(This article originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of Electronic Musician)
Youth (aka Martin Glover) pounded the bass for industrial punksters Killing Joke in the late 1970s and has since become one of Englands hottest producers. The triplethreat producer-songwriter-musician has a discography chock full of productions and remixes for U2, Crowded House, INXS, Erasure, The Cult, James, Faith No More, Siouxsie and the Banshees, PM Dawn, and a horde of other modernrock icons. He has also taken on a revitalized Vegas sexpot (Tom Jones), remixed a dead rock god (Jimi Hendrix) and updated his own past (producing Pandemonium in 1995 for the re-formed Killing Joke). The unrepentant workaholic also runs his own record label and studio complex, making it rather easy to see the truth in Crowded House-vocalist Neil Finn's assessment that Youth is "a bit of a nut."
How do you conceptualize the role of the producer?
Well. I don't believe it works well to tell people what to do. The goal is not to enforce your ideas on the act; it's to realize and unify the shared vision of the band, the songwriter, and the producer.
Unfortunately, some producers don't even use the musicians who are in the band. For example, when I was working with Crowded House [on Together Alone], I was talking to the bassist about reviewing his bass lines, and he said, "You mean I'm going to be able to play on this album?" They weren't allowed to play on their own records; session musicians were brought in to play the parts.
It's okay to do that sometimes with singers and solo acts, but a hand's bag is all about how the musicians play together. It's not about having a bunch of session musicians fill in; otherwise I might as well record the album by myself, and I'm not going to do that. I'd rather look at each musician's parts and try to make the best of them that I can. If a part really isn't right, I might suggest something else. More often than not, my suggestions are about stripping the part down and making it as simple as possible to cut out the clutter. I mean, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who's playing the part—a session musician or a hand member—all that matters is that what goes on tape is right for the song. That's the goal I try to navigate toward. After all, record production is basically about producing a result.
But let's say you're producing singer-songwriters in the early stages of their careers. Even if you have to completely build the tracks from scratch for the artists, you still want to consolidate what they are and help realize their genius, not impose yours.
Because you are a songwriter and a musician, do you extend your production responsibilities to include editing and polishing an artist's songs?
I do, but working with songs and songwriters is delicate stuff. Essentially, you can hear a good song with a voice and an acoustic guitar or piano. The song should shine with or without a full arrangement behind it. In fact, when I start the preproduction process, I usually get the band to sit around and listen to the vocalist singing the song in an extremely strippeddown version, perhaps with just a single guitar as accompaniment. Such "unadorned" listening should give each person in the band an opportunity to better hear what the song is saying, without all the associations that different instruments bring to an arrangement.
Much of my role at this stage is to help the artist develop a vision for each song. Writers tend to get very close to the details of their songs and often cannot conceptualize an overall theme. I know this from writing my own music. You hear your work in a certain way, but someone else can come in and take it further because they're in more of an objective position to see possibilities that you can't, So I listen to the artists' songs and sit down and discuss what each song means to them. Then I try to help them expand the songs to best achieve what they want to communicate.
Does this creative assistance include suggesting lyric changes?
Again, it's a delicate process. You might think a line is not right, but it's close to what the artist is trying to express. I still might try to encourage them to develop the line further. I'll just say, "I've got a problem with this line. Can you think of something else?" It's usually not a big deal. I mean, there are always lyric changes in the song right up to the time you cut the final vocal. Many of these changes are for beter—to help a line fall into the rhythm of the track better.
And I have to say here that, although I may suggest lyric changes, I never ask for songwriting credit unless I was initially commissioned to cowrite a project. That way, there is no confusion about your role, and you're free to give 100 percent as a mixer or a producer or whatever you were hired for. If the band wants to cut you in on the publishing, that's up to them. It gets too weird otherwise. I mean, you can literally "rewrite" parts of a song in the mixing process, but that doesn't mean you should get a songwriting credit.
It's interesting that you also produce techno tracks that typically do not follow standard song structures. Is it strange for you to be switching your brain back and forth between pop conventions and more unfettered musical styles?
If conventional songs are not what the band is about—say, it's an industrial or ambient act—the recording may come down to an emotional atmosphere. But generally, I still encourage people to stick to a standard song arrangement, no matter what type of music they're doing, and then experiment within that form.
I've found that whenever you start veering off from the verse/chorus structure—which is basically an old folkmusic arrangement—you confuse people. People are preconditioned to certain expectations when they hear a Western pop song, and if those expectations aren't delivered, they sometimes tune out. It's unfortunate, but it's true.
Now, this is not necessarily the case with world or ambient music, but those genres still have recurring themes that act like pop choruses. Still, you must keep in mind that those musical styles have developed an entirely different language and people expect different things from that language; their preconceptions are different from those of a pop audience.
But we can't ignore that conventional song arrangements work really well. The format can he quite liberating, actually. Bands that want to do something totally unique are often locking themselves into a gilded cage. For one thing, anyone who thinks they are being "original" by having a strange arrangement is fooling themselves. Let's face it: it has probably been done already.
When you embrace the traditional arrangement, however, it leaves you the space to get into the parts you're playing and into what the song is really saying. In other words, you can discover the emotional content of your musicianship. You're not going through this intellectual process of thinking, "Oh, should we have no chorus on this song?" The real liberation comes from accepting the restrictions of the conventional song form because then you can sidestep the intellect and go straight for the emotional core. And that's exactly what you should be looking for as a musician and as a listener.
You should strive to put something into a song that is so uniquely yours that no one can do it, except for you. Now, that's being truly original.
How exactly do you inspire a musician to seek out his or her "emotional core"?
When I've produced ambient or trance projects, visual metaphors have been very helpful. I might have the artist imagine that we're in the foothills of the Himalayas trying to get to this valley. So I'll then ask the artist to envision the first part of the song as a journey where we are rummaging around the undergrowth of these foothills. The metaphors provide a navigational plot, but they also give the artist complete creative freedom.
Metaphors can work for individual parts, too. If you're a guitarist, I might tell you that you're a wounded buffalo being chased by Indians. You're stuck in some mud trying desperately to get out, and they're shooting arrows at you. Now, I want you to make the guitar sound like what you feel.
What I try to do is to sidetrack the intellectual, conscious mind that tells you, "I have to play all these notes in this particular sequence, and it has to sound like a specific persona! ideal." For example, one bass player I worked with had a lot of trouble doing his overdubs. Every time we'd go to record, he'd get what we call "redlight fever." Whenever the record light went on, he'd freak out. I found that he was concentrating too hard on the parts, so I would use these little tricks to get him to think about anything but what he was playing.
Once, I had the tape operator read poetry into his ear to distract him from what he was playing. When I did stuff like that, we'd get a take in a couple of hours whereas doing it the normal way would take eight hours or more.
That's the test of a good producer: slog it out until you get what you need. You must be able to stretch your imagination to find little tricks and techniques that can help the musicians really shine. It's not about getting them to bend to work your way; it's about you bending to the way they are and helping them express themselves. So much of production is psychology, really, rather than actually knowing how to use this or that piece of gear. You have to create a nurturing environment in a cold studio crammed with cords and wires and hightech equipment and all these engineers running around. The production process is fraught with paradox, and that's the beauty of it. You have to embrace various dichotomies: technique versus passion, intellect versus emotion, and so on. But you can't have one without the other. It's like a musician learning scales just so he or she can forget them. You have to practice certain things so you can perform without thinking about it.
One of the biggest things to remember when you're producing an act is to forget about the music. It's more important to create a vibe where the artist can have some fun, I mean, a guitarist may have studied his or her instrument for ten years and feel that making a record is the culmination of everything they've learned about the guitar. But actually, the record has nothing to do with the guitar. The guitar is just a vehicle for expressing the player's emotions. The music you make reflects what is going on inside of you, so if you're thinking exclusively about the technicalities of performing music, you simply will not have much to say.
Do musicians react favorably when you steer them into uncharted territory? I know that many players are particularly uptight about having to surrender technique for passion.
The great thing about producing music is that you're working with people, and everybody is different. And even within that sweeping diversity, individuals act differently at different times of their lives, so there is never any guarantee how someone is going to react to your suggestions. You must be quite flexible in how you approach artists and, at the same time, pretty firm about where you want to take them. This is a great challenge because I don't believe in compromises in the studio. Ideally, I believe that everybody has to get what they want out of the recording.
To do this with any hope of success, you must sort everything out in the project's initial stages to ensure that everybody is making the same record. You must take a bit of time away from the details of making a record and discuss the bigger picture.
Quite a lot of producers forget this stage, and then halfway through the album, they discover that they're making a completely different record than the bass player is. Or that the vocalist is making a different record than the guitarist is. Of course, you have to leave a certain amount of room for spontaneity, but working out a good navigational plot for a record makes it a hell of a lot easier to get to the common destination because you know where you're going before you leave.