Producer/programmer Dimitri Tikovoi grew up in Paris where his parents are both luminaries in the French theatre scene. Since moving to the UK he’s produced and/or done programming for Placebo, The Raveonettes, Goldfrapp, Future Sound of London, Marc Almond, Gary Numan and John Cale to name but a few. Dimitri also recorded his own album under the name Trash Palace and toured to promote the material with a live band. The album featured guest vocals from Brian Molko (Placebo), Alison Shaw (Cranes), John Cale (the Velvet Underground), Asia Argenta (the Italian actress and director), Cozette, and Lian Warmington. Sissy was fortunate enough to get an invite to visit Dimitri in the studio where he was producing the new Placebo album… We got to hear a snippet of a couple of new songs from the album ‘MEDS’ before it was released, and approved of the fact that the flavour was distinctly vintage gothic Placebo!
SISSY: Why did you choose a career in music rather than following your parents into the theatre?
DIMITRI: I hated theatre, being born around theatre people meant I had too much of it and I suppose music was my way of rebelling. I started playing drums when I was 7, I went to drum school and studied percussion at the Conservatory of Classical Music, and I studied Jazz at CIM, the Institute of Contemporary Music in Paris
SISSY: How did you get into production?
DIMITRI: By playing with bands and recording them in my little studio at home on a four-track recorder, writing songs and someone would hear it and say ‘can you do something with me?’ then little by little things fell into place… I bought an 8-track and slowly learnt more.
SISSY: Can you give any advice on recording at a basic level?
DIMITRI: Just read sound magazines, and if you go into a proper studio, watch everything that’s done, ask lots of questions.
SISSY: When did you get into computer recording rather than tape machines?
DIMITRI: The first thing I bought as soon as I earned some money was an Atari computer with Cubase so I started working with that, but at the time it was very basic, all midi stuff with synthesisers. At the same time I had a musician’s background, mainly rock and jazz. It started to become possible to combine the two in terms of recording, not just midi around ‘95, ‘96. The first direct to disk recorder was an Akai 8-track and that’s the first time I recorded things like vocals on a computer because it was much more convenient especially for vocal comps and editing. After that pro-tools had just come out and I started using Session 8 which was the early version.
SISSY: What made you move to the UK?
DIMITRI: The music; France is not much of a country for live music, here there are lots of pubs and clubs where you can play and learn to be good but in France there’s nothing in between someone playing accordion in the town hall and big venues for bands that are already established. There aren’t enough venues for live music so there aren’t many touring rock bands… if you’re a young band in France it’s really hard. Also French bands often try to copy what’s coming from England or America so it’s not very original, just a bad version of the same thing.
SISSY: Can you offer any advice to French bands on how to get round this?
DIMITRI: French music has developed since I left…
SISSY: Is that because you left?!
DIMITRI: Yeah, once they got rid of me everything was fine! No its just that they’ve developed in terms of the fact that electronic music is now really strong in France for exactly the reason I mentioned; that there aren’t any places to play so there’s a whole generation of young people that want to do music and they’ve found an alternative way to do it.
When you can’t learn to be a good band by playing live, you’re going to find another way to do it and home studios and electronic equipment are available to everyone.
SISSY: Do you identify yourself with the ‘French sound’ typified by Daft Punk and Mirwais?
DIMITRI: No, but I like some of it. It’s very retro or maybe a combination of retro with a kind of ‘cheese factor’. The French electronic scene is really influenced by disco and the dance scene whereas I came from a rock and jazz background. I always programmed, but I like much more aggressive stuff like Nine Inch Nails and there’s a huge difference between them and something like Daft Punk.
SISSY: You’re producing the Placebo album and Flood is mixing… Isn’t that a reversal of your usual roles?
DIMITRI: Kind of… I do a lot of work with Flood. I started off doing some programming and playing on stuff for him, like Gary Numan and various things then we started co-producing. With the Placebo album I was telling him that I was going to produce it. He said that if I needed someone to mix, he’d be very happy to do it which was great as I didn’t think he’d want to; because I know that the band asked him before and he’d never been available so I wasn’t sure if he liked their music.
SISSY: How would you describe the sound of the new Placebo album?
DIMITRI: Very dark and raw; they’ve done a lot of evolving in the past so because it’s the fifth album, I thought it would be good to take it back to something a bit more raw and basic, the essence of what Placebo was originally about. I wanted to push them to go back to playing guitars instead of having loads of programming. Which is funny because at the start they got me in to do some programming!
SISSY: Did that come as a surprise to the band?
DIMITRI: Well it’s a relationship that develops… it doesn’t happen instantly in one moment. I’m not addicted to power so I’m quite a discreet dictator in the studio! But to be serious, we have a good working relationship so I did have it in my mind to go back to something more raw and it’s just about getting them to try it and if they like it we go with it and if they don’t, we change it. But the more I encouraged them to go back to basic guitars, the more they enjoyed it and thought it was great and realised that’s where they came from. Everything fell into place.
SISSY: How did you get to know Placebo?
DIMITRI: It was through Rob Ellis who plays for PJ Harvey, because we had the same manager at the time and Rob was asked to do a string arrangement on one track. He was struggling a bit so I offered to let him come to my home studio and demo the strings and they really liked it so instead of getting some string players, they asked me to come to the studio with some samples and used what I had done.
SISSY: Is it a good thing to work with friends or can it cause problems?
DIMITRI: It could go both ways, but if you’re going to spend 6 months in the studio with someone, you will either become friends or you will hate each other! I don’t think it’s changed much with Placebo because we respect each other.
SISSY: What prompted you to start Trash Palace (Dimitri’s own project which released an album and gigged as a live band)?
DIMITRI: When I moved to London I didn’t have much work to start with so when you don’t have any work you start doing things by yourself. I find it very hard to do things completely by myself because you don’t have any mirror or feedback from anywhere; one minute you can love something and the next minute you can absolutely hate it because there’s no-one to help you be objective. It took me a long time but it was a good learning experience. I’d like to try and do another album but we’ll see…
SISSY: Did you have a cohesive vision for the project from the start or did it evolve?
DIMITRI: I just wanted to push myself, my own knowledge of computer-based music so there was a lot of experimentation and trying to do things a bit differently. But I also had a theme which was sex, because firstly, everyone uses sex to sell things but they exploit it in a way that’s not very sensual or erotic. I thought that if I could combine some kind of eroticism into something that is as cold as electronic music, then it would be really interesting. Also I wanted things to be a bit deranged or slightly out of place…kind of the opposite of Britney Spears! Electronic music is so cold because it’s made with machines so if you try to put sensuality into it, it kind of gives it some soul.
SISSY: Your stage shows were quite theatrical. Was that influenced by your theatre background?
DIMITRI: It was difficult because I think I think electronic music on stage can be really boring. I haven’t seen many people, including Trash Palace that have succeeded in doing it. The problem with Trash Palace was that the album had lots of guest singers so there was no actual lead singer. It’s hard to have a band unity because lots of the music is coming from machines so the band are just recreating or doubling what the machines are doing. It’s very tricky to get it right on stage.
SISSY: Sometimes electronic music is best played by a DJ through an appropriate sound system…
DIMITRI: Well it’s basically studio music; I never planned to do it live when I was recording the album. But at some point you have to. I though it would be good fun and I had grand ideas about ways of doing it; sometimes you can pull it off and it’s fun but sometimes you can’t do it right because you don’t have the budget or if you’re playing smaller rock venues it doesn’t work because it’s not a real rock band so you try and compensate with theatrics or lighting and video displays.
SISSY: How was Trash Palace received?
DIMITRI: It was great; the first show we did was the Routes de Rock in France to 15,000 people. A lot of the guest singers did that gig as well, which made a big difference. Some people absolutely hated it and some people really loved it so it generated some kind of war in the French media, which makes great publicity. At least if someone hates it then you’ve provoked a strong reaction; some people saw the humour in it and some didn’t. I enjoyed it though!
SISSY: Do you think you’ll ever make another album of your own?
DIMITRI: I don’t know; I’d like to try again but this time I’d need a bit more of a focus and maybe do it with someone who’s going to front it and be the lead singer. It’s also about finding the right space in your mind… I really like producing because I like working with other people so much so I’d have to be in the right mood to do things on my own. Although the idea of doing another album is exciting, the reality of being by myself trying to make music is less exciting!
SISSY: Do you like the attention of being in the spotlight as a performer or do you prefer to be behind the scenes?
DIMITRI: Both of them are great; it’s good fun to be the centre of attention! But I like being behind the scenes too although it’s very different.
SISSY: After you finished promoting the Trash Palace album I got the impression you’d had enough of touring and thought that all musicians were bastards!
DIMITRI: They are! No really it’s just that I don’t know if I can cope with endless touring. I like being on stage and playing but the studio is a more creative environment. Being on stage and touring is not. You just play stuff and it’s good fun but it’s a different energy. And I start to miss the creative energy very quickly. I used to tour as a drummer when I was very young and after a month of touring I was ready to go home. So touring to promote an album for two years is for me, a nightmare.
SISSY: Do you think the creative buzz is more enduring whereas the live buzz is like a drug, a quick hit like amyl nitrate or something?!
DIMITRI: Yes, it’s a brilliant hit; it boosts you up and there’s nothing like it but it ends up being too repetitive when you do it day after day and you’re not going anywhere creatively. I like exploring and experimenting, finding new things and learning so I prefer the studio environment for those things.
WAREZ: What’s your opinion on the impact of the internet and filesharing on the music industry?
DIMITRI: I think it’s great. I don’t condemn people who download music illegally because it’s not being done by people that have money and can afford to buy CD’s. You’re not going to spend 45 minutes downloading something that might sound shit and have half the song missing if you can go and buy the CD. So the people that do it are usually kids that can’t afford to buy things and the good thing is they’re discovering music and bands that they wouldn’t hear otherwise. Therefore they listen to new music and by doing that, maybe they’ll get to really like a band and go buy the CD because they want to have the artwork. And they’re more likely to go and see the band live because you can’t download that experience! I think that the internet has done live music a great favour because more people are getting to know about more and more bands so they’re going to more gigs. So I think it’s a good thing and in terms of Madonna being downloaded and only selling 25 million instead of 26, then ok, the majors might lose a small percentage of their sales but I think the impact for artists is not a bad one at all.
SISSY: Do you remember the first big gig you went to and what your early influences were?
DIMITRI: The first proper gig I saw was David Bowie. The Velvet Underground would be another big influence because everything they did should have been completely wrong and it shouldn’t have worked but for some weird reason it did!
It held together by the skin of its teeth. If it was one track you could say it happened by accident but because it was a whole album, you realise it was pure genius. They couldn’t play, they couldn’t sing, they couldn’t write songs in a conventional technical way but somehow they actually could in a very different way. So it wasn’t about the technical ability, it was about the emotion that’s in the music. Prince was also an absolute genius, probably the biggest genius of the 1980’s and an influence on me because he produced his own material and other artists as well.
SISSY: Can you recommend any equipment for recording?
DIMITRI: At the moment I really like the Shure Beta 58 microphone. We’ve used it for all Brian’s vocals on the Placebo album and for some of the drums and guitars. I love this mic… it’s one of the cheapest good ones you can get (about £50 more than an SM 58) and it always sounds great. For guitars, if you want a really modern sound, plug-ins like Guitar Rig are really good. But you can’t beat Marshall, Fender Twin and Vox for real amp sounds. A good thing to do is to split the guitar signal and record two different amps at the same time. There’s lots of good software; Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Reason, Live or even GarageBand, it’s about learning how to use it and getting it to do something it’s not supposed to do. If you use all the presets in GarageBand you’ll end up with all the same sounds as someone else but if you experiment you can get something good with it. It’s not necessarily about the equipment you use; it’s more about how you use it!
Just then, Brian Molko appears in the studio to listen to mixes, tired after a day’s photo shoot. Sissy asks Brian why Placebo are such workaholics… they never seem to stop writing, recording and touring in an endless cycle! Brian feigns an air of worldweary cynicism and replies ‘It’s because our lives are so unsatisfactory that we have to throw ourselves into work and booze in order to stay alive!’ We think we can detect an ironic twinkle in his eye when he says it; we certainly hope so!