How long have you been in this space? You were in Brixton before. It feels so anomalous, that this space should exist so secretly in the middle of Streatham.
About ten years, twelve years. Quite a while. I’m really happy with it at the moment. I periodically move stuff around and redesign it. Up until about a year ago it was really weird, there was a big table coming out here which sort of cut the room in half [he gestures the shape of a rectangle in front of the swivel chair he’s sitting back on]. It felt a bit more claustrophobic, almost like I was hiding in this cave with all this gear really high up around me. You couldn’t see over anything; it was kind of cool. But then I thought this year to change it around so that everyone is kind of in the same space all the time.
In most photographs you see from sessions of bands recording in bigger studios, you kind of get used to seeing the musicians hiding behind this darkened mirror, and everything completely separated off.
Yeah, I hate that. I hate it. I’ve always felt really uncomfortable on either side of that glass. You know, if I’m playing and talking to someone, someone else will think you’re talking to them and you can’t hear them. It’s so unconducive to playing, whereas I think if everyone’s experiencing the same thing, it’s good.
Does it ever get a bit crowded? Some of the artists you’re recording have quite a full set-up. How is it having everyone active in the same space?
Yeah, it’s brilliant. It’s not too small if you think about it, you know, the most you’re likely to have is someone on drums, bass, maybe a guitar there and another guitar there [he gets up, imagining the next band to inhabit the space], maybe some keys there or there, and then I’m here. Then Lex, the engineer, sometimes he’s in here, or if we’re recording on tape he’ll be out in the back room. It’s never crowded. I mean, it is crowded, but in a fun way.
When I first met Fontaines D.C., it was really funny – they really wanted me to do their record and I came to see them, got on with them really well and was like “yeah, let’s go.” But they really wanted to do it in a big studio. I was like “no, I really think you should do it at mine” and they were like “no, we really want to do it somewhere big.” I’ve got all my gear here, so it takes ages to move it out, and I was saying to them “just come round and have a look – it’s quite big, you know.” Anyway, they came round and were like “oh my god, yeah, this is amazing” and we did it here and it was fine. After I finished it I asked them why they were so keen to do it somewhere else, and they said that they’d seen a picture of it – I think it might have been on the Speedy Wunderground website, where I’d purposefully put everything on the floor in the middle of the room just to make it look kind of chaotic for a joke. But they didn’t think they’d have anywhere to stand. Maybe I need to get an estate agent round.
What was it like when you first heard Dogrel?
Even from a few seconds of watching them on video, you could just see that this is a fucking cool band. I just loved it straight away. I went and saw them at the Five Bells, and yeah I couldn’t believe it. It was so confrontational, slightly frightening, and then I met them afterwards and I think we pretty much decided we wanted to work together in one conversation. They wanted to get the energy into the record that their live performances had. I suggested to them that the feeling of power from watching the live show is partly volume, but also that it’s unstoppable, you can’t go back and do bits again. There’s tension there.
Normally if you’re recording, you can track everything separately – put drums down, put bass down – that gives you so much room to go in and it’s harder to get a connection between everything. The next step is to record it all together as a band. It’s a trade off because someone might make a mistake, you might have to do it again. But then just to extend that whole thought, we said why don’t we divide the record into chunks. We’ll record four songs to tape, and if there’s a mistake in the third we’ll just start over and wipe the tape.
How many times did you have to wipe the tape?
Not very many. I think only once or twice. Because obviously to make that work you need to be well rehearsed. I didn’t want to do the vocals live, I really saw his lyrics as something that needed to be separated from the music. I wanted it to sound like the band playing live at full level, really hard and loud, but the vocal was almost like someone – say, you’re watching the band there, and then someone’s next to you whispering in your ear.
It meant that they had to learn the songs instrumentally without there being a guide vocal or anything. That sounds easy, but so many of the songs have these long bits of groove just repeating. I went out to Dublin to their rehearsal room to have a listen halfway through, and yeah, I couldn’t believe that they had it down so perfectly. When they came here they were so well practiced, so we added in a few new pedals and amps and guitars to inject it with a bit of confusion again. We connected together their guitar outputs and put them through a separate amp that was like a sixth member of the band just kind of going crazy in the corner. There was enough unexpected stuff happening that it never felt over-practiced.
Grian Chatten’s quite a percussive vocalist as well, it’s an interesting idea to make the band unlearn his pace. You watch them live and they’ll catch up with him, or slow down, based on his delivery. I guess it’s similar with Sinead O’Brien, who you’ve also recorded this year.
We actually tried something really strange on that – it was an experiment, it didn’t work actually but it’s an indication of what we were trying to do – we recorded the instrumental and then we recorded her doing the vocals, so in her headphones she could hear the instrumental, but then I faded it down so she couldn’t hear anything, and it was just free time. That was something we did with Kate Tempest and Rick Rubin. Rick had been trying get us to break the rhythmic connection between the music and the lyrics so that the lyric would work on its own time and not have to be locked into the music. It took us four years to work out what he meant. He never just said “don’t rap to the beat.” I thought a similar thing might work for Sinead, but I think it’s quite good practice to train your brain that the lyrics don’t have to be bossed around by the music.