Phill Brown

Miloco grabbed half an hour with legendary record producer Phill Brown, the man who’s twiddled knobs and jiggled faders for, frankly, everyone who’s anyone. His list of clients spans four decades and includes (deep breath): Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Rolling Stones, Talk Talk, Brian Eno, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin, etc, etc, etc, etc…

He chatted about his love of the unique charms of analogue, the perils of the modern world, his favourite projects throughout his career, and, of course, his recent work with Zero 7 at Miloco. Read on for the full Phill Brown Producer Interview

Miloco: You’re using Protools on this project with Zero 7, but do you approve of the departure from analogue equipment?

PB: Well I still use analogue. I’m mixing this album for Marti Pellow that he did in Memphis with Willy Mitchell – who does all the Al Green stuff – and he only uses analogue. So we’re mixing from analogue and synched up another machine, so we’re working 48 track analogue which is very old style. But I was brought up on 4, 8 and 16 track analogue machines so I love that sound. Digital’s very useful, it’s a great tool, but it doesn’t come close for overall sound. But that’s the way it’s going. There was this great article some American producer wrote 10/15 years ago who said that since the 50s the quality of sound has been going down. Although we’re all getting this amazing equipment and technology to make it easier & quicker and cheaper, but the real quality’s still going down.

Miloco: Do you see similarities with the CD vs. vinyl debate, whereby there’s undoubtedly greater detail on a CD but that nothing quite beats the life, the sheer impact of vinyl, the way it explodes out of the speakers?

PB: If you get a good cut and a good pressing then nothing beats vinyl. And each time something’s remastered nowadays it seems to get brighter. The whole top-end thing is now so artificial, whereas those great records of the 60s and 70s were full of real sounds, huge sounds. But we’re now in an era where as long as it sounds alright on the radio that seems to be alright…

Miloco: …and iPods, headphones…

PB: Yeah that seems to be the main criteria – somewhat different. But I’m still a big fan of analogue and I hope the studios will keep hold of the big desks – even though they’re not worth much anymore – because it might come back round, and drums and bass don’t sound the same, I think, unless they go through analogue first. So I always use it if I can. But it’s tough – the maintenance, the old gear. It’s not as easy as computers. It’s a different situation. You can fire up these old machines and they won’t have been used for ages and so there can be a whole host of problems, because they need to be used. Whereas computers either fire up or they don’t and that’s that. But the world’s analogue as far as I can see; it’s an analogue world. It’s not really a digital world, if you know what I mean. It’s much more about feelings than mathematics.

Miloco: But what about storage and back-ups, isn’t that easier/more secure now?

PB: Well that’s the scary thing about computers. It felt a lot more secure somehow having physical backups. I mean they can obviously be lost or damaged too, but there’s something nerve-wracking about it all just being on a computer file somewhere…But then I remember Steely Dan worked on an album for 2 years before an assistant lined up the 24 track over the master and erased the whole thing. They found it later – and just the last bit of the recording remained. 2 years work just gone. That’s happened to me – an assistant erased one of my 24 track masters, back in 1979 – so it doesn’t happen that often. You’re always going to have some accident from the past that haunts you, but it’s just whether or not you can get away with it; whether they’re ‘happy’ accidents or not. They can be useful…

Miloco: …what, if it wasn’t working out to well…

PB: Well working on the Talk Talk album, Laughing Stock, there was this track After The Flood, and there was this bit of Hammond we didn’t like… We were always erasing bits and dropping in, real house keeping issues as we had five 24 track machines and the possibility of slaving them so we had 100 and something tracks of analogue, very much like Protools now but all in the real world of analogue, with synching and off-setting… So we had this Hammond part and I just dropped in too late and dropped out early, but we decided to keep it like that. It worked really well, like bookends to the solo, with a curious kind of ‘blur-bub’ at the beginning and ‘hlur-bub’ at the end. Perfect! So that was a happy accident. But had you done that on digital that wouldn’t happen. You’d just go: ‘Erase track 9’ and that’d be it. But with analogue you get to maintain a lot more of the human element to it.

Miloco: And there’s lots of stories, aren’t there, of those kinds of accidents or of people playing things badly, and then when everyone actually listens back to it they agree that, yes, it does work…

PB: And timing as well. I used to be a huge fan of using stuff without click tracks but in certain areas today that’s jut not possible: everything has to be clocked and ‘snapped to grid’ and all this business. But tracks breathe more when you don’t have that click track, and it does allow for the timing to allow special little things to happen. Like Little Feat for example, a great American band, they were brilliant at it – their timing was amazing. I mean I don’t know if you clocked it that it’d be ‘metronomically tight’, as they’d call it today, but they were just great, the effect was just brilliant: the drums right at the end of the beat, all that kind of stuff, which is a lost art. Guys like Willy Mitchell that play 68 beats a minute and it’s SO late – you wonder if it’s going to arrive sometimes. But now, with the pop world, with everything snapped, it’s all got to be pushed, got to be up, with everything at the front of the beat. So now you’ve lost all that impact of individual players that previously you might have brought in for their particular style. It’s all patch-worked, cut and paste, and “Let’s have a bit of this, then a bit of that.” It’s a very mathematical way of making records. And you lose that thing of having someone playing a track top to bottom – a whole performance, a part. And it’s great to have someone do that – the whole track. You can still go back and use all the trickery afterwards if you want, but that way you get all the individual performances too.

Miloco: And presumably it’s all very well having the bits and pieces in place, but having the dynamics of ‘a human being’ playing a song from beginning to end is very important?

PB: Well yes, exactly. And I must admit that the dynamics of records is very artificial now. Even a lot of the quiet stuff is loud, because it has to be – everything’s compressed up so that everything seems loud. So real true dynamics – like, say, Zeppelin: real dynamics that if you turn up loud will blow your head off at a certain point- that’s been lost. Everything’s a lot safer now – the music, the way it’s made, and the overall sound. Like you were saying about iPods and headphones, I think 85/90% of everything is made for that environment now, with the fashion for downloading and being strapped into mobile phones and headphones and everything. I think it would be great to get a hold of a few of those kids and sit them down in front of a great pair of speakers and a great cut of vinyl and say, “Right, check this out too…” But it’s not a great problem for me as I duck and dive and do lots of different things. I’m not really that involved with the pop side of things, of late. I mean the Zero 7 stuff is very chilled and cool and…adult; it’s not just trying to be some pop band. So I don’t do that stuff too much – it’s all a bit soul destroying.

Miloco: So you’re enjoying the Zero 7 stuff then?

PB: Oh yes, it’s fantastic. They got in touch with me after listening to the Talk Talk stuff – albums that they liked that were quite dark and different – and what they’ve done is excellent: real songs and hooks, but not in a glossy way. It’s very ‘down home’ and real and honest – it sounds great.

Miloco: I was talking to them a few weeks ago and they were talking about their barn in Somerset…

PB: Yeah it’s a great little set-up down there: a little Trident desk and the house itself is great for recording – the drums sounded great. So I guess about 80/90% of its been recorded at home. I got involved back in June and did some stuff down there, then there was a bit at RAK – a bit of brass, some drums and bass sections. And then all the rest – what bits to use, how to use them, the mixing – that’s all been down to them back home, and it’s worked really well. So now we’re at the final mixing stage. And on one track, for example, now they’ve heard it up there, Sam’s thinking about a bit of editing and rearranging before it’s finalized, so that’s what we’re up to today.

Miloco: And how much creative input do you get into projects?

PB: Well it depends. On some there’s a quite a bit and others I’m just brought in to do a job – they’ve got a very clear idea of what they want and I’ll just come in and deliver that. But on this, for example, with Zero 7, it’s been great. They’ll give me a few hours in the day to come in and get set up and then I can go off in my direction and then they”ll come back, have a listen, make comments, and then they’ll go off again. So they’re not sitting there al the time saying ‘Oh…But…What about…We thought…’ etc, they just let me get on with it, and then we just fine tune at the end of it. I picked up from their roughs that they didn’t want lots of reverbs and things floating about – they wanted it pretty in your face so a lot of the vocals are pretty dry – so I’ve got a good handle on what they want.

So that’s one kind of project, but another would be the Marti Pellow work. He’s very much in charge and in control of what he wants and how he wants it, and so that took a little longer to get to the stage where I was left alone with it a little. Now that we’ve done a few mixes and I know the plot, he’s happy to give me more space. We were going to come here [Miloco] to do that but there wasn’t space [in the diary]. It would have been great to get that in here [The Neve Room] cos it’s all been done on Willy’s MCI desk in Memphis – really crunchy, last updated in 1974, and it’s brilliant: that Al Green/Willy Mitchell style – and I thought it would be wonderful to get it through the Neve to warm it up. It’s comfortable here, easy, monitoring’s good, the Neve’s warm, with flying faders – all that stuff.

And the next project’s with Rollo, hopefully, who I worked with a lot on the Faithless stuff. We might be going out to America to record with Seal, which would be excellent. But that would be very much to deliver a certain thing, a specific job. Rollo likes to get me involved with doing the vocals and drum recording- the rest he’s more comfortable with himself, or with others – but those parts seem to have become my area, as it were.

Miloco: It sounds like you work quite a lot?

PB: Well the years vary. 2004 I did some 8 albums, which is really full on. This year I’ve maybe mixed 5 or 6 albums, which sounds great, but to mix an album might only take 2 or 3 weeks. They’ve been good projects, but in a way a quieter year. There hasn’t been one album start to finish.

Miloco: And is that okay, or do you need to be working?

PB: Oh no – it’s fine! I have a garden, an allotment, I live out of town…it’s a different lifestyle. It’s good when I’m working, but it’s like being an actor I guess: if you find yourself with a month or two in between projects – cos they don’t always run on one from the other – I quite enjoy it. And after some 38 years, to be honest, the odd month or two off is very pleasant. It’s only when it gets to be a longer time that you begin to think, Hmmn, maybe that’s it. Cos I didn’t think I’d be doing this beyond thirty, that they’ll have moved on to younger guys., it’s bound to happpen but it seems to have continued. Like with Zero 7, that came about cos I ‘d worked with Henry before when he was a tape op at RAK, on a Robert Plant session. And he called me up this year and said ‘You may remember me…’ – because I didn’t know the background of the band, and so that’s led to quite a bit of work this year. So you never know where the next jobs going to come from, or why. Which is kind of fun. A lot of people get in touch through email and Talk Talk often features in their reasons for getting in touch, Out of all the projects I’ve worked on they’re not necessarily the biggest sellers but they are the one, I think, that have resulted in more follow-up work.

Miloco: And do you think that’s due to the often unique way those records were recorded?

PB: Yeah, I think that musically it inspired a lot of musicians who were, you know, kids at the time but are now in their late 20s/early 30s and starting to do things. Whereas working on the Bob Marley stuff, and the Zeppelin things, and Robert Plant, they’re things from the real past. They’re classic tracks, a lot of them, but I don’t think they have that same influence today. It’s like Beatles stuff – I don’t think artists today would think about tracking down the individuals who worked on those original sessions.

Miloco: But I find that a bit surprising, especially as there’s so many bands who come out and try to be The Next Led Zeppelin, or something with akin to Bob Marley, or…

PB: Well it’s kind of hard; I think certain music it’s very hard to better. With Zeppelin it’s hard to imagine where anybody would be able to take that. Whereas I get enquiries all the time – and from all over the world – based on those two Talk Talk albums. Dido, which sold £20m, hasn’t got me a thing! But those albums must have got me another 20/25 projects, and it’s still carrying on today.

Miloco: But for you, out of all the albums you’ve done, is there one that stands out?

PB: I don’t think it’s one. I mean there are albums that had an effect at the time: I assisted on Traffic and Small Faces, which were great educations – watching the way music was made and how it could be fun. I worked on Beggars Banquet [Rolling Stones] too, as a tape op, which is another one that stands out. But as an engineer, I think Robert Palmer – the first couple of albums – Sneaking Sally Through The Alley was a brilliant album to make: very quick but very exciting. Finding these great bands, whether it’s The Meters or Little Feat, and then go to these mad little locations that were so anti the music business, not in lush studios with all the toys, but old shacks on the side of the road, and to cut tracks with those kind of guys…they were such great records to make. But I think that maybe Bob Marley Live at the Lyceum. Because that was done live, mixed in 6 hours, it captured a moment, captured exactly what that gig was about: the history, the vibe, London at that time, the audience were fantastic – the album captures all that energy. No Woman No Cry is still, for me, the best version they recorded. And the session, that night, mixing it, just being around those guys, that will always stay with me.

Phill Brown was talking to Miloco in December 2005

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