Martyn Ware – The MusicTech Q&A

We were lucky enough this week to catch up with legendary musician, producer and sound designer Martyn Ware. Martyn, as you probably know, was a founder member of The Human League and Heaven 17, responsible for some of the most cutting edge sounds of the 20th century and new approaches to pop-song-writing. Martyn’s career has […]

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We were lucky enough this week to catch up with legendary musician, producer and sound designer Martyn Ware. Martyn, as you probably know, was a founder member of The Human League and Heaven 17, responsible for some of the most cutting edge sounds of the 20th century and new approaches to pop-song-writing.

Martyn’s career has taken some remarkable twists and turns – from composing pieces for the Royal Ballet, working with Tina Turner on some of her career highlights, being a founder member of the 5D Institute and recently creating the remarkable David Bowie sonifications.

In addition to his already impressive CV he’s also a member of BAFTA, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Visiting Professor at the Queen Mary College in London. He has also recently been voted onto the Board of Featured Artists Coalition alongside Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, Ed O’Brian from Radiohead and many other industry representatives. His latest project is masterminding the third British Electric Foundation album, ‘Dark’ – featuring a range of big-name artists including Boy George, Andy Bell, Sandie Shaw and Shingai from the Noisettes. We caught up with Martyn to discuss the new record and his illustrious career…

Hi Martyn,  you’ve recently hit the news with your sonifications of David Bowie’s album sales, lyrics, and musical elements. How did you begin making these sonifications, is this your first?

Well I was asked by a friend of mine, Alexis Kirke who’s a visiting professor down at the university of Plymouth, and he was asked by the V&A to take part in this ‘Bowie Weekender’ which featured lots of installations and one off events, talks and seminars associated with the ‘David Bowie is..’ exhibition at the V&A. We had been talking about working together for a while and he knew that I was a big Bowie fan so he basically asked if I would like to help out and come up with some ideas, so I did.

I came up with the idea of taking data from David Bowie’s career, by analysing all of his studio songs (from 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ album right up until Bowie’s recent number one record ‘The Next Day’) for tempo and the proportion of major to minor keys. Its always interested me in songwriting terms. That took me a few days to do, and then my friend Alexis looked at the data and said “what would happen if you multiplied the percentage of major chords by the tempo – it should give you a kind of ‘positivity quotient per-album.” We then put that on a graph, and decided to compare that data with estimated worldwide sales, to see if there was any correlation – and there was!

That’s fascinating, I suppose the ‘Let’s Dance’ period altered the graph somewhat..

Actually the shape of the graph was almost identical, ‘Let’s Dance’ sold ten million which was by far his biggest selling record, and after that it was kind of like he was chasing his tail to less effect. The ‘positivity’ graph kept getting more and more positive but sales kept declining and declining. It’s very interesting.

So how would you typically begin to dissect a Bowie track in this way, what’s your starting point?

Well there’s two separate things going on here, Alexis looked at sonifying the emotional content, I was very much focused on the percentage of major chords in a song , or an album when you sum it all up, and tempo of song per-album. There wasn’t really an overlap between our sonifications. So we each had our area. You can’t always say that because something is faster-paced it’s more upbeat and more likely to be successful, it certainly used to be in the early stages of his career, but more recently it’s proved not to be.

Your career has spanned decades as both producer, writer and performer, how do you find working in a modern studio environment compared to when you first began?

Oh, totally, incredibly different. Can you imagine a world without MIDI for a start? Our first recording setup was a stereo tape machine, a microphone, two synths and that’s it – literally! The only way we could create multitrack recording was to record on one side of the stereo and then bouncing and adding at the same time onto the next track, which of course would degrade it to a certain extent, that’s how we made ‘Being Boiled’ (one of the first pieces of electronic pop music produced in the UK)

Being Boiled – a pivotal moment in the genesis of electronic music, recorded in the pre-MIDI era!

So that is really rudimentary recording, but now of course we’ve been through ridiculous amounts of technological change. I could do an hours speech about the changes in music production since I’ve been working. Now of course you can make symphonies on your laptop, but what have we lost along the way? That is the question really

There’s still those that prefer analogue straight-to-tape recording, in fact it seems to be slowly creeping back in, there’s a kind of retro-chic sound aesthetic that’s growing in popularity..

Yes, well I’m a bit ambivalent about all this retro-chic stuff, I mean I totally get where they’re coming from, and I understand why they find it so amazingly engaging. Because it is! You’ve got a visceral connection with the medium, so if you’ve never been through that process then I can completely understand it. But the last thing I want to go back to is having a 24-track in my house!

I quite like the sound of recording on tape, but that’s not an incentive for me to go back there when there’s easier alternatives. I think it’s a bit of a fetishist’s fantasy world, but y’know I totally dig where people are coming from! I was asked recently ‘have you got a studio full of analogue synths?’ and I said well really, all I have now is the original Roland System 100 and the rest is virtual.

The classic Roland System 100 – Martyn’s synth of choice

So would that imply that you rate the System 100 as your favourite analogue synth?

Yes absolutely, just because it taught me so much, by the nature of its modular and patch-able nature, it taught me how to create my own sounds from scratch really, which is an important thing. The process of sound design. So almost by default, using it was akin to a university course! On the job. Nowadays of course the equivalent is to start with presets.

Could you explain the principle of ‘World Building’ and how you first got involved with the 5D Institute?

Right, so a while ago I was introduced by a mutual friend to a guy called Alex McDowell, who is a very famous Hollywood production designer. He’d worked on films like Minority Report, The Terminal and lots of others, working with Steven Spielberg quite a lot. A lovely guy, and he had an idea, when I first met him it was still in the prototype stage really. It was kind of inspired by ‘Future of Sound’ – a touring show that I had put together earlier in my career.

At first he wanted to create an organisation called ‘Matter’, which was about new, immersive experience technology, but he was coming at it from a kind of visual, film-point of view, ‘visioneering the future of entertainment’ and anyway, he heard what we were doing and was inspired by it and so I helped him realise his vision and became a founder member of this thing called Matter which was like a think tank really, with a range of different creative disciplines, the film side, the production side and specialists in the immersive experience world. This all then transmuted itself into 5D – the future of immersive design which is now a fully fledged organisation. It’s really all about discussion and bringing together people from around the world to create new experiences. It’s largely based in LA but it runs conferences around the world, and I go and lecture there.

So of all the projects in your career, what has brought you the most creative fulfilment? And what advice would you give to our readers who would like to pursue a similar path?

Gosh, well it’d be difficult for them to follow a similar path! I’ve had a kind of weird ride. Most creative fulfilment would probably be … I’ll have to answer that in two ways, in the recording field I’d have to say working with Tina Turner, on a musical level working with Phoenix Horns from Earth, Wind and Fire was just a mind-blowing experience. But as an overall thing I’d have to say that writing music for several projects with the Royal Ballet was definitely the most creatively fulfilling thing I think I’ve ever been involved in. The thought of going down in the archives with people like Stravinski y’know, puts all the pop stuff in the shade really.

Speaking of the pop stuff, what are the chances of some original Human League line-up shows? You, Phil, Ian and Adrian on stage with some original analogue gear, doing tracks from Reproduction and Travelogue?

I’ve been trying to persuade Phil to do this for about eight years!, but unfortunately he’s not having it. I think his concern is that there’d be no role for the girls in it.

I guess they’re two separate entities really..

Yeah, and Adrian wouldn’t be involved anyway because he and Phil don’t get on. But yeah Ian would come out of retirement and I’d be extremely keen to do it. I do feel like it’s unfinished business.

And obviously there’s a lot of people that would be very eager to see that happen

To be honest I think it would sell out probably 3 or 4 nights on the Southbank. I definitely would be up for doing it. Simple as that

The new BEF album, ‘Dark’ features a range of big-name artists performing some classic covers, it’s the third in the ‘Music of Quality and Distinction’ series, how did the idea for this series of albums come about?

Well the first album was when me and Ian split from The Human League, and I wanted to create a manifesto for electronic pop really, it was hardly known then and I thought the best way of getting it into the public attention was to use people everyone was familiar with and songs that everyone was aware of, re-interpreted, so that was the inspiration behind the first album. And also I wanted to create more production work., and it worked. Through that of course I got to work with Tina Turner, she asked me to do Private Dancer and then we did Let’s Stay Together.

I had no idea how often we’d do them and if the first one had been a massive commercial success then the second one would have followed immediately. A bit like a super successful film or something. But it wasn’t a massive commercial success, it was a critical success, it was then ten years before I came up with another concept and had the money to do it. Volume 2 was completely self-funded, then sold it to Circle Records who were a part of Virgin at the time. They lost money on the deal which was my own stupid fault! But I’d just made quite a bit doing the Terrence Trent-Derby album so I had money to spend on it. I wanted to invest that in something creative.

I was very proud and still am very proud of Volume 2, but the main issue was that it never properly got released in America. It was after all , pretty much designed for the American market, but that’s a very long story and not for here! Fundamentally it was planned to be a huge release over there but got dropped.

Martyn with Noisettes frontwoman Shingai and icon Sandie Shaw during the making of’Dark’

So of the three records in this series, which are you most satisfied with?

I don’t know really, it’s a tough one that. As an entire body of work I think that Volume 2 and 3 are equal. I think they’re both concepts that hang together very well, the second one I had more budget for, the third one I’ve had no budget for! I was relying on people’s goodwill, but the third did have the most clearly guiding artistic principle. Happy pop-songs done with a dark, electronic theme. But because I had no budget I had to do it all really in my own home studio, I was always fighting against the odds if you know what I mean? But I am very proud of it, there’s some pieces on there that actually make me cry, without meaning to sound melodramatic, I think we really touched something..

There are some very uniquely arranged pieces on there, Boy George’s version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ for example puts an unusual slant on a well-established track

Well that’s kind of like a bit of a Johnny Cash thing, I think it really works because that’s the next level down – it’s getting back to narrative in pop song writing, which I think it a massively missing thing at the moment, it seems there’s not many ‘story stongs’ around anymore. There’s a lot of generic lyric writing. I like narrative in songs.

It’s sad isn’t it, I mean what happened to songwriters like Jimmy Webb for instance? Setting the scene in the first two lines, putting you in that world, an alternative world. This is just my view, and people might think I’m stupid but I don’t care, artists like Coldplay, I mean the lyric writing is so vague and incomprehensible. They’re not really saying anything. But yeah, lyric writing can be a fine line. I really believe in narrative songwriting and always have done

Were the song choices on the record a decision made by yourself and the artists together?

Essentially I was inspired to do this album by listening to ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and also ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’, when listening to those two songs I thought God, the lyrics are so weird and creepy, if you put a different musical backing to them, something much more filmic, you could force a re-interpretation of the songs. That’s exactly the inspiration for the whole album. And it works.

So I made a long list of songs that I thought would fit that bill, sent them out to various artists, most chose from that list but some chose their own songs that they wanted to try out in this way.

So who did you enjoy working with the most on this record?

Well that’s a really difficult answer to give because they’re all on the record out of the goodness of their own hearts and faith, it was an artistic enterprise. I have massive admiration for all of them for having that trust in me

Thanks for chatting with us Martyn, best of luck with the new album!

The new BEF album ‘Dark’ is available from the 27th of May,  join us next week when we’ll bring you Martyn’s track-by-track commentary! Read more about Dark at Heaven


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