Q&A: Pop Mixmaster Pete Hammond On Nostalgia, Boring Radio Songs, And Remixing Kylie
courtesy Pete Hammond
If the '80s are defined by excess, perhaps no body of work is more endemic of that age than that of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (collectively known as Stock Aitken Waterman), the production trio who ruled British radio at the end of that decade and into the next. Churning out globe-trotting hits for the likes of Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue, Donna Summer, Dead or Alive, Bananarama and so many more, their sound was a composite of the 25 years of dance music history before it. The sum of their parts felt particularly heavytheir highly plastic sound is what you'd get if you stacked house on top of hi-NRG on top of Italo disco on top of classic disco on top of Motown and removed none of the constituents. The sound of dance music ballooned as the '80s progressed, and SAW made sure there was plenty of pop to go along with it.
Helping sort them out was Pete Hammond, a veteran musician who played in Limme and the Family Cooking and remixer. Hammond was hired by Waterman to be the resident "mixmaster" of PWL (Pete Waterman Limited), the label home of SAW, and got his hands on most of SAW's best-known productions. By the time Hammond left in '92, the PWL sound was past its prime and the target of much derision. It fizzled shortly after. To get a sense of its legacy, the derisive prank known as Rickrolling was about PWL's biggest revival since its heyday.
Until now, maybe. In recent years, Hammond has been commissioned to produce a series of "retro remixes" that approximate the giantness of his '80s work, starting with his stunning take on Alphabeat's 2008 single "Boyfriend." In that time, he's given Wynonna Judd's music an '80s makeover to match her hair and, you know, vibe; he brought Amanda Lear back to the disco; and, maybe most satisfyingly, he's remixed Kylie Minogue in the style that launched her career in 1988. His just-released remix of "Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)" is packed to the gills with joy. It could be the slightly wiser older sister of "I Should Be So Lucky."
We reached Hammond at his studio in England to discuss his career and the revival of his sound, which of course required a ton of reminiscing about the past.
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What exactly did being PWL's "mixmaster" entail?
[Stock Aitken Waterman] would record a song and they'd put far too much stuff on them, far too many overdubs. We had 48 tracks and every one of them would be full up with something, pretty much. Then they'd give it to me and say, "Make a record." Very often, there was no introduction, no middle section, just a verse or something. It was up to me to create something in those areas. It was executive production in many respects.
How much has your process changed since the early '90s? Are you still using the same equipment?
I hardly use the equipment I used to. It's mainly the computer now. Fortunately, I had a lot of old sounds on a DAT tape. But they aren't the source of the sounds I use now. The only real source of sounds from back in the day is my DX7. When I was asked to do the first of these remixes in this retro style it was Alphabeat's "Boyfriend." I dug out the DX7 and it had lost its memory because the internal battery had gone years ago, but I was able to reprogram it and get the original PWL bass sound.
And so, you started revisiting this style as a result of someone asking you to, and not of your own accord?
I had no inclination at all to do it, really. I figured that was the past. But then, Ian Usher, who works part time for Peter Waterman, was in touch with Elias Christidis at Parlophone. I think it was his idea to [revive] it, and then Parlophone said, "Yeah, let's do it with the 'Boyfriend' remix." It started off a whole string of them. I've done lots of them since then. It's kept me busy for the past two or three years.
So when you do a PWL-esque track today, your process is different than it was back then, since you're not being given parts, but creating them all.
Oh I create all of them, yeah. But I did put a lot of stuff on the records back in the day. A lot of the quirky bits were mine. I used to overdub, take the vocals off, put in samples, all of that kind of trickery.
I was wondering if you did the famous cut up "uh-I-I-I-I" in Kylie's "I Should Be So Lucky" and if you were referencing it with the cut-up vocals at the end of your "Put Your Hands Up" remix?
I didn't do that [in "Lucky"]. I think that was Matt Aitken. We used to fly the vocals in. We'd record one chorus and put it in a Publison Infernal Machine. It had 20 seconds of sampling, which is just enough for a chorus. You can record in stereo all your backing vocals and then you could just play them in wherever you want them. He was just fiddling about doing that, and that's what brought in the "I-I-I-I" thing about. But yes, I was harking back to that with the new Kylie remix.
How did the idea come about to remix "Put Your Hands Up" in Kylie's old style?
I've done a number of these remixes, and people on Facebook have been asking, "When are you gonna do one with Kylie?" Ian Usher had been badgering Elias Christidis to do one, but nothing came of it. Out of the blue, I emailed Elias saying, "In return for the 'Boyfriend' remix, which has given me a string of work for the past three years, I'll do you one for nothing." It took me about two weeks to do it, from start to finish. I did the remix, submitted and then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I figured they didn't like it. I thought it sounded great, personally. And then I got word eventually from Elias that they liked it and that they were going to take it out to serve to Kylie where she was on tour, to play it for her personally. Another two weeks went by and then I heard from Elias saying, "Kylie absolutely loves it and wants to do a video and put it on her website." And then they decided to put it out. Of course then, we negotiated a fee for me.
I wonder what you think of the concept of coolness and how it applies to what you do.
I don't know how you describe it. It's just a feeling you get from it. If it feels cool or if it doesn't and it feels too cheesy... it's really a fine dividing line between the two, I think. I don't know how to define it. Do you think it sounds cooler these days?
Well, if you use "cool" as a sound descriptor versus a gauge of its hip factor, I don't think PWL stuff ever sounded coolthere's too much going on and it's too bright. It's a lot different than the icy disco of the early '80s. It's big and there are orchestras and a palpable Motown influence.
You know, I hear so many boring records on the radio. Just people strumming a guitar and singing. That isn't enough. You need more! That's why they aren't selling in great bundles in the majority, because there's not enough interest. I always try to put a lot of interest in the records so you can play it over and over again and hear something you didn't hear last time: lots of little counter melodies on the synth lines and little hooky bits all over the place. You can't just rely on vocal gymnastics and sex to sell records. Not that I'm against sex. Sex is all right.
What do you think of the concept of nostalgia and the way some people automatically dismiss it?
I think all music's got its place. A good song and a good piece of music, there's nothing wrong with it. Why should you be anti that piece of music because it's old?
Is there something about the source material that draws you to do a retro remix over a contemporary one? Something that makes you go, "Well, this reminds me of PWL because of X, Y and Z, so here's my take"? Or are you doing this strictly on a commissioned basis?
What I've been doing is having a rough chinwag with whomever I'm doing it with and they kind of say, "Well, I'd rather like it if it was a bit like that or that." So you kind of get a plot, if you like. Like with Mini Viva, they wanted that to be like Mel and Kim because Mini Viva reminded people of Mel and Kim. So I sat down and recreated all the Mel and Kim sounds from "Respectable" and the rest of the records. Nothing was sampled. I won't do that. But I can usually recreate these things. That's usually what happens and then it evolves from there, really. I try to put in the middle sections and introductions a bit more technology, with filtering and all sorts of stuff like that. There's so much more you can do with computers now that you couldn't do in the old days. You've got unlimited tracks to work with! On the Kylie track, there are, I think, about 133 tracks playing.
What's funny to me about that is that the excess is so '80s, and yet you couldn't achieve it back then. It's very, "Greed is good."
Although we only had 48 tracks back in the day, we'd get more out of them. Tracks would share sounds. You'd have a track where nothing was happening [at some moment], so you'd put something else on there, which was always very dangerous. Now you don't even have to worry, though. You just add another track. But that makes it very difficult for some people because they never know when to stop.
How do you know when to stop?
I get to a point where I've had enough. I think, "It doesn't need anything, it sounds fine." I spend about two weeks on [these remixes], though. It's not a quick process. If you spend time, it gives you time to think. A lot of the thinking I do in bed.
As a blogger, I appreciate the luxury of taking your time on a piece.
If you go back to PWL, though, that's totally the opposite. We were really under pressure back then.
People referred to it as a factory.
It was a factory. Mike [Stock] and Matt [Aitken] would come in by day and they would record in the upstairs studio. I'd come in at 11 at night and mix what they'd done that day, or the previous one. And everyday, it was a different song. We'd keep it going like that. I wasn't just doing their stuff, too. I was doing my own thing, remixing outside jobs, we called them. So there was always something, night and day. Pete Waterman was basically getting two days of studio time out of 24 hours. That's why he wanted me to work at night.
Did you have any time to be passionate about your work under those constraints?
Oh yeah. I can't do anything unless I do it properly. If I wasn't happy with it, I'd stay on and continue it the next night if I had to. But the turnaround period from conception to leaving was about three weeks. And sometimes, I didn't even know what to do with the stuff, like Rick Astley. There was a song of his I was told to mix, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." He was a tea boy at the time. And then, I think it was around Christmas, I did this mix of "Never Gonna Give You Up." Stock Aitken Waterman didn't like it because they said it sounded old fashioned. I didn't use any of the stuff they'd recorded, I just kept it very simple. Seventies disco, basically I made it. It got sent out on an upcoming-artist promo to Capital Radio in London and they started playing it and so we were forced to rush-release it. They had no plan for Rick at that point. They just put him in a suit and made a video. And the rest is history. It's still a really good record.
What did you think of the Rickrolling phenomenon?
It's mad, isn't it? It's great fun, but I'm not sure if they're taking the mickey out of him or if they're liking the record.
That was often the question with PWL stuff, though, right? And then after a certain point, the style was widely mocked.
Very much so. In fact, you rarely hear it on the radio [today]. Over here, they don't play PWL records much. Not many of them stood the test of time, as far as recurrent airplay goes. Not even Mel and Kim, though I think those records still sound good today.
Do you feel that PWL is underrated?
I don't think it deserved the derision. People would say, "It's just a computer," but they obviously didn't listen to it and understand how complex it was. They have very clever chord progressions, all of them. In fact, there was a song [Morris Minor & the Majors' "This Is the Chorus"] that took the piss out of the whole thing. It was a stupid record, but that's how bad it got: people were laughing at [PWL's records] instead of enjoying them. I think if you go back to the original PWL sound, it was much heavier than it became in the later years. I think what did it for them is that they got some less-than-good singers.
It's interesting that PWL basically represents its own genre. You can hear the sum of its parts within it, but nothing really sounds exactly like it.
There were a lot of sections to it. It was quite diverse. That's the whole thing. People would say it all sounded the same, but to me, it all sounded quite different. I think we got too big. People like to shoot you down when you get big. I remember asking Pete Waterman one Christmas, "What are we going to do next year?" He said, "More of the same." And it worked for another year or two, but then it just kind of died.
Was there ever a genre name thrown at it that you agreed with? I guess "Euro beat" was most prevalent.
No. I suppose the most common one I heard was "cheesy pop." Those aren't my words, but that's how most people refer to it. I would have just said pop-dance, really. Good quality pop-dance.
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