No ordinary 'boy band', McFly have taken complete artistic control over their output, from recording to retail.
In spite of the fact that they've always written their own songs and played their instruments, McFly have, until now, felt lumbered with their 'boy band' tag. Their desire to be taken seriously as writers and musicians has taken a long, slow grind to achieve, but the process looks set to be completed with the release of their fourth album, Radio:ACTIVE. Frequently a heavier, darker affair than their previous outings, it bears more relation to the full-tilt singalong punk of Green Day than the pop-flavoured teen rock of Busted.
Partly, the circumstances behind this shift lie in their decision to quit their label Island Records last year — apparently an amicable decision for both parties — after the band felt they were more in tune with the expectations of their audience than their paymasters.
"There was just a creative difference thing," explains singer/guitarist Danny Jones. "We felt like we were more in touch with the fans than this guy just sat in the office. We left on good terms and they understood why we were doing it. We just said, 'Yeah, let's try it on our own.' This album's not had any opinions forced on it apart from ours. We literally just made music we wanted to make and produced it how we wanted to produce it."
In effect self-financing the making and release of Radio:ACTIVE, McFly have undeniably been bold in making the decision to step out on their own. Tellingly, however, certain frustrations linger, with the lyric of the album's lead single 'One For The Radio' ('Don't pretend you hate us when you sing along') being a one-fingered salute to their detractors. "It's kind of like, 'If you don't like us, we don't care,'" explains the band's chief writer and other singer/guitarist Tom Fletcher. "'Cause we're the ones that get to hear 10,000 people sing the songs back to us."
Fully supportive of McFly in their fight for critical acceptance is their producer since 2006, Jason Perry, former singer in Suffolk rockers A. "When I first met the boys," he recalls, "because they come from the pop world, they always seemed a bit insecure and almost apologetic about themselves. I was like, 'You're one of the best bands in the country'. I don't think people realise they write the songs and actually play them. You go and see them live and it's like, 'Wow, they're amazing.'"
Any great battle needs a sturdy HQ, and for that, McFly have their own studio, based in a flat near Watford close to where all four band members live. Though used mainly for overdubs, B-sides and mix preparation, it's an impressively tech-savvy proposition based around a Pro Tools HD/Apple G5 rig with Apogee AD16 and Rosetta 800 converters and a Control 24 fader surface. Danny Jones, the most gear-literate of the foursome, was instrumental in its setup.
"It's awesome," he enthuses. "It's got a guitar room, a drum room and the lounge is the control room. We do all our vocals there and some guitars. I started it off in my bedroom and I've built it up and now it's the band's studio. I've got KRK monitors and some little Genelec ones, because I don't want them too big, 'cause it's only a flat. I got this shelf from IKEA with squares in it, and I've cut loads of foam up and put a microphone in front of that. So it's a little sort of vocal space in the control room, because we all hate vocal booths.
"Then we've got a snake cable to connect the drums in the bedroom, where we've got a DW kit. And in the next room we've got Vox amps and Marshalls and THDs and Mesas. We sometimes box them off in the wardrobe, which is quite good fun."
Early in the planning stages of the making of Radio:ACTIVE, however, came the decision by the band and producer to decamp to Australia for its recording. There were two reasons for this: first, the band wanted to get away from all distractions to concentrate on being creative (their previous sessions having been slotted in around their promotional duties). Second, since this was to be their first self-financed project, it would prove slightly cheaper.
"It felt like we were going through the motions [in the past] a bit," Jones admits. "Recording this album, we'd have been getting a car into London and going to a studio there. Olympic, Townhouse, RAK, we've been to all of them really. But it had started to feel like work in a way. So we thought, 'Screw it, we're doing it on our own now, let's go and do it in a nice place where we can get away from everything and just really concentrate.'"
From Jason Perry's perspective, it was the issue of time that was the most important. "Up to that point they'd made records really sporadically," he says. "They'd put four songs down on the drums and then one of them would come in and do vocals when the rest of them were doing TV. I was like, 'We've got to stop doing this, we've got to get away.' On the last album we went to Grouse Lodge in Ireland for a couple of weeks, but then the whole promo machine started again.
"I knew they were thinking about leaving the label and so I said, 'Let's just get out of the country and have a fresh start and get a house like the Chili Peppers did when they made Blood Sugar Sex Magik.' I wanted them to go and make a proper band record. Tom gave me 15 songs, just him and a piano, recorded on Garageband. I listened to them and wrote some notes for him to think about, which I always do. He's always quite receptive to having his songs ripped to bits and then put back together again."
Flying to Australia in January of this year, McFly and Perry initially rented a house just outside Sydney on Manley Beach, hiring an unfussy rehearsal studio-cum-sweat-box nearby for a fortnight to thrash out the pre–production of the songs.
"It was just this grotty little rehearsal place," Jason recalls. "We had all the gear set up and you could barely get in there. Everyone's just facing each other and it's hot and sweaty and they've all got their Dictaphones going. We were really working on getting the songs amazing."
"It wasn't what we were used to," laughs drummer Harry Judd, "but it was all we really needed. Just a room. I generally just hear the songs acoustically when Tom or Danny play them, and often I'll just go into the rehearsal studios on my own and come up with ideas. Tom plays drums as well, so he's always got good ideas. And although Jason can't play an instrument, he always has drum ideas as well."
"It was an absolutely tiny room with dodgy Australian spiders in there and stuff," says bassist Dougie Poynter. "It sounded terrible but we got a lot done."
Radio:ACTIVE's closing track in particular, the multi-sectioned, tempo-shifting 'The Last Song', swallowed up a chunk of the pre-production time. "That took us quite a while," Poynter admits. "I had to map out the structure in my head, because there's quite a few changes to it."
Despite their matey image, the members of McFly confess to having suffered some levels of creative difference in pre–production, particular when it came to the big production, brass-fuelled FM rock of 'Lies'.
"There were some healthy debates and petty arguments about songs, but that's what it's all about," Fletcher states. "You end up at a place where everyone's happy. We had a few little arguments about 'Lies' because it's probably the most ambitious thing we've ever recorded and it's very different from anything we've ever done before. Every part had to be worked on and properly written. It's not a typical McFly song, it's probably a bit darker, even though it's still pop.
"So we recorded the songs in rehearsals in their various stages. We had our Dictaphones and laptops to record the rehearsal process, and each night we'd go back and listen to what we'd done. Then eventually after a couple of weeks we were at a place where we were comfortable with all the songs and we were ready to start putting the drums down."
For the actual recording of Radio:ACTIVE, Perry and McFly moved into Studio 301 in Sydney, swapping between Studio One with its 72-channel Neve 88R and sizeable 3000-square-foot live room and the more compact Studio Two with its 72-channel SSL K-series console.
"We used every mic in the whole studio, because we had two kits on the go in the different rooms," Perry says. "You've got the big room where they do orchestras and it's loud and not very well treated, so we used that for the big DW kit sound. Then there's a smaller room where we had an old '60s Ludwig kit set up and loads of snares."
"It had the best vibe of any studio we've ever been in," Poynter reckons. "The staff were super–friendly, we hung out with them, and there's a nice courtyard to watch the sun going down."
Initial tracking for McFly typically involves the quartet playing live together to nail the drum take. All agree that the toughest part of this process for them is setting the right tempo for each particular song. "That can be tough," says Judd, "because playing the song in different environments, they always seem slower or faster. You can be playing them in the studio and you're convinced it's too slow. Often Jason and Tom hold it back and make sure it's not too fast.
"In the studio, I definitely prefer playing to click. I feel I can get a groove going even though I'm playing to click. It gets to the point where it's just in the back of your mind. You're not even hearing it but you know it's there. Then I sit in with Jason after I've recorded the drums and the two of us comp them, listening to different fills from different takes and chopping them in."
All of the tracks, apart from the tricksy 'The Last Song', were committed to Pro Tools using a click. "We actually started by recording the ending of 'The Last Song'," Jones remembers. "It starts off really slow and it's all played free. Harry and Tom played it as piano and drums first, and because the ending's fast and the beginning's slow, we worked our way backwards through it. But it worked really well because the speed-up feels natural."
For his smoothly raspy bass sound, Dougie Poynter uses a Musicman Ernie Ball Sterling ("I'm quite a small person, so the Stingray's too big for me!") in conjunction with various Ashdown amps. In terms of guitars, Fletcher is the Gibson man, while Jones prefers Fenders.
"Me and Danny have developed this relationship guitar-wise that we have live," Fletcher explainsimage 4. "Danny has this Fender sound — less driven and a lot more toppy — and mine's more the Mesa Boogie/Gibson fat sound underneath. That's what we wanted to replicate in the studio. We set up like we do on stage, really. I play mostly my Les Paul on this album and I think Danny played all Teles really, apart from a couple of lead solos where you needed the sustain of a Les Paul. In 'Lies', there's this little funky thing in the background he played that really needed that middly, classic Strat sound."
"Most of the guitars were miked with a 57 and a Royer 121," Perry says. "But at the end of the day, when we were doing vocals at Danny's studio at the McFly house, we came up with little guitar ideas and put them down on a Pod. Once it's all mixed, I'm hard pushed to remember what was done where."
McFly's aforementioned dislike of vocal booths seems to have been influenced by their producer. "My main rule of production is that it's not really about gear, it's about surroundings," Perry states. "I used to be a singer in a band and I've worked with all these great producers throughout the years, and the main thing I learnt is I hate vocal booths. I hate standing in them and I hate singing in them and I hate it when the producer presses the talkback mic and people are giggling in the background or talking about football.
"So my main thing really, especially with McFly, is let's all just get in a room and do it. We've done vocals in Tom's kitchen and in Danny's studio. Windows open, air conditioning on, all the noise from the street coming in. Background noise I'm not bothered about. I'm not one of these people who puts computers in isolation boxes. My main thing as a producer is to get a performance that's believable and energetic and confident. Then I need to worry about the rest of it later."
Of course, given the post-production possibilities of DAW recording, the vocal tracks always end up fairly tidy. "That's the best thing about Pro Tools," Perry agrees. "You can clean it up really well later. I do a lot of takes of them so they can enjoy singing. When they're singing I'm always full-on in the room and right in the moment there with them. And I'm always thinking two or three takes ahead so as soon as they stop a take, you can go, 'That's great, let's try this.' And just be encouraging all the time. It's always positive and it's always invigorating.
"People say, how do you get a good vocal sound? The way you get a vocal sound is by having a happy singer. You can have the best vocal booth in the world with the best mic and you get home and it just sounds shit. But you can sit on a sofa with an SM58 and a cup of coffee and you get a great vocal sound. It just depends on the environment."
For vocals, Perry favours the Korby Kat modular system with its interchangeable capsules that imitate vintage classics such as the Neumann U47 and U67, Telefunken 251, AKG C12 and Sony C800. This he runs through a Chandler TG2 preamp into an 1176 compressor and on into Pro Tools.
"I use a 251 for Danny and then probably a 67 or a 47 for Tom," the producer says. "They've both got really different voices. Danny, I always think of him like a saxophone — smoky and warm with very thick low mids. And Tom's really raspy like a trumpet solo, very cutty. That's how I tend to produce them. Work on different vocal parts for them, different harmonies and then we swap it round. But it's really hard with that band, because you can end up doing vocal tennis. You give two lines to someone and then two lines to the other one, and then they come together and do a harmony, but you've got to try to match the sounds so you still get their personalities and all the nuances of their voices. I found that a bit of challenge, but I think we've got a hold of it now by using different mics."
"A lot of the time, though, whatever mic's stuck up there, we just sing into it," Fletcher points out. "It doesn't really matter. If it sounds good, then we just use it rather than worrying about the technicalities. Actually, with a lot of the vocals on the album, you can hear where they're really distorting and pushing the compressors to the limit, but it sounds really live. It's not been comped up so every word's from different takes. We didn't want to get into that habit you get into sometimes, where the verse was recorded on one day and the chorus was recorded two days later. We wanted to have that feel that it's all been recorded in one go."
In the past, mixing responsibilities for McFly's records has been handed to Jeremy Wheatley (Sugababes, Daniel Bedingfield), with the band always available to do some tweaking. Given the heavier nature of Radio:ACTIVE, however, its mixing was given over to Tom Lord-Alge. Following a session at Angel Studios in London to record the brass and string parts scored for McFly by Simon Hale (Bjork, Jamiroquai), Jason Perry travelled to Florida to prepare tracks for mixing by Lord–Alge at South Beach Studios, Miami.
"I spent two weeks getting everything ready for him. There was quite a lot. On 'Lies' there was about 160 tracks, including 48 tracks of BVs, so I had to get everything submixed. There were two different kits, one for the verse and one for the choruses. I did all the donkey work and then by the time you give it to Tom Lord-Alge, it's really stripped down and quite simple for him to mix."
"We'd had the monitor mixes for a few months," Fletcher adds, "and you get too used to them. So when you get the mixes back from someone like Tom, you just want to put all your trust into him."
Needless to say, McFly were far from disappointed with the results. "The first one we got back was 'One For The Radio' and we were all absolutely stunned by how good it sounded," says Fletcher. "The best thing about Tom is it sounds so big and heavy but you can still hear everything. You can still hear the attack of the bass, it doesn't go all mushy. Especially with the songs with strings and brass, there's a lot going on, but it's so well separated, you can hear every single thing."
For his part, Perry admits to having been stunned in different ways by the Tom Lord-Alge mixes. "Y'know, you get mixes back and there's things that you think, [he sounds dubious] 'Ooh, never really heard it like that.' Then you also get moments where you go, 'That's amazing, I never thought of doing that.' We got 'Lies' back and the brass was really loud, it was the main part really. I was surprised but I actually love it."
More surprising, perhaps, given the costs involved in its creation, was McFly's decision to follow in the footsteps of Prince and give away the album in July via a deal with the Mail On Sunday, prior to its official, fan-tempting release in September complete with four new tracks.
"There was an opportunity to do it and we pounced on it," Danny Jones says. "I think it reaches just under three million people's homes in one day, so it was great exposure. On the day it came with our album, I think they sold 300,000 more than they'd normally sell anyway."
"We didn't really care that people weren't paying for it," reasons Dougie Poynter. "With downloads and stuff these days, I don't think it really matters. As long as people are still enjoying music. Obviously it's going to affect the album's sales somehow, but we're not too fussed."
Ultimately, it's understandable that at this crucial stage in their career, where they're keen to be accepted by a wider, non-exclusively-teen audience, McFly are more concerned with the appreciation of their music than its commercial appeal. This is clearly music made for the people, rather than the recording industry.
"You've got to think pragmatically about it," Perry concludes. "I might not like a snare sound, but no-one really buys records for snare sounds. You go and ask the kids who queue outside Wembley, 'Which song's got your favourite hi-hat sound on it?' They'd just think you're drunk. I don't think for minute that we shouldn't care about it, but you shouldn't let these things get in the way of what's really important on a record."
He pauses and laughs. "We're not making records for engineers," he states, firmly. "We're making them for the public."
Radio:ACTIVE is released on September 22nd.
Already wary through personal experience of the mental barriers that can prevent singers from capturing their best takes, when he first began working with McFly on their third album, Motion In The Ocean, Jason Perry had to tackle the vocal insecurities that Tom Fletcher, in particular, was suffering.
"I got into this habit," the singer admits. "I think under pressure and stress, any morning that I knew we were going in to do vocals, I'd wake up with a psychological cold. I'd end up with a blocked-up nose and really sinus-y. I think it was just worrying about it too much. Jason wanted to get away from that, so he started this routine where every day we'd record some vocals, so you never really know if you're gonna be doing the real vocal take or not. And it's just really relaxed."
"I remember when I first started working with them," Perry remembers, "their management pulled me aside and said that Tom loses his voice easily and he's not allowed to eat chocolate. And I was like, 'He can do what he wants, he can go and start smoking if he wants. The reason he's losing his voice is he's worried about it.' He'll never lose his voice again when I'm around.
"As soon as we get three or four songs done on drums and it's all comped and triggered, we'll start doing vocals straight away. We might do 10 to 30 takes and I'll comp it up. Then they come in a couple of days later and they'll sing it again, double-tracking it against the comp. That's generally the one that we'll use, done in one or two takes. It just takes all the mind games out of it. Recording is all psychological, really. It's giving your brain permission to do it."
"On most of the vocal takes," Fletcher continues, "you've got Jason talking in the background or someone eating crisps or being noisy. But you get a really good atmosphere that way and that's the way we ended up getting the best vocally out of me and Danny. In Australia, we did some vocals in the typical vocal-booth way, but we tended to use most of the backing vocals we'd done that way, and any lead vocals we used were the ones we recorded at home in our studio."