Charlie won last year’s British Producer of the Year Award at the BRIT Awards, considering his staggering production credits, this man also runs his own record label Square Leg Records and In The Woods Festival.. Having produced Alt-J’s first and second albums, being both global successes with the second (This Is All Yours, 2014) reaching number one in the UK Albums Chart and number four in the US Billboard 200.
He followed this up by recently finishing all the production work on Alt-J’s new album (set for release later this year), as well as recording records for artists such as Marika Hackman and Francobollo.
We decided to catch up the busy music mogul over the phone to touch on his musical upbringing, the background behind a few of the records he’s worked on and some of his thoughts on the music industry today.
Were you more self-taught in producing and did you improve your production skills over time working with bands? Or did you learn working under someone else’s wing?
A bit of all sorts really.. I’ve always been very interested in music production since I was at school. I was very fortunate as I was given free reign of a small studio and I was being nerdy around that. After that time, I was fortunate again to be a runner at Abbey Road and I ended up staying a couple of years there. Then after university I sort of went off and taught the drums to pay the bills. I hired a small warehouse in Shoreditch, where I invited bands to come play but I wouldn’t charge them. So in a way, I kept on finessing my craft that way. I would listen to other records, and ask myself “how did they do that?” and “How can I try and do the same thing?”. “I really like that” or “I don’t like that”. Then down the line, I met Gareth (his agent) and the company he works for, who also look after a producer called Clive Langer. They introduced us and I’ve definitely learned a lot from him. He’s considered a legend with the sort of records he made and I think just being in a room with him was a real confidence boost.
A lot of producers started off in bands or they were musicians themselves, were you playing in bands before your time at Abbey Road?
Yes well not while I was there, there wasn’t any time to play in a band. Since then after I finished university I’ve been in a band called The Laurel Collective, we haven’t played for about four or five years now but we’re planning on getting back together. I’ve definitely learned a lot from that whole process in terms of the production side of things, by just helping out with new bands that I’m working with. Just with helping their careers, it’s nice to be able to give them advice from experiences that I’ve learned from along the way. Trying to urge artists not to take the wrong path. So that’s all been massively helpful in my career, as well as making our own records, that’s definitely honed my craft being able to make records for the artists I now work with.
When was the first point you helped make an album that was your first honourable moment or major success?
I’d be perfectly honest with you it was ‘An Awesome Wave’, the first Alt-J album. That was the first album I had out. I managed to jack that in around 2009. So I was teaching drumming for a few years, while doing a few little projects here and there to pay the bills and then to Alt-J. I was introduced to them through a mutual friend, who was also the bloke who introduced me to Gareth. A guy called Nick Butterfield, he got given the demo from his mate (who was Gus) and I really loved it. I invited them down to my place in Shoreditch and that’s how I met them.
So from there did you start recording demos with them and then they decided to record an album with you?
Basically yeah, so we recorded ‘Matilda’ from their first album, about six months later we did ‘Breezeblocks’ and then six months later we did ‘Tessellate’. Every time we’d get together it seemed to click and really worked, we would always come away with something we were really happy with. So we had those three recordings in the bag and we took it from there really. Those three demos were essentially on the album; we didn’t really tinker with them at all. From there luckily their label got behind them, management and what not that was after we did those recordings. They were all happy to keep me on, so that was good.
There are a lot of great percussion based samples appear all over Alt-j’s albums, that have become sort of their sound signature. What’s the process of recording these sounds?
There is no fixed process, we’re always exploring. Tom’s developed his own kit sound because he doesn’t use cymbals. He uses a 10-inch snare drum, which obviously is not that normal. So no cymbals and that size of snare drum is not really common, that’s a unique drum sound in itself. For the other stuff, it would be bits and bobs. The guys would sometimes come in with demos they’d be working on and we’d use the sounds already from them because they’d sound great. Other times we’d be in the studio working the percussion feel and sound. Being a drummer myself I suppose I can hone on it myself it’s a collaborative effort really.
To me your recordings balance authentic live recorded music that has a digital process to it.. It sounds to me a lot of the finished tracks Alt-J release sound heavily live-tracked. Would you say there is much digital editing going on behind the songs?
I try to keep my recordings sounding as live as I can. Depending on the song not too much.
How do you feel about the modern standards of making digital sounding music? Would you say you merge both live sounding records and digital tracks?
Yeah. I think with modern tastes there is a real want for that modern production sound. My ethos is to try and embrace both worlds. I do sometimes find modern recordings, sometimes a bit sterile a bit lifeless because they’ve sounded butchered of its life. When everything sounds so tight and in tune, I think on paper that may appear really well crafted but when you zoom out it’s lost a bit of soul. That’s something I try to avoid. The soul of a track is something that’s really important for me and sometimes you have to put your hand up and say “Its really out of tune” or “its really out of time” whatever it may be.. Sometimes it actually sounds great. I think sometimes that does get overlooked a little bit or when people have all the tools in front of them. A producer’s digital work can get so in depth and surgical, while it’s sometimes easy to do with the right tools you can feel obliged to do it. It’s definitely a hard job these days not doing that, I’m really proud of myself that I am able to avoid doing that but the track is still able to stand up yet still has it’s soul. That’s my holy grail.
I had to ask this one, it may be vague as you have preferences to obtaining different kind of sounds but what would you say is your go-to guitar and amp combination? (laughs)
(laughs) Okay I’m a bit of a sucker for a telecaster and through an old Vox AC30. That’s always my go to. I’m very lucky to have an old AC30 in my studio, which actually belongs to Clive. He’s permanently lent it to me, which is lovely of him.
Amazing, he doesn’t want it back?
Well.. Every so often he wants it back for gigs but he doesn’t wait clutching up his hallway at home, so thankfully it lives in my studio. You look at it and it’s falling apart but you turn it on, it’s got that character, it’s got its life. It’s sometimes unpredictable in a way and that’s why I love it. Maybe something about the way it’s worn in and all the rest of it. The vibrato channel actually has got the wrong valve in it, it sounds great though. I took it in for a repair the other day and they were like “You know this has got the wrong valve in it? Whatever you do, don’t touch that”. It might be the wrong valve but it sounds great. Just little quirky things like that but the old AC30 you can drive it really nicely, you have crank it loudly but it does break up in a lovely warm way. I’ve got various Audio Kitchen bits for distortions and that’s a company I highly rate. I’ve got a pedal of theirs called the Big Trees, it’s nice valve pedal and it’s got all sorts of levels of distortion on it. It’s lovely to have that between the telecaster and the AC30.
Are there any producers that inspired you from your career beginnings to now? Who continue to push your creativity?
I can’t really point my finger out on one particular name, I’m sorry if that’s a disappointment. I can’t mention a name of someone who’s constantly bossing it. I’m continuing to listen to music thinking “Well done, hats off”, to think how they’ve done certain things for inspiration for my next projects. I think that’s vital in what I do, if you bury your head in the sand you’re not going to move with the times. I think there’s on artist who I’m a big fan of, which is Beck. Every time he brings something out, whether it’s quite acoustic or more upbeat I think he does it great.
Yeah his music seems timeless..
100% yeah, he is an artist and a producer who I have a lot of time for and I always respect what he does.
‘3 Worn Words’ from Alt-J came out recently, to me it sounds quite ambient and prog-rock approached. Is this a direction that is explored in the upcoming album from them?
Without giving much away, it’s an album I’m very proud of working on. I wouldn’t say the whole album is similar to 3 Worn Words, I would summarise it all as a great listening experience. Its definitely another change from what they’ve done in the past.
Where are your favourite studios to work in? I’d imagine Abbey Road is up there..?
Yep Abbey Road is brilliant. It was really nice to go back there making the album and be the producer rather than assisting, which is cool. That’s an amazing institution, obviously they’ve got their history but the way it’s run and got its history, the way it’s managed and technically as well, it’s just incredible really. I don’t think there’s many studios left that has 24-hour technical support. We did the majority of the tracking at Strongroom, which is somewhere we’ve always loved as well. With my band we used to track there a lot and then to go back to this album was a real joy. It’s looked after really well, a great sounding live room and a great control room too.
You’ve also wrapped up Marika Hackman’s latest album was that recorded in and around London?
That was recorded at my place in Brixton.
How long has that been in the works?
We did that on and off starting last October for a three or four week period. That was the total time for recording and mixing but we did it over three or four months I think.
Did Marika bring in demos and you’re worked on them from there or was it a different process?
Marika wrote all the songs and demo’d them pretty well. She had a clear idea what parts she wanted and she took that to her band The Big Moon, as part of her backing band. The idea for this record was to take these songs and track them live. Part of the process was for me to go to rehearsals, to listen and make sure that their playing the parts, as I would want to hear them to get the right dynamics and that stuff. Then take it to the studio and get that down on tape, a lot of what I did was in the rehearsal room.
What other projects you’ve been involved with that are coming out later this year or are their artists you are currently working with?
At the moment I’m keeping my options open, which is quite exciting. It’s quite nice to focus on my own label for the next few weeks. I’ve got a few signings, a band called Francobollo, who are bringing out their next single very soon and their album is coming out in Summer. Also an artist called Sivu, who is releasing his second album we recorded that last year.
How long have you had your label for?
We sort-of launched last year and the year before that was organised getting all the prep work for it. I signed Francobollo last year, got the tracks recorded, now we’re dropping their music appropriately and we’ve got the album ready to go in the summer. It’s early days and it’s very exciting and it’s an industry I enjoy learning about.
How do you think Rock music has been going the last few years?
It’s a bit of a tricky one, I often think about this one..
To add in.. I think you see a lot of the same bands take the spotlight and you don’t see enough new talent getting the same opportunities? It appears very different to pop music. I’d like to get your thoughts on that..
Yeah it’s a tricky one, it seems like there’s one band who nails something and it’s exciting. Then there’s going to be another god knows how many bands trying to ride the same thing, trying to follow suit to ride the same wave. I think maybe the way the industry has been, you could argue there’s more pressure for labels to get it right and not lose money. So maybe there’s not so much investment in new talent in nurturing an act like there once was, which is a shame. With a lot of these bands unless a band’s sound is great, the labels may not want to be as interested. Perhaps I’m speculating a little bit but also with how indie music is recorded, you do need a bigger studio set-up to make it happen. With some genres you can make great music within a single production room or your bedroom. Phases come and go but I think there are great bands out there that can be searched for but are not in the spotlight.
As part of a campaign partnered with Mastercard’s sponsorship of the BRIT Awards, a campaign called the ‘Priceless Side of Music’ research was conducted to uncover who the British public consider to be the future music legends.. Adele came out top and ultimate music legends such as David Bowie also came out top. The general public chose these two as they considered as ‘music idols’. Would you say they’ve had a tremendous impact on music?
I agree with the results, I think Adele is very consistent with her output and her ability to perform at such a high level.
I think for the music she writes, it’s not upbeat pop music but her music appeals to such a wide audience and it’s amazing to see that kind of response for an artist who hasn’t been noticed for a long time.
She’s not trying to do anything too new or clever but lyrically people can relate to the lyrics, when she sang ‘Someone Like You’ at The Brit Awards, in the whole of The 02 you could hear a pin drop. It had the nation or the world in fact in awe. Being just a solo voice and a piano it was performed ridiculously well and with relatable lyric content, these are timeless attributes really. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re from, you’re going to appreciate that.
Charlie has been working with Mastercard on their Priceless Side of Music campaign as part of their sponsorship of the BRIT Awards. For more information please visit pricelesssurprises.co.uk.
Interview Chris Graham