Street Life -
At home with Stephen Street
Sue Sillitoe talks to
one of the most influential British record producers of the '90s,
Stephen Street -- the man behind a string of hit albums for The Smiths,
Blur, The Cranberries, Catatonia, Sleeper, Shed Seven and many more.
last time Stephen Street was interviewed by Sound on Sound was in July
1994, when he was enjoying chart success with Blur's Parklife and
The Cranberries' Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can't We? Now,
in 1999, Blur's latest album, 13, is their first without his
expertise behind the mixing desk. I asked him if it came as a shock when
Blur chose William Orbit to produce instead of him?
"It wasn't my choice. I just think they
wanted to stretch out a bit more and having made five albums with me,
the best way to do that was to work with someone different who would
approach the project in a different way. I understand that perfectly and
certainly wasn't offended. I did five albums with the band and I must
admit I thought each one would be the last because they were bound to
want to try something new."
Do you think this latest album is
"Well, yes and no. People say that the
style of 13 is different but I'm not so sure. For example,
there's one song on the new album that was written in 1992, so they are
still able to do things they touched on in the past. I think the
goalposts moved more between The Great Escape and the
Blur album, which was released two years ago. I count myself lucky
to have been involved with that album because the band could have
decided to go for a change of producer then. Yet I was very happy to be
part of that album because, artistically, it was my favourite of the
five I worked on."
Do you know how the choice of
William Orbit came about?
"Oh yes -- I saw it coming and wasn't
at all surprised. After the Blur album came out the record
company wanted to do the remix version, Busting And Droning, so
they sent out tracks to various people including William Orbit and Moby
to see what interpretation they would come up with. In my opinion,
William's mixes were by far the best. He is a very talented guy. When I
heard his mixes I thought if they want to go further down this avenue,
then working with William would be a logical way to go."
What do you think of the new album?
"I like it, but then I'm a huge Blur
fan. However, I can imagine why some people might be a little
disappointed with the direction they have taken, because it is far
murkier -- in the sense that Damon's vocals are treated quite heavily
and are quite subdued in the mixes, while Alex's bass lines are reduced
to pretty much a subsonic rumble most of the time. It's not how I would
produce it, but I still think its a good record and anyway that was the
whole point. It will be interesting to see where they go with the next
one -- whether they will pursue this new direction or return to a more
balanced view. With the Blur album we were able to be arty and
experimental, especially with tracks like 'Essex Dogs', but at the same
time it was counterbalanced with pop tracks like 'Beetlebum'. Hopefully
they won't let that pop sensibility disappear too much."
The Producer's Role
The last time we met you'd just
finished recording the second Cranberries album No Need To Argue.
Have you worked with them since?
-- they produced their third album themselves and have recently released
a fourth. No Need To Argue wasn't a very happy experience. It has
to be said that by the end of the album there was a bit of ego forming
because Delores [O'Riordan] wanted credit as co-producer. I didn't agree
because I was employed to produce the album and, as far as I was
concerned, that was that. Any band can turn round and say 'oh, we did a
bit of co-production because we brought this idea in here and that idea
in there', but that's no more than I expect because you don't want to
work with someone who is completely robotic. Just because the artist
worked on a string line on a particular song doesn't make them the
producer of the album. As the producer I am accountable to the record
company and to the band, but mostly to the band because I want to make
sure I'm deliver a good record. That's the pressure I take on when I
agree to do a project and I take it seriously. There is a lot involved
in being a producer -- not least directing the artist throughout the
recording stage so that I make sure they end up with an artistically
Does this mean you will never work
with them again?
"Not at all. It was a shame to end that
particular project on a sour note, but it hasn't affected my
relationship with the band, because I still see them as friends. In fact
I was recently asked to mix their latest album, and the only reason I
didn't do it was because I had other commitments. But it just goes to
show how things often come full circle. I could have been involved in
that album had I been free."
How do you feel about coming to a
project at the mix stage?
"I don't mind it now and again -- in
fact I find it quite refreshing. While I'm primarily known as someone
who produces projects from beginning to end, it is quite nice to come in
on something that has already had a lot of workdone to it. If all the
vocals have been recorded and everything else has been done it can be
fun to sit there and think 'all I have to do is balance this and make it
sound great'. It makes a change not to have to argue with singers about
which is the best vocal take or worry about getting the drummer to sound
good. Sometimes when I do this type of project I think 'wow, this is
easy -- and remixers get paid a fortune to do this!' But the difference
is that remixers are under enormous pressure because they are perceived
to be responsible for the success or failure of the track. Those guys
are not only flavour of the month but also the last link in the chain --
the ones who invariably get blamed if things go wrong. So, although I
like dabbling from time to time, I'd still rather be known as someone
who works with the bare bones and does everything, because I find that
much more satisfying."
And what about having your work
remixed -- do you mind?
"I don't mind so long as I've had the
opportunity to mix it first. I object to people deciding halfway through
a project that they are going to get the latest hip person to mix my
work without giving me first refusal. Mind you, this doesn't often
happen. Last year I did some tracks with Chrissie Hynde that Bob
Clearmountain mixed, but I didn't mind because I knew about it in
advance. I did initial mixes and Bob worked from those, using them for
stereo placement and so on. He didn't change too much, which was
Don't you find it frustrating when
record companies take a long time to release your work after you have
"Yes -- very. Last year was an
incredibly frustrating year because hardly anything I'd been involved in
was released. That's just the way it works sometimes and you have to
accept it, but the upside is that all of a sudden I've got a glut of
work coming out. I did a variety of projects last year including two
tracks with Liz Horseman who is a new singer songwriter, plus an album
with a band called Tiger, which I think is one of the best I've ever
made. I took that project after hearing their demos and liking them, but
what clinched it was hearing about the line-up of the band which was so
wacky that I couldn't resist. They don't have a regular bass player
because Dido -- the bass player as such -- plays everything on a
Minimoog. They also have a female guitarist, Julie, who plays a guitar
with only three strings all
to the same note! Working with Tiger was like going back to punk ethics,
which was fantastic. There I was -- a producer who has worked with the
likes of Johnny Marr and Graham Coxon, who in my opinion are among the
best guitarists in the world -- and I was going into the studio with
this girl who plays with three strings tuned to G or A depending on the
key of the song! I think she learned guitar that way because it was
easier and so she began writing songs to fit. It's amazing and it sounds
really cool. I loved working with Tiger and I think we've achieved a
stunning album. They have already released a single called 'Friends'
that got some airplay but the market changed so much last year that I
just don't think the moment was right to release the album. Last year
was like that for a lot of bands -- very much a watershed, with artists
that had previously been selling well suddenly being dropped."
I understand you are also waiting
for the Cupcakes debut album and the Ooberman debut album to be
"These were both projects I completed
last year. Cupcakes are from Chicago, and it's quite rare for me to work
with an American act, but when I went over to work with Lloyd Cole in
New York I took the opportunity to go to Chicago to meet them because
I'd been sent their demos and liked their interesting mixture of
"The Ooberman album also came via a
demo -- this time from Blur's management company CMO. The band released
a track last year through Graham Coxon's label Transcopic, but I thought
the demo tracks were even better."
You have a reputation for taking on
new artists and helping develop their sound. Is this deliberate?
"Not really, but it is something I
enjoy. I like working with people when they are newly signed to see if
we can take it to stardom or whatever you want to call it. If you do
that you feel very much part of the act and that's what I'm most
You also seem to get a lot of return
"Without blowing my trumpet I've been
fairly lucky with return projects, and I think it's because I tread
carefully and go out of my way to make the recording process enjoyable.
There's no point going into a studio and alienating the band just to
please the record company, because it doesn't matter how big a hit you
end up with, if the band didn't enjoy the session they won't ask you
back -- even if you give them a number one album.
"Some bands move from producer to
producer because they prefer lots of different influences. Liz Horseman,
for example, worked with different production teams on nearly every
track because she wanted to experiment with diverse influences. It took
longer to make the album as a result, but perhaps with solo singers like
Liz it's necessary to adopt this approach because she doesn't have a
band to bounce ideas off."
You have been described as the
producer behind Britpop, thanks to your involvement with Blur, Sleeper,
Catatonia, Shed Seven and so on -- how do you feel about that?
"It was great when everyone was saying
that Britpop was wonderful, but now it could be seen as an albatross
around my neck. But I don't think of music in such a narrow way, because
bands like The Smiths were effectively Britpop, only they came along 10
years before anyone coined the phrase. The way I see it is that I'm very
pleased to have been part of the huge surge of interest in the music
the mid-1990s. I'm glad that albums like Parklife exist. Back in
the early 1980s it was only artists like Phil Collins or Tina Turner who
sold enough albums to go platinum but now, thanks to Britpop, there are
lots of bands having double, even triple-platinum albums which is a big
shift in the market. It's nice to be considered part of that."
Do you feel your style as a producer
"Certainly, but then I think that's
inevitable. Every producer goes through periods of using too much reverb
or making everything too dry or putting on too much distortion, but you
keep yourself fresh by changing and adjusting. Working with different
engineers or in different studios is a good way of staying open to new
ideas, although having said that when I find a studio I like I do tend
to stick with it. I like Maison Rouge and Townhouse Studio Four and will
work in either, depending on the budget, because acoustically I like the
way the rooms sound. I also like the way the staff operate, particularly
at Townhouse. Maison Rouge isn't as hi-tech and smart, but it's a good
workplace and I know I'll get good results. Sometimes I track there and
mix at Townhouse, but again it depends on the budget. I made the Tiger
album entirely at Maison Rouge last year, and was back there a few weeks
ago with Lloyd Cole. In the US there's a facility called Magic Shop in
New York that I like where they have an excellent collection of valve
gear -- Neve, Pultec, stuff like that -- which makes it a great place to
track. I did some demos for the second Cranberries album there and they
turned out so well that we ended up using them on the album."
What equipment has caught your eye
over the last five years and how has it changed your production
one piece of gear that has changed the way I work is the Otari RADAR.
These days I use it all the time because I'm a complete fan. I bought
one two years ago, soon after they were released, and used it on the
Blur album. It sounded so good that it blew me away. Initially I
bought 16 tracks but then added another 8 for full 24-track.
"I'm not into computers and fiddling
about with a mouse because I think that kind of technology can get in
the way of the artist/producer relationship. But with RADAR, the remote
sits on the desk and looks and feels like a tape machine, so people
don't even think about it -- it's just there recording whatever you are
doing with the band. But the great advantage with RADAR is that it
allows me to go back later and cut and paste the bits of the track that
I like. This is such a creative leap that I can't imagine how I used to
manage without it.
"RADAR played a huge part in the making
of the last Blur album, and was probably instrumental in the direction
they have now taken with Pro Tools, which was used extensively on 13.
Tracks like 'Essex Dogs' began life as a 25-minute experimental jam that
was later cut down to eight minutes using RADAR, and we also used it for
some of the drum parts on other tracks."
Home (And Away)
Are you a fan of bands having their
own studio technology at home?
"Bands can equip their own digital
studio very cheaply now, especially when you compare it to the cost of
doing this 10 years ago, so fitting out a home studio isn't a bad
investment because it saves money that would otherwise be spent in
expensive commercial studios. However, I believe it is important to use
proper facilities for mixing, because you need a desk with automation
and a decent amount of outboard gear.
"A lot of the bands I work with
begin projects in home studios. Ooberman is a good case in point. They
have a studio in Liverpool and use a Roland VS1680 digital recorder
which is an incredible piece of kit. I was amazed by the sound they got
from it and impressed by the amount of built-in reverbs and delays.
Because so many bands are starting projects in well-equipped home
studios, I am now finding that the demo material they present me with is
of much higher quality and can often be used as a starting point for the recording session. If I like a demo I'll certainly
use it. This happened with Ooberman and on the last Blur album with the
track 'Strange News From Another Star'. In both cases the vocal
performance was so nice and relaxed that I thought 'let's not mess with
it; let's just add to it instead'. I am not trying to cop out by doing
this -- or take credit for someone else's work. I'm just reorganising
what is good and taking it to the next level, which in itself is a
production choice. This is where RADAR comes into its own, because it
allows you to copy material from demos and then perhaps change the
arrangement. RADAR has certainly transformed the way I work and is the
one piece of equipment that I would be loath to part with."
I know you have a small home studio
setup yourself. What equipment do you have in there?
"I have a small studio in a summerhouse
at home which is equipped with a Mackie desk, some samplers and
keyboards and a few trusty guitars including a Gibson 330 and a 1964
Fender Telecaster. I add new items quite slowly -- the most recent being
a [Mutronics] Mutator, which is a fun piece of kit -- you can use it to
add an analogue-type filter to a synth sound.
also have a Mac with Logic, which is useful if I want
click-tracks, or to speed up or slow down a track, but I don't go in for
heavy sequencing. For a bit of fun, I also recently bought an Akai
MPC2000 because I liked the idea of having something that would enable
me to get ideas together quickly. With the MPC2000, you have something
that's a sampler and a sequencer, so it's pretty cool.
"My other recent purchase was a Zoom
1901 which has some good, lo-fi settings and only cost £99 -- last of
the big spenders, that's me! And, of course, I have an Akai 3000 sampler
that I bought a long time ago and still swear by. I just buy bits and
pieces that I want to try out. For example, when I did the Tiger album I
bought myself a Roland JV1080 because the band had used one on some of
their demos and it sounded good. I thought I'd get one in for the
sessions and then decided I might as well buy it."
Do you ever bring bands to your own
studio or do you always use commercial facilities?
"If I'm working with a band, I always
use commercial facilities and take my equipment with me in SKB cases. I
use my studio for cataloguing samples and deciding what's worth keeping.
It's also useful when I want to try out a new piece of kit because I
think it's wrong to turn up at a session unprepared. If I'm trying
something for the first time I'll bring it home and play with it for a
while until I know what it's capable of and how it all fits together.
The Roland JV1080 is a case in point -- it took me a while to learn how
to use it and I did that at home. I'm a great believer in messing around
with the sounds that are in these boxes and trying to adjust them so
they are more individual, rather than just using factory presets.
"The studio is also good for rough
mixes and experimenting with drum loops. I have a pair of AR18 speakers
which are great for playback, plus a pair of trusty Yamaha NS10s."
Do you prefer nearfield monitors to
main monitors or do you use both?
"Over the last few years a lot of new
nearfield monitors have come onto the market and some of them are good,
but although I used to hate them at first I've grown so accustomed to
Yamaha NS10s that they are the ones I've stuck with. Let's face it, if
you can make something sound good on NS10s it will sound good on
"However, when I'm in a commercial
studio I do use the big monitors -- which is why I like Maison Rouge and
Townhouse Four. Both these studios have great monitoring. At Maison
Rouge they have an Eastlake system using JBL horns and speakers that
still sounds fantastic even though it's fairly old technology, while
Townhouse Four has Genelec main monitoring, which I also like."
Do you have any new projects about
"I've just finished producing and
mixing the lion's share of a Lloyd Cole album and I had a lot of fun
doing that. He is quite meticulous to work with, but I love his vocal
style and his lyrics, which are incredibly strong -- he's just one of
those songwriters you can listen to again and again.
"Now that's finished I'm about to start
work with the Longpigs, which should be good. Their first album took off
a good year after it came out and then they spent a long time promoting
it, especially in the US, so I get the feeling they are seriously ready
to move on. The majority of the second album is done and I'm helping
with the last couple of songs. After that, well -- who knows? But I have
no doubt something exciting will come along."