Interview: Graham Sutton

Two decades and more ago Graham Sutton was a founding member of the youthful experimental rock group Bark Psychosis, who released a handful of singles and an album (1994's Hex) which, by combining the freedom of jazz, the aesthetics of dance and electronic music, and the instrumentation of alternative rock, helped to lay the foundations of what some people would go on to call, rather reductively, “post-rock.”

Since then he's released a much-admired solo drum & bass album (as Boymerang in 1997), remixed the likes of Goldie and Metallica, and become an in-demand producer for indie artists who want to push the envelope and who value sound and art over shortcuts and shortsighted decisions. He's been at the desk for celebrated albums by British Sea Power, Jarvis Cocker, Delays and, most recently, These New Puritans, co-producing their highly acclaimed second album, Hidden, released in 2010, and this year's spectacular, evocative Field of Reeds, in collaboration with the band's songwriter, Jack Barnett.

In 2004 he revived the Bark Psychosis name for a second album (//Codename:Dustsucker), which is when I first interviewed him. We've been in sporadic contact via the magic of the internet ever since, with Graham supplying the knowledge and expertise whenever I've needed a substantive quote regarding dynamic range compression or side-chaining or anything else to do with the recording process. In the wake of Field of Reeds, I caught up with Graham again, and we chewed the fat about all manner of things to do with sound.

Bark Psychosis - Miss Abuse

We joked nine years ago that I'd interview you again in a decade when you had another Bark Psychosis record ready. Are you recording any of your own music at the moment, or are you "just" a producer for other people these days? Will we ever hear from Bark Psychosis again?

I'm currently contemplating new music at the moment funnily enough. The motivations for writing my own music are entirely selfish and personal, and can act as a last option way of somehow working through particular feelings or events in my life. Like I said, entirely selfish. I find it exhausting and not a place I want to visit that often unless I feel utterly compelled, which does seem to be a roughly ten year cycle. So yeah, I'm feeling a compulsion right now, so let's see…

How did the transition from "musician" to "producer" happen? Was it a conscious decision, or an accidental evolution?

Engineers and producers –know your place!

It was very much an accident and not something I actively desired or sought out. I had a meeting with Geoff Travis at Rough Trade about making an album for them, but at the time I was contracted to Regal / Parlophone. He then asked if I'd ever thought about producing anyone other than myself? I've got a bit of an outlook where you should try and do everything in life at least twice (it may be an acquired taste!) so I said I'd keep an open mind if something came up. A couple of weeks later he sent me a CD by a band called Delays, with a postcard attached in which he'd written in big letters "can you make me a HIT?"

My first response quite honestly was to laugh as I thought he was taking the piss. My whole sensibility and stuff I'd made to that point was just so diametrically opposite to this and I'd worked for a while in a studio that specialized in commercial hip hop and pop, so I was aware of the hoops that people jump through. But then the more I thought about it the more it sort of tickled my interest precisely because it seemed such a perverse thing to ask of me. So I sort of thought I'd engage with it as an intellectual game. That track scraped into the top 40 and so I got asked subsequently to work on their album, which led to me being asked to work on more stuff. And so on. People seem to just find me, which is the way I like it.

Delays - Valentine

Do you have any advice for people who’d like to get into production?

I've noticed there's a tendency towards inflated or defensive egos in this game, in kids starting out and so called "big names" alike, and it’s something that turns my stomach. Engineers and producers – know your place! It's a privilege to be asked to work on a record, especially in this day and age. Work hard, and constantly aim for being better at what you do. This doesn't mean gaining an affectation for "vintage" equipment in some self-centered pursuit of a particular "color." I can't get excited by equipment beyond microphones really, and even then so long as a studio has a reasonably varied collection of the standards that have been well maintained you can get the job done. A compressor is just a tool to solve a particular problem. Same as a hammer. And I don't get excited by hammers.

You've worked on the last two These New Puritans as "co-producer" with Jack Barnett; what's the working dynamic like when there are two of you making decisions?

I think we've developed a fantastic shorthand in terms of working things out and being able to very quickly be decisive about certain options that might arise. Plus there's a lot of snickering. And an appreciation of Steely Dan.

Tell me more about how you put together Field of Reeds.

The process for Field of Reeds started at the beginning of 2012 with Jack sending me a bunch of material that he'd been working on. This time around I was very drawn to the overtly personal nature of Jack's writing, and it was clear very early on that this wasn't going to be Hidden Vol. 2, but rather a natural, uncontrived development from there. There's no point in repeating yourself. A set of the material seemed to hang together really well and share a common mood, so we favored these pieces and we went back and forth on the material a bit.

Jack finished the arrangements, either by himself or in collaboration with other people, like Michel van der Aa, Hanks Ek, Philip Sheppard. After those were nailed, it was a matter of breaking things down by instrumentation and getting tactics together to plan the sessions, thinking about who, or what, we'd need and estimating how long we'd need each player for.

Where did you record it?

A compressor is just a tool to solve a particular problem. Same as a hammer. And I don’t get excited by hammers.

Some years ago I'd visited the studios at the magnificent former DDR broadcasting block in East Berlin, and failed to persuade a band to record there – they bottled out! This time our ensemble players had been sourced by our conductor for these sessions, André de Ridder, and were all based in Berlin, so I knew this would be a great opportunity to finally record there. So at the end of April 2012 we had a day of rehearsals and then a day each of laying down the strings and brass parts at P4 in Berlin. Quite a few of the parts had been scored in retrograde, which was fun; that is, the music had been written out backwards, the players would perform as was, and then their performances were reversed. We didn’t do this to give an obvious "backwards" effect; it was more a subtle shift in tonality across different sections. Those sessions occasionally created a funny clash of cultures, which was by turns amusing and exasperating, but they all worked hard and we left with what we needed.

We then travelled to the UK to do the main bulk of recording, divided into two blocks of dates between studios in London and Tetbury, and then mixing in Salisbury. That process took the rest of 2012 and into this year, finishing in March 2013.

These New Puritans - Fragment Two

I want hawking on Dartmoor the other day and had a Harris Hawk fly onto my hand and eat disembodied chicken's feet. It was both amazing and faintly scary. Infamously Field of Reeds features the sound of a Harris Hawk recorded live in the studio; how did you react when Jack said he wanted to do this?

I didn't think twice about it to be honest. You have to understand that we don't approach these albums in terms of random, unplanned sonic whimsy. The sound of a bird's wings was just one element among many that we knew we'd need based on the instrumentation list we drew up at the start of the process. So I guess my first reactions were practical: How large a bird would we need? What particular sonic aspect of the wings were we most interested in, i.e. take off? Or speed? Then it was a matter of sourcing the bird, getting the studio to agree – we had to abort a couple of times because one place wouldn't agree to it – organising the date and then doing it, just like any other of our sound sources. We had plenty of uncommon elements to sort out: 24 chromatically tuned Thai gongs, continuo organ, glass, as well as many other amazing players. A hawk was just one more on the list.

It sounds like the recording was project-managed with almost military precision.

The recording sessions themselves are meticulously planned out time-wise in advance, partly for budgetary reasons but also because Jack and I both hate the thought of waste and inefficiency. Each day was divided into three four hour slots, and then it was just a matter of who or what could do stuff when, and booking them in. I think overall we only allowed ourselves about two hours of total leeway across the recording days. The whole album was scored out from start to finish before we recorded a note. We treated this as a shooting script, reacting and adjusting things as we went along. Having such a strong blueprint to work from meant that we could really concentrate on the performances.

Magnetic resonator piano demo

One of the other unusual sound sources the album features is a Magnetic Resonator Piano, which I understand has never been used on a commercial recording before. What is it, and how did it come about that you decided to use it?

A friend of mine had told me about the Magnetic Resonator Piano and put us in touch with Dr. Andrew McPherson, its inventor, who organized a demo for us. We fell for it immediately. It's quite a remarkable development in the evolution of the expressiveness of the piano. The principle of the MRP, at its simplest, is the same as an E-bow for guitar. An oscillating electro-magnet held close to the metal strings of the instrument induces the strings to vibrate by themselves.

In the Magnetic Resonator Piano's case, each string of the piano has a unique electro-magnet carefully positioned very closely without touching. A sensor bar is then fitted to the keyboard, which detects when keys are depressed, how far and hard, etcetera. This information gets sent to a laptop, which then sends power to the relevant electro-magnets, which induces vibration in the relevant strings. There are also different modes that might trigger harmonics and so on. With this system you can get notes to swell in from silence, sustain forever and create strange harmonics and artefacts the likes of which the piano has never made before. Plus you can still play it like normal. The richness and expressiveness are unbelievable, and sonically it's just beautiful as its still an acoustic source moving air in a room.

These New Puritans' music seems closer in spirit (and sound, to an extent) to your own than that of most other bands you’ve produced, and you've described Field of Reeds to me as "the finest project [you've] ever been involved in." Can you expand on your relationship with the band a little bit for me, and what (working on) Field of Reeds means to you?

I hate shortcuts and the whole copy/paste mentality.

I think there's a shared sensibility there and a mutual respect. Jack's an incredibly gifted, talented guy. He's also very technically literate so there's no gap in discussions on that front, which makes the production side really feel like a genuine partnership. We also have a shared Essex thing going on and the ability to crack each other up. That's actually more important than you might think! Working on these records, especially Field of Reeds, is a very, very intensive endeavour that can take it out of you, so how you work and relate at the most stressful or tired of times is the measure of it.

We've gained a bit of a reputation for being quite demanding, but that's only because I think we really demand a lot of ourselves. We can work quite long hours, which is a necessity sometimes to get everything done within the time we've allocated, and that can come as a bit of a shock for assistant engineers and studio owners! Also, when we're in the thick of it, it's a very closed world; somehow the nature of the material necessitates that. I've been in situations where too many opinions have really compromised the work, where you have to argue against some sort of committee to get stuff done. This is the complete other end of the spectrum, where no one gets to hear anything before it's delivered, and where we can discuss anything that comes up in relative isolation and make any decisions ourselves. This does involve an enormous amount of trust on the part of the label, for instance, but they’ve been great and nothing but supportive so far which is just fantastic. For me personally, this album was a dream to make, and satisfied many long held ambitions. I said to people along the way that if I never got the chance to work on another record then that wouldn't be so hard. Anything else is gravy from now on.

These New Puritans - This Guy’s In Love With You

Tell me about your set-up and philosophy in the studio; how do you like to record an artist? Do you record to tape?

I grew up using tape but I've got no nostalgia for the medium and haven't recorded to tape for over 15 years. My ideal recording chain is a straight wire with a transducer at one end, a good pre (this time mainly Focusrite ISA for clarity with occasional Neve 1081 for thickness) at the other and then into an A/D (Prism ADA8). My philosophy generally is on getting the correct signal at source. I don't EQ things going down, bar the occasional high pass to solve specific problems, and I rarely compress going in unless again it's to solve a problem.

I prefer working with complete takes, and that was the case with Field of Reeds – capturing whole performances as much as possible. I hate shortcuts and the whole copy/paste mentality. Basically shape and fine-tune a great performance and then do as little as needed to it after to get it out the door. There’s beauty in imperfection, which we tried to preserve.

I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears.

I tend to print stereo matrices of mics for a source – brighter, darker and room. These are balanced and grouped internally. Working this way eats up tracks – Field of Reeds songs averaged over 250 tracks each – but it isn't a problem for a modern native system. I run my own rackmounted rig, with an RME-based front end, which has several advantages. I can keep complete control and backup of any material – once we leave a place we leave no trace – plus I know that everything will be as I want it, including installed UAD cards, etc. In the unlikely event that anything does fail I know I can take it apart, easily source and replace any components, and repair it in the field within an hour or so. It's travelled all round the world with me and has never let me down!

Up until recently I'd always mix down to ½" for archival purposes and A/B tests at mastering – occasionally it'd be preferred, but less and less as the years went on – but it's become such a ballache to get decent batches of tape that I've stopped even that now. Plus these days until it's nailed at mastering, final masters can be a bit of a moving target.

As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I'm involved in making, I also find I don't like the sound of tape. I don't want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don't like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There's also a sentimental attachment in the "rock" world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn't there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.

What's next on the horizon for you?

Maybe I'll come back as a badger.

By Nick Southall on July 29, 2013

On a different note