April 2008

 

Mark Saunders has spent many years in the music business as a well respected remixer and producer and was the mastermind behind the excellent extended mix of Heart Like A Wheel back in 1990. He was so kind to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for this website about his work with the band and came up with some really interesting details.

Interview by Niels Kolling, pictures by Mark Saunders

How much attention did you pay to The Human League in their early years? Did you notice the first couple of albums or was it when Dare hit the ceiling in the charts?

 

I'd definitely heard of the band prior to Dare but I don't remember any tracks from that era. It was really the Love and Dancing remix album which blew me away. I was starting to go to clubs then...and these weren't trendy cutting edge London clubs, these were out-in-the-sticks clubs.

 

When a track from Love And Dancing came on in a club it was outstanding. It was revolutionary to me. There was nothing else like it at the time and I still love it today.

 

The synth sounds with the delays and reverbs were gorgeous sounding and the Linn drums sounded much tougher and more solid than anything else that I remember from that time.
 

 

Your remix of Heart Like A Wheel is one of my favourite mixes of a Human League single and I especially like the way youíve kept large part of the original, but somehow enhanced the drive of the song with the bits and pieces youíve added. How do you approach a remix?

 

I'm glad you liked it! I loved working on it.

 

I had two days to work on it in NYC. I'd flown out for a friend's wedding and my manager asked me to fit in a "quick" mix while I was there. When I arrived at the studio I was told that I couldn't start yet because the tape hadn't yet arrived from London!

 

So they gave me a pager and I spent over half the first day shopping in sweltering, smelly NYC summer heat waiting to be paged when the tape arrived at the studio.

 

When I got stuck into the mix I really wanted to approach it in a Love And Dancing fashion because here was my chance to pay homage to that album using an actual Human League track.

 

I thought Heart Like A Wheel sounded like a classic Human League track from that era and suited that kind of approach.

 

Having just a day and a half to pull off a mix especially with all rented gear including computer and software was a bit tight. In those days I was sequencing new synth parts and drums etc. in Steinberg's Cubase (or Cubase Audio) at the time and I would sync the computer with the 24 track tape machine which contained the original music.

 

It was all a bit hit or miss in those days and took a lot of time away from the actual creative process of doing the remix. It's technically a lot easier these days.

 

I'm not the kind of remixer who likes to replace everything but a few lines of the vocal. I love working around what's there and enhancing it or changing a few chords to give it a new feel. I'm a pop guy....I'm always striving to make a pop hit.

 

I'm not good at the sparse club mixes where nothing changes for ages and it's all about the drums. I like melodies, hooks and basslines that affect people emotionally.

 

I heard or read an interview with Joanne and she mentioned that some American remixer had done a remix of "Heart Like A Wheel" and had hardly changed anything. She thought it was a waste of time and money.

 

This was a few months after I did mine so I was praying that because I'd done the mix in NYC, she wasn't talking about me! I never heard any positive feedback from the band after I did the mix so it's possible that she did mean mine.

 

 

I'm positive Joanne wasn't talking about your remix, since Mike "Spike" Drake did a remix for the US 12", and you need to have the ears of a dog to notice any difference to the orginal version. And they have play Heart Like A Wheel live in an extended version, using bits from your remix. I think that shows they liked your work ;-)

 

That's a bloody relief. It's been one of those things that's nagged me every time I hear my remix!

 

I'm just listening to mine and swapping back and forth to the original mix. In hindsight, I don't think I did a bad job! I really like my bass part and sound....very rubbery! I love the toms too. I think I had some good ideas but it could have benefited from a bit more time to mix.

 

Did you meet the band before making the remix? And is it of importance to you to meet the artist you are remixing?

 

I didn't meet the band or talk to them prior to the mix as I recall. I think it's less important to meet the band before a remix than it is for a regular mix. Bands are usually less precious about remixes than their own mixes and some bands don't want to be involved at all in them.

 

My only meeting with the band was very early on in my studio career as an assistant to Dave Allen who was working on a remix of "Rock Me Again And Again And Again". The band came in for that and I thought that they were all really pleasant and decent people considering this was in '84 (I think) and they were huge at the time.

 

In fact, one night they ordered a ton of Chinese food which we all sat down to eat. At the end of the meal, there was a lot of clearing and cleaning up to be done so I went into the studio to tell Dave Allen that I should go and clean it up.

 

I went back out to the dining area to find that the Joanne and Susan had already cleared up the mess and were in the studio kitchen washing up. I was very impressed that they were still so down to earth.
 


 

 

 

 

The single didnít do quite as well as hoped in the charts, which was a shame, since it sounded like a big hit to me. And the Romantic? album did even worse with Philip Oakey blaming the grunge wave for itís failure. How do you view the Romantic? album and itís lack of success?
 

I have to admit I never heard that album. I just tried to buy it on iTunes but it's not on there. I should imagine that the grunge wave probably had a lot to do with the failure of "Heart Like A Wheel". If it was released now it would probably do better.

 

Youíve done amazing work for many of my favourite artist like Human League, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Yazoo, The Cure, Nitzer Ebb and Erasure. And what strikes me is that youíve got a very distinctive sound. I can tell when itís a Mark Saunders mix. Is that also how you see it?

 

Not really...I feel like I just fumble around trying come up with something half decent! I don't feel that I have a formula to work from...yet.

 

 

If you could pick any Human league song, which one would you like the most to remix?

 

That would have to be Hard Times although trying to top the Love And Dancing version would be very intimidating!
 

The band has admitted not being great live in the 80s, but has evolved into an amazing live band through the last 10 years and put on a really good show. Have you experienced a Human League concert? And if you have, when was it and what was your impression?

 

I've never experienced a League gig but would love to check one out now.

 

Out of their vast back catalogue, can you name your favourite Human League album and single?

 

Love And Dancing is my favourite album for all the reasons mentioned above.

 

Single? That's tough.....I think it's a toss up between Love Action and Don't You Want Me. Don't You Want Me really is a perfect pop single.

 

You are both remixer and producer in your own right. Could you see yourself producing the next Human League album?

 

I think it would be a good combo.

 

I love unashamed dead simple pop music that a lot of other producers would classify as "cheesy". Personally I think it's the greatest challenge to come up with a 3'30' hit pop song that is so good that millions of people feel the need to buy it.

 

After all, there's only so many combinations of notes and chords out there and at this point, to come up with something that's totally original but also familiar enough to grab people's ears on first listening is a huge undertaking. I think the band and I would see eye to eye on this point.
 


 

When working with Tim Simenon, did your ways cross with Dave Clayton, who co-produced the Secrets as aprt of Toy? It was hailed as their best work since Dare, but it failed as the record company went bust just before itís release. What is your opinion of the Secrets album?

 

I know I've met Dave through Tim but I'm ashamed to say that I'm not familiar with the Secrets album.

 

But, I just downloaded it from iTunes (yes kids, I buy my music!) and I'm listening to it now. "All I Ever Wanted" sounds great. Good song and excellent production. Cool sounding bassline on "Love Me Madly" too.


The technology has evolved at an unbelievable rate in the music business. How is it working in a studio today, compared to when you started out?

 

Today, almost anything you could possibly want to do is technically possible and the hardest thing is to know where to stop. In the old days technology was a big limiting factor and we were also limited by the number of tracks to record on. That was a blessing in disguise I think.

 

Having almost unlimited tracks to record onto means people can keep adding more and more musical tracks and vocals and postpone the decision about which bits are good and bad until the very last minute.

 

Years ago people would run out of tracks before running out of ideas. That limitation would make producers and artists think a lot harder about which bits to keep.

 

Mixing is harder these days because, a lot of the time, people give you songs with 64 plus tracks of audio to deal with. It takes a long time to sift all through those tracks and get familiar with all the parts.

 

With a vast amount of tracks to sift through it's hard to keep the mix sounding fresh and exciting. I think there's something dull about labored over mixes.

 

Some of the best stuff I've worked on has been quick and painless...like Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance". Tim Simenon and I had 5 days booked to record the song and two days to mix it. We basically finished recording after 2.5 days and mixed it in about three hours.

 

 

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this, I really appreciate it.

 

You're very welcome!

 

I've enjoyed lot of appreciation for my work since I've been visible on the net through myspace etc. It's really great to get feedback directly from music fans and guys like yourself.

 

I recently did an interview for a Madonna fan site about a remix I did for her that I never knew had ever been released until the site contacted me!

 

You find out what Mark is up to by checking out these websites:

 

www.marksaunders.com

 

www.myspace.com/marksaunderssounds
 

www.myspace.com/reeqnyc

 

And you can listen to his mix here.