With Coldplay’s fourth album banging on the door ferociously, we were pleased to sneak a quick interview in with one of the mastermind record producers behind the album. Step up Viva La Vida’s co-producer Markus Dravs, for tales of pussy cats, ponys, Hollywood cowardice and the Arcade Fire’s preferred Hungarian choirs. Read on for the full Markus Dravs Producer Interview and all will be revealed…
MILC: So how are things, Markus?
MILC: With the release of Coldplay’s fourth album imminent, we trust the production of the album has been keeping you fairly occupied of late. How long were you all working on the record for?
Markus: I suppose close to a year – but considering that we have about 25 songs finished and mixed and we had some long breaks it doesn’t feel as such a long time – especially, since a lot of the songs were written during the project and we spent a lot of time trying different arrangements with the whole band constantly playing before actually recording them.
MILC: You were co-producing with the great Brian Eno on this one. Where were you working on the sessions?
Markus: Sessions were split between London, Barcelona and New York. The main reason for this was to keep the recording environment fresh and inspiring. Also, it’s really interesting how you listen with different ears, when spending time in a different culture/city.
MILC: What were your initial feelings when it emerged that you had the opportunity to take the gig? How much consideration was there on your part before agreeing to do the album?
Markus: Chris called me one night out of the blue and asked if I was prepared to come and “stretch” them. When, after meeting them, I realized that they had great enthusiasm and genuinely wanted me to be one of their Boot-Camp captains, I took it as a huge compliment and agreed to spend a week or so in the studio with them … nearly a year later …
MILC: Can we expect any different angles with the new Coldplay record, ie. have you and Brian been taking the band’s sound in a different direction from their first three albums?
Markus: I do feel that the band has developed and broadened their sound. They were/are very interested in experimenting with new sound-scapes and energies, which when you have great songs as well as, is a great environment to work in as producer.
MILC: At the start of the project, did you outline any particular objectives to follow once work got underway, in terms of sounds and vibes you wanted to achieve? If so, have they been stuck to?
Markus: It was always essential to everyone involved, that the record should evolve from the whole band playing live and the fact that a song should be explored in the room, from within the band and not assembled in the computer. So we spend a lot of time playing around with tempos, arrangements, lyrics – tightening up performances – or simply just “jamming”.
MILC: Could you tell us about any particular pieces of kit which were particularly popular during sessions, and have as a result been making regular appearances on the record, especially any equipment which you’ve got your hands on during your sessions at Miloco?
Markus: The absence of the rule book and pre-conceptions of what you should do rather than what feels right and is fun … (both in respect of the sessions and Miloco)
MILC: I’ve found some interesting bits of info on the band’s blog regarding your good self. They’ve been posting that during sessions you were particularly good at driving everyone to the point of exhaustion but not beyond. You must have quite a knack of knowing the exact cut-off point…
Markus: Well, I guess you just have to keep listening to a band’s performance and when you realise that the song is not improving by trying it another way, or replaying it, it’s time to move on, or go for a walk – another good sign is when a musician picks up a baseball bat and starts running towards you…
MILC: I was intrigued to read your studio working-style being likened to “a big cat in a zoo, prowling around the room; a heavy-weight boxer with a paintbrush”, compared to Brian Eno – “a benevolent schoolmaster with the unquestioning respect of his charges, sat behind his laptop at the back of the control room”. Would you say there is good logic in these comparisons?
Markus: Well… they did ask me to come in and basically give them a hard time … so that’s what they got !!! As far as Brian is concerned, he is “a benevolent schoolmaster with the unquestioning respect of his charges”
MILC: This, of course, is not the first time you have worked alongside Brian, but how would you compare the working relationship and methods you both share today with say that of 1993 when working on Nervenet? Has it always been the big cat and the benevolent schoolmaster?
Markus: Brian and I have always enjoyed a very direct approach as far as communication is concerned, there’s always been an openness right from the beginning of our working relationship. However, on projects like NerveNet (since you mentioned it) of course the buck would stop with him – it was/is his record after all – when it’s just me and Brian working by ourselves it’s more like two pussies – no big cats – no prowling. Loads of purring though…
MILC: Much of the credits across your CV (particularly on your numerous Bjork credits) illustrate ‘electronic sounds’ as being quite the specialty. Would you say your background working alongside Brian all these years has had a large part to play in the high-demand for your production skills in this area?
Markus: I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with sounds and textures. That was what got me into the studio in the first place. As Brian was and is a huge inspiration to me (as producer and person in general) I feel extremely honoured in working along side him and immensely appreciate all the time he invested in showing me new techniques and sharing his views and experiences with me. So, I would say that he had a big part in my development.
MILC: Certainly one of the many great electronic-orientated artists you have worked with over the last few years has been Emilie Simon, when mixing her soundtrack to La Marche de l’empereur. After the award-winning success and acclaim of the original version, were you surprised by Hollywood’s decision to introduce a new orchestral soundtrack for the English-language re-make, The March of the Penguins?
Markus: I do feel they chickened out a bit … Hollywood eyh?? Mind you, even in the original version, the music has been mixed so low compared to the dialogue (between penguins??? – what the f**k) anyway – if you want a good audio visual experience – put on the dvd, turn down the volume on your telly and listen to the soundtrack cd. Aaaahh – now all you’ll need to complete the experience would be ice-cubes in the shape of popcorn and you’re there (with the penguins)…
MILC: Whilst vaguely on the subject of North America, we simply can’t waste the opportunity to ask you a bit about the great Neon Bible album by Canada’s Arcade Fire, which you were of course hugely involved in. You were quoted as saying that you found the band’s full-on live analogue recording tendencies to be something of a rarity these days. Do you find that sort of gung-ho tracking approach exciting or just plain manic, especially considering the size of the band?
Markus: It’s completely manic which makes it extremely exciting at the same time!! I love working with bands that make you run for it – never a dull moment –
MILC: The album was made all over North America and Europe. What was behind the drastic changes in geographic locations?
Markus: The album was mainly recorded in the band’s own studio near Montreal with a lot of location recordings (mostly huge organs in churches) – and then Win and Regine went to Budapest to work with an Eastern European orchestra and choir…
MILC: The type of tracking methods you worked with during Neon Bible are no doubt becoming a fading tradition due to the ever-increasing prominence of digital technology in the studio. We often like to hear the various opinions from producers and engineers over the increasing trends towards digital in the modern recording industry. What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of the digital studio age?
Markus: The main advantage to me was always about the sound of analogue tape, but with ever improving converters and higher sample rates, the gap is definitely closing (maybe not quite closed yet though). I do love the advantages of working on computers, the trick is not to over-do-it though – never blame the computer if a recording feels sterile – blame the operator – Both Arcade Fire and Coldplay were tracked to analogue tape first – I do think there still is a slight advantage in the sound of analogue tape, especially when pumping the signal on. Another advantage is that you work a bit more committed in terms of what takes or tracks to erase/record over. It forces you to make decisions and I like decisions …
MILC: We hear you have your own Amek-based studio on Merseyside. Do you like to take your projects up there wherever possible, or does it have more of a specific use for certain specific parts to your work?
Markus: editing, programming, writing… mixing, watching my daughter’s new dance routines …
MILC: You’ve of course used a few of Miloco’s studios down in London, the most recent being The Yard in Highbury and Musikbox in Kentish Town. We hope the sessions went well, could you tell us a bit about what you’ve enjoyed about working in our studios?
Markus: Courtesy of Nick, Vicki and the amazing studio wizardry of Adrian Breakspear as well as my knob twiddling mate Ruadhri Cushnan the sessions went extremely well – always good to be back – Miloco sets a great environment for being able to focus and forgetting the world around you – happy days – also… Adrian worked out how to poach eggs in a microwave: slightly butter some heavily toasted rye-bread, served with a bucket of coffee … Normally I offer to pay for my studio amigos to go and learn the art of foot massage, but in Adrian’s case I did feel I shouldn’t push for too much of a good thing – between his breakfast making and his Ninja-studio skills, he’s ever so close to being perfect … in fact …
MILC: Is there anything you feel Miloco can offer which other studios can’t necessarily?
Markus: A pretty good footy team (I believe) and I love the fact that you have so many different rooms (why do you not own a pitch by the way?). So, you can move effortlessly from studio to studio, depending what suits you best at that point in the project.
In keeping with Miloco traditions, we just had to put in a few half-baked questions, so here we go…
MILC: What track would one currently find at the top of your iPod’s ‘most played’ list?
Markus: Ludacris “Stand up”
MILC: What is the worst behaviour you have ever witnessed in a recording studio?
Markus: I don’t think I’ve witnessed what people would call really bad behaviour. Sure, sometimes you witness unusual episodes, but I prefer calling these “creative tension” or “passion fuelled expression”
MILC: What was the last time you lost your temper with someone and what did they do?
Markus: I don’t lose my temper – or maybe my temper has been lost for a while.
MILC: Which film is better – Marche de l’empereur or The March of the Penguins?
Markus: Depends on the viewer – soundtrack wise, Marche de l’empereur – Emillie (Simon) created an amazing collection of songs for this film
MILC: You get a call from any artist of your choice to request your services on their next record. Which artist would you choose to call you?
Markus: Johnny Cash
MILC: Similarly, only this time involving time-machines, which record in history would you most have liked to have a production credit on?
Markus: Can’t really answer this as if I name a record I love, it would mean that everyone involved did a pretty good job … so …
MILC: Last but not least, if it weren’t a career in music, what would it be a career in?
Markus: Pony Trainer.