Interview with KEN NELSON, producer for Coldplay (UK No.1), Badly Drawn Boy, Kings Of Convenience - Nov 13, 2000
ďItís important the band have their say. I think the problem with Coldplayís original producer was they felt they were making his album and not their own.Ē
Ken Nelson is the producer of Coldplay, one of the best selling debut pop/rock acts this year in the UK. They scored a No.1 with the album "Parachutes", which has sold platinum. He has also produced known bands such as Gomez and Badly Drawn Boy.
At what point did you realise that you could be a professional producer?
Iíd been a sound engineer from 1986, and I just thought that I could really do this. I just needed more and more experience as an engineer.
But from very early on I always had the plan, because even when I was in a band I would try my hand at producing. And I had people to look up to - Gil Norton, for example, a very well established producer whoís worked with Echo and the Bunnymen, the Pixies, Terrorvision etc., whom Iíve known from the early days when he was also a sound engineer. So with him getting on in the world, I thought I could have a go.
How do you find production jobs?
At the moment, theyíre coming to me, ever since I worked with Gomez. Coldplay, for example, sent me some stuff theyíd recorded - a package of previous singles that Dan Keeling, their A&R at Parlophone, had put together. Theyíd already worked with a producer but that didnít go according to plan. So they were looking for someone else, and we just got on really well.
What are you currently working on and how were you approached by these acts?
At the moment, Iím unemployed! But at the end of this week I am going down to London to meet some A&Rs, managers and bands. These meetings usually come up as a result of demos that people have sent me. Some of these I havenít liked, so I havenít gone any further with.
If I donít like the songs, or I donít feel that I can add anything to them, I don't do it. My main criteria when picking anybody is "would I go out and buy this?". Obviously, you have to be able to see through the fact that they are only demos, assess whether the song is strong enough, if the singing is good; can they play? Basically, I listen to the songs - I used to be a songwriter, but I donít bother so much now - and if I recognise quality then Iíll let Pete, my manager, know, and heíll take it from there.
What merits do you have that made them choose to work with you?
I think my main strength is that I get on with people. And the fact that Iíd worked with Gomez. Also, there was a small interview which Iíd done for Music Week in which I stated that I didnít really like to lead the way, Iíd rather co-produce. Most of my work have actually been co-productions, and I think thatís really important as most of the bands that Iíve worked with, such as Gomez and Badly Drawn Boy, all know what they want.
Itís important the band have their say. I think the problem with Coldplayís original producer [Chris Allison] was they felt they were making his album and not their own.
How was the procedure with regards to meeting the band, listening to the songs?
Basically, I went down to meet them at their rehearsal room, spent the afternoon with them and we listened to some songs. They asked me how I would go about different things and I told them about the ideas that Iíd had after listening to the CD theyíd sent and the new songs theyíd played me. They asked me back for another meeting, so I went down to London for it, and a few days after that they offered me the job.
In what ways does your management help you?
Itís fantastic for when youíre working out your fees, because Iím awful at that! Up until Gomezís second album, I didnít have anyone looking out for me and I was doing it all myself, which became a bit of a nightmare.
The other angle is general organisation, going through contracts Ö As a producer, I sign pretty much the same contract as the band signs, and Pete just checks that itís alright for me to sign - I wouldnít know anything about that, so heís great on that score.
What sources are the best for you to get "educated" and develop as a producer?
Well, Iíve worked at Parr Street Studios for a number of years, and a lot of the people whoíve passed through there are really talented, and so we chatted and threw around ideas etc. Mike Kontor, Mike Phythian Ö so just talking to people really. I also read any audio-related magazine that come my way.
Do you believe that becoming a successful producer is due to mostly hard work or talent?
I would probably say talent. You have to put the work in, of course - Iíve been working towards this success that Iíve got now for 15 years. Itís been a hard slog financially.
How does a producer make money, how much does one get?
Youíre given an advance on royalties, half before the studio sessions, and half afterwards. Then you receive royalties twice a year, if the record sells well and goes beyond those royalties youíve already received.
Itís fairly well paid. For the first 12 years I worked as an in-house engineer, and that was pretty poorly paid. Iíve always been self-employed, so often you donít know where the next pay cheque will be coming from. Itís been a hard slog, but Iíve had a lot of support from my partner, and now I'm earning a decent wage.
Do you use the Internet for work purposes?
No, I canít say I use it much at all. Sometimes, Pete and I will go through a few things on the Internet at his office, but Iím not connected at home, so generally no.
Which part of the industry do you correspond with most often?
My first point of call at the record company is the bandís A&R. Pete obviously deals with the business side of things - I donít have much to do with that. The A&Rs Iíve dealt with have all been great, fairly inexperienced sometimes Ö
In what way?
Like Dan Keeling, heís more experienced now, obviously, but Coldplay were his first big signing. He was great all the way through even though I think he was panicking at one stage during the recording because it was taking a long time. We got it done in about five months actual time, although in terms of actual recording time it was probably 9-10 weeks, because the band did a couple of tours in between. I still get on with Dan now, and itís nice that you can still talk to these people at the end.
What is your average day like, how is your time spent?
Generally I meet the band about 11 in the morning - bands donít tend to get up that early, although I do because Iíve got kids. So I leave for work about 11, although it depends where I am - with Coldplay, we were in Rockfield, South Wales - and we would record from about 12 midday through till midnight, although sometimes it would go on until the early hours.
I tend to make it up as I go along as I have to see what the band wants and how theyíre feeling. Obviously you canít ask a singer to sing when he doesnít feel like singing - he wonít be able to put in what he needs to put in. A lot of the time you donít know what youíre going to do. You know what needs to be done, so youíll have some sort of list, and tick things off as you go along. I have to be adaptable.
In the studio, is it important that you have the last word in order to get a production done well?
I believe in a democracy in most situations, and in the studio itís quite important that the band feel that they have a say. If thereís a quiet member of the group what I do tend to do is try to get it so that everyone hears their viewpoint as well. I donít like it when one member of the band is too powerful. Itís quite a difficult situation to direct, so if disagreements do come up then we'll generally vote on it.
How many songs do you receive from unsigned acts per week?
A couple of CDs a week, with say, 2 or 3 tracks on them each. I did recently receive one with 9 tracks on it, which is a bit much to be honest. But then you have to listen to them all because there might be a real gem there. Thatís fine, because I can only really do, at the very most, 3 or 4 albums per year and remain healthy and have a social life!
If you were to receive a demo which was really good, what would you do?
I would let Pete know and he would contact the A&R person whoís looking after them.
Do you think that unsigned bands are using producers too little or too much as a means to get a record deal?
As far as I know, and from being in a band myself, you probably wouldnít be able to afford to get a producer without having a record deal, so in my case it would probably be on the basis that if they do get a record deal then Iíll get the job. Thatís quite a tricky situation because then the A&R can say, ďOh no, I donít want you to work with him, I want X producer.Ē
Since my production career started, Iíve not worked with anyone unsigned although, having said that, there was a plan to work with a band from Dublin. The A&R who was interested in them wanted me to do the job. He thought it would impress his boss, I think, but that actually never came off.
Do you consider unsigned bands to have a good general knowledge on how to approach the business?
Most bands now, through magazines especially, have a pretty good idea of how to go about recording, so theyíre full of suggestions. With regards to the business side, I donít really know.
Most bands that Iíve worked with have been recording their first albumand theyíve generally known what direction they were going in. A lot of the bands Iíve worked with have band members who are really talented producers in their own right and I like it that way in that they have ideas and know what they want.
What have been your latest discoveries in the studio that have made your sound and productions improve?
I think youíre learning all the time. I mean this last album I worked on by Kings Of Convenience was interesting because they only had two guitars and two voices, so it was quite tricky.
They didnít even have a bass and wanted to provide the bass from the instruments. They had a nylon-string guitar and a steel-string guitar and we basically used the nylon strings to play the deeper notes, with a picking style. It didnít sound like a bass but it did add warmth to the sound.
How much does expensive equipment play a part in showing your skills as a producer and presenting yourself?
The most expensive equipment I use are the microphones. Iím considering investing in some hard disk recording system, although I donít know which one yet - perhaps ProTools. Iíd like to try the Atari Radar system too.
From what Iíve seen this is the way itís all going to go. Although I do like recording on to analogue tape, the convenience for editing of these systems is fantastic.
What knowledge became obvious to you once you had become a professional that you hadnít considered before?
What I have learnt - especially since working with Coldplay - is that itís very, very difficult to engineer and produce at the same time. It was actually a great relief that someone else mixed their album. But during the first month of recording especially, the group dynamics themselves were quite hard to manage, so having to do the engineering as well I found I was wearing two or three different Ďhatsí at the same time. Needless to say, the learning curve was very, very steep. I learnt a lot of valuable lessons in that first month, which I will take with me to the next recordings.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material?
In terms of format, they should always provide CDs, just because their quality is more consistent. Tapes can sound different depending on which stereo you play them on. Keep it to three or four tracks, and when you youíre arranging the songs try to keep it quite concise. If the feeling of the song can be put across in 3 minutes, donít make it any longer, and donít include any self-indulgent bits. Also, let other people hear it before you send it off, or even before you mix it, to get an objective viewpoint.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
All I would say is that Iím grateful for small indie labels. They should be helped and supported. From my point of view they generally come up with the more interesting stuff, whereas majors just go for the safest bet. Parlophone did a great job in picking up Coldplay, who were on a small indie label, because some of their best songs were written after the deal.
ĎYellowí, for example, was written during the recording sessions for the album, so Dan Keeling really took a risk in signing them.
The way the record industry is going is quite sad. No.1 in the UK this week is the cover of the A-ha song, ĎTake On Meí, by A1. Itís actually a great version, but then itís a great song, so they couldnít really go wrong with it. I like to hear original songs, and I just wish the majors would put more money into new bands that can write songs, and not just look good and dance around a bit.
What is your attitude to MP3s, Napster, the lawsuits and the future of digital downloads etc.?
Iím not sure about all this actually, I donít know if it does any harm. Coldplayís album was actually on Napster before it was out in the shops. If hundreds of thousands of people are downloading it, I suppose it is going to have a massive effect - the band wonít get paid, I wonít get paid, the record company wonít get paid, although it will still be successful.
I think some people may have downloaded Coldplayís album, but theyíve possibly gone out and bought it as well, because you want the whole package, donít you - the lyrics, all the information, such as who sang what, who played what, where it was recorded. I donít think itís that much of a problem, as real fans will buy the album from the shops.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
July 16th 2000, when Coldplayís album went to No.1 in the UK. The other one has to be when Gomezís first album won the Mercury Prize - that did me a lot of good.
Interviewed by Luci Vazquez
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