INTERVIEW

From thrash-pop “dickhead” to a new kind of British DIY producer

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Today, Rory Bratwell finds himself in a pretty unique position. It’s his day off, for a start – his first in three weeks – but more than that, in a less literal sense, the former Test-Icicle/RAT:ATT:AGG has quickly become a producer like no other. Recording 7”s, demos and the occasional album for friends and a glut of new young punk bands, he’s the missing link between press-n-play bedroom sessions and forking out the earth for James Ford’s bouffant to stare back at you over the mixing desk.

If it’s noisy, visceral, or in any way exciting, it’s most probably come out of Rory’s Palette Studio, which he now shares with the ever-illusive Tom Vek. Comanechi, Finally Punk, Male Bonding, An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump, Die! Die! Die!, Cold Pumas – they’re just the start of a list that also includes the atmospheric goth pop of S.C.U.M, Ipso Facto and R O M A N C E, and the sweet twee of bands like Veronica Falls and Koko Von Napoo.

They all go to Rory, because he’s one of them. His own band’s debut album, KASMs’ ‘Splayed’, which Bratwell self-produced, is most likely one of their favourite albums of the year. He’s a DIY musician with the same ideals and only a slightly heavier wallet, so who better to record your first Myspace demo or limited release with than a like-mind who, unlike Eno, won’t babble, “Try it again but this time play it invisibly” while picking your pocket?

L&Q: It’s your first day off in 3 weeks. So producing bands is harder work that being in one, then?
Rory: “Definitely. You don’t have to do any work when you’re in a band – it’s like a hobby. The only bands that moan about how hard it is are people that have never had to have a real job. Touring can be hard, but I’d never complain about it. It’s alright being in a band, although what I’m doing now is pretty good as well.”

This year, bands have been queuing up to be recorded by you. How do you sort them into ayes and nays?
“I don’t really turn much down. I mean, I would if I really didn’t like something, but 90 per cent of the time I really like it, so it’s stuff that I’d actually listen to at home. So I end up recording all of this stuff and get this massive resource of things I’d actually quite like to listen to, even though it’s a little bit weird listening to it after you’ve recorded it yourself.”

Do you listen back to your recordings a lot?
“Yeah, definitely. I don’t listen to my own music, but when it’s other peoples’ I’ve recorded it’s okay.”

So what about KASMs’ debut ‘Splayed’? That’s your music and your recording.
“I don’t like the production on that, really. I had to do it in a massive rush and I was playing the drums for a lot of the time. I had to do it in three evenings, so it didn’t really sound how I wanted it to sound, but that’s being extra particular because it’s our stuff.”

Did the rest of the band like it?
“I don’t think they care [laughs]. I think they think it’s alright. I was talking to Gemma the other day and she was saying she hasn’t listened to it since we made it. It’s like Scott Walker (not the Scott Walker in our band, the other Scott Walker) – it’s kind of like that – make a record and never listen to it again. We’re definitely ready to make another one and not listen to that though.”

I can imagine producing your own band is pretty stressful.
“Yeah, it was really bad. I wouldn’t say it was horrible but it was really stressful. When I usually record a band it’s chilled out most of the time – it’s quite a nice experience, we have a nice day, and it’s almost like a day out. But when it’s our band it was like a constant state of terror. Everything kept breaking, I was stressing out, which was stressing everybody out, neighbours were banging on the door, like, ‘Shut the fuck up!’…”

So has that put you off doing the next one yourself?
“I don’t know. The place I’m in now is a much nicer environment, and I think we’d have a lot more time to do it, so it might be alright. I might get someone else to mix it. Last time we had half a day to do that.”

And then you mastered it at Abbey Road…
“Gemma used to work there. I can’t remember what she did there – I think she compiled tapes and stuff for a couple of years – but she managed to get us 30 per cent off, so it only worked out a little bit more than going to a normal mastering place so we thought we would for the hell of it. It’s not as if any of us are massive Beatles fans, it’s just that it’s quite an important place, so let’s go and have a look. It’s pretty impressive, but what annoyed me was that every single corridor is lined with these amazing two-inch, four-track, reel-to-reel tape machines, and they’re not even using them, and I really want one of them. I need to think of a reason to go there again and sneak one out. You’ve got to share the wealth. We should do a sad charity appeal about it – all these producers can’t produce because they haven’t got the means, but give a man a 4-track tape machine and he’ll produce for life.”

How is recording an album different to recording odd tracks for 7”s?
“It’s kinda nicer in a way because you get the overall feel of what the band want to do. I haven’t recorded that many albums, it’s just starting to clock up now. It’s nice to spend a bit more time on what they want. People are more focused and serious when they’re doing an album. On a single they’re like, ‘Yeeeahhh, let’s make a fucking load of racket!’, which is also quite good in a way, so when making an album I like to maintain that spirit of a single, but at the same time make something a bit more grandiose, and more important sounding.”

How many bands have you recorded now?
“I have no idea. The list on my Myspace page is massively out of date. There’s about six times more records on there and three times as many bands. I reckon I’ve done about 50, maybe more. I dunno… I feel like a slut – I can’t remember, I’m at it all the time – different day, different band.”

Can you at least remember a session you’ve really enjoyed?
“It’s probably because I’m bias but I’ve really enjoyed recording people I’ve known for a long time and known lots of their bands in the past and I’ve recorded their new things and been quite overwhelmed with how good it is – like Male Bonding, Fair Ohs was fun… One of my favourites was doing the Cold Pumas stuff. The first recording I did for them was this song that was longer and slower, and it was deeply emotional [laughs]. I hope more of these bands I’ve done 7” with would want to do albums. I think the temptation is once a band get a bigger label and a bit of money they want to step it up a bit. Hopefully I won’t get discarded by my harem of bands.”

Surely you were the prime candidate for the Male Bonding album, but they’ve buggered off to America to do it.
“Yeah, I was going to do their record but I think they really wanted to go somewhere further away from East London, which I understand – I’ve made a record in France before for the same reason, but I remember thinking when I was there, ‘I could be anywhere – I’m just in a fucking studio.’ Still, it is nice to go away and do the whole thing – it’s like an experience. I was a little gutted about that, not majorly, but I really wanted to do it because I really like them. I really want to hear it too, because I think it’s nearly mixed. I’m going to have to twist their arm to hear it so I can then criticise it and say what I’d have done differently. ‘Lads, lads, lads, what have you done?!’.”

Producing or playing?
“I guess producing is more steady – I survive off it, and I get a regular output in as much as I always get a finished product at the end of the day. When you’re in a band and you make something you’re really proud of it’s almost on another level, but it doesn’t happen very often. Band’s are ultimately equally as frustrating as they are satisfying when it goes right. Production is nicer because it’s somewhere in the middle.”

Don’t you ever think, when producing some bands, ‘God, I wish I making this record and not recording it’?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I quite often get in there though. I do a lot of singing on records and weird bits – sneaky keyboard bits. Normally people ask me to do it and then they end up asking me to turn it down [laughs]. I normally get in there on the backing vocals, because most people in bands can’t sing, y’see, so I need to help them out. Me included, most people learn the guitar and then neglect the vocals, and no one ever wants to do the backing vocals, because you’re vulnerable. When you’re hiding behind a guitar or a massive wall of sound it’s fine, but when it’s just you in a room going, ‘la la la la laah’, you feel like a bit of a div.”

What makes a good producer?
“I wouldn’t say I ‘produce produce’; I record people, but I like to think that I have some valid input and an ear. At the same time I don’t want to be one of those people who pulls songs to pieces for the sake of it, because a lot of people will say, ‘no, no, you can’t do that’, change it all, even change the arrangement and some of the parts to the music just to prove something to themselves. There are a lot of producers that are going for a career – they get points on the album and are almost trying to claim song-writing credits. They’re trying to make a band into a massive pop band so they can get loads of money next time. It’s very slimy, and it’s not my kind of thing. I just offer good, honest advise from my years of being in a band.”

And what is the key lesson that you’ve learnt in those years?
“When I was in Test-Icicles, I wasn’t happy with a lot of things in that band, to be honest, and I learnt a lot of things about how I don’t want things to be. It was quite good as well because it was quite a big thing, and we had all of this bullshit factor with all these people doing different things and us all going, ‘What the fuck’s going on? Who is this person? Why are they doing that? I dunno’, and then afterwards it kinda all made sense but it was too late. So it’s good in a way that I have that experience because bands can ask me if an offer they’ve been given is good, and I’ll generally know, which is quite good. I have picked up a pretty good idea of how the music industry works. I know all the cheeky tricks.”

Do you ever regret splitting up Test-Icicles when you did?
“No. The only reason I would have ever carried that band on would have been for egotistical reasons – there was nothing creative or satisfying about that band. I learnt some things. I was always in total noisy, weird bands before that, and I taught myself how to write a song properly. That’s the only thing I’ll take from it, really. I’m definitely glad I did it, but I would never want to do it again. Never ever! I also don’t ever want to be in a situation where, if in twenty years time that becomes a weird cult band, I’d have to be wheeled out on my deathbed and re-enact what we were – three stupid kids jumping around like dickheads. If that ever happens, it’ll be my all-time low. In fact, you can count it as the all-time low of music, and in the encyclopaedia put a picture of me, aged 60, trying to shred with arthritis.”

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