the '80s, I had a guitar band that worked in the studio with Wilf Smarties. I remember him talking about assigning the filter to the pitch bender on the sampler, obviously with the pitch bend turned off. I assigned a lowpass filter to the pitch bender, played with it, and it sounded amazing. We did the Havana album in six days just because of that. There's filter action everywhere on that album. It was a revelation. I couldn't get that from the [Yamaha] TG-500 sound module I was using. Even if I had all of these plug-in synths that you can get today, I never would have done that. I learned a lot from Wilf, who is one of the most underrated producers in the world. I only worked with him four times, but I watched everything he did and played that back in my head years later. When I got my first noise gate, I remembered how he would use a drum machine to trigger a gate over a guitar part. I really have to thank him for making me who I am.

Your drum sounds are particularly punchy and huge. Do you use a lot of compression?

With compression, it's either all or nothing with me. I have two Presonus 8-channel compressors, and I plug the samplers directly into them instead of through a patch bay. I just have them constantly plugged in. I'll run the bass drum and bass line through the same output on my sampler. Even though they should be on individual outputs, you can get a certain effect by using only one output when you drop the bass. I use a variety of Pro Tools plug-ins, too. The best compressor plug-in is the Waves Renaissance, and the Bomb Factory ones work well with vocals.

What do you use for bass lines?

I like my Yamaha TX81Z. I've probably used the Lately Bass patch for at least half of my records. It's so easy to edit. You can get really dubby or sharp. I always advise people to get one of those because they're easy to come by and cheap. As long as you edit the sound, it's good. I use a lot less equipment now than I used to. I don't use sample libraries unless I need really nice strings. I still use my TG-500 here and there for the odd hi-hat or effect noise. I imagine that there are better modules out there, but the TG-500 works fine for me. Even its nasty little built-in effects are quite good.

But, generally, my sound has always come from sampling. I'll sample any record — say, a bass line from an old Cult record. I'll sample just one note of the bass, which sounds like crap on its own, but it will work great for a fast bass line where you don't need a long sustaining note. Then, I'll filter it. That's where all of my sounds come from — not the Cult, but various things, such as movie soundtracks. I might be watching a movie, and I'll hear a string chord that I like. I got a good one out of The Devil's Advocate. The art of sampling is being forgotten. One of my heroes is DJ Shadow. He samples full lines, and what he does with them is brilliant. His drum programming is superb.

You're one of the first DJs to adopt Final Scratch. Why did you decide to go that route?

The sooner that vinyl is gone, the better it will be for everyone. From a label's point of view, it costs us nearly $1,000 just to mail out 300 records. If every DJ in the world used something like Final Scratch, we could send them a high-quality 256kB MP3 file for nothing. As soon as vinyl is gone, it will be easier for new talent to become established. DJs can do instant remixes. It's amazing what you can do. You can add in effects plug-ins or a drum machine that's constantly in time with the record. We're still using technology that was invented in 1870. It's ridiculous. I have no love affair with vinyl whatsoever. It's just a piece of plastic, and it's not good for the environment.

You managed to survive the trance backlash unscathed. Your latest tracks have a distinct techno focus. Do you think techno will become the next dominant style?

I prefer to DJ techno music, but I'll never be accepted in the techno community. There's a lot of snobbery there. Aquatrax is a very credible techno label, and nobody knows it's me. I can do techno as good as anybody, but I can't put those records out on Hook or Bellboy. When I tried to get a techno agent to take on the Aquatrax label, they refused, even though the guy who owns the agency has played a lot of my techno records. There's a lot of politics in this game. To this day, I still don't have an agent in the UK, and I can't get gigs there. The only reason that I can think of is because I own a label, I DJ, and I write music. Nobody likes a smart-ass. I play Europe all of the time. I've played Russia, Australia and the U.S. But in England, no one will give me a shot. But I'll soldier on.

Chris Cowie's Funk Junk

A Selected Studio Equipment List

Computers/Software

Apple Macintosh G4
Atari Falcon running Steinberg Cubase 2.0
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.1
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus
Emagic Logic Audio 5.0
Sonic Foundry Sound Forge
Steinberg Cubase VST/32

DJ Equipment

Allen & Heath Xone:62 DJ mixer
Sony Vaio laptop (for Final Scratch)
Stanton Final Scratch Pro
Technics SL-1210 turntables (2)

Drum Machines/Synths

Roland TB-303 Bass Line
Roland TR-909 drum machine
Yamaha TG-500 synth
Yamaha TX81Z synth

Effects

Behringer Composer compressor
Bel BD80 delay
Ensoniq DP/4 multi-effects unit
Focusrite Platinum compressor
Lexicon MPX-1 reverb
Presonus 8-channel compressors (2)
RNC compressor
TC Electronic D-Two delay
TC Electronic M2000 effects processor
TLA Audio compressor
Waves L1 Ultramaximizer

Samplers/Mixer

E-mu E-64 Ultra
Roland S-750
Roland S-760
Soundcraft Ghost 32-channel console

“I went through four months of writer's block due to technology.”