They say that record producers and engineers are the people behind the curtain, but if so London's Dan Carey seems to be hiding deep in the backstage shadows while the artists he work with take center stage. These artists include Franz Ferdinand, Kylie Minogue, CSS, M.I.A., Lily Allen, Hot Chip, Emilíana Torrini, Santigold, The Kills, La Roux, Oh Land, Bat For Lashes, Willy Mason, and Yeasayer. Despite the attention these people receive, it's rare to read about Dan or to even come across a short interview with him. So I trekked through South London to his Streatham-based studio where we had quite a great chat amid his massive collection of musical instruments and recording gear.
What's your history? I know you've worked with reggae producer Nick Manasseh in the past.
I played in band when I was a kid and then kind of got tired of that. As a reaction, I went into completely electronic stuff and thought, "I'm not going to play the guitar any more." Then I did a lot of club stuff for quite a while. Eventually I found the guitar again and tried to join them together. I got signed as an "artist" to Virgin in 2001. There was a period when they were signing producers as artists — you do an album, make the tracks, and get people to sing on each of them. I think Zero 7 had been massive and Virgin was like, "You could be just like them."
There's always someone you are supposed to be "just like."
Yeah, exactly. It didn't really amount to much.
Was that under your name?
[It was actually] Mr. Dan. They let me be pretty out there. The record I made didn't sell, but it was quite interesting. That was where I got the cash to build up the desk and tape machine. I met lots of vocalists who sang on my album, but it made more sense for me to produce their records. That's the way it should be. [Icelandic singer] Emiliana Torrini was probably the first person I had a record with [Fisherman's Woman]. I have done a lot of stuff with her, and that's branched out into other things. Together we wrote a song ["Slow'] for Kylie [Minogue] in the middle of doing Emiliana's album. Someone suggested it at the label and I thought it would be fun. That did pretty well, so that led to a whole other kind of area of production.
What initially led to you learning how to engineer? Was that involving Nick too?
I used to do reggae guitar sessions for him. He would let me sit around in the studio while he was carrying on mixing the track. I used to hang around and ask questions. I had some kind of setup at home previous to that, but I learned a lot from Nick about doing things properly. Then we ended up sharing a studio in Brixton; it was too big for one person so we moved in there together.
You had different suites to work out of?
Exactly. I think I had a slight thing for engineering. I did electronics at the university, thinking it would enable me to build anything.
Like build your own console or something?
Yeah. I probably shouldn't have spent so much time in bands!
One thing I hear in your productions are certain dub techniques.
I used to love the records that Nick was doing — he was just matter-of-fact about it, "When you set up an echo, you've got to have it feeding back on itself. You've got to filter, and you need some spring reverbs." But at the same time that you have all these spacey, float-y sounds, you always have the kick drum really loud, and always have the vocal nice and present. That's the style I guess. That led into other things. I spent a bit of time with Sly [Dunbar] and Robbie [Shakespeare] in Kingston, Jamaica, and then did some stuff with Lee Perry as well. Because of the way that Nick showed me how music "should be made," I get into trouble sometimes. I always have this tendency to do what he would do, like towards the end of a track it'll start turning into a dub version. [laughter] Often labels come back and say, "It is great, but it just goes crazy at the end and there are all these echoes." And I'm like, "Yeah, obviously." I thought that's what you were meant to do. Often I have to go back and do mixes again without going crazy. I can never let a mix go through without changing it somehow. Even when the automation is doing all of the business, I can't help but do one little [reverb] hit.
What kind of stuff did you do with Lee Perry?
He did vocals on a track. I am in a band called Lazyboy — it's me and Rob da Bank. We wrote a song and it reminded us of Perry, so he did a vocal on it. He said, "Only if you come to my house." Mad Professor [Neil Fraser] took me over there and it was a crazy, crazy day. I had some kind of digital 24-track, just with the track on it. It wouldn't plug in; Lee plugged it in with some little bits of wire. He got the wires off the mains cable and it kept going on and off. Eventually he adjusted it to where it worked. We had done this song and sent it to him and he had two ideas. Instead of doing lots of takes and then choosing the ones he liked, he did two takes. But he probably listened to each one 15 or 20 times, and this song is about six minutes long! He did another take and listened to that 15 times and then said, "It's the first one." [laughter]
You have an "additional production" credit on The Kills' record, Blood Pressures. I know they tracked that at Key Club Recording Company in Michigan.
Yeah, we only did little bits here. They had been at Key Club for ages and then came here. We did quite a lot of reamping of drums that had been played on the [Akai] MPC. We sent the kick out to a bass amp. We went back to Key Club — it was definitely mostly done there. Have you been there? It's just amazing. The whole building has got this feel. I suppose it's because there is lots of room in the studio. There's a control room, a live room, and a room behind that with logs around it, which is like being in a forest of amps. Then there are a couple of small booths, but it kind of extends out into the kitchen. Music is just everywhere.
Have you spent much time working in sterile studios?
No. I try not to. I feel really lost when I go to a high- end, good-looking studio — for lots of reasons. Partly not having instant access to all of the instruments, but also I feel a kind of pressure. If it looks too expensive then I worry about touching anything, or wasting too much time. It's quite interesting talking to people who finish recording here. They mention those kinds of things, like the fact that it doesn't really feel like you're in a studio. They seem to like it. It's interesting having found Key Club — I would definitely go there because it felt similar. I think maybe it's a deficiency of mine, but there is something about having all your own equipment — you know how to abuse things slightly, or you know the difference between hooking up a different signal path for the drum busses and exactly what it will do. Most things don't just sound great as soon as you turn them on.
Does your studio ever surprise someone that the label passes your way?
I think people seem really excited to see my place. People from labels come down and always say, "I've got to get so-and-so to come over here." I think some people are surprised when I tell them that I mix here, because I guess you might expect a mixing room to have less distractions. We are starting another room around the corner actually — it's like a two or three minute walk. It's about the size of this and we are going to use it mainly for mixing, and maybe some overdubs. I've got a pretty similar set of outboard gear, as well as a Calrec desk. That's partly to free up a bit of time, because if I mix in here and then have to recall it, it's a pain in the ass. Because so many people mix in the computer, I think labels are getting used to feeling that it's okay to not really decide. I've been trying to force people to get involved in the decision-making. Often the next day it's like, "Can we just try this?" And I say, "No. I've just taken it off." So we thought if we had another room, we could have a song and leave it for a few days. We could go work in the other studio for a bit and do something there while leaving the other mix up.
That's real recall, walk over and the same mix is still up. [laughter]
It's a bit of a luxury. Yesterday it was really good as well. We were recording in here and I took another song that needed a bit of attention over to the other space for a few hours. Alexis [Smith, Dan's assistant] was here in the studio recording some vocals. It's nice. I think it is good for everyone's state of mind. If you've got five people in a room, not everyone can be doing something; but if you split it into two rooms then everyone is busy. If I'm working with a band, I prefer it if everyone is in here and doing something. It maximizes that potential and everyone is quite happy. It can get quite boring if you've done your bit of tracking.
That sounds like a pretty good plan. Do you ever do stem mixes for recalls?
It doesn't work for me.
What did you find that didn't work? I have been doing that a bit recently.
I find that if you bypass the stereo bus (compression or EQ), then everything sounds weak because there is not enough level, mainly because of the way it goes through the stereo bus compression or EQ. But if you put the drums through the stereo compression then it's all too compressed and it doesn't sit right when you put it together [with the other stems]. It's gone through the desk too many times as well. What I do more often is, when I'm mixing, or even before the mixing, I try to reduce things a bit so there's not a massive multitrack. I try to put the drums into approximately four tracks, such as kick and a snare. Everything else is as a pair.
Like sub-mixing, with processing along the way?
Yeah. Decide on a sound, so if you have to recall it you don't have tons of work. I like bouncing things around on tape.
I have many projects where I am mixing remotely.
You need two studios. [laughter]
Do you like to track to tape and then dump it into [Apple's] Logic?
Not always. In the beginning of a project I'm pragmatic about what will work. I will decide, "This is going to be the kind of record where we... whatever it is...," and then try and stick to it. I do record some initially on the tape machine and then put it straight into Logic. Sometimes we sync up to Logic, like recording lots of percussion where you want to layer quite a lot. Logic is synced to the tape, we then mix tracks down to tape and keep stacking up the tape with quite thick tracks, so that each one has like ten tracks of percussion on it. Sometimes even without a computer at all, just working on 16 tracks and bouncing. I really like that, but it can make everybody quite nervous. I don't mean nervous in a bad way, but say you are overdubbing a bass part. There are two free tracks, so you do one, and then you do another. Now you've got to record over one of them if you want to do another, and it makes everybody really focused. You kind of get this sense that you are physically building up a thing with this reel of tape.
Do you find, if you're working in Logic, that you also try to keep focused and limit the multitude of potential options there?
Well, I try to, but I think it's wrong to place restrictions on myself. If I am working in Logic I'll partly be working in Logic because there's scope to create tons of tracks, as well as do lots of edits. I think you should use as much as possible and get the best out of it, whatever you are working on. If you don't want that, then you should work on something else. [iZ Technologies] RADAR is a good sort of "in-between" if I want to work digitally, because I've got limited tracks and I can't really do anything with them. Tape can be a bit hissy, and it doesn't suit everything. It's a bit like lo-fi filmmaking — I really hate stuff that's been artificially degraded. If you want to make a film that looks low budget, then use an 8 mm camera or something. You can hear it on records sometimes; a drum sound that is clearly very expensively recorded and then just had the treble taken off. I would rather start with limited gear and try to make it as hi-fi as I can. If I'm in Logic I'm not shy about triggering drums, creating multiple tracks, and using everything that it's got. But then sometimes I'll reduce all of that and put it onto tape. Sometimes I don't know how deep I go into Logic anyway, because I read magazines about Logic and I don't understand what the fuck they're talking about. I just don't understand it. Perhaps I am using it in an incredibly basic way, but I don't know.
You just have to ask of it what you need it to do.
Yeah. I like the plug-ins a lot. The UAD-2 plug-ins are absolutely amazing.
We interviewed Paul Savage [Tape Op #72] a couple of years ago and he was in the middle of working on Franz Ferdinand's Tonight: Franz Ferdinand with you. That was a pretty unique experience, wasn't it?
[It was recorded] In the old town hall. I had some pretty interesting experiments with having everyone play together but just loop the intro. Then, when everyone had settled on that, we would go on to the next part and then loop around the first four bars of the verse. So each song kind of rolled out — sometimes in an hour and a half. We would just sit through playback and everyone would be like, "Yep, yep." You could measure the enthusiasm for each version of the part, mark them, and join them together.
What were you recording on?
RADAR. The editing was kind of hardcore. I made Alexis do it, but I did my share.
How did transitions work? Did you have to put in a cymbal crash to make things flow into the next part?
No, we wanted them to seem like cuts. We were talking about it and Alex Kapranos's [guitar, vocals] idea was to make them seem like different scenes in a film. Just cut. There's nothing wrong with that. We obviously played the song in the same way, so there usually would be a cymbal, or a guitar chord, hanging there. Also, once we did that, we brought all the stuff down here and then synced RADAR up with the 2-inch. We had 16 tracks that were unedited. I guess that masked the joints a little bit.
Do you think you would do something completely different if you worked with them again?
I think so. We would just come up with another concept. I think that is the fun part of it; deciding what your philosophy is going to be and then seeing if you can stick to it. You can't always, but I think it gives you some framework so you don't get completely lost. I've seen people get lost in albums before, because there are no boundaries. You can pretty much get any sound that you can dream up, so I guess it's possible to start making a record and never finish it. I'm really into recording quickly. I'm doing an album with Willy Mason at the moment, and we tracked almost the whole record in two weeks. We decided, production-wise, that the focus was going to be drum machines all plugged into the [Roland] Space Echo, a Kalamazoo amp, and sometimes one or two other amps around the room. It's really hard to get the groove going because you have to twiddle to get them to sync up.
To sync up old analog rhythm machines?
Yeah, as well as getting the Space Echo to lend the groove to it. As soon as we got a groove going that we liked, he would start playing one of the songs and we'd say, "That's the groove." Then we'd just put down the guitar and drum track. Then we'd start overdubbing over that. We decided to go back once or twice and try it again; but you can never recreate the same thing, so we would get a slightly different version of it. It's such a lovely way to record because it's almost the act of deciding to start recording. It's a very definite thing saying, "Yeah, that's it." You've defined how the song is going to be.
You're known for mixing and remixes. But other people do remixes of stuff you've tracked. What do you think when you hear a mix of something you initiated?
I try not to analyze it too carefully. I try not to bring it back here and listen to it as if I had just mixed it and then say, "I think that's a bit too quiet," because that's just pointless. I don't think anyone would mix something the exact same way as someone else. Everyone's got his or her own way of doing it. If I'm mixing for someone else I find it annoying if they say, "No, no. That's meant to be quieter." I much prefer comments that are less tangible. It's fine if they say, "Can it be more dramatic?" Or, "Can it be less frightening?" I try to give comments back that are like that. I tend to just listen to it in the kitchen, or the car, to see if I like it. I tend to either like it or not like it.
Have you had any rights of refusal on things, such as if it's a record you produced and remixers are working on it?
Yeah. I mean, I think that everyone is pretty grown up about it. If you don't like something then someone will do his or her best to change it. Sometimes I find that if it's something I've been working on for a long time it can be a really nice surprise. The Miles Kane album [Colour of the Trap] is a good example of that. Tom Elmhirst mixed it. It was a really intense recording. We had spent quite a long time and done endless rough mixes. You get into habits. For someone to take it and say, "The drums don't have to be very clang-y on this track." He's taking a different approach, and it was really tough. Though, in that approach, I hardly had any mix comments. It was just, "Yeah, I like it." Tom has mixed lots of stuff that I've done, so I always trust him. I know if there is something that doesn't sound right to me, then it's probably me that's wrong.
What are things that draw clients to work with you?
I don't know. I've never really talked to people about that. I suppose I should. Sometimes I don't really like talking to people I'm working with about what might happen in the future with a record, about what the record company wants to do, or experiences with past records. It's quite nice if you're in a bubble. It's even to the point where sometimes I don't like listening to too much other stuff in the studio while I'm recording.
So what do you see in the future? Getting the extra room ready?
Yeah, and more of the same I hope!
Do you feel lucky to be busy?
Yeah. I mean I've hardly had a day off, really, for years. I guess that's lucky. Part of the reason for getting the other room is to try and make things a bit more relaxed. I do find that I am coming in here really early in the mornings to finish something off. Of course I am lucky; I can't complain.
How did you find your assistant, Alexis?
I shared the studio with Matthew Herbert [Tape Op #58] for a while, and he introduced me to Alexis. He came in once or twice to help with a couple of things. At first they were quite small things to do with getting the studio organized a bit better, and then he gradually started to sit in on sessions. Then I realized that if I did a session and he wasn't there, I just hated it. We've become really good friends, and I'm completely dependent on him. We share a taste in music, so if we are working on something we both get excited about the same things. He's just so methodical. I'm sure this is how it works in partnerships, where there is someone who compensates for the things lacking in the other. Although it's going to be slightly weird now, because when we have the new room there will probably be one of us here and one of us there all of the time.
Are you going to have to find someone else?
Well, we've got someone who's a really good friend of mine, Oli Bayston, who I make a lot of music with. I produced the band that he was in [Keith] and we're in a band together [Howls]. Anyway, he started helping out as well. I think maybe he will work between the two rooms. I like having lots of people around. The more people there are, the more of a family scene you have going on. I quite like the idea that a band will be here and then some other project they've got might need to borrow one of the studios for a bit. Maybe they will come play drums on a track and return. It seems like in the '70s — I read about bands hanging out in studios and people swapping over.
"Hey, come play a solo."
Exactly. I always thought that was really cool.