Flood (aka Mark Ellis) could be called one of the most mysterious record producers working in the business by name alone, not to mention that most special way his ears hear music, and the extraordinary gift with which he translates that sound onto record. From revolutionizing U2's sonic landscape at the dawn of the 1990s by credibly delivering them into the electronic dimension with the 20-million selling album Achtung Baby, to the way he and fellow visionary Trent Reznor developed the sub-genre he'd invented throughout groundbreaking albums like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, Flood has been convincing bands to take artistic risks for decades, risks that often have turned out to be leaps in musical time. "1979," one of Smashing Pumpkins' most progressive hits, is one such sonic journey, as is Depeche Mode's futuristic-sounding Violator. They remain among so many other trail-blazing moments in his storied catalog. His co-pilot behind the boards for over 30 years, engineer Alan Moulder, a translator of sorts for Flood, who has remained an invaluable partner in his record-making process for both soundmen's entire careers, joins us here.
I wanted to start off by going back in time to when you and Alan Moulder first founded a production partnership, one that hasn't had a break in over 30 years. What has made you two work so well together, over so much time and through so many classic albums and hits?
Flood: Alan and I have worked together, and been friends, since '83 or '84, and we worked a lot in the same studio starting out as engineers. He's one of the best people you could end up trusting as a really good friend, but also professionally he's highly consistent. We've always worked really, really well together.
Alan: We both have the same sensibility about what we want from a record. We both want excitement and passion; and the same things get us excited, so we work very well together that way. Also, we're free to argue without fear of anything being personal. We always know if we're arguing, it's a creative argument. We actually enjoy arguing because it's more like you understand what the other person's hearing, and it makes you hear the song in another way you might not have thought of. We're free to say what we think without having to worry about each other's feelings, because we know nothing we say is meant to hurt that person's feelings. It's purely the creative war, if you like.
F: It's like, neither of us really takes the lead with one thing or the other. Alan tends to do more of the mixing, and I tend to do more of the recording. But the best thing is that we're completely honest, and the arguments the two of us have are phenomenal. It's a totally positive thing, because you can speak your mind and argue your point while being respectful of the other person, because they may well be right. You've got to be in a position where you can both trust each other and be respectful of that.
A: I think we basically enhance each other, in terms of we know what each other means. A lot of the time it's funny; we don't even have to talk. We can just look and know what each other means. It's almost like a secret language going on, because it only takes a little glance and we know, "Well, that's not happening" or, "That's good."
Flood, you've got a unique pedigree as a producer who's also a musician. How does being able to relate to both sides of the board make you better in your craft?
F: I suppose calling myself a musician is probably a very bad term. I would say the reason I became a producer is because I was probably the world's worst guitar player. I've never had a formal lesson in my life. I suppose I've just trusted my instinct of what I hear, and then applied it in a way that if I'd had the formal training, I wouldn't necessarily do. A lot of the decisions come from the phonics. I feel, really, that you've got to have some musicality in order to be a producer. Unless you're one of these people who come in and it's more about arranging the people and getting the right beat, in the right place, at the right time. Otherwise I think it's not fair on the people that you're working with that you can't communicate with the music. So often a lot of bands aren't technically trained, or if they are technically trained you see how frustrating it can be when you're very technically-minded. You can't see, "Oh, maybe it's something deceiving my ears, but there has to be a different reason for it." That's what I specialize in. Because I'm really not a musician, it's just what I hear in my head. Most of the people I work with are like, "Oh, yeah; I hear that too," or, "I hear a bigger or better version of it." So I think you have to have some musicality, or some sense of it, in order to respond to people in a band.
With U2's groundbreaking Achtung Baby, you produced arguably one of the most successful gambles a mainstream rock band ever took in shifting their sound into new sonic territory. How important was the headspace you put the band in, heading into that experiment?
F: The main thing was that the band felt at ease, comfortable, and felt in a creative space. That will always generate a different type of sound. When you're recording, it's about the emotional response and the chemistry between the people. You can't duplicate what's come before. Time immemorial said that. You can have one amazing album, or one amazing painting, but it doesn't mean to say that the next one's going to follow.
When you're tracking vocals, say with a singer of Bono's range for instance, how do you like to design the placement of players in the studio while you're recording?
F: I tend to like having the vocalist be in the control room with me, for a lot of different reasons: 1) First and foremost is for communication. If you've got the person right next to you, it becomes unsaid. 2) For a performer, most singers prefer to feel as though they're doing it live. A lot of times I use a single, handheld [Shure SM]58 because it frees them up. If they can hear themselves coming out of the speakers, generally, their pitching is much, much better. When they've got headphones on, they've got the sound of the voice in their head and the vibe coming back through their ears. You have to have the voice so loud, or with such an extreme effect on it, in order for the singer to hear it. Often you find there are tuning issues. That's another reason why I would do it. It's all about the performance. With the advent of Pro Tools, you can go through and fix bits and technical things, but, generally, if it's not about the performance, why bother?
You've long had a gift for channeling the power of an artist's rage on tape, from Trent Reznor famously screaming, "I want to fuck you like an animal!" to Billy Corgan's [Tape Op #115] roaring chorus on "Bullet with Butterfly Wings."
F: In the studio, the singer is doing a performance in front of a group of people, which is me, the engineer, and the assistant. But even if it's just for me, it's a performance. It's not a sterile entity where they shut their eyes and disappear. I realized early on, when I did a remix of "Rock N' Roll Nigger" by the Patti Smith Group for Natural Born Killers, that trying to eliminate spill, you get rid of the sonic glue. But if you're careful about what you put through the speakers, the spill acts as a real excitement in the track. Obviously you don't want the tambourine, or things that are questionable when blaringly loud. But if you use it sensibly, and position the speakers in a certain way, and make sure that you don't get loads of feedback, it can usually add to the track.
You and Trent Reznor won a Grammy for your work together on "Wish." As with so many of your productions, no one else at the time was doing what you two were doing in the studio together, especially rhythmically. What heavy machinery did you and Reznor break out in the Broken/ Downward Spiral era?
F: I was locked in a world of industrial music at that time. As I recall, the way that I worked, I would have probably used the Alesis SR-16, as much as a trigger unit as anything else. A lot of what I was doing in those days was setting up loaded loops or beats within the [Akai] S1000 or S1100, and then using the SR-16 to trigger them. Sometimes to replace the basic sounds, and sometimes as a trigger, because I liked the groove of the SR-16.
You've recorded so many amazing rock bands across the stylistic spectrum throughout your career, from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers, 30 Seconds to Mars, to The Charlatans, and on. What is one thing you've found common to recording all of them?
F: One person cannot take credit, and I'm very much a person who feels that you should try to capture the essence of people playing together. It's that collaboration; that's what's brilliant about music. Capturing human beings reacting, working together, and providing an emotional response – you hope that you can capture that, which I think you can. It's almost a gift and privilege to be part of a creative group of people who make great works. If you can find a way to learn something new, and to have people you work with and respect push you in different ways, that's an amazing experience. For me, it's not about one single person; it's about the group of people. Everybody is vitally important to the whole process – even though they might not do as much physical labor. I always hope that I can capture that energy in a really positive way, rather than in a negative way. That's the beauty of making music; that's exactly what you can do. You can capture the sound of four people who are just out of this world. It's living proof that it can change people's lives. When you're making records, it doesn't matter if it's a double album, a triple album, or an EP. I feel you have to let songs have their natural life. People will start to play things and it will start to fall into its own space.
You produced an amazing collection of music with both Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor. How did working within that co-producer dynamic differ from a collaboration where you're pretty much running things from behind the boards?
F: I take pleasure being in a highly creative situation, which is the same with most of the bands I work with. They push me, I push myself, and they're open to hearing new ways of doing the same old thing; then they manage to translate it into playing it as a band. That's all you can want: to be open, do something that you feel proud of that is a representation of you as a person.
Making records can be a frustrating at times. Have you had to put on your proverbial "psychologist" hat over the years? I assume you've used that frustration to your benefit, from time to time?
F: I use that frustration to benefit the music all the time. [laughs] All the time! That's the nature of the job, but it's incredibly difficult because those frustrations will work positively – because everybody's open-minded and there'll be an outburst, or somebody disagrees with something – and then that will lead to something else, and then it's all forgotten.
What are some of the greatest ways Pro Tools plays into your record-making process?
F: I've spent so many years working with different bands and effectively doing guerilla recording with the bare essentials. That sort of thing becomes relatively easy to set up if you've got the right room and the right vibe. Essentially you're mic'ing a live gig, and you better cover your bases in case somebody screws up, or you don't like something. Now you can take it out and fix it much more easily. When Pro Tools first came out, I'd been working with Trent. I was very, very used to working with whole songs based in Pro Tools and committing them to tape.
You and Alan have given rock 'n' roll some of its most sonically mind-blowing mixes over the years. How conscious do you stay during recording of decisions you're going to be making later in the mix arena?
F: I think because I grew up using tape, it means I have to make decisions – from arrangement to instrumentation, and even decisions about balance. [On tape] for some songs it's impossible to have the drums over 15 tracks, so you suddenly make a decision, "Well, we'll just have it on two tracks." If you don't like the sound after a few weeks, you change it. It's such a vibe type of thing, because it's all about the song and a feeling. It's like, "How do I get that feeling from the balance of the instruments that serves the song?" If you've got a whole album that's based on "we'll fix it in the mix," to me that's the kiss of death. To leave everything to chance by waiting until the end just seems like total madness to me. You've got a group of the most amazing musicians in the world, so have some balls and make decisions. Then, if you make the decisions, that creates momentum and creativity. People react to what they're hearing. You've got to be there and just do it. For me, mixing should really be an extension of the recording process. It should be that you're able to get a simple balance, and you've got the essence of what's going on. Then you have somebody like Alan, who's a master of the mixing process. He basically sends it out into the stratosphere.
A: Back when we were cutting on tape, we didn't have a choice. We had to commit, because we only had 46 tracks and a lot of guitars going on there, between 15 and 18, so we had to make commitments and choices. But we had enough to be flexible. We would each have a mic at the desk, so it was mainly in how we recorded the sounds. The EQs and compression were all committed to tape. Flood and I both came up in the same school, so if we found something we liked, we'd commit to it, because you never know if you're going to be able to get it back.
Do you ever know ahead of time in the studio that you're onto something special in the "hit" category? Does that make you treat the production any differently from the other songs on the album?
F: I've had this view for years that you should never label a song as being a single. The moment that that happens, it attaches itself as weight and baggage. Everybody tries too hard, and there's a pressure on the song to deliver. Quite often it can never live up to that, or it ends up as a compromise, because everybody's piddle-paddling around trying to make it the greatest thing since sliced bread. When you try to make something sound good for the radio, you'll end up making it sound like garbage... or worse.
Every producer I've talked to through the years has a great last-minute rush story about finishing up a record they almost didn't get delivered to the label on time.
A: With the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" I remember the mix on that was really, really difficult. I think we had gone through the night, and we had to hold the door shut to stop Bobby Brown from getting in so we could finish it off!
Any favorites sessions or albums you'd highlight, looking back?
A: Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and The Cure were my three babies. I've been very, very fortunate to have more than one.
F: I think the thing you have to concentrate on is being proud of managing to get something through the door that stands the test of time.
Any closing advice for the beginners reading this who want to become producers in their own right?
F: Try not to second-guess yourself, because that's the worst thing you can do.
What's it like to know you have a fanbase, the same way the artists you produce do? What is it like to know you've been an influence on others?
F: It's nice to hear. I was talking to Johnny Marr once, and we were talking about songs as a producer or performer that he'd released. One in particular I felt was a brilliant song but that the production wasn't very good. He said, "You know what? That song changed my son's life. He listened to that song religiously." That's the power of music; don't abuse it and don't take it for granted. If one person in the world is served or changed, then you've done your job. So it's brilliant to hear that doing what I love doing is translating and helping people have a different way of looking at life. I try to learn something new, and I try to do something different every day. We've only got one life, and I feel very humble because I'm just a bloke from the suburbs.