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We twiddle knobs with Steve Strange and the gang

'80s electronica and a resurgence in electronic synth music has been driving clubland for the last few years now. We've seen Daft Punk and their Giorgio Moroder homage recently, Kraftwerk touring again, and a general new-found enthusiasm for all things synth-based. 
One of the pioneering acts that were spearheading the original synth-pop wave were Visage. Emerging out of London's Blitz Club scene, Visage initially involved members of Ultravox, Magazine and Siouxsie & the Banshees, and had the hit singles 'Mind Of A Toy' and 'Fade To Grey' at the start of the '80s – tracks that would go on to influence some of techno and electro's innovators in Detroit and elsewhere.

Now, just as Visage's fourth album – their first since 1984's 'Beat Boy' — is about to drop, DJ Mag sought out Visage frontman Steve Strange and producers John Bryan and Sare Havlicek to see how the new album, 'Hearts & Knives', was put together...

It’s been 29 years since the last album, why did you guys decide to make a comeback?
Steve Strange: “It was a question really of all the parts falling into place. Firstly I am at a point in my life where I am happy with my life, and secondly the positive people I now surround myself with — not least the members of Visage — helped to create an atmosphere where the album started to happen. It took us three years and it was no easy ride, but it's here now and we are all really pleased with it.”

How did Visage go about starting the project, and who was involved?

Steve: “'Hearts & Knives' took a while to come to fruition. The three main factors were: firstly, I reconnected with fellow Visage member Steve Barnacle and began writing songs. Secondly, Rusty Egan began connecting people and ideas together. Thirdly, in 2010, (just before his sad passing), Martin Rushent began work remixing 'Frequency 7', listening to song ideas and setting a production template for a new record (Visage recorded their first album at his studio from 1978 to 1980). With a lot of ideas, song fragments, studio sessions and recordings on a lot of different hard drives, the main issue was information and idea overload. Step forward John Bryan, who began collating all these ideas, sketches and recordings into one place, eventually crunching down 30 song ideas into a pool of 13-15 workable tracks.”

Tell us about the sound and style of the record Visage wanted to make?
Steve: “Early on in the project it was a firm goal to make a record with the 'classic Visage sound', but with a modern edge. Visage are known as the pioneers of the synthesizer pop/New Romantic/'80s sound. We wanted to keep that aspect, but not have something that sounds like it was made in 1982. The album tries to infuse something new and different to classic Visage, not just simply carbon copying and replicating the old sound.”

John Bryan: “Translating the Visage vision into a sound, we followed some pretty basic principles while making the record. Firstly, it was a firm 'No' to soft synths — most of the kit used is made before 1985. Secondly, the modern over-defined and over-produced, razor sharp, tightly-mixed sound was avoided in favour of a 1980s desk and a looser, more intuitive mix. Thirdly, when it came to final mastering, we opted to avoid the loudness war and its overly bright, harsh and bassy 2012 brick-wall sound.”

How did the idea template for the album map onto how the individual tracks were made?
Steve: “New tracks like 'Shameless Fashion' map back to 1982's 'The Anvil' [album] but there’s a distinctly modern feel to the momentum of the song. 'She’s Electric' references the Roland CR78 of 'Fade To Grey' but with a more modern groove. External influences did creep in. True to the Martin Rushent template, the track 'On We Go' was produced in the style of 'I Am The Law' by the Human League. Whilst most of the album was tightly programmed and quantized, in 'Diaries Of A Madman' we abandoned this and did a live-based track with a looser and punkier feeling. It's nice to rock out sometimes.” 

Sare Havlicek: “If you listen to the album's opening track 'Never Enough', you will definitely hear a Moroder-style rolling bassline.  Here we actually took it one step further and referenced the Moroder-produced track 'Life In Tokyo' by Japan. On the drums we often used extremely short delays panned hard left and right to create a pseudo room feel and wide stereo image, a technique used commonly in the old days by producers like Moroder.”

The analogue keyboard mantra seems to be increasingly popular recently. Why did Visage choose just to use analogue equipment?
Sare: “The main reason was because we were looking for a sound that represented Visage. The classic Visage records were all made with analogue equipment. Of course, analogue just sounds fatter, better, wider, more authentic and frankly... just better. Mick MacNeil from Simple Minds played on the record and has long since sold most of his analogue keyboard collection. He did keep one Korg 770 and you can hear that on the record, loud and proud in the single 'Dreamer I Know'. It wasn’t a fully analogue signal path, it is recorded digitally, and I will let you into a secret... there is ONE soft synth on the album!”

What production software did you use to make the record?
Sare: “Logic on the Mac was the weapon of choice, due mainly to it being available at most of the studios used and everyone being familiar with it. Steve Barnacle has a Logic-based home studio. Popular plug-ins were PSP Audioware — Xenon (a limiter which really beefs things up), PSP Audioware — Old Timer (which is simple but does a great job of emulating old circuits), and Fazortan (which does a great old-style phasing sound).

What recording equipment did you use?
John: “'Hearts & Knives' was definitely a multi-studio album. Tracking sessions took place in studios too numerous to count (probably over 15!). Drums were recorded at the Tin Room studio in London and expertly mic'd by Shuta Shinoda. Most guitars and basses were DI’d. For vocals, mild compression was usually the order of the day via a Focusrite ISA 430 or custom-racked Studer 089 channel strip using mild compression from Mperical Labs Distressor unit.  
“The microphones used are too numerous to mention, but a Neumann TLM 170 and AKG C12 were used a lot. When it came to the sound of certain songs, the goal was to show a lineage back to the old albums but with a fresh outlook. The record was mixed in Sare's Tokyorama studio in Slovenia, with a secret weapon analogue mixing desk.

Sare: “To get a unique-sounding 'saturated' sound, we used a few boutique German and Swiss-made preamp and EQ modules from the '60s and '70s — from Studer, Neumann, Telefunken, RTF/RFZ, Tab and Filtek. There is nothing quite like these old beasts. Truly unique.”  

Steve, what is your favourite track on the album?
Steve: “What!? You can’t ask me that one! It’s like asking me to pick a favourite child (well actually in my case, niece or nephew). It is probably 'Hidden Sign', but I love them all. I know every artist says their newest album is their best and favourite one, but in this case I am really sure it is true. In all honesty, I don’t think there is a track of 'Fade To Grey' global-impact on the album, but album for album 'Hearts & Knives' is the best.”