Some artists make recordings. The Brigadier (a.k.a. Matt Williams) makes records. The Brigadier's albums sound as if they were meticulously assembled in a 1979-era world-class million dollar studio. Electric Light Orchestra, 10cc, and Queen are all sonic reference points, as well as more recent artists like Teenage Fanclub. Except that Matt doesn't utilize a world-class studio. Instead, he uses a computer, a keyboard, and a guitar in the corner of his living room. And he posesses a very interesting microphone preamp, as you'll discover in the following interview.
If The Brigadier isn't a great example of imagination triumphing over gear, I don't know what is. The Brigadier's brand new album, The Rise and Fall of Responsibility, is a solid collection of Teenage Fanclub-meets-Jeff Lynne studio pop goodness. And at precisely the point in the album when you think you've got his sound pegged, he throws in two superb electro-disco tunes (The Melancholy Days and This, is Why) that amazingly don't feel out of place with the previous guitar-centric tracks. If you're looking for a good soundtrack to accompany this interview, look no further than The Brigader's MySpace page. If you're not won over by the end of Some Sort of Magic (from The Brigadier's 2007 release, View from the Bath), you should probably have your pulse checked.
Jeff Boller: How did The Brigadier get started?
Matt Williams: I did the usual route of playing in bands throughout my teens and all that, though just initially as a guitarist playing rock stuff. I'd always been able to come up with tunes since I was young, and by my late teens was able to form them into songs. Then I started recording them on a four track. To cut a long story short, I went through some more bands but got fed up with all the stuff that comes with being in a band. So I decided to go 'solo' as it were. I didn't want to go under my own name, as there were already several other artists called Matt Williams and I thought it would be a bit boring to go under my own name. The last band I had been in was called Brigadier, so I decided to keep the name. When thinking of the name I wanted something a bit authoritative but also with a twinkle in the eye. All the regal names had been taken ”Queen, King, Prince, Princess” so I decided to go with a military name. The only one which popped out as sounding interesting was brigadier. I just kind of found it funny! Then I bought a computer to see if I could give it a go on the internet, largely because hardly anyone had heard my songs and I had no idea how they would be perceived. I went on loads of sites, but eventually settled down on MySpace, as I found it the easiest to use. Suddenly, I was getting a lot of feedback from people who really liked the stuff which was a real boost to my confidence. Then, when I started making CDs to sell, people actually bought them! Which was the best thing, as it really validated what I was doing.
JB:Your productions are reminiscent of big budget late 70s pop. Where the heck did you learn how to produce like that?
MW:I kind of just picked it up by doing it again and again. I used to record everything on four track tape. When I moved over to a computer, I utilized it in the same way just as a glorified four track. I used to be very sloppy with my recording. But the more I did it, the more my ears became attuned to hearing everything, and the better the sound became. I like fuller productions, like what you would hear on mid 60s Beach Boys and 70s Queen records. I like to bring out as much of the song as possible in the production without suffocating it. Sometimes I try to strip things down and do something with just my voice and piano or guitar but I don't often get there!
JB: How often do you play live? How do you make sure your songs translate to a live environment?
MW: I play live as often as I can. Some songs I just sing playing along with my guitar. For the others, I sing and play guitar along with backing tracks from my mp3 player. It's basically the same tracks off my albums, but stripped of lead guitar and vocals so it's kind of like Karaoke! It's not ideal, but until I can find a band, it's the only way. Surprisingly, it doesn't sound that bad, and the songs seem to go down well in the live environment.
JB: You do everything on your recordings - writing, performing, and recording. Your recordings sound fantastic. What's your studio setup?
MW: It's quite a skeletal setup, I use one microphone (Beyerdynamic) for everything, mostly because I never got around to buying any other, then that goes into a Tascam four track tape recorder, which is sort of my preamp, as I don't have a mixer.
JB: Are you serious? From the sound of your vocals, I thought you had a midrange microphone and a high-end preamp! What microphone model are you using? And which 4-track?
MW: The mic is a Beyerdynamic M300 TG. It's one that my dad gave me years ago when I started recording. To be honest, I don't know that much about mics, so I've never used any other! The Tascam is a Porta 03 MkII. It has a stereo input that I use for my keyboards, which you can switch to a mic input for the mic. Then, I plug the output of that into the computer.
JB: Are you using a separate audio interface, or are you running the audio directly into your computer?
MW: The audio is going straight in. I use an old Apple Mac G3, on which I'm running Logic Audio 4.7, an old but trusty program! I don't use any MIDI instruments, as there's a fault with my setup which won't allow it. But I do have some internal synths on my computer which I can use, like Mellotron samples and old 70s analogue keyboards.
JB: What sample libraries or virtual instruments do you use?
MW: I don't have many sample instruments, but I bought some on eBay, like Mellotron samples which I use and ARP synthesizers. I use them inside the EXS24 sampler in Logic. Aside from that, all my keyboard stuff is played in direct from my Yamaha portable grand. Most of my keyboards have to be played straight in, which can be annoying. If you make a mistake, you have to start again! But it makes you a better keyboard player!
JB: What do you do with your vocals as far as compression? Are you just running the vocals from your four track into the computer and compressing inside Logic? Or are you using some outboard hardware compressor?
MW: I use a compressor inside of Logic on a lot of the vocals but not all of them, then I EQ them to make them a bit warmer. I don't have any external processors, as I don't want to get overwhelmed by too much stuff! Also, I'm currently trying to upgrade my equipment at the moment, but it's not working as I keep getting plagued with technical hurdles!
JB: On 'The Rise and Fall of Responsibility' many of the songs seem to revolve around the transition from being a teenager to a young adult. Were there any real-life situations that inspired the songs?
MW: Some songs derive completely from real-life situations and others are exaggerated somewhat. The rest are either fictional or songs about somebody else, so are not applicable to me. Generally though, there is a biographical and nostalgic element to a lot of the songs. In that sense it could be construed as self-indulgent, but that's just the way it is!
JB: Well, if you're a songwriter, you gotta write about something, y'know? Is there a specific song on 'The Rise and Fall' where you could describe how 'real life' influenced it?
MW: Well, there's a song on there called 'Under the Influenza' which is written about having the flu or colds and all that sort of stuff. That comes from always being ill when I was younger. I'm generally much healthier these days, but I had the flu earlier in the year. I wrote this song in bed when I was feeling pretty dire!
JB: You pull off a credible 'Discovery'-era ELO sound with 'The Melancholy Days.' (And it's a fantastic song, as well!) Have you ever considered doing a 12" remix? A disco album?
MW: Rhythm is very important to me, and I try to give every song a different rhythmic feel. There's nothing worse than listening to a collection of songs which all have the same groove. I think you should be able to move to most music, whether it's 'dance' orientated or not. That said, I do like 'dance'music in a traditional pop way. I like a lot of disco, funk, and early 80s dance pop, as its quite fresh-sounding, and most importantly, full of groove which I think a lot of dance music gradually lost over time. I don't know if I would do a whole disco album, but probably after a few more albums you could certainly compile a good dancing compilation!
JB: As a one man band, you obviously don't have the luxury of other musicians helping establish a groove when recording. Are there any tricks you've discovered to help get the right sort of 'feel' for a song?
MW: Yes I basically borrow a groove off a record that I like. Generally, when I've written something, I'll write down next to it, 'The feel is like this song by whoever it is'. That's usually the start off point. That's why it's good to listen to lots of music, even stuff you don't like because you might find something like a rhythm or groove that you can borrow!
JB: Could you provide a bit of a breakdown about how you produced 'The Melancholy Days?'
MW: It was just something I wrote on guitar. It was going to be a slow ballad, but I thought that might be a bit obvious, so I didn't do anything with it for a while. One day, I was listening to a song I liked called La Dolce Vita by Ryan Paris, who was a sort of early 80s Europop one hit wonder. I thought that I should do something with a similar beat, so I basically used the groove off that song, though compositionally they have nothing in common. Sound-wise, then I was just fiddling around with different synthesizer sounds. I had to keep relentlessly stripping it down until it was very sparse, though by the end of the song it gets quite busy again!
JB: How long does it take for you to write and record a typical Brigadier song?
MW: I'm quite quick at writing, but the recording takes time as I have a day job and have to fit it in around that. I'm always thinking simultaneously about loads of different songs at any one time. Some songs I finish and some I don't. Some come back for another day. Some songs literally are all completely recorded and mixed within a few hours (like This is, Why off the new album) and others I might start at some point, and then burn off my computer coming back to them weeks or months later. Usually if you record and mix something on one day, you go back to it a few days later and you want or need to refine it. After a few more times of doing that, it usually sounds finished. The more experienced you become with recording, the easier it is, because you know instinctively how you want it to sound and how to get there. But then that's like anything, I suppose!
JB: Do you throw stuff away?
MW: I abandon lots of songs in the writing stage if they're not keeping my interest, but will usually just throw them into a pile for another day. With recording, sometimes I'll do a backing track and decide I don't like it or it's in the wrong tempo or key or basically, it's not inspiring. So I'll bin it. Then maybe a few months later, I'll come back to that song and redo it in a different way. I have lots of songs like that!
JB: What are the best things about being a one-man-band?
MW: The best things definitely are being able to do what I want when I want. I can write anything and release it and don't have to teach someone how to play it. I have collaborated with people before many times on writing and recording, but would generally prefer to produce other people than write with them but I'm not ruling it out.
JB: What about the worst? MW: The worst thing is that you have to be your own motivator and you have to really force yourself to keep your own morale up. It's especially evident when I'm doing a gig. It isn't as much fun doing a gig by yourself. I'd rather play with a band behind me in that capacity.
JB: Do you have any tricks you use to stay motivated, especially when writing and recording?
MW: I think having strong self-belief is the only thing which you can use to motivate yourself a lot of the time. That, and getting feedback from other musicians and fans. You tend to feel validated when people like what you are doing, so it helps keep you on track. That said, there are many dark days where you feel a bit lost and directionless and what you're doing is not worth anything. But you need to try and not let those thoughts hold much weight.
JB: Who are, in your view, some excellent but severely overlooked recording artists that everybody should know about?
MW: A lot of my tastes are quite mainstream and go from the mid 50s to the recent day, but that encompasses pop, rock, progressive rock, funk, heavy metal, country, bluegrass, country-rock, disco, electropop, etc. So as far as I can think the overlooked bands that I like did enjoy some success but not enough of it: artists like Saint Etienne, Stackridge, Salad, The Auteurs, Emitt Rhodes, and Mike Scott. I think as well as bands that are underrated or unknown, there are also periods in famous artists histories that go completely overlooked, people like Nick Lowe, Dion Dimucci, Delmont Shannon and The Everly Brothers, even The Beach Boys too. People might only know them for a handful of hits, but if you delve in to their back catalogues, there are some really great albums.
JB: What's next for The Brigadier?
MW: My first priority is to try and upgrade my recording equipment to make things easier. I'm also working on an EP for release in the late summer with a loose theme of 'Holidays' but that will probably change. I've also started recording my next album for probable release next year. I've got so many songs that I'm just going to keep recording them because I can't think of anything better to do. Thankfully, I have a good fan base who enjoy what I do, and I always sell enough to cover all my costs of making CDs so there's no reason to stop!
JB: 10 things that inspire The Brigadier?
Food, The weather, Photographs, Nostalgia, States of mind, Going on trips, Films, Other peoples songs, Love, Not going to work