Dan Carey has been producing from the shadows for a number of artists including Sia, Franz Ferdinand, Kylie Minogue, Bat For Lashes and Kate Tempest for about fifteen years. Since establishing his label, Speedy Wunderground, in 2013 , Dan Carey has focussed a spotlight over many young and raw talents (Black Country New Road, Warmduscher, Squid and Black Midi among others) – making them among the most exciting budding acts from the UK.
Dan’s methodology involves an empirical “10-point plan” (recording in one day, mixing in one day, keeping the overdub to the minimum, etc.) that is permeated with a true love for analogue gear. His craft and technique are truly fascinating as is his underlying philosophy of trusting the unidentified power of music, where beauty hatches through immediacy and authentic imperfection. Dan’s work stands palpably apart from much of today’ production processes.
What does the word « analogue » mean to you?
I suppose it means “pure”, because it hasn’t been encoded. And I suppose the word analogue means the same, doesn’t it? Whether it has to do with sound, or time, or light, or film or anything, I guess that, to me, it means that it’s a faithful representation of something else, something that’s equal.
How did you first get involved in music and what was your first contact with it ?
When I was a baby, my parents played a lot of music. I was really obsessed with it and I couldn’t do anything without music and would just cry unless they’d put some on. You know Schubert, the Quintet? I couldn’t go to sleep unless that was playing, they had to leave it on all night. And then in the day, I had to listen to Jimi Hendrix or the Beach Boys, because that’s what my mum liked. I used to listen to Good Vibrations and cry, because I was really scared by it (laughter).
When did you start making music?
When I was really young, about 4 or 5, my uncle showed me how to play the guitar. I became obsessed with guitars at a really young age. Then I learnt the piano. Also, I used to pretend that I was ill when my parents went to work. So they would ask my uncle, who lived next door, to look after me. He had a little studio there, and he would show me fuzz pedals and synthesizers and stuff. I thought he was the coolest person ever. He introduced me to that new world of studio stuff and electronic music. So I think I decided that it was what I was going to do at a fairly young age.
You started working with Nick Manasseh, a producer coming from the dub scene, at quite a young age. What was his influence on you during those formative years ?
At that time, I was quite interested in recording and I had made one or two records but nothing that serious yet. I was in a band that he was engineering for. He liked the way I played guitar and asked me to come and do a session in his studio in Brixton. I went over there and did a session on some reggae stuff that he was doing and then I asked him if I could stay and watch him finish off the tune – mix it and stuff. We did that a few times: I’d come and play guitar and then stay around and watch how he worked in the studio. He had his own way around the studio, things that are now a second nature to me because he taught me how to do them. But it’s actually a very dub perspective, like always setting up two or three echoes, and whenever you do a tune, you always do another mix where you go crazy, then another one, then another one. He’d say: “this is how you do it.” I kind of took that on board when I set up my own studio. I would do my first sessions with someone, and it wouldn’t be a dub tune, but I would just do the dub mix anyway. I’d just go crazy and they’d say: “what are you doing?!”. I think he was a massive influence on me because of a certain style that he had – hardly ever playing back a guitar that he had recorded for instance. He’d always do something interesting, like finding a frequency in the pick of the guitar, amplifying it and then send it to his own effects – just working with sounds in a very colorful way. I suppose that’s probably the biggest influence.
Because that’s really what dub is: putting the producer at the center of the creation.
Yeah. Because you’re using the recorded music as source material. You’re not just transparent.
What was your relation with music gear at that time? Like pushing machines to their limits etc. If you play in a band on the one hand and witness the production process from the producer’s perspective on the other, surely it opens up a whole new world to you, doesn’t it?
I did approach music from two different points of view simultaneously. Because of the way my uncle introduced me to music, I was very interested in the studio from the beginning. When I was quite young I was building tape machines, making equipment. I think that when you’re really young and you don’t have that much to work with — like a tape recorder, a fuzz and an echo — you try to do as much as possible with what you have and you do get into the habit of pushing everything as far as it can go. But I remember that even when I was in school bands, what I really wanted to do was to be behind the desk and seeing how interesting you could make a band sound.
If I’m making some music, I’m not really satisfied unless I feel that I’ve found an original sound, something new, maybe I can do something unusual with the sound of the room, or with a piece of gear…
I mean, if you’re in a band, and there’s someone producing your band, you see it from that side of things as well, but yeah, I’ve always had both sides, yeah.
After working with him, you started producing big pop artists. Did you go about it with the same set up and from a dub point of view?
A little bit yeah. The whole thing of going into the more poppy stuff was kind of an accident. While was working with Nick, I started making a record that was mainly instrumental at first, kind of down tempo. I sent it to Virgin Records on the off chance, but they actually really liked it and signed me for kind of a big deal, and they introduced me to lots of different vocalists, like Sia and Emiliana Torrini. The idea was that they were singing on my record. And then I think Sia told me that I should do it the other way around and produce her record. I didn’t want to go on tour, just had a baby as well, so… I started producing and writing with Sia, and then Emiliana. Emiliana and I were then asked to write a song for Kylie (Minogue), so we wrote that song “Slow”. And then suddenly everybody was like: “Oh my God you can write pop music!” And I was like: “Well I don’t really know…” (laughter). At that time, I’d listen to commercial hip-hop I suppose, but not so much what you would call “pop”. Then, kind of an odd thing happened as some record companies said that they’d send pop artists around to me and I’d be like: “I don’t know, should we do this in dub?” (laughter) It was a bit weird, but it was interesting. In a way, I think that now is a better time to do that kind of thing. Pop music is quite experimental now. You can get away with doing something quite weird, as long as you’ve got a good vocal on it.
It’s a good thing because meeting these pop singers put you on the route you’re on now.
Yeah, because if you’ve done something that’s been a worldwide hit, people take you more seriously. And for other things as well. Not that long after that, when mixing the record with Franz Ferdinand — obviously a real band — I would always do dub mixes. Again, it was just natural to me and they were like: “Wow, this is fucking cool!”. So, I ended up doing a whole dub album of the album that they did.
What did you learn from all these different kinds of people? It infused into your way of producing music of course…
I think you learn from every new person that you work with. I learnt lots from Franz Ferdinand. Because they had already been through such huge process, they were able to think very big. They knew how to make a record and they knew how big an influence they could have. Their whole thought process is enlarged by the confidence they have. That encouraged me to think that there’s no limit to what you can do or be, and that you should try anything. Also, with a band that’s had a massive success with an album, there’s this huge pressure that the next one has got to be really good. And there’s a kind of nervousness: you want to keep experimenting, but you also want to keep your record sales up. It’s difficult.
When you start your studio here what was your process? Did you have a precise idea of what kind of studio you wanted?
Yeah. At the beginning, my studio was in Brixton, just down the road, and it was divided into two rooms. I didn’t like running in between rooms. I do a lot of stuff on my own, like playing the drums, and the guitars. And I’d be sitting there, recording, and then I’d have to run to the other room to do something else and then run back, etc. It was bad. So, I decided that I wanted a studio where everything was in one place. We found this one about 12 years ago. I bought the desk here because it would have been too big to carry, and I just started putting the studio up. It felt huge when I first came in, and it kind of feels quite small now, but it’s actually quite a big space. Every now and again I move things around. I did a session last year at Abbey Road in studio 2, and ever since I’ve come back from there, I’ve just really wanted a bigger room, cause it’s so nice to be able to have the drums there, and plug a mic there etc. So, I’ve started to think that I needed to expand.
How much do you embrace digital compared to analogue in your work?
I try to be open minded, I’m not set on one path or the other. In terms of mixing, I really like to do it analogue. Obviously, the plug-ins do sound really good, but there’s something missing. It’s really hard to say what. But I really like working with the analogue board, because it’s just quicker, it feels kind of immediate. I can very quickly get to something that’s 90% of the way there. If I’m mixing something, it won’t take me more than a few hours to get it nearly finished. But I think the more interesting debate is on the recording side. Because I record on analogue two inch, and it sounds beautiful. But with the right converters, the digital recording sounds beautiful as well. It has reached a point where they sound very similar. But the big difference has to do with the psychology of it. When you have a group of people playing, the fact there’s a limit to how much you can record – with a 15-minute tape for instance – makes the recording time much more precious. If we play through something and it’s not ready to record, we need to practice more, get there, get the sound a certain way etc. From the producer’s point of view as well: it’s all about choosing the way you set up all the mics etc. There’s a temptation to leave it recording, and then you have hours to listen to, but you’re not really sure of what to keep and what to throw away. Whereas I really like the ceremony of getting everyone ready and press the record button. Also, you know that the roll of tape costs 500 quid, so it really has an effect on the playing and the commitment to the playing – there’s no way you can mimic that. Also, there’s the fact that if you don’t like something, you have to record over it, which you would never do on a computer. Properly deleting files from the hard drive would make people think you’ve gone mad, and it sort of would be mad. But on a tape, you just end up with one.
You have a Swarmatron in your studio, how is this machine special to you?
It’s a hand-made machine by Leon Dewan who lives near New York. I don’t know how he came up with the idea for it but he decided to make a monophonic 8-oscillator synth controlled by ribbons. You slide your finger up and down and it controls the pitch of the note. Each oscillator is tuned to the same note, so we have eight oscillators playing in unison. That’s fairly simple, but you’ve got another oscillator underneath: if you hold one ribbon in the same place, the note is constant, but if you move one bottom ribbon to the left, then all the oscillators diverge in frequency. The highest ones go up and the lowest ones go down but they remain equally spaced and the average pitch stays at the center. I saw a thing online with Trent Reznor talking you through the Swarmatron. I found the sound so strange, I had never heard anything like it. I contacted Leon and got him to build me one. It takes him three or four months to make one because he makes it by hand. When I got it here, I was just obsessed with it. It’s back to that thing of always wanting to hear a new sound. Every time you switch it on, you hear something you’ve never heard before. There’s so many variables to it. If you do something, it’s very hard to do it again, it’s really difficult to repeat something. It was around that time that I started recording with Kate Tempest, and the first record was just the Swarmatron and two drum machines. Then I connected it up to another keyboard so that it would be a bit easier to play. Because the ribbon thing is nice but it’s really unpredictable. Then I started tuning it, so that instead of the starting point being eight notes in unison, it would be a chord from which I could get a series of chords. I went to visit him again in NYC and I asked him to build a set prep add-on to it so you can program in different chords to start with and then switch through them. He made that for me, so the one I’ve got is completely unique.
With your label Speedy Wunderground, you have this ten-principle method of doing things, creating a special atmosphere for the band, recording everything in one day, etc. When did this way of doing things start for you?
Over the years, I found that two things were annoying me, and I was getting frustrated. One was that I would be working on music, finish it and send it to the label, and then it would take ages before it came out. You finish something, you’re really excited with it, you get it mastered, you deliver it, and maybe a year later you hear it on the radio, and it doesn’t feel so fresh anymore. Another thing that was annoying, partly connected with that first thing, was that you finish something, and then a couple of months later, someone asks you to do another mix of it, turn such thing up or such thing down, make it a bit faster or slower or whatever… And I mean, fair enough, sometimes it’s a good thing, but the fact is that the time is available to do something else… So that’s another thing.
But when you listen to a recording nine months later, do you feel that it doesn’t represent the moment it’s been done at? So do you feel frustrated as to maybe you could have done it differently?
I don’t really, because I think it does represent the moment. If I listen to stuff that I’ve done 10 years ago, obviously I wouldn’t do it the same now, but I still like it because that’s what it was then. Another thing that I’ve noticed, is that when there’s a lot of time available – which isn’t always the case because usually the budget is tight and there’s not a lot of time – I think there’s an uncertainty that can creep in, even in a band. There’s a lot of time available and you can end up with lots of versions of stuff, and often, the first version is the best one.
None of these things are terrible, but they just happen quite a lot. So, I thought that it would be fun for a project to get together to do a record without any of those things happening. I’d just tell people that we would record on Friday, master it on Saturday – record it, finish it, and then we’re good. That’s why I wrote these rules down, as a reminder, to ensure that we’d actually do that. I also didn’t want lots of overdubs, I wanted to keep it pure, and not fussy. Just so that we could have a piece of paper up on the wall, and if anyone says “oh I know, let’s get a choir!”, I’d say “No. No choir.” (laughter). It’s really easy to stick to the rules if you’ve got them written down.
I like the idea of setting up rules and limits to give more freedom in terms of creation.
Yeah, exactly. It’s counter intuitive, but… You’re pushed into being more free in the way you play. Also, if people try and get things done as early as possible, they will be slightly experimenting, and I’ll just say: “yeah, that’s the one! That sounds really cool.” Normally, we would go past that and I’d ask them to do over that one bit they just did, but it’s never the same if you do it again.
Nowadays people tend to listen playslist on streaming platforms instead of listening to a whole album, so it’s super interesting to try and record things in one take.
Yeah, it’s nice to come up with a complete thing. I do this outside Speedy Wunderground as well. I try and do it with Fontaines DC, Goat Girl, Warmduscher. But even if you produce a long piece, and choose not to listen to the whole album, and only to track five for example, it’s still got that kind of intense energy. I know that no one listens to albums anymore, but things go in trends, don’t they? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if in 3 years, Spotify comes up with an unbreakable album playlist. Things go around in circles.
Is it difficult to go about things this way with people who have never worked like this?
I wouldn’t do it with everyone. It’s quite a long process. This first time I did it was with Warmduscher and I only did it because we had to do the record in 3 days. It had to be pragmatic: side A on day one, side B on day two and overdubs on day 3. We did that and it sounded really mad, with fucking intense energy. I noticed a few things about how the energy in the room built up: as the tension sets in and you reach the fifth song and everybody starts looking at each other kind of like (whispering) “Don’t fuck up!”. So that just happened because it had to happen.
The next record I did was with Goat Girl. It was their first album. When they asked me to produce the record, one of the things they said was that they really liked the Warmduscher record and wanted their record to sound as crazy as that. So I suggested that we should try and do it the same way, but they’d have to be prepared. We had two weeks of rehearsal rather than getting straight into recording. When we were in the studio, I told them to play the album straight from beginning to end, to just get through it and make a note of any mistake they’d do for next time they go through it, so that they’d always treat the album as one thing. When I went to listen to it, I couldn’t believe how well they got all the transitions, swapping, etc. They had learnt it so well. When we came to record that, they were really prepared. We did it in a group of 4 songs, then a group of 3, then a group of 4, etc. It happened in the first take, we didn’t go back at all. They just nailed it straight away. There’s a kind of freshness to that. That’s quite a funny thing, because I met Fontaines D.C. afterwards, and they had heard the Goat Girl record and they said “we really like how that record sounds”, so I said “well ok, then you have to agree to this”, and the same thing happened. But it’s completely conceivable that another band wouldn’t want to do it. If I started doing it and it seemed like it was a bad idea, I would stop. I don’t want to have these rules to annoy people. In fact, we’re doing the new Fontaines D.C. record now, and we’ve done a little bit of it like that, but they haven’t had so much time to rehearse because they’ve been on tour. And there was a song in a group of two, where there was a mistake and we’d have had to go back over to the first one. But Deegan, who’s playing bass, pointed out quite rightly that in this case, it was making it more frustrating than exciting since he had to play such heavy chords on such heavy strings and he might hurt himself. So, we just stopped doing it for that bit. I’d rather be quite pragmatic if it’s causing problems.
But also in that case, a musician obviously puts a lot of trust in the producer, but also has to trust themselves not to make mistakes and they put more pressure on themselves, don’t they?
They need to trust me that a mistake doesn’t matter sometimes. It’s a really important factor in this process. If you’re playing guitar in a five-piece band, you’re playing your part and if there’s a bit where you play a slightly wrong chord, from your point of view, that’s no good, that’s fucked up. But from the listener’s point of view, very rarely does that make it a problem. If it’s really bad, then fair enough, but if it’s just slightly different than what you were going to do, you have to remember that the person listening to the music are mostly focusing on the whole experience, and not just the individual. I think the trust is to know when to let go of that control and just have someone say “that’s fine, let’s move on.”
Yeah learning to let go can be…
Hard, yeah. But it’s really easy for me to say that to other people, cause if someone came into the room and I was mixing about… (laughter) I mean, I just get as obsessed as anyone else so… In a way, that’s why the rules are there. That’s why the mixing has to end by this time and it’s got to get mastered the next morning, etc. I’ve broken the rules before, sent something off to mastering but then listened to it again and went “No, no, don’t do it, I have to mix it again!” But I didn’t tell anyone (laughter).
How do you see your evolution as a producer? Are you not afraid that by setting up these rules you are somehow going to limit yourself?
Yeah but there’s plenty of stuff that I do in a normal way. It’s only certain things that I try and do quickly. There are things I like to take time over. I mean, I spent nearly two years on the last Kate Tempest record (laughter).
It’s nice because that Speedy Wunderground manifesto really set up your own signature. It feels like a return to dub years, to a time when you could tell which producer did which album because of their sound signature, it feels kind of the same for Speedy Wunderground.
What I learned – and I think that’s tied in the evolution of one’s production – is what you said earlier actually: with a little bit of limitation you can be liberated from the possibility of getting bogged down, overthinking, slowing down and spending too long on things, which is basically what would fight against you without limitations. I think the most fun and interesting sounding stuff is stuff where you’re quite relaxed. The psychology of recording, particularly when there’s a few people involved, is like a game of chess. Let’s say you’re recording five tracks with a band of five, and someone is in a bad mood. All the takes are great but one person is feeling upset. My next move could be to record everything again, or listen to it and see what we’ve got, or call it a day and go to the pub, or send them home and work on the tune. And what I’ve learnt in that situation is that a good move could perhaps be to go for coffee with the person who’s upset, have a chat with them, see what’s going on. They might be sick of touring or have an argument with someone else in the band. And meanwhile, I know that we’ve got five really good recordings, but there’s a bit of friction in the band, so the best thing might be to all go for some dinner, call it a day, and then come back in the morning, play the songs, find it amazing and carry on in a really good mood. Learning about those dynamics is probably one of the most important things.
But there’s also a real technical level to it. I’ve just discovered something really good: you know that if you have two sources of light, you get two shadows, and if you have a big light you get a blurred shadow, but if you have a point source of light you get a really clean shadow. So, I was thinking about that in terms of sound coming from one source, in a live room where everything is in the same room. You normally have the drums over there, the bass out there, etc. But if you have everything together, anywhere you try and record from, all members are in focus with each other. There’s no time delay between them. If you’ve got the drums there and the bass there, depending on where you put the mic, the bass is going to be early or late. But if you put the bass and the drums together, it doesn’t matter where you put the mic. So, I’ve been doing that and putting mics around the room and it sounds so good, it’s unbelievable! But that only occurred to me on Monday, while I’ve been doing it for years! (laughter).
words & photography: Hélène Peruzzaro
Published on 22020.03.16
Daniel De Mussenden “Dan” Carey is an English record producer, writer, mixer and remixer. Carey owns his own studio in South London and runs the record label Speedy Wunderground in co-operation with Heavenly Recordings. In 2014, Carey received two Mercury Prize nominations for his production work on two nominated albums: Everybody Down by Kate Tempest and First Mind by Nick Mulvey. In 2019, Carey earned another Mercury Prize nomination for his production work on the album Schlagenheim by Black Midi.