Some people work fastidiously to build a career while others naturally fall into one. For Nick Launay, his transformation from British punk to respected music producer with a perennial punk spirit was kismet, pure and simple. Born in England but raised in Spain between the ages nine and 16, Launay returned to England when the punk movement exploded in the late '70s. Entranced by the scene and inspired by his lifelong passion for music, he decided that he wanted to make records.
The aspiring producer's big break came after working as an assistant engineer at Townhouse Studios, where his mentor, Hugh Padgham, had worked with The Police and Peter Gabriel and was collaborating with producer Steve Lillywhite, who had worked with XTC, Siouxsie & he Banshees and The Members, and who was Launay's favorite producer at the time. Launay worked on Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack, The Jam's Sound Affects and XTC's Black Sea album (with Lillywhite and Padgham). The budding engineer absorbed the knowledge he was accruing, particularly from the generous production duo who answered his eager questions and taught him their craft.
After the XTC gig, Launay worked as an assistant engineer on a one-day session for John Lydon, who was mixing a dub track by his band, Public Image Ltd., called “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” The main engineer was clueless as to how to work the studio's SSL console, and because Launay displayed a technical talent and an acute understanding of what the former Sex Pistol wanted, Lydon locked out the engineer and spontaneously hired Launay. The members of PIL liked his remix efforts so much that they hired the relative novice to produce their next album, The Flowers of Romance.
And a producer was born.
Since then, Launay has produced a truly eclectic series of recordings by the likes of The Church, David Byrne, Midnight Oil, Gang of Four, Killing Joke, the Birthday Party, INXS, and recently Silverchair's Neon Ballroom and Nick Cave's Nocturama. Most recently, he has been working with Lou Reed and preparing the next Cave album.
After working with PIL on The Flowers of Romance, you engineered Kate Bush's album The Dreaming. How did that come about?
Hugh Padgham, who during that year had become very popular doing Sting and Phil Collins, was engineering the Kate Bush album but didn't have time. He heard some of the Public Image stuff, realized that I'd very quickly learned how to get those kind of big drum sounds, which were his thing, and I knew how to do it and got the whole vibe of that. So he suggested to Kate Bush that she should talk to me and maybe I should work with her because he couldn't. He was basically producing The Police and Kate was producing herself, so all she wanted was an engineer.
So I got put on the Kate Bush album, which I did for about two months. That was just incredible. Kate is still to this day one of the most gifted people I've ever met. She was just born with incredible talents.
That's a wild album, The Dreaming.
It is a very wild album. It was the first one she produced on her own. If you listen to The Flowers of Romance, that's an incredibly insane album. It was all written in the studio; literally, all the lyrics were written on the spot. It's very trippy. I mean, anybody who listens to that album pretty much assumes that we were all very high when we were doing it, which is not true. I didn't take any drugs until I was about 35 years old. I really didn't. For whatever reason, I just didn't go there. And John was very sober at the time, because he was very worried about going to jail because of some fight he got into in Ireland. There was a court case coming up and he was very concerned about that, so he wasn't doing anything.
The Kate Bush album has a similar feel to it because it was her first attempt at producing. She had all these wild ideas. She would come in in the morning and go, in her very high voice, “Nick, can we make the drums sound like cannons?” So we would go in and try to make this drum kit sound like it was cannons going off—every kick drum, every snare. We made up these corrugated iron tunnels coming out of the drum kit, and we would mike up the tunnel. It was very interesting, and it was just one of many things that we did, like miking up the piano in different ways.
The thing about Kate Bush, and I'd say this about quite a few artists that I've been very lucky to work with, is that basically they're all born with talents. These people are born with this talent that not only gives them the ability to play instruments, but songs come to them in complete form. It's not just the lyrics, it's the whole music, and whenever you work with these people who are rare, they usually tend to succeed. The people who I've worked with who were like that are Kate Bush, Nick Cave and Daniel Johns, the singer from Silverchair, who is probably one of the most gifted people I've ever worked with.
You have maintained a very organic approach your music, even when you had your big drum sounds in the '80s. I was listening to one of the recent Silverchair songs with a lot of loops going on and you still seem concerned with trying to make it sound real.
I EQ things a lot. I always have, and I think that's more of an English thing. It's something I noticed when I came to America: People don't EQ the tape as much as in England. I've been lucky. I've worked with some incredible people, incredible musicians and incredible songwriters, and I kind of started with that. The first couple of bands I worked with were bands like Killing Joke, the Gang of Four, Public Image. I guess if you assessed their musicianship on a technical level, you might go, “Well, they're not very good.” But there's no doubt that their creative side is enormous, and I think listening to those records, they were actually bloody good musicians.
Coming right now to today, where things are made a little bit different, you can get a band that really doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't have focus and doesn't know how to play, [but] you can still go into the studio and make them sound amazing because you've got Pro Tools. You can chop them up and replace bits. If the drummer doesn't play the whole song very well, you can take the best chorus and use that on every chorus and take the best verse and use that on every verse and cut and paste.
To me, that doesn't actually feel good. To me, it sounds better if the drummer speeds up and slows down and has a bit more of a mood. To me, the best musicians are not the ones that are technically proficient and can get from that note on the guitar to that note the quickest, but the ones that have a feeling and an emotion in what they play. They want to go to that detuned, out-of-key chord because it feels right and makes you feel a certain way, not because it's the correct chord. It's a whole other aesthetic, and that's what I'm into.
So what is Nick Launay's formula for making a record?
[Laughs] My formula is, first of all, to really like the band, really like the people in the band, understand what they're into and what they're about, and get into that. Usually, I go into rehearsals for about two weeks. We'll experiment with the songs, we'll pull them apart, we'll try putting them back together in different ways, and between us, we'll work out what feels best as an arranger for the song. Generally speaking, the band, by the time they get to me, have rehearsed and rearranged all these songs so many times, they won't know what's good anymore. So I'll go in with a fresh mind and a book that I've written all my notes in, and I'll have very strong, solid ideas about how a song should be arranged. So I will put that to them.
What happens first is they'll play it to me live, and I'll go, “Well, I think it's all good except this bit of the second verse, which really doesn't work and it doesn't help the song. Try this.” And I'll explain to them and they'll play it, and it will either be a great idea or a really bad idea. Basically, by the end of the two weeks, we've got all the songs arranged and hopefully better. We'll then go into the studio.
I always work in studios where the whole band can be in the same room looking at each other. Usually, I'll put the actual amps that are being recorded in the other rooms, so we'll have long cables between the heads of their amps to the actual speaker boxes that will be in a separate room. The idea is to set it up so that I can record every instrument with no spill or the least spill possible, but the whole band is in the same room looking at each other. Sometimes, there aren't headphones — depending on the band, depending upon how they feel. But the main point is to have fun and to basically capture that band at that point in their life doing the absolute best performance of that song. And if it takes 20 takes, then we'll do 20 takes. If they do two takes and the first one is just killer, then I might push them to do five just to see. And we might go back to that first take and use that. Whatever it takes, that's the process: to just get them to do it as a band.
I record on analog because it sounds the best. There's nothing in the digital area yet that sounds as good as analog. Anybody who says there is hasn't listened to analog or hasn't lined their tape machine up properly.
Wouldn't you agree that old analog recordings that have been remastered sound fine in digital?
They sound better. That's why I still do it to analog, because I still believe the longer you keep it in the domain where it sounds warmer and with more depth, the better. It depends on the band. This is not a rule for me. If I'm working with the rock band that can play, I will record it all analog, edit it all analog, mix it to analog and only go to digital at mastering.
The only time I use Pro Tools now is when I need it. In other words, I use it for vocal compiling because it's much easier. I use it if I work with a band that is more dance-oriented, using more rigid drum beats, then Pro Tools is a much better thing to use. I use it for the plug-ins because some of the plug-ins used in the digital domain are way more outrageous than anything that analog could come up with. I don't use it as a tool to correct bands that can't play because I simply don't work with bands that can't play.
How do you edit songs?
With Pro Tools, you can go in and move kick drums and edit the drums and use the same verse all three times for the verses. What I do is I edit the whole tape, so I edit performance rather than individual instruments. So what I will do is get a band to do, say, 10 takes of a song. I listen through it meticulously and make a little graph. I'll write down all the different takes and work out that the first verse is best on take three, the second chorus. I'll write down all the different bits that sound the best and I'll chop that together.
So your multitrack of the song will end up with maybe 20 to 30 edits that go all the way through the song. But it will be editing their performance. In other words, none of the original bass, drums and guitars are overdubs. They're all played at the same time, and anybody who has done this will know that it doesn't matter how good a player you are, you cannot overdub a guitar part to a drum kit with the same accuracy or vibe.
When you listen to early Rolling Stones records, their playing is all over the place. They're out of tune, they miss parts, but the vibe is amazing and far more pleasurable to listen to than their newer records. That's obviously a band that has been going on for a helluva long time, but the same thing applies to any band. When they're young and naive, and they don't know what they're doing but they're doing it with enthusiasm, that's what it's all about. That's what making records is all about to me.
You currently split your time between Australia and Los Angeles, correct?
Yes. I was born in London, grew up in Spain, went back to London, which is when punk happened, in 1976-77, and stayed there for 10 years. I made a lot of records in England during that time. Then for one reason or another, I started working in Australia. One [reason] was I got approached by [the Australian band] Midnight Oil and did a record [10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1] with them in England, and that record is a great record. It's probably one of the best I've made. It had a very big impact all over the world. It was quite a big college record in America. It's gone on to sell way more than a million records, but it wasn't a hit commercially in America at the time. I was hanging out with Primus, and they were fans of the second album I did with Midnight Oil, which was Red Sails and Sunsets.
I was younger and had more of a punk attitude toward things at that time, having worked with the Birthday Party and Gang of Four. Midnight Oil was more of a rock band in the more traditional sense than those bands, but they wanted to make a more radical record. So we went into the studio, and I kind of pulled their songs apart a little bit and got them to do things like play the whole drum kit without any cymbals because I wanted to get this huge drum sound, which involved a lot of compression. And if you played cymbals, they were so loud that they were 10 times the volume of anything else.
What about the hi-hat?
We did do the hi-hat because it was an integral part of the rhythm. But all the cymbals were overdubbed, and for the hi-hat, we made this box to make it quieter because the room was [made of] stone. We basically put two microphone stands above the hi-hat and then put several towels and blankets over the microphone stands so they created a little tent. So he could still play the hi-hat from where he was sitting, but the sound of the hi-hat wouldn't go to the microphones in the room, which were compressed to death. So that's how that was achieved.
We experimented a lot on 10, 9, 8…There are a lot of unusual sounds that were done. We did things like [create] unusual guitar and piano sounds, which were done in the wrong key. We would speed the tape up, and they would have to transpose their whole part up, and then we'd play the tape back and it would sound lower, which is not that uncommon. But what we did was got them to play at a normal speed, but play the guitar or piano two semitones up. In other words, in completely the wrong key, so if you heard the guitar, it would sound completely wrong. But then I put it through Harmonizers and would pitch-change the whole thing down two semitones. And the warbling effect of the Harmonizers would make the guitar sound unusual and more low-toned. Crazy stuff like that.
What was it like recording Nick Cave's last album, Nocturama?
That album is by far one the best albums I've ever made. It's a fantastic album. It was recorded pretty much in five days. No A&R'ing, no management whatsoever. It went Top 10 or Top 5 in most countries in the world, but not in America. It sold lots with minimal promotion—promotion in the right areas.
Nick Cave has built up a great following, is really respected and does things his way or how his band, the Bad Seeds, really wants to do it. They just do it for themselves with no restrictions whatsoever, put it out and it sells. The thing that's great about Nocturama is we basically flew down to Melbourne [Australia] because they were about to start a tour, and the idea was to go in for about four days and do demos. It was the first time I had worked with them for more than 20 years. It was a chance for us to get to know each other again and see if it was going to work. It was like a trial-period-cum-demo to see if Nick had any songs.
They all lived in different parts of the world so they all flew in, and I went in the day before and set everything up so that it would be easy for them. They walked in, picked up their instruments and Nick started plinking and plunking at the piano. I thought it was a great song; it sounded like a classic. I thought it was like a Nina Simone song. So I just pressed Record. They were basically still setting up. People were still coming in and I was recording it all. They all sat down, and Nick played the song all the way through. Nick wanted to play it again. He shouted out, “Launay, any chance of recording this?” I said, “Well, I actually recorded it.” So they came in and listened and thought it sounded great. So we basically did all these songs, 13 or 14 songs, as demos, just playing one or two or maybe three takes of each until the arrangement was down. He was singing live, totally relaxed.
Then we took a break, they did a tour and I came back to America for two weeks. Then I flew back there, and the plan was to get together again, maybe review some of the songs, work out what we're going to do and where we're going to do the album. So I got back there, and meanwhile, I've listened to all these rough mixes and thought they were amazing. Some of it was out of tune, but it sounded great. It was just so vibey.
So I get back and we're all standing around in the control room at Sing Sing Studios [Victoria, Australia]. “What do you think?” Everybody gets quiet and Nick stretches his head. He said, “I quite like it. I quite like it. What do you think, Nick?” I said, “I think they all sound great. I can't see that we're going to get better takes of those songs because they were done with the attitude of being demos. But I recorded it the way I would record anything. I wasn't approaching the recording as demos, I was approaching it as the real thing.” They were like, “Really?” They were worried about the spill of the vocal on the piano, but there was no spill. That was the biggest issue of all because some of the lyrics he wanted to review. In the end, he decided he was pretty happy with it all anyway, so that was basically the album. I think we redid three songs, overdubbed, went to London, overdubbed backing vocals and a couple of other things, and that's the album.
On your website (www.launay.com), you describe some of your ideal recording situations and locations. You like a “bathroom with tiles that can be used to put the bass player in” and “a corner to put loud guitar amps.” Do you like to record people in unusual places outside of the studio? Have you worked outside of conventional studios before?
I've done a bit of recording in houses and stuff like that. The large studios, especially in America, tend to have an old-fashioned setup where they have one big room with not a lot of small rooms. I don't know why, but English studios are designed more with a medium-size room that's live, where you tend to put your drums or whatever, and then they have smaller rooms that vary in acoustics. One might be really dead, one might be medium size with a wood floor and wood ceiling, so you get a bit more variety. I've found very often that I go to studios where you get this big room and there's not a lot you can do with it. It sounds fine, but you can't be that creative, so I'll end up going, “Can we use the bathroom?” You put things in there, or there will be a cupboard, or there will be a roof and, of course, you run into problems with the neighbors. But that's all fun. There's nothing like annoying neighbors.
Bryan Reesman is a freelance writer based in the New York metro area.