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From living in the YMCA to producing Imelda May, Andy Wright tells us about his career behind the mixing desk.
Andy Wright is one of the great British Producers. He’s worked with Massive Attack, the KLF and Jeff Beck. But even for a master of the craft, getting into the music business is a hard slog. When we met up Andy told us about his former life living in a YMCA, and explained how getting a job as a delivery driver was his big break.
He also talks about how budding producers can get the best results form their home recording sessions and how Roland gear has been with him for as long as he’s been making music.
How did you get into the production game?
There are two ways of looking at it: one is the harder I work, the luckier I get; but sometimes you just need a lucky break.
I started out as the keyboard player in a band – it’s good instrument to play if you want to be a producer! It was in about 1982 and I was doing gigs in London, playing the old Roland Juno 60 and a Moog Prodigy. We got all of our equipment when our bass player’s grandmother died. He used the inheritance to buy us instruments. I was penniless so I could never have afforded those things.
Gary Numan said that when he got signed and he went to record they had the synthesisers chained to the wall because they were so expensive…
Yeah, I think the Roland Juno 60 was the first almost affordable synth. It was about £1000 at the time.
We all signed on and stayed in the YMCA in Watford. You had a single room and shared bathroom and you got meal tickets plus you got money from the dole, about £13 a week.
We all quit our jobs and spent our £13 a week on rehearsal space. We just wrote songs. We were about 21 and that was how I got into music.
We were all floundering about and I took a journey into London one day and bought Melody Maker. I saw an advert for Keyboard hire, which is high end equipment rental.
I remember the ad clearly. They wanted a driver. There were these big names of music technology listed and my eyes were so wide! I applied for the job even though I was an awful driver. I didn’t know my way around anywhere let alone London. I lived in Middlesex. But when I got into the interview, they asked me if I knew how to use equipment, and because I had a Roland MSQ-700 (sequencer) and other bits of kit, I said I knew how to use gear. They liked that as loads of their other drivers didn’t even know how to turn this stuff on.
In the end I got the job because the guy who managed the company knew a secretary at our management company and she put in a good word for me.
Straight away I was walking into studios – Trident Studios, where I eventually got a job was one of them. I also went to Abbey Road. Consequently as a 22-year-old walking into studios all of a sudden I met some people.
And how did you get started behind the desk?
Technology at that time was accelerating at a rate of knots. Programmers were very rare. Nowadays everyone’s a programmer, but in those days there were only a few people and they were making a living from it. I put myself among them.
Mark (Spike) Stent (Madonna and Lady Gaga production fame) was 19 when I met him. I also met Alan Moulder (Depeche Mode producer). I went to play keyboards on their sessions because I’d do it for free. I’d finish putting equipment in at 8pm then drive over with a Jupiter 8 and do programming sessions all night.
What was the first thing you produced?
I produced stuff for my friends and for my own band, but the first album I was paid to do was for a Swiss star called Rams and that was in about 1988/89. I was already working with tonnes of people as a programmer and I blagged a production gig.
You can never say ‘This is my first production’. You have to pretend you’re the best in the world. I did the job, got paid and went from there.
Where did your relationship with Jeff Beck start?
That was in the late ’90s. I made a major transition into production at around ’96. I was still working on quite a few records: Shakespeare’s Sister with Alan Moulder, quite a few things with Dave Stewart [Eurythmics]. It was a fantastic life. I was very engaged in the production side of things and I’d co-produce with Dave.
By the time I met Jeff, I was already producing some quite big acts.
After I did the Life album with simply Red in ‘94 , I produced the next album, which had Fairground on it…
That was the most played song on the radio at the time?
Yeah, the most played song in about two years.
I really have to thank Mick Hucknall for having faith in me at an early point. It’s hard to cut your teeth as a producer and you can only really wing it into the job. Even though I’ve been doing it for 20 years – you’re never any better than you’re last project and you start from scratch every time. Technology changes, fashion changes and radio trends change.
Mick was the person who called me and said I’d be happy if you produced some of this with me
At the time, Jeff’s management were looking for a new producer and I got a good recommendation. I was working with Eurythmics and a call came through asking if I was interested in producing Jeff Beck. I thought ‘I know he’s a legend but I really don’t know more than that.’ I thought I might be out of my depth.
I said I’d love to meet him anyway and talk about what he wanted to do. He came to the studio and we got on straight away. He’s really funny. We’ve got a similar English seaside sense of humour. I understood his references so I said let’s do it.
He approached the situation cautiously. I remember him expecting that maybe he had had the wool pulled over his eyes, but he left the first day thinking it was going to work!
I edit very fast and my vision for an edit is really quick. So if someone plays something I can see how to put it together. I made sure Jeff could listen to things quickly and he never questioned it after that point.
We were creative from the off. It helped that I wasn’t a big fan – I am now – but at the time I didn’t really know the stuff. More people would have been awe-struck by him, but if I didn’t like something I could be more brutal and tell him.
I know that when Jeff gets nervous or under pressure he doesn’t play as well and then he’ll do something fast and noodly and that’s not what he’s all about. He’s all about the beauty of his music. I could focus on that straight away.
So, he won a Grammy for the record you did with him?
Yeah – both of them. The first one was produced in the Roland room [at Metropolis Studios] in London. That was a wonderful fortuity. You can’t judge these things.
A roadie turned up with Jeff’s amp and set up the cab on top in the booth and put the guitar on the stand. I thought we were about to start a couple of weeks’ pre-production and I’d made arrangements at Metropolis for Jeff’s band to come and play. I thought that was when it would really start – about two weeks into the project. I still hadn’t got it that this was it. I was expecting to see the Nigel Tufnell row of guitars but all that happened was the roadie came in and set up a guitar and amp. That was it.
What we discovered was that we really liked the creative process together. Jeff sat right there in the window with his legs crossed, playing.
You checked out the Roland G5 Guitar Synth a while ago – what did you think of it?
I loved it! I haven’t got one yet, but I really wanted to get my hands on one of those. The wonderful thing about recording these days – especially with pro tools and digital recording is you can play and come up with stuff and shape your ideas inside the computer. The Roland G5 guitar is perfect for that – for players and non-players who want to do something different with sounds. You’ve got all those tuning setting and sounds right there in front of you.
There’s no latency either so it feels like you’re playing on the money straight away.
I wanted to ask you about Imelda May – how did that happen?
We worked on Mayhem, together. It’s all a trail – and it almost trails back to Jeff Beck. I did some work with Jeff that remains unreleased. We’d started making some music together but it got put on the back-burner and we didn’t proceed with it. By the time I came back to it, Jeff had new management. I approached Harvey Goldsmith (Jeff’s new manager) about the tracks and they were looking for material for Jeff to record with Steve Leibson – Harvery thought I might have some pieces that would work with that. Anyway, he invited me to see Imelda May at the O2.
At the same time, Mick Hucknall really wanted to do something like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. As it turns out Imelda’s husband, Daryl, is a real Eddie Cochran aficionado and he was onstage with Jeff and Imelda when they performed that night. I put two and two together and I thought wouldn’t it be great to get these guys to help me with Mick’s thing and put something authentic together?
A percussion player called Snowboy I know was at the gig and he introduced me to Daryl. We had a chat and arranged a session. That went really well and he said do you want to listen to some things I’m doing with Imelda? We need someone to work with on it. I thought the stuff she was doing was amazing. She’s such an amazing singer. She’s phenomenal. She’s an amazing singer and an amazing writer. She’s got an incredible career ahead of her and I’d love to be involved as much as I can.
A lot of the stuff on that album she’d already got together – then some of the stuff – like Inside Out – we got involved with. The single version of Inside Out I did with Gavin [Goldberg] to make it more commercial. I’m loved by her radio plugger for that reason.
What are you top tips for anyone who wants to record at home?
I think the first thing is I’ve got this philosophy about creativity, it always has to be positive rather than negative. There’s far less mystery about making great music than people think. It’s creativity and evaluation. Start with a positive frame of mind and allow it the time to develop. Don’t imagine that something will happen quickly, it’s always a process.
If you’re always beating yourself up right from the inception of an idea it’ll stunt your creative process.
Also songwriting and music production are very interrelated when you make music at home. You’re generally doing your own stuff.
So the song is the most important thing?
Absolutely! Inspiration is the first key thing. You’ve got to start from a point of view of allowing yourself to be free. Let an idea develop and give it time.
There are two parts: inspiration and perspiration – that old chestnut. If I’m in a creative run and creating material, I split those two things up. I go for a run of inspiration – try and do a few 1–2 hour sessions on a new piece, then stop. Leave it and try to build up a few of those then evaluate them – alone or with friends. There is always one that will be the best and that’s the one to put the time into.
If you could produce anyone who would it be?
There have been a few times when I’ve been a big fan of the music I’m involved with. Eurythmics is a great example. The same with Massive attack and KLF – it’s great when you can work on things like that. I was always a big Elton John fan when I was a boy so I think I’d have a bash at an Elton album any time.
What is the one record that you think is the best produced you know of?
I think Abbey Road (the Beatles). I think Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys) was inspirational to all those recordings at the time. I think a lot of the time, production is contextual to its period so you have to kook at what stands the test of time.
What’s you’re favourite Abbey Road track?
I love Something. Production was in its infancy at that stage. I’m lucky enough to have heard some wonderful multi-tracks and you realise they’re so much more than the sum of their parts. Good songs are a combination of ingredients.
There was a lot more freedom in mixing in that period. Now it’s all very tied in. In modern record making there’s so much process involved in trying to create perfection.