artyn Ware is not only one of the inventors of the UK synthpop genre but also a veteran musician, composer, arranger, record producer, music programmer and tutor.
After founding influential Sheffield bands The Human League and Heaven 17, in 1977 and 1980 respectively, he was responsible for many more great productions, not least among them the beginning of Tina Turner’s comeback to superstardom in the 1980s and the career start of Terence Trent D’Arby. Other people Ware has collaborated with include Chaka Khan, Billy Preston and Vince Clark / Erasure. He has also worked extensively with sound design, surround sound and sound branding.
In 2013 Ware released a third volume of the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.)’s “Music Of Quality And Distinction” record series, 22 years after Volume 2, featuring guest vocals from the likes of Kim Wilde, Green Gartside, Boy George and his band-partner in Heaven 17, Glenn Gregory. As part of Heaven 17 the card-carrying Labour Party member has made many political records.
With his own company, Illustrious, Ware has developed projects for organisations such as BP, The British Council, Sony Computer Entertainments Europe, The National Trust, The Science Museum, The Royal Ballet, V&A, Amnesty International, Unilever and Museum of London.
Reeperbahn Festival: When the Heaven 17 track „(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang“ was produced, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president of the USA. Recently Donald Trump has taken office in the White House. How do you compare the respective shock waves these events have caused?
Ware: Back when we were doing „(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang“ it all seemed a bit theoretical, although the fears were genuine about a lurch to the right in world affairs. As we wrote our first album it seemed, despite the threat of immanent nuclear war being genuine, like a more theoretical worry for the future. But now Trump is like, it’s here, right now, right here. The same is true in Britain: We have a very very right wing government and it’s terrifying. I don’t think there are any lengths they would not go to make huge amounts of money and basically put the poor in their place.
Reeperbahn Festival: How have the possibilities to transport political aspects via music changed since the days of (1981’s Heaven 17 debut album) „Penthouse And Pavement“?
Ware: You still can do it, only it’s much less common now. There was a sense of protest and uprising and political awareness in the post-punk period in Britain. Bands like The Specials, The Beat and UB40 all came from urban environments like we did and all wrote politically oriented songs together with non-political songs. Now we are in a much blander environment where someone like Ed Sheeran can headline Glastonbury and would never say boo to a goose. In fact he once dedicated a song at a corporate event to the conservative prime minister. But the good news is, there is a big turnaround of political awareness amongst the young in Britain, they are finally waking up and they are the hope for the future. I think we are about to enter into a phase of artistic interpretation of politics awareness. It seems to be in the air not only in music but also in the arts that there’s a new movement happening.
Reeperbahn Festival: When you started out making music, your use of technology was at the same time revolutionary and restricted by the costs and availability of equipment. These days, the latest high-end sounds seem to be only a fairly cheap app-update away and anyone is supposed to be able to produce complete albums on their home computer. Have the limited possibilities to make electronic music also been a creative stimulus at the time or only an obstacle?
Ware: It was what it was at the time. Being wise after the event I would say that the limitations forced you to be more creative, necessity is the mother of invention and all that. For (The Human League’s 1978 debut single) „Being Boiled“ we only had a Roland System 100, a Korg 700S, a tape machine and a microphone. That was it. We didn’t even have a mixing desk for instance. And of course there wasn’t any MIDI at that point either. The limitations were jurassic. The other thing to appreciate looking back is, we were young, poor, working class kids. Everything we did was based on the fact that we had to go to work, earn money and then buy things on hired purchase. At that time there were bands like Kraftwerk who were personal friends with Robert Moog. He made them specially commissioned versions of his equipment. They had rooms full of very expensive equipment. They came from well-off families, they could afford this shit. They started of as hippies who presumably wanted to rebel against their parents and ended up using their parents’ money to create in a very expensive studio. This all seemed completely out of the reach of us and many other people in the punk/post-punk group. We were just trying to make the best of what we got and that makes you very creative. There was a massive DIY ethic, based around not just music but making your own fanzines, selling them amongst your friends and colleagues, trying things, getting out of your comfort-zone all the time. You know, performing to people, however few, when literally you had no idea what you were doing half the time. The idea of this daring and to just go out there and worry about the consequences afterwards, is something that was a big part of what we were doing at that time. It wasn’t just about a lack of resources it was about resourcefulness as well. Now we’re at the opposite point of the spectrum and if I have an idea in my head I can make something that’s 90% close to what I got in my mind within a few hours. But the downside is if you’re not pausing for reflection and a kind of internal positive feedback process, of where you’re going with stuff. Now, I’m quite a self aware person about my own creative work. But the downside for new artists coming into the field is, all they see is the ease of use. They don’t know the other side of the coin, they are not interested. All they see is, I can make this quickly. But the magic is in the final 10%. That takes time and reflection.
Ware: It depends on how you define the terms of improvement. If you regard improvement as having access to the tools of production and access to the means of making a record, even putting it out, then obviously things have improved immeasurably. The other side of the coin is, it’s much much much much more difficult to make money out of the music industry now than it ever was. It’s only the top five, ten percent that make any money. The rest are more or less scraping a living or doing it for the passion of the subject. Which is not a bad thing in itself because that is a payment. The analogy I would use is this: I used to be chairman of the youth football club, which my son is a member of. He got selected for some trials at big football clubs like Tottenham Hotspurs and I was talking to some people at their academies. They said, did I realize that out of every 100 children that they see at the academy, they only sorted one out to go to the academy? And out of the one percent that gets selected there’s only one percent of those who will get to become professional footballers. So the odds for anybody who participates, who is passionate enough to even get a trial with a football club are 1000:1 at least. I think that analogy holds true for the current musical situation. Everybody likes playing football, everybody likes playing music. Most people do. And everybody nowadays can actually put something up online, on Soundcloud, or they can distribute something through things like DistroKid where you can get your music up on every platform. The problem is, does anybody like it, does anybody know about it? How do you market it?
Reeperbahn Festival: You have been giving many lectures on music production, technology and creativity in the last years. Apart from hands-on advice concerning use of technology or what do look for in a contract for example, what are the key aspects, young creatives can learn in institutions rather than „on the street“?
Ware: I’ve just become principal of a new masters course in music production and commercial songwriting at the place where my studio is, called Tileyard in London. These are kind of intermediate/expert courses, not for beginners. We’re assuming people know about the digital workstation they are working on, that they know basics about how to out tracks together etc. - you can learn that off the internet nowadays. What we teach is, if you like, the gold standard how to proceed from that point on and make something that is very special. It’s the same production techniques we used in the very expensive studios in the 1980s. How to make great records doesn’t really change. There are certain fashions, certain types of mastering, compression, these sorts of things that change, very technical issues. But the point is, great songs are great songs. They will live longer if they are memorable. The songs can be any genre, any format you want. They can be neo-goth or electronic or country&western, doesn’t make any difference. A great song will transcend many different genres anyway. So really it’s about teaching people how to understand and manipulate your listener’s emotions. I think that’s the important thing that’s essential to every form of songwriting. How to do that is quite a detailed and nuanced thing. I can’t teach people in a few weeks all the experience I had in 40 years of producing various artists and producing and writing my own music. It takes a year’s course, like we’re doing. I’m not the only tutor of course. There are very important things to learn, like how to write a brief, when you’re dealing with things that aren’t just writing pop music or rock music or whatever it is. Say you write music for TV or films or art installations or ambient music or for lots of different purposes: How to interpret a brief from a client who is not an expert in music, for instance is very important. That kind of empathy and that ability to translate between different languages. If a marketing guy comes to my studio and says, I want you to write a piece of music which embodies my brand, I used run a branding company, called Sonic ID, so I understand their language. And when they say one thing, they probably don’t actually know what they mean. They don’t know what they’re saying. You have to make them feel it’s their idea but in fact you got to take your guess. These things are important but obviously you need to have the experience and knowledge to know how use them.