Martin Rushent: The Genetic Method

Studio Svengali MARTIN RUSHENT earbashes hungry hack Adam Sweeting.

THE THAW hadn’t set in, and the Home Counties still looked like Finland. Martin Rushent didn’t seem to care, though. He was more concerned about the rail strike. It’s amazing how many jokes you can make about Ray Buckton, really, and Rushent wasn’t being squeamish.

He cheered up over a pint. Stocky and bearded, Rushent is not only the studio technowizz behind the likes of the Human League and Altered Images, but is also a raconteur of no little ability.

Slurping back a pint of identikit bitter, he regaled his audience with lurid tales of the power struggles behind American radio, the impossibility of doing any work whatsoever in New York in the fortnight before Christmas and the remarkable habits of hoteliers in Reading.

The tales continued over lunch. Clearly the bearded sage was in his element, in this case an idyllic riverside hotel a slip and a slither down the hill from his own Genetic Sound complex.

“They found this guy lying dead in a field a couple of miles away, right? They reckon he’d been buggering this cow… funnily enough, the same thing had happened not so long ago… his balls had been ripped off.”

Long before Rushent had loomed into prominence via his production work in the early days of punk (Buzzcocks, Stranglers and so forth), and even before he’d grabbed a toehold in the music biz back in the late Sixties as a studio engineer, he’d been contemplating a career as a professional diver. You know, Brian Phelps an’ that.

“But it all came to an abrupt end one day,” recalls Rushent as the Italianate waiter brings the duck, the roast pork and the Chateau Benidorm. “We were queueing up to dive off the five metre board, and the bloke in front of me cocked it up and did a belly flop.

“I mean, normally it’d just sting a bit, right, but you wouldn’t really hurt yourself. But anyway, this guy’s stomach split open. I looked down and saw this stain slowly spreading in the water. Well I mean, that was it for me and diving…”

There may be a moral in this, but I doubt it. Rushent himself readily concedes that luck plays a major role all down the line.

“There’s always an element of luck in everything you do. I mean, I consider, when I ponder these things or when I’m faced with a question like this, I suppose one could say ‘well I’m lucky to be in bed tonight and to have got through the day without being knocked over by a car or something’, yeah? So luck’s an element in your life all the time.”

Of course, it’s easy enough for him to say this, bathing in the golden glow of the sort of chart success normally associated with fairy tales of the most fantastic sort. Not a man to belittle himself, Rushent grants himself a little credit.

“But I think there’s a difference between capitalising on the luck when it comes along… and that involves a lot of hard work and, like, go for it! I can think, looking back, I’ve had breaks before and blown ’em through laziness, or I haven’t recognised the breaks or whatever.

“People say that success in the entertainment business is being in the right place at the right time. That’s probably true, but it involves a damn lot of hard work to get in the right place, right? And the luck is getting there at the right time.”

The right place for Martin Rushent has undoubtedly proved to be the rural retreat near Reading which is now the site of Genetic. The Genetic recording/living complex has been Rushent’s obsession for years. Around two years ago, he began to work hard at realising his ambition, and now Genetic is home for Rushent, his wife and two kids as well as for the studio of the same name.

He backtracks. “Genetic all started around the time of Radar Records, really. I’ve always had this idea for a self-contained record operation, and I’ve always very much admired the old Stax and Tamla Motown setups.

“I’m a great fan of black music, but that’s not the reason I admired them, I admire the music as a separate thing. But just the way they set the whole thing up — they had studios, they had musicians, they had writers, they had producers, they had engineers.”

ONE OF THE first fruits of the new Genetic is Pete Shelley’s Homosapien album, which started to come together about a year ago, though it’s only just been released. The studio really hit the map with subsequent recordings by the Human League (Dare and its spin-off singles) and Altered Images’ singles ‘Happy Birthday’ and latterly ‘I Could Be Happy’. Though Banshee Steve Severin produced the Images’ first album, it was the singles that really went airborne. Now, Rushent is locked away recording the band’s second 12 incher.

What with all these, plus unexpected Stateside attention for Homosapien, Rushent’s small Genetic crew has been under severe strain (he manages Shelley too, which has put additional demands on his time). “So the last three months… our little administration, which is me, my wife, and two girls, is just snowed under.

“I mean, I’m not complaining, Christ. But we’re steadily putting it to rights, we’re getting a few more people in and stuff like that.”

So why has all this happened so fast? Even as we speak, Rushent is being deluged with offers from American record companies to produce all kinds of artists — Capitol’s electro-popsters Our Daughter’s Wedding, to name but one. Mostly, it’s down to the League, where Rushent and the group pulled off a ground-breaking fusion of pure pop with pure electronics.

“Y’see,” Rushent volunteers, “I think the League have dispelled the myth once and for all that electronic music has no feel or soul or romance — that always was a load of bullshit and it was put about by people who really couldn’t understand a synthesizer.

“A drum or a guitar was like something you could ‘old and thrash, whereas a synth you ‘ad to think a bit about it — what do I want it to do? Because the options are so limitless with it that you have to think about what you wanna do first, whereas with a guitar you’ve got treble, bass and volume. There’s a few little refinements and niceties but that’s basically it.

“You can criticise that in a synth too — there are two or three very easy sounds to get that everybody uses. But I think a lot of people got frightened off them because of their complexity and the fact that you had to think about them — they’d say ‘I don’t like synths, they’ve got no soul’. Right?

“Well, neither’s an electric guitar. It’s the guy who plays it who’s got the soul. And these synths are played by human beings, and even when they’re controlled by computer it’s us telling it what to play. They’re only putting down our ideas and feelings expressed in that way, that’s all.”

Yes, admits Rushent, the likes of DAF and Kraftwerk can be predominantly machine-like at the expense of songwriting action. “But weld up electronic recording techniques with great songs and it all starts to ‘appen. I can think of loads of punk bands that were as cold as ice, mainly because the songs were boring as hell.”

But what of the different demands presented by the likes of the League (all machines plus voices), Pete Shelley (mostly machines plus guitars and voice) and Altered Images (all “conventional” instruments)? Rushent sees no problems here.

“I feel at home in both those sorta things, you know. And in fact I would say that a large number of records — well, a few have been made already this last year and there’ll be progressively more in the next year — which will weld bands like Images and machines together in a way that nobody will be able to tell. It’s just that the quality of records will be that much better.

“Y’SEE, BACK in ’77 and ’78 I thought it was really honest and truthful to capture a band as they really were on record. But I’ve now come to the conclusion that that’s a load of crap. Really what you should do is make a record so it sounds the best it can possibly sound, and it doesn’t really matter how you do it, because people are buying bits of plastic with sounds on.

“They’ll go and see the band live for completely different reasons — to see the faces that make the records, right? And I always thought it was the other way round. I thought most people bought records because they’d seen the band and really liked them, but the vast majority hear the record first, say ‘fuck me, I really like that’, and their attention is much more difficult to get than the guys who are out there going to gigs once a week.

“‘Cos these people never go to a gig from one year to the next, they listen to the radio and the jukebox and go down the disco. So what you do is you make a really great record, it doesn’t matter how you do it, though I do have one golden rule — I won’t use outside musicians unless it’s made obvious that we have done.

“So you make the great record, capture their attention, then they go to the gig and see the faces that made the record. Then you can give ’em something completely different — like Images are much wilder and looser live than on record, because I discipline them on record.”

On record, nothing is what it seems. “In point of fact,” confesses Rushent, “on both Images singles there’s a considerable amount of electronic trickery, but it’s all very — hopefully — concealed. There’s little bits of drum machines and stuff all over the place, but it’s there to enhance the basic idea, and I think there’s going to be a lot more of that going on.”

Yes, Martin Rushent loves gadgetry. He recalls with disgust the years he spent sat at a console listening to guitarists ripping off Jimmy Page, and whole groups trying to be the Pistols or the Stranglers. But now, life is one giant electronic toyshop — a Hamleys for grown ups (if anyone in this business is grown up).

“I think it’s really exciting,” he gushes. “Every week I get pamphlets through about ‘We’ve just built a glurk and this is what it does’. And you go ‘A glurk! Great! Let’s have one up here and try it out’, and you suddenly find it can do something that nothing else has ever been able to do before. It’s exciting, right?”

SINCE I’M running out of space here, I’ll have to leave out Rushent’s saga about the Basil Fawlty-style hotelier in Reading who kicked in Eddie Tenpole’s door to find Eddie standing naked on the bed ready to defend himself with a guitar.

Instead, I’ll give you his definition of himself and his role.

“I suppose I play the role of Ideas Realiser in the studio. I’m the signpost at a crossroads. Somebody comes up and says ‘I wanna go here but I have no idea which road to take. Is there anyone round here who can point me in the right direction and take me by the hand when it gets real difficult?’ Right? That’s what I do.”

The producer, according to the Rushent gospel, is at the helm of a creative team, with whom he has to work sympathetically and often intuitively. “If those people’s personalities and ideas and senses of humour and drive and creative ability all interlock, then you’ve got a winning combination.” Not much to ask really…

Most of all, it has to be pop. Or Pop. “I don’t really wanna make records for elitists,” says the man from Genetic. “They can make those themselves.”

© Adam SweetingMelody Maker, 6 February 1982

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