Friday, August 29, 2008

Al Kent's Million Dollar Disco Interview

Al Kent recently released the brilliantly produced Million Dollar Orchestra LP. He took on the difficult task of going back to an analog studio, and bringing in a gang of musicians to record a truly live and fully orchestrated disco LP. There are funky drumbreaks, booty shaking basslines, soaring string sections, horns galore and just about anything else you would hope for in a fully orchestrated disco LP comprised of a 12 piece band.

Click here to listen to a medley of the Million Dollar Orchestra LP.

He also runs the notorious Million Dollar Disco website, is one of the members behind the Northern Disco party, drops deadly disco mixes with tunes you've never heard before, and has edited more disco records than you own. Here is the interview I recently conducted with the man from Scotland, that managed to capture the essence of the backstreet disco sounds of NYC in the 70s, combined with the raw aesthetic of Northern Soul, while crafting it all for a modern dancefloor. Read on!

Let's go back to where it all began, how did you get into northern soul?

Northern soul was a progression from being a young mod. We were all already into soul stuff, but really obvious Motown kind of things. Stuff that was reissued or got played at the school disco. Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Vandellas. And then Stax, Sue, Atlantic; similar stuff to northern, but nothing particularly rare or unknown. We had our own little scene, but once we looked old enough we ventured to some big boys' pubs and clubs, and this was the first time I saw and heard northern. It was all run of the mill records; Out On The Floor, Under My Thumb, Tainted Love, Skiing In The Snow, but it was nothing I knew then, and these guys were fucking dancing like nothing I'd seen before. So, slowly I started to get into that. Very slowly, because I didn't have a clue what the hell it was.
What were some of your earliest dancefloor memories?

My earliest memory of it is this guy Ped Smith (RIP), who was dancing to a Chairman Of The Board record at this club. He had all the gear on and had the floor to himself and was doing these crazy spins and drops and stuff. I just stood there watching him with my mouth open.
Club names?

The first "clubs" I went to were just hired out boozers - backroom function suite kind of places. Who knows the names now. Most Northern things don't really happen in clubs, it's YMCA halls, or ballrooms, or community centres. Anywhere with a big wooden floor and the chance of an all night entertainment license - or someone who's willing to hire it out with no questions asked.
Djs you liked?

The most important DJs when I was coming up were Keb Darge, Guy Hennigan, Dave Thorley - Dave ran an all nighter in Stafford that saved the scene after Wigan closed - Wigan was like the Ministry of Sound of its day - 200,000 members or something, and no quality control over the music. Stafford was all about rare, good records, whereas Wigan had become all about fast records regardless of quality. Those three totally flipped what northern soul had become by playing some astonishing music. Not what had become the standard northern soul sound particularly, that stompy motown stuff - most of that had been discovered by that point. It got called "sixties newies" , and "beat ballads" and stuff. I loved that.Then there was this guy Jim Tennant who was important to me, because he lived close to me and had just the most insane collection - his cupboards were full, under his bed was packed, record boxes everywhere - and all records you could only dream about owning. He'd been collecting a long time so had some serious treasure. He taught me a lot about music. And I taught him a lot about weed.The first time I met Jim was actually the first time I played at a proper northern soul do - I was on early doors so because no one was really there yet I played this crazy rare record that someone had cut on acetate for me. He just casually walked over and said "you shouldn't play bootlegs". I was mortified. And I never have since.Other Scottish DJs who I loved were Alan & Steve Walls, Mark Linton and especially the one and only Jock O'conner. Jock would play anything that was good regardless of tempo or whatever. My lasting memory of him was the last hour or two at Shotts all nighter when he'd play the most soulful shit just as the sun was coming up. And we were coming down. I'm sure I saw people crying.

Northern soul patches you wore? Any funny outfits? Fave dance moves?

Ha! Yes, I had some patches. I still have them in fact. I had the talc, deodorant, change of clothes in the holdall covered in patches. I didn't wear a vest though. Too skinny. But I did have the wide trousers and shiny soled shoes. I wasn't a great dancer, I didn't have any of those crazy moves you see. But after a few lines of whizz - I was all over that floor.
What was the first real soul record you bought?

Hmm.. It's hard to say. What's real soul? The first record I had that turned me onto soul was this comp on Tamla Motown called "20 Mod Classics" that I bought on my way home from school one day. It was all Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, The Velvelettes, Vandellas... I didn't really understand it. The music we were into then was like The Jam and The Chords - guitar bands who dressed mod. But it had a big mod target on the front so I gave it the benefit of the doubt and got into it a bit after a few listens.I don't know where we got the information from back then, but somehow I got into more of this stuff. There was a shop near me, The Record and Card Centre - they sold greeting cards, but had a little bit at the back of the shop with some records. They had this big book you could look through and pick records for them to order for you. It was all new, or reissues obviously, but I was there all the time. Then I remember having things like Sweet Soul Music, and Hold On I'm Coming and stuff on original 45s - I don't know where I would've got them though.The first "northern" record I remember finding was "Interplay" by Derek and Ray - a truly awful record. It sums up what Wigan Casino turned into - not in the least bit soulful, fast, stompy instrumental with bits you could clap to. I was young though. I thought I was the man because i had a northern soul record.
When did you realize some of your records weren't really just northern soul, but they were also disco records?

I'm not sure. There wasn't any moment when the penny dropped. I remember buying Four Below Zero on 12" because I really wanted it and couldn't find the 45. And I hated it. It was too long, too much instrumental at the end. And it just sat there looking all big and stupid. Obviously it said "Roulette Disco" on the sleeve. But I don't remember noticing that. And to me then, disco was Saturday Night Fever, and Funky Town, and D.I.S.C.O, so there was no connection for me. I was still into '60s stuff then mainly, just starting to like "modern". Most of what I got into was disco-ish, but I just didn't know it at the time. And I don't remember a point when I realized.
How did you end up getting into both disco and house?

The first time I really remember taking disco seriously was when I bought a load of 12"s from this really crappy record shop in Glasgow. I'd been through every single 45 in the place and found nothing. So I had a quick look at the 12s - there was some Salsoul, same label as Eddie Holman and Skip Mahoney, so I might as well take them. And then anything else that looked similar, or was from the '70s I ended up buying. I guess that was when I started noticing things like "special 12 inch disco mix" or whatever. I've always had this attitude to music too, that I want to be into things that other people aren't. It comes from northern soul I guess. So collecting disco records at that time seemed pretty cool.I got into house by accident. People I knew were going to these parties and taking pills and telling me I should come along. I was still going to all nighters, snorting speed. The first time I saw one of the parties it kind of freaked me out - Yogi Haughton used to do these all nighters where there was one room house, and one room soul. I was going to the toilet when the door to the house room opened and it was like shoulder to shoulder, sweat, strobes, crazy music. I didn't get it. It just looked scary. Then a while later at Southport we took acid and ventured from the soul room into the main hall. We'd seen it during the day and it was all dayglo paint, big spheres hanging from the ceiling and stuff and it looked stupid. But when it was full of bodies and music, and we were tripping, it suddenly made sense. So I started going to parties and kind of got into house for a couple of years.
What was the first record you made, and what inspired you to commit that crime?

Shit. I won't even tell you the first record I made. Just in case it shows up somewhere. We split a 12" with Kevin McKay from Glasgow Underground, and pressed up 300 copies or something. It was nothing more than us wanting to make a record because we could. We didn't know how. And it showed. The weirdest thing was, we sold all the records! The first record I made on my own was actually called "Million Dollar Disco" - I sampled Janice, and put it over house drums. That was it. And people bought that too!________________________________________________________
Tell us about shying away from house, and getting deeper into disco edits/disco.

I was never really that big a house head. I think it was more the parties than the music for me. There was this massive explosion in the 90s here when everyone in the country had decks and spent all their money on records. And I hated that. I bought some records and did some DJing, but I couldn't really keep up, because my heart wasn't in it. I kept making records, some of which are actually OK, but I didn't really go to many parties, or listen to much of the music, so I had no inspiration. Eventually I realized that I wasn't enjoying it at all. I remember playing somewhere and just looking at my watch the whole time, thinking, fucking hurry up and be over. The next time I DJed I played only disco. And that was actually a good decision, because I've had way more gigs since then, and obviously love playing this music. I doubt I could've done it without the house gigs first though.I'd always mucked around with edits, from when I mastered the pause button on a tape recorder. I didn't know I was editing. It was just kind of fun. But pointless. Then when I got a Mac I'd do it on there. It was only when I realized I could burn this stuff to CD that I started doing edits seriously.
What was your inspiration for MDO?

The real inspiration for MDO was this journalist from Edinburgh - he interviewed me for a newspaper and asked if I could send him some music. So I sent him a load of the house stuff I'd been making and he emailed me a while later to say how surprised he was. He seemed genuinely disappointed. And I felt ashamed He told me he expected it to be more traditional disco, and I kind of realized I was being lazy. I wasn't making music that I felt. Just boshing together a couple of samples for a quick buck. If I wanted to keep making music, I had to make disco music. So I sampled some drums and percussion from old records and got a friend to come over and play some keys for me. I still had no idea what I'd do with it, but it was a step in the right direction away from the stuff that had been boring me.
Were you listening to any records in particular during the creative process?

Nothing in particular during the writing process, but I did play a lot of music to the band. I played things like Lenny Williams "You Got Me Running" and Salsoul Orchestra stuff to Charlie for keyboard parts, Lots of Earl Young for Jim the drummer. Then me and Marco listened to Walter a lot when we were mixing. I don't think we managed to capture it though. Not enough PCP.
How did you write the songs?

I can't read or write music, so the songs kind of wrote themselves. I played Raymond (keyboard guy) some records, said I like this bit here, and this bit here, and he played his interpretation of it. We did some guide basslines on a synth too. But that sounded nasty, so I asked around and found a bass player who played the parts properly. I found out a guy who I knew from DHP as a disco head only lived five minutes away from me, AND he plays guitar. So he came down and I recorded him. Then I started editing. And editing. And editing. Till I had maybe a dozen tracks that sounded like they were going in the right direction. Then I got asked to do a live show, so had to come up with a band quick style. I asked around and ended up with a new keyboard player, a drummer, two percussionists, bass player, guitarist, two saxophonists, trumpet, three vocalists. And me on syn drums. So I thought, hmm... a band? It seemed stupid to go back to the sampled beats on the Mac, so I asked them if they were up for it, and they were. We started rehearsing; I played them the stuff I'd done. They kind of played it back, the horn guys would have an idea, try it out, the keys guy would do his thing, it all developed. All the rehearsals were recorded, so every week I'd go home with a CD and edit all the new bits in, and the shit bits out. Take my edited versions to the next rehearsal and so on until I felt we were ready.
How did the band come together?

See above. It was just a case of asking around. OK, you play bass - do you know anyone who can play keys? You play keys, do you know anyone who can play drums? I'd DJed a couple of times with these guys on sax, so I looked them up, they knew a guy who could play trumpet and a guy who could play trombone, so they hooked that up. And they also knew how to score strings, and had the contacts to get the players.
What was the recording studio it was done in?

We recorded in a place called The Barn. I'd done some artwork for the manager of Marco, the guy who runs it. So I looked him up because I knew it was a proper studio and not some protools kind of place.
What type of rooms were used?

The Barn is just what it sounds like - an outbuilding on an old farmhouse where Marco's family live. It's been partitioned off into a control room and live room. And he was just building a drum booth when we first spoke. I had to wait a few weeks to start recording for him to finish it. When we recorded the rhythm section they were all in one room, the drummer in his booth, but we put up these big boards to stop the sound leaking between instruments.
Type of mixing boards? Microphones? Other equipment specs?

OK. I'm not very technically minded like that, so I have no idea on specifics. All I know is we recorded everything through a big fuck off desk. A proper mixing desk, not some on-screen protools number. We recorded to a mac, because it's the 21st Century, but everything was mic'd up, and went through the desk. No plug ins were used at all. Ever. The whole point of going to Marco was because I knew he had all this gear. He's a gear nerd. Everything's either vintage, or as good as vintage would be. And instrument-wise - the keyboards were vintage Wurlitzer and Rhodes, The Clav's real, the synth's a vintage Moog, the drum kit was vintage - The drum kit was gold glitter- vintage syn drums. All for real. It took Marco and Jim, the drummer, the best part of a day to set up a snare. We tried three different ones and fucked around with mics and tape and gel for hours before we were happy it was the sound we needed.
Any neat studio tricks used to get a certain sound?

The strings were probably the sneakiest thing. There was only a quartet. So we recorded them a few times to get a fuller sound. Same with the horns. They all played their parts twice, sometimes as harmonies, to sound fuller. There were a lot of guitar pedals used on instruments, guitar fed through the moog, lots of little things like that we tried out. The whole string section went through a vintage tape echo for fun.The songs were bounced of reel to reel too at the end of the mixing sessions.
How many sessions took place?

I lost count. We did two days with the rhythm section. A day for horns, one for percussion. Two days for strings, two for vocals, and I don't know how many overdub sessions we did. We got a bit carried away to be honest. It was like, if we're doing this thing then fuck it, let's just do it. Marco still laughs about the amount of tracks we had running at one time. Then we had writing sessions, editing, which was a lot of sessions. I ended up bringing it all home to work on because it was costing so much in studio time. We did everything in one take, so there were a few bum notes, or timing issues that had to be edited. The arrangements were nothing at all like what had originally been written by this point. And I couldn't stop myself from rearranging every time I had an idea. Then we had the mixing sessions. Some songs took three days to mix. It was a big project.
How many people in studio at once?

The Rhythm section days were the busiest. There was me and Marco in the control room, Jim in the drum booth, Kev on guitar, Stephen on bass and Charlie on keys. Colin and Alan brought their saxes too and played along to give the band more feeling, but we didn't record them that day. So that was nine including Charlie's girlfriend.
What exactly did Tom Moulton tell you about recording strings?

Pretty much what we thought already. To record them a few times and double up. What he suggested though, that made a massive difference, was to not only record the quartet, but to also record each instrument on its own. So we had the full sound of a quartet a couple of times, the violins a couple of times, viola and cello. Then we did harmonies on viola etc. So we ended up with a fucking big sound. Some of those songs have like 48 tracks of strings on them. Plus the tape echo.
Did you pray to Walter before you went to bed?

Every morning and every night. We started each day by listening to his mix of My Love Is Free in a huddle, did high fives and got to work...
How did you handle the live shows you did?

We only did one show. For the Glasgow Jazz Festival. Mark Robb who ran a stage there heard the early demos and asked if I could do it. This was when the band was formed initially. We did I guess about ten rehearsals, but there wasn't one where the whole band was there. Everyone had busy schedules, so one week there was no trumpet, one week no percussion and so on. We just did mostly covers to make things a bit simpler - we did Wake Up And Be Somebody, Never Gonna Let You Go and a few other things. So the gig was scary - no one was really prepared because we hadn't learned the songs properly or fully rehearsed. But it went well. Really well. No mistakes, no fuck ups, full dancefloor, great reaction.
Do you want to tour with the band?

I definitely want to tour next time round. I've had a lot of enquiries, but haven't really had time to act on them. The band's too big to handle. Well, it's not even a band. If it was just a group of young guys with guitars who could get in the back of a van and tour the country it would be fine. But it's not. Everyone has their own projects, or day jobs, or new babies, or whatever. So getting them into rehearsal, never mind touring is a lot of hard work. Then there's the budget. Who the fuck can afford something like eighteen musicians and a DJ..? I'm looking into ways to make it work though. Next time we record I'll make it part of the plan.
What's up with future MDO projects?

I've started writing. I've given a couple of them a few ideas to work on, so I'll start the whole process again soon. I'm working on a few other things just now though, less ambitious projects. So I want to get them finished before I dedicate another two years of my life to a pointless pursuit of disco perfection again.
Let's talk dj'ing:what is your ideal set up?DJ setup?

I'm not fussed. As long as it's not some crappy pioneer mixer. I like Allen & Heath because they've become kind of industry standard. It's easy to use and sounds decent. Obviously a nice Urei or something is a treat. And if I had the funds I'd treat myself to a DJR 400. I don't use vinyl for club gigs any more (everything is edits) so decent CDRs is important. And fucking monitors that actually work in a decent position in the booth. Ones that won't blow my eardrums out please.Oh yeah - I'm not a fan of stages. I like to be on the dancefloor when I DJ. It seems a bit weird on a stage.
What is your ideal promotion of a night?

Promotion is hard. And getting harder. People are getting lazier. Going out's not so much of a big deal. Over here anyway. Promotion used to involve printing up a couple of hundred cheap flyers and leaving them in some record shops. That's my ideal promotion. Now it's all Facebook and shit. I hate all that. I've learned a lot over the last couple of years, especially with Northern Disco. We've hounded the press, got mixes on radio shows, competitions to win tickets and stuff. It's a lot of work, but nowadays it needs to be done. Even with the biggest DJ on the flyer it still has to be pushed big time. We're hoping to book some lesser known DJs soon, just people we know to have great taste and great records. That'll be hard work.
Why does northern disco move so many locations?

We haven't moved that much. The first party was supposed to be a one off. We hired this place called Urbis - a giant glass building in Manchester, flew in Rahaan, and had a ton of DJs playing in the bar. It was a big success, so we decided we should try for a regular party somewhere. Urbis is too big, and is council funded I think, so there's a lot of health and safety shit involved. Lights have to be kept on, no balloons near fire sprinklers and shit - not the kind of place you can really let go and have a party. So we did some Fridays in Mint Lounge. That's a great venue. Almost perfect. Nice layout and decent sound system. But Fridays are always too much hard work. It has to be a Saturday to feel right. So we moved after almost a year to The Attic. We did one party there with Rahaan again, and me and Kon. That was the last one we did as we honestly can't agree on DJs to book now. There are so few people who could play a proper disco set, but also pull the size of crowd we need to break even. And we really don't want to go for obvious names. We're looking at venues for October now - maybe the Attic again, who knows. That's Lee's job.
How big is the disco ball at the northern nights?

The disco ball in Urbis was huge - about five feet or something. We haven't used that since though. Maybe we should again. For the Dimitri party we had about 100 mini disco balls.
When's the next northern disco, or future plans?

October hopefully. With the best DJ ever in the history of DJs. And a big giant mirror ball.

Anything else you want to add?

Yes. Disco is music that was made sometime in the 1970s. It's usually quite fast, but not always. It's a form of soul music. It can be quite funky too. Remember that.

Thanks for the interview Al!

The Million Dollar Orchestra's "Better Days" album has just been made available on I-tunes, and there are still some shops that may have copies of the vinyl 2xlp. If your shop don't have it, ask them to get it!


Toshio said...

mmm... nice interview. i remembered the time when i helped to move The Loft from the legendary 3rd St space to Ave A, we took the mirror ball down and suddenly it struck me how gigantic that thing was up there! definately 5 feet. it had round mirrors as i recall, and it was a beautifulest thing! thanks for a good read. See you soon! T

Baggy said...

Nice interview indeed!
'All I know is we recorded everything through a big fuck off desk'.
A man i can relate to... ;-)

Ben said...

tight interview!

"you shouldn't play bootlegs"

i wish the bar of standards was higher these days