If you could take the best elements of dance music and mix it all together in a blender, the resulting concoction would be similar to what Groove Armada has created for the better part of a decade. The product of UK team Andy Cato and Tom Findlay, Groove Armada's sound ranges from one of the chill-out genre's signature moments, “At the River,” to the booty-shakin' cheeky international smash, “I See You Baby.” It's always been way more that just beats and rhythms, though, and Groove Armada's staying power reflects the duo's understanding of proper pop-song structures and the need to constantly change things up.
In its 10-year career, Groove Armada has released four artist albums — 1998's Northern Star (Tummy Touch), 1999's Vertigo (Jive), 2001's Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) (Jive) and 2002's Lovebox (Jive) — several “best of” compilations, a remix compilation and a number of popular DJ mix CDs. In all, these releases have amounted to sales topping more than $2 million worldwide. However, despite the commercial success of single “I See You Baby,” differences between Groove Armada and then label Jive hindered Cato and Findlay from really popping in the United States. “When ‘I See You Baby’ came out, it was our first time in the States, and the label was trying to push us in the way they pushed Britney [Spears] and their other artists, which is ridiculous. It was limousines and doing photo shoots in between two oiled-up bums,” Cato says.
Despite offering new artist albums almost annually, the feud with Jive caused a gap of six years between the domestic releases of Lovebox and Groove Armada's newest CD, Soundboy Rock. Licensed in North America by landmark house label Strictly Rhythm (the CD was released overseas in 2007), Soundboy Rock brings together numerous musical worlds and features a broad range of collaborators including Candi Staton, Angie Stone, Simian Mobile Disco, MAD and Mutya (Sugababes). “If only Strictly came sooner,” Cato says. “You are talking with people who speak the same vocabulary, love the tunes and are open to ways of doing things. This is really like a fresh start for us and a way to finally do things properly.”
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Much of what went into the process of producing Soundboy Rock involved a series of firsts for Groove Armada. With past CDs, Cato and Findlay escaped to their English countryside studio during the production process. This time around, both men saw little face time together during the initial stages of Soundboy Rock. Findlay worked from his studio in London while Cato worked from his studio (dubbed “The Bunker”) in Barcelona, Spain. The two eventually came together in Barcelona for six weeks of production, but e-mail and the Internet became a breeding ground for where the earliest ideas were shared.
“This system worked well on the one level because early on we were able to put our own unique ideas on the music, and we had two very different studios doing that,” Cato says. “Tom has an amazing collection of drum machines and synths and stuff like that, while my studio is geared toward live instrumentation and things that lend well to producing the house-y side of music. At the same time, we need to be careful not to go too far making music in different places and independent operations. When we're together, things take on a vibe that is Groove Armada, and we can't really figure out how that happens on its own.”
While six years between CDs is not such a long time in the grand scheme of things, the hiatus is like decades in the evolution of production gear. In the past, Cato and Findlay made music with whatever was available, including a Clavia Nord Lead synth, E-mu sampler, Alesis multi-effects unit and Mackie mixer. “It was tough then because you were dealing with sampling memory of 45 seconds and a MIDI-only Cubase sequencer,“ Cato says. “You now have more computing power in a USB key ring. It's like a different world today,.”
Soundboy Rock was produced almost exclusively with digital and analog gear that was never previously used on a Groove Armada CD. While a Mac G5, Apple Logic Pro 8 and a series of UAD-1, Wave and Ohm Force plug-ins rule over the digital side of things, the main analog sounds are generated through the Roland Jupiter-8 (“It has lovely chord sounds,” Findlay says), the Juno-106 (“Gives you a great '80s sound,” he says), Thermionic Culture and Telefunken preamps and SSL compressors. “Basically everything for this album was out of the box,” Findlay says. “We did a pop record in the sense that we wanted it to be immediate and more focused and not do six-and-a-half-minute dance tracks that took two-and-a-half minutes of kick drums before you got anywhere. It was more of a focus to make songs, and we chose a simple array of gear that helped produce the sound effectively.”
Although Soundboy Rock was created using gear not previously used on other Groove Armada recordings, it wasn't a vehicle for massive experimentation. Most if not all of the production methods are pretty straight up, and the quality sound is due more to skill than trickery. The days of Groove Armada's intense experimentation began and ended with 2001's Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub). This was a time when Cato and Findlay attempted feats such as producing natural reverb by standing out in a field with their heads in a bucket. “We were in the middle of nowhere for too long with too much weed,” Cato says. “Having said that, a lot of older downtempo tracks like ‘Lazy Moon,’ ‘Edge Hill’ and ‘Drifted’ come from that period. There's a certain detail about the tracks, and it's a tripped-out headphone listen. It's really psychedelic, so maybe our experiences lent to the sound?”
These days, loops provide the building blocks of Groove Armada tracks. Cato and Findlay lay down simple grooves as the basis for a track with the aim of building new ideas and structures on top of it. By the time a track is ready for a mixdown, the loop is either removed or dissolves into itself. “Generally, mixing starts with the bottom end and sorting out the relationship between the kick and the bass line as a constant throughout the tune,” Cato says. “Then you get to the rest of the rhythm section and get it to a point where it sounds good-ish. No compression on it, though. Make it sound good before you push the ‘make it sound better’ button. After that, it's about pushing things over each other and seeing what works.”
GUIDED BY VOICES
You won't hear Cato or Findlay singing on tracks, but that's nothing new; Groove Armada is known for its alliance with vocalists. From the sampling of Patti Page's “Old Cape Cod” on the divine “At the River” to collaborations with the likes of Richie Havens, Gram'Ma Funk and Neneh Cherry, each singer has added something special to Groove Armada's sound throughout the years. As many producers will attest, vocalists can be very unorthodox and colorful with their work ethic in the studio. Having worked with vocalists of both small and large profiles, Cato and Findlay have learned to create an environment that lends itself to an efficient working process. “A lot of [vocalists] are constantly surrounded by people who always say ‘yes’ all the time,” Cato says. “We are quite good about getting to a point quickly where we have a laugh and take the piss out of people and then they do the same to us. Once you do that, a lot of trouble goes out the window. You need to treat people honestly and like a mate, and then they'll put their guard down.”
A good example of walking a thin line with vocalists was the making of “Paris” featuring southern soul legend Candi Staton. “Candi Staton was interesting because she's just a classic singer,” Findlay says. “She came in with a baseball cap with no ego at all. She just did two takes, and that's what we got out of her. That's cool because she's totally entitled to that, and we got whatever we could out of her. She's just one of the great soul singers of all time, and we couldn't possibly ask for more.”
Staton wrote the lyrics and melodies for “Paris,” but the chorus on the final version is not the actual chorus she delivered. Staton arrived at the studio and offered a six-minute stream of consciousness from which Cato and Findlay sampled what they needed. “It's a massive cut-up of her original vocal over a different backing track,” Cato says. “The sound is very compressed and glitched up so we can get that NYC house sound. If you use a great mic like a Neumann U 47 or U 87 and place it seven or eight inches from someone's mouth, then that's a job well done. It's important to start with a great vocal take that sounds like it's in front of you; then it's possible to add any distortion to make it sound great.”
Each Groove Armada track is a constantly evolving piece of music, and what you hear on a particular recording is not necessarily a finished track — no matter how good it sounds. “Like all producers, we are knob tweakers and twiddlers, and these tunes never are done, to be honest,” Findlay says. “We have those moments where we finish something, change one noise, and then scrap everything. We did that with the Angie Stone track called “Feel the Same.” We were mixing the track down and then found these chord changes that totally recontextualized the vocal, and we scrapped it.”
Another instance where a track might take on a life of its own is in the live setting. It's always been tricky to replicate a catalog of songs featuring multiple vocalists with distinct voices, so Groove Armada was forced to create new live versions of the tracks that offer a radically different spin on the original. “Through lots of experimentation and failure, we are at the point where we have the weight and fatness and contemporariness based on a proper electronic live show, but it's all done with a full band,” Cato says. “This was one thing that we could actually control while the label, [Jive], was screwing with us, and now we play dance music like nobody else.”
Cato and Findlay will tour Europe throughout the spring and summer months and plan on a return to North America for a live tour this fall. Larger markets will receive the full-on live show while smaller markets will get a taste of Groove Armada behind the decks. Much like Cato and Findlay's 2004 mix CD, Doin' It After Dark, Vol. 2 (Ragbull), fans can expect a DJ set rooted in house that spans from disco to digital, glitchy inflections. Of course, it's always a highlight when the towering 6-foot-8-inch Cato breaks out the trombone for his signature brass solos.
Groove Armada's lengthy world tour will provide Cato and Findlay with yet another first. Looking to get back on a regular schedule of producing and releasing music, the pair is traveling on the road with a mobile production setup. The portable studio features software including Apple Logic, Propellerhead Reason and a few soft synths. “There is just so much downtime on the road, and it's good to produce during that time rather than sitting around,” Findlay says. “I spoke with [producer] Mylo the other night and couldn't believe how great his music sounds with just bare bones and basic material. Sometimes you can be paralyzed by how many options there are just by picking synths alone, so we'll keep it simple. Structuring a song should be simple, and then when you are moving in, you can add all the other stuff in. It's definitely made touring a lot more interesting to produce on the road.”
Apple Mac G5 running Logic Pro 8
AMS-Neve 8816 16 × 2 summing mixer
Sampler, drum machine
Akai MPC2000XL-SE1 MIDI Production Center
Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer
Synths, software, plug-ins, instrument
Ohm Force OhmBoyz delay plug-in
Propellerhead Reason software?
Roland Juno-106, Jupiter-8 and TB-303 synths
Sequential Circuits Pro-One
Universal Audio UAD-1 plug-ins
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Chandler Limited “Abbey Road” TG1 stereo compressor/limiter
Coles 4038 BBC-designed ribbon mic
Fairman Tube Master Compressor
Neumann U 47 mic
Sherman Filterbank signal processor
Telefunken V72 preamp
Thermionic Culture Earlybird 2.2 preamp/EQ
Adams S4A active monitors