Sunday, 28 September 2008

How I became a drug runner

We were recording in EMI Music's studio in Rathbone Place and we were up against it. The deadline meant that my dual choice of the world's most argumentative band and Europe's most stoned producer were now haunting me day and night. Desperation to get the project finished had driven me to this: five past eleven and speeding my company car to an address in North West London that had been jerkily written down on a scrap of paper by the producer. The address of a dealer. Yes, I had become a drug runner.

As far as I can remember, this was the only time I ever got involved in something along these, er, lines. The cliche about A&R people being the source of drugs for their artists is not true in my experience - as I outlined in Dads on Drugs. In fact I don't think I even knew the type of drug I was being asked to buy that night- on reflection it must have been cocaine, or possibly speed. The the only thing I cared about at the time the necessity for them to stay awake and get the tracks finished.

I've been thinking about this because we are currently looking for producers for one of our bands at the moment and whilst that sentence is one of the most widely used in A&R circles, it made me consider just what exactly the person behind the knobs and dials is for. What is the point of a producer?

And at the most basic level, a producer is the organised person who holds it all together. He (although female producers do exist - I've worked with one - they are very scarce) is the one in charge, a time manager and a people manager. If the producer I described above had actually been doing his job, he would have delivered the tracks to us on time. Or certainly, at the very least, given me advance warning that something was seriously delaying the delivery and we should start making contingency plans around the release date. OK, so every music journalist will talk with a misty-eyed reverence about Phil Spector or Brian Eno or Martin Hannett but the truth is, no one really wants a producer who has to threaten a band with a gun to get a performance. I mean, the chances of that resulting in a good performance can't be high can they? Even Starsailor weren't exactly raving about their 15 minutes in Spector's shadow.

And really, who wants to deal with riddles and games when a studio is over a grand a day? A friend of mine who was a session musician once worked with Brian Eno in the 90s and was creaming himself with excitement on entering the studio. He set up his drums and the great man came up and introduced himself, "Do you know the North Norfolk coast?" he asked. "Yes!" replied my friend, who happens to be a big fan of that part of the world. "Do you know the beach at Holkham?" "Of course - I think it'll be the last thing I see before I die!" he replied, somewhat over enthusiastically. "OK. Well," continued the ex-Roxy Music keyboardist, "remember the car park there, and the gravel walkway up to the edge of the beach?"
"Yes..." replied my friend.
"And when you get there, remember how it opens out into a vista flanked by pine trees with that view?"
"And now there's sand under your feet"
"Er, yes..."
"Well, that's what I want you to do." said Brian, and promptly walked off to brief another musician in similar detail.

OK, so I love Before And Science as much as the next man, and come to think of it, I own almost every Eno album (including Thursday Afternoon), all of which I enjoy, but surely there is a Pseuds Corner element to this sort of production. Or am I being churlish? And Hannett? Well, again, he's got an amazing CV but his reputation is just as much based on being a hedonistic, drug imbiber as it is getting a great drum sound for Joy Division. And after Factory went off with other producers he became just another producer looking for work. Have you heard Box Set Go by the High?

So what am I saying here? Am I advocating the fashionable view that bands should do it themselves? Am I suggesting that in the current cash-strapped climate, that along with being their own record company and marketing themselves, bands should also familiarize themselves with Garageband, get some decent reverb plugins and produce their own music? After all, no one knows the music better than the artists themselves, right?

Well, wrong, really. I mean, obviously artists have always recorded their own stuff and these days they're all familiar with how to produce a pretty decent recording of their music. But what I'm talking about is the thing the public get to hear - the finished work. With very few exceptions (the Friendly Fires album is fantastic and bar one track, entirely self-produced in a shed in St Albans) producers are absolutely essential for this- and now more than ever at a time when record companies can afford to do less and less.

There is a lot of nonsense spoken about the dark art of the record producer. This is partly down to the sort of eccentricity I mention above, but the simple fact is that the best producers are the ones who manage to make the band do what they do best - they're not inflicting any particular sound on the act, although that is the most widely held myth of all. Sure, you can here some similarities in treatment between the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music but you'd be hard pushed to say that Chris Thomas has a sound; likewise Stephen Street or Dave Sitek or Tony Hoffer. They all have a certain taste, it's true, and taste is precisely what is key to all successful producers. There are lots of producers who don't have the luxury of taste - like film directors or actors, many of them go with whatever their agent recommends will be good for their career. And who can blame them? If you were freelance and someone came along and offered you a job for a month with the potential of earning extra dosh if you manage to do work that someone else likes then you would take it. Who cares about the actual noise?

So what do you look for when you choose a producer? Christ, I wish I knew. Artists want to work with their heroes - often other artists, who can sometimes do a good job and sometimes can really let the side down. The answer most A&R people would give if they were honest would be a 'safe pair of hands - someone who isn't going to fuck it up' An A&R friend of mine once said that the best way of getting a decent finished recording if your producer isn't working out, is to master the demo - (ie, make it as loud as possible) - then speed it up a little. It worked for him every time, apparently.

Oh, two exceptions to my rule - dance producers do tend to have a 'sound', they add a bit of themselves to a track like an artist - it's no wonder that so many dance and hip hop producers are artists in their own right. From Dr Dre to Paul Epworth, these folk are introducing elements of their own songwriting and sonic template. An exception to this exception (gotta love that!) is James Ford, who has come from the dance world but is a traditional producer bringing the best out in the bands he works with without inflicting his Simian Mobile Disco sound onto them. No, I haven't worked with him - do you expect me to be that hip?

Most producers I have worked with were adorable - and I'm not just saying that, they really were. And this, I think is the key to making it long term in the record production business - you have to have people skills - if you have no emotional intelligence how are you going to get good performances from your musicians? Well, you know what Spector would say to that...

My first project, which is the one I described in the opening paragraph, was in many ways a necessary rite of passage. With hindsight, the musicians weren't really at fault- they were a naive young band, of course they didn't know what they were doing and were easily impressed by the idea of a rebel behind the console. The mere memory of this producer's arrogant, chain smoking presence still makes me shudder. I would ask him how he did certain things in the studio out of genuine interest and he would tap his nose and say, "trade secret... very complicated" and then laugh in a strange, high-pitched way that made me want to punch him into submission. Why didn't you fire him? I hear you ask. Good point, naivety on my part I think. I really didn't know what I was doing. In the end I did use another producer but by then the damage was done, the band had really 'bonded' with whiney, druggy man and they insisted on using him to record what of course turned out to be their last single.

The dealer turned out to be a bit of a disappointment - far from being an evil looking man dressed as a clown or something, he turned out to be a small, balding NME journalist. Ah well. Back at the studio, I was greeted by a fug of dopey air and not a single finished track. I remember noticing a copy of the recently-released CD of Sgt Peppers lying on a swivel chair. I handed over the substances to the producer, who muttered an indifferent thanks and then I drove home with a feeling familiar to all A&R people, - how do I get this lot out of my life really fast?

Later after the album was mastered and had limped into the shops, I discovered the idiot had sampled a track from that Beatles' CD. Possibly out of spite, I don't know. Luckily the band were never successful enough for anyone to notice. But it was all worth it because I had learned the most important A&R lesson: always work with a proper producer.


  1. Brian Eno certainly doesn't need my defence, but the scenario you describe is very much Brian's way of trying to make musicians think, and thus not play what they'd ordinarily do. It may be oblique, but if it gets results who's to say it's idiotic? I'm tempted to make a drummer joke, but their lot is hard enough anyway. For producer antics, you really should have witnessed David Briggs (Neil Young's producer), a man who could combine Olympian quantities, random threats of violence, and technical excellence into an unsettling whole that got great results. It was never dull.

  2. "we are currently looking for producers for one of our bands at the moment"

    It's busy here but I could possibly clear a window in my diary shortly...!