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Mike Pickering: Can Producers Also Be Artists?

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published March 1994

Does a band need a record producer? And can the producer also be part of the band? Mike Pickering — one third of M People, the deConstruction act that really came into its own in 1993 — is both a producer and an artist. He sees no conflict in his dual role, but he does feel that the role of the producer is changing — here he explains how...

I've always produced my own music and I've never worked with an outside producer who was brought in just to perform that role. I started out in various bands on the Factory label but I always had a parallel existence as a DJ and I was also producing bands that I wasn't part of — I produced the first Happy Mondays EP, for example, so I suppose my background is as both producer and artist. After I left Factory, my management company started deConstruction and I spent about two years doing a lot of remix work — ABC, Bowie, the New Order World Cup track that went to No. 1 — that sort of thing. To be honest I'm not that much of a musician — that's where my M People partner Paul Heard comes in. I see myself as a creative ideas person rather than a technical person or a musician. Technology is moving so fast these days that some of us feel it's better to have someone else to do our programming rather than trying to do it ourselves, because if you spend all day twiddling knobs and looking at a screen you lose all your creativity. We record most of our material at home and then we go into a studio to mix and to record all the session people because we can't physically get them into our home studio, which is actually in Paul's house. We do all the vocals there, using a16‑track desk, an ADAT and various compressors. The tie‑lines go through to the mics, which are in Paul's daughter's nursery, where Heather Small does all the vocals. It saves a fortune. We got BMG to buy the gear and it probably cost them £6‑7000 for the mics, compressors and ADAT. We must have saved over £30k working this way and the best thing about it is that it makes life much easier for Heather. Like a lot of singers I've worked with, she gets red light fever — she hates having to do vocals in the studio. Working at home we can be much more relaxed, and that means we get a better end result. If Heather has a dry throat or just isn't in the mood, we leave it and do it when she feels up to it — it's perfect. We do backing vocals, acoustic instruments, guitar and percussion in the studio and of course we mix there. It usually takes two or three days to mix a song. I don't get involved in this debate about computer‑based music over acoustic instruments because we have always mixed the two. I think a lot of people who are working properly do that. Sometimes a kid in a bedroom has no other choice than to use computers because he can't play an instrument or he is only just learning to play one.

We produce ourselves and I think this is the way the business is going. The dance scene has meant that the standard of production has developed so much that I don't think a lot of old‑time producers have very much to offer. OK, that's a sweeping generalisation, and I'm sure there are some producers out there who do have a contribution to make, but there are also a lot of occasions when you listen to something and think "what has the producer done? That band could have played that perfectly well without a producer." Maybe there have been too many producers in the past and a lot of them are money for old rope. They just sit there on a big leather settee at the back of the studio saying: "Yeah, yeah — that's fine." With M People, we know the sound that we want, so to bring someone else in wouldn't work, because they wouldn't know what we were trying to achieve.

People say that the new breed of producers will come from the ranks of DJs. I'm not sure about that. A lot of DJs are great production‑wise and sound‑wise, but a lot of them are not very musical. Again there are exceptions; Brothers In Rhythm are excellent producers because they have Steve Anderson, who is very musical and very orchestral. But some of them, to be honest, are really no good at all. We come up against this quite often at deConstruction because we will send a track out to be remixed and it will come back bearing no resemblance at all to the original. That's a waste of time and money. Some of the older re‑mixers like Paul Oakenfold, who cross over as producers, do really good stuff and many of them have come from the Dance scene. But that doesn't mean that every DJ has the makings of a remixer or a producer.

Since we've been successful, we've been inundated with requests to produce other people. But I suspect that is because we are slightly different, as we also write material as well as producing it. I think this is the key — the new breed of producer will have to be able to offer something more than just production skills.