Interview with STEPHEN STREET, producer for The Smiths, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs - Sep 27, 2005
“Bands don’t make money from touring - they lose money from touring a lot of the time,”
… says Stephen Street, producer for Blur, Cranberries, Morrissey and The Smiths (UK No.1) and more.
Read about his experiences during 25 years in the studio, his interest in working with up and coming artists, and what production tricks he has learnt over the years.
How did you start out as an engineer and producer?
I played in various different kinds of bands in the late seventies into the early part of the eighties - until about ‘81, ’82. I realised I wasn’t really getting as far as I would have liked to, as far as being a performing artist went. At the time I was very influenced by this new crop of producers who were coming up through the ranks, who were engineers applying themselves to producing records for these post-punk/new wave bands - Steve Lilywhite, Martin Rushent, Martin Hannett, those kind of people.
I was intrigued by what they were doing with their recordings. I’d always enjoyed the recording process - I’d had a lot of it when I was playing with bands – and I just thought, ‘right, I’d love to do this; I should try and learn to become an engineer so I can go on and be like Steve Lilywhite or whoever’.
I wrote to all the different recording studios, and of course I heard back from hardly any of them. But I did hear through word of mouth about a job going at Island Records. They’ve got a studio in a basement called the Fallout Shelter, which they were refurbishing at the time, and they were looking for a new assistant to put in there once they’d finished it.
I got on the phone straight away, managed to get hold of the manager, and talked him into giving me an interview. I went along, fortunately the interview went well, and they offered me a job. I became one of their in-house assistants, then an in-house engineer, and then I progressed from there. They were really good, they let me get my hands on the desk pretty quickly - I wasn’t just treated like a tea boy. I think they picked up on the fact that I’d had experience as a musician, so I wasn’t totally green behind the ears.
I just went straight into it, and fortunately for me, as it is in this business, I was in the right place at the right time, because one of the first gigs I had as one of the in-house engineers was engineering for The Smiths when they came in to do a session for ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’.
How did those Smiths sessions come about?
Well because Island had put this expensive new SSL desk in the studio they were looking to recoup the investment, so instead of being purely in-house they started looking to give the studio over to outside clients.
Geoff Travis [of Rough Trade] was one of those people who phoned up and said, “I’ve got this band, and I want to come and book a time for them”. So the studio manager said to me, “Oh I’ve got this band called The Smiths coming in over the weekend, would you like to engineer it?” And I jumped up and down, saying, “Yeah, of course I would!” I’d seen them just shortly beforehand on Top Of The Pops doing ‘This Charming Man’, and like most other people around that time who were into music I was really excited by them.
John Porter was producing them then; he came in with them, I engineered that session, and they took my name and number. I think my enthusiasm rubbed off on Johnny and Morrissey, because they got back to me – not straight away in fact, because the next single they did was ‘William It Was Really Nothing’, and they didn’t use me, so I kind of thought, “Oh well okay, that’s gone out the window …” But sure enough after that Geoff Travis phoned to say, “The guys want to do produce their next album themselves with you engineering, would you be interested?” So of course I jumped at the chance, and it was the proper start of a very long ongoing relationship.
Your latest huge success has been the Kaiser Chiefs album. Is it right that you heard about them whilst they were an unsigned act?
I first came across the Kaisers last summer when I went to see the Ordinary Boys play, who are another band who I’ve worked with. The Kaisers were supporting them, and I’d actually missed their set because I got there too late.
But after the gig the Ordinary Boys introduced me to Nick, the drummer, who promptly thrust a demo CD into my hand and said that they’d love to work with me. So I gave it a listen and thought there were some good tunes there. I called them and said, “It would be great to do something, let’s talk further after you’ve done the tour and everything, and perhaps when you’ve got some kind of label interest going.”
So how did you end up in the studio together?
At the time B-Unique, because they’d been going along to see the Ordinary Boys, had seen the Kaisers quite a few times, and they said, ‘look, let’s try and do something - let’s try a test session with Stephen and see how it goes.’
So I went into the studio with them, to the space I rent with my engineer colleague Cenzo Townsend at Olympic Studios; it’s a basement studio we call the Bunker. We took them there - it was just a week before Reading festival that year - and we did ‘I Predict A Riot’, which just took off, everyone went nuts for it.
And B-Unique were funding it at that stage?
Yeah - it was very low-key. I mean I did it for virtually nothing. The project just came together and it was interesting to see if it was going to work. We went to the studio and for whatever reason the chemistry just worked and we came out at the end with a big track that we were really chuffed with.
Do you find yourself doing that a lot these days, making contact with new unsigned bands after hearing demos?
Well I’ve never been one of those producers afraid of working with bands from their debut recordings or debut albums. I’ve just been working with another band called Boy Kill Boy who are just doing a single deal at the moment with Island, and who will hopefully going on to a bigger long term deal.
I like working with new and up and coming artists – it’s still what interests me. And fortunately in the current climate there are lots of bands around that are into the kind of thing that I like, whereas a few years ago it was pretty quiet, there wasn’t much going on.
Do you look to work with certain kinds of artists?
Well it’s mainly guitar-driven stuff. I like alternative rock pop stuff. It kind of goes back to my work with the Smiths and Blur and now the Kaisers. I guess it’s very British sounding - it isn’t American hard rock … I hate that kind of scream-singing, you know?
I mean, much as I appreciate the Foo Fighters, I find that kind of screaming type of singing really gets on my tits after a while. I prefer something with a bit of melody. So really when it comes to American rock it’s not the kind of thing I would elect to produce.
Today I’m in the process of mastering Graham Coxon’s new album, and that’s the perfect kind of record for me to work with - it’s the kind of thing I love.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Well there’s the Graham Coxon album. I’ve just done Boy Kill Boy, and a new single for a band called the Paddingtons, who are very good, a nice punk kind of outfit. I’m going to be starting work with the Zutons on their next album soon. And I’m hoping to get stuck into a new Kaisers album early next year, but it’s really early days yet - they’re going to need some time off after all this touring. I’m keeping busy. Can’t complain!
How do you go about finding the right sounds for artists you’re working with?
Well I don’t like to imprint my sound on what a band does. I always think of it as their recording, not mine. That’s the most important thing. And one rule that applies to one person might not necessarily apply to another.
As far as recording the bands goes, the way I tend to work from the start is I like to get everyone playing together - even though we might be interested in concentrating on getting a good drum sound or whatever – in order to capture the nuances of a performance. We have these guitar speaker simulators that we put in the band’s amplifiers, so the band can come in with their own gear and they’ve got their own amps that they know and trust and can get their sound through, and we disconnect the speakers and put them through speaker sims so we can capture the band with the drummer. Then we can get what we’re looking for, which most of the time is the drum take, but if we can capture a good bass take and a guitar take they can be used to.
Do you still record to tape?
I used to, but not any more, no. It’s either one of two formats for me these days - it’s either RADAR, which is something I’ve been using since the last Blur album I worked on - I did ‘Song 2’ with that - or Protools, which is everywhere nowadays. Protools does sound fine now, and I have to say it’s great for editing on.
What kinds of things are you doing now in the studio that you didn’t used to?
You know what, it differs... I think it follows fashion to a degree as well, I mean back in the 80’s reverb was being lashed onto everything and now over the last few years everything’s dried up again. I think as a producer you never stop learning; you always keep adjusting to tastes, and you react to what’s going on around you.
When the first Strokes album came out a few years ago it kind of laid down a template, a bit like the first Nirvana album; it was this record that sounded so different from everything else that it made everyone think about things… ‘maybe I don’t need to put all these effects over everything?’ ‘Perhaps we can really strip it right back down and not go for a huge snare drum all the time?’
So I’m just as influenced as anyone else is really by what’s going on. Obviously you try and lay down a little bit of your own style and not be too much of a follower of fashion, but I don’t think anyone as a producer would say they don’t get influenced by what they’re hearing on the radio, and what’s around them currently.
As far as stripped down productions go, do you think things have changed with the rise of home producing?
Yeah. When a band used to go in a studio it was easy for the engineer and the producer to kind of blind them with magic and science. Now bands come in the studio and they know how to use protocols as well as you do! You can’t impress them so easily anymore now. That’s a worrying thing – bands are able to do so much on their own in a rehearsal studio with their own Protools kit. Having said that, you can’t beat experience; the kind of experience that an engineer or producer can hopefully hand on down to the band.
But sometimes you can hit upon something when bands do their own bit of experimentation - they’ll find something and capture something that is special, and you don’t want to mess with it. There were some sounds on ‘I Predict a Riot’, these kinds of spooky bits of guitar sounds that the guys had captured in their demo, which had been done in Nick’s bedroom.
They’d just basically messed around with Whitey’s guitar pedal, and they were really good little sounds and things. So I said, ‘you know, rather than try and recreate these little bits and pieces, let’s just put them into Protools, move them around in the track, and put them in the right places. So the spooky guitar bits you hear in the background on that track I’ve taken from their demo. Why bother trying to recreate them?
As a musician yourself, have you ever got involved in the songwriting process?
Not too much, no. What I will suggest every now and then are slight changes to arrangements and dynamics; changes perhaps to an intro to make it snappier, or, if the band haven’t got an intro, I’ll suggest they need to work out a way of making the song kick in.
So sometimes there are little adjustments. Sometimes you’ll have a great band and they’ll have a great verse and a chorus, but they’ve not really thought about a middle eight. So you sort of have to say, ‘look, have you thought about changing to this chord’, or something like that.
But I would never turn around and say I want a bit of the songwriting or anything like that. It’s just a case of helping them along the way to find something that makes the song sound more dynamic and more accomplished.
Do you find that A&R/Management are becoming more involved in the production process than they used to be?
I don’t think any more or any less. It depends. For me I’ll be really happy with a mix until an A&R person comes in - as soon as someone comes in from an A&R department the mix will sound completely wrong! I think that’s paranoia - everyone suffers from that! But obviously if someone comes in and they’ve got something to say I’ll bear it in mind.
If I feel strongly about something or really disagree with them I’ll say so. But normally I find I can be quite adaptable and sometimes if someone suggests something it gives me the impulse to say, ‘okay right, fine, let’s try it’. Some managers can be very involved, others are very happy to just deal with the business side of things and leave everything up to you. After all, that’s why they’re hiring you in the first place
Is there anything about the music industry you would like to change?
The thing about people being able to download songs so easily for nothing does still worry me. Back in the 80’s if you heard about a band in the NME and they were causing a bit of a stir the only way you could get hold of them would be to go out and buy something, and even if you didn’t like everything they did you’d still buy a few cds and check out these bands.
At least those bands then were selling something. Now a lot of kids are just going to things like Limewire, plunging in the name of the latest band they’ve read about and listening to it. So potentially you’re losing a lot of sales. And bands are struggling to get enough sales on their first record for labels to keep them in contract.
I mean, I know sometimes people check stuff out and then they go out and buy it, but there are still a lot of people out there who are just downloading for nothing, thinking that bands make money from touring. Bands don’t make money from touring - they lose money from touring a lot of the time.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
I guess it was the year when Blur’s ‘Parklife’ and the first Cranberries album came out. I think they both spent the whole year in the charts, and it was just amazing. The kind of sales and attention you would only expect the likes of Tina Turner and Phil Collins to have were suddenly being experienced by the kinds of bands I was working with. And it happened very suddenly.
For whatever reason, an album can take on a life of its own - the Kaisers are having that now with their album. It’s just amazing to think it’s still in there, people are still going out and buying it and loving it. It’s nice to know. When you make a record you want it to be heard by people. Obviously the initial enjoyment is between yourself and the band, and you’re happy with that, but you need to think that somewhere along the line people out there are going to enjoy it too.
Where do you think you’ll be in five or ten years time?
Hopefully doing the same thing. If someone had told me twenty years ago when I was doing The Smiths that in twenty years time I would still be working with cool guitar bands and having albums in the charts, I’d have been very happy with that. So I’m just hoping I can keep it going.
Interviewed by Denny Hilton
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