Steel Pulse captures the bottom end

An interview with David Hinds, a true pioneer of sound and style.

Steel Pulse frontman David Hinds’ answer to the standard convo-opener “How are you?” more or less sums up what our entire interview will say about the reggae legend’s take on a career spanning four decades.

“I can always be better.”

In town for the Jazz Fest this Friday, the British reggae singer took a break from a tour stop in Martinique earlier this week (and put down his paintbrush, at that) to talk about the band’s early days, their approach to finding their unique sound in the roots landscape and what it takes to stay fresh after nearly 40 years into their “adventure.”

Following the death last year of original Steel Pulse drummer “Grizzly” Nisbett (who stopped touring with the band in 2001), the band returned from a 15-year studio hiatus in May with Mass Manipulation, an album that Hinds and company — which still includes several original and otherwise longterm members — can be proud to add to their legacy.

“I don’t even care what the critics are saying, the media is the media. The fan feedback has been phenomenal,” Hinds offers. He doubts Steel Pulse will get a Grammy nod this year, as much as he might appreciate it, his interest is in touching souls, not trophies.

We talked about composition, mixing, global reach and intellect — and not necessarily all in terms of music — to prepare seasoned fans and newcomers alike for their return the Montreal stage after way too long a wait. The energy Hinds speak with reflects the energy his band’s name suggests, and we’re proud to bring you this discourse with a true pioneer of sound and style. 

Darcy MacDonald: How do you express yourself through painting that you can’t do through music?
David Hinds: I was studying in my teenage years to be a fine artist, and then I jumped ship when I saw one of the best artists I’ve encountered, who was an art teacher, sold one painting after he had about 30 on exhibition. He spent about a whole week (there). I said, “Damn, I dunno about that for a living.” And he was excellent.

The thing with art is I’m more by myself. With music I gotta be collaborating with a lot of people to get things done. So art is more of my choice of expression because it’s all me, trying to get the best out of me. 

DM: Do you bring painting tools on the road with you?
DH: Been there, done that, wore the t-shirt. I made the attempt to do water colours on the road and it took more out of me than the shows did. I be always saying, I like specializing in portraits, and I’m always staring and trying to find a better way to approach the paint, if there’s a better way to capture that figure, and I’ll be not sleeping. So I’ll be offstage and I’ll be thinking for the next four, five hours how to better the painting. It tired me out.

So what I do is some sketching. I had damaged my shoulder and hadn’t touched a paint brush for damn near 40 years. So I decided to take a course and pick back up where I left off in my teenage years. The teacher asked me to make the colour grey, so I said, ‘That’s easy,” and I took the black and the white and made the grey. And she said, “You can’t make grey with black and white! You gotta use the primary colours. I had no idea that the colour grey could be made out of red, blue and yellow. She says, ‘Don’t use black and white, it makes a ‘orrible grey!” 

So I started to experience painting, and realize that black and white is the worst grey you can get! And it took me two and a half hours to make the grey that she made. It was either red, or blue, or yellow, and it’s all about mixing the right amount of yellow, with the right about of blue and the right amount of red. So all I’d learned 40 years ago went all the way by the wayside and I had to start again.

After that crash course, I’m gonna try to get about four done per year. So far I’ve probably gettin’ in only one. 

DM: There’s a correlation there to something I wanted to ask you about. Are you involved in the mixing process of Steel Pulse music?
DH: I’ll tell you how involved I am. My ears are very good for what I want. The problem is I had never taken time out to study the mixing board. So I have to rely on engineers to give me what I want, whether it’s more bottom here, or the vocal needs more reverb, or it’s too bright. And I’d be doing all that instead of doing it myself. And that’s why I prefer painting. Like I said, “Gimme a little bit more red,” I can do myself, but with the music I need other people to give me what I’m looking for even though 90 per cent of the time I know exactly what I’m looking for. 

Because if you always know exactly what you’re looking for, it becomes boring — like with painting. You gotta keep it an adventure. When you put a red next to a yellow, it becomes a whole new red, but when you put it next to a black it’s not the same red it was next to the yellow. There was an artist called Mark Rothko who specialized in that. Although I’m not an abstract painter, I do take on their principles. So that’s how involved I am with the music. I’m in the middle of the lyric writing, I’m in the middle of the range and harmonies. The mixing aspect I leave in the hands of someone else. 

Steel Pulse’s music is so unique, in terms of the mixes and arrangements, I just can’t compare it to anyone else. Usually, like to go back to painting, if someone wants to paint like Michelangelo, he’s got Michelangelo to refer back to, or DaVinci, and so on. But Steel Pulse’s style is so unique that it becomes another area that does my head in, because I have to rely on my own understanding to find my own solutions and see if it works. So it’s good for me. 

DM: Listening to the new album next to old material, it dawned on me, like…well actually, what years did you get active in the studio? Mid- ’70s, right?
DH: The Handsworth Revolution album was mid- ’70s but “Ku Klux Klan,” our very first single, was before that, and we were as green as it came. We had just got signed to the label and we had our own ignorant way of understanding the music. We’d go to soundsystems as kids growing up, and the soundsystems always had a lot of bass, and the high ends up too with the excessive high hats and tambourines shaking and so forth, and we thought that’s how it was mixed, not realizing it was just an EQ bandwidth.

So our bass player would go in there with our engineer at the time and be like, “More bass! We want more bass!” And the engineer would say there’s enough, and we’d say there wasn’t. “Put more!’ And we’d say, you guys just don’t understand our music.

Then we’d get it back and there would be way too much, and they’d go, “Well, that’s what you asked for!” We learned the hard way.

DM: Well, it’s interesting that reggae production had been just evolving then from the later ’60s and the Jamaican studios, like Studio One to the Island (Records) studios and more modern equipment leading to a more slick sound. So you guys kind of step in there when that’s in full swing. And there is a very unique sound to Steel Pulse’s mix. Did you begin recording in England or did you travel to Jamaica at all during that period? 
DH: We never physically set foot on Jamaican soil until 1981, at least five years after our first recordings in studios in England. And the problem we had at that time was that there was a particular frequency that was always missing in British reggae music that we could not capture that the Jamaicans had.

Another problem was that the British reggae music always tended to want to use a mid-range melody within the song itself. If you listen to “Silly Games” by Janet Kay (starts singing), through that song, there’s like a flute-type instrument that’s a counter-melody to her vocals — which was what British reggae was all about. And Jamaican reggae never really had that going throughout it. They dropped in the bass and a vocal and a nice drum sound, and the bottom end was always the best you can get, that rumble. 

We were trying to get that but going the wrong way about it. And we’d try to get that guitar sound, and so many things we’d try to capture, without realizing that the biggest problem we had was that we didn’t have our own studios. There were no reggae-designed studios, they were all rock studios. The producer or the owner would give us some set of drums that’s in a bloody cave. We’d be playing and it would sound like a live recording. After a while we realized we had to be in a tight room, and that all these instruments, the snare and high hat and so on, had to be gated to get that sound that was coming outta Jamaica.

For many years we tried to emulate that (sound) without realizing that the studios were designed especially to cater perfectly to that music. And we were struggling in that every time we’d change studios, we’d have to start again trying to get there. We were halfway there when we had a Jamaican producer. That’s where Karl Peterson came in, now, but he could only do so much because he still has to deal with the studios that the British were providing. 

We still managed to get our sound, but…even this last album here. We recorded the bass in California, in the U.K., in Jamaica, in New York. And when I listen back to all the tracks, the tracks that to me have the best bass sound are the ones that came outta Jamaica. And the musician, like, we’d use a bass musician in Jamaica, and they just have a different swing, and it’s so refreshing when a Jamaican interprets Steel Pulse’s music. It’s interesting because there are many times when I don’t like (how it’s interpreted), except the bass player. It took me a long time to adjust to the other instrumentalists who touch our music, but the bass player can come any day of the week and touch anything we’ve got.

DM: I mean, tape was tape, and a magical thing, but you had to deal with what you had. What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of the old technology and the new in terms of capturing your sound today?
DH: What’s tough about it is that the earlier reggae music — the Marley stuff, let’s say, from 1972 to 1976 — all that stuff was recorded at 15 IPS, or inch-per-second (tape). What was good about that was that the bottom end was nice and warm. The top end and the mid-range was somewhat cloudy and it meant putting a lot more EQ than you probably would to brighten that up, because of the bottom end and the speed of the tape. 

And then it went to 30 IPS, and then drums became nice and clean and bright and the bottom end didn’t have that punch that you had at 15 IPS. But you were so good with how clean everything sounded and ran with it, so to speak, that you ran with it. Nowadays it’s all digital, and we’ve been through a phase that it’s so clean that you started to lose that authentic vibe, the custom of the music of the ’70s and ’80s. 

Technology has improved now to the point where you have stuff that can emulate that classic sound, so that’s what we did. We did the digital thing on the last couple of albums, but made damn sure that we printed it on half-inch analogue, to give the bottom end that kind of warmness. Although we know we’re gonna lose some of that crispness, we didn’t mind because we came from that era. So we’re trying to keep that Steel Pulse sound that technology has taken away and put it back, and know what to put back, where and when, and to go to another level, because the band has to be seen as if we’ve improved on ourselves in all kinds of directions at the same time. It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. We’re mixing and kinda making the best situation work for what it is.

But when it comes to the bottom end, the old days still have it for me. Marley was one of the lucky ones, that’s why his tracks sounded a bit cleaner than his peers at the time. If you listen, for example, to Israel Vibration, they had the bottom in but it was a different sound. Bob Marley’s music had a clinical sound to it, ’cause of producers he was using that were crossing into the R&B world.

After a while, what would happen was that he probably would later do backing tracks in the Jamaican studios using the better tape machine, whether it was Tuff Gong or Aquarius, when the equipment was up to speed with what he was about, whereas he would probably do his overdubs wherever he thought the person could lay that track at its best. I’d imagine he’d probably come to England if he wanted to lay the lead guitars, for example, when it needed that rock approach to it. There was no rock guitar players in Jamaica back then.

Or even back in England (a reggae guitar player would) just buy a fuzzbox and press the button and think that’s the rock sound, when it’s all to do with having the amp gauge and overloading where the gain has more gain than the master and the amps part of the sound, as opposed to the fuzzbox. Musicians’ understandings of sound has developed so much since then. 

DM: The new album lands as nicely as vintage ’70s Steel Pulse, not to gloss over two decades of work in between. And that classic Steel Pulse sound is there in the mix.
DH: I tend to run away from listening to Steel Pulse’s music as soon as it gets released. If someone starts playing it, I try to find another room to stay in or leave the building because I’m dreading how it’s gonna sound! (Laughter) But what I did find was that the True Democracy album always did sound good on a sound system — no matter how far I left the building, it was chipping away. Most of the Earth Crisis album, and “Bodyguard,” always had a good sound. When we decided to mix this new album, and all the sounds, we’ve been there, done that, but we’d still have to reflect on that sound not to lose it. As much as we’d like to think we’ve grown and so on, there’s certain things we have to put back just to prove that you haven’t completely lost us, but this is the direction we wanna go. But we do keep certain things just because of how the public tends to register and see certain things. 

DM: I know on Mass Manipulation I’m listening to Steel Pulse, no question about it. And as we speak, just the timbre of your speaking voice even, never mind on record over the last 30 years, is exactly the same. What do you do to keep your voice intact and protect it?
DH: I’ve toyed with that. It’s not easy going out doing shows night after night, especially when you’ve got a band that has a lot of energy behind what they do. Certain types of reggae music, it’s usually the high hat, the drums I should I say, the bass and the piano. But with Steel Pulse there’s so many other instruments I’m competing with at the same time. 

So I’m pushing my vocal a lot more than I had to (when I was younger). Though you’re saying I’ve managed to preserve it, and I have, to an extent, I have to monitor the sound that people are accustomed to, and one of the things I have had to do… for example, “Chant a Psalm” was written in the key of A flat minor, and I can’t sing it like that anymore. Now it’s in G minor. It mighta been in B flat, and I had to go down. “Handsworth Revolution” was done in C minor, I now do that in B. Some are still the same, like “Ku Klux Klan.” That’s one way I preserve my voice. We didn’t think about singing those songs six, seven, eight times in a row live when we were just singing them in the moment when we wrote them in those keys and they felt right.

My stomach resonator, I tend to do sit-ups to strengthen my muscles to help me sustain pushing my vocals. I make sure my stomach and my diaphragm are really helping me push what I need to push. I tend not to talk on show days. This interview would not be this long if it was a show day!  

DM: Steel Pulse came into my life in the mid-later ’90s, a friend of mine had his parents’ tape and we listened to it in a ghetto blaster in our other friend’s car. They were college professors. How do you think most fans find you guys?
DH: I’ve found over the years that most people who come to appreciate our musicality have done so during their college years. We know there’s a certain clientele that we attract, those that I like to call thinkers. Those that use their mind. Many who tend to gravitate toward us tend to be academically inclined, so to speak. ■

Steel Pulse perform as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival with openers Jah Cutta at MTelus (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Friday, June 28, 8:30 p.m., $54 all in.