An Australian architecture student bumps into famous producer/engineer Flood while studying in Ireland, returns home to start playing in bands, and eventually moves to London and becomes an in-demand engineer and producer? Sometimes the truth is rather fantastic. I had to figure out Catherine Marks' unusual career path, so we met up over breakfast on a rainy London morning, off of Portobello Road.
You'd studied classical piano when you were younger?
Yeah, from like four to 15. I'm not really that good anymore, but I think it helps to be able to communicate notes and chords, at the very least.
I heard that you studied architecture in Melbourne.
When I did architecture at Melbourne uni, I had to do a compulsory year at a firm before I went on to finish my degree. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to do it in Ireland, because my mum's Irish. Dublin was full of amazing musicians, at the time. I started going to see bands, which I'd never done before. I met Flood maybe halfway through the year of my time there. It was at a Nick Cave concert, and we got along really well. Someone had mentioned that he was a music producer. I don't think I understood what that was, at that point. I think at my going-away dinner I asked him if he'd produce me, and he said no. I think he was working on a U2 record at the time. He said, "I won't; but if you are really serious about working in music, I'll help you. Go back, finish your degree, and work out if you want to do what I do. It's a big sacrifice."
It's overwhelming. So you went back to Melbourne to finish your degree?
Yeah, I joined a couple of bands playing keyboards. The first band I was in was called The Wreck. I would say it was kind of ethereal indie-pop. Then The Wreck broke up, and I joined this band called The Harlocks.
Was there kind of an open invitation to come to London and work with Flood?
No. In his mind he thinks I pestered him, but in my mind I think that he called me regularly to make sure I was still coming. Either way, we had stayed in contact over those four years. When I eventually moved to London, I became the assistant to the assistant engineer, Andy Savours. But I didn't know what it was to work in a studio. I'd never personally recorded anything. I was not technically savvy, at all. But I was so excited about making music, and being involved in making music. Even the things that I found difficult I was determined to figure out. There's a real dynamic in the studio, which I definitely know now and it's incredibly crucial, but I really didn't understand it then. I'd been working at an architecture firm, and I had people who were working underneath me.
How did you approach learning some of the technical side?
I asked a lot of questions; probably annoyingly. I still constantly apologize to Flood now for the way I was. But Flood and Andy also had this thing they called the "war of attrition." I'd ask a question when I thought it was the appropriate time, but it obviously wasn't. They'd reveal a little bit of information, which of course made no sense to me, at all, because it had no context. I'd ask, "What does compression do?" They'd go, "Well, it does this... but this is all we're going to tell you, for now." I still joke to Alan Moulder that I think I've finally worked out the difference between attack and release. He knows that I know things, but we don't have those kind of discussions. He laughs at me because I don't profess to be overly technical, but I do actually know all this stuff. The technological side of things is, like, 25 percent of it.
How did you get up to speed though?
After three months of shadowing Andy, Flood gave me the keys to this project studio up in Kilburn, which he called The Boys Bedroom. It was a mess. All his mates had been using it. I started sorting things out and repatching. I slowly started teaching myself all the equipment. He just kept throwing me in the deep end. "There's a session here, and the band wants to record 25 tracks, in six days." Things would break down; I'd just stay calm and work it out.
I agree that the technical is a small percentage of what you have to do to get a record done.
I say all this stuff, but recently I engineered the Foals' Holy Fire record for Flood and Alan. I was really nervous about doing that, because you're working with two of the greatest producers and engineers in the world. It was an amazing opportunity, because they rarely work together, and Foals is an incredibly talented band. It was not only keeping the ship running, but also managing the technical side of things as well.
It's like the old-school studio system of being the tea boy, the tape op, and working your way up. It's amazing to have landed in a place like Assault & Battery, with two fantastic engineer-producers.
Alan and Flood still take on a lot of people, and they love it. They see Assault & Battery as a hive of activity. There are great bands coming in. There's communication and collaboration. They love that that's still happening. Alan said the other day that it's possibly more exciting than Trident Studios was. I know it's really rare now, so I do feel very lucky to be a part of it. Even though I'm now mixing on my own, I still want to be a part of that team, in a way. I would hope that making records is like a craft. There are so many different ways of making records, but I hope that craft will never get lost. I feel lucky to have been able to learn from so many other awesome craftsmen.
You're freelance now, but you still keep in touch with them often?
Yeah, I did a project last year with Alan, which we co-produced. I'm mixing it at the moment. It's like having your homework marked! I'm much more confident now, obviously. But I feel like in every band that I work with, everyone's learning, and adapting, and growing together.
How did your career progress after The Bedroom studio?
I was there, on and off, for maybe two years. Once I'd tidied up the studio and started feeling my way around, there wasn't much I had to do during the day. I'd go and bother the girls who managed Flood and these other producers. I was like, "What can I do?" There was a job with Ben Hillier recording The Futureheads in Scarborough, and they wanted someone for two months. They were going to hire a chef and an assistant. I was like, "Pick me!" They couldn't find anyone else, so I was kind of the last resort. On a Friday afternoon, when everybody was leaving, they said, "Okay. Can you cook?"
Can you cook?
No, I couldn't cook at that time. Not for 11 people. It was set up in this barn in the middle of nowhere, in the countryside of north Yorkshire. It was beautiful and amazing, but freezing cold. I had to get up in the morning, set up the microphones, and turn the heaters on in the barns. I didn't have to make people's breakfast, but I started making lunch, and then I'd make everyone tea. It was a big complex, and I was rushing around everywhere. A bonus was, for maybe an hour or two a day, I could sit in a studio that they'd made out of this other barn. But usually I was sitting and watching Ben Hillier work. He had a very lovely engineer, Rick Morris, and I remember thinking how little Rick gave away of his personality. I'm quite open. I am who I am. I thought that maybe I should be a little more like he was. I tried, but it didn't really work.
To subvert your own personality?
Yeah. I think that was one of the other things that Flood instilled really early on. You've got to be yourself, because people can tell if you're not.
Where did you end up after that Futureheads session?
When Alan and Flood decided to take on the big recording room at Assault & Battery, I moved in there with them and became the assistant for that studio. This was more of a challenge, because I suddenly had to really be on it and know the studio. I then went on to assist for Alan Moulder. After about a year of learning I started being able to set up mixes and get vocal sounds for him, as well as moving the mixes into the main room. Then he'd get projects that he loved, but maybe the budgets would be quite small. I would do them to a point, and he would take them in and spend half a day to finish them off. After that he would do the singles, and I would mix the rest of the record. I never imagined myself being a mixer. I'd done songwriting, engineering, vocal production, and all these things. Working with Alan made me realize that you have to think about how the record is going to end up. When you're producing, engineering, or even assisting, thinking about how you actually want it to sound in the end and come together is important.
That's a good place to get some training. What made you go freelance?
I think it happened organically. It never was me making a decision to go out on my own. I just started on stuff that Alan loved, but didn't necessarily have time to do. I think that point where clients are saying, "We want you" only just started to happen in the last six months. It's incredible.
You're doing a lot more mixing now. Didn't you mix some albums on your laptop?
How'd you know that? I have done a couple of albums, several years ago. It was really through circumstances where I couldn't get a studio. I wouldn't necessarily choose to do it like that. I love mixing on a console, but at the moment I'm mixing The Howling Bells — this project I did with Alan — on Pro Tools with a Chandler [Mini Rack] Mixer, as well as a few bits of outboard gear, running it through an EQ, and compressor back in. I guess it is because budgets are getting smaller. For us to be able to get paid at all, we need to adapt. It's unfortunate, but I think we're making it work. It's something that I feel comfortable with. But I also feel comfortable mixing on a console as well.
Where is that mixing taking place?
That's at a little room in Assault & Battery. It was an old mastering room.
How much do you end up editing and tuning material?
I don't think I'm particularly fond of comping drums or Auto-Tune. I'm very reluctant. I don't think it's out of laziness, but it's much easier to get them to play again. It saves time. All that stuff is really time consuming. But I know that everyone has a different process. I was talking about it with a band yesterday who was asking if I was going to comp the drums. I said that I'd like to not have to do that, unless they want it to be a creative thing where they'd like things to sound cut-up, or to sound like a drum machine. They said that they worked with people before who just did one drum take and then spent hours cutting it up. I can understand that. It's a process that some people might have to go through. When I'm mixing, the last thing that I do is draw out the esses on the vocals; whether it really needs it or not. It's these things that people do to make them feel like they're doing their job.
You've gone back to Australia and produced and engineered since moving away. How did that come about?
I think that people had heard of me; they heard about this "young Aussie chick" who'd gone to London. I'd gone back to Australia and asked my manager, Karen [Ciccone], to organize some meetings. Because I've worked with Flood and Alan, that opened a lot of doors. I would love to eventually make more records in Australia, and to be close to mum and dad. Through those meetings, I found people who had particular things that I could do. I worked on a Buchanan album. I worked with Paul Kelly, who's an Aussie hero — an incredible musician and songwriter.
Was that nice to be able to go home, visit your parents, and get some work too?
Yeah. Here I have my life; I can come home and be in my own flat at the end of the day. With mum and dad it's like, "Why were you out so late last night?" "Well, because I didn't finish the record until two o'clock in the morning!"
So what has kept you at this career? Your family's on the other side of the world, you come to London and you're sitting in sessions for 12 hours a day.
I think part of it is just determination. I think that a lot of people thought that I wouldn't last very long, that I was doing the wrong thing, or that it wasn't what I wanted to do. But it turned out that it was. Even though I found it difficult initially, just being an invisible nobody, I slowly started to realize how crucial that aspect was, and how you were suddenly part of a team. I wanted to be part of making music, and it didn't matter how.
What do you think you bring to a session?
I'm very organized. I think it's all about seeing the big picture. Everyone's got this common goal. It's thinking about what I can do to help everyone realize what they want to achieve. I still feel like it's not about me and my vision. I think, in that way, I'm quite reactive. It's about the energies and the excitement; all the emotion, or whatever that goes on on that particular day, with those particular people. Creatively, that's definitely the way I work. What excites me at that time? Obviously I've got a plan of what we need to achieve; but musically, and emotionally, it's very experimental. It's the happy accidents that color and shape the fundamentals of a song. That's definitely what excites me. I remember asking Flood a stupid question like, "What did you do back then [on tape] if someone played out of time, or sung out of tune?" He'd say, "Turn them up!" I know he was being flippant, or annoyed by my question, but I took that to heart. You either make the most of it, or find a way that you can work around it.
What do you see in the future?
I'm working so much at the moment that time is just getting compressed, more and more, into ridiculous schedules. I feel like I'm now coming back to working around the clock. I have a couple of weeks off coming up, which I'm really excited about. I'm just going to sleep. But I don't know what's next. Hopefully I can maintain the interest there is, with the people who want to work with me. Some of the productions I've been doing over the past few years are coming out now, which is exciting. I don't get offended if I don't get chosen for a job though. I think it's so much about personalities, and the dynamic that you have with the band. You're going to be spending loads of time with them, so they need to respect and trust you.