By continually pushing the creative limits of sampling technology, Meat Beat Manifesto have managed to remain just as innovative as they were when they unleashed “Storm The Studio” back in 1988. Elements of such styles as dub, hip hop, industrial and jazz have been heard in Meat Beat Manifesto’s music throughout the years, but their sound has never been derivative of any particular style. Rather, founder Jack Dangers and whomever he is collaborating with at a particular time use electronic music technology to get around any type of musical boundaries that a more traditional band may encounter. Meat Beat Manifesto are back with a new CD, “Autoimmune,” and are hitting the road with a truly multimedia live show. In the following phone interview, Jack talks about the beginnings of the band, video sampling technology, and more.
I read that XTC played a part in your getting into music. Could you elaborate on that?
Oh yes, for sure. If it wasn’t for me getting a little intern job at the only recording studio in Swindon in 1981, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I actually got to see them rehearse for “English Settlement.” They never actually did that tour, because it was when Andy Partridge had a nervous breakdown. So I actually got to see that tour … I was the only one watching it! [laughs] It was in this rehearsal space, with me sitting on all these flight cases wondering why they’re not telling me to get out of the room. So yeah, that changed my life. It got me thinking, ‘well, I want to do something like this.’
When you first started, did you have any expectations as to what you thought it would be like being a musician? How might have things turned out differently than you expected?
I’ve always worked with independent labels, and if I’d signed with a major that might have altered some things. Just because of the people I know, bands that have experienced that. XTC being one of them. I think you’ve got more freedom being on a smaller label. The bigger the label, the more money you’re getting and the more you’re going to have to do what they want. With the exception of rare occasions.
That was the route I took. Who knows where it could have gone. I was always satisfied. If I can inspire people to make music, that is my achievement. I’ve always thought there was something different about what I am doing. Having that in the back of my mind is what keeps me going. I try to make things sound different from other people, even if I am using certain things from whatever this week’s moniker is for electronic music. I’ve been using elements of dub in everything I’ve ever done. Jazz as well.
Wasn’t the new album, ‘Autoimmune,’ meant to be a double disc?
Yeah, a year ago it looked like it would be a double cd. I had like 30 tracks, but just wanted to shave off some of them and go for quality rather than quantity. Which I didn’t on ‘Subliminal Sandwich’ – that was quantity! [laughs] So I narrowed it down to one disc of, to me, the most immediate tracks.
Will the other songs be coming out at some point?
Oh yeah, there are a couple of tracks with vocals that I did all the way through. They’ll be coming out. Probably via some digital source, as it seems to be the easiest way to do it these days. There are some tracks that will be appearing on compilations as exclusives, and things like that. Eventually, I think they will all come out, and we’re doing some of them live, too.
What was it like revisiting early material for the “Archive Things/Purged” release?
It’s a cathartic thing. I was always happier with the demo versions that I did on a Portastudio than the first 2 twelve inches which we put out. And so was the guy who used to run Sweatbox Records [Rob Deacon], who died last summer in a horrific accident in the English Channel. He always thought that the Portastudio versions have more bite. So it was partly on his insistences that people hear what the original demos sounded like. That was the main reason. I still think that it sounds better. ‘I Got The Fear,’ that was the first 12 inch. It was like I had all the freedom and all the time in the world doing these tracks, and then you get put into a studio which you don’t feel comfortable in, and you don’t know your way around. Things can just change.
How progression of technology over the years affected the way you work?
Technology has changed so much. It’s definitively made it easier. What we’re doing live could never have been done 10 years ago. We use like 5 different programs to get to the point where we can play back the visual samples live. We’re still waiting for that Roland box that will be able to do it all in one easy go. But it looks like that’s not coming out yet. The nearest thing is DVJ, but you’re sort of limited in what you can do. It’s sort of like a record, you can scratch it, and you can wind it backwards and forwards. But with our setup you’ve got more control. I’ve always said that technology dictates which way electronic music is going to go. It’s always about using the latest equipment.
If someone did come out with an all-in-one box, do you think you’d be satisfied? Or would you connect it up to other stuff to try to do things beyond what it is intended for?
Oh yeah, we’d have to get in there, rip its guts out, and make it do something nobody else is doing. Do you know Ariel Pink? If you ever heard any of his stuff, you cannot tell what year it is from because he does everything on cassette tape. It gives it a real edge. He’s a really good songwriter. You should check his stuff out.
You seem to have moved away from vocal-driven songs. Why?
Yeah, I don’t know. If you listen to ‘Storm The Studio’ there’s vocals for all of the songs, but there are 4 different versions of each and not so many vocals on the other versions. I use vocoders a lot, so I tend to do just as many vocals but they are effected. Live, I’ve still got three microphones on stage. I haven’t given it up completely. I don’t know. I was repeating myself a little bit, but some people like that. They like it if you go back to an older sound. There’s a track on the new record called ‘Solid Waste’ and that sort references an earlier sound. It was done for the Black Smoke Organization, this Greenpeace compilation album. That’s where that track came out of, and is why it’s got an environmental pitch to it.
What material can we expect to hear on the tour?
Well, we’re playing stuff from ‘Storm The Studio’ onwards. So it’s a bit of everything, not just from the new album. Lynn Farmer is coming out with us to play drums, as well as Mark Pistol and Ben Stokes. Ben and me will be mainly doing video samples, and I’m using the vocoder and doing vocals. It’s different than the last tour. A lot of the spoken word stuff from the earlier albums [is being represented visually]. I didn’t have a rich record collection or even many record shops to go to in Swindon, so a lot of the spoken word stuff I got from films and television. I kept all those VHS tapes and stuff, and was able to go back and find all these pieces of spoken word and attach the visuals to them. So you can see where it came from. There’s a lot of that going on live, and if you know the music you’ll think ‘oh, ok, that’s where that’s from!.’
Do the visuals have any influence on song selection? For example, are there tracks that you might not do because you don’t have accompanying videos?
Not so much. We use a problem called Live and you’re able to do pretty much anything. We’ve got it chained to trigger lights and stuff like that, and actually move robotic cameras. You can see that happening live. We’ve put 40 songs in there so we can be on stage for 3 hours if we wanted to. So it depends on what the mood is. Visually, I’ve got so many different samples that a lot of the time we are improvising. It changes from night to night, and there’s no real anchor. ‘Nuclear Bomb’ has got certain things that we’d have to use in certain places or else it’s just going to be a mess, but on the whole it’s definitely open to improvisation.
You mentioned possible digital distribution for tracks that didn’t make it onto ‘Autoimmune.’ What are your general thoughts on digital music distribution?
I got an email from someone in New Zealand who is not able to get the digital release because the territory is different. So it’s sort of going back to what record labels were like. I was signed to an independent in Belgium but they licensed to a major over here. It was actually Mute through Elektra. The whole structure of music has completely changed over the past 10 years, in how you buy it and listen to it. But I don’t even know anymore. It’s on iTunes, but you can’t get it in New Zealand? I didn’t know that until today.
I like the ease of being able to pull a track down which you haven’t heard in 30 years and buy it for $1. I’ve bought tons of stuff that way. I’ve never illegally downloaded anything in my life. I like to think I’m supporting musicians that way.