Ben Harris, along with Paul Harris and Steve Smith is one third of the UK-based group Dirty Vegas. I met Ben through his father in law, Snuff Garrett (Tape Op #73), and interviewed him at Snuff's home in Arizona. Dirty Vegas were about to release their "comeback" album, Electric Love, and Ben has kept busy since!
What were you doing before Dirty Vegas?
I fell in love with music in school. I was in different indie bands around the London live music scene. I had a band called Fluid. We just did the local circuit and we were getting interest from labels.
Were you playing guitar?
Guitar, yes. Some of us were going off to college and some of us weren't. We decided if we didn't get signed by the end of the summer that we'd go our separate ways. We got down to the wire and the band split. I didn't want to go back to college, so I applied to every recording studio in the city, looking for a job. Tea boy, gofer; anything. I sent out a letter to 70 studios and got one reply back; luckily I got the job! [laughter] It was at a studio in Camden. Camden is a big hotbed for live music and clubs. I started to grasp the basics of how to record. It was fun to learn.
What kind of work were you doing initially?
I wasn't allowed to touch anything. I couldn't even touch the tape deck at first. It was about sitting in the room and being quiet, and fetching a drink if anyone asked! I'd run errands at lunchtime. You just ask questions when you get the moment. After I'd been there a few months, they let me man the 24-track machine. I was there for overdubs and whatnot.
Literally the tape op.
Yes, literally the tape op! I was lucky, with how technology is, to be young enough to get my foot in the door when people were still using 2-inch tape machines. That was great. It's incredible what you can do with technology these days, but there's some fundamental basics of recording sound that you learn from those old methods. Just to see the old pros using that in front of me was just fantastic. Occasionally they'd sync up two machines to get to 48-tracks. You have to get creative! Sometimes I think limitations can spur the creativity. Too many choices aren't necessarily a good thing.
I'm sure you end up with tracks where there's a lot of stuff going on with the Dirty Vegas stuff.
Yes. That sometimes is the hardest thing; especially when you're trying to write an album and you've got an overabundance of software. You can literally come up with anything within one song, but the challenge is to keep the focus across the album. That's where it gets tricky!
How did you meet up with Paul Harris (band member, not related)?
Paul and I met first, but the three of us all lived in the same neighborhood. We didn't meet until we were 18. I'd opened up a small record shop in my little hometown of Bromley. The house techno scene had really taken off and it gripped everyone. We were selling a lot of those records. Paul was a DJ in London; he came in the shop to buy records for his work. We started talking and we got on great. I got to a bit of a stale point and I wanted to try something different. I called Paul and we started laying down some tracks. We started a thing called the Hydrogen Rockers, which was an underground house techno remixing production outfit. We'd do that underground club rock thing that was going on in London at the time. From there, he had a chance meeting with Steve [Smith, vocalist] at the airport. Paul said, "This guy is pretty good. We should look into producing his albums." We sat down one day and listened to some acoustic tracks. One of them was "Days Go By," and that was it. We just went straight into the session and had it done in three or four hours!
And that changed your life, just a bit! [laughter]
Umm, yeah! That changed everything. We felt, "Something great happened yesterday. We've got to explore this." It just took off from there.
I thought it was interesting that you guys were initially being compared to Fat Boy Slim and Paul Oakenfold. But you were really working more with a songwriter. It's a different thing.
Completely. The way to think about us is that Steve comes from the traditional singer-songwriter place. I'd been playing in guitar rock bands for years. Paul was coming from the complete opposite end, having been a DJ. Nothing quite fit, but it didn't matter. It was about trying to keep the sensibility of keeping the dance/rock thing together. They don't really mesh, but if you can get it, it's great. Sometimes a lyric can be inspired by the mood and the music, and vice versa. When we first heard the lyrics from "Days Go By," it was really important to us that they mood fit. It's a bittersweet kind of thing.
Don't subvert the message!
Exactly. We wanted to keep the message, but still have the electronic thing.
When you were remixing before this and rebuilding the tracks with Steve, what kind of systems were you working on?
I had a little flat in London and part of the studio is stuck in the kitchen. Not the best! I had a Soundtracs analog desk — a 24-channel thing. We were sequencing on an Apple LC III. Really old.
So the computer is running MIDI.
Exactly. We had samplers for drums. We've always had a very experimental approach. For example, on "Days Go By," that drop that sounds like a trippy, dreamy synth pad is actually an acoustic guitar that's been printed in a sampler and played with LFOs and filters. It's one bar out of a 16-bar sequence. It was really basic. No audio in the computer.
Were you putting his vocals into the sampler?
Into the sampler, yeah. I had an [AKAI] S3200. It had a hard disc section in it as well which gave you two or three minutes of audio.
It's weird to think how fast all that's changed.
Back to the limitation thing. You've got a ten second sampling time and some hard disc space — sort it out and make what you can.
What would you mix down to? Was it a DAT machine?
Yeah. Oh, god — those days!
I remember suffering through those bastards. [laughter]
I'm very pleased to see those gone!
Did you do the whole first record with that equipment?
Yes. It was all done in that room. I think towards the end we swapped out for an Apple G4. That gave us the first chance to hard disc record to a computer. We were using Logic, I think. All a sudden it was like, "Whoa! We can play tracks and record a guitar part that goes for a whole song."
Initially you'd have MIDI tracks, but you couldn't have audio tracks right next to them.
Oh, yes. That was all separate. For us, it all obviously came together on the desk. That was the focal point. It's weird to see people working now — there's no desk and everything is spread out. I think the limitation thing helps focus you. It focuses your mind.
With the first record, were you mastering off your DAT?
We found a good friend of ours, a guy called John Davis. He now works out at Metropolis, which is one of the big mastering houses in London. We had a relationship with him. We'd been friends with him for years and years. It was a natural progression for him to master the album. He just mastered out third album at Metropolis. He used to love it; it would come sounding really raw.
It would give him some room to work?
Yeah! He felt like, "Oh, I can really go to town on this!" He used to love that. He really knew the sound. Good mastering is so important, especially using someone who knows your style.
With the second record, One, it's very different from the first. I read that part of that was from touring with drums and bass.
Did you guys build a studio around that point?
Well, it was the same kitchen, but expanded! [laughter]
Could you still live there?
Well, that was it. I was getting to that point! We bought a secondhand SSL 4000-G. Getting that through the window of the second floor was tricky! [laughter]
Did you have to hoist it up?
Yes, we had to get a crane. As it was going up the crane operator asked, "Is that thing insured?" We said, 'No. Don't ask me that after it's forty feet in the air!'" But we got it in. It literally overtook the studio, but we just love doing it ourselves. Going into a big studio just isn't our thing.
Did you go to a "real" studio for drum tracking?
The only things that we did do separate was tracking drums and a string section. We went to the old Sony studios for that, which is now closed down. That was amazing! It was incredible to watch all of that going on. We started as an electronic project that was a production-based band, and it came together during the making of that first record. By the second record, we'd done a whole tour of the world. We'd brought a drummer and bass player on board. We'd done the States and all the festivals, so we came back a live band and we wanted to capture that. It just felt right doing it live, and we felt it had to go on the record.
Were you working out any new songs on the road?
Yes, a few. The schedule made it really hard. When you're on a bus, that's cool. You can take the guitars out and work. But it got really tricky with all the flying. We ended up working a lot of it out in the studio. You take the time where you can.
Were you taking things on the road, like a laptop and some recording stuff?
Yes. We had the laptop. Nowadays, it's great. This was the early laptop phase; they weren't quite ready to do those things! [laughter]
It can go into overload after two bars! Just press record. "We know the melody and we've got the chords. We'll go in the studio and do it Monday." It was really just notepad stuff.
All this time I imagine you're doing quite a bit of programming, keyboard work and guitar work with this project.
Oh, yes. The key for us has been recently, since we got back together, that we all know the music business. There's not as much money for anything these days and it reflects on all of us. So we've got to keep a budget. We've got to make sure we can put on the best show for the least amount of cost. I've totally gone from traditional guitar amps to literally DI-ing a pedal board, which is basically the sound card, straight out to front of house. It sounds amazing. Our front of house engineer, the first time he heard it, he couldn't believe it was just coming off a laptop and a pedal. He was like, "Where's the amp?"
Do you have a controller?
Yes. The one I've got has the pedal board so I can switch effects. I think if we ever get back to doing the big festivals I'd want an amp onstage, with a band. But you can just get on a plane with this! While we're trying to keep the budget tight, we keep using technology to help that happen. Our drummer is a really good session player, so he's got a deal with Mapex. Wherever we play, they send him down a kit. He just turns up and it's sitting there on the stage.
It's great to have him in the band! We can get the whole band onstage playing and it doesn't really cost too much. I really love technology for that.
So you were working on the second album in the kitchen.
Yes, it even says on the back of the album, "This was recorded in Ben's kitchen." Obviously we had a nicer, bigger desk and a few more bits of outboard. We were in the same space everyday but Steve, in particular, really wanted to break the cycle and get some new scenery. We loaded the car up and got a house in the furthest most Northern point on Scotland that we could. You couldn't drive any further without driving into the ocean! We turned up in this village with a van and people did not know what to think. [laughter] We cleared all the furniture out of the living room and set the gear up. We wrote about 80 percent of the album there. We got great sound. We'd brought some really good preamps that we'd borrowed. When you've got a bit of time, you can move things around until it sounds good.
The record does feel like that — it's got a different depth from the first record.
Yeah, it does. The way it's put together is different. It's a bit more organic. It's focused and more live sounding. It really just a development from being on the road for a year.
Going to Scotland, was it good as far as distractions? I figure it's good being away from London where you're busy...
Yes, I'd never been that far up. We went to this village where literally 50 other people were living. The big action was seeing some sheep cross the road! And of course we'd pop down to the local pubs and hang with the locals. That was it. It was incredible to look out at the ocean and create in the living room. It was a good bonding experience as well.
After that record, did you do another round of touring?
We did some touring. For us, this is where it started to go a bit awry. We were having some issues with the record company. There was a change of personal and our old guy wasn't there anymore. We toured with Tears for Fears. It was a weird tour; there's quite an age gap. After that, we decided we needed to take some time. We needed a break. We had a really manic two or three years where there wasn't a chance to breathe. It was great, but we needed a break. We've always remained friends and we still are now. And now we're back together.
What did you do in the meantime?
I took some time out just to have a break. My wife was hoping I'd take it easy for a bit, so I did. I worked with a friend who did some pop writing in the UK. I worked in the pop writing scene, to see if that was a direction I could take. Did I want to move into that writing for others? I experimented with that kind of thing. I just explored a lot and took a backseat. I went through a period where I couldn't pick up a guitar. One day on the radio I heard that first Arcade Fire record and it made me fall in love with music again. It slowly led to getting back together with the guys.
What happened with the kitchen studio?
I've gone from the SSL and racks of outboard down to a laptop. My wife and I are moving out here next year. I'm looking to meld the best of the analog world.
It's amazing. You think about the MIDI and the modules and all the things we used to have to do...
That was a big thing for me. I was working with a lot of different people, writing and producing. I found I was using the computer for everything. I had a Pro Tools rig. Then I had the SSL to do the summing — it was like having a Ferrari to do the shopping! [laughter]
What kind of program were you recording on? I know you guys were using Ableton Live for touring.
Yes. When we were touring, we started out with Logic, all the way back when it was Logic Gold and Logic Platinum, before Apple took it over. I started way back with Cubase and Atari ST. That was rock solid. We stayed with Logic and then got into using Ableton for the live stuff because it's spontaneous and you can control it in real time. It's just an incredible tool.
You can extend or shorten a song.
For me, it's just amazing. To be honest, I'm actually using that in the studio now. Logic is more like a linear sequencer and Ableton is like an instrument. You can use it more to create with a blank page. I love the idea that anything is an input and anything is an output. It's just insane what you can do.
It's really grown over the years too.
Unbelievable. I use it for everything; I absolutely love it.
Are you taking things out to another studio and bringing them back to the console to mix at all for the new record?
This new record was done completely different from the other records. Steve moved to Boston with his family in 2004 or 2005, and Paul and I remained in London. Then we had to try and make that work. Of course, technology is great. You get a good idea for a beat and you can send it off in an email. We sketched out the album by doing that electronically. When it came to recording drums and vocals, we went to a great studio up in North London called Fish Factory. It's a massive, massive live room. You can go upstairs into split-level live rooms. The guys have API desks and great mics up there. A guy recommended us from Metropolis. We went up there and did all the drums, guitars and vocals.
Do they engineer for you, or are you engineering it yourselves?
There was a question as to whether or not we were going to do it. But in the end we chose a guy who works there everyday. He knows that studio inside and out. We could spend all day getting ten percent of what he could get in ten minutes. [laughter] We let them track it all for us. They gave us the Pro Tools sessions and we took it away in files up in the laptop. It's all there and off we go. It was just brilliant. This time we used a friend of ours, Simon Duffy, who works on a lot of electronic acts over in the UK. He's a great mix-down engineer. He's got a great setup. We were busy with gigs, so we let him mix-down the session.
Was it nice letting someone take that over?
It was, it really was. As you get a bit older, you're less headstrong. You get more relaxed about things. It's nice to get a different perspective. It can change a whole track. Simon was great for that. He seemed to get it right away.
Were there lots of revisions?
Some of the tracks. It was easy for him to interpret, but there were some tracks we had really specific ideas about. There's one song called "Never Enough" and it's got quite a punky, indie, and dark feel to it. We want it to really feel raw, with a live drumbeat on top. We actually recorded it in Boston, at Camp Street Studios. They get great sound out of there. It came out really fat and rough, but it wasn't sitting right with the album. That's one I took off to the studio and did myself. I knew where Simon was with the album, but I took myself off to do that one.
It sounds like your band has a really good working process.
Yeah, we do. We each have our own way, but no one is protective. Everyone wants to do whatever's best to make the album sound good. I think it's also because we're really good mates. We pitch in with lyrics and all that sort of thing. We all like to get involved. We want to get the album done together; anything can go.
It seems that the band has to be open to things changing and shifting.
Definitely. We always have conversations about where we want to go; although where we started with this album is nowhere near where we ended up going. [laughter] But it still had the same feel. We love songwriting, but we also love messing with beats. If anything, this is the most cohesive album we've done even though it was spanned over several months and locations. You have to go with the flow; it's just developing all the time.
What do you think about music being so rigid or quantized.
That's something we do a bit more live, versus in the studio; especially given Ableton's ability to tempo shift in real time. Paul has got one of those [AKAI] APC40 controllers, a tempo shift on a knob. If I feel the tempo shift, I know he's pushing that knob. [laughter] You can feel the energy of where, bang, you push it a bit on the chorus.
But I think studio-wise we don't play as much with the tempo, but we definitely play with the feel. I always love the thought of shifting a few notes, just to see what happens. I like to know how that feels. We always play with stuff like that. I love seeing where those things take you; you don't know what you're going to get back! It's just playing around.
You guys have done remixes for people and you've been remixed by other people. When people remix the work that you've done, do you ever have moments where you feel like it's not right?
Yeah, you do. But we've never said anything like, "Don't do this." When people remix us, it's usually people we love and because of that we usually know what we're going to get back. Sometimes you'll get something back thinking it's going to be the whole song and you'll get just the briefest snippet. Okay, that's new! But if the kids like it, it's all-good. But we're really relaxed about all that.
I guess there's already a definitive version.
Yes, exactly. It's always nice when someone flips it. I love it. It's that fresh perspective. You never know what you're going to get. It's fun.
What would be the process if you were going to remix someone else's work as Dirty Vegas? Do you guys pass it around?
Sometimes we're together and sometimes we're in different places. Somehow for remixes, we always seem to be together. It depends, track to track. For some reason, we usually end up doing a full vocal as well as a dubbed out version. We'll find the mood of the lyric to feel out if there's somewhere important we need to take it. We never just go, "Right, there it is. Let's just whack a beat out." We'll listen to the song and figure out what it needs.
It sounds like a similar version to how your own songs come together.
Right, it really is. You know how you work and you go with it. The vocal is the spark and off you go. You could take the vocal off the end and it's a Dirty Vegas track.
You do a DJ gig as Dirty Vegas.
We've been DJing on the weekends; that's what's paid for the album.
You're not just spinning records; you're adding things?
Yeah, when we DJ, Steve has a full percussion kit and he'll sing some of our material. We've started to introduce some sequencing and some synth. We'll flow a semi-live set into the DJ scenario. Steve will start going nuts on his kit. The industry has shrunk, so the DJ thing has been great for us. We can play and get a real feel off the crowd. We can feel the music live on the stage and it inspires you when you get back in the studio. Plus the money we got from the gig will pay for the studio time. It all serves a purpose.