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John Leckie: Music Head

It's been 10 years since Mix interviewed John Leckie for a Producer's Desk feature. Back then, he was known for his early engineering work at Abbey Road

It’s been 10 years since Mix interviewed John Leckie for a “Producer’s Desk” feature. Back then, he was known for his early engineering work at Abbey Road with everyone from George Harrison and John Lennon to Pink Floyd and Mott the Hoople, and for producing punk/new wave-era faves such as BeBop Deluxe, Public Image, Simple Minds and Bill Nelson. Since that interview, however, Leckie’s already considerable success has mushroomed. Today, he is one of the most in-demand producers in the UK, after a decade of pioneering hit albums with bands such as the Stone Roses and Radiohead. British writer Mike Collins caught up with Leckie during a break in Leckie’s hectic schedule to bring us up to date…
Blair Jackson

The last time Mix spoke with you was 10 years ago. Could you talk about your work since then?

The last 10 years! It’s been that long since I talked to Mix? The Stone Roses was the first big success I had, around Christmas 1989. Their album went up high in the charts, and the single, “Fool’s Gold,” went to Number 2 in the charts [in the UK]. The album, The Stone Roses, has gone on to be voted a Top 10 record of the millennium in many polls, and this band became a way of life for many people in the UK.

In 1991, I went to America and recorded The House of Freaks, two guys from Richmond, Va., signed to Rhino Records Johnny Hott and Brian Harvey. They combined Americana songs and atmospheres. They were big fans of The Clash and wanted to sound British, as well as sounding American. Then I did Let’s Active for IRS. This album was Mitch Easter’s band. He had produced the first couple of REM albums. I had bought these records, liked his work and then suddenly he was on the phone asking me to work with him! We recorded at Rockfield in Wales and overdubbed at Mitch’s Drive-In studio in North Carolina before mixing at Abbey Road back in London.

Then I did The Posies in Seattle, just before Nirvana was signed. The Posies were shocked that such a crap band [as Nirvana] could get a deal! It was The Posies’ first album, but it sounded like their fourth; they were very mature.

Then I went to Vancouver and recorded a great Canadian band called The Grapes of Wrath at Mushroom Studios in Vancouver and mixed at Abbey Road. We got a Platinum record in Canada, but the band split up shortly afterward.

Didn’t you work with the Stone Roses again?

We did go in to record the follow-up album, but the band only had one song called “One Love.” We spent a lot of time on this, then I went off and did The Posies while they mixed “One Love.” When I had finished The Posies album, they were still mixing this track. They had spent six weeks on this, and I came back and mixed the track in six hours! It was only ever released as a single. They never completed the album; instead, they changed record companies in 1992-93. It took them two years to get back into the studio.

We then spent maybe 10 weeks with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, which had the first Helios desk. I’d used this truck in France with BeBop Deluxe back in 1977. We recorded in a house near Manchester and recorded just three songs in that time.

I remember you telling me how you had to call on all your reserves of patience at this time!

You’re not kidding! Anyway, at my suggestion, the band went off and rehearsed for three months. Then we came back and went in the studio for another six weeks. Then I left. I was in charge of the budget, according to the lawyers. I didn’t think I was in control of the situation, so I resigned. They then spent another 14 months at Rockfield Studios completing the album, called Second Coming. Because I had resigned, they gave me little money and no credit, nothing.

I was just glad to get out of it. Around this time, I got a call from Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, who asked me to produce the album called Respect for A&M records. I have always been a fan of Robyn Hitchcock, so I was delighted with this. The record was recorded using the BBC SSL mobile, parked outside Robyn’s terraced house on the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England, near Southampton.

So that was a good call to get, and, ironically, for an album called Respect exactly what you weren’t getting from Stone Roses.

Yeah, that’s right! Anyway, for this record, we laid down an accurate keyboard part using a DX7, Cubase and an Atari, and then we hired a Yamaha Disklavier so we could get the sound of a real piano when we continued working on the recording at Livingston Studios in North London. I was amazed at this facility the way that you could have the tremendous sound of a grand piano on your record from what was originally a synthesizer part recorded into a sequence.

Let’s talk about The Verve.

Round about 1993, I turned up early to a gig and caught the support band, simply called Verve at that time, and was so blown away with them that I followed them around. I paid to get into every gig and was convinced they were going to be great. Within a few weeks, they were signed to Virgin, and I was banging on the door asking to be allowed to produce them the first time I have ever done that. Virgin said, “Yes,” and the record was called A Storm in Heaven.

What was remarkable about them?

The singer, Richard Ashcroft, and his energy and the band’s commitment to their music. They were the first band I had heard who could play deafeningly loud and sensitively quiet. And they produced guitar sounds I had never heard before. The guitarist, Nick McCabe, used a Flying V with a Marshall amp, but the way he picked the guitar was unique. It was the confidence and the “f*** you” element: “I’m great, listen to this.” Other bands at the time didn’t have the same up-frontness that they had.

What microphones did you use on his guitar?

I used an SM58 out in front of the speaker cab with a Neumann U67 touching the cloth of the speaker cab.

How did things progress for you with The Verve?

Well, I went on to work with Richard Ashcroft in 1996, and later recorded tracks, which were to become the multi-Platinum album Urban Hymns by the band now called The Verve. [Rather than Verve, because the famous jazz label Verve had objected.]

What followed this?

The next project was Radiohead in 1994 The Bends. This is the record that everyone relates me to. It was just a record that I did. I mean, it wasn’t without its problems, and it was just a record that everyone picked up on. Then and now, they’re like, “the greatest band in the universe,” but it was six years ago. So I don’t really know what to say about that, except that it was recorded in a traditional manner with two guitars, bass and drums. The difference was that the band was good, played their instruments well and made a good sound so my work was easy.

Many of the tracks were loud, but others were gentle acoustic guitar things more like folk-rock. I didn’t like the heavy tracks too much, but I liked the more sensitive tracks. I was impressed with the guitar playing, particularly the acoustic guitars.

On one song, “Nice Dream,” there are five people playing five different acoustic guitars. People ask me all kinds of things about that album, like, “How do you get that vocal sound?” It’s easy. Just get a good singer with a good voice, put the singer in front of a microphone and it sounds good. Now, if you have a bad singer, even if you’ve worked like mad to make him sound good, no one takes any notice. But if you have a good singer, you just record the vocal flat, and you don’t even compress it or limit it. You just put the fader up, and he sings the song first go. Everyone says, “Ah, the producer’s great! Incredible production, man!” And it’s just because the guy’s a good singer!

The same with guitar sounds. I mean, one of the things when we started the record and they wanted to find a new sound was we got every type of guitar in Gibsons, Fenders, Danelectros and all sorts of weird amps, like Soldano amps. And, after three weeks fiddling around, we came right back to where we started, which was just a Fender Twin and a Telecaster.

One of the best combinations in the world!

And Marshall Bluesbreaker effects pedals, and that was it.

How did you get involved with Kula Shaker?

Early in 1996, I saw Kula Shaker at gigs, and when they got signed, they called me to produce.

Where did you record?

We went to Eden, Chipping Norton and Livingston. We recorded an album called K, which sold millions, mainly in Europe. The band used Indian instruments tabla and tamboura with electric guitars, drums and a Hammond organ. They combined Hare Krishna mantras with modern rock. This album was recorded on a relatively low budget, yet sold a million. The follow-up had the benefit of a much larger budget and a well-known American producer, yet sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

Moving on from Kula Shaker, where did life take you next?

In 1997, I worked on an album for Cowboy Junkies, one of Canada’s top bands. This suffered from the merger between Geffen and MCA that was taking place around that time, so it didn’t do as well as we had all hoped. Unfortunately, they got Tom Lord-Alge to mix this, and it didn’t turn out right for me. The record company wanted radio hits, and the band was all about late-night, moody listening, so it was never gonna work, really. This band had never spent much time on a record, and they knew it was going to be their last [for Geffen], so it was the first time they had double-tracked vocals or done any amount of overdubbing. They tried to satisfy the record company’s wishes but didn’t really succeed.

What is your general feeling about other people mixing your recordings?

I hate it. I take it as an insult. You don’t finish the job. You don’t get the chance to present your work as it is meant to be heard according to your intentions. If you get personally involved like I do, then it is difficult.

Now, if someone asked me to remix someone else’s work, regrettably I would almost certainly say yes. Who wouldn’t? What I hate is not being told about it in the first place and not being given the budget to finish the record.

I know that you worked with Dr. John more recently.

Another honor and privilege. That came about after a phone call from EMI. They wanted to get Dr. John playing his own songs with British bands. They got Paul Weller, who had covered [Dr. John’s] “Walk on Gilded Splinters” on his last album, and Spiritualized, a group I had mixed some tracks for earlier. Then there was Supergrass and The Beta Band, who came and did some percussion and pots and pans. Basically, we got two days each to do a minimum of one song and a maximum of three. Then, at the last minute, Supergrass said they didn’t want to do it. The drummer hadn’t heard of Dr. John. And the whole time, Primal Scream was supposed to be turning up with their gear, but they never turned up at all ’til at the very end to party. We did two weeks of that in Abbey Road Studio 2. We were going to go in and do some more, and then the word was that, for the rest of the tracks, Mac [Dr. John] wanted to record with his own band who he had been touring with for the previous five years. So, I went over to New York and recorded nine tracks with the band.

But it was funny seeing Dr. John sitting there with these Brit pop kids all around him. Mac was great, and whenever he played piano, it was pure magic.

I know that you went to Senegal to record Baaba Maal toward the end of 2000. How was Africa?

Working in Africa was very different. There were many situations where I realized that this could not be happening in Europe or America. There were locusts flying in through the open windows and sitting on the desk. We just had to get used to it.

Do you know why you were chosen for it?

It probably goes back to two things. One is that A&R man Jumbo Van Rennen at Palm Pictures worked at Virgin when I did XTC back in the ’70s. Jumbo was running the Frontline reggae label. In Britain, he is the man for African music. He set up Mango for Island, and Palm Pictures is [Island founder] Chris Blackwell’s label. So, maybe it came from that.

Also, I had done a Papa Wemba record for Real World, which was recorded in Paris, and Papa Wemba is from Zaire. Also, Jumbo knew that I had been out to Nigeria in 1982. I worked at the equivalent of Abbey Road in Lagos. This was an EMI-owned studio, and I went out there to show them how to use the 24-track machine and MCI desk. They had just gone from 8-track to 24-track. I was there for about 10 weeks, all by myself. It was wild, and I said I would never go back. But Lagos is very different from Dakar [Senegal], which is much cooler in temperament. Lagos is full of military and police and lots of angry people, whereas Dakar is full of much friendlier, lighter people. It might be the French influence.

So, I said I was interested in the project, and I knew of Baaba Maal. I had three of his albums and I had seen him perform twice, so I knew it was going to be fantastic to work with him.

I went out to meet him for a week in Senegal and looked at some studios in Dakar. The best studio is used by Yousou N’Dour, but there’s a bit of competition between these two artists, so Baaba Maal would not use that studio. We also looked at Deux Mille Studio, which was just like any other studio in the world. They didn’t really want to record there either it was too much of a city vibe. So, we went out to Baaba Maal’s walled compound in a place called Toubab Dialo, about 100 miles south of Dakar right on the coast. This had some concrete buildings and some mud huts with grass roofs in a walled farmyard area. No electricity, dirt floors everywhere, a few banana trees and mango trees, and it was pretty quiet, not much noise; just a little traffic. So, I decided to record there. It was totally atmospheric. We had a small room, about 15 square meters, leading out into the sandy yard where he had his band set up. When I got back to England, they said I had passed the audition and to work out a list of what to take. Everything was hired from FX Rentals in the UK.

What did you end up taking?

I took DA-88s, because I had carried them around in cardboard boxes when I did some Dr. John “live” recordings and had lashed them on the back of the P.A. desks at the gigs, and they had proven to be very robust, unlike ADATs. I could have taken an MTR90 or a Pro Tools rig, but I thought that if I was 100 miles from a city for four weeks in West Africa in conditions of high humidity and lots of heat, dust and insects getting into everything, it would be difficult. If a multitrack went down, I would be stuck I wouldn’t be able to record, play or anything.

The other thing was that one of the bands had a DA-88, and there were some other little studios around that had DA-88s, so I knew that I could get a replacement if I needed one. FX Rentals supplied three, and we ended up recording 24-track. They all worked fine. I wish I had taken the newer 24-bit models, the DA-98s. But then they may not have been as reliable; you just don’t know. I took Focusrite mic preamps, the ISA 115 models, API 3124 mic pre’s, which have four preamps on a strip, and the API 550 “cubes and lunchbox.” I just knew that they would do the job and not break down. The Focusrite mic pre’s both had a separate power supply, so this made for quite a bulky rack of gear. I took a UREI 1178 stereo compressor, and eight Neumann U87 mics and a couple of Shure SM58s, and I knew there were some SM57s and SM58s lying around and a couple of KM84s. I also knew that the Neumann mics were a lot more robust than most.

Most of the album was recorded on 87s through the Focusrites, then through the UREI 1178 with a lead patched across. We monitored on a little Mackie 24-input desk. And we did some rough mixes on this that really sounded great.

What about the electricity?

We ended up with a Honda 150i 1kW generator. This is a really small unit, which uses half a gallon of petrol every six hours, so it just used a gallon a day. It ran all the equipment and two 60-watt light bulbs.

One of the problems we had was insects. All the recording sessions were being video’d, and at night, when the video lights came on, the entire insect population of the area would descend on us. We were in the middle of nowhere with no lights anywhere in sight, so the insects were coming from 100 miles away through the open windows. The insects were going down your t-shirt, up your sleeves, down your neck, then if your tried to button up, you would get much too hot. And there are little blister beetles called wonks. They spray you with acid and this causes blisters immediately, which then burst. So we kept finding these blisters under our t-shirts, on our necks, everywhere. We had to take malaria tablets, injections, everything, just in case.

What is this album called?

Mi Yeewnii. It means “missing you.” Baaba Maal has been making records for 15 years and has a whole team around him, world tours, the record company manages him, every country in the world wants him back, and his show is fantastic with the costumes and everything.

What are you working on next?

A new album by Muse for Maverick Records. We are recording in the Big Room at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. Everyone in the same room drums, bass, Marshall amps. Cut it live and then play with it. Then, we are going to Astoria, which is Dave Gilmour’s studio, on a boat at Hampton Court. Great stuff! Then we will mix at Abbey Road. Oh, and we’re recording the big organ in Exeter cathedral. And I’ve got a 24-piece string section standing by. And we are looking at the budget to see if we can afford an adult choir with at least 50 singers. Would you happen to know how much a 200-piece choir costs?

What kind of projects would you like to take on in the future?

What kind of projects you got?

Mike Collins is a freelance writer based in England.