For years I'd get brief emails from Damian Taylor. He might be in some remote location or some major metropolitan center, making records with a wide variety of artists. Frequently he'd have some specific, interesting question; some of which I could answer. When I found out he'd settled in Montreal, I knew I had to drop in at his new studio, Golden Ratio, and finally figure out where he'd come from and what his thoughts were about making records. Damian has worked on an extensive and highly creative number of albums with Björk, but also significant sessions with The Killers, Prodigy, U.N.K.L.E., Frou Frou, Austra, Trust, Diamond Rings, Gotye, Arcade Fire, and many others. And most curious to me was the way he does work, jumping in and out of production, writing, mixing, programming (both kinds), editing, and engineering; and in the end offering his clients the ultimate collaborator.
You were born in Canada?
The first ten years of my life were in Canada, in three different cities. My parents are British, but they met in Hong Kong and got married there. Then we moved to New Zealand, lived in a couple of different towns, until my parents moved to the Middle East when I was 15. At that point I moved to Auckland to go to a school. From age 6 to 13 years old I learned piano and then trumpet — I'd play in ensembles, orchestras, and all that. By the time I was 13 years old I was in the school brass band, wind band, concert band, jazz band, and symphony orchestra. I also played third trumpet in the municipal orchestra. I had band practice almost every lunchtime. Then puberty hit. I had the luxury of being in the zenith of grunge during my teenage years, so it was, "Oh world, you don't understand me!" I locked myself in my bedroom and started buying records. When I was 16 years old I sold my mountain bike to buy a little 4- track. I was buying a lot of underground American records, and by the time I was 17 years old I got into modern British electronic music.
Did you start playing in rock bands?
I started playing bass because I figured I could only play one string at a time — chords were going to be a bit hectic! I got annoyed with the guitar player who only wanted to play Metallica or Red Hot Chili Peppers. That's when I got a 4-track, a guitar, and a drum kit. I was playing everything and recording. I bought an Alesis QuadraVerb and I wound up spending a year with headphones on, turning the tape backwards, changing speeds and all that. On our school careers day a friend of mine asked his advisor about audio engineering, and she said, "There's a school in Parnell," a suburb of Auckland. I knew that I wanted to do production, but previously had no idea how to even begin.
So you went to a recording school?
Yeah, it was the SAE Institute in New Zealand, two nights a week for 18 months; I waited tables the other five days. I was in a music shop one day and a customer was asking the guy behind the counter about his studio. I hadn't heard about it, but I told him that I was doing an audio engineering course and asked if I could get involved. He gave me the engineer's number, and it was Chris Van Der Geer who's a significant fixture down there [in New Zealand]. He let me sit in on his sessions. I'd literally be in the corner observing, not even assisting or anything. It was great; I'd go to school and study in the abstract but then also see real world sessions with Chris, which completely opened my perspective. Chris was amazing and he patiently answered my dumb questions after sessions. I learned a lot about supporting artists by watching him. By the end of my course in New Zealand there was a local post-production company that needed someone to do radio dubs, and I got a temporary position. I'd have 40 different 1/4-inch tapes for the regional Toyota dealerships, for example. I'd splice them all together, do the leader, and then prep them for the courier. I met this composer who was renting a room there. He and his engineer were moving to their own place, so they took me along to assist. This was 1996, and they were working in Pro Tools — a 16-channel system.
Not many tracks!
Yeah. They would keep me busy by having me manually load audio sample CDs of a zillion different drum hits during the day, and then after hours I'd do Foley on their main rig. Proper "wax on, wax off" training. I'd used Pro Tools before at SAE to edit sections of songs together — I was trying to emulate [Smashing Pumpkins'] Siamese Dream by recording different sections of songs on tape with different drum kits, instruments, and mixes before sticking them back together. When I was 19 years old I moved to London and sent out 40 CVs [resumés]. I got a job in this little studio in Brixton, but it was actually well-equipped. It had a 48-channel Amek desk, a 24-track Studer, 48 tracks of ADAT and another 16-channel Pro Tools rig. I think the owner was bored. When he employed me he said, "Okay, you can make the tea." On the first day, Steven Severin from Siouxsie and the Banshees was producing a session; at 3 p.m. the owner shrugged and walked out. He didn't say anything. I was like, "Alright, I better do this."
Sounds like he was really bored!
Yeah! What was interesting about that place was that he was catering to a lot of people who had their own home setups, so he had to have all of these different formats because there were different sessions coming in. The technical differences were nothing compared to the stylistic differences, so I got to work on a ton of different things, from gospel to drum 'n' bass. I think being in that environment allowed me to be more open-minded. I took on a discipline to try to understand what each artist loved about their music, even if it didn't mesh with me personally. Eventually Guy Sigsworth was recommended to go work with me on the Pro Tools system there. He was looking for somewhere cheap to try out ideas, and we got on really well. I had consciously been trying to get proper "kung fu" on Pro Tools for a good while before he turned up, so I was ready. This was a couple of months before my 21st birthday, and I'd been there for a year.
That's the fast track!
By that point I'd been doing music for 14 years, as well as recording in one form or another for five! When I moved to London I wanted to assist at Strongroom or Abbey Road. None of the big studios would speak to me. Careers in the music industry are not a linear process. I loved living in Brixton for the vibe and culture, but after the initial rush I felt like I wasn't meeting anyone significant on a career level and was making no progress. But then that one person turns up and endorses you; suddenly all the doors open and off you go! Guy's manager ended up managing me as well, and within a month we did a session with U.N.K.L.E. [Tape Op #38] and we were working with Björk. I kept meeting people from there. I developed a long relationship with U.N.K.L.E. in particular. You know Neil McLellan, obviously?
Of course. He's written reviews for Tape Op.
I persuaded Guy that we should get a room at Strongroom. I met Neil when I was carrying our gear up the stairs. Strongroom has ten programming rooms and five commercial studios; they're a really significant hub of British music. I became roommates with the guys who ran the bar [there's a public bar and kitchen, as well as a studio]. Right after we moved in Digidesign released the MIXPlus Pro Tools system, and we got one of the first ones in England. That was years before in-the-box was a recognised term. Guy is incredibly forward-thinking; he had this mad concept of how he wanted to produce records. It was exciting because every single day we'd be trying to do things that hadn't been done before. It was great for me; instead of me turning up at Strongroom and having people go, "Oh, this is Damian. He's an assistant engineer," it was like, "This is some crazy fucking kid doing mad shit that we've never seen before." It made a bit more of a splash. As time went on more of the people I met would ask me to come in and try stuff on their sessions. Guy schooled me in tremendous depth about vocal production, which is something he learned from Trevor Horn [Tape Op #89], so I've always invested all my energy in getting the most out of every take before, during, and after the recording. Eventually word got out that I was good at performance enhancement. For quite a while I seemed to be either sorting out performances on pop and indie records, or doing crazy, experimental, underground stuff with Guy, U.N.K.L.E., Adam Freeland, and anyone else who was looking to try something left-of-centre.
Do you think your own vision of what recording could be was influenced by the possibilities you saw in Pro Tools?
Without a doubt. The fabric of space and time was there for the taking. In early '97, before I moved to London, Pro Tools did a little seminar where they talked about Pro Tools 4, where you could automate plug-ins. Whoa. That was also the first time I found out about the possibility of emulations. I was like, "Maybe one day I won't need a Neve. The possibilities here are huge." It was also when my tastes began to expand beyond guitar- bass-drums rock band music, though I still love that stuff. Because I was new I hadn't gotten stuck in the traditional mindset that is bashed into young engineers. When Guy and I first set up we decided to take a contrary approach, a high-tech punk DIY ethos, by keeping the setup very minimal but actually pushing the boundaries way beyond what was going on around us. Ergonomically I was sick of having people sitting behind me when I was working, as it made communication difficult. So I set up the computer against the back wall in the corner next to the couch, with the speakers at the far end of the room. We could all sit in a row, look at each other, and ask, "What do you think about that?" I loved the fact that there was almost no gear. Sitting there with my ideas and talking about what's going on, then being able to dive deeper into sounds than anyone could on a 96-channel SSL with two tape machines [was exhilarating]. I hadn't anticipated it, but it was exciting to do and it felt like no one else was doing it at the time. But, having said that, Strongroom was a phenomenal facility and I love their SSL and Neve rooms. As the years went on I wound up working at all the great studios in London with brilliant engineers and producers like Neil McLellan, Adrian Bushby, Tom Elmhirst, Mark "Spike" Stent, Jim Abbiss, Pascal Gabriel, and Cameron Craig.
They're engineering and you're running the Pro Tools system?
Exactly. When that first started happening we thought it was amazing to have a Pro Tools credit, because we knew what we could do in Pro Tools. Engineering or mixing doesn't sum it up. It was really the whole hub of where ideas would be captured, explored, and exploded. People started calling me a programmer, but I also got a lot of additional production credits. On some projects, and especially remixes, people would leave me to it. It was obviously limitless what I could do, though it depended on the context of the session. If it was more of a repair job, then I'd go in and repair it and help out the mixing — this was when majors were starting to sign bedroom productions, so there was a lot of shit to sort out in order to bring material up to scratch. Neil and I actually had an interesting way of working where I would be editing the multitrack while he was simultaneously mixing. I would always listen to what he was doing and I'd have a sense of when he needed to work on a different section. I'd always have music playing as I was editing, and he would be dialing in sounds as I was fixing the timing. By the time I'd finish chopping, he would finish the sonics. My ears were always in tune with him as he worked. I'd do all of the vocal ride automation for him in Pro Tools.
He'd be bringing parts in and out?
Yeah, exactly. He was into banging the 2-bus compressor with bass drums to get the whole mix bouncing, so all of my automation was like, "Every single bass drum hit — turn up the vocals!"
So it's counteracting the compression?
Yeah! The vocals sit there at the same level, but the mix as a whole goes, "Boom, boom." It's become a bit of a style. One thing I regret, especially working with Cameron Craig, who's a genius recording engineer, is that I'd be so busy on Pro Tools that I wouldn't get to hang out in the live room much to see what he was doing with his mics.
You didn't get out in the live room a lot?
Not as much as I would've liked. When I was working with U.N.K.L.E. there was this band South who signed to Mo' Wax. They had brilliant ideas, but were inexperienced players at the time, so I was doing a lot of corrective stuff. People were always waiting for me to finish sorting it out. That was still when studios had to hire in Pro Tools rigs; the whole culture of "chop shop" and giving it to the guy in the back room wasn't there. Thank god! Everyone was together, and my role was predominantly creative. But I had these corrective abilities to draw on, if need be.
How did you end up with management?
Guy wanted to work with me so his manager at the time took me on. Around that same time I also met a couple of other managers. Ros Earls, who runs 140dB Management and looks after Flood, Steve Osborne, and others was the first producer manager whom I'd met. She said, "Look, you have to go assist in a big studio for five years. I can't manage you otherwise. You have to know how to run an SSL." That was totally fair advice; but I wound up super busy and learned how to run an SSL anyway! Again, I'm grateful that I did get to spend my formative years in the studio system, because most of those rooms aren't in London anymore. Same thing happened in New York. That's the reality of it now.
We've caught the end of that era, in some ways.
Exactly. When I first started working at Strongroom I'd been writing them letters for about two years saying, "Please let me in the studio!" Some of their assistants were 30 or 31 years old, and they'd been there for seven years. Some of them were super-talented and quite a few of them had to stop, because there was no way to...
...feed your kids!
Yeah. I think the biggest change is the Internet. The fact that anyone can now get access to all of this information is amazing. I remember when I started there was Mix Magazine, and that was it. There was this view of our industry that was a "decreed from on-high" thing; those totally sterile studio shots where they looked like the bridge of the Enterprise. You and the Tape Op crew have done an amazing job of sharing information and opening up possibilities for people. While it's a shame not to have as many of the big facilities around, I much prefer things now because creativity can be shared and expressed by so many more people.
You've been called everything from a programmer, to a fixer, and sometimes a collaborator — all kinds of things.
Yeah, it was definitely like that back in the day. I also think it's hard to define what I do using many of the traditional labels. People tend to think of me in one narrow situation, depending on the context someone meets me in. A number of years ago it started to get frustrating, actually. When I was considering moving to Canada I had a meeting where my manager said, "Damian, you need to be either an engineer, a producer, a mixer, a writer, or a programmer." I like doing all of it, so we amicably parted ways. With Pro Tools I'd be doing a zillion and one things, ranging from recording, mixing, writing, and programming. But because I sat at the computer people would say, "Oh, you're the programmer!" When I worked with Björk, trying to define roles was a running joke, like, "What the hell is a 'producer' with the music that she makes?"
You can't tell her what she should be doing!
She's her own boss, and therefore [her own] producer. All of these roles are weird and outdated. I've always tried to take the approach of, "I'll help people as much as I can." That meant bringing in some scones and sweeping the floor when I first started off. Then it was punching in some vocals. Later it translated into making beats, then co-writing, producing, mixing, and on and on. I think of what a song needs to make it better, and then the artist and I work on it together.
Do you feel you've done more straight engineering over the years?
I always considered myself a creative engineer and think of engineering as my roots; the computer is a tool that I use because it's so powerful. It was baffling when people didn't think that I knew how to use a mixing desk or a tape machine — I'd been using them for years! I was like, "No, no, no. I've done a lot on tape!"
You've certainly worked with Björk quite a bit.
The last Björk project I did was Biophilia, and she wanted to have this whole ocean of sub- bass. When we were mixing, we were in a great little studio in Brooklyn called Atlantic Sound. She wanted the [Yamaha] NS-10s to sound like a different pair of speakers [in order] to project a pure sine-wave bass thing. Then there was music that was a couple octaves above it; she had the cool idea that if it was played on an iPad you'd only hear this top layer, but then if you put on headphones, you'd hear an entirely different thing. I was like, "Oh shit, physics!" She's always so interesting to work with, because she does not give a solitary shit about any rules or anything engineering-wise — aside from, "Stop compressing things." One of the things Björk used to give me a hard time about is that she'd feel that people were tweaking her records just for the hell of it. It's like, "I'm sitting in this chair and there are all these buttons. I might as well press them." She'd be like, "No, you don't have to!" But, at the same time, music doesn't mix itself! I think we had a healthy back and forth together.
When did you first start working together?
In 1999 when I was working with Guy Sigsworth. We kept in touch off and on through the years. Then, at the end of 2005, we started working together on everything after she'd had a long run with Valgeir Sigurðsson [Tape Op #85]. He's a real sweetheart. One of the first sessions I did with Björk was early on in Vespertine. Guy and I were set up in one room, with Valgeir and Mark Bell in another. It's interesting with her, because she wants to have someone present right from the start of writing an album, with a blank screen and an empty hard drive. She also likes working short days. That's probably where I got a bit too much time to start looking at gear online! When I first started to work in studios I thought, "Maybe one day I'll visit New York, L.A., or Nashville," then suddenly with her I'd be set up in a cabin by a lake in the most spectacular part of Iceland, or I'd be flying to Mali.
You could have the money to go anywhere, but she chose a very different environment.
Yeah, totally. Working with her is an amazing adventure. She asked me to go on tour with her as well, so I was musical director of her band and played electronic instruments — our second gig was headlining Coachella [Valley Music and Arts Festival]. The first few gigs I was a bit nervous, but it was an 18-month tour — as time progressed it got better and better. If you've spent all your time in studios — like I had at that point — you don't see a crowd reacting to music as you make it. Then I went and did the live shows and realized, "Wow, it's the big, simple gestures that count." When she hits a certain note, the girls in the front row cry. All that matters. I was so busy when I started traveling with her; six years of traveling the world. That also coincided with my daughter being born, so there's this weird paradox of, "Oh, I have this amazing gig, but I'm not with my family right now." But then there was actual time off at home. I was always saying to my wife, "No, trust me. If we were in London and I was working normal sessions, you'd see me less than you do now." With Björk I'd be away for a month, but then home for three weeks. My previous London schedule was 14 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. The whole balance is such a crazy struggle, isn't it? I have a theory that it's never perfectly in balance and that you have to run back and forth from one to the other. I think that having a family and doing something creative both require complete immersion.
In between Björk travels I spent a lot of time experimenting with working 9 to 5. I'd get to the studio and nothing would really happen. That was when we were living rurally in British Columbia. People were sending me tracks and saying, "We want you to do your thing on it." So then I'm trying to invent a new sound for a band; one I already love. I wound up having to hit the late nights again to properly immerse myself in it. Having said all this though, while it's a challenge, I really feel that having the family has taken me to a whole new level creatively. I've totally adapted now, and the pressure is a positive one. It's also wonderful to hang out with my kids; they don't give a crap about whom I'm working with.
You probably ended up working with Björk for more years than you expected.
I thought she'd only want me around for a couple of weeks! When we were working on the Volta album (which we did from late 2005 to early 2007, and then toured in 2007 and 2008) her manager would phone up and say, "Can you get on a plane next week and come to New York for ten days?" I'd say, "Sure." I would always assume that it was the last session that I'd do with her, because she likes to mix things up and they hadn't asked me to do the whole album. When we were finishing mixing Volta (with Spike Stent) she invited me to be her musical director on tour for the next 18 months. It's cool with her, because she's set up as a cottage industry. Her group of people are super-tight and very independent, so it's a real family feel. Once we were on tour, I figured that there'd be no way she'd get me back in for another record. [I assumed] that she would definitely want to do something different the next time. In her history, each era is always totally different.
It's good to recognize that though, instead of being upset about it later on.
Yeah, totally. But then she said, "I'd love to do the next project with you, and it will probably take three or four years." I was like, "Whoa!" It was interesting scenario. Since I knew it would be a longer period of time, with short days in the studio, I took it as an opportunity to climb some massive learning curves. I ended up learning Max/MSP and a ton of other geeky stuff, including hand-building tube outboard gear for my studio. Max/MSP is a graphical programming language where you can create pretty much anything. I used it to create musical performance systems. Björk had talked a lot about the concepts that she wanted to explore on the record. She was out of all her contracts and wanted to do something that you couldn't download. She wanted an album that would be part of the project.
Isn't there an app that goes with her Biophilia album?
Yeah, there is. Originally she wanted to build a musical house in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, with each room playing a song. Then they'd film and record her doing the song in each room; that would ultimately be the album, as well as a film. Then somehow she got linked up with National Geographic. They found out that the project was going to have nature references, so they said, "You can use our entire archive of unused film." For about a year it was going to be an iMAX film for National Geographic, with an accompanying museum tour. Michel Gondry and Sjón Sigurðsson (who's a lyricist and novelist) had a whole draft script prepared. But. by that point, most of the songs had been written, and I was pretty accomplished on Max/MSP. We were using [JazzMutant] Lemur touch-screens as part of the interface for the compositional tools that I designed for her. We wound up having four Lemurs flashing back and forth.
What's a Lemur?
They were the first multi-touch controller. It communicates over Ethernet.
And it's a touchscreen, similar to how an iPad works?
Exactly. I'd had one on tour. You can create your own interface for your own needs. They have a MIDI controller mode, and I was using one with Ableton Live. It was great for live shows, because we had 42 songs in the repertoire. I was initially using a generic MIDI controller, and it was like, "On song 24, what the hell does that third grey button from the left do?" On these Lemurs you can design your own controls; I had a custom layout for each song. With Max/MSP, you can use a protocol called OSC to have the computer send signals to the Lemur, and then the Lemur sends signals to the computer. For Biophilia I designed it so that you could draw in melodies and then notes would light up as they played. It was very tactile. It was a year and a half into the project that the first iPad was released. We'd been in Puerto Rico for seven months. When we got back to New York she got one of the first iPads. We looked at the iPad and then looked at the Lemurs and thought, "Hang on, maybe we can release a version of what we were using in the studio." That evolved into the Biophilia app suite. She's very passionate about giving people a different way to experience and interact with her music. So I took this convoluted process and learned all this programming stuff. It changed my outlook on music as well. Creating these systems with physical control expanded the way that I thought about the possibilities of music creation. That's also why there are so many ridiculous time signatures in that project — songs that you can't play on a piano. It's easy with Max/MSP to do all of these speed-ups, slowdowns, and counting in 17s. I also hacked a video game controller, because she could hold it comfortably and sing at the same time. She could hold down buttons, sing, and then when she felt she wanted a change, [she could] go "blump," and the track would adjust to her in real time. She wouldn't know exactly what was going to happen — we wanted to make changes that weren't random, persay, but still had a little bit of spark so that she could feed off it and respond to it.
To help with composing?
Yeah. When we'd first worked together on Vespertine, Pro Tools was new. It was like, "How intricate and crazy can we make this programming?" I was drawing in clicks and pops by hand with the pencil tool and sequencing them up. After Guy and I worked with her, Matmos [Tape Op #23] had been working with her for two years, so there're 260,000 tracks on those albums. Then, on Volta, we were like, "Let's do something that's raw and direct, and not all brainy or clever." I think on Biophilia we were naturally wanting to do more acoustic stuff, but still have the essence of electronic music in there. At one point we had this idea to have all of these robotic instruments that could be controlled through these musical systems on Max/MSP, and all of our two years in the studio would be her songwriting process. Then the album would be recorded in one day, live to two tracks of tape, with her performing these songs with a choir, Max/MSP, and robots. At another time our plan for mixing was to not do it — we weren't going to use a mixing desk; rather we'd have everyone in a room, electronic parts would play through speakers, and we'd record it with one single dummy head. Everything would be moved around in the room, according to where it should sound.
Whoa. Could be interesting!
It didn't happen, but yeah! Another time.
When you worked with Björk for a number of years making a record, where did you live? How much of your life was completely on hold?
On the family level it was tricky; we had our daughter, and my wife and I were trying to figure out where to live. She's Australian and we didn't want to raise our daughter in London. We moved around for a few years. My wife and daughter did come to Puerto Rico for a few weeks, but there wasn't the normal infrastructure for our daughter there. The lifestyle is super-exciting, on paper. When we were on tour, they came to New York for ten days. But crossing the Atlantic with a seven- month-old, it's just...
It's not fun!
Yeah. And then we're staying in a hotel room, all of us in one room, and her bedtime is 7:30 p.m. We can't go out to experience the city, and we have to be dead silent so as not to wake up the baby. It was a challenge. But, like I said, it was a balance, because then I'd also have time off from Björk and I'd be at home full time. Also it's nice to not have to feel like, "Okay, I have a three day session next week, and then I don't know what's going to happen after that."
Knowing that there's a gig coming up.
Our son was born right as Biophilia wrapped up. We found a great homebase in Montreal, and I had built my dream studio. It was a perfect time to pass the baton to the next person to take on that role with Björk.
You were in Las Vegas for The Killers Battle Born record?
Yeah. I'd go out for two or three weeks at a time and then come back to Montreal to get on with other projects. I had three or four different significant projects that were all due at the end of July. It was probably the most intense time of my entire life, but there was an odd satisfaction to it.
Where were you doing the album?
They'd bought an existing commercial studio in Vegas, and I'd also work at my place.
Weren't there a number of producers that were brought in?
Oh yeah, it was insane.
Were you working on any material that other people had started initially?
Yeah. It was everything! They had the idea of running two rooms. I think they had this concept that if they got this young, crazy guy along with an old-school guy, that they'd get the best of both worlds. That's a concept that sounds great on paper, but real life isn't that simple. Steve Lillywhite [Tape Op #93] and I were often there at the same time. He's quite a character. He talks very loud, and his production style is basically to tell a story about what Bono would do in any given situation. I was really excited to work with him, but it wound up being that he was in one room and I was in another.
You weren't able to collaborate!
Yeah. It's fair to say we've got a pretty different aesthetic too. However, that didn't stop a lot of great stuff from happening with me and the band. I would do everything from developing songs from scratch with Brandon [Flowers], to extended drum recording nerd-outs with Ronnie [Vannucci], whose playing I love. Plenty happened with Mark [Stoermer, bass] and Dave [Keuning, guitars] too. There were other songs we were trying to finish off, after they'd been worked on by two or three other producers. Some I did from start to finish. In the end I worked on the majority of the tracks on the album. Sometimes I'd insist on having the four of them set up to replay existing songs in different ways to get a fresh perspective. It was really fun to work with a proper band after a number of years in Max/MSP. Rock bands are really what originally got me into production. It turned out that I was also the only producer who said, "Okay, we're mastering in a week. Where are the mixes?" Pretty basic producer responsibilities. I didn't figure out until about halfway through the project that the band members were going with the flow, in terms of deciding what was going to happen when. The various producers were more like collaborators. At the end of a three-week session we'd have these huge conversations and make a plan. Then I'd come back two or three weeks later and everything would be totally different. Once I rolled with it, it was great fun. Alan Moulder [The Jesus & Mary Chain, Arctic Monkeys] mixed a couple of tracks, and I finally got to work with him — he was one of the very first heroes I ever had in the recording biz. He wound up totally kicking my ass. They got him out to New York and I drove down with my computer so I could set up in the live room and do anything that needed to happen. I'd be a bit tired and think about stepping out for a break. Then I'd look through the glass and see Alan relentlessly working. I'd think, "Well, he's 20-odd years older than me. I'd better get back to work!" His philosophy is, "It's hard work. There's no way around it. You've got to do the work." He also said that any record he's made that is good was difficult; where the artist has kept hammering until it's what they want to hear. It's the reminder that we depend on our artists. Pretty much any record that I've made that's good is with a strong personality. It's not me telling them what to do.
What are your thoughts about the sheer unwieldiness of Pro Tools sessions that are sent to you for mixing?
It's no big deal. I have to sort out my own sessions as well, but I have this theory. A song starts with an idea, then there's a timeline during which anything can happen. Then, at the end, there's a finished record. I think that back in the day most of the engineering was happening in the middle of the process, after writing and arrangement. But, quite often now, the engineering starts happening at the beginning, and it continues going right the way through — engineering is happening from writing right through to mixing. So, basically, mixing has expanded from back in the day. I roll with it, and I've certainly had plenty of experience in sorting out multitracks. A lot of projects involve working with people where it's not a band coming with a sound; rather they have a song, an idea, and they want to get it down. This is more common, with increased emphasis on touring now. Diamond Rings [John O'Regan] would come for two weeks at a time, between tours, over the course of a whole year. Instead of worrying about the "correct" engineering aspect, I'd try to get as much as possible from him while he was here. I'd go deeper once he was gone. Practically speaking, this means recording clean then being able to process or modify the sounds after the fact. I'm not stressing too much about backing tracks early on. On tape we would have to sub-mix all the time; there's no reason we can't do that now. Say people are recording guitars to three tracks, there's nothing to stop us from throwing away one of those tracks, or printing them to one. A lot of times I'll go through and get rid of tracks. If I feel there's a crappy mic on one of the drums, I'm not afraid to throw it away. As the track evolves I'll see what works. I keep old versions in my session folders, so there's always a stripped-down or pre-mixed version. I have a system for filing unused tracks that might get used, but when you record 40 tracks of backing vocals — which I have done for some songs — you can mix it to stereo, because it's just "the backing vocals." Bouncing is good. I did this remix for Arcade Fire recently, this track called "Ready to Start." They had a third section of the song that never made it on the album because they couldn't get it quite right at the time. Originally they gave me this third section of the song. They wanted to make a modern take on the old school, extended 12-inch, B-side remixes by using the original multitracks assembled in a different way. I did that in one day. They came in, listened, and said, "Okay, wicked. We'll give you the other two sections of the song." These were two entirely independent multitracks. So, effectively, they had three multitracks: one after another, in one Pro Tools session. I'd get a great drum sound on the third section, and then I had to work with the second section that was recorded entirely differently. That's something that's been done for decades now, only with different tools. I get annoyed anytime people are like, "Oh, these days, with all these options..." I think that's such a lame, defeatist attitude. You can make a record any way you want. You have control over the process. Nobody's going to be coming around to your house to make you use something, or not. Just work the way you want. I really respect people like Jack White [Tape Op #82] or Richie Hawtin, who have really specific ways of working. But I'd rather gouge my own eyes out than limit myself to their philosophies. To be frank, if someone's sending you songs that have a ton of tracks, they're sending it to you to sort it out. There's nothing wrong with explaining what it'll take to make something work, and to do a deal to make it worthwhile. If you can't make a deal, don't do it. Stop whining about it. I think it's too easy to look back and think music and recording was better. Yes, there were The Beatles and Hendrix and Kraftwerk, whom I'm happy to worship. But there's also endless tons of other crap recorded back then that nobody remembers, because it was shit.
But once you start working out what your mix process is and what your goals are, it all starts to line up.
If you're looking at it in that way. I go through specific stages. Early on it's very analytical, and I'm not even thinking about sonics at that point. It's the kind of work that some people will have an assistant do. However I'm extremely precise about how I like the tracks. And I know how those early decisions will impact decisions further down the line, so I do it myself. If I'm mixing on my own in my studio, I have no problem loading something else up for ten minutes to shift focus. Or I'll come in in the morning and do a bunch of mixing fresh. As soon as I get a bit tired I can sort out stuff for an upcoming mix for few hours, before switching back again.
Clean up a vocal track or something...
Yeah. That way I don't get too burned out, but I'm also preparing things for the critical creative times. Timbaland and Björk taught me the opposite of Alan Moulder's philosophy — they want to come in fresh and bust it out, and then leave before they think about it too hard. All that prep can be done in a different headspace. Then your mixing headspace is clean and fresh when you wanna jump back in. Be bipolar! Funny story — I did one mix recently and the label sent me an email asking if I could bring out the rock element in the song by turning up the guitars. I had to email back saying, "There are no guitars in the multitrack the band gave me." Turns out the band had reworked it before sending it to me!
Classic, huh? All the mix prep in the world can't sort out something like that. I had a remix recently that I'd been working on for a couple weeks. I stopped myself and moved on to something else, because I knew that there were still a few things that weren't quite right and I needed the space. I put it away for a few days. It's interesting, because on one hand it's great to jump around between different projects. But, on the other hand, people aren't willing to go through the uncomfortable stage of making a record where you're sweating and experiencing enormous self-doubt. Or when you're totally immersed and you'd rather run screaming from the room. I love that too. Immersion tends to make the best albums. Production is a fascinating paradox of, "Do we step back and get perspective, or do we dive even deeper?"