From PIL and Kate Bush to Nick Cave and Arcade Fire, Nick Launay has built a career working with artists who like to explore the outer limits.
Thirty years into his career, London–born, LA–based producer Nick Launay has never been more in demand. From early work on key albums by the likes of PIL and Kate Bush, Launay's most recent credits include Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Supergrass's Diamond Hoo Ha and Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. But if the leap from Bush to Cave suggests a desire to work with an eclectic range of musicians, former punk rocker Launay believes that one quality unites all of the artists he has worked with: a hunger for experimentation and a certain non–conformist attitude. "My taste in music still to this day is the more adventurous, anarchistic, go–against–the–rules kind of music," he says. "Those are the bands I choose to work with — the ones that are trying to do something different, trying to get a reaction, trying to make people think."
Nevertheless, the producer's first released work was a record that was arguably the antithesis of punk: novelty 1978 disco hit 'Pop Musik' by M. Having found his first job as an editor at the Tape One mastering and duplicating facility in 1978, Launay was working late after a shift editing pop hits for K–Tel compilations when he started messing around with an instrumental of the track. "I was just trying things with very large tape loops going around the whole room," he recalls. "Drums slowed down and mixed with another loop of a vocal or melody or whatever. So I just started chopping between the instrumental and the real version and then added a few backwards bits and slowed–down bits and delays." The results were heard by M founder Robin Scott, and released as one of the UK's first commercially available 12–inch singles. Launay's career was launched.
Nick Launay remains in love with analogue today, and these days, records band takes to two–inch tape before dumping them to Pro Tools for overdubs. However, the producer is unusual in the modern recording world in that he isn't afraid to take a razor blade to the multitrack. "That's what I've always done. It makes sense to me," he reasons. "I do as many band takes as we need and I take notes — say, use the middle section of take two, but the bulk of the song from take 30. Then I compile a master take on two–inch with a razor blade and sticky tape. At the end of the day we'll sync it back up to the tape machine so I'm using the analogue at the mix."
Similarly old–school is his dedication to capturing sounds at source, which inevitably means that when he's scouting for a studio for a project, he's more interested in the rooms than the equipment. "I'm looking for a certain warmth and a certain sort of slapback from the walls," he says. "The misunderstanding about recording rooms is that to get a big sound you need a big room. I find it absolutely the opposite. Some of the biggest drum sounds on earth have been recorded in very, very small rooms. When you've got a drummer and the room has live surfaces, ie. either stone or wood, the sound will hit the walls and bounce back. And it's the way it gets diffused on the wall — a bit like throwing a tomato at a hard brick wall, it gets splattered in a way that is interesting.
"If you go into a room that's been beautifully isolated and deaded, it's a bit like throwing a tomato at a cushion! And if a room is too big — and it's quite easy for a room to be too big because people keep building these huge rooms without any understanding of what they're doing — the sound just gets dispersed. You put a good drummer in and the sound takes ages to hit the wall and by the time it bounces back to the microphones, it's so out of time that you actually can't put it very loud in the mix. So I like smaller or medium–sized rooms."
In fact, Launay cites the classic 'big' drum sound of Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight' as the best example of a cavernous effect achieved in a small room: namely the stone drum room at The Townhouse. Having taken up a role as assistant engineer at Townhouse Studios in 1980, the future producer assisted on the session, and recalls that the sound nearly knocked him off his chair.
"It was quite funny," he laughs, "because after that record came out around the world, a lot of big American bands flew over to work in that same room to get that drum sound. They'd load in all their equipment and they'd walk straight through the live room where it was recorded and into the next room and then into the control room and go, 'Where is it?' And you'd go, 'Well, you've actually just walked through it.' 'Cause it looked like a hall, it didn't look like a room. And unfortunately, Steve Lillywhite told me recently, whoever has bought the studio put the control room in the stone room and ruined it."
Launay says that he "basically lived" at The Townhouse during his assisting days, progressing to first engineering and mixing through a break with Public Image Limited, whose very vocal frontman John Lydon apparently intimidated most of the other assistants. Being a punk rocker in his early 20s, Launay was of course thrilled by the idea of working with the former Johnny Rotten, though his first session with the band confirmed the extreme measures the singer would regularly employ.
"I sat very quietly in the corner," Launay recalls. "They'd brought in their own engineer who didn't know the desk very well — the first SSL, the B–series. The Townhouse had the first one and it was quirky. But as the day went on, this guy didn't seem to learn how it worked, and I constantly had to get up from the tape machine to say, 'Well you pull the button up and that's how it switches on,' whenever he wanted a send.
"I kept doing this, backwards and forwards. John was sitting in his big armchair, drinking Red Stripe beer, in his tartan pants and orange hair. He said, 'Nick, get your chair and put it up near the desk, 'cause you're going back and forwards like a yo–yo and making me dizzy.' At some point the engineer got up, left the room to have a piss and John got up and locked the door behind him. The guy came back knocking on the door and John just told him to fuck off.
"This song was an out-take from Metal Box that was reggae–based and he wanted triplet delays. And I knew all about that kind of stuff because I loved dub. We stayed up 'til eight in the morning just messing around, cranking the speakers. The next day I got called to the management office and I thought for sure that I was gonna get the sack because this engineer had complained. Instead, they said, 'John told the people at Virgin that he wants you to mix it.' I'd never mixed anything before in my life."
Launay was duly brought into co–produce PIL's third album, 1981's Flowers Of Romance, finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. In one instance, for the song 'Four Enclosed Walls', the band and producer used the tick of drummer Martin Atkins' Mickey Mouse watch as the pulse of the track. "We put it on his tom so it resonated and I put a couple of Eventide 910 Harmonizers on it. Then we added backwards piano and this thing called a Violumpet, an instrument that I've never seen since, which is a violin that has a huge trumpet that comes out of a pipe on the body and goes around the back of your head and sits on your other shoulder."
Such levels of playful experimentation, along with the roomy drum and low–end bass sounds of Flowers Of Romance, convinced Kate Bush that she wanted to work with Launay on the tracking for her fourth and first self–produced album, The Dreaming. "We actually used some of the same instruments as the Public Image record," the producer recalls. "The bass guitar on The Dreaming was an Ampeg bass that was used on Metal Box."
Launay remembers the sessions for The Dreaming as a particularly inspired period. "Kate was absolutely incredible," he states. "You can't use the word genius and really mean that, but with her you can. It was this almost childlike enthusiasm that both of us were driven by. It was just like, 'Let's try this, let's try that.' We got corrugated iron from outside on a building site and put it around the kit and we were making loops and just experimenting madly. I think the word 'Wow' was used a lot. It was like being in a toy shop."
Famously, however, the sessions for The Dreaming dragged on for a year after the initial three–month period with Launay at The Townhouse, as the tracks were endlessly overdubbed and remixed. "When I listen to that record now," he says, "two–thirds of what I hear is what we did at The Townhouse. That's not to take away any massive effort that was made afterwards with the vocals and top–line overdubs. But with the mind she had, she probably got very detailed and procrastinated over things.
"Anyone will tell you, the early stages of making a record are the fun times because you're being more loose with things. It's very easy to over–think the fine–tuning and get worried that it's not right. I wouldn't suggest to any artist that they produce their own record. You need someone to bounce ideas off, and between the two of you, you then form a conclusion. That's what producers are there for."
While subsequent years saw Nick Launay produce hugely successful albums for the likes of Midnight Oil, Silverchair and Semisonic, he admits that he didn't particularly enjoy the time–consuming programming processes that became the norm in the late '80s and early '90s. "It became really tedious, because the digital age had cut in and people were making records in a very bizarre way that I didn't enjoy," he says. "I really did consider not doing it any more, but I couldn't. So I decided I would only work with people who are really great, and get into setting things up properly so you can make records quickly."
Launay clearly favours quickfire creativity, which he cites as one of the reasons why he relocated to LA. "There's literally hundreds of studios here," he points out. "It's a very busy working town, so if you want any guitar, any keyboard, anything at all, you can get it within the hour." Launay part–owns a North Hollywood studio, Seedy Underbelly, set up for him by a friend. "It's got a fantastic drum room, an API desk and lots of tube mics and ribbon mics, lots of unusual Russian mics."
But wherever he works in the world these days, Launay tends to employ roughly the same modus operandi. Reuniting with Nick Cave in 2003 for Nocturama, 21 years after he'd first worked with him on the Birthday Party's Release The Bats, the producer hit a rich seam of albums with the Bad Seeds, including 2004's double set Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus and 2007's garage–rock offshoot Grinderman. Launay quickly established a routine of taking time over setting up whichever studio the band were working in — factoring in a sizeable equipment rental budget — so that the actual sessions were impressively productive.
"With The Bad Seeds, there's seven of them and I have all seven of them in the room, all set up with as many instruments as they want, ready to go. A massive setup. The key is getting it set up properly before the band arrive. I go in a day before and get it sounding pretty good. Then they come in and they're pretty much ready just to be artists.
"I tend to just get all the right gear in. I mean, the rental costs are probably higher than normal with a band like the Bad Seeds, because it's all vintage equipment. I use a lot of compressors because you just don't know what they're gonna play. I mean, Grinderman was one of the loudest records I've ever made. You get [drummer] Jim Sclavunos, who's a big guy, and when he wants to play loud on the drum kit, it's fucking loud. So you need the kind of equipment that, if it's going to overload and distort, it's good distortion. Neve 1081s and 1073s I love because they distort in a certain way. If you crank them up, they start humming and buzzing and they've got great harmonics.
"I also use those big Tube–Tech CL1As. I don't like a lot of compressors because I find they're not fast enough or they're a bit too subtle or they make things sound too nice. I like the stuff that's got a bit of grit, like the old EMI compressors, if you can find them. But I tend to put compressors on pretty much everything. Sometimes they're just ticking over slightly and sometimes I'm using them to actually create a sound. But I find that that's the only way to do it with a band that's got that kind of dynamic. That way you can actually capture it properly."
Launay always tries to find unusual locations for the recording of the Bad Seeds' albums. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, for instance, was tracked at Ferber Studios in Paris, scene of classic Serge Gainsburg sessions (not to mention Feist's '1234', as documented in May's Inside Track). "It's amazing," Launay enthuses. "A huge, huge place where they used to do music for films. So you can fit an orchestra in there. But it's seriously old and worn–out. I was showing Nick around and he said, 'It's all old and worn–out — like us'. A lot of people have heard that we recorded that album there and have gone there expecting certain things. But we basically took a lot of our own equipment in. The desk at Ferber was an '80s Neve, pre–V. So I used it mainly for monitoring."
Cave's latest, Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!!, meanwhile, was his quickest yet — recorded in four days at '80s songwriter Terry Britten's private Richmond studio, State Of The Ark. "The desk is an EMI — what some people call the Red, although this wasn't red, it was a sort of beige colour. It was the one that used to be in Pathé Marconi in Paris, where The Stones worked a lot. It's real vintage — the faders go upwards and downwards on a hump. So it was recorded through that, plus a lot of Neves, APIs, EARs.
"Unfortunately there are very few studios in England that have vintage desks, so I'm always on the search for places with old Neve or API or Trident desks. It's very difficult because a lot of them sold them on when the SSL came out — which was a fantastic desk when it came out, revolutionary. But pretty much every studio that had a vintage desk sold them to Americans."
Launay was also behind the controls for Supergrass's sixth and most recent album Diamond Hoo Ha, which was recorded at another legendary studio: Hansa Studios in Berlin. "I'd always wanted to work there," says Launay. "I actually thought it'd been pulled down and existed no more. It's a huge building where there used to be something like 30 recording studios. A couple of them were the famous rooms where David Bowie did Heroes and Iggy Pop did Lust For Life, but those rooms don't have a control room any more. On the top floor are the studios that are up and running, so we were actually able to use some of those famous rooms.
"It was all back–to–basics, recording the whole band at once. Being in Germany they have a lot of Neumann microphones, but again we had to bring in our own equipment. We actually borrowed a lot of Nigel Godrich's equipment, because Supergrass are managed by Radiohead's management. Nigel owns a lot of vintage Neves and stuff. There was an SSL there but again I just used it for monitoring. I wanted to do a really loud, fun record with them, 'cause I think that's what they do best."
Launay's current projects suggest that his appeal is becoming ever more widespread. He recently completed some tracking in LA with Snoop Dogg. "He'd program a groove and listen to it a couple of times and then write these great lyrics that he'd perform in the first or second take." Elsewhere he has just spent a period at Sonic Ranch, a studio situated on a pecan nut farm in rural Texas, working with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on their third album.
"They have a very busy social life," he explains, "so doing an album in a city is always very distracting for them. Their friends tend to come round and hang out a lot. I think they wanted to go somewhere where there's absolutely nothing to do and no distractions. As always we're in the pursuit of doing something original and different. They're such a unique act. What's funny is although there's only three of them, they're musically complex and real thinkers, so it's almost as if there're much more people. They're writing in the studio, which is quite an unusual thing these days.
"They're very into sound and if they have something that makes me feel a certain mood, then I'll do something to the sound — whether they're playing a guitar or a keyboard or drums — that exaggerates that mood. Whether it's putting delays on it, putting it backwards, sending it into a speaker in a live room and distorting it. Nick [Zinner, guitarist] comes up with great sounds — he'll play a keyboard and make it sound like a guitar or vice versa. He makes all these loops up and I'm very much like that myself. I've always been into destroying the original signal and turning it into something else."
At 48, Nick Launay is still clearly inspired and in love with recording. "I feel like I'm still in the thick of it. I feel 27. I love creating music and it keeps you young. I just go with the enthusiasm of everyone around me. It honestly feels like doing Release The Bats with Nick Cave was yesterday. I'm still working with him today and the energy is the same. I tend to work with people who have a lot to get off their chest and it's an incredibly inspiring thing, turning all these great thoughts and ideas into music."
If he's learned anything in the past 30 years, he says, it's that spontaneity is the key. "Make records quickly and they remain fresh," he insists. "I suppose the point is that you shouldn't get involved in why the electronics work. Basically: plug it in and make sure it's in the red!"
As is becoming increasingly common, Nick Launay has also been hired to mix jobs where he hasn't been involved in the recording. For Arcade Fire's panoramic, instrument–dense second album Neon Bible, Launay decamped to Canada for a month and lived in the band's rural church–turned–studio located an hour's drive outside Montreal.
"It's different, but it's also quite refreshing in that it's new to me. When I come in to do it, I haven't heard the songs, so I have a very clear perspective on it. With certain bands, especially with Arcade Fire who're obviously very complex — lots and lots of instruments — it comes in quite handy to be the person who hasn't heard the songs before. They'd been working on that album for maybe a year before I came along."
On arrival, however, Launay was faced with an unconventional setup centred around an old BBC broadcast desk situated in the church's attic. "No real solo buttons, no automation at all, very limited echo sends and very primitive EQ," he laughs. "It was a bit like mixing in your bedroom. But I basically lived up there for a month and made it work — rented in a lot of outboard to fatten things up and mixed it all to half–inch analogue."
Understandably, Launay says that the biggest problem he was faced with on Neon Bible was where to place the endless overdubs the group had recorded. "Yeah, there was a lot of music. And because they did it little by little and there's so many people in the band, they didn't always all know what had been recorded. Like Richie [Reed Parry] might go in on the weekend to do some strange guitar overdub on his own with the engineer Markus Dravs, and the rest of them hadn't necessarily listened to it. So there were three or four hard drives per song with different ideas on them.
"I had to work my way through these hard drives, as they were still recording bits of the record downstairs. Win [Butler] would come and say, 'That sounds great, but where's the orchestra we recorded in Budapest?' and Markus would come in with hard disk number two. I was thinking, 'My God, how am I going to fit this in?' Each mix took about four days to do."