David Kosten is one of the UK's most sonically adventurous producers, but insists that the song is king — no matter how twisted the recording.
Today, David Kosten is a renowned producer responsible for overseeing albums by Bat For Lashes, Everything Everything and Guillemots, not to mention his own project Faultline, featuring guest vocalists including Chris Martin and Michael Stipe. But he started his recording career as a 16-year-old, making demos on a Fostex eight-track in his mum's front room in north-west London.
During this flush of teenage enthusiasm in the '80s, he sent a cassette of some of his songs to Sound On Sound precursor Home & Studio Recording magazine. Scanning its demo page when the latest issue hit the newsagents, he was deflated to realise that his tape hadn't made the mag. That was until he spotted that it was in fact featured in a column under the banner Top Tape Of The Month. It was a pivotal moment in the career of the future producer.
"I remember running home from the newsagent clutching the magazine,” he recalls today, with a grin. "There was a track with Jesus & Mary Chain-style guitar called 'Moo Cow Madness' and there was another track done on the Pro One through an amp with loads of reverb and with me singing. I remember in the magazine there was the classic line, 'He sounds a bit like Phil Collins but without the emotion.' But that was definitely the moment where I came in.”
Ask Kosten how he views his specialist skills as a producer now, and he reckons that it's mainly his ability to see the bigger picture. "I think that's probably the key thing,” he says. "A good producer should have the ability to always hear the whole package rather than the minutiae of a track. Often I think musicians get caught up in the tiny details and don't necessarily hear what an outsider would hear. I work in detail, one sound at a time, but you try to imagine what the whole song is going to sound like. Making those calls on overall direction is the essence of what you do.
"I like to work out what the artist wants to achieve or needs to achieve and where that sits in terms of what they've done before, what they can realistically achieve and what will be believable. All these things are factors in how you end up helping something sound. Sometimes an artist has a very, very specific idea and that's your role, helping them achieve that sound.”
Kosten stresses that whatever sonic trickery may be involved in his work, the song remains king. "I guess the things that I focus on the most initially are the song and the song structure,” he says. "Is it the best it can possibly be? Has some idea been missed out that would help the structure? Are the lyrics done? Is the melody in place? Is there anything they might need to do a bit more homework on before you start recording? So it's always about the song, and where does the vocal sit in all of that. Then I guess from there it's building that scaffolding around it, and finding all the missing pieces.”
Following his home recording beginnings, Kosten hooked up with a partner and, throughout his '20s, worked as a composer-producer of music for TV commercials, including a "surrealist version with multitracked choir and loads of cellos” of 'Flashdance… What A Feeling', used in a high-profile Honda campaign. Throughout this period, however, he still harboured ambitions to become an artist. Kosten confesses that he had no idea exactly how to get into the music business, but concurrent to his ad work, he had begun recording as Faultline, eventually gaining a meeting with Derek Birkett of One Little Indian to play him his industrial noise version of Madonna's 'Holiday'. "On the spot,” he recalls, "he said, 'Let's do it.'”
Kosten recorded an album called Closer Colder, which combined acoustic recordings of drums, bass, trumpet and strings with white noise and distortion. Ultimately, though, for various reasons, One Little Indian were forced to let Kosten go and the album was released by Leaf in 1999. This in turn triggered his first production job, when V2 asked him to do a Faultline remix of a new artist of theirs called Ben Christophers.
"I guess this was the key moment,” Kosten says. "I wasn't that keen on his original version of this song. So I just said, 'Look, bring your guitar, let's re-record it from scratch.' We did that and the label liked it a lot and said, 'Will you re-record the whole album?'”
Subsequently signing as Faultline to Warners offshoot Blanco Y Negro, he made 2002's Your Love Means Everything, a part-instrumental album boasting some impressive vocal cameos. The first to contribute was Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips ("We bonded over a love of the pre-falsetto Bee Gees”), which provided the bait for other singers to add their contributions.
"Chris Martin called me up and said, 'I'm bored, can I come and hang out?” Kosten recalls. "After the Ben Christophers record, I'd met Coldplay before they made their first album. I didn't end up producing it, but I guess had got on well enough with Chris. I played him the Flaming Lips/Faultline collaboration, which had just arrived in the post, and it turned out they were his favourite band. So he said, 'Well if they're doing one…' Then Michael Stipe was a fan of Chris Martin's and he came along and got involved.”
For Your Love Is Everything, Stipe sang an eerie cover of obscure US folk group the Brothers Four's 1960 hit 'Greenfields', coincidentally a favourite of both the producer and the singer. Kosten flew to New York for the session and admits he was initially tentative when directing Stipe's vocal takes. "It was terrifying because he's this amazing, proper artist,” he says, "and I can't sing a note really. Suddenly, I'm having to sing this song with him sat next to me. As he was doing the vocal, I was saying, 'Are you happy with it?' And he was very forceful with it and said, 'No, are you fucking happy? What do you want from this?' So I ended up actually bullying Michael Stipe into getting it how it needed to be for the record.”
Tech-wise, the initial Faultline record was done on an Akai DR8, in Kosten's first foray into digital recording. After that, he blew his entire Warners advance for Your Love Is Everything on an Otari Radar hard-disk recording system, before his inevitable purchase of a Pro Tools TDM HD3 rig a couple of years later in 2004. "That really opened up a lot more possibilities for me, because a lot of what I'm doing is manipulating effects,” he says. "The big difference was the ability to loop things and reverse things easily. The actual sonic quality of Radar was phenomenal, but Pro Tools was a big leap for me in terms of track counts and hidden tracks and being able to try things out at speed.”
Kosten says that, for him, Pro Tools is an essential tool in being able to quickly demonstrate his song arrangement ideas to artists. "I'm not a Pro Tools magician,” he admits, "but I'm pretty good now, and it's a great thing to be able to move very quickly. I find it easier and more beneficial often to the artist, rather just doing stuff in a rehearsal room and trying to explain what you're after to a band, to say, 'That's great but why don't we try it this way?' In Pro Tools, you can literally do it instantly and take that chorus and put it in a different spot and then let them hear it.”
The latest incarnation of David Kosten's DK Studio is situated close to Ladbroke Grove in west London. Even if he ends up tracking elsewhere, most of his actual production work is done here. Previous locations for his studios have been a black-ceilinged bunker with tartan-carpeted walls ("The Bay City Rollers recorded there in the '70s,” he laughs) at the former Utopia Studios in Primrose Hill and, later, what he describes as "a horrible industrial estate in Park Royal”.
DK Studio is centred around Kosten's Pro Tools rig and his SSL XLogic SuperAnalogue X-Desk, the stereo outputs of which are then fed through his API 5500 EQ and Alan Smart C2 compressor. "All the levels and processing that I need to do gets done inside the computer,” he says. "But the X-Desk is a great summing box. To be honest, while it's a pleasure mixing on a big desk and using all the outboard, these days I'm asked to move between tracks and artists so quickly and so frequently.”
Although his main monitors are pairs of Focal Twins and ATC 100As, Kosten actually does most of his monitoring through a Sony CMT-NEZ3 domestic hi-fi worth roughly £40, which sits on top of a rack, pointing towards the left side of his head. A touch eccentric, perhaps? "It sends people crazy,” he laughs. "Somebody left it round the house after a party and they never took it back. It's covered in wine stains. I used to use a Panasonic boombox, but it died and I found the Sony in a cupboard somewhere.
"But I've sat in with [leading mix engineers] Mark 'Spike' Stent and Michael Brauer and they were doing exactly the same. Everyone has some bit of simple, non-studio-related gear and they seem to spend most of their time playing things quietly on that. With the ATCs, there's no lie, they're very, very revealing, So if something doesn't sound great on them, you know that it's not right. But if something is sounding great on this little crummy Sony thing, pretty much, you put it on the biggies and go, 'Wow, this is starting to work.'”
Mic-wise, Kosten has a collection of eBay-bought oddities, while relying on a Brauner VM1 and Microtech Gefell UM92 for high-end and vocal purposes. "The Brauner is a hell of a thing,” he says. "A handbuilt proper valve mic. Vocalists really enjoy singing into that, it seems. The Microtech is valve, but less pristine-sounding, less crystal-clear, but has a lovely warmth to it. I think most of the people's voices that I work with suit one or other of those vocal mics. But I have everything from 1920s ribbons to some ridiculous-looking 1960s dynamic mics, and they all have a very specific sound. So you might use those for a layered group of backing vocals that you want to have a particular place in the track.”
David Kosten is perhaps most strongly associated in the public mind with Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes. The pair were first introduced by the latter's publisher, resulting in a four-day demo session in 2005 at the now-defunct Surrey residential studio Jacobs. So successful was this session that four tracks recorded there made it onto Bat For Lashes' 2006 debut Fur And Gold, thanks in large part to Kosten's ability to tap into the singer's sense of sonic adventure.
"We did a huge amount of field recordings,” says Kosten. "Vocals recorded in the woods near the studio, running microphone cables 100 feet. There was one bit where she asked me to make this backing vocal feel like young teenage girls hiding under a duvet talking to each other. So I said, 'Well there's a bedroom upstairs.' We literally just ran cables and recorded the backing vocals under the duvet. Then we set up a stereo pair of mics in the middle of the field outside the studio and you can hear her and her friend Caroline literally running right the way across the field screaming and laughing.”
When it came to the Mercury-nominated album's successor, 2009's Two Suns, Khan was beginning to open up her music to outside collaborators. On it, Ira Wolf Tuton and Chris Keating from Brooklyn's psychedelic electronic outfit Yeasayer respectively contributed bass and drum programming on some tracks, while on 'The Big Sleep', the singer managed to coax the limelight-shunning Scott Walker out to add his voice to hers for an atmospheric duet. "With pretty much all of the collaborators,” says Kosten, "she and I run back to base camp and go through what we've got and pick and choose bits and edit stuff. At the last minute Scott Walker made a decision to record his vocal on his own at Metropolis. We just got sent a file and I comped it from that.”
For her new album, The Haunted Man, Khan cast the net even wider, splitting the production credits between herself, Kosten and Dan Carey (Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand), while bringing in Beck and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi) for location sessions in Los Angeles and Perugia. Kosten says that he doesn't suffer from professional jealousy when an artist decides to work with someone else. "As a producer, you can't have any assumption,” he points out. "There's no ownership of it. There's no right to expect somebody to not want to try other things. But I guess we've got enough going on and we just got results every time.”
Kosten's characteristic treatment of sounds is still very much in evidence on The Haunted Man, not least in the creepy orchestrated opening of 'Winter Fields'. "We'd recorded a bunch of classical instruments and it was much too hi-fi. So Natasha held a really cheap old 1940s mic in front of the speaker and we played the entire track into that. She said it reminded her of an old kids' TV show soundtrack. It completely transformed that song.”
So strong is Khan's idiosyncratic musical vision that on The Haunted Man it's often hard to spot the production joins between tracks such as 'All Your Gold' (mostly Dan Carey's) and 'Horses Of The Sun' (mostly Kosten's). One constant running through the material is the fact that all of the singer's vocals are recorded with Kosten at DK Studios. In the end, though, there was much to-and-fro communication between Kosten and Carey as the album neared completion. "There had to be,” Kosten says. "There were quite a few cases where he was working on stuff and I was sending him updates of vocal tracks and he would be slotting those in. Obviously the process was more straightforward in some parts. Like, 'Horses Of The Sun' didn't leave this room. We did a drum session with Mickey [Spearman] from Everything Everything at Flood's studio and generated a load of raw material to then make use of in whatever way.”
At the same time as working on The Haunted Man, Kosten was heads down into Manchester group Everything Everything's second album, Arc (due January). Their new material takes the quartet's cerebral pop one step further, from the polyrhythmic figures of lead single 'Cough Cough' to the brooding atmospheres and more traditional songwriting of 'Duet' and 'The House Is Dust'.
In approaching the production of the band's 2010 debut Man Alive, Kosten went to see them play live on numerous occasions and was already a huge fan before they stepped into the studio together. When they did, however, the producer surprised the group by dramatically pulling apart a song of theirs called 'Yobama', which went on to become their Ivor Novello-nominated single 'MY KZ, UR BF'.
"'Yobama' had an amazing chorus and a verse that I simply didn't get at all,” he says. "It was barmy. But I remember saying to them, 'Look, I think we can make this track into something really special, but let's be brave with it and try starting from scratch with a new verse.' There was some xylophone loop that already existed. So I said, 'Why don't we try something new on top of that?' There was lots of arguing, because we took some keyboards from the middle eight and started the song with them. I don't think anyone had ever disagreed with them over those sort of things before, so it was quite a shock to them. John [Higgs, singer] tried improvising over this xylophone thing and that's how we ended up with the verse. So it turned out really well and ended up being a great single for them. That kind of brought me a lot of credit with the band.”
For Arc, Kosten and the band worked for a fortnight on drum and bass parts at RAK in North London, decamping to Angelic Studios in Northants for tracking, before returning to DK Studio to edit and mix the album. Given their synth-heavy sound, much use was made of vintage keyboards, particularly Angelic's Moog Memorymoog, Roland Jupiter 8 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. "On 'Cough Cough', the pre-chorus has a kind of crazy arpeggiating part and it was done on my Studio Electronics Omega 8,” Kosten says. "It's an eight-voice analogue synth handmade on the West Coast of the States. But the recording involved very, very little MIDI programming. Most of the keyboards are played and then chopped and nudged if need be. Pretty much all of the synth parts will have some kind of motion with a filter or something while it's being recorded.”
Having completed two labour-intensive albums in 2012, the immediate future will see David Kosten return to the long-gestated third Faultline album, to be released in 2013 and titled Destructo The Human Cannonball. Already in the can is a track featuring the spoken word contribution of an A-List Hollywood actor, whose name the producer doesn't yet want to reveal. "But I have a wish list of totally crazy leftfield rappers, then some really well-known singers,” he says. "There's a simple piano-led ballad I've written and we're in the process of working out who's gonna do that.”
Elsewhere, current production works-in-progress include tracks with new artists such as Jagger (signed to Sony) and singers Ingrid Olava (from Norway) and Kristina Train (from Poland). Ultimately, though, it's the thrill of not knowing exactly what lies ahead that drives David Kosten on. "You don't really know what you're gonna be doing from one day to the next,” he enthuses. "That really is the great fun about working in music.”
One of the most important skills a producer can develop when working with sensitive artists is learning to judge their moods. This can obviously be a tricky and, on the rare occasion, painful business, as David Kosten once discovered when working with his longest-term client, Natasha Khan aka Bat For Lashes. "Three albums in, we're like a bickering married couple where we both know each other so well,” he says. "There's no holding back. We're very playful and we muck about in the studio. People are often very surprised working with me quite how idiotic I am in the studio. I'm a total clown and I like people to have a good time and laugh and not realise that they've done so much work.
"But I remember we were working on [2009 single] 'Daniel', which went through an awful lot of twists and turns. It was even half the speed at one point. I was definitely keen for it to end up being a great pop song and I was quite pushy about that, until at one point, I think I'd said that one too many times and she bit me really hard on my upper arm. For the rest of the session, I had an enormous bite mark that I wore with pride. So she's the only artist I've been bitten by.”
David Kosten is a collector of analogue keyboards, including a Korg MS20, Roland Super Vocoder Plus, Sequential Circuits Pro One and Logan String Machine; along with his Roland Space Echo, these tend to be his workhorses when he's bending sounds into new, effected shapes. "I'm very much into corrupting hi-fi sounds and making things sound much more characterful, and then offsetting that against something that is more pristine,” he says. "If I have any general style, it's that mixing of hi-fi and lo-fi. The MS20 and the Pro One are both great for putting pretty much anything through that needs to be transformed in some way. They've both got inputs, and so you can put sounds through the filters and chop them up using LFOs, and choose the shapes of the LFO.
"I've got my setup rigged up so that I can send anything from Pro Tools at any point into those synths and get it back in. I create quite long chains of things sometimes. You might get a sound that I deliberately record really well, like a voice or an acoustic guitar, and then I send it to a synth, then out into another synth, through the Space Echo, through the Eventide Orville and eventually it makes it back into Pro Tools and it sounds completely different.”
In fact, Kosten is so big on creating character in sounds that even though he knows that both his Roland Chorus Space Echo and Vocoder Plus could do with being serviced, he's afraid to have them fixed up. "I used a Vocoder Plus at Flood's studio which is in pristine condition, it sounds lovely and perfect. But this one, the output distorts in a very satisfying way. It has two preset sounds in it, a voice sound and a string sound, and they're amazing. They come out of this thing crunchy and really nicely overloaded. And I love the spring reverb in the Space Echo. I've used that on so much of the Bat For Lashes stuff. It has its own particular sound. There's something wrong with it, but it has a lovely wobble to the tape. If you listen to things I've done from Faultline onwards, it's pretty present. Whenever you hear some super-lo-fi bit of junk, it's probably me putting something through that.”
Other toys used to create mangled noises are circuit-bent toys, including a Casio SK1 sampling keyboard and a Speak & Read. "The circuit bending does unbelievable things to the [SK1] sample sounds you can make. I've recorded the usual thing of people going 'aaaah' into it and making a chord from it, but it transforms into something that sounds digitised in an incredibly lo-bit way. There's one thing the Speak & Read does incredibly well: a very strange looping rhythmic noise that's on the next Everything Everything record. All these little things, even if they trigger an idea that doesn't even get used, if it's something that gets the process going and gets the artist moving, then it's worth its weight in gold.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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