Q01 Who are you, What do you do & where are you based?
You know who I am, silly! I run a record label in London called Bella Union. I was in a band before I started the label, called Cocteau Twins and we made some records on 4AD and then,foolishly, some records for Fontana (Mercury)!
Q02 What album,track,gig or producer inspired you to end up behind a mixing board
I havent been inspired solely in that way, and as I do a few different things in music, I am not perpetually behind the mixing desk. As a young boy, my father who produced many artists and wrote string arrangements for people like The Walker Brothers, would take me to the studios in London sometimes and hearing him talk about Joe Meek, I was always fascinated by his approach and think in many ways, the fundamentals of what Joe practised still apply today in all scenarios. My dad was one of Joe’s favourite arrangers and when I found myself in later life running studios of my own, rediscovering Joe Meek was highly inspirational to me. His use of reverb, delays and compression, tape loops and distortion, echoes and other strange sounds saw him as way ahead of his peers and for the kind of music we were making, there seemed to be parallels.
With a household full of music from a very early age, it might seem like I was destined for a life in music but to be honest, the music I heard as a young teen, from my brother’s room, mostly heavy rock stuff and proggie stuff wasn’t remotely exciting to me, and I was happiest playing football and hanging out with friends, until 1976 arrived and I heard the Sex Pistols and from that moment everything changed. I think the records that blew my mind just AFTER punk were Metal Box by Public Image Limited and The Associates’s Sulk, both wildly different but with an astonishing IDENTITY that was partly production and mostly coming from within the band’s themselves. On ‘Sulk’ Mike Hedges who had earlier produced the first 2 Cure albums, had the gift of not diluting the wonderful spirit and exuberance of the band’s music and Billy’s voice, and yet also making a terrificly modern ‘pop’ record, one that still stands up today. As for PiL, their ability to put two fingers up to the industry was never in dispute, let’s face it, Lydon was THE iconic figure in music for the last half of the 70s, and yet instead of playing up to the cartoon he was in danger of becoming -he was too smart for that- the arrival of Metal Box, blew everything else that was stale and tired about the end of punk out of the water. It was a wake-up call, and one that affected many of us at that time. The D-I-Y nature of the recordings was inspirational and as well as being a brilliantly produced record, the sense of FUN and excitement during the recordings is evident in the finished record.
Q03 Where did you study your trade?’
Never studied but in Cocteau Twins we always had our own studio set up from the early days. Every advance we got we’d buy a little bit more gear and eventually we had a studio’s worth, probably two. We started our own studio in North Acton in the mid 80s, by renting an empty shell in a light industrial estate and with our friends in Dif Juz, who had labouring skills and bigger muscles, we built the skin of our own 24 track studio. Doing something from scratch like that was actually pretty thrilling. I did have one rather tricky moment. We had a false ceiling and above it we had to fill it with rockwool, that horrid orangey roof insuation stuff that works also as a sound absorber. I was up in the ceiling, carefully walking across the joists, stuffing this rockwool around the ‘roof’, when my foot slipped off the joist and disappeared through the ceiling, made of plasterboard! Luckily we hadnt decorated or put the lights in but it made a helluva mess of my leg and the ceiling. When we’d finished building it all, we had a live room and an office and a tuck cupboard (there was a cash n carry in the same premises so we could buy shop-sized boxes of Minstrels and Galaxy bars!), and it was the first time we were able to make a record in our own studio on our own ‘clock’ where we recorded from start to finish. Blue Bell Knoll was that record. We didn’t rent the studio out during this period but we lent it to friends and Robin did some productions there of course. Pump Up The Volume by M.A.R.R.S was recorded and mixed there. That was, until Fleet Foxes success, the only gold disc I ever had !
In 1991 we moved into Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studios building and stayed there for 13 years, eventually running 2 commercial recording studios. And then… the studio went bust, and we had nothin again! I learnt a lot by watching Cenzo Townsend, Phill Brown, and Robin Guthrie of course who was way more experienced than me, but to be honest, having your own studio and living 5 minutes away, I really had no excuse not to learn and I mostly learnt by trial and error and making my own records, a solo lp, the first release on Bella Union, and producing the Nanaco album that I co-wrote. The last record I worked on at these beautiful riverside studios was the Lift To Experience album ‘The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads’, which I feel was the catalyst for me believing in my own ability finally, as a ‘pair of ears’, both as a label dude and as a ‘producer’. The studio was about to go out of business, we were losing a load of money each month, our band had long-since broken up, the rent was very high and the studio business in general was utterly depressed. Bands werent using studios to make albums any more, they were using them to do string overdubs or drums only and we had this amazing place and not enough clients. We probably werent ‘selling’ it well, cos well we were not business folks, we were musicians and it had suddenly become this massive burden. I was mixing the record all day and all night, by day the receivers would be coming in and taking away the gear around me, and by night I was jumping around the control room in delight at this incredible music I was working on so intimately. Very weird time. So yeah, all these recordings gave me a grounding for the future, but I still would never describe myself as a “record producer”. I occasionally produce records but it doesn’t define me.
Q04 What advice do you have for any budding label owners/engineers out there?
I am not so good at dole-ing out advice as I don’t feel I have the knowledge to advise but given the over-population of most sectors of the music community, I feel that knowing what you want your music, your recordings to sound like before you start, is a key first step. Knowing what you want then it should be slightly easier to find out how to get there. Having realistic targets and expectations is important but then like everything, if you approach your work with love and passion, then these two things should override any other initial inadequacies. When I listen to old recordings of ours, like say the Echoes In A Shallow Bay and Tiny Dynamine which was predominantly recorded in a room we rented in William Orbit’s flat in St Johns Wood on a 16 track recorder, it’s clear that no amount of ‘gear’ makes a great sounding record, it is what you do with the gear that ya got!
Q05 What people in the biz inspire you to do what you do. past heroes and modern upstarts?
From the label side, Geoff Travis is for me the man. I don’t remotely want to emulate him, or copy him or for that matter BE him, but having seen Geoff come through a myriad of trials and tribulations during the long and dramatic history of Rough Trade, I can comfort myself knowing that simply if you love what you do, then you will come through the wringers and out the other side, and straighten yourself out, and move forward again. On the audio/studio side of things Dave Wrench, an engineer/producer/musician is an example to us all. He works at Bryn Derwen Studios in North Wales and is an incredible person to work with, with exquisite taste, and immaculate pro tools skills. He also knows how to mic things up superbly and has worked for years in the analog domain so he has multi-skills and he is an amazing guy to sit next to for 6 weeks on a production! That inspires me. Even if I am producing up there, Dave is part of the reason I am there. The studio is close to a quarry, and incredible waterfalls within a few minutes walk from the studio. Its like an old country manor house that’s wonderfully unkempt and bands feel so at home there. The prices of studios in London are beyond many of the bands I work with, and Bryn Derwen is a residential studio with plenty of room for 6-8 , a wonderful mix board a DDA AMR24, a lovely old grand piano, great outboard, and a brilliant engineer, Dave Wrench on tap. I produced the Lucas Renney record here, and the Duke Spirit lp ‘Cuts Across The Land’, and my own Snowbird record ( a new band with Stephanie Dosen)
Q06 Analog or Digital? Tape or DAW? Outboard or Plugin?
Whatever and wherever, but out of choice I love the sound of analog recordings. Our own studio was mostly during the pre-computer period and I learnt what little I know using 2″ tape, on an Otari 24 track with Dolby SR, and Otari half-inch mastering. We did buy a lot of lovely old vintage gear, but it all went with the receivers and it’s best not to think about it!!
Q07 What 3 pieces of gear could you not live without?
Roland Space Echo, Roland CR78 drum machine and AKAI MPC-60 (its limitations are its strength) and I am using them ALL on the Snowbird LP!
Q08 What do you think is the best mixed record of all time?
Either Innervisions by Stevie Wonder or Remain in Light by Talking Heads
Q09 What do you do on your downtime from Label/Studio?
Q10 If you werent an producer/musician , what would you be doing instead?
Q11 What was your 1st professional album, mix/master job?
First job outside of my own solo and band stuff was Billy Mackenzie’s posthumous release on Nude Records called Beyond The Sun. A privilege to be involved as co-producer. As I had loved The Associates, to get a phonecall out of the blue, asking if I’d like co-produce the record blew my mind, and then to sit with the music of this sadly-missed beautiful man who I had met as a naïve 18 year old and be able to put something of my self into it was emotional and super special.
Q12 What is some of the recent/future works you been part of?
I am co-producing an album I have co-written for a band called Snowbird, with Stephanie Dosen (Chemical Brothers, etc), this will be released in 2012 on Bella Union and I recently produced the debut lp on Brille Records by Lucas Renney, ex-Golden Virgins. I brought Paul and Mckenzie from Midlake over from Texas to record with Lucas and that was a great fun experience in Bryn Derwen wirth Dave Wrench. At that point, I realised that Mckenzie was probably the best drummer around. Hearing him on record and seeing him at gigs is one thing, but seeing him in action was something else. Literally. Two things I wont EVER forget. On one take I was watching through the control room window, he was texting with one hand and playing the drums with the other..that was THE take we used and it was genius! Then on a new song that he and Paul had never heard before, they played it through for the first time and as is usual, Dave and I were recording everything anyway, just in case, and at one point in the song, a very straightforward 4-4 verse chorus arrangement, BOTH Paul and Mckenzie at EXACTLY the same moment did this weird off-beat fill thing that was so unexpected Dave and I just looked at each other and were like “WOAH! Did you hear that?!!” How could they have known to do that at the same time on a song they had only just heard!! When I spoke to them on the headphones after the take, I asked them how the fuck that could have happened, and Paul just laughed and said ‘we’ve been playing together every day for like 7 years, we have an instinctive thing going on ….” Yeah, too right they do. Moments like this are priceless and why I am so grateful for the life I have.
By: Shayne Byrne | Beat-Play Ambassador Ireland | @shaynewithMWL | Music Without Labels & Beat-Play, LLC