an exclusive interview
The Making of Urban Hymns and More...
Bitter Sweet Symphony
On the second day of the Urban Hymns recording sessions at Olympic Studios, the band played 'Space & Time'. It was the first time Chris Potter, their engineer, had heard the track and the point at which he first knew he was embarking on a journey which would result in a record of rare quality. Chris manned the recording desk for the duration of the sessions, co-producing, mixing, living and breathing Urban Hymns for almost nine months. Now, approximately six months to the day since the record's release, Chris sits before me on a capacious black leather sofa in studio A, Metropolis Studios, Chiswick, ready to impart memories of the making of Urban Hymns, recorded next door in studio B and over at the aforementioned Olympic Studios, Barnes. Having given up smoking since he finished recording The Verve - he says there was no way he was going to attempt to do so while working on the album - , as we speak, joy of joys, he thinks he's broken his chewing gum addiction and he's looking most relaxed.
Like many a producer or sound engineer, when Chris was a youngster he was in bands. "I play bass, badly,that's why I don't do it anymore" he confesses. Through his band experiences he got a feel for working with sound and when he left college at twenty he figured that was the path to follow. In time honoured fashion he banged on the doors of all the studios in London, trying to get a job and was taken on as tea boy/tape op. at Maison Rouge Studios. A couple of years later he became house engineer there. This was the mid-eighties and a lot of high profile acts were passing through Maison Rouge. Chris is a little coy when asked if he has a favourite piece of work from this era, allowing, quite reasonably I suppose, that "it's tricky, because it was the eighties remember". Nevertheless, he appreciates that working with a lot of different people was an excellent grounding, enabling him to pick up and learn from the good things that they did.
Having impressed with his professional prowess, Chris was asked to do some engineering at other studios and obliged, becoming a freelance engineer/mixer in 1990. He did a lot of work with a fellow called Chris Kimsey, who'd worked with The Rolling Stones as far back as 'Sticky Fingers', including two albums - 'Steel Wheels' and 'Flashpoint' - for Mick, Keith and co. Others he's worked with include The Orb, De La Soul, Killing Joke, Heather Nova, Comfort, Gabrielle and Flowered Up, engineering the much loved 'Weekender' for the latter.
Although Chris has been producing records since almost the beginning of the decade, he only recently began to consider himself a producer proper. These days producing is pretty much all he does but he does attempt to keep, as he puts it, "all the balls in the air: the engineering side, the production side and the mixing side." As he says, there are many different types of producer. Some direct things from the back as it were, not getting involved with the nitty gritty. Having approached from an engineering background, Chris has trouble letting someone else handle that side of things. "A lot of people who've come from an engineering background will let it go and let someone else take over the controls", he says, "and there will come a point when I probably should. But it's a difficult thing to be that hands-on and then let someone else get on with it. Every time they're EQing or doing the hi-hat, I'll be like....(feigns concern, leaning over someone else, fretting)".
Whether he'll be able to relinquish control of some of the hands-on aspects of the job when he enters the studio with The Verve for their fourth album is, therefore, a hard one to call. Whatever happens I'd like to think he'll get the chance to unchain himself from the sound desk and play a little more table tennis with the lads than he managed last time because he was showing a lot of promise.
How did you get the Verve 'gig'? I met Youth probably four years ago and started doing remixes with him. We did a lot of work together, like the Heather Nova album. I hadn't worked with him for maybe two years actually but he'd been approached to do the Verve album and I got a call to see if I wanted to engineer it, which I did.
Were you familiar with their work? I was familiar with 'A Northern Soul' but not 'A Storm In Heaven'. I liked it, but I hadn't seen the full potential of it to be honest at that point. All their records are different, there were large strides made between all three records. Hopefully they'll carry on like that.
After Christmas, Youth departed and you continued alone with the band. What was your role then? Initially it was to finish the guitars and the recording. It then transpired that we needed more songs. Once Nick had played on the stuff we'd started before Christmas, once we'd finished recording those, it was obvious we needed more songs. They weren't really happy with the version of 'Space & Time' we had, so we ended up re-cutting that, and we did 'The Rolling People' and 'Come On'. I think Youth helped bring a bit of discipline to the recording process for them. Yeah, I think he must have helped them get a bit more disciplined or focussed, which was definitely a good thing.
What did you bring to the party? Don't be modest. I think I understood what they wanted and that was important. They've used a few producers in the past and they're not a band that needs you to stamp your authority on what they're doing at all. Essentially you have to let them do what they do and sometimes they need a little reining in.....sometimes. The thing to do is to let them go as far as they want to go and not restrict them to the normal methods of recording. You've got to just let them go with what they want to do and then help them piece things together. It's important that they can say "can we try this or that?", because they are experimental in what they do. They're into pushing the boundaries further and further and there's no point letting yourself be restricted by what's gone before, you've got to just go with it.
Were you surprised at their musical prowess? Yeah I was actually. There isn't a weak link there. They're all very strong at what they do. I think it's quite underestimated these days how important that can be. There's also that thing....I found it a bit like working with The Stones, that the sum is greater than the parts, or whatever that saying is, which isn't the case with every band....and the parts are pretty good as it is.
And the strength of the material? When I first heard the depth of the songs and the amount of them that were as good as they were, I was impressed. Quite often you'll do an album where a couple of the songs are good or great, but to have an album with that many great songs on is really unusual.
As you said, the band likes to experiment, what in particular did you experiment with? They're into this thing of having the sound in the studio really loud, which is quite difficult to achieve. It's not such a problem to get spill down the microphones until it comes to the vocal. Most bands will cut the track and add the vocal at some point in the future. Richard quite often gets the vocal as they're recording the track and it's important that you record it in a way that you can use. If you've got more guitar and drums than vocal on the vocal track that can be a problem. I got into trying out different ways of keeping the sound in the studio live but still keeping the stuff going to tape relatively manageable. I think we'll probably end up pushing that a bit further with the next one.....I've got a few ideas.
Do you have a particular set-up for recording vocals or guitar? There are things I quite often do but you've got to tailor it to whoever you're working with, keeping their wishes in mind all the time. With the mic-ing up and so on, you start from a point that you know generally works and then adjust it from there to suit.
How much computer jiggery-pokery did you do, using Pro-Tools and suchlike? It's OK to use that sort of technology in the right ways but it is easy to abuse it and use it for everything. I try to use it to keep the creative process going but I think a lot of people tend to get too hung up and reliant on computers etc. I'd taken my Pro-Tools system to Spain and it sort of got buggered on the way back and I hadn't got round to getting it fixed. I didn't really feel we were going to need it at all during this record but after the break I'd had it fixed and it became useful for doing some of the guitars. There were places where Nick had specific parts which he'd just record and that's fine. In other places he'd want to try out a lot of different things once we'd got the basic parts, experimental guitars I guess, in his own inimitable style. Having listened to what we already had, he instantly had a lot of ideas. With every tune we'd let him have about 4-6 run-throughs, playing whatever he wanted without being tied to any parts. During those takes he'd do stuff which was pretty much unrepeatable so I'd use Pro-Tools to move some of those parts into some sort of structure or into points where we felt they'd work. We used it for things like 'Catching the Butterfly', 'Stamped' and 'The Longest Day' which came about from jams that were maybe half an hour long. I'd use Pro-Tools to get them into manageable form, to edit them down.
In May '97 the band embarked on ten days of jamming at Olympic Studios. Did you realise at the time that you'd get five or six new songs out of those tapes? I didn't actually no. I was kind of concerned because I knew at that stage that Richard was concerned about the record, the over-reliance on his own songs. We ended up with an awful lot more from those ten days than I thought we were going to - Weeping Willow, Catching the Butterfly, Stamped, Three Steps, The longest Day..... There's still some stuff left, definitely at least one other that I know is really good.
The band always maintained it couldn't be 'The Verve' without Nick. When he rejoined after Christmas I got the impression that spirits rose. What do you put that down to? I think that the problems that led to them splitting were sorted. With Nick involved I think everybody felt more confident that we were going to get the record that it could be, because he is one of a kind. His playing isn't like anyone else and he has a lot of good ideas. In places what Nick did was very subtle. It varies from track to track, on some he completely changed the whole thing. He completely changed 'This Time' from what it was to what it became. There's quite a lot of Tongy on that one as well, also 'Lucky Man' and 'One Day'. A lot of the more intricate stuff is Tongy actually. I guess they hadn't played with each other before. They're very different style-wise, very different, but the two styles really compliment each other.
Was working on Urban Hymns intense for you? Yeah it was quite intense. There were moments where you just have to hang on and battle through. I was shattered at the end of it. During the mixing I'd been staying over the road at the Chiswick Hotel and I'd be up at 10:50 am, sitting in the control room by 11 o'clock, mixing all day, leaving at 4:30 am, in bed by 4:40 am and up again..... The only thing I was seeing outside of that control room for three weeks was the 100 yard walk across the road. It was quite intense for a while there. We were under pressure to finish at that point, it had to be done.
'Neon Wilderness' was finished at the last possible moment wasn't it? We were due to finish on a Sunday and I was finishing off the last mix and I think they'd been rehearsing for the tour and were going to come down and check the mix out, finish it off and go through some running orders. They came down, we finished the mix and then started fiddling around with this other guitar loop of Nick's which he'd done quite a while previously at Olympic. We ended up starting that track at 6 o'clock in the evening on the final Sunday and finished about five in the morning the next day.
What do you think of Urban Hymns then?...If you can detach yourself from the obvious emotional involvement!? It's the best thing I've ever done. The best collection of songs I've ever recorded.
You mixed the entire record as well. Did you expect to do so? I didn't, no, because initially when we came back and started after Christmas, what they wanted me to do was finish the recording. Mark Stent (who mixes a lot of artists from The Spice Girls to Massive Attack) was going to mix. He did start mixing upstairs at Olympic Studios while we were recording downstairs, but it was difficult for the band to disentangle themselves from recording, go upstairs, hear a mix once and have to make a snap decision and come back down and get their heads back into recording again. It was too difficult so it was called off and we carried on recording.
You ritually listened to songs on your car stereo just before completing them. What's all that about? Right as I get towards the end of a mix, I'll always make a cassette and take it out to the car. I've got a crap stereo in it so if it sounds good on that..... It's just a thing I've always done....a superstition.
Was winning the Brit award unexpected? I didn't expect to get it. I expected the album and band to win stuff but I didn't expect to get best producer. It's not really a goal when you start but it's one of those bonuses you can pick up. What does it mean.....? It's a funny one....
For the rest of your life you'll be known as "Brit award winner" Chris Potter. Exactly, yeah. It was a funny night actually. I don't tend to do those sort of evenings, it's just not me that showbiz, razmatazz thing, getting on stage in front of all those people, but I had a laugh.
Do you have a favourite track from the album? Probably 'The Drugs Don't Work', which is certainly the best song I've ever recorded. His vocal on that track is something else.... There are quite a few really.... I'm not actually putting it on the stereo at the moment but I hear it every day. If you wander around you hear the whole thing anyway. I've had some mad moments with this record though. I went skiing in January and I was in a bar in Val d'Isere and this band came on doing covers and stuff. The second song they did was 'Lucky Man' and 'Drugs' was fourth. The first three minutes of 'Lucky Man' were bollocks but the end bit was really good. Their 'Drugs' wasn't much of a version though. Also that week I went way up into the mountains, where it's really peaceful and there was this little guy in a hut up there listening to 'Drugs' on the radio - right up in the mountains. I thought "f***in' 'ell, it's gone everywhere".
I think for 'Lucky Man' we went back into the studio to get the B-sides together
over a week in October. We ended up doing them all from scratch. There was talk
initially of mixing 'History' again but it's one of those things. I would have
done it but with records like that you have to have a bit of respect for the
moment. To go back a couple of years later and remix it and make it sound,
well... not even better, but different somehow, might be wrong so we didn't remix
it and I'm glad we didn't.
Thank you Chris.
Thanks also to Chris Floyd for the use of his photographs.
I think for 'Lucky Man' we went back into the studio to get the B-sides together over a week in October. We ended up doing them all from scratch. There was talk initially of mixing 'History' again but it's one of those things. I would have done it but with records like that you have to have a bit of respect for the moment. To go back a couple of years later and remix it and make it sound, well... not even better, but different somehow, might be wrong so we didn't remix it and I'm glad we didn't.
Thank you Chris.
Thanks also to Chris Floyd for the use of his photographs.