Interview with Hit Quarters
Interview with NICK LAUNAY, producer for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, The Cribs
"It was like [the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] deliberately didn't have a fixed plan. No rehearsals - it was all about just going in and creating."
The years have yet to dim the passion and rebellion in the heart of producer Nick Launay. Almost three decades after having first made his name in the post-punk era by helping crystallise the reactionary roar of Public Image Ltd, Birthday Party, Midnight Oil, Gang of Four and others, he's still the man to call on for wild and visceral thrills, as evidenced by recent defining records by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (USA Top 20 & UK Top 10), Nick Cave (UK, AUS & GER Top 10), Grinderman and, most recently, The Cribs (UK Top 10).
The L.A.-based Brit talks with HitQuarters about creating music with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire (USA & UK Top 3), The Cribs and Nick Cave, his career break, frustrations with the lack of money for experimentation, and also sends a request out for Iggy Pop if he happens to be out there listening.
As someone with an impressive history of production and engineering credits, do you find these older recordings carry great weight with the modern artists you work with?
Yes, very much. It seems pop music goes in cycles, like fashion. I've found the things that were very popular and aesthetically pleasing to fans and musicians in 1979 are very similar to what people want today. Luckily for me, having made records back then, I know exactly how to get those sounds and what that feeling is.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs like a lot of the sounds that were around in 1979 through 1982. When I was in the studio working on the last record with them, and they wanted that sound or this feeling – I would draw just as much on the emotional feeling as I would from the technical knowledge. In my mind I went back to the feeling I had being at a gig with Talking Heads, Gang of Four or any of those bands.
So have you noticed an upturn in job offers as a result of the recent interest in all things post-punk?
[laughs] Yes. Although to be honest, it's never gone away. I've always been busy ... There was maybe a period around the late 80s that was a really awful time for music - especially 1988 through 1992.
I made probably five albums in 1981 that are still important today, and those albums kept inspiring new bands and those new bands do contact me to work with them, which is fantastic.
But you have to add the fact that recent albums I've made have been, I suppose, cutting edge, or have inspired people as well. So, it's a combination of the knowledge from way back then combined with the fact that I still go out to concerts today a lot. I'm very interested in the current culture and new wave of bands going on now.
One of your most important albums is PiL's 'The Flowers of Romance', which was your major breakthrough. What do you think of when you look back on the beginning of your career?
I find it quite amazing - I didn't really have a lot of knowledge of making records. I was 19 years old and at the time the punk rock thing was going on.
I went to gigs almost every night in London and was very absorbed by that music and the whole thing. I saw pretty much every English punk band you can imagine, and most of the American ones too. And then I found myself in a studio. I wanted to work with indie music in a studio.
The first thing I ever did was an extended remix version of 'Pop Muzik' by M. That wasn't in a proper studio but in an editing suite place called Tape One. And because that song went to No. 1 in England I then went for an interview at The Townhouse and got the job as an assistant.
It was just on a weekend when Public Image came in and one thing led to another whereby I got on really well with John [Lydon] and we had similar thoughts about music and how it affects people and so we ended up doing that record. For me that record was just made on enthusiasm - I just wanted to make certain sounds and those sounds fitted in with what John and Keith Levene wanted to do, and it just all came together magically. My whole career took off because of that record.
Later in life you look back and go, "My God, that was a thing of being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude!"
In being an assistant engineer at the Townhouse, you would have been assisting some production legends like John Leckie, Tony Visconti, Steve Lillywhite, and Hugh Padgham – what did you learn from those experiences?
If you're a student at school in most subjects you probably pay 50% attention to things because some of it is really boring, but if it's a subject that you really like you absorb it all, and that's what happened.
I was working with some of the best and most interesting record producers of that time and with some of my favourite bands. So I just absorbed it all - every little detail of how they got certain sounds, what delays they used, how much echo, reverb, and how they got the musicians to do things.
I probably learned more from Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham than anyone else, because I worked with them the most.
With Tony Visconti I didn't ever assist him. It was more that I liked the records he made. I'm a huge fan of the records he made with David Bowie and Marc Bolan in particular, and I analysed those and tried to work out how he got those sounds and how those songs were put together and applied that to records I was making.
From your experiences you've cultivated your own distinctive production style characterised by big, raw sounds - loud guitars, loud drums, maximum bass, in your face vocals. Is that what the bands you work with now are after?
Very often - It's that rebellious thing. I want to shock - not so that people run away or get scared, more like pay attention and go, "Wow! What's that? I want some of that!"
The approach I have making records is all about emotion. I don't really read magazines about how to get EQs and mic placements and all that stuff. I'm not saying that that isn't good, but it's not what I do.
I'm more inspired by going to some gallery where, for instance, a Japanese artist has created scary colourful monsters, and when I walk in the artwork is so vibrant it attacks me from the walls. That will inspire me to make loud rebellious music, much more than reading something about a brand new compressor.
The movie 'District 9' was really inspirational to the music that I'm making. There's a feeling that you get from certain things around you that you can translate into the music.
Emotion is obviously key but as a noted analogue-phile you are still particular about your recording equipment. Is old school equipment still important for contemporary recording?
It's very important, because analogue equipment still has a thickness you don't get with digital. The plug-ins available are absolutely amazing, and I use and abuse them as much as possible. However, there's something unpredictable about analogue equipment - with digital equipment it's very precise. It's like comparing a photograph and a painting.
Sometimes when you don't know quite what you want, you think, "This needs something but I don't know what it is." It needs to distort in a certain way or the delays need to be out of control. And you can only achieve that with analogue equipment.
It's very chaotic in the way it's built. It's got knobs that aren't accurate, levers that don't quite go into place, and old tape that doesn't record perfectly. And it's when you start including that equipment in your recordings that chaos happens, and that's what helps create its originality.
But when you come to mixing and controlling sometimes the digital stuff can be very good because by that stage you even might know exactly what you want to do. So, I use a bit of both. I really love analogue equipment still. Especially delay - the Roland 301 Space Echo delays, things like that are great.
Although you live in Los Angeles, you do production work all over the world - so is the studio itself not so integral to your style of production?
The type of studio is integral to what I do. The main reason why I travel a lot is because it's simply cheaper to fly me as one person over to say England to work with a band than fly four people over to me here in L.A.
For instance, with Nick Cave - Nick has a lot of reasons why he needs to be in England. He has films and books he's doing, he has kids to look after. He prefers to stay in England to make his records. So, I always fly over to make those records with him.
There are other situations. For instance, with The Cribs, they were very excited about coming over to L.A. to work in the studio here. It made sense because then they're more isolated and not distracted by all the things they have going on in England.
What type of studio do you insist on when you work away?
I always book studios with similar qualities to the one I like to use here in L.A. – there must be an analogue desk, a lot of very old tube and ribbon microphones, and a live room that's predominantly made of wood. Here it's an old API desk and in the case of the last couple of Nick Cave records, we've recorded on a vintage EMI desk, built in the 70s.
It's very important to have a really good sounding live room that has a lot of wood or stone in it. A lot of modern studios or certain studios that were built in the 80s and 90s tend not to have the warmth. A lot of much newer studios built in recent years have realised what was great about studios that were built in the 70s and have copied that.
Do you find you have to take some of your own equipment with you on your travels?
Yeah [laughs]. I don't own a huge amount of equipment. Most of it is rare stuff that I can't rent. I don't own a lot of the standard equipment because it costs more to fly it around the world than it does just to rent it when I get there. But I do have one favourite Space Echo or Chorus Echo that I travel with, just because it always works. A lot of those don't work - you always have to adjust them a lot to make them work properly.
What ideas did the Yeah Yeah Yeahs first arrive with when you began work on their remarkable 'It's Blitz!' album?
The 'It's Blitz!' album was a very unusual record because it was all written in the studio. They only had a few songs they played live that we then worked on and changed and made into what they now are, but most of the record was written in the studio, which is very unusual these days.
When I started making records back in 1979 it was more common that bands would come into the studio with absolutely nothing. 'The Flowers of Romance', for instance, was written completely in the studio. I think some of the Killing Joke records I did were mostly written in the studio. The budgets were bigger, and there was a certain attitude towards making records whereby spontaneity was important.
Nowadays it's not like that - it's just too expensive. The budgets for records nowadays are almost a quarter of what they used to be. It's really difficult to make records because there is no money from the record companies. The reality is that downloading for free has created an incredible lack of money for experimentation on new records.
With Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they haven't made masses of amount of money but they've made an amount that has allowed them to go into the studio and experiment.
How did a typical session unfold?
Brian [Chase] would play lots of different drumbeats and we'd record it, chop it up and then make a groove loop out of it. Nick (Zinner) would then just jam to it, and we'd come up with an interesting rhythm part. Karen [O] would listen to that and come up with a vocal melody and then suddenly everything would fall into place.
Nick would then write more. Sometimes we would re-do the drums with some structure to it that made it more like a song. It would just keep on developing and developing, little by little ...
We spent quite a number of months making that record, with a lot of breaks in between to get inspired, and then we go back in and do some more.
It was almost like they deliberately didn't have a fixed plan. No rehearsals - it was all about just going in and creating - "Oh maybe it could go that way a bit, and then backwards and forwards ..." They went backwards and forwards between working with me and Dave [Sitek].
How would you say your and David Sitek's contributions to the record differ?
We have very different approaches to making records. Dave is very good with electronic stuff, that's his thing. He's very quick at working with sequencing and electronic elements, whereas my strength is more in emotion and organic stuff. I think the record works really well because they both complement each other and rub against each other in a way that makes it very interesting.
There's a rebellious nature to that record, and there's also a lot of beauty. I think a lot of the emotional side of it was probably what happened when I worked with them. I did all the vocals with Karen, and I paid a lot of attention to the mood.
I'd imagine your recent recording with The Cribs was very different, much more straight-forward?
Yes, it was quite different - although the excitement, the nature of rebellion is similar. The Cribs album was recorded in a very old school way. Everybody played together in one room at the same time, and 90% of all songs were written before they came into the studio.
When they came in we rehearsed it for a week. They played all the songs over and over again, and I threw in all my ideas - different arrangement ideas, different approaches, and just working out tempos and stuff - and then basically recorded it as a live performance.
The album is very real in that sense. And then we did overdubs and replaced certain things. So, it's not 100% live at all, but the feeling that we wanted was that it is just very raw and direct.
Why did The Cribs want to come out to LA to record with you rather than have you go to them?
That was decided in the first conversation I had with them. Firstly I think they wanted to go somewhere other than where they'd done records before.
Secondly, the studio - which is called Seedy Underbelly and just off Laurel Canyon - is a very productive environment to work in. It's a house with a studio, so you live in the house. It has a really nice big garden and a swimming pool, and then it's got the studio in the back. It's a small studio and feels like a home studio. You can work whatever hours you want as long as you don't annoy the neighbours too much [laughs].
Finally, financially it was much cheaper to do it at this place than it would have been in London. I think it would have cost twice the amount in a London studio.
We spent pretty much three weeks recording that album, and then maybe another week of vocals and overdubs, and then mixing.
As someone intent on capturing the live energy of a band such as The Cribs, do you do as many takes as it takes to capture that perfect performance or are you limited by time?
Sometimes there is time pressure, but there's also an element of boredom that comes in. If you do a song over and over again too many times, it becomes boring. The reason these people became musicians in the first place was because they didn't want to conform to the normal 9 to 5 job situation - they don't want to be bored. They want to have fun and express themselves.
So if you ask a band to play the same song over and over again, they're going to get bored after a while. And when they're bored they're not going to play very well.
The way I do it is to go in, start bashing it out and give it everything you've got, and if after about ten takes it's not getting any better and there's a problem and we can't work out what it is - stop! Do a different song, and then come back to it.
You have to be fresh. There has to be a fresh feeling to it otherwise the boring feeling comes out through the music.
I don't use clicks. Sometimes it helps to have a click track. If it's a dance song it needs to be very steady from beginning to end, but this album was not done to a click - it's just completely free running.
Although this was your first record with The Cribs, you often seem to build long-term relationships with bands – why do you think that is?
I think part of it is because I become very good friends with them. I'm still friends with everybody I've ever worked with pretty much. I mean I'm still in contact with John Lydon [laughs]. He's still a friend and he lives here in L.A.
All the guys from Midnight Oil are my closest friends. Gang of Four played at Coachella two years ago and I hadn't seen them for ages, and I went and found them. We caught up and remembered the good time we had in the studio back in 1981, and there's talk about doing some recording together again.
Does familiarity breed the challenge for them to come up with something new and progressive each time?
Yes, definitely. I think that's what it's all about. When you're working on a song, there might be two directions you can go - "This song sounds a bit like a Rolling Stones song, so let's make it sound like a Rolling Stones song," or there is, "This song sounds like the Rolling Stones, let's fuck it up, let's make it sound different than anything else out there." I will always choose the latter road.
Nick Cave is now one of your regular co-conspirators. Having first worked with Nick when you recorded The Birthday Party in 1980, it took until 2000 for you to renew your working relationship. How did that reunion come about?
It's just circumstance - I never stopped making records, and they never stopped making records. We just met up in a studio in Melbourne and I remember Mick Harvey saying, "I don't know why we haven't worked with you since then. We should have, because obviously you're still making rebellious records, and we are too. So, let's do it again!" And that's what happened.
It's funny, but it's hard to imagine when you're a record buyer why people work with certain people and why they don't. I fancy it's just that a connection needs to be made.
There's a lot of artists I feel I should work with, and one of those is Iggy Pop. I'm a huge Iggy Pop fan. I feel like I can go in tomorrow and make one of Iggy Pop's best records ever. But somehow I've never really met him. And why haven't I? I don't know! [laughs] I go to his concerts, but somehow I never end up going backstage to meet him.
I hope one day the stars will be in the right place for me to connect with him and we'll go into the studio and make a really raucous record.
With Nick Cave it was the same thing. We did a record back then, and then somehow I moved to Australia and he moved to England. And then they were back in Melbourne when I was, and suddenly it happened again. And it worked. And because it worked and we've become close friends, we keep working together.
How are you first approached about a project – do bands contact you directly?
Very often they contact me directly. Very often I meet them at other gigs. I might bump into them and suddenly things come about. Sometimes they contact me through my manager as well. It happens in all different ways.
Has your background in punk rock had any bearing on the Nick's recent raw garage rock output?
I think so. For example, the first album I did with Nick again was 'Nocturama'. I found that a bit slow [laughs]. It became a running joke that I want all the songs to be faster.
And then the Grinderman thing happened. Nick just wanted to do something different and Warren Ellis wanted to express himself more and so a new band came out where Nick would just go a little more out there with the lyrical content. They're both like teenagers and they've both got this rebellion in them.
He put that in the same room with Martyn [Casey] and Jim [Sclavunos], and suddenly it all explodes, and we made that Grinderman record. It was the success of that, and the feedback Nick got from the public, that made him go, "Wow! People like this!" I honestly think he had no idea how popular that Grinderman record was going to be.
Was this a whole live band set-up – no vocals were recorded separately?
No, the vocals were recorded live. All the vocals for the Grinderman record are recorded with the backing track. Essentially with all Nick Cave records 90% of the vocals were recorded with the original backing track. It's just some of the overdubs, maybe some of the string parts and the backing vocals that are added later.
So the recording a fairly quick process?
Very quick. The first Grinderman record - because we've made another one which isn't coming out until next year (Grinderman 2) - was done in four days. The Bad Seeds' 'Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus' record was made in twelve days total. 'Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!' took maybe five days to make. Very quick records.
How did you get involved with mixing Arcade Fire's 'Neon Bible' album?
They had produced the record themselves at their own studio, which is a big church they own in a village an hour outside Montreal. They basically made it all themselves with an engineer/co-producer. And then they got to a stage where they started mixing it and felt it would be a good idea to have someone else come in.
Why was that - did they want a professional to clean it up?
Well, maybe dirty it up as much as clean it up.
With that album they recorded lots of different ideas per song. For instance, on the same song they might have an orchestra they recorded in Bulgaria, and an orchestra recorded in Montreal.
They might have backing vocal parts that did one idea, and then parts that did another, and they couldn't use both together. So they needed someone to come in and try out all these different ideas and then present something.
They sent tracks to quite a few well-known mixers/producers to experiment with. They sent me three songs to play with in the studio here and I guess they liked organic feeling of my ideas because they asked if I could go up to Montreal to work with them.
I went up there for a month. Marcus Strauss was the engineer, who had engineered and co-produced most of the record. We'd start on a song and most of the ideas would be on one hard drive, and some other ideas would be on another. And I'd just bring it up and work on it, and then the band would drive up from Montreal once I had something interesting going on, and then go, "That sounds great!" or "This sounds wrong. We don't want to use that part. We've got a better idea." And then we'd plug in another hard drive and another idea would come up.
There were lots and lots of ideas - almost too many. It was a playful thing - my taste would lead something into a certain direction. So, in a way the album ended up a combination of my taste and their taste.
What projects do you have lined up at the moment?
I'm going to be doing some more work with Karen O. There's quite a lot of talk of doing some theatre work. I want to do some music for a new idea of a nightclub theatre project that's going to be happening here in L.A. with a new artist. It's a girl, who's an amazing artist, and unknown at this point.
I'm actually taking a little break at the moment because I've done three albums this year. There's some talk of working with some of the members of Bloc Party on a project. There's more Grinderman stuff. There's some music for films that I'm doing. I'm expanding.
What would be your advice for aspiring producers in how to present themselves and take that next step to a professional level?
Be original. Draw from all your influences but be original, because it's your originality that is going to make you unique, and make bands want to work with you.
You've also got to gather as much information as you can from people who have been doing it a long time, and just get out there and do it. You have to be driven by the emotion of the music ultimately.
There's no real set way of doing it. You can go to one of the audio engineering schools and learn a lot but that's not going to get you the job with your favourite bands. You've also got to go out to a lot of concerts and hang out with bands and get to know musicians.
A big part of being a record producer is being able to communicate well with musicians. Let's face it, musicians sometimes don't communicate very well - they're eccentric people, and sometimes very shy people. And you as a producer have to reach out to them and throw your ideas around to get a reaction.
I don't think you can be a record producer with just a knowledge about technology or amps and guitars – you've got to be a very good communicator as well.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would try and find a new way for people who genuinely like music to donate their money to the artists. The big problem is that the artists don't have enough money to create.
What needs to happen is investors out there - people with money and an artistic flair - need to invest in new production houses. If there's anybody out there who wants to do this they should get in touch with me. There are a lot of fantastic ideas floating around now that could make a lot of money for these people.
It's just that the old school way of doing the finances for making records is gone. iTunes and Apple have got the right idea. The only problem is they're investing in old music - they're not financing new music.
There needs to be an online system that can invest in making new music. So, instead of investing in stuff that they know will make their money back those people out there with all the investment capabilities, need to be a bit more adventurous. There's some great new music out there, it's just not being invested in.
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