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Q&A: Dave Arch, Strictly Come Dancing

Jon Chapple 9 June 2015
Dave Arch, Strongroom

If Strictly Come Dancing is the flagship of the BBC’s Saturday night viewing, then Dave Arch and his band are the engine room. Arch has been the show’s musical director since 2006; he’s also an arranger and composer in his own right, and a talented pianist/keyboard player to boot, having played with Paul McCartney, Greg Lake and on the soundtrack of many a Hollywood blockbuster. Then last year, he decided to scratch a long-time itch, and penned an album of jazz-oriented instrumentals. PSNEurope caught up with him as he set about the final mixdowns at Strongroom, with producer Haydn Bendall at the controls…

What’s with the album then, Dave?
I have a creative streak in me, and that needed attending to… I spend so much of my career making other people sound good, and I’ve wanted to make my own album for years. So I came off Strictly last year after I set up the [early 2014] tour, and I just sat down and wrote some music, just for me. Then I called Haydn up and surprisingly he was equally interested, and it just sort of hatched. It’s a bit of fun, but I’m lucky enough to know the best players. I rang them up and asked them to come and play.

All that arranging you’ve done, it’s stirred a creative energy in you, then? – DA: I’ve been doing that for many years. It’s creative in a way, [but it’s] just an application: listening to a track and reproducing it as best we can live.

I’m very proud of the Strictly band, it’s the only regular one on telly!

How did you end up with the Strictly gig?
By accident. I played in sessions for years. [In 2004] the BBC were looking for a younger outlook for a show called Strictly Dance Fever, a spin-off but very much in the same format – and my name came up.

You took over from original band leader Laurie Holloway in 2006. How surprised are you at how successful the show has become?
There’s a huge gap for a family entertainment show and it’s got everything for the young and old!

Take us through the process, from the first suggestion of a song to the Saturday night performance.
The choices of material are made by agreement between the production team and the professional dancers. Songs for the first two weeks of the show are mapped out in advance, as are the big ensemble numbers – but then are decided on a weekly basis because we don’t know who is going to get knocked out. On the Thursday, nine days before the show goes out, we’ll have an edit of the chosen track. We do the live show on the Saturday; on the Sunday, the dancers will listen to and agree on the edit, and I will start taking all the tracks down. From the Monday morning, I’m arranging solidly.

With Sibelius?
For Strictly, I get pencil and paper and write it out! I then send it to a copyist. I’m writing for four days, fielding phone calls for changes etc, then we get ready for the live show. The singers don’t generally read music so they are sent the tracks and lyrics in advance.

We start at 8am on a Saturday with the band. They are incredible session musicians: you can put the music in front of them and they will generally play it first time; the second time through, it will be perfect, as long as I’ve done my job and written it out correctly! For the last two series, the singers and rhythm section and the sound crew have had rehearsals on a Friday night for three hours. That’s why we feel more prepared and hopefully the sound has got better!

There are occasionally some programmed tracks…
I’ve had a computer fail on me on more than one occasion in a live situation, so I will never totally rely on it on live television! So we might have a laptop with some claps on it, or a little sequence thing – something to bolster the band – but if it didn’t happen, the band would still sound fine. I’ve found little ways, with keyboards, to play virtually everything. We can’t have things ‘not happening’ on the show.

What’s been the worst thing that’s happened?
We’ve had someone trip over a lead… singers nearly losing their voices, ahead of singing again on the results show (filmed on the Saturday after the main show), so it’s been a bit croaky in the dance-off. [But] touch wood, never any serious mistakes.

You have a home studio?
Yes, based around a Mac running Logic and Pro Tools; when I’m doing the Strictly take-downs I tend to use Logic as a tape recorder, playing tracks back and forth. I’m not an engineer by any means – I’m useless at mixing my own stuff. It’s more of a writing room: the piano is my main writing tool. I have PMC twotwo.6 monitors – which I love – I can hear everything. It’s like a reciprocal role for Strictly – you’re trying to hear the parts to write them out, rather than mixing to make it all gel. That mid-range reveal is very good with those.

For your album, are the ideas pulling on influences from jazz and so on?
It’s just what I felt really. I haven’t played this stuff to anyone because I don’t want their opinion! [Laughs] Every track is a different animal, so I asked different musicians to play on them – three different drummers, four bass players and so on. We went into EMI 2 – sorry, Abbey Road 2! – Air Studio 1, Rak for a couple of days for brass and percussion, then Ralph Salmins’ Bunker studio [in Welwyn].

And when Haydn has finished mixing it on Pro Tools at Strongroom, then what happens?
I don’t know yet. I don’t expect to make money from it, but it’s hopefully something I can be proud of.

In the meantime…
Well, today I have a session for a film – playing piano for [Oscar winner] Alexander Desplat at Abbey Road. I played the piano solos in The King’s Speech for him. I’m doing some pick-ups for a film called Suffragette today.

And the Strictly machine kicks in…?
August – if I get the call! [UPDATE: He did get the call some weeks after this interview, we are pleased to report! – Ed]

www.dave-arch.com

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