DIGITAL Darkness

It's hard to tell whether Luke Haines and John Moore's bone-dry wit and biting sarcasm are merely the expression of a common British stereotype or bald,

It's hard to tell whether Luke Haines and John Moore's bone-dry wit and biting sarcasm are merely the expression of a common British stereotype or bald, unabashed mockery. Regardless, the quintessentially British members of Black Box Recorder have turned this uneasy humor into a musical art form with three long-players filled to the brim with careless charm, languid harmony and a darkly comic sense of self-consciousness relayed through Sarah Nixey's ice-queen vocals.

The group's latest release, Passionoia (One Little Indian, 2003), strays from the hazy dream states perfected on previous albums England Made Me (Chrysalis, 1998) and The Facts of Life (Nude, 2000), but in no way has the trio gone soft. After a few years of wrapping straightforward, sometimes fierce lyrics and melodies in layers of pop-friendly, downbeat bliss, Black Box Recorder returns with a sharp, pointed take on British popular music that veers from prog house to synth pop and acoustic ballads, all executed with a balls-out gutsiness that suggests they really don't give a shit what people think as long as they're having fun — not bad for a group that professes to take inspiration from British tabloids and notorious criminals.

“We used to go to the law courts to see people be prosecuted; that was one of our sort of afternoon activities,” Haines recalls. “There's so much out there anyway, due to the fact that the IQ of this country falls by half each generation.”

“There's always somebody who's so far beyond the pale of what's acceptable that they become fascinating,” Moore concurs.

“There's always a good nutter,” Haines adds with relish. “We like Englishness that's gone wrong, and we like to celebrate that. We don't necessarily see anything that bad in it.”

The festivities this time around take place in that increasingly muddled intersection between pop and electronic music. By no means a dance album, Passionoia occupies that bleary sonic space between classic Massive Attack, pop princess Kylie Minogue and Mirwais-produced Madonna. The evolution of their sound has quite a bit to do with the engineers that they've worked with. Jim Warren (known for his work with Radiohead) and co-producer Pete Hofmann add in subtle electronic flourishes after the group records its songs in the studio. Although the latest album from BBR obviously owes a great deal to studio technology, the songs retain a vaguely retro feel thanks to some key pieces of equipment.

“The Logan is an integral part of our sound,” Moore says of the Logan String Melody II keyboard that appears on the majority of BBR's tracks. “We bought it for 50 quid from a flea market. It's one of those early-'70s pre-synth analog keyboards. It's got about four sounds on it; two of them are really, really good, so we use that quite a lot. We managed to clean it by spitting in the jacks and blowing the dust out.”

“The thing with the Logan is that they were trying to get a decent replication of string sounds but failed completely,” Haines adds. “So you get this sound that isn't a string sound — it's not even a synth sound or an organ sound.”


Haines and Moore have a fondness for equipment with character: Besides the Logan flea-market gem, both musicians have experience on a variety of instruments, especially the more unusual sort: glockenspiels, omnichords, santurs (an Indian hammered dulcimer), you name it. Haines was a child piano prodigy and studied the great works of classical piano. Later, he moved on to neoglam pop as a member of The Auteurs, followed by a one-off stint in avant-funk with Baader Meinhof, a solo project named for a group of West German anticapitalist politicos.

Moore, on the other hand, took the guitar route from an early age and found himself replacing Bobby Gillespie (now of Primal Scream) as drummer for Jesus & Mary Chain in 1986. Moore obsesses about guitars like some women obsess about shoes (his dream instrument is a Gretsch Electromatic Bo Diddley guitar made by Friedrich Gretsch himself), but perhaps his most impressive piece of musical equipment is the Hercules 22-inch hand saw, an instrument he played in the same folk band that Haines played guitar. In fact, it was in that band that Moore and Haines first saw potential to work together. Eventually, Moore says, the pair simply “fell out with the others.”

Besides functioning as a handy little tool to have around the house, the saw produces quite a lovely sound, according to Moore. “It's a fairground, circus-clown sort of instrument; I have enough belief in myself to be able to say that,” he says, chuckling. “I thought it made a very beautiful sound — very haunting, otherworldly. And it was a lot lighter than carrying a guitar amp around. I wasn't going to help out friends in a folk band and carry a guitar around with me all the time. A saw fits nicely into a bag, at least.”

Having progressed a bit beyond playing household tools at this point, Moore and Haines have embraced new studio technology — albeit somewhat grudgingly — with Hofmann completing the bulk of the dirty work, so to speak. “You don't even need instruments to write songs [anymore],” Haines grumbles. “With technology, anyone can program a hi-hat. But if it works on acoustic guitar or piano, it's a song. We've never written anything that was based purely around something we programmed up.”


Enter Hofmann, co-producer of Black Box Recorder's past two albums (he produced a few tracks for England Made Me, as well). He first worked with Haines in 1993 on The Auteurs' Now I'm a Cowboy (Virgin, 1994) album and met Moore and Nixey a few years later. “The thing with Black Box Recorder is to get all their [Moore and Haines are the primary songwriters] ideas down as fast as possible; then, I sit down and embellish and sort out what we are going to use,” he explains. “I generally spend a lot more time in the studio programming and compiling, hopefully doing something they will like the next day. I might sample something or clock a tempo. Other times, they might just strum an acoustic and sing along, and we put it together from the ground up.”

By the time Haines and Moore sit down with Hofmann in the studio, they already have a fairly clear idea of what they want. “You don't write the songs in the studio, you record in the studio,” Moore says emphatically. “The studios, however comfortable you try to make them, are not where you live. They might have a pool table; you might be able to get sushi 24 hours [a day]; they might have a swimming pool. But when you go into the swimming pool, you're wasting a fucking whole load of money, which you have to pay for at the end.”

Money issues aside, Moore and Haines are adamant that new technology will not affect the way they approach songwriting. They view it as a craft borne of genuine creativity, not something based on one's ability to manipulate high-tech gadgets. “No one has really improved upon the idea of making pop records by using new technology,” Haines insists. “The technology had been fine-tuned before that for about 100 years. The technology now hasn't been fine-tuned and has only existed for about the past 10 years.”

“It's not like a vintage Gibson or a Fender from the '50s and '60s, when they were properly made,” Moore adds. “The thing about digital, high-tech, top-end studios is they can make the Spice Girls sound good. Whereas 20, 30 years ago, the Spice Girls would never have been anything but strippers.”


Retaining the integrity of Nixey's voice is particularly important for BBR, so Hofmann takes great pains to integrate it properly with the rest of the live and electronic milieu. He tracked the live elements of each song onto an Amek desk, and for the vocals, he used a B&K 4011 microphone through a Tube-Tech MEC 1A. “I have tried so many mics with her, and this is where I ended up,” he says. “What you need is low noise and high detail without being too bright. I use the B&K because it's clean and crisp. Sarah is one of the quietest singers I've worked with and can be quite sibilant. We tracked most of the last album on an AKG C 414 but towards the end found the B&K was better-suited and was surprisingly less sibilant. The Tube-Tech just adds a little crunch, and I even sometimes only run the vocals back through this at the mix.”

For recording live drums, Hofmann sets up the kit and captures the sound with a combination of different microphones. “[I use] a combination of close mics [AKG D112 and C 451, Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD 421] and then put up a lot of ambient mics to give flexibility later on. The point of ambient mics is to give more of a room sound to the drums. I record both near and far to give myself the choice at the mix. I never EQ or compress too much to Pro Tools. I might use some plug-ins to give an idea of the direction, but, normally, most of my time is spent getting the parts how I want them. If the track is heavily programmed, I have been known to use Beat Detective, but I prefer to still do it by hand to keep a bit of the feel, especially on tracks like ‘British Racing Green.’”


Some say there's no better test of a good song than performing it onstage; indeed, through live performance, Black Box Recorder really gets to strut its stuff. Whereas songs on England Made Me and The Facts of Life allowed more room for improvisation and embellishment, Passionoia requires a bit more restraint. “Some of our recent stuff and more complex stuff is sequenced,” Haines explains. “Mainly because apart from the drummer, there's only John and I [onstage with instruments], and we like to do embellishments. We do a lot of things which aren't really on the record because they're really just rock 'n' roll clichés. Live, we like to do those.”

Although Haines jokingly likens BBR's stage show to a “Robert Palmer video in reverse” (that is, with smartly dressed guys serving as a backdrop to the charismatic female vocalist), their stage setup is a rather complex affair. Moore, for instance, manipulates strings and piano sounds with his guitar: “Guitarwise, I like the Gretsch Electromatic. It's a Bo Diddley square guitar, a classic old Gretsch. I have a Roland minipickup mounted onto it, so I play a lot of the string samples and things on the guitar, and I play the grand piano off the guitar, which is a sight to behold.

“The live thing had always been kind of skeletal versions of what we've done on record,” Moore says of the band's earlier gigs. “Now, we actually have a full live complement. We now have kind of a show whereas before, it was very much like a couple of old men playing a record.” Rounding out the group's stage show is Tim Weller, who handles the drumming and MIDI equipment, and Wayne Hyde serves as BBR's tour manager and FOH sound engineer.

“When playing the songs from Passionoia, the band stick to the map of the songs, and it is sequencer-based,” Hyde says. “What this all means is that with BBR, I have to be very hands-on with the faders. Nearly all of them! Not just guitars and vocals. Creating the right mix for each song from the three quite different-sounding albums they have is a challenge. [Moore's] MIDI-fitted guitar triggers two sources of a vast array of sonic noises, as well as playing into a more conventional guitar-pedal/amp setup. Luke also works with a wide dynamic range using various analog pedals.

“We can go from a full stereo-wide sequencer-based song to a punk-sounding tune in this setlist, so I have to maybe reset what I can on the desk to sound more aggressive straight after a rounded, bouncy pop song — without losing the vocal level, too! Utilizing compression carefully over what channels I can is a great help.”


Despite having complicated rigs available to them either in live settings or recording sessions, Haines and Moore appear to be somewhat unimpressed by all of the fancy gear. “It's going to be important when people realize how linear the whole Pro Tools technology is,” Haines asserts. “People can moan about selling pop music, but you're not selling pop music — you're selling recording technology. [It's] made it too easy for shit to rise to the surface rather than cream.”

For them, it's not that using such recording and producing aids is cheating by any stretch of the imagination. It's more like taking a shortcut and never realizing how long the route actually is. “I think when you go down the Pro Tools route, it's very hard to find your way back,” Haines muses. “Especially if you're an artist with a lot of money behind you.”

“We're trailblazers by accident,” Moore adds, noting the retro-leaning feeling of some of the tracks on Passionoia and BBR's previous albums. “We'd like to have a lot of money behind us, but then we wouldn't have the experience of making the record.”

“It's like this strange idea that the technology has made anything better,” Haines says with a shrug. “Is Radiohead, as good as it is, better than Jerry Lee Lewis? Has anyone ever written a better book with the aid of a computer?”

Yet Moore and Haines suggest — jokingly, of course — that what all of this gear talk comes down to is vanity, pure and simple. “A good-looking guitar, you can have in the home,” Moore insists. “You can't have a good-looking piece of digital equipment in the room.”

“We're not technicians — we're songwriters; we're artists and poets,” Haines says, with just a hint of sarcasm. “From a vanity point of view, you can't stand in front of a mirror and pose with a piece of digital equipment when you're 14 or whatever. But you can strap on a guitar, and you can be Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix.”



Access Virus soft synth
Akai S3200 sampler
AKG 414 EB mic
AKG 451 EB mic
AKG D 112 mic
Amek 2520 console
AMS Neve RMX16 digital reverb
AMS Neve 1580 stereo delay
Apple Mac G3, G4 computers
B&K 4011 mic
Clavia Nord Lead synth
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.1.3
Digidesign 888|24 I/O 24-bit interfaces (2)
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Korg MS-20 synth
MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV interface
Native Instruments Absynth
Roland Dimension D effects processor
Roland JV-1080 rack synth
Roland TR-606 Drumatix drum machine
Sennheiser MD 421 mic
Shure SM57 mic
SSL G384 stereo compressor
Summit Audio EQP-200 stereo tube EQ
Tube-Tech MEC 1A preamp/EQ/compressor
Yamaha NS10 monitors


Luke Haines
Fender Telecaster guitar
Gibson ES-335 guitar
Logan String Melody II synth
Novation Bass Station synth
Takamine EN10C acoustic/electric guitar
Vox AC30 guitar amp

John Moore
Akai S950 sampler
Boss ME-5 guitar effects processor
Colorsound Tremolo pedal
Gretsch Electromatic Bo Diddley guitar
Roland GK2AH MIDI pickup
Roland GR-series guitar synth
Vox AC30 guitar amp