PJ Harvey’s long-term co-producer John Parish is uncompromising in his willingness to experiment — even with the world watching!
“I accept digital. You cannot not accept it.” John Parish shrugs resignedly, before continuing, with more animation: “The main problem with digital is that it makes it possible to make a very mediocre idea sound good. And that is pretty much the nadir of art. We should all be trying to create great ideas, and if you can’t, or you don’t know what your best idea is, you have already fallen at the first hurdle. People end up having huge DAW sessions with loads of tracks, because there are far too many options and they become indecisive and end up with a bunch of mediocre things.
“Analogue recording, by contrast, encourages making decisions. I know that some people in the ’70s ended up using like 55 reels of two-inch tape to make an album, but the process was far more difficult and much more expensive. You had to be rich to be that indecisive! Now anyone can tinker endlessly. And if there’s a safety net for everything, people don’t really try. When I work with younger musicians who have only ever recorded digitally, some of them will do half a performance and say, ‘That was OK, can you sort that out?’ I can do that, of course, and it is going to be accurate. But it is not going to be exciting. In any case, accuracy is not something I rate particularly highly in making music.”
Parish’s remarks on the tools of his trade encapsulate the underlying ethos of his work as a producer, composer and performer, in a music career that began in the late ’70s, when he was guitarist in the new wave band Thieves Like Us. In 1982, together with a certain Rob Ellis, he formed the band Automatic Dlamini — a band that counted PJ Harvey amongst its ranks in the late ’80s. Since then he has recorded numerous solo albums and soundtracks, as well as engineering and producting projects for the likes of PJ Harvey, Eels, KT Tunstall, Rokia Traore, Tracy Chapman and many others. Parish has constantly been mining for meaning and feeling, and furthered an aesthetic that favours rough edges, grit, imperfection and soulfulness. He lives with wife and kids in a Victorian semi-detached house in Bristol, where he has a home studio full of instruments, and only fairly recently succumbed to the relatively low-cost practicality of a DAW.
“I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of Pro Tools,” explains Parish. “For a long time I was working on a Tascam DA88 at my home, because when I began working on film music in 1998 it was the format they wanted it delivered on. It’s just a tape recorder, you fast forward and rewind, and press play and record. I worked on those machines until the heads gave up, and last year finally bought a Pro Tools system. Before the DA88 I worked on a four-track cassette recorder, the Tascam 244. I’ve had one for 20 years and still use it. It sounds great. I love cassette tape compression, and if somebody sends me a digital string recording that’s sounding a bit too harsh, I’ll put it through my four-track cassette recorder before flying it back into the computer.
“In an ideal world, for me what still sounds best is to record on two-inch 16-track tape, through an old Neve desk, with a Neumann U87 at the front. But I’m happy to use what I have, whether four-track cassette or my iPhone. I use Pro Tools but I am not a fan of plug-ins, or digital effects in general. They often sound great, but they also always sound the same. If I have a Watkins Copicat delay running on a live feed, it’s going to be a little bit different every time I listen. I like not to be in control of everything. I like wild cards! I also find looking at a screen very distracting. When I’m producing, I don’t like to have the screen on the desk in between the monitors. Instead the engineer will sit to the left or the right doing his or her thing, and only when I need to look at an edit point, or identify an annoying click or something, will I go over and have a look.”
However, Parish is far from being a purist or an analogue die-hard, and insists that he’d “rather hear a good song recorded on a horrible digital recorder than an average song recorded on amazing, vintage, analogue equipment.
“I did not come to mixing and production from a technical perspective,” he adds, “and I still struggle with technical aspects. I am very much a musician, and I am looking out for things that interest me, or things that work for me emotionally. Once they are done, I can look at them and think: ‘Oh yes, that is technically how that is working.’ But I can’t think of that in advance, I can’t think of it the other way around. I have to come from the music and the emotion first, and then I can work backwards to the technical side, and if there is a problem, I can address it.”
As a musician, John Parish is a multi-instrumentalist, who tries his hand at everything from accordion, keyboards, drums and xylophone to trombone, but mainly excels in playing the guitar. Today, however, he’s perhaps best known as a producer, and has an impressive track record producing artists and bands that play a wide range of musical genres, from indie rock to electronic music to folk, and live in an equally wide range of places, including Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, Norway and Africa. What all the artists Parish works with have in common is an eagerness to experiment and push boundaries. This is particularly, and most famously, the case with PJ Harvey, with whom Parish has worked off and on as a musician and producer since his early days with Flood in Automatic Dlamini. The two men co-produced Harvey’s third studio album, To Bring You My Love (1995), and Harvey and Parish released their first duo album, Dance Hall At Louse Point, a year later. Parish then played guitars and keyboards on Harvey’s Is This Desire? (1998), and co-produced, again with Flood and PJ Harvey, her 2007 album White Chalk.
Another Harvey-Parish duo album, A Woman A Man Walked By, followed in 2009, and Parish co-produced (with Flood, PJ Harvey and Mick Harvey) the singer’s most celebrated album to date, the Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake (2011). Five years, on Parish, Flood and PJ Harvey co-produced the follow-up, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which gave the singer her first ever UK number 1.
The new album is highly unusual in at least two respects: one being the overt political nature of the lyrics, the other the album’s public recording process. PJ Harvey decided to record it in Somerset House in London, as an art project open to 50 members of the public at a time for four 45-minute sessions per day. Over the course of a month, lasting from January 16th to February 14th, 2015, viewers could for these set periods witness the sessions via one way-glass.
“It was a big surprise to Flood and me when Polly suggested that we record the album in a gallery,” Parish comments, “and that she wanted to invite people to watch it, because it seemed diametrically the opposite of the approach she had always taken. She was, historically, always very secretive about the creative process, as a lot of artists are, and did not want anything to be leaked. But I have known Polly for many years and she likes to do things differently each time. So it was just another manifestation of that, of her constantly looking to challenge herself and to change. I thought it was a remarkably confident step to open the recording process up to that degree. Probably she hadn’t previously had the confidence to do that.”
PJ Harvey’s art installation, conceived in collaboration with Artangel, was called ‘Recording In Progress’, and the Somerset House web site describes the event as “a recording studio in the form of an enclosed box... displaying PJ Harvey, her band, producers and engineers as a mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture.”
All the songs were written before the sessions, and reflected Harvey’s travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC during 2011-2014 in the company of photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy. These trips resulted in videos by Murphy, a 2015 book with images and poetry by Harvey and Murphy called The Hollow Of The Hand, and The Hope Six Demolition Project.
“Polly had been writing the words for the new album for four or five years,” recalls Parish, “starting pretty much as soon as she came off the road from the Let England Shake tour. She might even have been formulating ideas while touring. It was a long process, and she periodically sent lyric drafts, as well as bits of music, to Flood and myself, and we’d review them and give feedback. Every six months or so the three of us came together and we’d discuss what we felt was working and what didn’t, and once we felt that there was a body of work strong enough to do an album we went into the gallery.”
Some of the album’s lyrics, with their outspoken political stance, have proved controversial. “We talked a lot about the lyrics, because we were very aware that it was very difficult to write lyrics about subjects like that and not come across as preachy or patronising. There were many things that we would go backwards and forwards about, sometimes talking about just one word. Polly has a great musicality, and she can make some very difficult lyrics sound musical, while others won’t be able to. I would never be able to sing those lyrics convincingly in the way Polly can, and a lot of that has to do with her voice. She thinks carefully about how strongly she sings things and in what register. A song like ‘A Line In The Sand’ has a very harsh lyric, but she sings it as a kind of sing-song, in a high voice, so you don’t feel as if you’re pummelled by this terrible information. It adds depth. It becomes what it should be, which is an artistic statement making a strong political point, that’s not preachy or patronising and works as a piece of art. There are some lyrics that are very direct — ‘The Community Of Hope’ is basically reported speech — but we felt that it was working in the context of the music and the album.”
Going into more depth about how the music for Hope Six took shape, Parish explains that the making of the album was largely a collaborative effort. “Obviously, Flood, Polly and myself have made several records together, and over time we have developed a really good complementary working process, in which we fully trust each other. The way the production worked for this particular record was that Polly had the initial ideas, in terms of writing the songs and also with suggestions for the arrangements, and my production input was about the musical realisation, while Flood came more from the engineering side. So the sonic realisation came from him. But obviously everything is under discussion by everyone, and we also all three have to be in agreement. There’s no two-against-one ramrodding something through.
“Polly has gone through long periods of making quite substantial demos, with a lot of the instrumentation mapped out, but for this record her demos were mostly just guitar and voice, sometimes with a click track or loop of some description. This meant that there was a lot of room to add or change things. It’s common for artists at the beginning of their careers to want to be in control of every facet of making records, because they don’t trust themselves to make the right decisions on the fly. Once you have created a body of work the confidence comes to be more open to someone saying, ‘Why don’t we drop that chorus?’ or ‘Let’s put a trombone in there,’ and say, ‘That sounds really exciting and different, let’s go with it.’ This also extended to input from the other musicians at Somerset House. Polly was very excited and encouraging to hear suggestions. The sessions were very open, and I think all the musicians experienced them as very liberating.”
The musicians, producer and engineers gathered at Somerset House during January and February 2015 included long-standing Harvey collaborators Parish (on guitars, percussion, variophone, keyboards and autoharp), Mick Harvey (percussion, keyboards and guitar), and Jean-Marc Butty (percussion), augmented by James Johnston (keyboards, violin, guitar), Alain Johannes (guitar, saxophone, keyboards), Terry Edwards (baritone sax, flute, guitar, keyboards), Mike Smith (baritone saxophone, keyboards), plus several other musicians, playing saxophones, keyboards, guitars, bass clarinet and bass. Every single one of the 12 musicians who appeared in total also sang backing vocals.
“The number of people really varied from day to day. The only ones who were there every day were Polly and myself, Flood, engineer Rob Kirwan, and assistant engineer Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett. The most people we had playing together at one time was nine. The way the production worked on this record was that Polly had the initial ideas. She wanted many male voices, and she wanted a lot of instruments. Those two things were coming from her. If and when the music was changed, many of those ideas were probably coming from the way I hear things as we were playing them with the band in the room. Sometimes, like in the case of ‘River Anacostia’, the final recording was very similar to her demo. With some other tracks, like ‘Line In The Sand’, ‘Chain Of Keys’ and ‘The Community Of Hope’, a lot of the arrangements were worked out in the room.
“In the case of ‘The Community Of Hope’, I adapted the chords and the feel, particularly in the verse. Polly and Flood really liked the demo, but I had issues with it. Polly is really open to criticism, and if one of us felt that something wasn’t working, she’d ask: ‘Is there something worth salvaging here, or shall we just lose it?’ In this case I don’t think anybody in the room ever heard the demo. I messed around with the chords and feel in the room, people played along with me, and it sounded pretty good. The final version was pretty much recorded live in one take, including the lead vocal, and we then later overdubbed bass and percussion. We seldom had a bass guitar during the basic track recordings, but sometimes Polly and Flood later felt that things were a bit bass-light, and bass was added later, sometimes during the mix.”
As an example of how the arrangements came together, Parish elaborates on the song ‘A Line In The Sand’, which has a “high, picky guitar part that was played by Alessandro Stefana. It created a shimmering texture. The rhythmic parts of that song came from an old reggae loop that we were listening to as inspiration, even though we ended up doing something completely different. But in our heads it’s still connected to that original loop. This is how inspiration should work: if the listener can trace the inspiration, it means you have copied the idea. We feed on everything we hear and experience, and a good artist is able to reprocess that into something unique and original that becomes something else entirely, and that in turn will influence other artists down the line.
“Flood, Polly and I are all interested in hearing different sounds, and another important aspect of the instrumentation was that there was no drum kit on any of the tracks. Again, this was something Polly wanted, and that we have carried through into the touring band line-up. It’s great, because it immediately gives you a different sound. That dead kick drum underpins 99 percent of rock records, but instead we have many individual percussion instruments, marching bass drums and marching snares and toms and shakers and so on. All of the rhythm tracks were constructed with three or four of us playing at the same time. There are other unusual textures, like a bass clarinet, which is not a common instrument and that features heavily, and a variophone, which is an odd-sounding, unique instrument, that I often played using my Copicat. It created a sound that’s hard to identify, something I’m always interested in.”
Individual instruments on Hope Six are difficult to identify in general, in part because of the enormous amount of instruments that often sound at the same time, many of them in the mid and/or lower-mid range, and in part because of the hazy, dreamy, remote-sounding production, which Parish calls “slightly out of focus”. There are no solos, one saxophone solo aside, and the mix is not particularly upfront or hard-hitting. The overall sound is huge but a bit distant, and a bit reminiscent of Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’, albeit without the syrup and the gloss. According to Parish, this was partly down to the space and partly to the trio’s production choices.
“Most of the songs were cut with several people in the room, sometimes with three guitars playing at the same time, two percussionists, some keyboards, two brass players and Polly singing. Rob Kirwan’s engineering was a very important part of the sound, and he was keeping track of an awful lot of stuff that was going down. He recorded to Pro Tools, which worked great for this project, because we needed many tracks with all these people playing, and he needed to be able to record constantly, because we never knew what was going to happen. Plus it made it quicker and easier to cut takes together. Rob and Flood were careful to do a lot of close miking, as well as using DIs where possible, so if they needed separation they had that option. But the project was about experimenting and capturing the moment, which meant that if we had spill on the recordings, so be it. Neither Rob nor Flood allowed that to get into the way of a good performance.
“It was the same with the arrangements. Yes, there were many instruments in the lower-mid range, but I’m pretty sure Polly does not think in terms of frequencies. There were songs on which four or five of us played guitar, with several of us playing in root position, and that would give us a full-spectrum sound. You also get a certain energy from that, because you play differently all together to if you’re overdubbing. Playing together made it exciting. Also, Polly likes instruments like baritone saxes and bass clarinet, and if she came up with an idea that from a technical point of view raised issues, Flood was not going to say, ‘When we use all these instruments we’re going to have too many low-mid frequencies,’ because Polly’s response would be ‘I don’t care about that, just make it work!’ So if Flood had 10 instruments playing in the same frequency range, he simply found ways to make that work.
“The sound of the room at Somerset House certainly impacted the sound of the album, although I would say that was probably more prevalent in Let England Shake [see tingen.org/flood-harvey-shake-england] because that was recorded in a church in Devon which had such a particular acoustic, and also there were far fewer instruments, so you could hear the individual instruments and the sound of the room more clearly than on the more dense tracks on Hope Six. We were recording in a much smaller space in Somerset House, and with many more musicians, which meant that everyone was much closer together, and this resulted in a lot of bleed. Many modern recordings are very close, very clean, with individual processing on each instrument that gives it that in-your-face sound. It wasn’t a massive, conscious decision not to do that, but it just wasn’t the way we were going to be able to record under the circumstances.
“Flood mixed the songs at his studio in Assault & Battery, with Drew Smith, who did most of the button-pushing. To me the sound of the album seemed to emerge quite organically, but it is possible that Flood spent a great many hours sculpting it in the mix for it to become like that! You also would have to ask Flood whether that slightly unfocused sound image was as a result of a lot of people playing instruments in the same space simultaneously, or whether it was something that he worked very hard to create in the mix. But to me it seems like the end result is a very good representation of what was going on in the room.”
The Hope Six Demolition Project is the latest in a long line of albums on which Parish has acted as sole or co-producer. When asked how far he has a personal, recognisable sound that sound shines through on Hope Six and other albums he’s worked on, he says: “I do have an aesthetic. It is funny, because it took me a long time to accept that. I started off saying that I produce records for people and try to help them make the record that they are trying to make, but after a while, when you have made a significant amount of records, you can look back and say: ‘I can see the similarities in those records, even though the artists are very different.’ That similarity is me, so obviously there is an aesthetic, which is probably why I am asked to produce in the first place. I have learned to embrace that.
“After 25 years of producing, I still find it difficult to describe what production is and what I do. Over the years I have become better at interpreting what an artist is trying to say and helping them express it. And it’s the same whether I work with Polly or a singer or musician from a different culture, like Rokia Traore. I listen to a lot of different types of music, and I always have the same basic instinctive response, which is about the credibility of the music. Do I believe the performance? When an artist like Rokia comes to me, that’s what she expects from me. If she wanted to make a very traditional world music record, she would have asked a more traditional world music producer. I have to work on the assumption that Rokia, or any artists who asks me to produce them, ask me because of the sound of the records that I make. There is something they recognise in those records and that they want to hear on their records. My role is to try and provide that.”
The Somerset House sessions were not only open from a creative input point of view, but also to the public. Was playing inside a glorified fishbowl liberating, or inhibiting? “It did impact the creative process, but in ways that were more subtle than I was anticipating,” John Parish replies. “The first couple of times when we knew the sessions were open and we knew people were outside looking at us, we were very self-conscious, and I think we did behave differently. But we got used to it quickly. Also, because there were only four 45-minute sessions per day, most of the time we were working there wasn’t an audience. Over time we stopped thinking about whether people were watching us, or not, and you didn’t wonder any more, if you did something particularly good or bad, ‘Oh, I hope someone saw that,’ or ‘I hope nobody noticed that.’
“We did set up a few rules: for example, no checking phones while there was an audience, and no checking emails. And just because we did not do it during those periods, we didn’t do it at all. That was actually great, because sessions are often distracted these days because everybody has two or three mobile devices that they are constantly checking. If you put those out of the way, it’s surprising how much more focused sessions become. It reminded me of how sessions used to be 10-15 years ago, when everybody in the studio was concentrating and listening to the same thing. Since then, the smartphone has made a big difference. It’s great for grabbing information, for example to be able to reference a song you’re reminded of in the studio within seconds. But now when you’re doing an overdub and you ask other people in the room, ‘What did you think?’, people will put their phones down and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know, could you play that back?’”
Unsurprisingly, John Parish’s home studio is mainly based around analogue equipment with hands-on controls. For him it’s part of working in the ‘real’ world, with all the imperfections and unpredictability this entails. “At my home studio I have a few compressors — a dbx 160, a Drawmer stereo compressor, an ART Pro VLA II stereo valve compressor, an FMR RNC compressor — and I use an old [Yamaha] MkI SPX90, nearly always on a plate setting. I have two Watkins Copicat tape echoes that get a lot of use, plus a large collection of stompboxes, including several specifically made for me, and a few mic preamps, most importantly the UA 6176, with the 1176 in it, and a few microphones and tons of musical instruments. I also have a 24-track Mackie desk.
“I completed my last film project, for a Belgian film called Tonic Immobility, entirely at home, because it sonically was already where I wanted it. It had lots of electronic-type sounds, for which I used variophones — a strange instrument that sounds different every time you turn it on — and tape delays and other pedals. I had the Sherman Filter Bank, and sometimes just different combinations of distortion pedals switched on with nothing plugged in, giving this sort of buzz that I might then put through a wah-wah pedal to control it. I was looking for the musicality in the noise, and I underpinned that by almost subliminally mixing musical instruments in underneath that, to reinforce the melody that came from the distortion and interference. I also often use an acoustic piano in film music, usually treated in strange ways, by recording it with a mic with a very limited frequency range or putting it through tape delays and things.
“If want something better-sounding and more advanced I tend to go to Toybox Studios in Bristol, where I have my 1979 Trident TSM desk. It’s a 40-input split-channel console, which is maintained by the great Neil Perry, so it’s in very good shape. I bought it from a studio in Paris about 12 years ago, but we think it originally came from Rockfield. I mixed the last Rokia Traore album that I produced, Né So, on my Trident. I am capable of engineering, but on a very basic level. It’s not really where my strength lies. But I do mix sometimes, and I like to do everything on a desk. If there are complicated level things I’ll do them in the computer, but I generally prefer to have my hands on a board while mixing.
“Mixing is a very organic and tactile thing for me. I mix quite quickly and instinctively. For me it is about credibility: am I believing in the performance? If I believe it, we’re done. If I don’t believe it, I look at what is not working, which can be the sound of particular instruments, or the performance, or a combination. But I’ll always start with my instinctive response to a piece.”