SCHOOL OF ROCK
Anatomy of… a rock album
What makes a great rock and roll album? Nine-minute guitar solos? Not really, no. Swearing? Probably not. A picture of the Hindenburg? OK, maybe that didn’t do any harm…
Toby Jepson, producer of Belfast-based The Answer’s hit record New Horizon (and singer and guitarist from British rock band Little Angels), tells us how a band gets its collective head around being in the studio.
Work with people you like
I went over to Northern Ireland for a day and had an initial meeting with the band. A massive part of it for me is having a connection with people, so they can see I’m bringing something that isn’t threatening them, which is only helping them, as well as me enjoying their music. I love other people bringing music and working on their art. I think it’s a huge privilege.
There are no hard and fast rules…
The technicalities of making records are separate from the actual physical producing of a record. I believe that’s an emotional thing; an atmosphere thing. The stuff that exists in the interaction between musicians.
I’ve been in rock bands where I’ve written records that have been hits, so I can see it from an artist’s point of view as well as a technician.
…but there has to be a plan
The Answer needed a co-writer – someone who could help them re-imagine themselves a little bit. But also someone who could empathise with their position and bring out the best in them.
There was a very short space of time – and a limited budget – to put it together, but it was completely manageable. I’ve been in a band where there’s been a manager banging on your door going “WE’VE GOT TO GET THIS DONE!”, but you can’t work with that kind of mindset.
Find a focus
It’s the same for a lot of bands – you spend the entire beginning part of your life as a musician writing your first record. Then you scramble to try to figure out what to do next. I’ve experienced that myself. And that, believe me, is one of the toughest things bands have to go through in their careers.
So I think what they wanted to do – very smartly, I think – was to recalibrate and go “OK, what are we?”. I said I felt they needed to make a tougher, cooler, more riff-based rock album.
Root out the good stuff
They sent me over 30 songs, and I commented on what I felt was right and wrong about them. Then I went over to Belfast and started initial sessions on three or four tunes that I felt were going to make it. We worked on those, I co-wrote some bits and pieces, and then I started bringing songs in as I’d been asked to do.
In the mornings we’d compare ideas and songs we’d come up with the previous evening after the session. We carried on like that for about six weeks, on and off, until I called time on it and said I felt we had our 13 songs to work on and record.
Don’t bore people to death
I’m very serious about my art, but I also believe that it should be entertainment. We needed to make the messages short and sweet; to make the record grab you by the scruff of your neck and force you to listen. And by the time you’re getting into it, and you’re loving it, it’s over – and you want to listen to it again.
A lot of it is about atmosphere
The best rock and roll was recorded live in the studio: it’s a performance in a room. First you have the songs, then you make great arrangements. And then come the fantastic performances. Led Zeppelin II and Back in Black, for example, were made based on this principle: you have to perform as a group of people interacting with each other through the music.
I wanted to cut New Horizon pretty much totally live like that – and that meant doing lots and lots of takes. We went to Vale studios in Worcestershire. It’s quite an old-school place. It’s got a really old Neve mixing desk, and it all went into my planning.
The first couple of days were spent setting up. Isolating the guitar amps, isolating the bass, finding comfortable places to be. A lot of it is feeling good about recording, like being able to stand there next to your drummer if you’re the bass player – and physically perform out of your skin with a great sound.
So you spend time getting sounds, setting up, organising. Finding a comfortable place. And then you choose a song, press record, and see what happens!
The producer’s job is to make the decisions the band can’t
I was taught by some of the world’s greatest producers – Eddie Kramer, Mike Fraser and lots of other people. The guys that taught me the most were the ones that didn’t imprint themselves on the band’s music. They’re almost like shepherds. You stop the band running off into the distance: you keep them in the pen, you gently cajole.
A massive part of what I try and do is to create a fantastic, fun environment for us to all work in, because at the end of the day it has to be fun. You can’t put your energies into a negative situation. You can’t play guitar very well p****d; you can’t do it stoned. Some bands might believe that, but I think it’s b*****s.
The imperfections are what makes something perfect
The Answer took quite a few takes to get to know where they wanted to go, and I could feel that. Some bands can do it in four takes and I’ve got enough material.
I don’t edit a lot – I want it to be based in big chunks. There might be scrappy parts on the guitar against a great bassline, or a great moment of the bass against a great moment of the drums, I’d much prefer to keep the scrappy bit of guitar in because it made something. It was something. It wasn’t just everything perfect and lined up – I’m not interested in that. Some of my favourite moments of all my favourite records have got those elements that, for some reason, people just want to get rid of these days. And I don’t agree with it.
It’s all about the band enjoying themselves
I’ve felt the wrath of hard-nosed producers, and I’ve recorded with really interesting people that have a great, fun way of working. I’ve had producers that give you the silent treatment – they just get on with their job and don’t want you to talk to them. I’ve also had guys that can’t shut their f*****g mouths up, and you don’t get anything done! I’m somewhere between the two.
I don’t like to get into minutiae and start picking apart the tiny details… I just don’t care about that stuff. I want the blurs. I want it to be exaggerated. I want there to be moments where you don’t know what the hell’s going on. I want it to be a whirlwind. I want it to be exciting to listen to. That’s the point.