Photo: Francois Berthier
Hervé Salters (aka General Elektriks) knows his vintage keyboards. As a session player in his native Paris, with the likes of Femi Kuti and DJ Mehdi — and for the past few years in the San Francisco Bay Area with Blackalicious and various members of the Quannum label family — Salters has carved out his own sound as a musician and producer. He draws from the funky pop-psychedelia of the '70s, but also embraces a way-out future seeped in crackly, chopped-up beats; fuzz-wahs; and Whammy pedals.
“It's a taste thing really,” Salters explains. “When I started playing music, I was an acoustic piano player. Then I switched to electronic keyboards, and the ones that really spoke to me the most had a strong personality like the piano. So the clavinet, the Fender Rhodes, the Hammond organ, the Wurlitzer — they're all going to take your songs into the analog realm whatever you do. That said, I do dig the idea of using these rich, old-school textures and trying to push them into some new territory.”
Good City for Dreamers (Quannum, 2009) is Salters' second album under his nom-de-guerre General Elektriks, and at first blush he seems to have dialed back the freaky collage-based curves of his 2005 debut, Cliquety Kliqk (Quannum), in favor of a much catchier agenda. From the sustained clavinet chords and insistent Roland SH-101 bass line on “Raid the Radio” (see Web Clip 1) to the lush strings, bubbly Rhodes and oddly Daryl Hall-ish vocal of “Engine Kicking In,” kitschy pop sensibilities abound. Still, Salters clearly relishes the unexpected, whether it's slamming an SH-101 solo through a pair of guitar pedals (the Foxx Tone Machine and RMC Wizard Wah on “Raid the Radio”) or dousing a run of notes on clavinet in the wash of a DigiTech Whammy pedal (at the opening of “You Don't Listen”).
“I don't have a decent preamp or compressor,” Salters admits, “so I'll also end up using my guitar pedals as outboard gear. The reverbed vocals on ‘Raid the Radio’ are going through an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail, and you can hear an acoustic piano going through the Whammy on ‘Little Lady’ — that's actually one of four layers of keyboards on that. First I tracked it clean into Pro Tools, then ran it back out through the pedal into a Fender Princeton amp. Basically, I'll try anything until I get a sound I like.”
Salters might have made all of Dreamers in his garage if he hadn't felt the need for live strings and horns, which he recorded at an out-of-the-way space in San Francisco called The Studio That Time Forgot. He demoed the string arrangements on a Roland Juno G (the only synth he owns that isn't from a bygone era) — in one instance even layering the demo underneath the string quartet, which creates the Mellotron effect in the latter-half of “La Nuit Des Ephémères.” But the real standout is “Engine Kicking In,” where the strings and horns mesh seamlessly with complex drum programming by Salters (slicing and dicing entirely in Pro Tools) that sounds remarkably human (see Web Clip 2).
“You have to be ready to go without sleep,” Salters quips, “because it's very time-consuming. The drums on that took me almost a week. If you get into all the little ghost notes on the snare and variations on the hi-hat, and you want it to sound like someone is actually playing, then it's going to take awhile because all you've got is a mouse to work with. But the organic aspect of your drums will really start shining if you go deep enough. In that sense, it gets you much closer to the sound of an old-school record, and the strings and horns, with all the air around them, just enhance that feeling.”
Home base: Berkeley, CA
Key software: Digidesign Pro Tools 7.1
Keyboards include: Hohner Clavinet C, Roland Jupiter 6, Fender Rhodes Stage 73, Hammond L-100