Gary James' Interview With Record Producer
The artists he's produced or engineered include Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, David Bowie, The Bee Gees, Elton John, The Police and Paul McCartney. He's won four Grammys, including one for Producer Of The Year and one for Engineer Of The Year. A poll in Mix magazine in 1992 voted him as one of the world's Ten Most Influential Producers. We're speaking of Hugh Padgham of course.
Q - Hugh, how did you settle on a career as a producer?
A - Well, I never intended to be a producer. I started out wanting to be a fantastic recording engineer. In those days the producer and the engineer were markedly different careers. It was really the evolution of studios and I guess I was one of the first engineers who sort of made it into becoming a producer because I sat next to producers during sessions and thought if he's calling himself a producer, I can do this as well. (laughs)
Q - With so many bands producing themselves these days, what do you think the role of someone like yourself will be in the future?
A - Well, that's a very interesting question. When I started producing records, you could only make a record in a recording studio, which cost a lot of money. You had a finite amount of tracks on the machines that you were using, that is 8, 16 or 24. Later it became 48 by synching the machines together. You couldn't make a record without someone knowing how to make it in terms of bouncing tracks. It was a much more technical thing then. I think in some ways music may have suffered because of the fact that now anybody can do anything. You still sometimes need a ringleader to bring it together. I worked with people like Sting and Phil Collins, who were very proficient musicians, but they still needed somebody to reign themselves in, to give them boundaries.
Q - With all the advancements being made in recording technology, how do you keep on top of it? Do salesmen call on you with the latest product? Do you go to seminars? How do you know what's going on and what you need to know to keep going?
A - To be honest, all the programs and applications that come out now that you can make on your lap top are just copies of what we had before. They now have phlanging simulators. A couple of months ago a simulator came out that emulated analog tape. I don't see anything that is particularly inventive on its own. I think it's great that kids can make records with all this equipment that costs a fraction of what it cost in those days 'cause back in the '70s and '80s it cost a fortune to buy all this equipment. That's why recording studios existed. That's why they don't exist now, because emulsions have been made that cost dollars, not thousands of dollars.
Q - Wasn't "Sgt. Pepper" recorded on a four track machine?
A - They bounced between one 4 track and another 4 track, but it was incredibly kind of prehistoric.
Q - So, how many tracks are you working with in the studio these days?
A - Well, I keep myself to a finite number of tracks, which considering "Sgt. Pepper" was done on 4 track, my sort of personal rule of thumb is 48, which is equivalent to two times 24, which in the mid '80s we started synching machines together. I think if you're recording things in stereo or quadraphonic where you may have 2 tracks per instrument or 4 tracks per instrument, having 48 tracks isn't too much of a nightmare. And also, analog consoles, I still have an analog console in my studio, which is 72 channels. To have more than 48 inputs where you're using the letter of the channels as outboard equipment, it just becomes too much of a handful to have for me. 24 is probably not enough to have control to what people like to have these days. 48 is manageable. So I personally keep myself to 48 channels, but have people come into my studios sometimes who have 148 and they might spend a day or two days trying to work out what they can do with those 148. (laughs)
Q - 148 channels. That's incredible!
A - People will record orchestras with every single mic going to a different track because they haven't ever learned to commit themselves to sub-mixing and that's the amazing thing about "Sgt. Pepper"; they sub-mixed the whole time. They made up their mind what they wanted to do the whole time. That's one of the big differences between old recordings and current recordings. You had to commit yourself. Nowadays if someone is doing a vocal, you could do a thousand vocal takes and then spend weeks if you really want, compiling the best takes or you could do a hundred guitar solos and spend a whole day trying to make a guitar solo, whereas back in the days where you didn't have the luxury of having however many tracks you wanted, you had to commit yourself to going "Wow! That was a great solo" or "that was a great vocal take." You might be able to do three vocal takes at the most 'cause you only have three tracks left or four tracks left. So, you'd do three tracks and bounce on to another track. Then you'd have three tracks left to end up putting like a shake or tambourine on or something. You had to think all the time, whereas nowadays you go "I want a tambourine." Well, just put a tambourine on. You don't have to think. The role of the producer was sort of more technical as much as musical in those days, more so than it would be necessarily now. But because nobody has to make up their mind now to do anything, nobody ever erases anything because you can just keep everything in memory. Memory is so cheap and of course memory was magnetic tape in our days and if you wiped something, it was gone. We all wiped things and got into terrible trouble with the artists. You wiped things by accident. It was hard to keep a diary of everything going on, so accidents happen. Of course nowadays there is no such thing as an accident.
Q - You've said "I'm really not interested in working with somebody who can't sing or play." That rules out about 99% of the singers / musicians that are out there today, doesn't it?
A - Well, it might rule out a hell of a lot more just because there's a hell of lot more charlatans out there, but there's still an awful lot of talented people making good music. Every new generation of children want to have their own music, don't they? You can't deny them that, but the fact that a lot of them might enjoy old genres of music is a completely separate thing. Yes, there's a huge amount of music out there that's rubbish, but in a way it was in the '60s and '70s as well, when I was growing up. It's just there's even more of it now. I still think the cream will rise to the top.
Q - To be completely honest with you, as I listen to some of today's groups, I have to wonder how they got their record deals. They can't play their instruments like the musicians of the '70s could play their instruments.
A - I agree with you. It's a different world. You could then say "what is the quality of the A&R people who are signing them?" I had a meeting five years ago now, which is a long time in our business, in one of the major record companies here (England) who have no idea who The Kinks were, for me one of the seminal bands of the '60s. And he was an A&R guy able to sign acts, and he didn't know who The Kinks were. Well, to me that says a lot.
Q - I am surprised. I thought when you get a job like that, you should have a knowledge of music history.
A - Well, absolutely. In any job if you're not an art historian, you're only going to look at contemporary art, are you? You're hopefully going to have a knowledge and a keen nose to know about the history of the subject you're involved in.
Q - So, what does that say about this person who had that job as an A&R guy? Did he know somebody?
A - Who knows? I'm by no means trying to be like an old sour puss reminiscing on the past because I think the only thing you can't change in anything in life is change. You can't look back and say "The old days were the best." We might respect the old days. We might love the old days, but you can't deny change happens and you can't deny that kids want their own music. One of the big things that changed in the history of music of which I grew up with, because I took an apprenticeship as a sound engineer, I had no concept of wanting to be a producer. I just wanted to be a recording engineer because I wanted to make a record that sounded great. I wanted people to recognize me for a record that sounded great. So I did my apprenticeship learning how to place microphones in the right position. Of course, nothing was ever necessarily in the right position because no one grew up. You learned to mess around with that sort of thing. It's the same with Picasso. He was an amazing artist who could draw amazing pictures, but he went off and did his own thing in a brilliant way. I guess what I'm trying to say is no one ever talks about a record nowadays like "Oh, my God! That record sounds so great!" The only way people talk about records today is whether it's made loads of money or not, how successful it's been. The first Phil Collins album I made wasn't particularly successful commercially, but everybody said "Oh, my God, it sounded great!" That is what sort of started my career off as a producer, because people said "Wow! This guy made a record that sounds great!" I was really proud of it sounding great. I didn't want commercial success at that point. I really didn't know what (that was). I thought I knew what commercial success was because I worked with The Police and done stuff that was relatively commercially successful. But that wasn't the reason for making records then. I never saw the outside world. I just saw the inside of a studio and all I wanted to do was make a great sounding record.
Q - Was that in fact your first break, working with Phil Collins?
A - It was kind of. I met Phil Collins when I was working with Peter Gabriel on his third solo album, which in fact was very well revered as a great sounding record and sort of interestingly... Peter Gabriel was recognized as being quite esoteric. Kind of artist, yeah? So between sort of working on that and I worked with an English band called XTC, both with a guy called Steve Lillywhite who was like the producer and I was like the engineer. One of the first records I produced was with XTC because they suddenly realized they didn't need the producer and in fact the engineer was the one who was sort of getting a lot of the sounds together for the album they wanted. They asked me to do an album called "English Settlement", which became well known and it was through that and through XTC that I ended up meeting Sting and The Police and working with them. That was more or less parallel with me working with Peter Gabriel, who had asked Phil Collins to play the drums on his record. Phil was very impressed with the work I'd done on Peter's record. So when he decided to make a solo record, he asked me. So it was kind of all around the same time.
Q - And these days your reputation is good enough so that you don't have to depend on what we could call word of mouth?
A - Yes, I suppose so. You see, one of the great things in the old days; I did Melissa Etheridge's two biggest records. She and her manager found me by going down to Tower Records on Sunset (Blvd) and looking through their favorite records. Of course in those days you had a big album cover and the producer's name on the back or the engineer's name on the back of it. They sort of discovered me looking through what their favorite records were. Of course now when you download an MP3 from i-Tunes, you might get the cover art, like two inches by two inches, but you don't get the information necessarily. So, you don't have that sort of what you call word of mouth sort of thing anymore. I got the job working with Melissa literally through her looking through records in the bins of Tower Records. Obviously now we have a different way of communicating, which is the internet. The internet didn't exist then. I suppose back in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, I guess it was much more of a sort of small business. You didn't even have the same sort of amount of genres that we have now, Hip Hop and different Rap genres that didn't really exist then.
Q - You were a fan of The Beatles. So, when Paul McCartney asked you to produce one of his albums, how do you get past the fact that standing in front of you or sitting across from you is one of the most celebrated singer / songwriters the world has ever known?
A - Of course I was bowled over. I was in my late 20s, still relatively young, young to the game. I thought this was just amazing. When he or someone couriered to me a cassette to the studio when I was working with Phil Collins or whoever I was working with, I went home incredibly excited to listen to a cassette of those demos that he had done with Eric Stewart from 10cc and I can honestly tell you now that I was underwhelmed when I heard those songs. I thought, well, hang on, who am I to know, as a little 28 year old guy, that Paul McCartney has given me these songs that are not very impressive? It must be me not being able to sort of see these songs that are effectively them sitting around a campfire with a couple of acoustic guitars. If I'm completely honest then, the album we made called "Press To Play" wasn't a very good album. I kind of fell out with Eric Stewart during it. Paul McCartney became quite annoying as far as I'm concerned, if I'm being completely honest. After sort of a year of every day in the studio, he's not on the same pedestal as when you started. I really don't look back on the record that I made with him with much fondness at all to be quite honest. I don't think it was that great. I don't think he was in an era of writing good songs. I was amazed because Eric Stewart was a hero of mine from 10cc. I just thought it must be me. I can't see the wood for the trees, or whatever. But I look back at it now and realize I was completely right, really. But what are you going to do as a 28 year old when you've suddenly been asked to record an album with one of the greatest guys in Pop music ever? You're not gonna say no, are you?
Q - As a producer, what can you do in a situation like that?
A - I suppose I didn't have the confidence I do now. I just thought it must be me. Often when I made records in those days, sometimes it would happen with other bands that I was working with that were great. You just think if I work hard enough on it, it will work out alright in the end. In other words, a little bit like flying by the seat of your pants and sort of using production values, sound production values, engineering values, will sometimes save the day. McCartney's wasn't the first record I ever made where I was, to coin a not very good language, shitting myself. You're in the control room going "Oh, my God!" It's like when I first heard "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. Police manager Miles Copeland said to me, and we all knew it was a hit, "Hey Hugh, don't fuck this up!" I'm thinking "Oh, my God! How much pressure is that?" (laughs) How do I take a demo that obviously sounds like a hit into a song that is going to be a hit? Not a song, a record that is going to be a hit. I tell you, many times in my career have I had situations where you were given the most awful sounding demo made on a cassette, which in those days was the most completely dreadful quality but it had some vibe on it that you would try to re-create in the studio, often to no avail. I used to go to bed sometimes absolutely, as I said, shitting myself.
Q - Do you know of Katy Perry?
A - I've only listened to her big hits.
Q - Have you heard of her producer, Dr. Luke?
A - No, I don't I'm afraid.
Q - Do you have any opinions on the way her songs sound?
A - Because her whole persona is sort of mixed up from my point of view, like a Hollywood sort of thing, a Hollywood Pop thing, it sort of isn't on my radar screen I'm afraid. Maybe I should. The last few years, it's kind of the same as Lady Gaga, who I think is a very talented musician. I don't particularly like the records she makes. Maybe I'm missing something with Katy Perry. I don't know. My kind of thing was I was never really interested in Pop music. I was much more interested in Jazz and the more sort of weirder stuff. Maybe not The Grateful Dead, but I was much more sort of an album oriented person when I was growing up, than Pop music. When I started, I had no concept or want of working with anything particularly commercial. I just wanted to work with music that was music with integrity, I suppose. We had people like Cliff Richard and The Bay City Rollers as our Pop kings in the '60s and '70s and I always sort of hated that thing. To end up with bands like The Police, who I thought were very credible, but you also had to make singles at the same time to get onto the radio to sell albums, suddenly I'm growing up a bit and realizing the commercial realism of the music business. But when I was growing up, I just wanted to listen to Herbie Hancock or King Crimson or The Beatles obviously. I really didn't have a commercial head on me.
Q - Does it put a smile on your face to know that what you produced will be listened to by people for generations to come?
A - I'm very honored that people like you might say that. I'm quite sort of modest in that respect. It's very nice to know that it will be enjoyed. I was just trying to do the best job I could. There was never any intent of being successful. I would just take a song that an artist or band gave me and try to make the best out of it as I could. If it ends up being played in twenty or thirty years' time, then I'm incredibly honored. Yeah, it does bring a smile to my face, I guess. Weirdly enough, I have a friend who rang me up earlier today who lives in Boston and he is an ex-engineer, unfortunately a guy who has sort of fallen by the wayside because of the way the business has gone and he does other things now. Every now and again he rings me up and he said "I heard your 'Fields Of Gold' by Sting played on the radio today and I just want to tell you how great it was." It's incredibly nice to hear that and that if still does move people the way it does because that's what music is all about, isn't it?
Q - That's part of it. And for you personally to be remembered must be very gratifying.
A - Like I said, I'm honored. I'm very glad that I've been able to give a little bit to the music business.
Q - It's like when you talk about The Beatles. Sooner or later you're going to talk about the man who produced them, George Martin.
A - Yeah. George became a very good friend of mine. He said to me about ten years ago when he officially retired and he had a party at AIR Studios that he was involved in and he invited me to the party. We were talking and something came up in the conversation and he said "Do you know what Hugh? I don't mind saying that I'm retiring because now I know that I'm not going to be found out." I said "What do you mean?" He said "To be honest, I never really had a clue what I was doing when I was producing The Beatles." I said "You've got to be joking!" I suddenly thought, I can relate to this exactly because I'm there with The Police or Phil Collins and I'm thinking why am I picked to be here 'cause I don't really think I know what I'm doing either. When George Martin said that to me, it kind of made me feel really good. It's kind of a weird thing. It's like a sort of English type of modesty, but the way he said it, "At least now I'm not going to be found out." In other words, he thought he was a rogue. He never really thought of himself as being a record producer. He never thought of himself as talented enough to be in the position of being The Beatles' producer. I kind of thought that as well with the artists I was working with. I just came up through the ranks doing the best I could do. I'm not trying to champion my own cause here, but obviously I was quite good at doing what I did, but we didn't sort of boast about it.
Q - When George Martin first met The Beatles, he something like "Is there anything you don't like?" and George Harrison said "I don't like your tie." I don't know how that would've gone over with an American producer. George Martin was in sync with The Beatles. He understood their personality, their sense of humor.
A - Well, exactly. I remember working with The Police and they were fighting one day and me being producer, we're out in Montserrat in the Caribbean on this idyllic island with them fighting. We'd been in the studio for like two weeks and we hadn't gotten anything on tape that is playable to anybody. The manager, Miles Copeland, comes over. We have this kind of summit talk by the swimming pool outside of the studio. "Guys, what's happening here? We've been two weeks in the studio. Hugh's telling me there's nothing to play. What's going on? We've either got to make a record or not make a record." So everybody goes "We're gonna make a record." I go back into the studio and I'm trying to be Mr. Authority or whatever and every time I try to be assertive, the band goes "Shut up Hugh! You don't know us!" I only knew them from "Ghost In The Machine". We're talking here about "Synchronicity". "Ghost In The Machine" had gone relatively easy. We had made it over two or three months, but of course they had been together for four or five years. They would say "Hugh, shut up! You don't know us. You've only been in the studio with us for three months." It was really difficult for me at the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight to try and exact some authority over these guys who were very headstrong. It was quite stressful, I remember at the time, trying to get the record together. I knew we had all these great songs. Stewart was resentful of Sting for writing all these great songs because it was his band originally. He was still resentful that Sting had become the leader of the band because he was obviously the most talented songwriter of all three of them. We made this amazing record, but actually at the time it was really quite stressful.