THE SYSTEM REBOOTED – Electro-soul pioneers DAVID FRANK AND MIC MURPHY talk to SJF about their new album, ‘System Overload.’
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 | Charles Waring
Let’s rewind thirty years back to 1983 – it was a time when keyboard maven David Frank and singer Mic Murphy in the guise of The System were beginning to reshape the sound of contemporary R&B with a futuristic, mechanised, sound that comprised synthesisers, sequencers and robotic drum machine beats. ‘You Are In My System’ was the duo’s debut hit and it wasn’t long before their distinctive production sound was sought after by the likes of Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, Ashford & Simpson, Scritti Politti, Mtume, Angela Bofill and many others.
The duo’s music also appeared on some classic 80s movie soundtracks – such as ‘Beat Street,’ as well as the Eddie Murphy-starring films, ‘Beverley Hills Cop,’ and ‘Coming To America’ – and then in 1987, The System scored a US chart-topper with their hypnotic beat ballad, ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove.’ But two years later, in 1989 and following the release of their fifth album, ‘Rhythm & Romance,’ the System called it a day. Mic Murphy went on to release a solo album (1991’s ‘Touch’ for Atlantic) while David Frank moved into session and production work (his credits include Christina Aguilera’s 1999 hit, ‘Genie In A Bottle’).
The pair reconvened for 2000’s ‘ESP’ but then followed another fallow period. Now, though, the groundbreaking duo is back with their first long player in over a decade – ‘System Overload’ on their own Science Lab label. They recently found time to answer questions posed by SJF’s System addict, Charles Waring, about various aspects of their career and of course, the all-important new album…
It’s been twelve years since the last System album – why was The System on hold for such a long time and what brought you both back together in the studio again?
MM: A real desire to explore new music with David and challenge our musical abilities in this new framework of time, style and competition. Thought it was time. We love a good challenge.
DF: We were probably both so wrapped up in doing our own things that we forgot how much we valued what we had done together. It was somehow just a perfect fit. Speaking for myself, I did so much music with other people and though it served the purpose well and I am proud of it all, there is nothing that quite matches The System and the compositions I have done with Mic Murphy. It is, to me, my finest hour. So, when we started to talk about about “what if we made another album” we just tried it out and found that it still worked for us – the magic that is.
How did it feel to be creating new music again together?
DF: It just worked right away. This quote conveys the feeling:
Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music.
Music is the BEST
– Frank Zappa, ‘Packard Goose’ Joe’s Garage: Act III
When Mic and I start making music it’s the best!!
MM: It was actually easier than I thought it would be although there were the added challenges of distance (David relocated to LA in 1993 and I am still a native New Yorker) and getting to know each other musically intimately again. You go into it with certain preconceptions of who you were before and the idea that you’ve changed your spots.
How would you describe the musical chemistry that you and David have when you collaborate?
MM: It’s compromise without a mediator and sometimes trial by fire; it’s Darwinism and natural selection; it’s a distillation of ideas to create something that is akin to gene-splicing. It always mutates into something different than what we started.
How would you describe ‘System Overload’ – and how does it compare with what you’ve done before?
DF: I think it’s a fantastically consistent collection. I’m proud of every song through and through. No gaps, no regrets. I think collectively it is as good if not better than our past work.
MM: ‘System Overload’ has elements of many things we’ve done before. We used many similar compounds and chemicals; soul, electronics, funk rhythms, emotional concepts, so the result comes up System!!!
The System records have always had a unique sound and musical character – how important was it to stay true to your sound and preserve your sonic identity with the new album?
DF: It literally just comes out naturally that way. We both write lots of ideas and the final line up always just sounds like The System. Honestly even the songs that we don’t finish or don’t use always have a character consistent with our sound. They are just not as good in some way.
MM: It’s important but no matter how hard we try when we make music together it always somehow ends up sounding like us.
What prompted you to rework your biggest hit, ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove,’ on the new album?
DF: It was an ‘X-periment.’ Just to see if it could be done. It took a long time to finish it. Many people like it and it’s gotten a fair amount of play so far. It’s not meant to replace the original.
MM: That was Mr Frank’s idea and brainchild. I did not warm up to the idea for quite a while… but he really brought out something different in his musical approach.
Going right back to the birth of The System in ’82, what circumstances led both of you to join forces?
MM: Actually quite by proximity and necessity. We both worked together in Kleeer – he as a keyboard sideman and I was moonlighting as road manager and looking for a musical collaborator having been in a few really good local NYC Bands including Jack Sass band. We couldn’t get record deal so I thought I’d try it from the other side of the business to make connections that way. David had some bartered studio time and played me a track that blew my head off – ‘It’s Passion’ – and I knew I had to get on it.
You had a distinctive sound – was that by design or by accident?
DF: Both. It came from our development as musicians. Never gave it any calculating thought about success. Just worked and worked and tried new techniques, chords, instruments. Lot’s of listening and analyzing other music from very old to the newest of the new. All styles.
MM: It truly was just what happened when you stirred the two of us around in the pot. I was a funk rocker and loving the music coming out of the UK at that time; Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Roxy Music, Spandau Ballet, Phil Collins and David was a big fan of R&B and funk & jazz…Parliament, Zapp and R&B that he was listening in Boston.
What equipment did you use to get the classic System sound?
DF: Oberheim OB8, DSX, DMX, and a Mini Moog was the start…
MM: The early System was quite simple Oberheim, DMX, DSX, OB8, and Mini Moog.
Whose idea was the name ‘The System’?
DF: Mic Murphy, ladies and gentleman!!
MM: That’s my concoction…In 1981 the people’s technological revolution was just beginning. The hippest item was the Walkman and the Baby Apple computer. Everything was a system – a sound system and the system as in “we the people.” The subtext was that we come from completely different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
How did you get to sign with Mirage Records?
DF: Jim Delahante was the A&R man who signed us. He loved ‘It’s Passion’ which was our first hit – our first song too. It was on the radio in regular rotation in NYC and LA within 4 weeks of our completing recording.
MM: As a result of my stint with Kleeer I knew two record execs; Jim Delehante at Atlantic and Ray Caviano of RFC Warner and they took my phone call. I had my mentor, Dennis King, who was the manager of Kleeer and head mastering engineer at Atlantic Records, press up three lacquers of ‘It’s Passion’ the morning after we recorded it and I was able to walk it over to Jim and Ray. Jim called Jerry Greenberg (Mirage boss) in for a listen and he signed us on the spot.
Your breakout hit was ‘You Are In My System’ – do you remember how that song came about?
DF: Yes. LOL……ok I’ll let Mic tell you.
MM: We were given the opportunity to record an album instead of another 12-inch and one day at the music building David played me this musical idea which he was a little shy about. I immediately recognized what was great about it. I flipped his chorus idea into the verse and the verse idea into the chorus and convinced him that it was hot and came up with the hook on the spot.
Robert Palmer later covered the song – how did that feel?
DF: Great. He was a favourite of ours. It is a worthy cover.
MM: I had been a fan of Robert Palmer from my Jack Sass days. We used to cover ‘Sneaking Sally In The Alley’ at our shows. So I was completely over the moon when we were informed that he was cutting a version. Sure did help our credibility real quick.
In ’84 you had a song, ‘Baptise The Beat,’ on the ‘Beat Street’ movie – how did that come about?
DF: They were making the movie in NY and asked us to be in it because we were a big part of the NY music scene, Check out the new remixes of it on Electro Ave Records. So much fun!!
MM: We were asked by Atlantic to screen the movie and we wrote the song the next day and we were very fortunate to have it included in the soundtrack. Once again we came up with something quite unusual in beat and approach and it worked. I love when that happens.
You also performed the title song on the Eddie Murphy movie, ‘Coming To America’ – how did you get involved with the movie?
DF: We didn’t write that song. Nile Rogers did. The soundtrack was on Atlantic and they wanted us to do that song. It was great working with Nile.
MM: Actually Nile Rogers produced the soundtrack and wrote the song – we provided the System flavour.
What do you recall of working with Chaka Khan on her ‘I Feel For You’ album?
DF: Besides playing on it… I was in the studio one day and watched Arif Mardin, the producer, editing 1/2 inch tape and flying in tape scratching sounds….for many hours. Arif was a brilliant musician. He and Reggie (Lucas) made a huge forever hit out of a good basic song. Arif was able to get the best out of all of us as he was just plain old charming and relaxed. The overall sound environment that the production lives in was totally unique at the time and still is, at least to my ears.
MM: Singing the chorus of ‘This Is My Night’ (which we wrote) with her in the vocal booth while she was chain smoking and singing her ass off. So much adrenaline I think I sang higher than I ever had before.
Of all the outside production projects that The System did, do you have a favourite one? If so, which one and why?
DF: Actually we put our all into them all. I really can’t single one out.
MM: So many magic moments. Producing Ashford & Simpson’s ‘It Comes with the Package’; song writing a demo called ‘Wrap Around Girl’ with Mick Jagger; Gavin Christopher’s ‘You Are Who You Love’ – what a pure singer and spirit; Jeff Lorber’s ‘Step By Step’ featuring Audrey Wheeler and, of course. Angie Bofill’s ‘Another Night With No Love In Sight.’
What memories do you have of making ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ album in ’85?
DF: That’s a big question….one feature was yelling ‘Big City Beat’ at Unique (studio) with Tom Lord-Alge producing.
MM: I remember recording at Unique Recording with the Lord-Alge Brothers…really great recordings and mixes and feeling like we had found our niche.
‘Don’t Disturb This Groove’ was a number one record for you in ’87 – what did it feel like topping the charts and what effect did it have on both your lives and career?
DF: I woke up with a smile on my face for months. It was everything I ever wanted to achieve. Still is.
MM: The feeling of catching the perfect moment when everything just comes together…for me it was a perfect combination of hard and soft and it really was the template for many grooves that came after it.
After ‘Rhythm and Romance’ in ’89, you went your separate ways – why was that?
MM: Wish I had that answer!
DF: We had done five albums and probably ten others for other artists and Mic wanted to do a solo album so it was time for a break. We also had opened a studio which was a business that was difficult to maintain. Life teaches you. We are back!!
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
DF: ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove’ and the privilege of writing, learning about and playing music everyday all day.
MM: Playing a little LA club, ‘Club Lingerie,’ in 1983 just on the heels of our first album followed by our appearance on ‘Soul Train.’ #2 little known fact: we were slated to appear on ‘Solid Gold.’ Not sure of the name. They film three acts and which ever two move up the charts they air on TV the following week. Kool and The Gang had ‘Celebration’ and then I watched a little guy in high heels (Prince) perform ‘Little Red Corvette’ – needless to say our ‘Pleasure Seekers’ ended up on the cutting room floor. I would love a copy of that footage.
What do you think your greatest achievement was with The System?
DF: ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove,’ ‘You Are In My System,’ ‘The Pleasure Seekers,’ ‘This Is For You,’ ‘It’s Passion,’ ‘System Overload,’ ‘Diabolical Love’ and the whole body of work. If you printed it out it’s quite substantial….like my classical composer idols.
MM: We made some really good ear-bending records and created a style all our own.
What response have you had to the new album so far?
DF: It’s been great. Reviews couldn’t be better and it is a work in progress and a promotional challenge that we are enjoying very much.
MM: Really heartfelt shout-outs from long time fans and new ones alike.
Will you be doing any live gigs to promote the album release?
DF: Yes very soon. We are setting that up.
MM: We really hope to tour this record – that would be a great achievement.
After this, are there any plans for more System albums to follow in the future?
DF: Yes, I have sent Mic at least six track ideas in the last week. We will do something monumental. I just got some new gear and software including Access Virus Ti2, Elektron Analog Four, Ableton Live 9 and I’m studying and studying…. thinking of our next take on the ‘Urban Elektro Music’ of the future.
MM: We demo’d an awful lot of tunes for this album so we have a well to dip from and after priming the pump the ideas are truly flowing.
‘System Overload’ is out now via Science Lab Records.