Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer

Vintage Roland MC-8 Sequencer Archive

Interview: Richard James Burgess of Landscape

Some time ago I had an informal Facebook exchange with Richard James Burgess of the band Landscape (among the earliest adopters of the MC8). I had intended to conduct a formal interview with Richard, but never quite got around to it, so I’ve decided to post our original chat here.

Pea: Hi Richard, just thought I’d drop you a line to confess an extreme act of geekery I committed last week… I bought a pristine Roland MC-8 and, whilst setting it up and trying to translate the mimeographed manual, I had my scuffed up “Tearooms of Mars” LP playing in the background. Incidentally, I’ve been chatting w/ Chris Carter who, I understand, bought Landscape’s MC-8 long ago.

Richard: Well geeks unite and rule the world – I just bought my original MC8 back from the person that Chris sold it to. I just had to have it. The very first recorded use with Landscape was on “European Man” which was recorded way ahead of the rest of the album in Red Bus studios. At the time it was called “Route Nationale” and had no lyrics. John L. Walters still has our MC4 but all my System 100Ms were stolen from my house in the early eighties. I would love to get those back. They were modified so I would recognize them if I ever came across them again.

Pea: Wow, bummer about the System 100Ms, but it’s great to hear that you managed to get your old MC8 back! Chris will be glad to hear that for sure! Does it still work ok?

Richard: It’s great to have it back. I don’t really know why I wanted it other than it was such an important part of my life and I just felt that I had to have it. Mine has some wear on it but seems to work. I haven’t tried loading any old data tapes, I have them all. Unfortunately that was the sticky shed era of tape so it’s possible they might need baking or might not work at all. We did keep all our scores which were fully written out so we could reconstruct if we needed to. Somehow I don’t see us doing that anytime soon.

Pea: It would be a fun experiment to bake those tapes and see if they’ll load. As long as you can get one good pass that will load, then you can re-save the data from the MC-8 straight into your computer. Did you score things out on the Roland graph charts?

Richard: We scored everything on music manuscript. We tended to write out all the parts anyway just for rehearsal purposes and then we used to write the numbers for the MC8 above the notation. That saved our butts a couple of times when the MC8 lost all data – most notably at midnight the night before we did [BBC technology TV show] “Tomorrow’s World” demonstrating the MC8. There was a thunderstorm and we had spent nearly all day programming a piece which we hadn’t backed up yet. The MC8 blinked and everything was gone. Fortunately we had written down the numbers as we went so we just sat there with John reading them off and me typing them in. In fact if you listen to “European Man” you can hear a voice mixed low that is reading off a series of numbers and that’s what they are – the MC8 numbers. I think we got that idea from that night.

Pea: I phase-cancelled the center channel so I could hear the voices more clearly: “Control voltage: 39, step time: 16, gate time: 9, available memory: 15 kilobytes, time base: 24, measure set: two zero seven.”

Richard: I can’t imagine anyone figured out what we were doing in the song. We found it amusing but we were all major geeks and geeks weren’t fashionable and didn’t rule the world in 1979. That’s funny that you were able to discern what we were saying. We generally used [time base] 24 because it divides by four and three and is fine enough that we could get the fastest parts we needed in semiquavers and triplets. The major technical hurdle we had on the “Tearooms” album was synching the CR78 with the MC8 (on the track “The Tearooms of Mars…“) and we did it by generating a square wave, recording that and locking the CR78 to that. It was hit and miss because the CR78 had to read every tooth of the square or it would slip out of synch. I seem to remember we got the square wave wrong at first and the CR78 was running at double speed. It was very exciting when we cracked it.

Pea: You also programmed the MC8 for the band Shock, right?

Richard: Oh yes, that was all me. Rusty Egan brought the group and the song and I programmed everything in my home studio and recorded it at Mayfair Studios in South Moulton St. with John Hudson engineering. It was the System 100Ms with the 10x gate modification on the bass line for sure. I did all their recordings and I wrote the rest of the songs with various members and Rusty. He and I wrote the B side in about ten minutes at my house – RERB – our initials – very imaginative – but it still gets played in clubs to this day. I loved this group- they were so outrageous! This was a very fun time both personally and creatively.

Pea: I particularly like the track “Dynamo Beat.” Can you tell me anything about that?

Richard: I viewed Dynamo Beat as my tour de force in MC8 programming. My thought was to do a flamenco guitar part so I worked out what it would be on my acoustic and then wrote the part out and programmed it. It was laborious but I think it turned out really well. I am glad you like it, it is one of my favorites too. I can’t take all the credit for the writing – Tim Dry wrote the lyrics and I think did a great job of capturing what they were about. Apart from the vocals I don’t think there is anything on that track or any of the Shock tracks that didn’t come off of the MC8. I ran the prototype SDSV off the multiplex outputs and everything else was out of the CV/gate outputs through my JP8 (I think I had that by then) and 100Ms

Pea: I’m sure to you it probably seems like a head-scratcher why anyone in this day and age would voluntarily subject himself to the hassles of dealing with ancient sync dilemmas, but for me that’s part of the fun and also it’s a way of working that inevitably produces some idiosyncratic results that you wouldn’t get by doing things the “easy way.” I’m definitely after that metronomic Human League type groove.

Richard: I think the machine definitely influences the result so I don’t see it as odd to want to use the MC8. I have thought about it myself.The same thing applies to analogue sequencers. Like I said, we synched the MC8 to the CR78 by programming a square wave to come out of the mulitplex outputs and then we adjusted the level through a console until it ran the CR78. Most of those old drum machines run on simple square waves with no flags. Getting them to run in the same time is less of a problem than getting them to start at the right time. I used the MC8 in preference to later machines because of the timing. I found early Cubase to be shaky (it’s fine now) and SMPTE Track from Hybrid Arts was very sensitive to processor load. I always liked the timing of the Linn 9000 and I still have mine. I don’t know about the DMX but the 808 should lock tight – it’s only one machine later than the CR78 if I recall correctly.

Pea: I read online that you’re credited with coining the term “New Romantic.” Any truth to that, and if so, is there a story?

Richard: We were messing around with a lot of terms to describe what was going on. “Futurism” was one term that stuck for a bit and that applied to groups like Landscape and Ultravox because of the synth connection and more sci-fi kind of imaging. Landscape consciously created the term “EDM” (as in “electronic dance music”) and we put that on the cover of the single of “European Man.” I was aware that the movement needed a name in order to really catch on. Punk had been happening for the past three or four years and that was losing steam, the Blitz was somewhat of a reaction against the grimness of that ethos and the Blitz really elevated individualism in terms of dress and makeup. There was the heroic element, lots of designers and artists and the whole movement seemed like a reaction against the harsh realities of the time. The Romantic movement represented something somewhat similar in the reaction to the Industrial Revolution and visually “New Romantic” seemed like a good fit. Why that stuck and “Futurism” or “EDM” didn’t is a consequence of what captured the imagination of the media.

Pea: Thanks so much for taking the time to dredge up all this minutiae from your past!

Richard: It was just something I did but I knew at the time that it was a huge breakthrough, once I bought the MC8 and John and I started programming it I felt like we’d caught a huge wave and we were just riding it. I remember giving a speech at the Roland Sales convention in Ealing and I said this is the way all records will be made in the future. I think there were less than a dozen MC8s in the world at the time. They all looked at me as if I was mad, and I thought maybe I had overstated it (and of course it’s not all records), but I smile about that occasionally when I listen to the radio now and over the past thirty years. I just wrote some stuff about [the MC8] for the fourth edition of my book. It’s an underrated machine in terms of the evolution of how we got to where we are now.


December 12, 2012 Posted by | Interviews & Articles | 5 Comments