A music producer has an expansive role in overseeing and managing the recording of a band or performer's music. A producer has many roles that may include, but are not limited to, gathering ideas for the project, selecting songs or session musicians, proposing changes to the song arrangements, coaching the artist and musicians in the studio, controlling the recording sessions, and supervising the entire process through audio mixing (recorded music) and, in some cases, to the audio mastering stage. Producers such as the late Sir George Martin and Phil Spector have become as famous as the artists they were producing, and some are never heard of. In this series 'Behind the Mixing Desk,' we will be talking to producers, Engineers, mixers etc. from the music world to find out what they do and what makes them tick.
First up is Jim Spencer. Jim has worked with some of the best and most influential artists around today. His CV includes Johnny Marr, The Charlatans, Paul Weller, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Winachi Tribe. Mark Millar caught up with Jim in between sessions for a chat.
Hi Jim, what was your first musical memory?
JS: My first musical memory was probably playing air drums with my mum’s knitting needles along to Queen’s Greatest Hits. I was obsessed with that album when I was a kid. When I talk to people they always say that is the best Queen album, even though it wasn’t a proper album, it’s just killer!
So Queen was the start of it?
JS: I used to want to be a drummer, but I ended up learning piano. I wanted to learn jazz piano when I was a kid. That’s what I was taught - always really wanted to work in music. I grew up in a really remote place in Lincolnshire, which was proper farm territory. If you stayed in Lincoln, you would either be a farmer or work in a shop, so I needed to get out of the place. As it turned out, my first job was in a recording studio in Lincolnshire called Chapel Studios which is a pretty well-known place. It’s one of the largest remaining residential studios in the country because so many of them are shut down now, but it was great. There were many different types of bands there, and all sorts of different types of music. Quite a lot of heavy rock bands used to come there. At the same time, you would get Japanese pop bands flying over to record there and the Arctic Monkeys recorded there and various other well known British acts, so that’s where I ended up.
I met Johnny Marr when I was working there, and he was producing a solo record for Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen. He brought along his own engineer called Owen Morris who went on to do the first 3 Oasis albums and Ash. Owen went off to work with New Order for 3-4 days during this album, and I got an opportunity to step in as an engineer for when he was away. I never really thought any more about it until a year later when I got a telephone call from Johnny’s management company asking if I would come and engineer the 2nd Electronic album which they were in the process of making. Owen Morris had left. I think he had enough because they had been working on it for 2 years already and Oasis were taking off, so he went to work with them and left Electronic without an engineer. So I obviously jumped at the chance to move to Manchester to work with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner. Also, Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk was collaborating on that album, so as a 21 year- old to move to Manchester to work with those guys was a really amazing opportunity and I've never left Manchester since.
What made you decide to be a music producer?
JS: I was in a band when I was at school playing the drums. It was a typical school band we played the odd party and I never really enjoyed doing any of the gigs. (Laughs) I would have always rather been with everybody else partying. I went on tour with Johnny Marr’s – Healers band playing keyboards and feel uncomfortable in that environment. I was always more interested in the sonic sculpting aspect of music. There was an old tape machine at my school on which we recorded demos and covers. That really captured my imagination, and I really thought that’s what I wanted to do.
I remember talking to the school about it. They said it was completely unrealistic, coming from Lincoln and that I should think about something more sensible (laughs), so I was talked out of it, but at the same time, I had a keyboard at home which had a basic sequencer and drums on it. I spent all my time putting beats down and overdubbing stuff and doing copies of tunes that I liked and breaking them down and working out what all the elements were, made it up and then tried to recreate it as best as I could. Eventually, I thought “Fuck ‘em!” I am going to do this and give it a go, so I went off to London for a year and did a course which at that point there weren't many around.
I was lucky enough to get a job at Chapel Studios the Monday after I finished the course and never looked back. I am lucky to be doing something that I knew I wanted to do since I was 16. It was always the idea of painting a picture with a sound that really appealed to me. It was around the advent of samplers as well. I remember seeing one on Tomorrow’s World. They explained that you could sample a dog barking and put it on a keyboard and the female presenter was playing a tune on a keyboard with a dog bark, and I just thought that was the best thing in the world. I couldn't believe that you could do that.
What music did you listen to growing up?
JS: I have always liked many different types of music. I've never really subscribed to the gang mentality of liking Punk and nothing else or indie and nothing else. When I was 17-18 that was the time when The Stone Roses were coming through and The La’s and Oasis a little bit after, that whole Manchester music scene really struck a chord with me, and it worked out amazingly that I ended up moving to Manchester and working with a lot of those people. I was also into Crosby, Stills and Nash as a kid; those were early influences I guess. I used to really like Talk Talk, when I first started working at the studio I spent many evenings in downtime just blasting Talk Talk through the big monitors there with some beers; and The The, I'm a big fan of Matt Johnson’s stuff.
Are you happy about the news that there is new music coming from The Stone Roses?
JS: Yeah, I guess so; it makes me a bit nervous actually. I hope it’s going to be amazing, but part of me thinks if it isn't amazing, then it will be so disappointing. How can they top that first record? I never saw them the first time around, but it was just mind-blowing when I saw them at Heaton Park, especially to see Reni playing the drums. He is just ridiculous.
You haven’t done too bad, Jim. You have worked with some amazing artists and bands from New Order, The Charlatans, Black Grape, Johnny Marr, and Oasis.
JS: It’s worked out, touch wood. It’s an unusual kind of job. Many people might think that they would like to do what I do, but the reality of it is somewhat different. But for me it’s the only thing really; there is nothing else I’d rather do. I have been lucky enough to carve out a career. Although it’s getting more difficult in the industry, particularly for younger producers and engineers to get some break, I am very grateful for how it has worked out for me.
What kind of producer are you? Do you get involved and play instruments? Or are you a producer who sits back and makes suggestions?
JS: I come from the engineering background that is my route into production; for many years, I was engineering records then mixing them. I drifted into producing through co-producing, which is what happened with the Charlatans. I ended up co-producing with them. They have strong ideas about production themselves. They like to produce with a producer which suited me fine to be fair—that kind of production. If there is a keyboard player capable of playing keyboards, I’ll let them play them or show them what’s required. If there isn't and I think it needs some piano or some keys or synths, I’ll do it which the band is usually happy for me to do.
My style of production is that we all are involved. The band and I are working as a team to make the record the best that we can. If that means that I will put some drum programming on something to make it work, then that’s the way it will be. If I can get everything I want from the band then fantastic, that’s always good. I like to work with the musicians rather than dictate to them that it has to be my way or the high way.
If I’m working with a band that doesn’t have strong ideas about how they should sound, I’ll dictate it more. Generally, I prefer to work with bands with some clue of what they are working towards because I think that’s important for a band or at least someone from within the band to have some sense of what it all means what they are doing. I have worked with bands where I really have dictated everything and programmed loads of stuff and worked towards getting a really great sounding track. But at the end of the day, if they can’t go out and play it live, what’s the point?
I have done it a few times where I’ve spent a long time getting a track sounding really good and a great single, but I have realised that there is no point if the band do the shows and it sounds nothing like it and not very good, and they can’t play very well. It’s a waste of time. I try not to put myself in those situations anymore. Life’s too short, and there is plenty of good music out there. Obviously, my job is to make people sound as good as possible, but the songs have to be good, and the writing has to be good in the first place for me to get involved otherwise it’s a waste of time. Plus I have been a bit spoiled over the years working with really a lot of really talented musicians and artists.
You have worked with an amazing pedigree of artists; looking back do you have a favourite album you have worked on?
JS: The first album I did with the Charlatans was ‘Us and Us only’ – that was a really brilliant experience all round. It was a massively important one for me because it was my first proper co-production credit. It was a very intense record for several reasons. It was the Charlatans’ first record since Rob Collins died and it was the first record done in their own studio which I helped put together. Many long hard days were getting that record done; the band had a few issues going on personally, but it was a great, great time and it was gratifying. I am still really proud of what we did.
My favourite track on that album is ‘A House Is Not a Home’, I think it’s a really great tune.
JS: That’s got a live feel to it that one and I remember saying to them after that record that they are such a brilliant live band and that’s a big part of their longevity. They never recorded like that on that album; none was recorded as a band, even that one and they didn’t record like that on the following album ‘Wonderland’. I remember saying to them, – “When are you going to do a record where you are all in a room”?” and they said, – “We don’t really do it like that Jim, it’s not the way we work.” I guess they have been together for a long time and they have got beyond that stage of hanging out with each other in a rehearsal room and coming up with riffs, which is fine.
Although they have come full circle a bit with the last record – we did record some of the tracks with the band all in a room live. It’s great that they have reached a point where they can do that again. Many records that I have done with Johnny Marr have been vital to me; obviously, the first Electronic album I did with him (which was actually their second record) was a massive learning curve and really was a great experience. I did a few things with Johnny after Electronic; he produced an album for a band called Haven which I engineered and mixed, which was a lot of fun and is a good record.
How did you get involved with the Winachi Tribe?
JS: Funnily enough that came about through Mark Collins from The Charlatans. They had the record that they wanted someone to mix, and Mark recommended me for it, and they sent me some tracks over to listen to, and they sounded great, really lively and well put together tracks, and it sounded like it would be fun and it has been. We have made 8 or 9 tracks I think, and it sounds really, really good. They are a talented bunch, and they have put together some excellent sounding tracks, so mixing it was like taking what they already had and giving it a bit of a steroid shot and making it sound a bit bigger, but it sounds really good, and they are a nice bunch of guys as well.
Is there an artist or band that you would like to work with in the future?
JS: I always would like to have worked with Supergrass back in the day. I really dig Foals; I think that would be fun and I really like Field Music as well. I think that would be right up my alley. I was thrilled to be involved in the last New Order record because they are really an important band and were a significant band to me growing up. That was a real pinch yourself moment working with those guys. I really love to work with people who are talented and write good songs.
Is there a producer who inspired you and you look up to?
JS: Initially, it has to be Phil Spector for a long time. I was completely obsessed with him. He was the ultimate sonic architect in terms of production. I got to mix a John Leckie production once which was hugely nerve-wracking because he had mixed it already and the band didn’t like it, and so I ended up mixing it, and John came into the studio to have a listen to the track, and I was shitting bricks, I really was. I thought, “Man, I can’t believe I’m doing this”.
I didn’t know how he would feel about me mixing it, but he was so charming and gracious, and he said it sounded great and much better than his version. I wish I recorded him saying that I could play it back to myself in years to come, but he was great. And Danny Saber, I worked with a lot of different producers in my time at Chapel, and I could count the number of producers that I really rated on the one hand after being there for 3 years and Danny was one of those producers. He is really super-talented; he is a different kind of producer to me. He does things his way, if he thinks he is a better bass player than the bass player in the band, he will play the bass, and that’s just the way it is. He is definitely inspirational. I was a big fan of Radiohead over the years and Nigel Godrich is a very talented producer.
Thanks very much for your time Jim.
Thanks very much.
I forgot to mention I’m involved as an artist on a project with singer Paul Eaton, called Dead Love Fear Wave. Our first single is out on the 13th of May.
Find more about Jim Spencer HERE