I caught Leo Abrahams at his London home after a soundtrack session at Abbey Road and before heading over to play guitar on a recording with Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. It's all in a day's work for this producer, engineer, musician, and collaborator. In the studio Leo has worked with David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Olivia Chaney, Smoke Fairies, Wild Beasts, Paolo Nutini, Frightened Rabbit, Carl Barat, Chris Difford, and Brett Anderson of Suede, plus performed and co-written soundtracks for The Lovely Bones, Hunger, and Fine Minutes to Heaven. His work with Brian Eno has involved performance, co-writing, producing, and much more. His many solo albums are a pleasure to listen to as well.
How did you get your start? You went to the Royal Academy of Music.
Yeah, that was to be a classical composer. Halfway through that year I realized it probably wasn't for me, and I changed to the commercial music course.
Which was more like composing and recording?
It had more of a recording element, and it was to do with writing for film. What I found was that as soon as I changed into it, I started writing a lot of aleatoric, atonal music; completely abstract. I thought, "Well, I'm rebelling here," but I didn't know against what, exactly. Then I got a phone call from this manager (who I'd been bothering with my demos since I was 15). He said, "I've got this artist who's looking for a guitar player. Do you want to come and do an audition?" It had honestly never occurred to me to play guitar for anyone. I went to the audition and got it. It was Imogen Heap. That really chimed with my growing interest in strange guitar sounds, because she didn't have any guitar on her songs at that point. I thought, "What am I going to play in this audition?"
You're not just blocking out chords.
Yeah. I thought, "I'm going to make drum or keyboard sounds with these pedals." I did that, and it went really well. At the end of that year, I'd met Ed Harcourt and a couple of other people. I was beginning to make a living. Imogen took me down to a club where Ed was playing, and that was the night he got signed. It was fortuitous for me. He gave me an interview and said, "Do you like Tom Waits?" I said, "Yes." He said "Right, your first rehearsal's next week."
Yeah! Then people started trusting me to do their string arrangements because of the fact that I'd been to the Academy. It sort of grew from there, quite naturally. I was living above a recording studio, Cafe Music, in east London. It was actually the first studio I'd ever been to when I was 15. When I turned 22, the flat above it became vacant, so I moved in and lived there for ten years. The owner, Mark Sutherland, was really encouraging and generous. It meant that I could go down and play around in the studio whenever I liked.
You had keys?
It wasn't even locked. It was part of the same ramshackle house. Mark still owns it; he's really good. It was a very gentle initiation to recording. I was never anyone's assistant, which I regret. I feel like I missed out on a lot of engineering lessons. When I started producing seriously, I tended to have a budget for an engineer a lot of the time. It's surprising how little you actually learn until you start having to do it by yourself, as well as when you're not in your own place all the time.
Patch bays and...
Well, it was more like the architecture of a mixing desk, or how to treat rooms that one isn't familiar with. I was very comfortable in my space, but once I started to go into other peoples' studios where I didn't know the room...
The control room and how you're hearing things?
Yeah, as well as the live room and what sounded good in the live room. Because I came from a music background, rather than an engineering background, I spent all those mental hours thinking about music. I feel like I was playing catch up on engineering. I still am, in a way. I haven't put as many hours into it. For the last few years, it's been a lot better.
How often are you tasked with engineering work lately?
Well, I've done a bunch. It depends on what the budget is for the project, obviously, and it also depends on what I'm required to do. On some records, I have to play nearly all the instruments. If I have to do that, as well as engineer, it's tough. I have done it, but I find it's not a wholly pleasant experience. It's a lot of plates to keep...