They say that record producers and engineers are the people behind the curtain, but if so London's Dan Carey seems to be hiding deep in the backstage shadows while the artists he work with take center stage. These artists include Franz Ferdinand, Kylie Minogue, CSS, M.I.A., Lily Allen, Hot Chip, Emilíana Torrini, Santigold, The Kills, La Roux, Oh Land, Bat For Lashes, Willy Mason, and Yeasayer. Despite the attention these people receive, it's rare to read about Dan or to even come across a short interview with him. So I trekked through South London to his Streatham-based studio where we had quite a great chat amid his massive collection of musical instruments and recording gear.
I notice you've obviously got a lot of sound processing equipment. I think I saw an EMT 140 in the back. What kind of spring reverbs are you using?
The Orban [Dual Reverberation], the AKG BX 5, and the Slinky.
You use the Slinky trick?
I've had that for ages actually. I quite like the sound the sound that it makes, even without the speaker, the spring itself if you hit it. Or we connect wire drum brushes to a car battery and then the other side of the car battery to one end of the Slinky. Then you just stroke it and the sparks just go "fshhhh" and sets the spring off with this kind of "fshinnng."
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That's the ultimate spring reverb. [laughter]
It's like kicking the amp.
You have some tape delays too?
Yes, the [Roland] Space Echo, but the Klemt [Echolette] is favorite one. And a Watkins Copicat.
This place is like a treasure trove.
It is nice isn't it? You can see I like having everything out. I find if I do writing sessions I try to get people to come over here because you can walk around and, "Oh, I've got a song."
Is everything plugged in or easily accessible?
Pretty much. Within a couple of minutes you know? Everything is so close. If you want to play a guitar, just choose an amp.
When did you move into this space?
About eight years ago.
You live upstairs?
Yeah. I find that I do like to sort of maintain a reasonably normal life. I've got kids so they always come into the studio during the day when they get back from school. I think all the things that people seem to like about recording here are the things that you wouldn't get that seem "wrong." Kids ruining vocal takes, and stuff all over the place.
Does it make much noise upstairs for your family?
No, it's a pretty heavy ceiling. It's lead and pretty soundproofed. I had a similar kind of setup but on a smaller scale before this place. I had to not record vocals at certain times when kids were running around and try not to do drums after a certain time. [laughter]
What kind of preproduction do you do? Do you go out and buy an artist's previous records?
It's very rare that I'd be working with someone that I didn't really know about, because I wouldn't agree to do it until I knew who they were. In terms of preproduction there's kind of a scale. There are some people who may have done demos that are really accurate on how the songs are going to go. I find that harder. What I sometimes do, if a band has done that, is to just strip it down to just guitar and vocal, and then think about it again. The idea of preproduction: I don't really know what it is. If someone turns up on the first day of recording we'll maybe listen to some music that we both like. The band that is here right now, Civil Twilight, on the first day with them I said, "I think we should spend the first day just chatting and not listening to stuff" and within half an hour we were tracking, just because we were all excited to start. One thing I am trying to get over — I don't know if other people have this thing — I've certainly always had a slight problem if I've tracked a song and it has to be tracked again. If we've done some overdubs and decided it shouldn't be in that key or it's too slow, it becomes a really worrying thing and I start thinking something has gone wrong. I quite enjoy doing multiple versions of things now. In a way, maybe the preproduction is the first time you do it. There's a song this week that we re-tracked completely because it slightly had the wrong feel. I guess the first version of that was the preproduction, because it was trying it out in a very earnest way. Maybe it cost us a day. I mean obviously there are some things where you have to sit down, map out the songs and program, and I try and do that with people.
Say on the session with Oh Land [Nanna Øland Fabricius]; Did she bring songs that were ready or did you work songs up?
We just wrote songs together. That's how it started off. That was another brilliant example of completely jumping into it. The first day she was over was only supposed to be for a chat, but as soon as she came in she started playing the piano and I started playing the bass and we'd written a song in ten minutes. Then we did another. It was very fast ideas and then she brought some that she had written elsewhere. She would play them on the piano and I would be on the MPC. We would just try different rhythms until we would get one. We would quickly track, build over that, and then re-track the piano.
You're certainly quick to start tracking.
I like randomness and accidental things. I know from playing that if you have an idea, and you start playing it on the piano or guitar that that's the only time it will sound like that. You can never recreate it no matter how good you are at playing. There's just something about the first time you hit those chords. I don't know whether it's the excitement or the uncertainty of playing it without really knowing what you're doing. If you can try and get that down then it is just going to really work.
transcribed by Ben Nokes