Andy Barlow is a rare breed, an artist and producer – one half of hugely influential, seminal electronic duo LAMB as well as a world-class producer with a breathtaking list of credits that has drawn the attention of U2, resulting in several production credits on their latest album Songs of Experience. Mark Millar caught up with Andy to discuss new music from LAMB, their recent live shows and working with U2.
You have been on tour recently playing the debut Lamb album in full. How are the shows going and what was it like revisiting that album?
The shows have been going brilliantly. We haven’t had a record out for three years, so there is always that hesitation of how we are going to present it in a new and exciting way and if the fans will like it. The shows have been brilliant from the get-go. We have done it with a more prominent band onstage. I think the first album has aged remarkably well. There is something about how angular the first album is that it’s kept its youth.
We have got a great show and lighting designer and sound team. I think working for a few months with U2 and helping them with their show has translated into how Lamb plays live. Not regarding anywhere near the production of what U2 is doing but regarding a show with the theatrics, dynamics, costume changes and lighting. We have done 20 appearances so far, and it’s been going down a treat. The shows so far have been well attended with a surprising range of ages in the crowd. I feel good about it; I’m proud of that album.
Lamb has been together for 21 years and released six albums. How does it feel looking back now and did you still think you would be together?
I didn’t think we would still be together after 21 years. I was 19, and it was just a crazy worldwind. I had only been at University studying sound engineering, and after six months I left and started in the world of rock n roll. When the opportunity came up to sign with Universal which was quick, we had only been a band for three months when we signed the deal. Our policy from then until this day is “if there is any question or doubt just say yes you can do it.” And hope by then we can manage to cobble it together. I came from a background of listening to instrumental music; I wasn’t a huge vocal fan back then, so there’s this real sense of ownership over each bar, I would say to Lou (Rhodes), “you sang on that bar, so I’m going to have this bar.”
We were quite brutal with each other. Back then I didn’t have any diplomacy I would say things like, “that’s shit, and I don’t like it.” It was almost like a lovers tiff, but we weren’t lovers, and we couldn’t make up afterwards (Laughs). It was very dramatic and not for the sense of drama it was for our art. Lou was a singer-songwriter, and I was an electronic musician. You can hear it on the record. There’s nothing apologetic about it, there’s nothing cheesy the vocal is like a lone albatross floating off on its own, and the music is somehow a backdrop but over yonder. We wrote the album quickly and said no to Universal who insisted on putting us in with a producer which just didn’t work every time.
We didn’t even know what a producer did back then; it felt like watching another man with your wife (Laughs). Again I didn’t have any context. Although I was a producer without knowing it, I had never seen really what a producer does. Being a producer is such a crazy job, I think it’s one of the strangest jobs because there are vast amounts of psychological support needed for the band. You have to be a babysitter, therapist, technician their best friend and enemy because you are sometimes asking someone to change lyrics that are very personal to them but without any of those tools we would have exploded onto each other, and the album was a result of that.
Lamb recently put out a new track called ‘Illumina’ the bands first new music since the album Backspace Unwind. Could there be a new Lamb album next year?
We were in the studio recently, and we are writing new material. I think subconsciously one of the reasons that we wanted to come out and celebrate the 21st anniversary was because my life has been hectic having taken on more production work and I wanted to see how it felt now. I don’t like it when bands go past their sell-by date. Illumina was us seeing if there were other ideas there and is there something that we haven’t said yet? Because after six albums we have said quite a lot and It was a real pleasure to write that song, the reaction has been so good, and the atmosphere on the road has been brilliant, so it has made us want to write another record. The plan is to crack on with it and get a new album done by summer next year.
How do you and Lou Rhodes write together, what is your songwriting process?
It’s changing now because I never played the piano that much back then I couldn’t play, so we just cobbled stuff together, but now I am a bit more adept at it. We are writing a track at the moment, and we haven’t even touched a sample or an effect or anything yet we are trying to get it stable on the piano with exciting chords. With the first album, Lou brought in that Danny Thompson double bass sample which is from the beginning of Cottonwool and said, “Listen to this, this is awesome.” From that, we built the track around it. For Gorecki, we wrote it around inspiration from Henryk Gorecki’s album, Sorrowful Songs which is an incredible record. It’s a 40-minute song that starts with a single, double bass and ends with a 90 piece orchestra that gets bigger and bigger until it stops. When we started writing that song, Lou had written some lyrics and sang on a cassette. She asked me if I could recreate the track, so it gets bigger and bigger. Obviously, we didn’t have an orchestra, but we had two cellists who came and scored the song.
It’s more like an intention, “I love this, how about we try something that’s nothing like this but make it feel similar to that?” And quite often we would give each other a challenge. The only golden rule that we have is, “try not to repeat the same thing” regarding how we go into a track, for example on track one you start with drums then the next track you start with bass or vocals. The only other rule is, “get each other’s input in quickly” Even if Lou is humming a guideline with no lyric or if I take it too far then Lou comes and would say “all the real estate is gone there’s nothing left for me here.” And Likewise, if Lou develops it too much and it goes too much into songwriter mode I would say, “all I can add is flourishes and touches because it’s already there, what we need to do is get our ideas to each other while it’s still embryonic.” So we can include each other within the composition a lot more successfully.
What kind of producer are you? Do you get involved and play instruments? Or are you a producer who sits back and makes suggestions?
Being a successful record producer is such a weird job. If the artist has got a solid vision of how the song should be you’ve got to work very closely with that idea, but at the same time artists think they know what they want so you present them with other alternatives. With David Gray, for example, he is just a great player at everything, he practices, and plays for hours every day. He’s a good piano player, a great guitar player, a good bass player and a fantastic singer. And that was kind of what he wanted to do was play those parts. With David, I would find sounds, or we would discuss sounds then he would play the parts and then I would work with him on arrangements.
Quite often with David, I was the anarchist I would say, “I’m expecting that let’s do something that we weren’t expecting.” Or other times I would be very extreme and say, “I think we should scrap all of your lyrics you have been working on for two years and do something else.” When you have won an artist’s trust, then you can take chances and leaps, but until you get it, you’ve got to pick your battles and bide your time until that trust happens. Without it, every day is a battle.
How did you get involved with the new U2 album Songs of Experience?
I was in deepest Russia with Lamb, and I remember there being ten feet of snow outside and my manager called me. He knows not to call me before a show because two hours before I turn into a zombie, monosyllabic at best and there he was calling me I said, “Why are you calling me?” He said, “I’ve got to speak to you, but before I speak to you, you have got to promise me you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to say.” I said “tell anyone what?” he said, “I’ve just had to sign an exclaimer for you, you can’t tell anyone not even Lou.” I said, “alright I won’t tell anyone what is it?” He said, “would I be interested in going to Monaco next week for a two week trial with U2?”
Of course, I said “yes ” So I flew out from Moscow and the flight was delayed for about 6 hours. So when I arrived, I got a call from my assistant saying, “Bono is here, he is pacing up and down waiting for you.” Before I have even met him, I am late. His manager (Guy Oseary) said to me, “Usually Bono is not great when people are late.” But he was fine, he was a gentleman, and we struck a nice chord from the first meeting. I asked, “Ok so what would you like to do?” He said, “I think I want to do some poetry.” So I would set up a microphone and Bono comes in and I’m all set up to do poetry then he says, “I’ve got another idea let’s do this.” So I learned early on whatever you prepare for with Bono by the time he comes into the studio he has something else going on in his mind, and you end up doing something else. So I had to let go of being organised and prepared.
So I take it there was no such thing as a typical day in the studio with U2?
No definitely not. If you think you know what bands are like to work with and then start working with U2, then you realise you don’t know anything (Laughs). You can never really plan your day because a hundred ideas are bouncing around the room. You are just trying to see which approach to go for otherwise you could spend your whole day getting overwhelmed with the number of ideas. One thing that I was astonished by from day one was the guys would be open to direction even during the pre trust period where you have to step gingerly. With U2 it was surprising, especially with Bono. It seemed to be zero ego regarding him saying, “Tell us what you think, what would you do, which of these verses do you like, what shall we do at this point?”
There were a real inclusion and openness of new ideas which was fascinating, and I wasn’t expecting in all honesty. Writing with the band especially with Edge and Bono is like Lennon and McCartney stuff they are very opinionated and entirely different regarding styles and how they get ideas. With the Edge, he thinks it through, and you can see his mind working, but with Bono, he just talks off the top of his mind and works a lot more on a hunch and feel.
What tracks did you work on, on Songs of Experience?
I worked on five tracks on the album the first track which is Love is All We Have Left, I’m the sole producer and mixer on that and the same with Book of Your Heart. On Red Flag Day, Landlady and the Little Things That Give You Away, I’m the producer but featuring other producers as well. That was the other crazy thing; I have never done a multiple producer record before. If it were a module in University, it would be an extra year bolt on (Laughs).
I’m sure it must have been strange for you when other producers came in and started messing about with work that you had spent hours doing.
At first, we all had our songs, and we didn’t stray into each other’s songs, but that was in the beginning then about halfway through I noticed my parts starting to crop up in other producers versions and later it became “open source“ (Laughs). We were all using each other’s parts and making them our own, mangling them around. That was the most challenging part of the record. I have always been an artist, so songs are like my babies they are very tender and delicate, and if I didn’t learn very quickly to let go of ownership and control, I was going to get upset quickly (Laughs). So I had to do an express course in learning to let go of my ideas.
What was the first record that turned you on to music?
My dad had a vinyl copy of Herbie Mann live at the Village Gate; I was probably about ten when I heard it. It’s not a particularly famous record, but it’s got an incredible rhythm section. The whole album is only three tracks, and one of them is 20 minutes long with a hypnotic tribal percussion that goes all the way through it. I played it thousands of times and would just zone out listening to it. I loved the trance that it put me in; there are no vocals on it. It’s got an incredible groove and lots of tempo changes; the whole thing builds into a crescendo. I wore the record out. That was the first record I heard that made me realise what I wanted to do.
What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?
I’m enjoying listening to Nils Frahm at the moment which is a piano with some electronics. I have been listening to him a lot.
How do you listen to music nowadays? CD – Vinyl – Downloads?
If I am in my studio which has got excellent speakers, I will try and locate CDs or high-quality versions so I can listen in there but if I’m on the road or hotels or using smaller speakers, I will use Spotify. I use Spotify a lot I find it very handy especially when we are in the studio. Bands would say, “can you make it more like this track, or how about we try this idea from this track?” it’s great that you can pull songs up instantly in that regard although lack of fidelity on it is an issue the convenience counterbalances that.
More info about Andy Barlow + Lamb: