Interview with TORE JOHANSSON, producer for Franz Ferdinand, The Cardigans - Feb 11, 2008
ďI didnít think that Franz Ferdinand were going to turn into the success they became. I didnít think it was particularly commercial.Ē
With a background as a musician and songwriter, Tore Johansson gained a huge amount of experience in his early career by playing in local bands as a guitarist/bass-player/singer/songwriter in MalmŲ in his native Sweden.
In the early '90s he founded Tambourine Studios where in 1994 he recorded The Cardigans' (Top 40 US) debut album. Since then he has gone on to produce all their hits and a total of six albums.
Tore's magic touch has since graced the celebrated eponymous debut album by Franz Ferdinand (No.1 UK), a platter that has sold more than four million copies world-wide, as well a veritable who's who of indie acts including Saint Etienne, Idlewild and Junior Senior.
Tore talks to HitQuarters about the details of creating his unique studio sound, about the ideal recording environment, and about being a control freak behind the mixing console!
How did you get into producing records?
I was and still am a musician, and there werenít any good studios around in MalmŲ, Sweden.
So my friends and me decided to build a studio for recording our own music, then I started to record other bands here and ended up as an engineer /producer. It wasnít something I had planned.
How did you learn the technical skills?
It was trial and error. We didnít really know what we were doing. We read a little bit about the classic recordings from the Ď60s and Ď70s in magazine articles, but there wasnít as much literature at that time like there is now.
The whole thing was kind of a reaction against the whole Ď80s and Ď90s way of recording music, which we thought was bad. We liked the way old records sounded and wanted to find out how they did it.
Was there any major thing that pushed you forward?
Yeah, definitely the success of The Cardigans. There were a couple of artists I produced before that, that were successful in Sweden and Japan. After The Cardigans there was huge interest in Japan.
Many Japanese artists came to Sweden because everything Scandinavian was so extremely hip. It was quite a strange and amazing period for a couple of years, where I had 2-3 Japanese acts coming over each year to record here.
Why did you move then to the UK?
There was a period of time where I got bored with just recording bands in the studio. So I stopped that and my wife and I wanted to get away from Scandinavia. It just happened to be the UK. For a couple of years I didnít really record anything.
I was sitting at home with Pro-Tools and did some backing tracks and some songwriting for other artists. It was pretty commercial music - I did a couple of songs with Mel C and some co-writing sessions.
It is good fun, but the competition in that field is tremendous. There are so many people writing good stuff. It wasnít until I was approached by Franz Ferdinand that I got back into recording bands again.
How did that connection come up in the first place?
I think it was everybody, the label, the artists, the manager, and people around that had my name on their shortlist and I have a manager in London who always tries to convince me to work. When I met Franz Ferdinand in London, we just got along very well and we talked about the same things.
It felt very refreshing, but I didnít think at all that it was going to turn into the success that it became. I didnít think it was particularly commercial music. I thought it was amazing that radio started to play the songs, especially in America.
How did it come about that you signed up with Steven Buddís producer management in London?
He approached me many years ago when I first had a success with The Cardigans. First, I thought, I donít need a manager or an agent. I started to work with him because when I moved to England I wanted to do more writing than producing. He helped me with getting in contact with labels and artists and so on, and I kept him since then.
Do you think itís important for an upcoming producer to have a management?
You donít really need a manager as a producer. You need more of an agent just to get the jobs once or twice a year. I mean its really practical sometimes because they take care of all the financial business, contract dealing and you get better deals with lawyers (if itís a bigger management firm) and they take care of collecting the money from strange parts of the world.
A band really needs the hands of a manager. Even if Iím on maybe one of the biggest producer management companies in the world, itís not always good to be on a big management roster because Iím depending on him putting me as a priority.
So when he is going along to find jobs for his producers, he actually has 10 or 20 producers that he is going to sell, you have to be on his shortlist.
Are you on his shortlist?
I donít know, to me itís not so important because I have quite a special profile as a producer. I have a special sound, so if a record company or artist wants the sound I do, there is not that much competition.
Why did you leave the UK?
I feel very Scandinavian, very Swedish and I just wanted to get back. I feel more at home here. It is a bit of a problem for me because I donít really like to work anywhere else than here in Scandinavia and that kind of limits my options. For new bands itís not a problem, they think its exotic and fun to go somewhere else.
But if I get an offer to produce somewhere else for major artists itís normally up to them where its going to be recorded. I have been offered to record bigger bands but it involved spending periods of several months in America, and I just said no because Iím a bit too comfortable at home.
Itís a combination of people and studios around here that exactly know what I want, so I can deliver. Somewhere else, I donít know how the room and the equipment will sound and then itís also that I donít want to stay away from my family for a longer period.
What does the actual process of recording a band entail, from meeting them to the finished record?
The most important thing is to try to figure out who they are and what they want. What kind of music world do they live in, and what kind of frames are fitting.
You can do anything in the studio, itís so easy to make it sound anyway you want, so it's good to find out: What kind of production? What instruments are they going to use? How much band feel do you want from it? How many overdubs or studio feel do you want from it? Otherwise you lose a lot of time in the studio if you immediately start working and try out different things.
What comes next?
The next stage is trying out something. It doesnít matter if you sit down for three months talking about it. Normally we do a try-out thing for five days, where we record two songs and just get the feel of if we can work together and if what we are doing sounds good.
Nowadays I try to avoid working too long periods. After 10 days I seem to stop feeling anything. I try to plan three 10-day sessions and have two weeks free in between. Not only to get a rest, but also to get a distance from the music. When you get back, itís much easier to know where you are, what you want, and how it sounds.
What does the actual session look like?
If we have the plan with the three 10-day sessions, you start with working on all of the songs in the first two sessions so that the third session is for overdubs, fixing, and making sure that everything sounds good.
I tend to work with starting up three to four songs at a time, so you can jump between the songs. I donít like working with just one song. I think when you have worked with a song for half a day, or a day, then you are so fed up with that song that you want to do something else.
After three 10-day sessions, I normally take a break and get back to mixing. Thatís a thing I always do. I always mix. Even if the record company says they want someone else to mix, I will mix myself anyway and give that as an option for them. Iím kind of a control freak so it feels very strange to me to leave my productions to someone else to mix.
How do you handle a situation when the band wants to get involved in the mixing?
Itís pretty fast to get a mix up that shows the idea of the mix. Then you show it to the band and if the band agrees to go that direction then I will sit down and work on it. It takes many hours of work to get that extra magic in the mix.
That I do on my own. Normally we donít meet up that much. Maybe just once. Normally itís just sending MP3ís around the world, so that everybody can listen to it and come back with comments.
So you donít have the people around watching over your shoulder?
No, for me thatís not really an option. To me, itís important to listen to people, get the information, for example, what they want, what they feel. From then on I take that information and create my own vision and work on that.
Every time I have tried to please someone or thought about how people will like it and listen to it, it ends up being compromised and not turning out as good. If I do it myself, It's maybe not to everybodyís taste, but it doesnít sound like a compromise.
I rather have somebody else mix it in his or her vision. Itís hard to deal with detail comments like ĎI want the guitar louderí because everything is depending on everything. I rather have people saying: ĎI donít think the feel of the mix is aggressive enoughí.
If you compare the recordings you did with The Cardigans and with Franz Ferdinand, what where the differences?
The Cardigans are very much a studio band. When they come to the studio they havenít played the songs live before. We start from scratch in the studio and make the arrangements. Normally itís an old school situation where we record the drums first and then add the guitars and so on.
With Franz Ferdinand it was different because they had played their songs live and had a good idea of the whole direction. It was more about setting up a good recording environment situation and getting it on tape more or less live.
To what extent do you involve yourself in the song writing, while in the studio with a band?
Thatís different from case to case. With The Cardigans I was very much involved in creating the sound and what everybody was playing. With Franz Ferdinand it is a good example for the other way around. They came in with very good ideas and I didnít feel I wanted to change very much.
How much editing do you do on the tracks? Are you chopping everything up and putting it into a grid for example?
It depends on the song. Some songs work best if itís metric and perfect in time, and some songs just lose everything if you make them too tight, especially if you have certain rhythmic patterns that are not totally metric.
Iím not working so much with metric music. I rarely use click track. I believe that people play better without a click track. Sometimes I take a song that is played without click in the post-production and grid it totally so you get the metric feel afterwards.
Even if you are compiling tracks from many takes and taking parts from different sessions, there are normally surprisingly very little problems with tempo changes.
You can do so much with software nowadays that itís not necessary to bring in the bass player again if there is a wrong note in the bass line. You can pitch and time-stretch things. Iím also a musician myself so if there is some detail missing I can do it myself.
How important is old school equipment like tape machines, Neve desk etc. for contemporary recording?
For me itís important to use Ď70s mic pre amps and compressors to get that kind of sound before I put it in Pro-Tools.
Donít you think thatís possible with amp simulation digital compressors?
Itís getting better and better. The amp simulations are pretty good. I deliberately record guitar amps a little bit cleaner than I want it, in order to be able to put some more distortion in the mix later on. Because sometimes I feel like thatís the best distortion you can get from a guitar: real amplifier distortion first and then add more distortion in Pro-Tools.
The only thing that still doesnít work at all is tape compression. There is no plug-in that sounds good. Otherwise I think Equalizers and compressors sound really good nowadays in Pro-Tools. But I use tape very little. The only situation where I use the tape machine is for doing disco drums.
If you want the really fat, meaty disco sound there is nothing that is better than tape. I record it in Pro-Tools first, decide on the take we use and then put all the single tracks on tape. Otherwise it would be too messy to record 50 or one 100 takes of the same song with a band first on tape.
If you do the set up for a drum recording, what is important?
There are two major things: you must have drums that sound good in a room that sounds good. Everything else is compromising. Putting up microphones and the equipment is not that important.
When I said itís important for me to use old Ď70s equipment itís not really true because for me room and instrument sound is so important. Great recording equipment is just a little bit of luxury that you add.
Do you use more really dead rooms and room simulation?
No, I normally work with real reverbs and that also limits me in what kind of studios I can work in. I want big rooms. I want a room were you can record the whole band and where the sounds bleed between the mics that you hear the bass and the guitar in the drum mics etc.
And where it doesnít sound like a rehearsal space. Normally I use a lot of room mics that I use in different spots in the room. I work a lot with the balance of the instruments in a room. I try to get the guitar players to play on smaller amps so they are not so loud, because thatís normally the biggest problem. If you put up a big Marshal amp itís too loud for the room mike because you donít really hear the drums.
What do you do with the vocals?
Normally I record the vocals as overdubs. In some situations I record the vocals live but then you need a really good actual singer, not a singer in a rock íní roll bandÖBut the singer has to be in another room especially when itís not shouted vocals.
If you record in the room and have shouting vocals normally you just take normal PA mics or the Sennheiser 421ís, which I like. We did two or three songs with Franz Ferdinand recording the vocals in the room.
Does everybody wear headphones with you giving them an individual mix?
If itís possible to record without headphones I will go with that. But normally itís not possible because the drummer doesnít hear the guitars or something like that. Iím not so fond of that the musicians have their own mixer for the headphone mix.
Because normally they donít know what they want. I rather have everybody have the same mix so I can control what people are hearing in the headphones. I believe in having a good mix of all the instruments in the headphones. Itís not so easy for a musician if he is standing in the room.
Do you trigger drums afterwards?
Not really. Sometimes I manually edit it, change the sound, and put something on top of the drums. I use Protocols almost like an analogue studio. I never use midi or software instruments or triggers.
Do you use reference CDs?
Sometimes I listen to something to see that Iím not totally off track. But there is a risk with using reference because sometimes you start to change your mix and suddenly the mix is no good anymore because it doesnít fit to that particular song. I think itís better to live in your own world and make the best out of the situation you have.
When the record company asks you for the single tracks because they want somebody else to mix it, do you give them the files with all the plug-in's you used?
Normally they donít want the plug-in's. They just want the files so you just consolidate long files of each track of the whole song and put them on a server and they download it. Normally other people want to start from scratch and do a new mix.
Is there any advice you can give upcoming producer if they want to get in the market?
My career has been very lucky because I had a big hit at the start with a special sound.
People want me because of my sound identity. Iím really bad at giving advice because my whole career was just a fluke. Whoops! I had a careerÖI wasnít trying to become a producer. It just happened. Right place, right time.
Thereís so much competition, but a very exciting time with all the changes in the music business, all the formats, Myspace and Youtube. Itís a kind of an underground revolution. Itís hard to make a living out of it.
The best advice I can give is, have fun, use the music for having fun, and not try to make it a career. If you are having fun and only do what you believe in then maybe it will work out as a career because you are doing something that is real.
What music are you listening to at home?
Itís a problem, when you work with music you donít really feel like listening to music that much. Sometimes I listen to something that is quite far away from what I work with.
I donít listen to Cardigans or Franz Ferdinandís kind of pop music. I tend to listen more to singers, vocal music. Something like Regina Spector. I find it very relaxing to listen to somebody who has that kind of voice. Itís so comfortable to listen to a great singer.
Do you actually go out and look for bands?
No, normally people come to me. Most of the time through my agent. I donít really look for music now.
If a band thinks you could be the right person for their sound would you mind if they send you a demo?
I listen to everything. I check everything out. Especially when it is local. Itís always nice to do something with local people. I wouldnít mind producing something on my own without a label if I found it and have some plans for it.
Iím just putting up my own place in MalmŲ, which will be some kind of luxury rehearsal space where it will be possible to record as well. So itís possible for me to record something without major big budgets. To do something more for fun or that you just like.
If I could choose the directions of artists I want to work with in the future I think its less pop bands and more singer-songwriters where I can be more involved in the songwriting and playing process as a musician. It has to be special and original. If something like Regina Spector would send something to me I would take her on immediately without any budget.
If I hear something that has that kind of talent, I would go for it. Something that is not the normal guitar rock/pop band. The problem of being a musician and having ended up as a producer is that you build up quite a lot of frustration because you just sit and listen to other people playing all day. Itís nice if you can get more hands on the instruments.
Last winter we did this Nicole Atkins (on Columbia, USA) album where my friends and me played most of the instruments. We had a great time, did orchestral stuff, Ď50s and Ď60s kind of orchestrating with strings and loads of horns, pianos and keyboards.
Which artist are you working with at the moment?
Iím working with an English band called Wild Beasts. They are actually from the same label (Domino) as Franz Ferdinand.
Itís an English guitar pop/rock band with the standard set up guitar, drums and bass but they use harmonies that you donít expect, like from the Ď20s or Ď30s. The singer sings with a special mix of falsetto and chest voice.
Do you go out and watch a band live before you agree to record them?
Yes, because it gives you something that you cannot get from hearing demos.
How much does a production cost at your place?
It depends on where the artists come from, how much time we got. If you have a big American act you can probably have a budget of 100,000 Pounds and if you do an English act maybe half of that and a Scandinavian act maybe a quarter of that.
Do you agree on a fix amount of money and deliver a finished record?
Yeah, itís my responsibility to deliver a product in that kind of budget.
How do you think the role of a producer will change in the future considering that nowadays you can make a finished record in your bedroom?
I donít think it will change very much for producers. I think there will always be a situation where people need a producer. But itís true that if you are nineteen years old and start a band nowadays you know so much more about the music industry and how to make a hit record then what people did in the Ď70s. Itís a huge difference.
What do you think about that albums getting less and less important because people just download single songs on iTunes?
I donít see anything bad about it. Why is the album format so fantastic? Iím fine with all the changes and it seems like itís good for the live music scene. It seems that all the people want to go out and see things live.
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath
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