In 2018, the Ebony Steel Band accepted an unusual challenge from Ian Shirley. The group is Europe’s most prominent steel band. It was established in 1969 and went on to win the National Panorama competition at the Notting Hill Carnival an unprecedented 22 times. Although the members had already demonstrated their versatility over past albums, tackling everything from Tchaikovsky to Lennon/McCartney, Shirley had something more unusual in mind for them; the work of German electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk.
The result, Pan Machine (the pun needs little explaining), arrives this week, with the group performing live in-store at Rough Trade’s East London branch on the 20th September. Pan Machine is a Caribbean reimagining of selections from the classic Kraftwerk albums of the 1970s and 1980s, including The Man-Machine and Computer World. And where past Ebony Steel Band albums were let down by ‘first-time-using-Photoshop’ album covers, Pan Machine‘s witty Kraftwerk homage looks fabulous enough to break the band as charismatic recording stars. The album is the inaugural release of the independent OM Swagger label.
Can you tell me what first brought you into contact with the Ebony Steel Band?
Ian Shirley: I wrote a book about the KLF called Turn Up the Strobe that came out in 2017. The publication date coincided with the return of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty over a three-day event in Liverpool. Only 400 people could attend, and I was one of them. During a break in activities on the second day, I took time to catch up with an old friend from Manchester I’d not seen for years, Matt Wand. Matt used to be part of Stock, Hausen & Walkman who made some amazing records in the 1990s like Organ Transplants Vol. 1 on their own Hot Air label.
During our chat, the subject turned to a project Matt had worked on with the artist Jeremy Dellar. Some years back, they’d got a Manchester Steel band to learn and perform some indie classics by the likes of Joy Division and the Buzzcocks. I told Matt that I’d always thought Kraftwerk would sound amazing played by a steel band and that one of my fantasies was to record an entire album of Kraftwerk classics. That conversation with Matt was the moment I decided that I wanted to stop thinking about how Kraftwerk might sound played by a steel band and start acting upon it.
Of course, I needed to find a steel band and when I got back to London started looking for one. That’s how I found the Ebony Steel Band.
And what about your connection to Kraftwerk – has your work ever brought you into contact with them and have you been fond of their music for some time?
Shirley: The first Kraftwerk LP I bought was The Man-Machine when it was released back in 1978. I loved it and quickly bought everything that had been released up to that date. Ralf and Florian, Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, and Radioactivity. I even picked up the Organisation LP Tone Float. One of my biggest regrets was buying a UK reissue of their first two albums that came as a double LP in 1972. I took it back to the shop because there was a big scratch on one side. That record is worth money today! Also, those first two LPs – along with Ralf and Florian – have yet to be officially reissued and so are hard to find.
I was really into the Residents at the same time – obsessed – and I remember their collaborator, the guitarist Snakefinger, being the first person to do a cover version of “The Model” on his debut solo LP Chewing Hides the Sound.
I bought Kraftwerk’s Computer World on the day it came out in 1981 and saw the band play live. Kraftwerk has remained a staple of the music I’ve listened to for the last 40 years.
The Ebony Steel Band have interpreted everything from the Beatles to the 1812 Overture. How did the idea first occur to you of asking them to take on Kraftwerk?
Shirley: It was ‘chicken and egg’, since I needed a steel band to make the Kraftwerk project a reality. At one point, Matt was going to find a steel band in the Manchester area, and I would find one in London, and we were going to share the load. But I really wanted the album to have a clean overall sound and was worried that having two bands attack different Kraftwerk songs in different studios with different lineups might result in an uneven sound. All Kraftwerk LPs after Autobahn are about clarity of sound, and that was really important to me. After I got in touch with the director of the Ebony Steel Band – Pepe Francis MBE – and explained the idea to him, it moved forward. I decided that they would do all of the recordings.
Given that some people might think that Kraftwerk and the Ebony Steel Band are incongruous, what made you think they were a good match?
Shirley: The timbres of steel pans are very clean and pure and in some ways perfectly reflect the electronic sounds on those classic Kraftwerk records. There were 11 players in the Ebony Steel Band, and there was scope to bring out the flavor of the melodies and those wonderful harmonies that underpin so many great Kraftwerk tracks like “Neon Lights”, “Computer Love”, and “Spacelab”. When some parts were played and repeated, the steel pans sounded like sequencers. Finally, the bass section comprised two players playing seven oil drums each and they gave the music a wonderfully deep but clean low-end.
Were the group members already familiar with Kraftwerk and that whole genre, or was it all new to them?
Shirley: I can honestly say that none of the band had heard of Kraftwerk and did not even know who they were. At the beginning of the project, some of them actually thought that I was a member of Kraftwerk – which was very flattering! Then they thought that Kraftwerk were going to come down to rehearsals! I remember at one rehearsal one of the players saying to the other members of the band, “This is not Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On”, is it?” Another band member referred to one Kraftwerk song as “elf music”. The key thing, though, was that the Ebony Steel Band are great musicians and young people who are really open to learning and playing something new. This brought a freshness to their playing and the recordings that we made together.
Can you tell me a bit about how the band worked on the arrangements – for example, do they start off by using a printed score or do they work it out by ear?
Shirley: The key person was Delphina James, the arranger. What I did at the beginning was send Delphina a couple of tracks of what I wanted the band to play for her to arrange. Delphina has an amazing ear, and she would just listen to the recordings, work out the parts, and then teach them to the band in rehearsal. So, for example, she would tell the bass players what to play and the tenors – who play the front-line melodies – what to play. Then they would run through a section. The drummer would be told what to play or just feel his way into the song. They would learn another section and then put it all together. After that, it was a matter of dynamics, fine-tuning, and repetition to get the songs down.
At the beginning, I was desperate to see how things were working, but I didn’t go to the first couple of rehearsals. I didn’t want to get in the way. I wanted Delphina and the band to feel their way into the music. There was also the possibility that it wouldn’t work. But when they learned “Spacelab” and I heard it, it sounded amazing. I started going to the weekly rehearsals, and the band nailed the tracks I was giving Delphina to teach them, like “Computer Love”, “The Model”, and “Neon Lights”. Delphina did an amazing job and the more the band played, the more they got inside the songs. They are all first-class musicians.
The Ebony Steel Band with producer, Ian Shirley, at the second recording session. (Photo: Ian Shirley)
Could you share any reminiscences of the recording sessions of Pan Machine?
Shirley: I was very nervous taking the band into the studio. I had never produced an album before. But then practical matters took over. I wanted to record the band live, but they take up a tremendous amount of space. The two bass players alone – Dunstan and Calvin – have a kit of seven full-sized oil drums. The entire band would fill half a basketball court. I started looking at studios, but many were just too small. Luckily, I was preparing to release a ‘lost’ LP by a band called Brilliant whose membership included Jimmy Cauty from the KLF and Youth of Killing Joke fame. Youth is a world-famous producer – the modern George Martin – and I asked him to recommend a studio. He suggested The Pool in Elephant and Castle [South London]. I went there and literally measured the size of the room. It was perfect. Crucially, the Pool has a reputation for a great live sound. So I bit the bullet and booked it for a 12-hour session.
I decided that we would try to lay down the tracks that the band had rehearsed up to that point – “The Model”, “Neon Lights”, “Computer Love”, “Tour De France”, and “Spacelab”. With a date set the band stepped up a gear in rehearsals, got the songs down and tightened up the arrangements.
I spoke to Daniel Moyler, the engineer I would be using at the Pool, beforehand and sent him a detailed plan of how the band would set up in the studio. This was key because he could then work out how to mic them up. On the day it took about three hours to get the band in position and mike them. I think there were around 39 microphones used to capture the sound of the individual pans, the drums as well as the ambience of the room.
When we started recording, I was struck by how good the band sounded in a studio environment. When they did the first take of the first song – “Computer Love” – they played it note-perfect. When they finished, they all looked towards us in the control room, and we were sitting with our mouths open! It was sounding brilliant. Of course, I still asked for another take. It took four hours to lay down the four tracks (we did three takes of each song) – including an hour for lunch.
You produced the album in two sessions. To people outside the industry, it’s not always clear what a producer does. What were your main responsibilities in this role?
Shirley: Yes, I was the producer. My chief role was to make sure that the band were properly drilled and rehearsed prior to going into the studio. Since it was to be recorded live, all the hard work had to take place before we went into the studio. Luckily, Delphina is an amazing arranger, and the band are amazing musicians.
Photo: Lawrence Watson / Courtesy of Ian Shirley
In the studio, the main thing was to make sure that the band were all comfortable and relaxed. So, apart from the drummer in the booth, the band were set up in the same way that they lined up in their rehearsal space. I made sure there was breakfast and lunch and just made everybody feel that there was no pressure. It was like one of those old Blue Note or Prestige jazz recording sessions where the band just relaxed and played.
There was only one issue during the first session. “Computer Love” ended on a solo which I didn’t think worked well in rehearsal – the solo was great, but the band were marking time behind it which made the song drag. This was not an ideal end to the song. So in the studio, after we recorded it with the solo, I made the decision to cut it, and on the next take the band went right to the end, and it worked perfectly.
There were two sessions a year apart. The first session was done in April 2018 after which the band were busy with other work and couldn’t commit to the Kraftwerk project until early in 2019. This was very frustrating, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I just chilled out. I got the first five tracks mixed and waited.
I was desperate for the band to record “Tanzmusik” at the second session. It’s my favorite Kraftwerk track. I’d wanted it to be recorded in the first session, but Delphina couldn’t come up with an arrangement. I asked her to do it for the second session, and she worked it out. The band had those classic opening parts down cold, but after that, the song meandered and creaked when they played it in rehearsal. Songs like “The Model”, “The Robots”, and “Tour De France” have strong melodies and harmonies and verse-chorus structures. “Tanzmusik”, however, was early Kraftwerk and has a vibe full of different shifting textures. It’s beautiful, ethereal, but with a lot going on.
As we neared the recording date, “Tanzmusik” took up a disproportionate time in rehearsal. The band could not master it. The week before we went into the studio, we got a version that I honestly thought we would record and never use. The band were getting frustrated. They are fantastic musicians, and it was a matter of professional pride to get the song to work. After a run-through that was really flat, one of the tenor players – Lily Archbutt – just decided that they should have a bit of fun and do it again but fast.
The band kicked off. The magic happened, the song just came alive. I think they were shocked when I started jumping around saying that was it! When we went into the studio, we recorded it fast as “Tanzmusik (Jump Up)” and also at normal speed. It’s my favorite track on the album, and I think the only time we take liberties with the original arrangement. It just flows beautifully, and I’m so proud of it. The credit, of course, goes to Delphina for her arrangement and the band for their amazing playing. My job as producer on “Tanzmusik” was just hanging in there with a song that was not gelling until it worked out.
Can you tell me about how the cover was conceived and staged? Was the plan always to make it a tribute to The Man-Machine or was it a concept that evolved gradually?
Shirley: Even before I found the Ebony Steel Band, I knew what the cover was going to look like. It had to be an homage to The Man-Machine with the band in red shirts and black ties. The first time I went down to the Ebony Steel Band’s rehearsal studio, I had to go up the back stairs. They were painted red with the same industrial metal bannisters that are on The Man-Machine sleeve! So even before I met the band, I knew that if the music worked out, that would be the location for the photoshoot.
I originally got in contact with photographer Lawrence Watson when I was writing the KLF book. He’d been the photographer on Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s famous trek to Sweden to confront Abba when Abba took legal action to have the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu’s LP 1987 withdrawn and destroyed. I had interviewed Lawrence for that, and when I needed a photographer, I asked him. As luck would have it, he lived just down the road from the Ebony Steel Band’s rehearsal room and was really keen about the project. Lawrence has snapped everyone from the Smiths to Noel Gallagher, so it was an honour to work with him. I must say I was worried that the band might refuse to wear red shirts and black ties for the shoot, but they loved the idea. It was fun to get them standing in line on those stairs in groups of four!
When it came to sleeve design, I had worked with graphic designer Paul McEvoy for many years. He just did his thing, and the sleeve looked amazing. Finally, the idea of calling the album Pan Machine came to me late in the day – a pan is another word for a steel drum – it’s ideal and a great pun as well.
The album is coming out on OM Swagger Music. What can you tell me about the label’s inception and purpose?
Shirley: I’ve run Record Collector‘s Rare Record Club for several years now. I oversee the reissue of rare and collectable vinyl sold directly through the magazine. But I set up OM Swagger for the specific purpose of recording and releasing the Steel Band Kraftwerk project on vinyl, CD, and download. The label will also be digitally releasing some of the material that was issued on vinyl by Record Collector. I obtained the digital rights to release albums like the Earth’s Elemental that is the first recordings of Alan Parsons, Strange Stone, Soliloquy, Washington Rucker, Ken Saul, and One Way Ticket. There are also other projects in the pipeline like a single that sounds like a lost James Bond theme. I also want to produce and release more music.
Do you think Pan Machine brings out certain qualities within Kraftwerk’s music that might not have been so apparent before?
Shirley: Kraftwerk’s music is timeless and is underpinned with clarity, space, and precision. Steel pans are very clean and pure sounding and almost electronic in some ways. “Neon Lights”, “The Model”, “The Robots”, “Kometenmelodie 2” and “Europe Endless” are classic tracks and I think Pan Machine shows how they can be covered by an instrumental format that no one would have thought of before but which works perfectly. I can’t wait to get the band out on the road playing the album.
The Ebony Steel Band appear at Rough Trade East, London on 20th September.