Ian Catt has developed a unique style that is behind some of the most interesting sounds coming out of the U.K. today. Having produced and engineered such bands as Saint Etienne, Trembling Blue Stars, The Field Mice, Fosca and many others, he has carved a niche in electronic-based pop music that is all his own, never looking back. There are many words that would be useful in describing Ian's recordings, texturally-rich, mood- evoking, expansive, purposeful, however, after speaking with Ian, I found myself thinking of his work quite simply as having integrity. I spoke with Ian (whose Cat Music is based in Couldson, England — 10 minutes south of London) about his humble beginnings, the building blocks of his craft, and the importance of achieving a fine arrangement prior to letting the tape roll.
What are you working on now, Ian?
Currently I'm working on a couple of new groups, one called Tenshi, which is Japanese for angel, apparently. It's a group of three girls. It's interesting in as much as they play strings as well. There's a vocalist, a violinist and a cellist.
Is that right? Do you have a lot of experience recording strings?
Not large strings, but I've done some small ensembles.
What type of environment are you recording them in? Could you describe what your studio is like?
If it's ones and twos, then I do it at my place. My space is pretty much a control room with a booth. That's the setup I've got myself, so if I need anything bigger than that, then there are other studios I use for different things. If it's a quartet or something, then I'd have to go to another good-sounding room.
Do you ever record in your control room? Or do you use a separate studio space?
Just a booth really, I mean it's about two meters square. It's a vocal booth. But obviously that is pretty much for computer based things or if we're just doing overdubs and mixing. If it's a band, then I need to be somewhere else.
The productions I've heard from you over the years have become increasingly complex, ever since those first singles you did for the Field Mice in 1988. Can you characterize how your production contributions have grown since then? To me your recordings sound wider or more spacious.
Yes, that's interesting, 'cause normally complex sounds smaller, I think... or you know, sounds denser. So it's interesting you hear more complexity and more space at the same time.
For example, compared to the first Field Mice recordings, which use what I think is a Boss DR 660 drum machine...
Yeah, the little box with the knob on it...
...the rhythm tracks you are working on now with the likes of Saint Etienne and Trembling Blue Stars sound infinitely more complex. I'm wondering how that evolved.
A lot of it is just practicalities, really. The first Field Mice records were really done on a shoestring. I think the first couple of singles came from a session I did with them which were demos. They found me from an ad in Melody Maker, and they came in for a day and I think we did six or seven songs in probably about seven hours, eight hours. So it really was, "Start the drum machine, record all the drums, get the bass out, do the bass", and you know I wouldn't have even commented on the drum patterns. It was the first time I met them, and they came in, recorded what they had to record, I mixed it, and there was no time to think about it, really. So, progressing on from that, after they got the deal [with Bristol's Sarah Records] and we got a little bit more time, then we had a bit more time to experiment. Certainly, I think all of the Field Mice recordings were done in a very tight budget situation. It wasn't until we got to the Northern Picture Library/Trembling Blue Stars phase that... basically it's always been tight, but I just invested a bit more of my time and I think that's really what happened.
Did you kind of grow with them?
Oh, yeah, completely! I mean they came to me the first year I'd actually been doing it for a living. I've been recording since the early eighties, really. The Teac 4- track PortaStudio, the very first one — the 144. Basically to buy that, I'd sold a lot of my live gear, because I played bass in bands before and suddenly got very fed up with it! [laughs] I think it's when I did the first demo with my first real band, I thought "Oh this is a lot more fun than touring around pubs and putting big cabinets in and out of vans, doing a half-hour sound-check at 4:00 p.m. for an 11:30 show and that kind of thing."
So you started out in humble beginnings...
For a long time the studio was actually a...