Interview by Niels Kolling, pictures by Will Scott, Radu Popescu, Michael Alo Nielsen & Stephen Barrett
This month we go deep into the heart of The Human Leagues engine room, as I twisted the arm of the bands studio and live engineer wizard David Beevers to get an interview. Or as he put it; “I'll do what ever through sympathy of a Berlingo owner PMSL” (cheeky bastard!). It was worth the banter though, as he delivered some very interesting details from his more than 20 years in the band.
First of all, when did you join The Human League and how did it come about?
I first met the group in 1986. I was working in a rehearsal room/club when they came in to rehearse for the Crash tour. We had just had a PA delivered to the club and I was the only one with an idea how it all worked so I was thrown in to do the rehearsals for them.
After the rehearsal period Philip mentioned they wanted to build a studio and would I like to be involved. When they said involved they really meant it. I was at the building site for the studio which may have been September 1987 moving blocks and mixing cement. I know every element that went into the studio and it also gave me some skills which have come in handy for house renovation.
How do you prepare for a new tour? Do you sit down with Philip Oakey and discuss how it should be sound and which songs should get the extended treatment?
The preparation now is pretty painless. I guess I’m lucky that now we have a system that's reliable 99.8% of the time. I just sit on my own and do most of the tour stuff and during rehearsals everyone pitches in to change stuff if need be. I’m not precious, at the end of the day it’s making the show work.
A few years ago when we moved to using the laptops and new sequencing software I spent months transferring and reprogramming all the songs to new synths and samplers and also programming other songs too, these now reside in a huge file for the group to choose from.
Sometimes just as an idea I’ll programme something and present it during rehearsals and it’ll either stay or change. I’ll always fiddle with sounds and structures trying to get them just that bit better. ‘Open Your Heart’ was one song that just lent its self to being extended, although it helps being a great song to start with. Playing live now is so much fun.
From backstage engineer to hiding behind the laptop to prominent stage presence with both keyboard, vocal and percussion duties. Your role seems to have evolved through the years?
I guess it’s just something that happened naturally as the fear subsided. In the studio its fine and controlled but live It’s there and then. I’m such a useless player but wanted to get more involved to make the stage look more interesting, so I just made it very easy for myself to do that.
I wanted to play more but between Neil, Nic and Rob who do everything because they’re professionals there was nothing simple for me to do.
At this pace maybe one day we will see you croon away in the middle of the set Martin Gore-style?
I doubt that very much.
Any of the songs of Dare that caused you problems in the pre-programming for the Dare 2007 Tour?
Most of the songs from Dare were already programmed, so I sat down with the multi-tracks, listened and if needed went and reprogrammed synths. I was amazed to see that some elements of songs we had never programmed and some sounds we had were so wrong.
I avoided lifting stuff from the Dare multi-tracks to use as samples as I like a challenge and we have done pretty well over the years keeping the elements of the songs with newer sounds. The only sound that evades me is the Love Action choppy chord sound.
Of all the songs you've reworked for the live set, which one are you most satisfied with regarding both the programming and the general sound?
I thought the ‘Get Carter/I Am The Law/Seconds’ section worked very well. 'Empire State Human’ is so great and I love Philip’s Moog Liberation solo. I like the acoustic version of ‘One Man In My Heart’ too, it shows a different side of the group and Nic is such a good guitarist.
Do you ever get lonely while (Keep Feeling) Fascination is played live, as the rest of the band take centre stage while you're stuck behind your Mac?
No and what would I do? Apart from stand with my hands in my pockets looking like a chump. Hold on, I do that anyhow :-)
Has there ever been a song you had to drop, as it was impossible to get to it work in a live situation?
I don’t think we got ‘Shameless’ right, which was sad as it’s a great song and also ‘Filling Up With Heaven’.
Any pre-programmed song that you're itching to play, but for various reasons hasn't?
There are 2 songs I’d like us to have a go at but I’m not saying.
You did an excellent remix for the Soundtrack To A Generation single. Any chance of another Human League release with a David Beevers mix on it?
Excellent!! I remember we needed another track to fill the cd single with, so I worked through the night mixing and editing (on 1/2 inch tape) and Philip picked it up the next day to take to Virgin. If you listen closely you can hear only one side of Joanne and Susan’s vocals and crackle from a dodgy lead in the other.
The Human League has a vast collection of vintage synths. Which ones are the most fun to fiddle with the knobs?
Philip does have a nice collection of synths which I have the privilege of toying with. I love the ‘Pearl Syncussion’ which is an analogue drum module which sounds great, then Rob started playing it and now its fantastic. Korg ‘Synthi Basse’ is good, very basic but huge sound. I will always have a soft spot for the Roland ‘System 100m’, so versatile and limitless possibilities.
You engineered on the majority of the tracks on the Romantic? album which ended up being produced by 5 different producers. Was that a coincidence and do you think the album may have suffered on that account, since it didn't do quite as well as hoped in the charts?
That moment in time was very odd, mainly through lack of support and understanding from the record company. I can’t remember why there were so many producers. I don’t know if it suffered or not, I still like it and it was good working with so many artistic people.
I've come across longer versions of A Doorway, Men Are Dreamers, Kiss The Future and Get It Right This Time which sounds unmistakably like they're produced/remixed by William Orbit. Was he in line to produce more of the album or were scheduled for a future single release?
Because there were so many differences between tracks on ‘Romantic’, the overall view was to get someone in to remix the whole album and make it more cohesive. After a few meetings, William Orbit was put forward, which pleased me as I love the stuff he does, and a few days later I went to copy the multi tracks and drop them at his studio. So there is somewhere a complete album mixed/remixed by him.
When finished, most of the tracks were working really well especially ‘Rebound’ which had been transformed, but there was still some idea’s floating around so we ended up finishing it off.
You also engineered the Octopus album, which was a big success. I read that you started off with 20 tracks and since only 9 ended up on the album, what happened to the rest?
Did we? Maybe we did. I think we would have run up that amount in demo’s and through a process of elimination got down to an albums worth.
Any memories from those sessions? Like if songs changed drastically during recordings or anyone was particularly difficult to work on?
My memories are still painful of that session. I think the group had signed to East/West about 5 months before and we hadn’t moved very forward in finding a producer, then Ian Stanley (Tears For Fears) stepped in and said we had 3 months or so to record it all in.
For me personally it was tough as Ian had a different way of working. We had Andy Gray in a back room deconstructing our demos and programming and Ian in the control room programming too. After a few days elements from both sessions would be brought together and a track constructed. At this point we would be working on a track with most of the elements running live and very little on tape.
For example, during the recording of ‘Filling Up with Heaven’ there was the System 100m running live playing 2 sets of hi hats which were being sent trough to the live room and put through a guitar amp then mic’d up. System 700 running sequencers and several of these being split into various effects boxes. Samplers running via Cubase and also other synths being triggered via midi or CV & Gate.
Philip sat in a corner programming and playing the synth solo on the system 100. A timecode DAT machine being synched to the computer with vocals on it and Pro-tools audio tracks playing off the computer, and me having to keep it all running and in tune, very, very scary.
At one stage we had Andy in one room programming, Bob Kraushaar in our studio redoing vocals (but we used most of my original ones in the end) and Ian renting a studio next door (Axis) still programming. Every evening new sub mixes would be transferred from Axis to HL then in the morning I would drag the 24 track recorder to Axis and off load the previous days vocals into pro-tools, quite mad but we ended up with a great album.
On the last album Secrets you took on an even more active role by recording and mixing Lament, Brute and Release. Critically acclaimed as your best work since Dare. So how do you look back on that album now?
‘Secrets’ was kind of odd to record. Some of the tracks were done and presented to East/West in demo form, then we started working on them with a guy called Robin Hancock and for some reason it stopped with him.
We carried on working on the tracks and had a few programmers come in at various stages, then Philip ended going to London to work with Ross Cullum for some months at which point the record company had a shake up and we were gone. We carried on recording and then the group was signed to Papillion.
I can’t quite remember how it happened but we ended up working with ‘Toy’ who were a production outfit consisting of Kerry Hopwood, who’d worked with Bomb The Bass and Depeche Mode, Dave Clayton who they knew as he was from Sheffield and had been in ABC and finally, Q, who had also worked with Bomb The Bass and done remixes and engineered for Madonna.
At this point they took over and apart from supplying some vocals & sounds from the Radar my (Technical) job was done.
Can you reveal any information about the instrumental version of Secrets that was rumoured to be ready for release? Was it a "straight" instrumental version of the songs or more like reworked dub versions ala the Love And Dancing album?
That would be Clear which changed to Cleansed. As the mixes were coming back it occurred to me that they could sound fantastic as instrumentals and would work really well in films.
Once the mixing had been completed, I took the master audio stems (minus the vocals) from Logic into Pro-tools and just re-eq’d the tracks and made some alterations to the fades and mix points. It wasn’t a huge difference and I think it was talked about doing some kind of special 2001 Secrets tour edition cd with the instrumental version included but I could be wrong.
There was also a remix of ‘All I Ever Wanted’ started by myself and Neil and also I started a remix of ‘Love Me Madly’ for the second single but both were abandoned.
Favourite Human League single and album?
I suppose single would have to be ‘Filling Up With Heaven’. Great song and great sounds too, love those splashy hihats and Philips system 100 solo.
Album, I would have to choose 2. Travelogue because I consider it as equal to Kraftwerk’s ‘Man Machine’ in its groundbreaking use of technology and because I got it for my 16th birthday and ‘Secrets’. A fun time if long in the making of and it all just works.
Favourite remix of a Human League song?
Wow, there are so many to choose from and most of them brilliant. I think I’ll cheat and go for ‘Love And Dancing’ because it still sounds great and it was the start, I think, of all the dance stuff we hear today. Thank you Martin.
The new album, spill the beans!?
‘Spill The Beans’ is just a working title, hahaha