Electronic producer Steve Spiro, a.k.a. Frequent Traveller (Talk Talk, Pet Shop Boys), premieres his new track here at Louder Than War, following the release of his critically-acclaimed 360-degree binaural album Real Life (out now on Music For Headphones). We talk to him about the project to find out more.
Recorded prior to the pandemic and the continuing travel restrictions, Spiro spent over two-years capturing surround-sound field recordings of his encounters just as the human ear would have heard them and incorporating them into music. The songs themselves deal in eclectic sounds that, given the global nature of the time, span a far-reaching tapestry of everything from hip-hop, house, dub and experimental electro to hypnotic drones and minimalist, ambient soundscapes.
Steve Spiro has had an eclectic career and spent decades earning his stripes in the music industry. In the mid-80s he was an acclaimed record producer and remixer who worked with artists such as Pet Shop Boys, Talk Talk, Imagination and The Farm. He also had several club hits between 1988-93 under the name Four To The Floor and in 1996 scored the chart-hitting BBC theme tune for the Atlanta Olympics. Today, he’s the founder and creative director of award-winning music supervision house, Felt Music. The Frequent Traveller project sees Steve fuse his knowledge and skills in the world of music with his deep love of travelling. Where Steve’s self-titled 2011 release under the Frequent Traveller moniker was a real-time soundtrack of his commute from Sussex to London, the new project – using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO binaural sound technology – sees him take us on a journey around the globe in game-changing, 360-degree sound.
The binaural remixes will be released on video on 25th February. Meantime, you can watch an exclusive premiere of the stereo version of his new track, In My Head (Harlem Shuffle mix) exclusively below.
Designed specifically for headphone listening the album can be streamed in full here. Don your headphones, delve in and read our in-depth interview below.
GR: Hi Steve. How’s lockdown been for you? Have you been able to continue to be productive and creative?
SS: “Personally, I’ve felt half full about this experience so far. Lockdown for me has thankfully been a creatively enrichening period in life. Not having to deal with four hours of commuting every day from Sussex to London has been a big plus on my time and energy levels. I’m blessed that I have a beautiful studio at home, filled with lots of treasured analogue kit and have been working on some really cool immersive media projects. It’s great being able to get into a zone when I’m producing music without having too many distractions from the outside world and my mancave is a chilled and inspiring environment for me to work in.”
GR: You’re on the cusp of releasing a remix of In My Head from your brilliant Real Life album. The accompanying video is clearly a homage to Harlem. What’s the reason behind your apparent love for this special place?
SS: “All of the Binaural field recordings that I captured for the backdrop of In My Head were recorded in Harlem. I chose Harlem as it exudes a larger than life personality. The sound of the streets are amplified with police sirens bellowing down the side roads, a subway train hurtling across a bridge from above and the rowdy banter of local gangs jesting each other out on a street corner. Putting this rich cacophony of sounds together in the 360 immersive audio field I created, gives the listener a heightened reality experience of feeling like you are actually there. All of the most successful field recordings that I captured on my world travels whilst making the album predominantly came from some of the slightly more edgy suburbs I stumbled into and Harlem probably bore the best fruits of all.”
GR: Apart from the music, obviously, the thing I love most about the video is the way it cuts from dancers in black tie and tails in the ’30s to street breakdancers. The symmetry in their movement is breath-taking. What inspired you to do that
SS: “The evolution of music and dance in Harlem is steeped with cultural history. From the Jazz and Swing routes spawned from The Cotton Club in the ’20s to the early origins of Hip Hop. I wanted to make a video that was a homage to dance in Harlem. Director, Blue Marling, cleverly weaved some early ’30s Harlem Shuffle and Swing footage with ’80s Breakdance. The tempos are quite different, but they sync perfectly with the house beats and bassline on the track.”
GR: The album that In My Head comes from, Real Life, is like nothing else. There is just so much going on. It’s a travelogue that goes all over the world and it’s such an ambitious concept. Where did you begin? Did you consciously intend to create a work that was technology-led, recreating 360-degree sound as the human ear would hear them? Or did you begin by making a straightforward music album?
SS: “It was always my intention from the off to make an immersive album. I’d been working closely with Sennheiser creating sounds for some of their new products and they gave me a pair of their new Binaural ASH headphones to road test. They have mikes built into each ear that record sound exactly as the human ear would hear it taking in the full 360-degree landscape. I went to Marrakech to try them out on the cobbled maze of streets in the dusky Souks and was gobsmacked with the results. When I returned home with my recordings, I carved a sonic travelogue that takes you on an immersive journey and then composed a contemporary indigenous music backdrop that was also mixed in 360 surround sound. This made the whole listening experience of the track fully immersive. I now had my Blueprint concept for the rest of the album and over the next couple of years, I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to some incredible locations to record the rest of the album. Other places featured include Mexico, India, Jamaica, Brazil, Cannes, Barcelona, LA and of course NYC”
GR: Tell me a little bit about the binaural aspect? What does that mean exactly and how does it differ from me simply sticking an album on my turntable?
SS: “Binaural sound is true to how our ears naturally perceive sound. The human ear isn’t restricted to the 180 degrees audio field that stereo projects are. Binaural offers a complete 360 circumference of sound with full sensitivity of everything that is happening from the ground to the sky making it a fully immersive audio experience. Stereo is only half of the picture.
GR: How did you capture those sounds of the streets? Did you physically go to all of those places?
SS: “I did physically visit most of the locations featured on the album and spent a few days in each country seeking out the perfect places to get my pallet of sounds from. I went into the cities, towns and villages and captured sounds of the surrounding nature, environments and the local inhabitants. Most of the time, we don’t fully process all of the little dramas that are occurring around us, but replaying the audio snapshots from my recordings afterwards, passing through crowds of people, in fleeting moments of time, I had captured the drama, comedy and sometimes the irony of real life as it unfolded.”
GR: So, did your recording simply involve walking around with a mic? Was there structure? Did you know what you were looking for?
SS: “Thankfully, I didn’t have to walk around with a mike or bulky recording equipment. The discrete appearance of the technology I used to make the recordings was an added advantage as it allowed me to visit some of the more edgy provinces and get right in there amongst the crowds to record sounds. All I needed was the ASH in-ear headphones and an iPhone which was in my pocket, so I didn’t stand out or attract any attention. I just looked like a normal bod walking around listening to music on my cans. I made sure that I covered as much ground as possible for each of the world backdrops to ensure that I had enough interesting material to carve out a great story and sonic landscape for each of the tracks. There were always several hours of recordings to trawl through when I got back to the UK and then it was all about selecting the moments, I wanted to use, mixing various elements together to capture the character and personality of each of the regions.”
GR: So now we understand the technology and how you captured those sounds of the streets. Let’s cut to the music. Can people still enjoy the tunes conventionally, i.e. without headphones?
SS: “Sadly, the one major drawback when listening to a Binaural mix is that it doesn’t translate well on conventional speakers. To get the full experience, you need to be wearing headphones. The way that sounds are placed within a 360-degree audio field, make perfect sense in a headphone environment but playback on speakers changes the relevance and depth of each sound making the track feel unbalanced and detached. The best analogy I could give is if you ever watched a 3D film with the red and blue glasses, you might see an Indian charging at you on his horse and firing at arrow towards you. If you took the glasses off, it would all look blurry and out of focus.”
GR: There is total diversity from track to track and just as a traveller moves from culture to culture the music changes accordingly. Tell me about the process of making the music. Did you use musicians or was everything done electronically?
SS: “I did record a couple of live sessions with musicians in the studio but most of the music was created electronically by me either playing sounds on the keyboard or using sample libraries. I also treated some of my field recordings musically, manipulating the harmonics of the environmental sounds and making them part of the ambient landscape. Working this way really made me realise how musical and rhythmic nature can be. There’s also the city sounds that I used as part of rhythm on some of the tracks. In Marrakech, there was a cacophony of sound coming from a troop of drummers playing in the main Medina square. In Kingston Jamaica, it was the sound of the market traders pitching their wares in fine rhythmic tone. There was also this cool old busker singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow on a crowded subway train heading to Harlem. Weaving these sounds into the music tracks I created helped to give them another depth, tone and indigenous authenticity that enabled me to capture the true character of each of the regional backdrops.”
GR: You’ve written songs that veer from mariachi to hip-hop, Indian-influenced to reggae. It’s a real melting pot. How were you able to flit from genre to genre so effortlessly in the writing and recording process?
SS: “The first thing I did before writing the music track was to lay down the main foundations of the Binaural field recording as a backdrop. In most cases, I take you on a journey through different zones from city to nature, encountering different people along the way. Even without visuals, to me, this is a film to score music to. Having this foundation made me approach the music in a very different way to how I would normally set about writing a track. Creating a sturdy electronic backing track gave it the weight then adding indigenous instruments and vocals gave me the right blend to fuse everything together.”
GR: Whilst the album was released in November, it was clearly recorded beforehand. What significance do you think the album has taken in these quite different times, times when people simply cannot travel?
SS: “My original vision was to make an album for people who loved listening to their sounds on headphones. The commuter probably being my main demographic. As a fellow commuter, I was very aware that a majority of the people sitting in my carriage every day wore headphones to drown out the sound of an arduous journey, myself included. I wanted to make an immersive album that would take you around the world in the time it took to get from work to home. Little did I know that by the time the album was finished, the world would have descended into Global Lockdown! No one’s going anywhere, everyone is at home for the foreseeable future. All of a sudden Real Life took on a whole other purpose. With the ban on holiday travel and people cooped up indoors, we became depressed and longed to travel. Offering the listener, a Sonic Escape that gives them a larger than life immersive experience of travelling the world without having to leave the comfort of their own home is a worthy tonic for the troops.”
GR: Listening to it now, I’m astonished that Real Life didn’t feature on every ‘best of the year’ list for 2020. Do you think the focus on the technology dissuaded people from investigating the music?
SS: “I think it kind of slipped through the net because most people don’t listen to music on headphones indoors. This also limited other media exposure like radio and TV. The Harlem House Shuffle remix of In My Head is out this week and yes, it’s available in Stereo. I’m hoping that this will be more accessible for people to pick up on and then lead to them discovering Real Life.”
GR: What next for Steve Spiro/Frequent Traveller? What are you working on?
SS: “I’m going to be working on a couple of very cool immersive experiential projects this year. It’s early doors so just sketching out ideas at this stage. I’m also producing some new Binaural tracks and collaborating with other artists to make albums for the label Music For Headphones. There’s a growing demand for immersive sound in all forms of media, arts and entertainment and people want their experiences to be as real as possible. 3D audio technology has always struggled to break through but now I think it’s found a worthy platform for attention.”
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.