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Gil Norton has worked with some of the biggest names in rock and alternative music. Producing iconic records such as The Colour and The Shape for the Foo Fighters, Dolittle for Pixies and Ocean Rain for Echo and the Bunnymen, Norton’s back catalogue is packed with career topping albums for genre-defining artists. His latest challenge has been producing the debut album for Pure Love, the new band fronted by Frank Carter, previously of Gallows fame. Fresh out of the studio, Gil took the time to talk to Roland’s Jamie Franklin about the importance of pre-production and how to get the best out of bands in the studio.
Hi Gil. Let’s start at the beginning. What’s the start of your process for producing a record?
I try to have a conversation with a band before I meet them. I normally get demos and I like to get the band talking about the songs they’ve got and what they think I can do for them. You used to fly out or go to a gig but these days you tend not to do that – you just have a Skype conference call or a phone call. I’m used to them now but they can be a bit confusing because people talk over each other.
Next, you go through the arrangements of the songs, listening to the demo and the arrangements that might work. Maybe a band has a great chorus but no verses… or a song needs a different structure. You have to see if they [the band] agree. It’s not worth getting together if you can’t see eye to eye on what you want. That’s what the pre-production can do for the band.
How important is pre-production?
For me pre-production is the most important part of the recording process. It’s where you pull it all together, talk about the songs and get to know each other. I like to know the dynamic of the band and the sound in pre-production so everyone is relaxed when we go to record. So many bands have never done it – but how can you go into a studio if you don’t already have the songs organised?
So you used to spend a week or so with the band before doing any recording, does that still happen?
That still happens! The Pure Love project I’ve just done took three weeks of pre-production. Their demos when we started were just three songs. We spent three weeks crafting songs – it was great.
So you become a songwriter for that time?
That’s a grey area. They might have a structure and I just help them play around with stuff. I’m the catalyst for the creative juices to run. As a producer I just want the best from every artist – you inspire them to get better because when you record something it’s there for a long time. All I want from an artist is the best they can do – I don’t like lazy people. If you want to be lazy don’t employ me.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in the studio?
Mostly time. The time it takes to do what I need to do with the budget that we have. Luckily I have a home studio now so I can finish things at home. I might record three or four guitar takes that I haven’t time to work on in the studio, so I can finish them at home, making them the best they can be. Recording anything is always a challenge, it’s a leap of faith for everybody. That’s why pre-production is so important. So before we go in the studio, I know the ability of the drummer, I know what the guitar player likes, I know what sort of vocal we’re going to have and the dynamic of the songs, so everyone is relaxed when it comes to recording. Any good artist will know if they have given a good performance, the last thing I want to do is confuse an artist. Confusion in the studio is lethal. People need to know why they are doing something again, and what they are trying to achieve.
Brian Eno talked about art in sound, that there is no point being technically brilliant if there is no value in the music.
True. A lot of the best guitarists I know aren’t technically brilliant. It’s all about the passion of the part. Some guitarists can play one note and make it sing, bring it to life – and some can play 29 notes and it doesn’t mean anything. I’m also not mad about vocal gymnastics. I appreciate the skill of it, but it doesn’t say anything to me. It achieves nothing other than, “hey look what I can do!” you know?
Who would you love to work with?
Well at one time I wanted to do an REM record – that was the band I was really aspiring to. I would have loved to have done some early Radiohead as well.
Would you like to record Radiohead now if they asked?
Like with any artist, that depends what they’re trying to achieve now. It’s about what you’re trying to bring to the party. Like I said before, if we didn’t see eye to eye it would be a waste of time. Producing is very collaborative. You have to work together, you can’t pull in different ways. It’s all about getting the artist to achieve their goals.
You must sit there and hear some songs and be awe-inspired, right?
Oh totally! And sometimes the opposite. Artists can get a bit formulaic, so it’s nice when they do something different. It still has to sound like the band though. If Radiohead tried to sound like the Foo Fighters, it just wouldn’t work.
When you produced Dolittle by Pixies – did you know the impact it would have on your life?
I’d worked on other records before that gave me the push. The starting point was when I worked with Echo and the Bunnymen and China Crisis. I was very lucky in that a lot of the bands from Liverpool were taking off in the early ‘80s and I’d worked with a lot of them, or met them or produced their demos.
The reason I got to work with Pixies is because I did Throwing Muses, the 4AD band… and I wouldn’t have got Throwing Muses if I hadn’t done Echo and the Bunnymen. Then I did James’ first album. Before I did Dolittle I also did the single version of Gigantic for Pixies.
You’ve said that Black Francis didn’t like to do anything twice?
He was difficult, yeah! It’s not that he won’t do anything more than once, but he would find it boring playing the same chords over. I had to try and convince him to repeat sections, or change things around a bit to keep him happy.
When we started doing pre-production for Dolittle, I wanted to sit with Charles [Black Francis] for a few days and go through some ideas before it got loud. We sat with an acoustic guitar and he’d play me his songs. The songs were short – you know, if you get two minutes from a Pixies song it’s getting long! I was trying to encourage them to put choruses in and extend the songs with intros and middle eights. Then one day we went for a walk to Tower Records. He picked up Buddy Holly’s greatest hits and he said “look at the times on these songs Gil”. They were all about one minute thirty… What do you say to that? Hats off!
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song with Smells Like Teen Spirit. I was basically trying to rip off Pixies. I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band, or at least a Pixies cover band” Kurt Kobain
It wasn’t just that quote from Kurt Cobain that had people falling over themselves to sound like Pixies. Bowie said they made “just about the most compelling music of the entire 80s.” Gil Norton helped shape the band’s sound to the extent that new bands were formed after buying the record: surely that’s the biggest compliment you can ever have as a band.
Do you ever listen back to your albums?
Sometimes. I’m getting better now than how I used to be. If I first do an album, I can’t hear it for 6 months or so.
Is that because you hear things you wish you’d done differently?
Sometimes, although these days I get things more the way I want them to be.
Where did your relationship with Roland and Boss start?
From the China Crisis days and the early synth pop bands. That’s where the brand came to notoriety for me. Besides that there are all the pedals. Every band in the world has a Roland or Boss pedal of some description. They’ve always been around I suppose. I’ve never not known Roland equipment in the recording studio.
You used the V-Piano when you were recording with Pure Love – how did you find that?
I was working with a keyboard player so any good keyboard player likes a weighted keyboard and, for me, Roland weighted keyboards are the best. It’s the only one I ever go for. If I need a piano player to play well, I go for a Roland weighted keyboard. It feels very natural.
Do you use stomp boxes?
The Graphic Equaliser pedal [Boss GE-7] we use a lot. It’s great for sculpture. Sometimes I have the guitar sound that I think is great, but I just want to add a little brightness, and not use the amps any more, having that pedal is perfect… It might be it a bit muddy in the bottom end so I use a GE-7 graphic equalizer to tidy it up.
The one I really like is the Boss RE-20 Space Echo as well. I’ve been using them a lot with the bands I’ve been working with. Maximo Park have one and it sounds great! I have an old tape Space Echo too, it’s a lot of fun. The CH-1 Super Chorus in stereo is great too.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
I started working in an eight-track studio and the two guys I worked with had two completely different styles. One was Beatleseque – pleasant and chilled. But the other was more aggressive – it was about him, about the sounds he wanted and pushing bands to get them.
I believe anyone can learn how to mic up or understand what a compressor does, but in a closed environment you have to get on with people. They have to like you and want to spend time with you. Some people don’t make bands comfortable and from those engineers, I learned you have to know when to push people and when to back off and let them make their own mistakes. You also have to be able to push without it being confrontational. I’m still learning, like in life, how to get the best out of people.
Did you watch the Foo Fighters documentary film ‘Back And Forth’?
I haven’t seen it actually!
There is a section where William said you used to call him and Nate the ‘Rhythmless section’ in the studio – is that true?!
(Laughs) I don’t remember that saying that, but never mind! – sounds a bit harsh. I definitely worked them! In rhythm sections I find the most common problem is they don’t listen to each other and don’t pay attention to what the others are doing. They’re playing the same stuff but not gelling.
Nate is one of the best bass players in the world – he works so hard man. Even on the Echos, Silence, Patients & Grace record. He would go away and sit with this bass constantly playing to a backing track, and constantly be playing all the time. He’s a great musician.
William [Goldsmith] (the original drummer) was awesome too. He was a great friend, and I felt really bad about what happened. But I’ve only lost two drummers on a session… and he was one of them. We never intended to lose him. He just went into meltdown, that was the problem, he went AWOL for a while. It was Christmas and I went home after the first recording session in Seattle, and said to Dave [Grohl] that I don’t think we’ve got the right parts in all these songs. Dave wasn’t ever going to be the drummer on that session, and I was never going to ask him either, but we talked and he said he would try them. I suggested we try one or maybe two again. We were going to get William back and redo some of the drums. He did do some of the drums on the album, it wasn’t like he didn’t play anything. The first song we re-did was Monkey Wrench. Dave did a run through to get the sounds, and then did it in one take. That’s the one we used for the album.
I felt sorry for William because he knew how good Dave was at drums, and that was part of the problem. I kept talking to him about the importance of being your own person. You can’t be somebody else, no matter what they did.
What about Taylor Hawkins?
Taylor’s good because he’s a great drummer and he’s confident in his own abilities. He’s still not Grohl good, but he knows he is the Foo Fighters drummer, end of conversation, you know what I mean? William was young and he was shadowed by Dave’s history. As much as I tried to encourage him and guide him, sometimes as a musician, the problem is all in your head, not your ability.
Would you say confidence is everything?
Totally. You have to give 110%. That’s why I like to do some lead and vocals early in a session. I do three or four vocal takes while we’re all in the mood, while the songs are fresh. If you leave it to the end it can become a chore and you don’t get the spontaneity that puts brilliance in it. You want to capture that moment with spirit and heart.
If you’re working a solo out it might take you a while to get the shape – but you want to capture it when it still has the right emotion and phrasing. With vocalists you just want them to animate the song and bring it to life and get the story. Something that listener can relate to. Vocals and lead guitar solos are the same, they have to be believable, and have personality. All the great singers have a great way of phrasing things. Adam Duritz from Counting Crows is a fantastic singer, and a fantastic storyteller and he phrases around a beat perfectly. Frank Sinatra was a master of that too, he would phrase things and land in a certain place that would make it magical. Ian McCulloch was great at going flat or out of tune and bringing it back in perfectly that would give the song so much personality that made you buy into what he was saying.
Were there any songs on The Colour and The Shape that immediately resonated with you?
My Hero. The first day or two we just sat and went through the songs on an acoustic guitar – and Dave has a mountain of ideas all the time. He had this thing he called ‘spare riff’, which was another riff he had just come up with. He should really have a website called Spare Riffs that people can hear all his unused riffs and write songs around them! He played it to me on an acoustic guitar and you could hear what the song was doing and what the melody was doing. The whole emotion of that song got me. Knowing Dave was starting a whole new life away from Nirvana was special. I think Monkey Wrench is a great power rock song.
If you write on guitar it’s about how you play the rhythm. By the time you bring a drummer in, it can change the rhythm and you lose what the song was – it can get watered down or diminished. It’s nice to start off with acoustic and vocal.
It turned out to be an important record, and the soundtrack to many a drunk party in my college days. You must be pretty proud of it.
Thanks, I am. I remember this interview I did with Q magazine after it came out. The guy spent an hour asking me questions until I asked if he liked it. He said, “not really”. I asked him why he was bothering asking me all about it iand he said it was his job! I used to like Q, but not so much after that, haha.
Wow! You won’t have that problem with me I can assure you.
I think you’ll really like this new Pure Love record mate, the single ‘Bury My Bones’ is out soon.
In terms of other producers, who do you revere?
I love 60s music. I grew up with it. I’m a massive Phil Spector fan. He was really innovative. ELO’s producer Jeff Lynne crafted pop songs into an interesting format. Obviously George Martin I thought was amazing. He really helped the band [the Beatles]. Part of being a producer is about getting the best out of a band. You bring everything together – he was on the cusp of a new way of recording. George Martin was an incredible musician himself, so the colours he brought to the sound without losing the band’s sound was amazing. You don’t have to be an amazing player to be a producer, but you have to understand music. How can you instruct a musician when you haven’t got a clue what he is doing, you know? I used to play bass and trumpet in a band, we would be the entertainment for the bingo hall. Trumpet players are the best kissers, that’s all I’m saying mate.
Which record are you most proud of?
I don’t think I could pick. Ocean Rain [Echo and the Bunnymen] was a major record – I almost didn’t realise at the time but it was a big turning point. I’ve done the Pixies albums and it’s different every time. Each one is like a landmark and they all transport you back to that time – how you did it and what happened. That said, you always love your last record so I’ll say the Pure Love album.
How do you relax – what would be your ideal weekend?
I’ve got two boys of 12 and 13 so my weekends are pretty active. I’m usually taking them to rugby or walking the dog, playing tennis. I live in Dorset and it’s ideal. We have all the beaches and beautiful walks. When I’ve been somewhere like New York, I love coming back home and just staring at the sea.
My Grandparents used to have a holiday home in Dorset, I love it there. Do they still have the pancake house restaurant?
I don’t know it, but that’s a good thing or I might be living there!