Marcus is the person you call if your band is going on tour and you need someone to help iron out all the problems associated with running live sequences, backing tracks and midi instruments. His attention to detail and methodical perfectionism will ensure that you don’t get any of those embarrassing technological cock-ups that can ruin a live show, which is why he’s in demand by some of the top acts in the country when they put their tours together. He’s surprisingly modest and cares more about the quality of work he’s doing than having a high-profile career, an attitude which is born out by him turning down working for Madonna on her recent tour. Sissy catches up with Marcus while he’s between tours, to find out a bit about his unusual job.
SISSY: How would you describe what you do?
MARCUS: I describe myself as a sound engineer, but people think that because I work in the live business, I do live sound but I don’t. I’m a studio sound engineer, and live I use some of the skills I have to do another side of the business, which is looking after electronic instruments and recording technology onstage. I suppose on tour, people would refer to me as the keyboard tech or something, but these days that involves a lot more technology than just a few keyboards.
SISSY: So you look after click tracks and sequencing; things like that?
MARCUS: Yes, if there’s additional playback stuff, I might be asked to deal with that, if the keyboard set up isn’t too elaborate and one person can look after both. Things like operating hard disc recorders with a few backing tracks and a click track; maybe a bit of programming on the computer.
SISSY: I’ve seen you do everything to help a band’s live set-up run smoothly, including soldering leads and fixing stuff.
MARCUS: That comes from what I was doing as a studio engineer, which involved learning a bit of maintenance, but also from helping musicians I knew with their own private studios. A lot of people can’t do that aspect of it, the nuts and bolts stuff, so I started attacking the soldering iron through being determined not to be scared of that side of it.
SISSY: What bands and artists have you worked for on tour?
MARCUS: I haven’t worked with that many bands as I only started doing the live shows in about 1998. I only get to work with maybe 2 or 3 artists a year, because each one takes up so much time. I’ve done work for Massive Attack, Kylie, Asian Dub Foundation, Craig David and Emiliana Torrini, which was nice because it was so different from the other stuff; it makes you appreciate working with artists who aren’t on such a huge scale… and I also worked for Madness. I was keyboard tech for them, it was a very small crew for a club tour they did. It was good fun except for the fact that it involved travelling around in the back of a van some of the time, instead of a more comfortable tour bus!
SISSY: Massive Attack are such a legend; can you tell us a bit about working for them?
MARCUS: I haven’t been involved in any studio stuff with Massive Attack, although that would have been really nice. They’ve developed a kind of co-production relationship with someone else and they have their own studio set-up, local to them. I’ve spent a lot of time working with them on tour. I’m happy helping them to make things run smoothly on the technical side; their music just won’t work if it doesn’t have the technology behind it. I did the Mezzanine tour in 1998, a festival tour after that, then in 2004 we did a tour with bits of everything including 100th Window stuff. Last year and this year, we did some charity concerts playing greatest hits.
SISSY: Did that involve revisiting all the different set-ups you’d done before?
MARCUS: Musically, yes, but we approached it a bit differently so it didn’t involve lots of playback. For the Mezzanine tour, I was originally approached by the drummer, Pete Lewinson. He was rehearsing with the band and learning arrangements and he didn’t want to worry about dealing with the technical side of the electronic drum triggering and programming, so he got me in to help with all that. I also started helping the keyboard player Michael Timothy as well… he was the MD (musical director) and was very good at doing his stuff but needed help with programming and sequencing on an MPC sequencer, so I dealt with the sequencing, drum loops and electronic trigger sounds, which obviously there are lot of in Massive Attack. I had to listen to the recordings and put everything in the right order and get it to sound pretty much like the record. They had their own source material to choose from, which was great. Instead of trying to find sounds again, we could sample the album tracks from the original masters although obviously we had to re-produce some of the sounds. I also had to look after the DJ set-up, which is quite a simple thing. I didn’t end up doing the tour to begin with because they hired someone else… they hadn’t known that the drummer was bringing me in. fortunately the other person left and I got called in to do the rest of the tour which was about 3 months travelling all over the world.
SISSY: Massive Attack seem to give the impression that there are some difficult inter-band relationships going on. How did you find them to work with?
MARCUS: There were no problems when I started working with them. We had a common link through my old flatmate who was from Bristol; I met him through the person I studied sound engineering with. I’d worked with other Bristol artists in London, so when I met Massive Attack, we had lots of friends in common. The politics always seemed ok, but they were definitely the sort of people who had lots of strong opinions about things. I think the reputation they have of being difficult with each other comes from them all being passionate about their music, and also because everyone has a life outside the band, which can clash with commitments and obligations or business things that other band members want to do.
SISSY: One of the great things about Massive Attack is that they are hugely well known and respected and yet they aren’t the sort of celebrities you’d recognise in the street.
MARCUS: That’s true, they’re kind of anti-celebrity. They aren’t bothered about being out and getting their faces on the scene. I think that gives them longevity; there are many great artists we all have in our record collections that we don’t have a clue what they look like.
SISSY: The band are also known for having strong political views.
MARCUS: During the last tours there’s been a lot happening in the world and they’ve got things to say about that, which get put into the music. Sometimes I might notice something in the music and ask questions about it, but most of the time it’s fairly obvious and plain to see what their message is. They certainly don’t ram their opinions down your throat if you’re working with them though. I know 3D is always up to something, getting involved in political stuff and those ideas will get used, sometimes in the visuals for a tour; hence all the screen stuff that we do… images that you might not see on tv which are there to inform and educate. Their music has a lot of content that people can relate to and it’s not all about love stories! Some of the messages are quite angry but people will listen because it’s in the context of a beat or a groove that you can identify with.
SISSY: Did Liz Fraser (from the Cocteau Twins, who has performed vocals on various Massive Attack recordings) do any of the live gigs?
MARCUS: She did a few of the gigs in 1998, and she did all the shows we did in 2006. She did some of her famous ‘singing without words’ that she did in the Cocteau Twins, and she did some where she reproduced what she’d done on the recordings. Last year, Liz seemed happier with the live set-up, being able to hear herself properly and being a part of the team; in the early days I don’t think it went as well for her. She was singing a lot of songs on the last tour, along with another female vocalist, Deborah Miller. Deborah isn’t on the albums but she performs the parts of different guest female singers like Shara Nelson (on the Blue Lines material) with the exception of the Tracey Thorn songs. Liz has her own thing going on with the audience who are now getting to see her perform for the first time so she has her own mini-fan club going on at the front of the stage!
SISSY: Can you tell us a bit about working for Kylie Minogue?
MARCUS: Again, it was strange because I’d just finished doing a Craig David tour and I got a call from Andrew Small who’d taken over on drums in Massive Attack from Pete Lewinson. He was asked to become Kylie’s MD and he phoned me because he needed help with all the electronics, keyboards and all the usual stuff. I was quite surprised! Kylie was starting a whole big production tour, it was around 2001 promoting the ‘On a Night Like This’ album. It was a semi-theatrical kind of show involving lots of contemporary dancers and costume changes with a lot of the favourite songs from her career. The music was played by a band but had to tie in with the dance tunes so it had backing tracks running live.
SISSY: What do you think of Kylie’s recent nomination (along with Jackie Onassis) to be the number one female icon of our times?
MARCUS: I think she’d actually find that quite amusing but in terms of what she’s brought to other people in terms of entertainment, she might appreciate it. I don’t think she’d ever try to step outside of the musical arena and go into politics or claim that she’d empowered loads of women, but she’s definitely in control of what she’s doing.
SISSY: The common perception is that Kylie is a really nice person; men and women both seem to love her, and she’s not the sort of girl other women bitch about.
MARCUS: I’m sure there are people who bitch about her, but it’s usually because they’re working for someone else who’s in competition with her. Occasionally the people working for Kylie may do stuff that makes her appear demanding or something, but really it’s to do with her staff being rivals with the staff of other artists. That’s quite common; it happens throughout the business and it’s usually not true. I’ve always found her to be really nice and easy-going and a hard worker. I think she hates bad atmospheres around her so she wouldn’t try to impose things on people, whereas you might work with other artists who can create a vibe that isn’t very comfortable, which rubs off on everyone else around them. If you look at the kind of music that Kylie makes and the shows that she does, you couldn’t have a bad atmosphere and pull it off… it’s all about fun. She’s very professional and its very hard work for her, with all the dancing. I’ve done all the Kylie tours since 2001 as well as the tv appearances that involved a live band.
SISSY: What happened when she had to cancel shows due to her health?
MARCUS: In 2005 we had a tour that was cancelled halfway through when we were in Australia. After Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer, she called a halt to everything for a while, then word came out that she wanted everyone from the old band and crew to come back for the new tour, so we finished the dates that had been cancelled in Australia and did a few additional shows. It was essentially the same show, with a few minor alterations. We had one show near the end of the run, in Manchester where she had flu, which if you’re trying to sing and dance can be difficult and she couldn’t give it 100% so we stopped a show halfway through. There was an interval, so she played till that, then didn’t come back on. It was the first time we’d had to actually stop a show. She bounced back a few days later and we carried on.
SISSY: What was Craig David like to work with?
MARCUS: I worked on the first tour he did with a sizeable production. He seemed really down to earth and in tune with thinking that if it didn’t all work out successfully, it could all end tomorrow, and appreciative of what was happening for him. When you explode that big at that young age, if you have got your head screwed on right you won’t take it all for granted. If you’re not humble and someone is turning you into something and creating you out of nothing, you’ll be gutted if it doesn’t work out. If you’re doing your own stuff and you feel in control of what you’re doing then it’s up to you to make it a success, as long as you keep an eye on the business side as well. I think Craig’s previous experience with doing lots of club gigs and DJing helped him; he was used to working with different musicians so when it got scaled up and became more about just him, he could cope. Also he knew that the artists he aspired to be like had worked really hard for their success so that helped him to see what you had to do and what could happen. When you’re that young, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, your ideas are going to change as you mature and you’ll have different points of view on life. Your priorities might change from music to having a family or something. Craig is still playing and because he has a strong fanbase all over the world, he’s able to play in lots of different countries. I think the way the industry works, it’s hard to sustain the huge level he entered on. You might not be intending to be the next big thing, they might make you into that, then stop pushing you which leads to the perception that something has gone wrong when it hasn’t. I’ve seen how marketing can make things appear differently from what they really are sometimes, although marketing budgets aren’t what they used to be. Craig did actually seem like a really nice person. The thing to bear in mind is I’m on tour with these people in a purely technical capacity; no-one’s asking me to make any radical artistic decisions so it’s not up to me how things turn out!
SISSY: How did you get involved with Asian Dub Foundation?
MARCUS: Through David Lawrence, the tour manager from Massive Attack who took over working for them in 1999. He asked me to help out with their technology. Asian Dub Foundation all interact a lot with each other on stage; they’ve got rappers and someone playing tablas as well as live instruments. The last thing I did with them, they had a live drummer as well as a guy doing loops and programming. They also have their own DJ set-up. I’m basically there with another tech who looks after guitars and drums, but everyone in the band kind of gets stuck in, helping out with everything. I’m there as an extra pair of hands to make sure it runs smoothly. We’ve done some smaller shows and some big festivals as well, where I was dealing with the extra playback, sequencing and all the electronic equipment.
SISSY: They seem to have a huge following.
MARCUS: They do; I don’t recall any shows where people didn’t get into it. They really make a performance of it; it’s not just a DJ playing beats. It’s good to watch that kind of thing where it’s a real rabble-rousing infectious performance and like Massive Attack, it’s not about celebrity. One of the moments that I particularly recall was after going from some smaller gigs to a festival in Japan. They were playing late afternoon on an enormous stage at a venue the size of a football pitch, and the set-up on stage looked quite small; they weren’t taking up the entire stage like some bands do, but they really got the crowd going and bouncing up and down, this huge sea of Japanese faces getting into it. I didn’t see that happen with any other band that day although quite big bands like Travis were playing, but the reaction was nothing like the one that Asian Dub Foundation got.
SISSY: I didn’t realise that their music was big in other countries.
MARCUS: I think their markets are varied in different territories; maybe in some countries they go down well in a club type set-up with more of the DJing and use of the rappers, whereas in other territories they can tour with a whole band. They’re able to change their set-up to suit different things, which helps them to keep their profile bubbling along by adapting to suit different demands.
SISSY: It seems as though you must get to travel extensively all over the world with the bands you work for; is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d like to go to?
MARCUS: I still haven’t done much work in South East Asia; either because I didn’t take a particular job, or because something got cancelled in a band’s schedule. I seem to keep missing out on Hong Kong and that part of the world in general although I have worked on stuff in Australia many times. So the Far East is somewhere I’d like to go to more. Also, I haven’t really worked in Russia, although I’ve done a few things further south like the Balkan States. Again, I always seem to miss out on those places like Russia and Estonia. I seem to have covered most of the other countries! Not many bands get to play in the Middle East as there’s not so much demand, but I’ve been fortunate enough to do gigs in Beirut with Massive Attack, also in Lebanon and Israel. I’ve done South Africa twice, but I’ve never done anything in other parts of Africa.
SISSY: Do Massive Attack consciously make a point of trying to play in countries like that so they can get their message across?
MARCUS: It’s hard to work out the question of which comes first; are there agents and promoters asking for them to play, or are they fishing for gigs in those territories? Some of these places are exceptional in terms of playing them and they are unusual so not many artists are going there. When you start breaking things down to the logistics and cost of putting on a gig, in some countries it just isn’t viable to play much, so that can create a bit of a barrier as to where it is feasible to tour.
SISSY: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into this as regards education and training etc?
MARCUS: I was born in the UK but my dad was in the military, so after going through both English and American education systems I ended up finishing school in the UK. When I realised I could actually leave school at 16, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I was a good student up to a point but I think moving around with my family hampered my ability to stay in sync with the different syllabus in the UK, or American schools on various airbases. I went to American schools in the States in Illinois, California and Washington, then in Italy and the UK. Then from halfway through secondary school, I went to a British school… it was pretty patchy. I lost interest a bit through all the moving around.
Basically, I decided I would like to try doing something involving video or audio editing and technology. I was at college doing business studies and computing. I did some work experience through college so I could go to a studio and spend time seeing how that worked. Then I decided I wanted to get specific training in sound engineering. At the time, in the late 80’s, people were still trying to get jobs in studios by writing to loads and working their way up from tea boy/tape op, but I preferred the option of getting more training first which was quite difficult as there weren’t as many courses as there are now. I found a private course in Manchester; I wanted to go to an established course in New York but my father was a bit apprehensive about me going away. So I worked and saved up to go on the course in Manchester. Compared to what you can do now, it was a bit of a shambles and not very well run, so I didn’t complete the course although I’m sure I would have passed! I spent most of my time in that studio learning to do things hands-on as well as learning lots of theory.
SISSY: Were you really into music at the time or was it a case of finding something you had an aptitude for?
MARCUS: I had always loved music because of my dad. He had a really mixed music collection, which was unusual for a black guy, where you might expect just to see loads of soul and jazz; he had everything from the Beatles to Gene Pitney and the Beach Boys as well as stuff like Parliament and Funkadelic. He loved all genres of music so I had a vast record collection to listen to. I was a massive Stevie Wonder fan, and I loved Prince. My dad wasn’t so keen on him, maybe because he was a bit too quirky and odd for someone of his age. For me, Prince combined many styles of music, like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard, all into one thing but with his own style. It appealed to my rebellious side. My brothers were into rock music so there was lots of heavy metal in the house as well! I kind of started looking after my dad’s hi-fi and his record collection, making little mix tapes and stuff.
SISSY: Did you ever try and play an instrument or make music yourself?
MARCUS: I like to sit down and mess around on the guitar, and I like playing the drums and teaching myself bits. You pick things up from other people you’re working with; when you’re around great musicians you learn things and sometimes they encourage me to have a go, which is really nice. But I don’t try and become a musician.
SISSY: Do you think your perfectionist tendencies have something to do with why you haven’t tried to be an artist yourself?… as in your own standards are too high for you to meet them!
MARCUS: I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’m quite happy with what I do because it’s still creative but in a different way. You’re collaborating with people without realising it.
After I left the course in Manchester, I came back home and did part-time jobs while writing to studios all over the place. Eventually I got an interview at Orinoco Studios on the Old Kent Road and at least I knew I was going in there a bit prepared, rather than completely green. They didn’t have a position for me but through their relationships with other studios and managers, they sent me to Protocol Studios behind North London University on the Holloway Road and I got the job. The owners had recently taken over; they were young guys and they started me as an assistant engineer.
I worked on a mixture of projects including people from PWL, jazz projects, remixes for Chaka Khan and lots of commercial dance mixes, as that was a big thing at the time. I worked on some hip hop stuff like Smith & Mighty from the Bristol scene, who weren’t really known at the time, and then there was some film and tv music as well as some of the Britpop bands like Suede and Pulp. We were known as a mid-budget studio so record companies would send in bands that they didn’t want to spend too much money on. I trained up some of the new tape-ops who didn’t have any technical knowledge and I worked on all different kinds of music whereas some of the other engineers would only do specific styles. I found some of the grungy shoe-gaze bands a bit dull musically; they were nice people but the music all seemed the same. Although my background was recording live bands, I was a bit more interested in the people who were trying new things. All the new technology was developing and it was an interesting learning curve for me. Sometimes acts would bring in their own producer and engineer so I would just assist them.
SISSY: You’re obviously a really competent engineer, so why haven’t you done the obvious thing and made the transition to becoming a producer?
MARCUS: Well, things became a bit stagnant for me at the studio in terms of some of the work I was having to do. Then unfortunately the business started struggling so my pay versus workload ratio wasn’t too good. I started looking for other job options, and almost went to be an engineer at the Roundhouse studios in Camden but it didn’t work out. I think I made the odd wrong turn and didn’t do what some other engineers had done which was to stick to one area and start excelling in that. I was quite content as an engineer because there were so many different aspects to it. I think some people want to call themselves a producer because they want to feel they put their own stamp or have a big effect on a record, which is not really where I was coming from. I’d rather do my part really well, without feeling the need to control things. And I wasn’t thinking about the money side of it; royalties and that kind of thing.
Eventually, I started doing freelance stuff, which was better for my sanity. I did a film score for Mike Leigh through knowing an actress/musician called Marianne Jean Baptiste who was in Secrets and Lies and an Oscar nominee. She wasn’t in this film, she was singing some of the music so I was working with her and a musician called Tony Remy. I think in terms of building up a career as an engineer, I didn’t spend long enough as an in-house engineer, whereas lots of engineers spent years doing that and developing relationships with producers.
I’m not a complete geek but I think I’ve been able to help inspire confidence in the people I work with through knowing about the nuts and bolts of the developing technology. We’ve constantly been battling with new technology for years now and it’s kind of reached a peak, but during the 90’s there was a sense of there being all this new stuff to choose from but none of it was really perfected in terms of how to use it the best way, and what was going to be reliable, so I kept up on all that. But you can still put a microphone in my hand and I’ll know what to do with it!
Although I’m not a musician, I learned a lot about music through listening to arrangements and parts over and over again; you have to be musical to drop in a drummer or guitarist in a complicated bit. If you don’t develop that you can’t do the job, so it’s important to ask questions and learn if you’re not a musician.
SISSY: Do you have any favourite bits of equipment?
MARCUS: Apart from the hassle involved lining everything up, I don’t think you can beat a good analogue 24-track 2inch tape machine. All desks have their merits so it’s hard to choose one but Neve desks had a lot of care and attentions put into the building of them sonically, and I like some of the old American stuff like API consoles because they have a certain sound. As a real functional desk, I like the old SSL’s because of their functionality, and SSL still make good analogue gear. When SSL brought their automated desks out, it played a big part in pop music during the 80’s and 90’s. I rate quite a few microphones like Sony, Neuman and AKG… all of those are good for different things.
SISSY: Would you agree with Flood that 2inch tape sounds best and CD quality is horrible?
MARCUS: He has a point in that we’re making high quality music, even on digital systems and then translating it down to much lower resolution systems like CD and MP3. You could say the same about cassettes but not so much about vinyl. It’s about what you deliver to the audience; there’s a whole generation of people who think that MP3’s are the way everything sounds. We have to try and make the delivery format not let down the quality that’s been recorded on the expensive studio equipment.
SISSY: How do you think things have changed through new computer technology and recording software?
MARCUS: I can’t argue with the fact that recording technology has improved, but I don’t think the music has improved as a result of it. If that was the case then all the old music that was made on old technology would be redundant, but it isn’t. I think it’s created fast-food style music production and it stems not just from how it’s made, but from the delivery, the way it’s presented and the artists in general. We’ve been using technology to fix a lot of things when you should just get people to do it right in the first place, or not bother to try and fix it because it had a good vibe even though it wasn’t perfect. Often mistakes will be fixed by cutting and pasting parts, purely because you’re watching the clock due to the finances, when you used to make the musician stay until they’d played it right. Things sound better when the whole song has been played from start to finish, rather than chopped around… you can tell the difference.
Some people are striving not to make things sound so clinical but they’re battling because they’re still relying on the computer so it will have a major influence. There are a lot of albums that sound kind of plain, not because the sounds are synthetic but because something’s been going on in the editing and tweaking and perfecting with the computer.
I think we’re coming full circle now though because people are buying all the old vintage equipment to make things sound more natural. It’s difficult to beat some of that old equipment because it was expensive for a reason… it’s really good! We should use computers as tools and not abuse them; we think technology is making us more efficient but it isn’t. We listen differently because we’ve got a screen in front of us; you can mix a record without seeing the waveforms and yet we’re using our eyes to analyse it instead of our ears, when music is meant to be listened to, not looked at… Don’t stare at music!
Contact Marcus at email@example.com