Ripping Yarns

Publié le par olivier

Ripping Yarns

From Batley to the Bahamas, Robert Palmer's distinctive and diverse music has provided a refreshing alternative to mainstream pop. Or is that just a polite way of saying he hasn't had a hit lately?

The legend International Musician finally finds gainful employment. If there was anything written on Robert Palmer's shirt it's very probable that it would say International Musician.
International because Yorkshire's favourite white Soul son has lived in Nassau since 1976. International because when the whim takes him Robert Palmer sings in the Bahamas, records in Pigalle and mixes in New York. Musician because he has music coursing through his system. Not an eleven fingered pentatonic player but a musician where the competent bass playing and sharp rhythm guitar are subsequent to the song. A virtuoso he isn't, but a living breathing musical instrument? Well, that's getting a bit closer.

Firstly Robert Palmer has got this voice. A loud voice. Whether he's singing precision engineered Calypso on Pressure Drop or raw Rock raunch on Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley. A loud voice. If Scritti Politti's Green sings from the head, this voice comes from the boot soles. But this is no bludgeoning blunt instrument, this is larynx as art. Robert Palmer thinks before he opens his big mouth. A great white Soul singer. What the hell are we talking about when we trundle the trusty idiom out? Are we talking about Paul Young, Kevin Rowland and Alison Moyet when we should be talking about Van Morrison, Peter Cox, George Michael, Chris Dean, Captain Beefheart, Robert Palmer? Robert Palmer a great white Soul singer?
"I wouldn't sing a Marvin Gaye song. Put it that way."

Palmer is as nomadic in his musical styles as he was during his pre-Nassau days. He sings as happily (occasionally in Urdu) with an all-girl Jazzbrass orchestra as he does with a cross talking Jazz Punk outfit.
"I don't feel particularly aligned with or attached to any one musical style," reasons Palmer cool as the champagne on the restaurant table, "if a song isn't working as a Rock number I'll try it as a Country & Western song and if that doesn't work I'll try it as a Jazz tune."

Understandably the influences are diverse. He currently has a crush on Persian music which he promises he'll "never even consider inflicting upon the public", the Jazz saxophonist Lester Young, and he's even partial to a bit of AC/DC — "the riff on Giving The Dog A Bone — killer".
So how's his AC/DC guitar playing?
"I can't play the lead stuff but my AC/DC rhythm guitar is very well thank you. Isn't everybody's?"

Meanwhile, back in the Bahamas. How close is Compass Point to chez Palmer?
"I can actually see it from my kitchen window. It really put the wind up me when I originally saw the foundations going up. I'd been living there for five years and suddenly this thing emerged out of the ground. I thought, 'My God I've come all this way to get away from Rock 'n' Roll and it's following me. I'll have to find another island'. But it really wasn't that bad. People get very laid-back when they come out. Nobody bothers getting blasted. The atmosphere is very conducive to concentrating on the music. You can focus very clearly. I can use the studio whenever I want. But I never go near it until I've done very comprehensive demos and got the band together. Everything is virtually complete when I go in there."

What he isn't letting on here is that he has a scaled down Compass Point in his own house. The Palmer music room bulges at the seams with the sort of equipment that makes grown home recordists weep. It also short circuits the question about being cut-off from the general equipment scene living in Nassau.
"It doesn't stop me ringing up the manufacturers and asking," he laughs, "I've never stopped doing that. The hub, I suppose, of the system I use at home is the Akai 12-track which I've had for about a year. It does just about everything as far as mixing is concerned and I just plug that into my PCM. It's literally like plugging a cassette recorder in. Very, very, simple. That essentially is my rig. Instrument wise I have as a main keyboard the PPG 2.3 which reminds me of my early days touring. Because I've always liked a lot of textures I used to have to use about 12 keyboards; one set for a synth sound, one set for a harmonica sound, one for steel drums and so forth. The Wave does all that and I can sample on it and sequence on it. The other idea I like about it is that because I'm not a particularly good keyboard player I can just write stuff in on the key pad. I can design my basslines on it and work out chord structures frame by frame. It's a very clever machine. A lot more versatile than the Emulator in my opinion."

Multi-instrumentalism isn't Palmer's bag but he describes himself as a 'fluid' bass player with a style that mediates between Gordon Edwards and Leon Silvers and a strictly-rhythm guitarist who relies heavily on playing odd rhythms.
"My bass playing is probably the thing I'm best at. That and singing. I don't have to look at my hands that much when I play so I guess I must be developing. The playing has a very strong groove to it. I play with my fingers, it seems more natural. My rhythm guitar is fair. I do a lot of punching in on the Akai; it helps me out and I quite like the effect.

"As far as guitars and basses go, I'm very much a Steinberger man. Years ago you couldn't wrench the Telecaster from my hands but I've gradually converted to Steinberger. The neck on the guitar is beautiful — very flat. It makes you chord a lot more precisely and the guitar itself as a machine is so precise I'll often use if for putting down actual chord patterns. Even when you're hammering the tremolo arm it stays so gorgeously in tune.

"You can get a very good Jazz tone from them too. I used it on a few Jazzy Sinatra-type songs recently and it sounds marvellous. It goes beautifully with this gadget I've got called an Exciter which I think is made by Ibanez. It lends this very glassy sound to the guitar without adding any noise. I also use a Rockman for my AC/DC stuff. It's great for those killer riffs.

"The bass I've had for ages. It's almost a vintage one now! I find it very comfortable and lively. If I do eq it I invariably eq it down because it's too bright. I can cope with those sorts of problems." It's strange how Robert Palmer's cool extends to his choice and use of musical equipment. Even his outboard gear has an element of class about it. Not obvious class, but style.

In addition to some minimal delay equipment which he is a little suspicious of, the outboard set-up comprises a Urei stereo parametric, the ubiquitous dbx compressor and a Dynamic stereo compressor ("for thickening the guitar sound"). For voice he prefers the natural compression of mike technique to more machine-aided affairs. The mikes that find Palmer favour are a few antiquated Neumann models ("one looks like a long blue sausage. The engineer dug that up from somewhere, and one is an M49 which I use at home. It's very warm and characteristic.") Utilisation of headphones is dependent on the track in question.

"It also depends on the volume," he adds. "If I'm singing quietly — which isn't too often — then I can get away with using a little speaker. I can even sing in the control room at low levels but if it's a full tenor and we're doing it live then I have to wear headphones just to get a level."


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