Stornoway released their latest album Bonxie on Monday (13 April), and it's the first one they've recorded with a producer, in this case Foo Fighters and Pixies collaborator Gil Norton. As they send it into the world this week – including two Record Store Day in shop gigs tomorrow (18) one at Oxford's Truck Store and the other at Relevant in Cambrdige – Jon Ouin from the band ponders exactly what the role of producer brings to our favourite records.
For any regular readers, you will already be very familiar with the idea of record producers and how they can radically alter the band you love – or thought you hated – for better or maybe for worse. The Q reviews section will be littered with references to these characters who can make such an impact on the music we hear.
But just what exactly is a record producer in musical terms, and what exactly can they bring to the table? Besides generally directing proceedings in a studio, a producer’s role might also include interpreting or capturing an artist’s idea, writing large swathes of music, or even psychologically terrorizing an artist into coming up with the goods, or all of the above and much more…
It’s safe to say, for example, that without George Martin in the producer’s chair, John Lennon’s wide-eyed request, while dreaming up the circus wonderland of For the Benefit of Mr Kite from Sgt. Pepper, that he wanted to "smell the sawdust", could have quite reasonably just have been met with a raised eyebrow. Instead, Martin put together a kind of musique concrète collage of old organ music which elevates the song into a synesthete’s dream. Without Brian Eno’s compositional contribution to the second half of Low, David Bowie would have been left wandering the streets of Berlin, waif-like, still searching for some inspiration for the second half of the record. Without Phil Spector’s gun-toting and neuroses, a whole genre of 60s girl-group music (and the Wall of Sound’) might never have existed. I could go on – these stories are rightly legendary, and many thick books have been written about them. The point is really that music producers often perform a whole myriad of tricks at the same time, and sometimes that’s before the band even plays a note.
These days bands and artists pretty much always start out recording their music without outside help, so it might seem odd decision to suddenly enlist someone to help you in an expensive studio. Nowadays people are so more tech savvy, and it’s become so much easier to make your own records on laptops using inexpensive music software like Logic or Ableton. Artists just don’t need as much technical nous to do it on their own as they once did. In a sense, recording technology has blown the doors down, and there has been a massive boom in ‘non-producers’ producing commercial records that were recorded in unusual (or domestic) spaces and using unconventional instruments.
Our first encounter with a producer was working with Craig Silvey on a couple of tracks from our first album Beachcomber’s Windowsill, before he went off to mix Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Bar those songs, we produced our first two albums ourselves. For the first record, we just used an old eight-track and one condenser mic that I’d got just before I met our singer-songwriter Brian. Unlike some of my bandmates, I’ve never been technically minded, so it suited me that we were using something very simple! At that stage we didn’t really have the money to do much studio recording, and secondly, though we were thinking big with the songs, our main objective then was more to try and get gigs and festival slots.
Most of the tracks on that first record are really what most bands might refer to as ‘demos’, in the sense that they were never taken to a studio. But as we layered the songs up with the band, we were - to all intents and purposes - imagining that we were in an expensive studio, treating the songs as if they were going to be the finished article, and so that’s what they became. We mixed the majority of the songs straight off that machine in real-time with no automation… which is kind of ridiculous in hindsight, but it shows how steeped we were in achieving the right result for ourselves (and how technologically backward we were, but leave that on one side…).
So bearing that in mind, when a band like ours works with a producer for the first time, there is a fear of ending up with an album sounding too glossy or ‘over-produced’. More generally, without wishing to sound overly dramatic, you might worry about being somehow creatively neutered through having to ignore your own inner voice and obey someone else’s whims instead. You could end up thinking: “This isn’t what I set out to do!”.
But when we came to recording our third record (Bonxie), we just knew we had to shake things up a bit and add a bit of freshness to the mix, so we had our first proper experience with working with a producer, Gil Norton working alongside George Shilling as engineer. I think it’s fair to say Gil allayed many of those old fears. It was pretty eye-opening time for all of us and ended up being hugely productive (which is good given that he’s a producer) and far more time-efficient.
Before we even got to the studio, Gil had a copy of the songs in embryonic form, so he was listening in his car and on his ipod. He then turned up to our pre-production practice sessions in Oxford armed with a whole range of suggestions as to how we could improve certain aspects of the songs. A lot of the changes he suggested were structural, removing the flabby bits, trying a new part here or getting rid of a bridge there – small musical facelifts, if you will. Most of these kind of suggestions were things we would never have thought of, and in some instances felt pretty brutal, but in the end, we trusted his instinct and we felt that he made the right calls.
Studio conversations with a producer can often be oblique or circular when you’re talking about music, as you’re most often dealing in abstracts and moods; you’re collectively feeling your way in the dark towards your desired destination (as in, finishing a song!). It can lead to misapprehension or strange stand-offs. You might attach too much significance to fleeting musical details or reference points (maybe a drum pattern that reminds you of New Order or a bass line that was inspired by Tame Impala, or whatever), as in your mind they emblemize something of the deepest significance for you, but for someone else they might not be remotely important. So there was inevitably the odd artistic dispute about something or other, but if you consider Gil’s rock background and our eight-track origins, it would be pretty odd if we hadn’t clashed creatively at some point. He had an obsessive attention to detail on the drums and bass that was unprecedented for us (but which I think audibly paid off on the album), and a sense of humour that diffused any sense that we were actually doing any work at all.
Every band will have their own story – some car-crash collaborations, and some creative partnerships that endure. There’s obviously a purity to recording without a producer, in that you can follow your hare-brained musical scheme to its full conclusion without any outside influence, but I know that for us, we’ve made an album that we never would have been able to make without Gil at the helm. Having a producer increased the level of decisiveness and speed of productivity tenfold, which, dare I say it, allowed us to be musicians again. Jon Ouin @stornowayband
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