David Motion interview

2 Aug 02

(and a bit on 15 April 03 cos some of the original tape didn't come out properly)

His Soho studio has a large open wooden floor and banks of very expensive looking equipment with blinking lights. It is probably to do with making music but looks like you could put wings on it and fly it to the moon.

He gets out a white label test pressing of the Strawberry Switchblade album in its original running order. He clears the CDs from the top of his turntable (like most of us, his record deck has become a table for putting CDs on), and we go through the album.

It runs:

Side 1
Since Yesterday
Deep Water
Poor Hearts
Another Day
10 James Orr Street

Side 2
Go Away
Who Knows What Love Is? (David Motion version)
Little River
Who Knows What Love Is? (reprise)
Being Cold.

His set up has the kind of speakers you get in professional studios, the kind that are at head height and make anything sound like the voice of god. Hearing the David Motion version of Who Knows What Love Is for the first time here, at a volume where we have to shout to be heard, is an extraordinary moment.

How did you get the job of producing the Strawberry Switchblade album?

I was in a band, Home Service, years and years ago, and basically I fell in love with the recording process. I thought I'd get into studios to learn how to do better recordings of our own material. The idea was that in down time I would record stuff for our own band. And then it took off, I was working 36 hours a day and things moved very quickly. I was in an eight-track studio in Kingston and then somebody there said they'd introduce me to this 24 track near the airport called Airport Studios.

When was this?

It started in September 1982, I was 23 at the time or something like that, fairly young. The idea was that I'd be a pop star, that was what I wanted to be like everybody else.

What genre were you?

Technically it was techno-pop, although really without much technology. It was New Wave. I arrived in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music when I was 18, that was 1978, and just missed the punk thing. But then the stuff that we were doing was on the back of that, it was New Wave. Very influenced by things like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, early Human League, stuff like that. Cabaret Voltaire, everybody was listening to that at the time.

So I was at the Academy and then I got booted out after two years cos I just wasn't doing the work and I had a colourful home life at the time. Also I was very interested in pop music, I'd always straddled pop and classical - as I do to this day - so I was torn. The Academy was very much, like, Elgar is the most modern thing there is as one faction, and the other faction was squeaky-gate stuff like Stockhausen, Berio, who were totally atonal. I didn't fit into either of those genres. But they did have a little studio in the Academy, a tiny little 4-track system and I just went in there and recorded stuff and succeeded in blowing up the desk on a couple of occasions. At the end of the second year I gave them a tape, it must've been about an hour's worth of music, which was all sopranos and white noise with sweet piano behind it, tuned noise but quite tonal. They said, 'well this is all lovely but we want you to write this piece for bassoon and piano like we asked you to, and if you don't then don't bother coming back'. So that was the time I thought, forget that. I went and got a job and did the band on the side of that.

After a few years of that we did a few gigs, made a few records on our own label, got played by John Peel, ran this little label out of our living room in Tottenham called Crystal Groove records. By about the third record we were getting quite sophisticated, already spent a little bit more time in the studios cos I'd started engineering. We got one record released by Situation 2 who were part of Beggar's Banquet, a track called Only Men Fall In Love. By that stage the drummer and I had got rid of - god that sounds really patronising! - we'd gone more techno-pop and decided guitars weren't part of that. We were a four piece, there was a keyboard player/singer, a drummer, a guitarist and a bassist, and that was the line-up for the first two records, which was very much in keeping with the New Wave format. Then we got more and more involved in the recording, the idea is that there's just a recorded record, it was just synthesisers and vocals and drum machine.

With that running alongside, I got into studios and that took off and I learned very very quickly. I actually managed to blag the job in the first place, it was a bit bizarre but it shows what can be done if you really really want to do something. This studio in Kingston, I had a friend - who many years down the line ended up as an A&R person at WEA quite by coincidence - who said there was this eight-track studio in Kingston called Ark and I happen to know the owner is really pissed off with his engineer; the guy is unreliable, flaky, probably charging more than he's declaring, that sort of stuff. So I just wrote a letter saying how punctual I was, how methodical, trustworthy, all that sort of stuff, and I got a job. The thing was that I hadn't actually been an engineer ever before. In those days in Melody Maker they used to do articles about studios, and I got hold of one about this studio and it had a complete equipment list. I sent off to all the manufacturers asking for brochures of those bits of equipment and sat down and tried to figure it all out. I'd never actually used the gear before.

It was tied in with a little bit of looking over people's shoulders when they were making our records so I had some sense of it, but still the first session I had with people paying was pretty hair-raising. But I learned pretty quickly. The bands tell you what they want. I did one session early on where I learned so much, a bunch of black guys in a reggae band, twelve guys in this tiny room smoking weed. They were saying, 'no it's wrong, it wants to be more like this' and I'd turn the graphic EQ and go 'that?' and they'd say yeah; I learned like that. Then after a while you get used to tuning into records and the sounds other people use.

So I was six months in this eight-track studio, I got poached by the 24-track studio, and one of the bands that came had a friend at AIR studios, a technical guy, so I had a meeting at AIR. What I didn't realise was that they offered me the job of ASSISTANT engineer, so it was a tape-op, it was going back several steps for me. It was quite useful though cos it meant I could look over the shoulders of the top people at the time. Ironically Phil Thornalley was one of the first sessions I tape-opped on [Thornalley was brought in to re-record Let Her Go and Who Knows What Love Is on the Strawberry Switchblade album after the record company rejected Motion's versions]. He was doing a Thompson Twins mix with Alex Sadkin. It was amazing just to see how people at that level worked. I did a lot of stuff with Chris Hughes and Ross Cullum, I tape-opped for Martin Rushent.

Jill said you'd previously worked with Dollar.

I worked with them separately after they'd split up. At AIR I did a remix with Thereze Bazaar. I found her slightly harder to work with cos she had worked with Trevor Horn and was doing her remix with this 'I'm The Producer' vibe about her.

I worked with David Van Day with Wang Chung. This was slightly before Strawberry Switchblade. Wang Chung had written a song for him. They got me in to engineer this thing, we did it at Marcus studios. David Van Day is a very very nice bloke, very amusing person, but he really could not sing to save his life. We were recording his vocal and he just could not get it, just COULD NOT get it. At Marcus there was a vocal booth with a piano in it which you couldn't see into from the control room, which was very very necessary. We had to have him off to one side out of sight, because he would've found it demoralising had he seen the efforts we were going to. It was in turns exasperating and amusing.

What we resorted to doing was running the tape, take all the backing track out of it, and at a particular moment Jack would play the piano and sing the line before and I'd bang it into record and David would try and mimic what he just heard. It took days and days and days to get four lines of vocal which were really not that hard. It was scary. I'd be punching in on individual syllables.

The amazing thing is that once you did actually piece one together out of sixty odd takes it sounded a million dollars. But god it was hard work.

At the end of doing this track we went to a Japanese restaurant and we all got quite drunk and David was saying he didn't want to be a singer anyway, he wanted to be an actor. I can't remember if he said he'd been to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but he'd certainly been to some acting college. And then proceeded to spout Shakespeare at volume. Just before we asked for the bill he gave it the whole 'now is the winter of our discontent', doing a good thirty lines of it.

At the same time I was at AIR I was still producing on the side in smaller studios for Cherry Red and people like that. Did an album for Kevin Hewick, there was a band called Swallow Tongue I did a 12 inch for. I was just working stupid, stupid hours, doing a full day at AIR and then sessions elsewhere on these other bits, so I was quite fried, which was another thing that made me want to move on pretty fast.

So I left AIR and about a month afterwards I got a call from Max Hole who was Chris Hughes' manager. Chris Hughes was the producer of Tears For Fears. I tape opped on a session he did for Wang Chung.

Was it unusual for a producer to have a manager?

No, it was quite common in those days. I didn't have one at that time, but I wasn't a big name producer. It was quite common; I got a manager in 86. The second you have any sniff of a hit they call - I had calls from about 25 managers, it was a real eye-opener, quite fascinating. Chris Hughes produced Adam Ant early on - Kings Of The Wild Frontier, the hits - and he was also a drummer so he was rhythmically very very good. He hooked up with an engineer called Ross Cullum and they were notorious for how long they took over things; that was an eye-opener as well. At AIR studios they were doing a few overdubs for one track, Dance Hall Days by Wang Chung, and then mixing. The mix took four days, and two and a half days of that was basically spent on the bass drum, getting the sound just right. That's symptomatic of the way it was all going in the 80s.

I learned quite a lot just looking over peoples shoulders; Martin Rushent had a particular system of how he worked, Chris Hughes had a system with his Fairlight and stuff like that, a lot of triggering going on A lot of time was spent on things, and it was very difficult to keep your objectivity over that length of time.

So Max Hole, Chris Hughes' manager, also happened to be the head of A&R at WEA Records, which was quite handy. So he phoned up and said, 'Chris Hughes said you were great, why don't you come in and do a meeting?'. We did a meeting, and at the time I had no idea how powerful or important it was, you know, Rob Dickins was there as well, and they said, 'we've had this idea, we'd like to offer you a contract as a staff producer position'. I'd never heard of that before.

It's the kind of thing Motown did in the 60s.

Exactly. And WEA when it was Atlantic, all those people had staff producers who would produce all the stuff. It was great for me. The idea was I'd produce two singles and two albums as part of this year-long deal. I did two tracks for Black. It was clear they were going places, but then wasn't really the moment. I can't remember what else I did. Then it was Strawberry Switchblade.

They said, 'we'd like you to come and meet Strawberry Switchblade and we're very keen for you to work with them'. I don't remember being on some kind of shortlist or anything.

I think the idea was we'd work on a track or two and see how it went, and if it worked out it'd lead to an album. At the time Balfe and Drummond were also A&R and had this kind of unit, they were on the same floor as Max Hole and Rob Dickins and Paul Conroy. I can't remember the exact relationship. They were technically A&R, but they were also Strawberry Switchblade's managers.

I remember them saying they'd done this indie release, released it on a friendly label or whatever, but it is seen to be coming out of the underground for it to be authentic and all that. And they thought they could do something more.

Had you heard any of the recordings then, the BBC sessions or the indie single?

I don't remember the BBC sessions, I remember the single. They were more interested for me to hear the next set of demos. The demos were very much along the same lines, quite indie, guitar and vocals. At that time I was really more interested in fashioning pop. Not necessarily commercial - although I have some commercial instincts I still think I am quite left of centre and quirky.

I thought it was great to be working with people who allowed me to do all that other stuff. I'd get the demo, listen to the track, figure out what the chords are and build it up from there. Obviously respecting the integrity of the top line of the melodies, I don't remember touching those in any way.

In that early period I remember them coming to my flat in Tottenham, we'd borrowed a synth and we kind of thrashed around a bit with that and a drum machine that we may even have borrowed from Balfey. I mapped out one or two of the songs, then we started recording, then it just sort of developed into the album.

I was very keen to do a week at a time in different studios. Partly for my own experience, to play the field and find where the good studios are, and it was something quirky as well to keep changing the landscape, having been stuck in AIR studios for several months. I wanted to try out all these other places that I'd heard of, so that's exactly what we did.

I would set up a song, record, which was actually quite hard cos when it started I was engineering it and producing it at the same time. At Marcus studios when we were starting certain tracks Rose and Jill weren't coming in until after lunch, so if I were playing the piano or whatever then the tape op would be recording it and I'd be running in to listen to it. The initial arrangement was done quite quickly really. Then they'd come in and go 'we like that' or 'we don't like that' or whatever; generally I found them incredibly receptive.

What were your first impressions on meeting them?

I thought they had a vibe, they definitely had a really interesting atmosphere about them, that sweet and sour at the same time kind of thing, dark and fluffy at the same time, fascinating. I found them very bright, very lively, and very very easy to get on with.

They did give me an awful lot of control. There was an awful lot of trust. It was fantastic for me, really. Everybody was saying greatgreatgreat and just letting me get on with it. They'd come in and say, 'that's great', and as time unfolded and we finished things - I can't remember if we finished Since Yesterday before the rest of the album or what - they started getting the marketing department and the promotions department taking up more of their time. We were having to carve out time for them to come and do vocals. But it all worked very well.