Youth is 2016 Music Producers Guild (MPG) Award winner of the PPL Outstanding Contribution to UK Music. He was interviewed by PPL following the MPG awards ceremony.
PPL collects royalties on your behalf when your tracks are played in the UK and internationally; do you think organisations like PPL are important and why?
PPL has saved my life at times because you just don’t know what’s coming. So much of my professional life has been living bill to bill, hand to mouth, as for many producers, and even when you’ve had a few hits they don’t always come when you want them - you have to find ways of surviving. PPL pop up when you least expect it and suddenly there is a cheque there that can pay your gas bill and pay for the boiler being fixed. They always come just when you need it. I think it’s great that we get a little bit of that back, it’s fantastic.
PPL also pays the session musicians and backing vocalists on a recording; do you think artists and producers know enough about their music rights and what they’re legally entitled to?
Producers, musicians, engineers, aren’t that aware. The Musicians Union let you know a bit but more than often you don't know and very often the managers don't either, it might be 20 years before you do. I only joined PPL 10 years ago, not being aware of what they were really doing and that there were royalties you could collect from performing or producing on records as a musician. I was completely ignorant as many producers are because we don't want to be dealing with it; we just want to be in the creative zone all day. I'm not sure what the solution is to that but certainly raising awareness is a good way.
How does it feel to win an MPG Award?
Winning an MPG Award, especially this one, it’s massive, a huge honour – probably the biggest I’ve ever been given. There are so many amazing producers out there who have done so much significant, classic work; I’m very humbled that I’ve been chosen by them for this award, I’m blown away.
It’s taken me so long to feel like I’m an authentic producer because I left school at 15 and joined a band. To have that approval and acknowledgement from your peers means so much. I’m proud of all the artists I’ve worked with and it’s somewhat honouring what they have done as well, all of the great music we've made together. It’s a massive thing.
As a producer, what are your views on the MPG and what role do you think it should play?
It’s an amazing thing because it's the producers who make the records, albeit for the artists but they are the ones on the frontline actually making the records. They often aren't given the acknowledgement or credit for the amount of work they do. The majority of what they do is unseen and they're in the darkness hugging the spotlight, which is firmly on the artists as it should be and most producers are very happy about that. To get respect and acknowledgement for what you do is always a good thing, the MPG does that, it’s a great thing they do. In times where we've gone through changes in the last 5-10 years and with more changes to come, having a body that can be in the corner for producers is a great thing. The awards go beyond that; it goes into honouring and acknowledging all the engineers, A&R, management and all of the roles that surround the whole process of making a record.
Is it important to you to be part of a community of recording professionals – do you see strength in numbers?
It’s great seeing a room full of producers and engineers all taking a few hours out of the studio, which can’t be easy; meeting each other and being able to discuss what we do. For a long time I would never meet another producer unless they were producing me; producers very rarely know how other producers work. Community is a very big part of making music and always has been. For an organisation to facilitate that community is very important, producers are very solitary, cave-like people. The funny thing is, all producers are control freaks, so the idea that they have to join a community implies that they’re going to lose part of their individuality, and there is always a dynamic about that. Everyone who works within music realises that to have a community working specifically for their interest and what they do is a reassuring thing as there aren't many safety nets out there.
What advice would you give to new and upcoming British producers and artists that are just starting out in the business?
The advice I’d give to young people who see themselves as producers is very simple – work hard. It’s going to take so much commitment and sacrifice to get anywhere. You’re going to have to make a lot of mistakes. You've got to get all that out of the way and the only way you can do that is to work hard. Nevertheless, at the same time, you need to develop your visionary perception and you need to be visionary as a producer and to understand other people’s vision. It’s very important to get out of the studio and to find inspiration in other arts, theatre, movies and life experiences because you need to bring something to the party when producing. A lot of that inspiration will come while you are working in your studio but most of it will come from external experiences, so you have to make time for that and you have to find ways and techniques to balance the ethereal aspects and the practical engineering aspects, the nuts and bolts of working with people in a group, getting the best out of them, the best out of yourself.
It’s going to take time. There are big dynamic polar opposites in music; you have to find equilibrium and a balance. You’ve got to get the big picture, but also get the detail. You’ve got to get the spontaneous performance, but you’ve got to have the technical back up so you can capture it. It’s the same with digital analogue, all of these dynamics and contradictory dynamics. You have to find your own path, if you want to be more retro, analogue, equipment based, then follow that. If you want to be more cutting edge and digital follow that or do both. You've got to cover a lot of angles to get that balance right.
You have had much success all over the globe; where is the most unusual public place you have heard your recordings being played - firstly in the UK, and secondly overseas?
I once heard a guy playing a song I wrote, Sunshine On A Rainy Day, in a little café in Rajasthan, Northern India. I was amazed it had reached that far, it was very moving; I hear from people that the song is popular at weddings and funerals. We wrote that song in 15-20 minutes and never thought we'd record or release it, it was a summer's day doodle. That is the great thing about music, the reach it has.
One of the oddest ones was in Leeds; we'd just released Drugs Don't Work by The Verve. The day it went in at Number 1 [in the UK charts], I was walking through an empty shopping centre and a lonely busker with a crowd of about 12 people was singing that song. The street was empty around them and they all stood and waited and listened to him sing it. I’m sure a few of them had never heard it but they were enchanted by it - that was pretty bizarre.
What are the key issues you feel the industry faces at the moment and how do you feel it should be moving forwards in a changing age?
There are some big challenges in the music industry and the future is uncertain. New models are starting to find their ground and we are still working on models that aren't quite working, but we know that streaming and things like that are the future. MPG helping producers to get recognition and to get paid in these changing times is vitally important. Where it’s going, nobody knows. One thing for sure is that people are always going to value music. We need to facilitate that and be able to take music to the people but still make ends meet. That is starting to happen, there have never been more people who are into music than there are today. What’s come with technological revolution and digital revolutions is that we’ve got lots of opportunities we’ve never had before. It’s how we find ways of balancing that out so we can still make records. The last 5 years has seen many shifts; the demise of the big studio, the rise of the home studio. All these changes are happening right now and very quickly I find if I think about it too much it can be worrying. I have a lot of faith in music and in people; I think there are some great people in the music business and industry who are working very hard to find a fairer balance.
Who do you admire / look up to in the industry?
Many people. I admire anyone who’s survived in the music industry over the past 30 or 40 years. I admire a lot of the producers that have inspired me - Brain Wilson, Phil Spectre and The Beatles, to modern producers of today making great records such as Paul Epworth and all of those cats. Some of the great A&R men - A&R are few on the ground these days and managers have had to take on the role to help give artists and producers that A&R perspective. In that respect, there are some amazing visionary managers.
There are some mystical magician engineers I’ve worked with that can absolutely transform something into something amazing. Even the young guys doing the running and assisting who work hard as well. Big inspirations like Trevor Horn. When I think I’ve got something really good, I play their records like 10CC and just check that it actually is good and that I’m not just imagining it. Young producers that make records today, people who have vision. Jazz Summers who managed me and actually told me that I was a producer - I thought I was a singer, songwriter or musician. It started to calibrate how I could be visionary for other artists. Great writers like William Blake, poets, painters like Turner; I’m not in their league but they’re people I aspire to be like.
I hope some of the records I’m honoured to be involved with may stand up next to some of the great records. There are so many inspirational people out there that inspire me, that I could make lists all night, like Lee Perry, Jah Wobble, The Sex Pistols. All of these people gave me the inspiration to give it a go. I make it part of my job and practice to find more and be more inspired by what people are doing. The more I find, the more I realise how little I’ve done and how much there still is to do. There is a lot of commitment and sacrifice in being able to do that, you need the inspiration of others to steer your mettle through the hard, lean times when no one is getting what you do.
What would you say has been the biggest highlight of your career to date?
Winning this MPG Award is the highlight of my professional career. I was nominated for 3 Brits in the 90s for best producer and won 1 - that was a great honour. I’ve been nominated for Grammy’s, which is also a great honour, but an MPG comes from my producers and anyone who knows a producer knows they are tough, fairly cynical, visionary and they’re not easy people to impress. To be awarded by them is unbelievable, they are also very competitive, therefore if I’ve inspired them to give me this award then I’m doing something right which is an amazing thing. Other than that it’s going to be working with Paul McCartney, David Gilmour and many other amazing, uniquely talented people. It is also a great honour to work with some of the engineers I have worked with - Mark 'Spike' Stent, Hugo Nicholson and Chris Potter. The guys I’m currently working with that I’ve trained up from teenagers or college students - I'm proud of their achievements. Other guys I’ve trained who have gone on to a lot of success like Simon Posford. It’s very rewarding to know that the people you trained up since teenagers have gone on to have successful careers. I’m more proud of them than I am of myself, they are a good reflection of what I’ve done as well. All of them are amazing; I’m blown away to have worked with all of them. The Endless River by Pink Floyd and Urban Hymns by The Verve are the most significant in that way.
In terms of importance, where do you rank music alongside the poetry and painting you do – is it still you main creative outlet?
Music informs all of the poetry and art I do and they inform my music. Sometimes with music, and any producer will know this, you can't go banging on the front door of great music and go "let me in", sometimes you have to go round the side door or the back. Music has its own demands and for me it means I have to still be challenged by what I do. Painting, writing poetry, writing prose, drawing - all those things are challenging for me and they yield great amounts of inspiration, which inform the music. Everything is geared around the music. I don't think I’ll ever stop making music, music is vocabulary and I am comfortable with that language, it’s still very challenging and I’m still learning everyday. It's all about learning as much as you are giving. There are emotions and experiences I can express with colour in a different way than I can with music, with poetry, or drawing. The amount of magic you can do technologically with music like EQ-ing, effecting, arranging, dropping things in - it’s an ocean of possibilities; that is what we do as producers. A great counterpoint to that is the very basic discipline of a pen, paper and ink. There is no erasing and no crossing out, and there is confidence that comes with that. Like the discipline of writing, I love the colour that comes out of it. Music is incredible because it is invisible, you can’t touch it but it’s there and has all of the other things that painting or a great poem has but in a different way. Music seems to be the mothership that facilitates the others. It’s a little ecosystem, they all feed in and nurture it. I don't know many other producers who paint or do other creative things but I would recommend it. I was reading Glyn Johns’ book recently, he got into music from being in a choir and he ends the book saying if there is any advice he'd ever give anyone in music, it is to join a choir because it’s an amazing experience that makes you feel good - I think he is right. I think it’s the same for painting or doing anything outside of what you normally do.
What’s next for you? What projects do you have coming up?
I’ll be on tour with Killing Joke in America, looking forward to a couple of secret unusual projects, finishing off a Jah Wobble album and we're talking about a symphonic Killing Joke album. I’ve been producing a lot of music of my own that’s a little different, I have a few releases I’m excited to be putting out next year, a sparse acoustic folk/blues album that I’ll be singing and playing on that is quite lo-fi. I’ll be producing challenging things that push the threshold.
I’m still in bands, so I can still look on the other side of the glass and see what it’s like.
What would you consider yourself mostly to be now, an artist or a producer?
I’m an artist first because even as a producer I like to think most of what I’m doing is taking care of the art. I don't think you have to be an artist to be a producer, but to be a great producer, like George Martin, you need to have artistry, to be able to understand it and recognise it.