Interview with John Dyson

“I just like a right good tune”…:
an interview with John Dyson

Date: May 7 2009

So John, how did you end up in electronic music anyway at the start of the ’80’s ? What music did you listen to in those days?
Well, most fans will probably know that in my ‘early’ years (at about age 12 or so) I first heard the Shadows, and fell in love with the ‘sound’ (as a lot of others did too!). That was one of my earliest musical influences in a serious way, but I’m told that even at age 5 (!) I used to ‘compose’ things on our old piano! (God knows what it sounded like, but……!)
Gradually, after hearing the Shadows, I progressed from a cheap Spanish guitar to an electric one (which I used to play through an old radio (yes!) as an amplifier!)
I used an old two-track tape recorder to record one ‘part’ and then play along to that……then wondered why it didn’t sound the same!
Asking around taught me about ‘echo’ (delay) and ‘reverb’, and then the spending started…I still don’t know how I managed it! The next thing was ‘how do they get the strings on there?’….then to synths etc. etc. A never-ending quest…..

Finally in around 1977 I was made redundant from my job and with the (small!) pay-off, I bought my first Fender Stratocaster! Wow., what a difference that made..!
One of my family (my cousin’s son) was very good on the organ and he had bought a Korg Sigma (they were well off money-wise, obviously!!) to sit ‘on top’ of the organ as an ‘extra’ sound bank. I loved it to bits and eventually I bought one, on ‘weekly’ payments, over 3 years!!! Yes, it was that bad at the time…!! (And still is to some extent…Ha!).

I used to take a magazine about electronic music etc. called “Electronics and Music Maker” where in one issue I saw an ad from a certain Dave Ward-Hunt in Sheffield asking if anyone was interested in making electronic music etc.
I met up with him and was amazed by both his ‘Digisound’ modular system and his technical knowledge. He used also ‘tape-manipulation’ techniques which I found fascinating, for ‘delay’ and ‘phasing’ and ‘flanging’ etc…
A good example is the opening to “‘Zenith” which was all done on tape, cross-faded and effected using the said technique(s).

David Ward-Hunt at UK Electronica, Sheffield, 1984 (© Mark Flowers, www.markflowers.com)

Dave was ‘into’ TD etc and I’d never actually heard any of this music before! He showed me how ‘sequencing’ worked in a brief way, and he was so clever….and get this….he could listen to a sequence and work out what the original notes were…AND the delay used!! Sheeesh!
I find it hard work, but he could do it naturally! But (and the other guys will laugh at this!)..he couldn’t keep a four-beat going for long without ‘losing’ it a bit!!! (well until he got used to it!!) Amazing, really. The reason was that he was concentrating on what, now, would be called the more ‘ambient’ EM…soundscapes, noises, FX etc.
His wife Brenda was so grateful that I’d shown up as I ‘injected’ some ‘melody’ into the music!! She said Dave’s music was ‘swamp-music’…Ha!
We often laughed about it later…! But the two contrasting styles and musical backgrounds turned out to be complimentary and we (I think) wrote some ‘refreshing’ music at that time.

What dear and special memories do you have of David Ward-Hunt? Any clue what made your music with David so special?
Apart from the comments above, the way that we blended the musical styles was a good ‘learning-curve’ especially for me. Dave was technically brilliant with the electronics also. He wired up an interface so that he could run TWO Roland MC-202 sequencers (giving 4 channels extra of sequences!) synchronised to his Digisound modular system…
I and the other guys were amazed that anyone could do this…never mind actually working it out in the first place! Plus the fact that we had some great laughs also!!! Especially with the other guys (Paul Ward, Shaun D’Lear, Neil Thompson, Tim etc)! They were (and still are!) so silly at times, but great fun. Mind you, so was I…..they always blamed me….!!!!

One abiding memory is of the trip to Annecy in France in ’88 (?). Dave, Paul and I took the gear in a Transit van all the way from Sheffield to Annecy (near Geneva)…it took about 20 hours in total!! Shaun and his brother went on the train…..and nearly missed their connection in Paris; then woke up in the night, looked out of the window, straight down the side of a mountain!!!! Ha! Scared them to death….Hee-hee!
We’d all arranged to meet up at 0600 in Annecy….and I don’t know how…but we did! Croissant and coffee at 6 a.m. in Annecy…lovely! And we got to swim in the lake!!

Looking at the Wavestar albums, what evolution can be noticed in them?
It is difficult to say about this really, as most people tell, or told, us that they got something different from the albums each time they listened to them;
But in my opinion, I think the music moves a little more toward the ‘orchestral’ sound as the albums progress, but that’s only my view; and possibly my own influences coming in a bit more.
There was certainly a lot more ‘traditional’ EM sounding tracks perhaps on the first (“Mind Journey”) than in say, “Moonwind”….

Surreal to Real edition

But mentioning “Moonwind”, I have to tell you this story about this 1987-release….We recorded that album in my ‘attic’ (top-room) in my house in Sheffield, using a Tascam 8-track and an Allen and Heath 16/8/2 desk. Every time we made a mistake, we had to re-wind the tape to the ‘start’…because of the ‘sync’ code (on track 8) which drove the sequencers!! The guys today don’t know they’re born, with the ‘instant’ playback/record on the computer systems, from anywhere in the song/track!
Suffice it to say that when Audion in the USA released the album in 1987, it’s ‘success’ was mainly due to the excellent mastering work done by Paul Ward and Neil Thompson at their then ‘Ambulance’ studio! A great job…and justified their hard work when the album was reviewed in ‘Which CD?’ magazine in the US, it had a bigger ‘score rating’ than the album “Big Generator” by ‘Yes’!!!
When you think where THAT was recorded, it says at lot for us using what we had to the best of it’s capability! And P and N of course!

But, as I hadn’t listened to any ‘Floyd’ previously…..and you can believe that or not as you wish!….when Dave played me some from (I think) “Dark Side of the Moon” I nearly had kittens!! I said “No, oh my God, they’ll think we ripped them off” !!
But Paul said no, it’s fine, it IS different….but I was worried!!

Until this very day, many people still praise the outcome of the album “Moonwind”. How did this album come about, and what are your thoughts and feelings about it now?
Well, “Moonwind” actually (the title track anyway) was based on a little ‘tune’ that my cousin’s husband ( another ‘Neil’) and I used to ‘play’ on two Spanish guitars in the very early days. We re-worked it somewhat and it turned into “Moonwind”!! Wish he’d have been around longer to hear it in all it’s glory…..

Audion edition

The album has been released now at least four times (I think), so it must rank as one of our best I suppose. It was very intense when we were mixing it though…..my neighbours were great regarding the sound from the studio as they were ‘nursing’ staff at the Hospital and (usually) worked late-night shifts…so when we were recording/mixing, they weren’t normally there!
I remember when we were working on the mix-down of the track “Voyager”, which was quite a difficult one…we were concentrating so hard, that we only just heard the phone ringing. It was the folk next door saying “John, how long will you be going on with the music? It’s fabulous, but just when we’re about to drift off to sleep to it, it starts up again!! It was actually 0130hrs in the morning….we’d no idea! And, they had (for once!) to be up early for work the next day!! A bunch of flowers and some chocolates and big apologies were in order! She loved it, though, and they were very good about it; and we did apologise profusely!! So, mixed memories of that album!!

So what did actually go wrong after “Moonwind” was released on cd on the Audion label?
The album was released on the Audion Recording Company label, which was Larry Fast’s (aka Synergy) baby, in conjunction with I believe Passport records of New Jersey. It received excellent reviews over there and I was fortunate enough to be able to join David in the US (New York, where he was already, doing some Athletics refereeing).
Passport flew me out there and we did a couple of days of radio and media interviews and phone interviews for Radio stations etc. A great experience. (One DJ in California came on the phone and two minutes into the interview he said ” Oh, sorry guys, we’re having an earthquake here, we’ll get back to you…” !!!
Dave said it was all my fault!)

But, Audion/Passport went into their administration scheme known as ‘Chapter 11’ (went ‘bust’?) and we never received any payment for the album…that led to some difficulty between Dave and I, but another reason was that I found out Dave was ‘abusing’ my hospitality regarding the use of my home…so, all things combined to create a difficult situation.
We eventually agreed to a ‘parting of the ways’, which at the time was the best thing; but, it always makes me wonder what we could have, maybe, come up with, had things remained on an ‘even keel’.
Never mind…it’s in the past now and we had some really great times and music!

What’s you favourite Wavestar and solo album and song ?
Oh, what an unfair question!!! I couldn’t possibly ‘choose’ between all the ones we’ve done!! In ‘solo’ terms, I think most musicians would say ‘the last one I worked on!’…but as Wavestar, “Moonwind” (the song and the album) was an interesting one…mainly for the ‘memory’ of Neil and the ‘space-tune’ as we called it (!) and the USA experience etc.
In saying that, we really enjoyed all the Wavestar material we composed, and the reaction at our ‘first’ live performance at UK Electronica ’85 was mind-blowing….so, it’s impossible to ‘pick’ a favourite. When we play live now, the guys always ‘insist’ on doing ‘Moonwind’….they like it!

Groove Unlimited edition

On “Mind Journey”, the first incarnation of the song “Return” was also a favourite as I used to play it (well, try to!!) on a ‘real’ piano at my good friend Joe’s in Derbyshire…where I eventually was to live for a few years. So that has a certain ‘resonance’ with me too.
“The Lady Aquarelle” on the album “Aquarelle” is pertinent here too for the same reason(s); but it is impossible really to choose ‘one’….and we haven’t mentioned “Time Node…live”…..Ha! They’d kill me if I didn’t do that at any particular concert I suppose!!

In the course of the ’90s, you and a bunch of friends founded the established electronic music label Surreal to Real. What do your recall of this, what status did electronic music have in the UK in those days
The ‘status’ of EM in the UK has never been in the same order as it is/was in Europe (and the USA), and that was mainly due to lack of radio airplay I believe, it was always difficult. The UK does not seem to be as ‘open-minded’ as the Continent in this respect in my opinion, although there were people such as Ashley Franklin at BBC Derby who were of tremendous support.
But, the situation is much the same today here in the UK; I have to mail out promo copies of “Darklight” to several local and National Radio stations…but most seem obsessed with ‘chart’ material. In saying that, I do find it odd that here on our own local BBC station, we can hear a Jazz programme, A C+W one, A ‘traditional’ (Scottish Music) one, an ‘oldies’ programme etc., but nowhere an avenue for EM…but I shall continue to fight!!!

Surreal to Real edition

‘Surreal to Real’ came about via the debacle of Audion going ‘under’ really. I had some material I’d been working on, which formed the basis for “Evolution”. Anthony Thrasher suggested that we ‘go it alone’ so to speak, and it all worked really well in the first instance. We were invited to play at ‘KLEM-dag’ in ’90 (I think!) and we ‘launched’ the label and several albums at that event. They and we ourselves were received very well and all had a great time.

John Dyson & Frits Couwenberg (KLEM)

The organisers then invited us back for the following two years (’91 & 92?). All was going reasonably well, but I found that (as ever!) nothing was ‘coming my way’ with regards to funding for the replacement of the studio equipment.
There are other things of course, but this is not the place to discuss them; suffice it to say that I felt let down by the ‘arrangements’…and so an ‘amicable’ parting was agreed.

Later on, you started your own label Soddett Hall. What made you decide this?
Well, it seemed the ‘best’ thing to do at the time. Various formats were considered and the eventual outcome was that SH and Groove Unlimited decided it would be to both our interests to do a joint release of certain albums; so “Moonwind” was re-released along with “Mind Journey” and “Zenith” plus some unreleased ‘test’ tracks from the post-“Moonwind” Wavestar era.

 

 

Groove Unlimited edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Any memory of the most difficult music you made so far or some harsh circumstances you had to play live?
Again! What a question!! Where do I start, and how long have you got?!!!! Well, the most ‘difficult’ music….? To try and play ‘live’ such things as “Crystal Ashes”…”Troll Valley”…”Turkish Bizarre” and loads of others!
One of the main reasons being that I no longer have the ‘original’ tapes or the machine…to ‘go back to’….oh well, that’s what you get for being poor!!!
I’d love to be able to go back and re-do some of the songs but a great many of them were done’ ad-lib’ and in one take (the lead lines) so it would be difficult!! (I never play anything the same twice!!! Cue big laughs from the other guys!)
Maybe if I get the time one day I’ll have an attempt at re-constructing some of them….and do them better!!! Ha.

Playing ‘live’ always has it’s pit-falls as we say here…or ‘prat-falls’ as they’d say in the USA! Any musician will tell you ‘horror stories’ of such things….
As you may know, our concert in Dundee last October was a prime case! Now, I MUST say there is no ‘blame’ attached to the one and only Andy Garibaldi who organised the event!! Circumstances conspired to make it a difficult gig….the Health and Safety people condemned the venue about 5 or 6 days prior to the concert!
Poor Andy had to try and find a replacement venue, for a full-day festival at such short notice….almost impossible! He managed to find a venue (‘The Doghouse’ in Dundee) that could let him put on an ‘afternoon’ event from 12:00 to 17:00, and so saved the event from total collapse! But, many people cancelled I believe, because of the fact that it was no longer a ‘full’ day event, so the attendance was down somewhat, and the poor guy lost money.
The people playing before us (yet again it happened to us!) played ‘over-time’ and consequently we had to drop two songs and the encore from the set. But, the folks who were there did tell us it sounded great, even though our on-stage sound was dire to say the least…and of course we didn’t get a sound-check!! Oh well….shit happens as they say. But I was really miffed at it all, even though no-one was really to blame as I said, in terms of the hassles.

After all these years I felt we deserved better…..But, the guys at Groove asked us to play at E-day this Easter (April 09), and what a difference!! Ron and Kees and their team promised us that all our needs would be seen to and they were really true to their words!! What a fantastic weekend we all had there and I cannot thank all involved in the event for their co-operation enough. It was a true joy to be able to play in such a relaxed atmosphere!! And it turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever done…Thanks everybody who came also!!!

It seems your studio and the instruments you use are a story of it’s own, as the first always seems to have been “total chaos” and the electronics never seem to have changed during the years… Among them, is the Korg Sigma still your favourite solo synths?
Ha! Too true! See the comments above regarding the ‘funds’ never getting to the studio…! My computer is Paul Ward’s old system and is now about 7 years old…and in computer terms, that’s almost ‘prehistoric’!! (Mind you, everyone says I’m a bit of a ‘dinosaur’ these days, so what the hell…!!)
Ron has just shipped us Cubase 5…..I dread to think what the computer will make of that!! It’ll probably just die! MaybeI’ll have to look at another computer now…..oh dear. Get buying those albums, y’all!!! Haha!

I wouldn’t be without my Korg Sigma now, although I constantly worry about it as it is really old now! If it ‘breaks’, I don’t know what I’ll do, as it has those three or four ‘typical’ JD sounds that would be difficult to replicate of anything else. Oh yes, I KNOW you say I could ‘sample’ it, but it wouldn’t be the same, as, because of the age of the thing, it ‘reacts’ differently depending on where you play it on the keyboard, amongst other things…and there’s no WAY I’d have the ‘skills’ to duplicate that on a sample(r)!!!

Since you’ve “retired” from electronic music about 1,5 decade or so ago, how do you look back on your musical career? Anything you would have done different now, things you regret?
Well, I sort of ‘had a break’ as they say…I was always writing into the computer, off and on so to speak over the period since 1998 or so. But as you know, I lost my old friend Joe, and there was an eventual move out to Derbyshire to contend with, the ‘job’ was really getting quite bad also and my health was suffering too because of it.

John Dyson & Ron Boots, April 2009

Then the opportunity to move to Scotland came up with Jack in 2003/4, so I decided that we both would be better off in ‘real’ terms out of the ‘rat-race’, as we say here. We have never regretted the move at all and are happy here and have been made most welcome by the lovely folk here. The track “Kintyre to Skye”‘ on the “Darklight” album is a token of our respect for them and the country.

With regard to doing anything differently’…well, I don’t know really…I don’t think so. They say everything happens for a reason, so I accept that even though, as I say on the notes on “Darklight”. Although it has been a ‘roller-coaster’ ride, it has been VERY interesting! And as Shaun says constantly, “even if we don’t make ‘the big-time’ (could we stand it anyway? JD!) we have seen loads of fabulous places and met some really great people, all because of the music, so it MUST have been worth it!!”

John, can you tell some more on the music that ended up on “Darklight” and the music you had in mind for it?
“Darklight” really came about after the Dundee festival event, although I had some of the basics in the computer already of course. Jeanette, (who was one of the original organisers of UK Electronica) was there with her future husband and daughter from a previous marriage, Melanie, who I actually did remember from Sheffield UK!
Melanie asked me after the event if I’d ‘write’ her Mum some music for an Xmas gift as she (Jeanette) loved what I did, and she’d no idea of what to get her as a gift!! So, the outcome (in the first instance) was a basic mix of the theme and sequences from what is now “Darklight”. She loved it as I gave it a ‘working’ title of “Planette Jeanette”!!! So, it went from there…..all loved it and said “get on with another album”….so….

I find the music of the new album overall quiet, introspective and at times even melancholic. Is this what something you had in mind for it (as the two track of you that ended up on the cd “E-Day 2009” are similar to your typical melodic, sequenced style)?
Mainly, the ‘theme’ of “Darklight” as an album, was that people have always asked me ‘where does the music come from’? (As you cannot actually read music?) How do I explain…how does anyone who ‘composes’ music, in whatever form? I can only think, that since I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘Universe’ and all that entails, that somehow I must have been ‘shown’ or taken’ when I’m asleep, to where the ideas come from….so….

The music itself is not meant to be ‘melancholy’ overall, as I am not in any way ‘melancholy’ now myself! Living here has ‘relaxed’ me, being away from the stress I was under at the job etc and it is extraordinarily beautiful (when the sun shines especially!!).
The music is just as it comes to me, in all it’s moods and feelings. I have been blessed with some quite lovely comments regarding the music on “Darklight”. One guy in the USA said ” you have put so much emotion into it and it shows”…and I just had a postcard today from a quite well-known figure in EM who tells me “it is an astonishing album”…which is really good to hear, as it means that some, at least, of the ideas and emotions have come across.

The three tracks for the “E-Day 2009 sampler” were really allocated to try and provide Groove Unlimited with as ‘JD’ type-tracks as possible, to hopefully encourage fans to buy the album. As Ron and Kees had been so helpful and supportive, as always. And, I thought that the music remaining on “Darklight”, blended ‘better’ as an album….especially after consultation with all the other guys in Sheffield and Stevo in Ireland, as well as folks here, on the track-order.
This was re-worked and the music suddenly ‘became’ a more coherent album. Thanks guys and gals!!!

Now that you have “recharged” yourself with your new album “Darklight” and a great live concert with your friends at “E-Day 2009”, is a follow-up to both of them more than a possibility?
It all depends on the financial situation, as always! Yes, of course I’d love to do another album…but let’s see what the computer thinks of Cubase 5 first!!! Oh, and there’s the small matter of writing it…!!! Ha!
Regarding the concert…yes, we had a ball there…the guys and girls just wanted to carry on into Europe and ‘tour’…crikey!! That’s never happened before…we’re all usually too tired to do anything other than go home!!! Yes we’d love to do it all again in the future….but we are realistic and it does cost money for all the transport etc. and it is difficult also for the guys who ‘promote’ the events in these days of financial constraints etc. Well done you who do take the risks, you have our gratitude always. But they all want me to say….’Yeah!!’

Any famous last word, John?
Now for a nice cup of tea!! Can I have a biscuit..? Please?…Pretty please?…….Maybe two…? Awwww…..
Love to all and thanks for all your support over these past 25 years or so…..and if I forgot to say ‘thank you’ to any of you….give me a slap next time…!!!

JD, Tarbert, Argyll, May 09 xxxxxxxxxxx

Website: www.johndysonmusic.com