INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Tape Op JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 - by Larry Crane
LEO ABRAHAMS: BRIAN ENO, DAVID BYRNE, WILD BEASTS
I caught Leo Abrahams at his London home after a soundtrack session at Abbey Road and before heading over to play guitar on a recording with Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. It's all in a day's work for this producer, engineer, musician, and collaborator. In the studio Leo has worked with David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Olivia Chaney, Smoke Fairies, Wild Beasts, Paolo Nutini, Frightened Rabbit, Carl Barat, Chris Difford, and Brett Anderson of Suede, plus performed and co-written soundtracks for The Lovely Bones, Hunger, and Fine Minutes To Heaven. His work with Brian Eno has involved performance, cowriting, producing, and much more. His many solo albums are a pleasure to listen to as well.
• • •
How did you get your start? You went to the Royal Academy of Music.
Yeah, that was to be a classical composer. Halfway through that year I realized it probably wasn't for me, and I changed to the commercial music course.
Which was more like composing and recording?
It had more of a recording element, and it was to do with writing for film. What I found was that as soon as I changed into it, I started writing a lot of aleatoric, atonal music; completely abstract. I thought, "Well, I'm rebelling here," but I didn't know against what, exactly. Then I got a phone call from this manager (who I'd been bothering with my demos since I was fifteen). He said, "I've got this artist who's looking for a guitar player. Do you want to come and do an audition?" It had honestly never occurred to me to play guitar for anyone. I went to the audition and got it. It was Imogen Heap. That really chimed with my growing interest in strange guitar sounds, because she didn't have any guitar on her songs at that point. I thought, "What am I going to play in this audition?"
You're not just blocking out chords.
Yeah. I thought, "I'm going to make drum or keyboard sounds with these pedals." I did that, and it went really well. At the end of that year, I'd met Ed Harcourt and a couple of other people. I was beginning to make a living. Imogen took me down to a club where Ed was playing, and that was the night he got signed. It was fortuitous for me. He gave me an interview and said, "Do you like Tom Waits?" I said, "Yes." He said "Right, your first rehearsal's next week."
Yeah! Then people started trusting me to do their string arrangements because of the fact that I'd been to the Academy. It sort of grew from there, quite naturally. I was living above a recording studio, Café Music, in east London. It was actually the first studio I'd ever been to when I was fifteen. When I turned twenty-two, the flat above it became vacant, so I moved in and lived there for ten years. The owner, Mark Sutherland, was really encouraging and generous. It meant that I could go down and play around in the studio whenever I liked.
You had keys?
It wasn't even locked. It was part of the same ramshackle house. Mark still owns it; he's really good. It was a very gentle initiation to recording. I was never anyone's assistant, which I regret. I feel like I missed out on a lot of engineering lessons. When I started producing seriously, I tended to have a budget for an engineer a lot of the time. It's surprising how little you actually learn until you start having to do it by yourself, as well as when you're not in your own place all the time.
Patch bays and...
Well, it was more like the architecture of a mixing desk, or how to treat rooms that one isn't familiar with. I was very comfortable in my space, but once I started to go into other peoples' studios where I didn't know the room...
The control room and how you're hearing things?
Yeah, as well as the live room and what sounded good in the live room. Because I came from a music background, rather than an engineering background, I spent all those mental hours thinking about music. I feel like I was playing catch up on engineering. I still am, in a way. I haven't put as many hours into it. For the last few years, it's been a lot better.
How often are you tasked with engineering work lately?
Well, I've done a bunch. It depends on what the budget is for the project, obviously, and it also depends on what I'm required to do. On some records, I have to play nearly all the instruments. If I have to do that, as well as engineer, it's tough. I have done it, but I find it's not a wholly pleasant experience. It's a lot of plates to keep spinning, and a lot of responsibility. Also, I sometimes feel I'm not giving the artist as much personal attention as I'd like, because to produce, edit, engineer, and give love is a lot to do in one go.
You put a bunch of work in front of yourself.
Yeah. I like work, but it's easier when someone else is doing at least one of those jobs. If it's a band, and I don't have to play, I'm more than happy to engineer. If it's a solo artist where I have to play everything, I prefer that there be someone else there, at least in the initial tracking stages. Although sometimes I've found that if I can't do that, I'll be so not thinking about what I'm playing that it ends up being great. Sometimes undeveloped parts actually turn out to be the best parts.
I read that Brian Eno found you playing in a guitar shop, heard the sounds you were making, and was intrigued.
Yeah, it was really pretty crazy. I was in this secondhand music shop around the corner from his studio. I was trying out a guitar, and I was testing the intonation. That was it. He walked in and came over. He was incredibly polite and nice. He introduced himself, and I said, "Yeah, I know who you are." He said, "Sometimes I need a guitar player. Would you like to come to the studio?" I said, "Yeah, I'd love to." I didn't hear from him for six months, and then he called and asked if I could come over. When I arrived, everything was already set up with the guitar plugged into an effects thing. I'd read about his techniques of moving musicians out of their typical comfort zones. I picked up the guitar, and it was completely out of tune. Not just out of tune, but the strings were actually hanging off it. I said, "Okay, let's start the track." I improvised a load of percussive, bendy, and talking drum sounds. I got to the end of the song. The next song comes on, and I said, "Oh, excuse me, but would it be okay if I played my own guitar? I'd like to play something melodic." He said, "Yeah. I wasn't expecting you to play that guitar. I was using it to test the line. But I think what you got out of it was really good."
Always welcoming chance!
I think that's why we kept working together. To this day, if I'm stuck for an idea, I'll throw something out of tune or create something that's totally unstable.
It's good as you know, as a producer, to be working with someone and know if they're sticking to the tried and true.
Yeah. It's working out whether people respond well to being pushed, or whether they don't. It's not a fifty-fifty; it's a continuum. It's working out how far to push those people, and sometimes it's at some cost. Sometimes it's good to make singers a bit angry or feel a little bit insecure. Not in a vindictive way. But yeah, you have to work out what buttons to push in people.
Yeah. The thing that I think is part of his genius is that he's genuinely curious and enthusiastic. It's such a beautiful quality. I think that before I met him I hadn't really seen it in such an innocent form in anybody. It's so motivating. That genuine spark of curiosity facilitates everyone else's participation. Suddenly there's not this hierarchical "world famous producer" and everyone else now has to live up to that. It's everyone working together, in a spirit of curiosity. That was so great. It made a huge impression on me. I think it's also something to do with people who come from a more art school background, rather than a music or band school background. Somehow the work doesn't seem as tied up with ego. People like Brian, or David Byrne, or David Bowie look at each project in its own terms. It's not like, "I'm making this album. It's an expression of my soul, and it has to be the best album ever." I'm oversimplifying a bit. It's just liberated from that kind of personal overinvestment.
I think it is like art school. You create something and it's just the singular piece that it is.
Yeah. I think it's really that kind of distance. Still a commitment, but that kind of a distance is a way of circumventing the demons that can come up when you're working on something.
I feel sometimes people get on a track where they want recordings to be this "other thing," instead of what it's naturally gravitating towards.
Yeah, exactly - and you have to depersonalize it. I think sometimes it can be good to actually make that explicit. [You've got] to somehow explicitly frame it as something external that you've put yourself into, rather than something that is meant to be some manifestation of yourself. It depends who you are, but I feel like it's better to work on something from the outside.
It's always going to be seen by everyone else from the outside, at the end of the day.
That's right. It's a really good point.
You worked on the second David Byrne/Brian Eno album, [Everything That Happens Will Happen Today]. When I interviewed David, he was saying you were getting MP3s sent and then having to find the proper files and rebuild tracks that David was chopping up.
Well, the instrumentals started their life as songs that Brian was working on around the same time as his Another Day On Earth album, or even before. Then he took the vocals off and sent them to David. There was some kind of file management issue, but luckily that wasn't my responsibility. There came a point where Brian said he'd like my help in finishing up the tracking of the album. I took care of the guitars, drums, and other overdubs. Then I'd receive David's vocals and comp them a bit. That was a real joy, because David sounded so happy when he was singing. He was recording in his apartment, and you could hear the traffic going past. In between verses, when he didn't have something to sing, he was going, "Whoo, yeah!" He was really enjoying it. There's actually one part on the track Life Is Long where he starts yodeling at the end. I thought it was killer, so I put it in. He was a bit taken aback because he said it was just him, having fun. But everyone liked it so much that it stayed in. It was ridiculous, really, that I ended up working in that capacity on that record. It was probably my first co-production credit. Not a bad one to start with.
I also interviewed Pat Dillett [Tape Op #79] who mixed that.
Oh, he's a great guy. He really knows how to let music breathe. I love what he does. He was so kind to me as well, because at that point I think it was probably the first time I had to consolidate files and send them off to someone. He was lovely and gave me a lot of encouragement. The other learning curve for me was learning how to let go of things that I'd seen in a certain way. Some things came back, and I thought, "Wow, that wasn't what I was thinking," but it was good. I was learning how to see things as "right," even though they weren't what I'd intended. That record was a major learning experience for me, and I'm really lucky to have worked on it.
It seems like that would be interesting to see how songs changed and morphed along the way.
Yeah. The overall feeling was so light. That says a lot for both of them, I think. You know, following up [My Life In The] Bush Of Ghosts, even though it's a completely different record, there was not an ounce of pressure that I felt at any time. In retrospect, that really says a lot for them. I've done many less significant records where it seemed like it's the end of the world if something goes wrong.
What's the sample library you created, [Spitfire Audio's] Enigma? How is that used, and how did you create it?
It's a lot to do with the textural side of my playing, and these long chains of plug-ins I have. That came about because I wanted to start making synth sounds, but not to have to have a synth because I like the feeling of a string under a finger and the way that infuses even heavily-processed sounds. When I first started experimenting with processing guitars in real time, I liked the ambiguity. It doesn't sound like a guitar, but there's something in there that sounds stringy. Back when I started doing that, there wasn't quite so much out there to work with; certainly not hardware. Now, because so many stompboxes are DSP-based, it's like, "Preset 2, huge reverb." There's a very complex architecture of sounds, straight away.
We've seen some really interesting pedals come out lately.
Yeah, it's really great, and I love them. I'd built this kind of virtual pedalboard in [Apple Logic] MainStage using a lot of plug-ins. It was like having a mini pedalboard, but it never got updated because the Mac OS started changing really fast. I realized it would be obsolete pretty soon. I figured that I could carry around the laptop as a pedalboard for the rest of my life, or I could sample it and then leave those sounds behind. It got to the point where if I went to a film session and was using a sound I had used on a couple of other sessions, I sort of felt like I was cheating.
Yeah. It was still finite, even if I tweaked them. I thought I should stop doing it, but I wondered how I could stop in an interesting way. I wanted to draw a line under that phase of my sound-making approach. It's been great. It didn't quite turn out how I thought, but it grew a lot when the programmers at Spitfire took it a bit further.
Did you come up with certain sounds or parameters you were looking to build?
I went through and played all these chains of plugins. It took two or three days to do all that.
That's a lot of passes.
It was. Then I set up extra processing behind it, which you can bring in on the plug-in. I also wanted to make a virtual instrument out of my metal James Trussart guitar, because it has a unique tone, both acoustically and when it's plugged in. And I always liked the sound of playing behind the bridge, with the overtones you get. Obviously you can only have six of those at a time. I ended up getting all my guitars that had an area behind the bridge and I made a chromatic chime instrument out of it, with fuzz.
You're doing production, you're playing on peoples' sessions, you're doing records where you play and produce, there's the soundtrack work, the sample library, and collaborations with people. I like that there are a lot of different things you're doing.
I like that as well, on a day-to-day level. It enables me to only do the things that I really enjoy. It's also variety, beyond the variety of whatever different artists that I'd work with if I were exclusively a producer. But I have big attacks of guilt about it as well. I'll think, "Oh, if only I concentrated more on production, then I'd be better at it." Or, "If only I said I'm only going to play guitar, then I'd have created some kind of audience for my guitar playing." I genuinely can't work it out, but I've never really had a plan. I've followed, with some discernment, the opportunities that have come to me. I really enjoy every aspect of my work, but I think it wouldn't be a bad thing if I specialized a bit more. I've recently been thinking that I want to explore guitar playing really seriously in the next couple of years. I'm building this system that is hopefully going to enable me to do solo shows in an original way. It's going to be essentially performative, but not purist. I know that if I don't spend at least a good few months looking at that seriously, it's not going to happen. I've also got my own record, Daylight, coming out. Although that's not a guitar record, it seems to be pointing to something that's a bit more to do with me, rather than me working for others. It's the first solo record I made that I actually feel I can stand by.
How do you describe the style of it?
Well, it feels like an electronic record, but most of the elements are acoustic - although there are synths on it as well. Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint is playing drums, and that's a big contribution. I did a lot of album productions and co-productions the last few years and really enjoyed it, but I still ended up wanting to make my own music - and I also wanted to have a calling card of some sort, given all I'd learned since the last time I released something. Also, I think I was always aware that there's this kind of upper echelon of producers, and that if I work hard enough, one day I'll be one of them. But it feels like that's not for me now. I think because I do so many different things, I'm perennially going to be a bit of an outsider. I'm not necessarily seen as a safe pair of hands by a label. All of the bigger records I've done came through the artists themselves.
Maybe that's safer.
Maybe so. I'm not complaining. But that's how it's been for me. It can feel a little bit unstable, but then everything's a little unstable in this business.
I think that when we diversify like that we also have more sources of income than someone who says, "I'm just going to produce."
Yeah, that's definitely a consideration. For a while, I think I saw the sessions partly as a form of insurance on one hand, and also as a way of making sure that I didn't have to take on productions that I didn't like. There are plenty of engineers who could do a better job than me, and I'm going to contribute to the music in some way. If I don't, then I normally won't take the job. I can go and play guitar on a record I don't love; and I can still do my job sincerely, and in a committed way and go home.
It's not two weeks of sessions.
I don't think I could do it as a producer; to give what I think needs to be given, day in and day out, on something I didn't like. I've also really come back to valuing guitar playing on its own terms.
Doing a film session feels like being a good carpenter. It's artisanal. I really like that. I try to approach production in the same way; but I find it way more complicated, because it's not a purely artisanal thing. Maybe engineering is, in a way. I do a few gigs a year now, and I love it, but I'm glad I'm not on the road anymore. I never was, in a big way; but it fucked up a relationship I was in one year when I was doing a lot of touring. I also thought, "Why am I sitting in Australia in a five-star hotel getting paid quite a lot of money to play amazing music, yet I'm bored and depressed?" I was like, "This is not for me." I did one or two sort of small projects after that that weren't going to make me go on tour, and I was fine. I got my stage fix. Then when I got asked to join Pulp. I did say yes to that, because that was too good to refuse. It wasn't really a tour, just festivals.
That must have been pretty fun.
It was. I'd played with Jarvis before. Their music really means something to people. Strangely, for all the bands that I toured with up to that point, I'd never really seen that kind of investment in the lyrics, on the faces in the crowd. It was very moving actually, even though it had little to do with me! I still felt very proud to be part of it.
What are you going to be working on with Jarvis today?
Well, it's an ad that he's working on.
What led to your first work as a player on soundtracks?
I think it was with David Holmes, through a personal recommendation. He was working on Code 46; a Michael Winterbottom film. It was a session like any other really, except something between us really clicked. It was also the first time that it occurred to me that I might be able to make my own music on guitar. I suddenly saw an opening. That's actually what led me to recording my first album [Honeytrap]. David and I got on very well. We've had a long and continuing relationship. It went from playing on his films to co-writing a couple with him. At the same time, there was The Lovely Bones project with Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins. I've done a few feature documentaries through people who heard my music and liked it, but weirdly it's not something that I have pursued actively. I guess there's got to be a reason for it. Maybe I wouldn't react well to the kind of pressure situations that emerge when directors change their minds at the last minute. You've got to be a tough cookie for that job. I was lucky with the ones that I did; I was either protected by someone who was more established than me, or a director would come to me who knew what I did and wanted me to do that. I think maybe the bottom line is that I'm not as interested in it as I am in making records. That process fascinates me. I enjoy the process of doing film music, but it doesn't have that particular kind of fascination.
You mentioned a new guitar performance idea. What kind of visions do you have for that?
I think it's extending the concept of a string instrument being behind sounds that don't sound like strings, and not in a way that is just MIDI triggering. It's about the expressiveness of the finger on a string. I don't want to use looping. Loops can be very hypnotic, but I think it's even more hypnotic to watch someone who knows how to structure a fairly long piece of music. That's my personal taste anyway; I just need to practise a lot more!
I think the thing I always notice with looping is that once something repeats over and over, the listener stops hearing it, to a degree.
Yeah. There are people doing genius things with that, but I'm going to build the thing that I've got in my mind and then work out what music I can make with it.
The process will kind of dictate the composition?
Exactly. That's one thing that's inspiring about quite complex sounds. I made my second record, Scene Memory, directly out of sounds of which I was only partially in control. I found that the compositions were dictated by those sounds.
Similarly, the record I'm about to release was entirely inspired by Chinese ink paintings. The techniques those painters used spoke a lot to these ideas I've had for a long time about the role of chance in composition. [It was an opportunity] for me to compose more as a sort of organiser; to organise material that had a lot of chance elements in it, rather than write melody and accompaniments.
That's a very Western approach; write a melody and a harmony.
I find that I judge myself a lot when I'm trying to write, whereas if I let stuff happen and then organise it, I don't judge myself as much. That's why I admire people who write music, because they've had to fight through all of that and have prevailed.
I think when we're producing records, our job is to help support the good parts of the music and to believe in it.
Yeah, exactly. It's a big responsibility. I know this sounds stupid, but if I get offered something that I think is truly precious, I quite often wonder if there is someone else who can do it better than me. I have the same thing about the songwriting as I do with the production. I think it's always good to do a tryout, because I want to make sure that I can give what the artist needs as best as I can.
With the tryout, do you go somewhere and work on a song?
Yeah, do a song or two and see what it's like.
How many records have you done that on in the past?
Most, actually. It's been really rare that I've gone into the studio to do the album without having a trial run. It used to be absolutely the norm. The label would pay for it, and they might do tryouts with several producers. Now, I think for budgetary reasons on many albums, they don't want to do that anymore. It makes it quite stressful. I think it's good for everyone to know how it's going to be before you dive in properly. I think it's really positive. It also makes that first experience much less pressured, because both sides are thinking that if it doesn't work out, it doesn't really matter, because it's only two days or something.
Is it good to know how an artist wants to work; like how they approach singing?
Well, vocalists put a lot of pressure on themselves, and I think it's because new artists don't fully understand the process of how records are made now compared to thirty or forty years ago. I find new artists particularly give themselves a really hard time about not being able to produce one-take perfect vocals.
It's like, "You know, we've been punching in for fifty years..."
Yeah. It's a strange time, at the moment. I think it's linked to the X Factor thing, where what matters is being able to deliver a vocal like that. Even if you don't like that part of the culture, it still somehow informs your judgments of yourself if you're a singer.
True. It gets in the brain.
I'm working with this great singer at the moment. She's a killer singer and can do full takes perfectly. But she gets freaked out. She thought I'd tuned some of her vocals, and I hadn't. You know, sometimes the voice can sort of skip up to a note as it crosses over a split. She thought it was tuned, and I actually had to prove to her that it wasn't.
We mentioned Olivia Chaney's record [The Longest River] earlier. How did that come about?
A cello player friend of mine, Oliver Coates, said, "Oh, I've got this friend named Olivia. You should meet her." I was completely, immediately blown away by what she was doing. It was so beautiful and complex. There was nobody else remotely like her. She'd never really recorded before and had no deal, but I thought I could happily listen to that music all day. We recorded for a while. I think it was probably the first time she'd had any feedback, not about her material, but about vocal delivery or how to go through the process. When you're as good a singer as that, it's about how to frame that delivery in the best way possible. She used to be a classical singer. At that time it was still quite noticeable in her voice and she didn't want it there. We worked on that. Her evolution took another few years as a natural process. We made an EP, and it came out on a small label. She started doing more gigs and building her profile. Then she got signed by Nonesuch, which I think is about the best possible thing that could have happened. They're probably the only label that could have understood her and given her the support she needed. We were close friends by then, and I didn't expect her to ask me to be involved in making the record because it would be too much. One day she said, "I'd really like you to be there." That record is a co-production between her and I. She knew what she wanted. It took a bit of back and forth to get there. My role in it was mostly supportive, although we did have some arguments!
As long as you know it'll be productive in the end.
Yeah, sure. Trying to work out the best way to actually organise the sessions, so that they were performative instead of repetitive and enclosed. I really wanted to try to capture some sense of her as a performer, outside of being a recording artist, without trying to make an album that sounded like a live album. It was a very delicate balance. Although the album sounds very minimal, there are actually quite a few textural touches, and just as much effort went into those almost inaudible elements as the audible elements! We tried multiple sounds or backing vocals on every song before settling on one, and then turning it down a lot. It was a very interesting experience. It felt a lot like working on a Talk Talk record, in terms of the intensity and the discernment. I'm not a splash-iton kind of guy when it comes to making records, but this was a whole new level of discernment really. That comes from her. It was fantastic to make, and I got to meet and work with Jerry Boys. It was lovely.
Jerry was the engineer, right?
He engineered the sessions at RAK [Studios] and mixed it. That's the heart of the record. I think a couple of vocals might have been redone here [at Leo's home studio]. But all the performances were sorted through here, and all the overdubs were done here. It was great to watch Jerry work.
I'll bet. He's got a wealth of experience.
He has, and he carries it very gracefully. He reminds me, not in terms of style, but in attitude, of Tchad Blake. Both of them have this grace that is comparable to a musician's grace. You think that guy's just playing E, but why does it feel so good? When I work with these amazing engineers, I try to watch and figure out what they're doing. But I really think it's as much a semiconscious, instinctive thing, like a musician's intonation or something. I like to think that I partly understand the process, but it's like magic, the way that things feel when there are really great engineers around. A feeling of balance is really something valuable. I learned a lot making Olivia's record, and making Wild Beasts' record I learned a hell of a lot. I feel like I learn so much from every record I make that I think, "Well, I must have known fuck all to begin with!"
Well, there isn't a proper school that's going to teach someone really how to be a producer.
No. There's instinct. But I remember having a conversation with Tchad where he said, "What I really want to hear in music is abandon." I thought about that a lot. What are different ways of getting abandon? One way is to cede control and see what happens. I think that the way, as producers, we mediate within ourselves between controlling and not controlling is a very interesting ar
What parts of other records are done here in your space?
Depends on budget, but I usually like to go to a big studio for the core elements. I don't have a live room upstairs, so a studio with a good sounding live room to do drums, bass, and maybe some guitars is the minimum. I actively prefer doing comping, mixing, and vocal overdubs (and whatever other overdubs that need to be done) here. I find that, because it's in my house, it puts the artist in a really good mood all the time. I'm sometimes insecure about it, because I think they're going to come to my house and think, "Oh, this bloke's just got a studio in his room!" Actually it's kind of the opposite. People appreciate the fact that it's relaxed. There's natural light, and they can come down and make a cup of tea in my kitchen. It works. I try to use the positives of great sounding live rooms in studios, as well as the positives of having somewhere that I'm not sitting editing and it's costing someone loads of money, or I have to work thirteen hours a day. It's flexible.
Are there any times when you're annoyed by having a studio where you live?
No, I don't find it disturbing working in the same space that I live. I don't find it hard to switch off, and I don't find it hard to switch on. I like it. I've probably done twelve records here, over the last three or four years. It's only been once that I felt weird about having someone in my house, because I thought I actually wouldn't choose to have this person in my house if it wasn't for this. It wasn't even a bad thing. It's not that I disliked them. I just didn't click. With most people I work with, I find them absolutely delightful. I'd happily be their friend, regardless of the record.
You're only doing things you're also producing or co-producing that come here.
Yeah, that's right. And it's been very rare that I have a whole band here hanging out. It's usually one or two people. It's not a big room. If there are only one or two people, it's big enough; but a whole band in here gets a bit nuts.
How are you tracking electric guitars here? Are you going direct, or into amps?
For the textural playing, a lot of it is direct by choice. For other tracks I usually stick an amp next door.
Like in the bedroom?
Yeah, I run some cables through.
The neighbors aren't getting bothered?
I don't have the amp that loud, because it doesn't need to be. I use low wattage amps. If the door's closed, my neighbors can't hear it, even when the speakers are really up in here. I lucked out finding this place. The hallway sounds really great for singing and percussion. It's fun to use the house a little bit like that. I would love to have a proper studio, but at the moment it doesn't quite make sense. I really value being relaxed and not having to monetize the studio space. I've been talking about going in with people. But I want to buy a building, because I don't think I could bring myself to pay that kind of rent in London. It's kind of reached the point where my synths need somewhere to go. I've got a separate storage room downstairs full of equipment. I'm worried that it's getting to the point that the house is more studio than house. If it gets to that then I might have to think about something. I'd lived above Café Music for so long, I thought I couldn't imagine not having it.
When you were doing that, did you use it for projects?
Yeah. If it was other people, I'd get them to pay whatever the studio cost was. I'd buy gear and put it in there. But if it was just my music, I could work there for free whenever I wanted. It was fantastic.
It seems like you always need a space of your own, even to work on albums for yourself or if you're doing a soundtrack. Where else are you going to go?
I know people who rent space with lots of other studios. But I never really fancied going to a place where there were lots of other people doing the same job as me. It has its benefits, I guess. I got offered a situation like that recently with some really good friends of mine, but I think I like being on my own.
You studied arrangement in school. I always find the biggest problem, when I'm trying to educate someone about what's not working with their recordings, is that it always comes down to arrangements.
That's it. I don't get asked to do that much mixing exclusively, but the times I get brought in to do an additional production, or even just mix, I feel like an arranger as much as a mixer. Certainly I can't even think about starting the mix until I've done the arrangement first.
You've had some sessions where you were writing out arrangements.
Yeah, that was super fun. I'd love to do more of that. I did some last year, but unfortunately there are fewer jobs than there used to be, because people can't afford it. There are lots of really fantastic guys out there, players who will arrange it on the spot in the studio, or record the parts at home. I've used those people, and they do a great job. But there's a certain feeling that comes from doing it the old-fashioned way. I write out all my parts completely by hand as well. I don't use [Avid] Sibelius [notation software]. I'm convinced that it has some sort of tangible effect down the line, if only to the way that I compose. I prefer composing those arrangements with a pencil than on a keyboard or the computer. It's not a very practical use of time, especially when I have to copy all the parts.
Have you learned a lot watching other producers work?
I find that I have a lot of reference points when I'm in a difficult situation. Most of the time you breeze through, do your job, and things go smoothly. But when I hit a rough patch, I can draw on some other rough patch that I've seen someone else deal with. On the spectrum, I've realized that I do tend to be quite controlling. I think, because I'm a musician, I'll get involved and question people and their motivations; without being aggressive, of course! Particularly with bands. I don't like assumptions coming to the studio. If everybody's worked out what they're going to do before they do it, it's boring. Including me! I have to work out where the points of resistance are. But if a musician or singer starts insisting on something and I don't think it's right, I'll always give in, let them do it, and try to rebuild other things around it to allow it to happen. I don't want to end up with a record that sounds too much like me, or where everything's too tidied up. And I'm always curious to try things that don't seem like they'll work - 'cause half the time they do.
If the struggle is really difficult, there must be some reason. Maybe it shouldn't be done.
Yeah. It's about the force of the producer meeting with the force of the artist and the band. The shape of what's in the middle changes a bit.