The Stone Roses seemed fit for world domination at the end of the '80s, but after releasing a successful debut album, they disappeared for nearly six years. Matt Bell talks to the producer of their new album, Simon Dawson, about his approach to recording the all‑important follow‑up.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. When the Stone Roses' self‑titled debut LP hit the shelves of record shops in early 1989, and became an enormously influential commercial success, no‑one realised that the follow‑up would take almost six years to make, or that it would involve the work of no less than three producers. Simon Dawson, the last of these, was the man who steered the recording sessions for the modestly‑titled Second Coming LP to a successful conclusion. But as he now cheerfully admits, this fact is down to luck more than anything else — he just happened to be the house engineer at Monmouth‑based Rockfield Studios when the Stone Roses began the sessions for their second album there. As time progressed, a series of coincidences (see the 'Brief History' panel for more details) resulted in him becoming the producer of the LP. I spoke at length to Simon about the dual philosophy behind the recording of Second Coming — the determination to capture the feel of a live performance coupled with a healthy resolve to make the most of the technology available.
A life‑long Monmouth resident, Simon's association with Rockfield Studios goes back a long way, as he explained: "I first walked in when I was about 12 — my dad took me. There was a guy in there doing a DJ promo. They had all this valve gear in there, and they cranked it right up. It was the first time I felt my ribs shaking, and I just knew it was where I wanted to be!".
Seeking experience, Simon got a job with a local PA company when he left school, and, through this position, progressed to handling live PA sound for Birmingham‑based reggae bands on European tours. Outgrowing the local firm, he started work with a London‑based PA company in the early '80s. "I toured around Europe, America, Africa and Japan with that company, first doing festivals, and then some of their larger people — Ozzy Ozbourne and The Stranglers. I finished in '87 — the last band I did were T'Pau, in America."
By sheer coincidence, Simon returned to Monmouth just as Rockfield was undergoing a reorganisation, and landed a job there as House Engineer in 1988. He met the Stone Roses for the first time in 1990, when they came to Rockfield to record their 'One Love' single. He acted as Assistant Engineer on that session (along with one Paul Schroeder) to the Roses' producer John Leckie, who had produced the group's by‑then highly successful debut album.
Despite this connection, Simon was not involved with any of the initial pre‑production work on the Stone Roses' second album, which began with John Leckie carrying out pre‑ production in various studios in Wales and Manchester. However, when Leckie chose by chance to return to Rockfield in early 1993, Simon was booked in to engineer for him as before. In July of that year, John Leckie quit as producer ("I think he felt that they didn't have enough songs") and the band remained in Rockfield. Simon continued to engineer until Leckie's replacement, Paul Schroeder, left too, in February 1994.
At this point, Simon took over as producer, a move he stresses caused few problems. Although the band had been working with John Leckie in different studios, only a few parts of what he had recorded were kept — notably the long intro to the first track, 'Breaking Into Heaven', and the preliminary drum tracks to 'Ten Storey Love Song' and 'How Do You Sleep'. I first asked Simon if he had encountered any problems blending the feel of this older material with the tracks he was laying down: "No, that wasn't a problem at all. In terms of feel, the way the guys had been recording was very live, and that's where I was coming from, so that wasn't difficult. Technically, yeah, it was a bit of a feat getting the crossover at the mixing stage between the intro of 'Breaking Into Heaven' and the actual song — just getting it to sit." As far as the material Paul Schroeder had recorded was concerned, the problems were less acute. Some of what had been recorded was scrapped and re‑ recorded, and the material which was reused had been recorded originally at Rockfield anyway, so there were fewer technical differences to match up. And, as Simon explains: "Over the time I was engineering for Paul, I think the guys came to respect my opinions. So, when he left, it seemed like the natural thing to take over".
Simon also maintains that the various comings and goings in personnel did not affect the philosophy behind the LP. Even before he had taken over as producer, the plan had been to construct the LP from jamming and live playing as a group: "We wanted it to sound more live and real, and we tried throughout the making of the record to preserve as much of the band's live sound and feel as possible. You see, you very quickly realise with these guys that they love playing and jamming. I've never played keyboards professionally, but one of the first things that the band got me to do was jam along on the piano with them. It was really exciting for me". The band came to Rockfield with all but two of the numbers that made it onto the final LP already written ('Straight To The Man' and 'Your Star Will Shine' were written while there), and spent hours jamming the material in the studio, usually without click tracks, so that they could change tempo and feel at will. Occasionally (for example, when recording 'Your Star Will Shine', and 'Driving South') they would jam to sampled percussion loops. "Reni's great at drumming to loops — you never get any flamming or anything, because he sort of drums around them. He's got a nice, loose, groovy feel, and it always works really well". In such cases, the band all used headphones to monitor the loop so they could stay in time. "We did try using PA wedges to monitor sounds, but they didn't work — we couldn't get them loud enough for the band without generating feedback, so we stuck to headphones." The results of the lengthy jams were, of course, recorded, as Simon went on to explain: "The whole record started with them jamming live to DATs — in fact, Ian has got a pillowcase full of DATs from those sessions — because they like to capture anything they can get".
Much of the feel of the new LP derives from the 'live' philosophy. One song, 'Tightrope', was jammed almost entirely around one mic, allowing for no mistakes to be made while recording. Several of the final vocal and guitar parts used on the album are 'one‑take' run‑throughs — for example the vocal on 'Tears', the backing on 'Daybreak' ("that was done completely live, except the vocal, which we did afterwards") and the main guitar part on 'Good Times'. Indeed, Simon sees 'Good Times' as an excellent example of what they were trying to achieve: "'Good Times' is very live. As I've said, the band don't usually play to clicks or anything, and 'Good Times' is a classic example of a song which speeds up all the way through, without it jarring on you. You never think "Oh, they're speeding up" — the track just seems to grow naturally into that great guitar solo at the end".
The 'keep it live' philosophy was even followed to the extent that technically problematic takes could be used in the final mix if the performance was deemed worth it: "Sometimes Ian'd pick up a tambourine when he was singing, and that could cause problems. You can hear it a bit on the beginning of 'Tears', because that was a one‑take vocal which had him with the tambourine and a harmonica all on one track. We happened to capture that one day and we thought it was quite good. There were places like that where we thought, 'oh, we should fix that bit' — but for the sake of the performance, we went with what we had."
Despite the drive to preserve the live feel on the album, Simon and the Roses were certainly not above using the technology that was to hand in Rockfield to get the most out of the performances they recorded. One of the keys to the way the album was recorded was the studio's Neve mixing desk, with built‑in Flying Fader automation. One anecdote shows how they worked to best effect, jamming to create something interesting (with a DAT machine in record), and then using the desk facilities to place that material in the final mix. "On 'Breaking Into Heaven', the song was going to be faded out at the end, but during one of the takes, instead of finishing the song, the band suddenly dropped down into this brilliant groove right at the end. I think it's probably the best eight bars on the album. That just had to go on. It was such a great groove that I took that eight bars and edited it in at the front of the song as well. That's how the main part of the song starts now — the vocal used to come in straight away, but now you get that great eight bars first."
There were places where we thought 'oh, we should fix that bit' — but for the sake of the performance, we went with what we had.
The Neve played a vital part in the sound, mixing and construction of the album, as Simon explained at length. "I'm definitely a Neve man, having done most of my work at Rockfield — they're really warm desks, and I know them really well."
"The Recall facility on the Neve was really useful for storing settings. For example, the EQ on some of the rhythm loops we used was really important. Over a long period of time, you might forget what you were after when you first set the EQ — so being able to instantly recall the settings helped to establish continuity in the mix. The reason I used the computer the whole time — and in fact, the main reason we went 48‑track on a lot of the material — was to build up the album. I didn't like to lose anything, any of the vocals or guitar. A lot of people compile guitar tracks from lots of different takes, and wipe out what they don't use, but we archived more or less everything. I'd do mixes on the computer using mutes and faders, and then if at any later stage John [Squire] said "oh, I remember doing something great with feedback there", I had the freedom to come back to it. We could play about with takes and decide which ones to use later."
I asked Simon whether the album had been recorded to analogue or digital: "I'm an analogue man, because that's my experience, and digital machines are still extremely expensive."
The guitar sound on Second Coming is much harder than on the first LP, on tracks like 'Love Spreads' and 'Driving South' particularly, and there is more use of distortion. Asked about the overall sound of the album, Simon is quite forthcoming. "Sonically, the album is much bigger than the first album. The guys are quite into distortion — different kinds of distortion. John, for example, likes digital distortion out of an Akai S1000. To most people, it sounds awful, but it's actually quite an interesting sound. Reni often likes the whole thing to sound distorted."
Despite the changes, there are still strongly recognisable elements from the Roses' first LP — for example, the backwards samples of drums and guitar, and John Squire's wah‑wah guitar. Simon is matter‑of‑fact about this: "For me, the Roses' sound is the one that works with the kind of rhythms Reni plays, or the loops they use — that sort of groove‑based, soul kind of stuff they play". Simon then points out how simple the setup and sound was for each of the band during the sessions — nothing radical, using mostly equipment the band members already owned.
- John Squire — Guitar
"The basic guitar sound is dead easy really. All you need is a '59 Les Paul guitar, a nice old Fender Twin amp that's been hot‑wired, and a Shure SM57 and Sennheiser 421 to mic up each speaker. You send it through a dbx160 compressor, and then straight into the desk. Oh, and you need someone who can play, of course!
"We tried various setups, but that was the one that gave us the sound we were happiest with. I think if you've got a nice guitar, and you can play, it'll sound good! We didn't use any special tricks to get the sound like that, and we didn't really spend much time getting the sound right either. For most of the album, that's all it is. John's got some pedals as well — an old Echoplex, and an Electric Mistress. They were used quite a lot, but the basic sound was really simple. Nothing was added at the final mixdown — once it was recorded, that was it. We also used an Orange amp and Orange cab for some of the more distorted sounds, the Hendrix‑type bits, and John also used a Pink Strat, but those were his two main guitars. All that's his backline gear, what he normally takes with him."
- Mani — Bass
"Mani used a Rickenbacker bass for just about the whole album, which he sent through a Mesa Boogie amp and cab. For miking the bass amp, I used an AKG D112 and a KM84, and he was DI'ed as well. Mani's also got a Sansamp, which we used a bit, and that was great for creating something a bit more special than a DI sound."
At this point, I asked Simon if there was anything else that he had bought into Rockfield that he felt was necessary for a good sound — but once again, it seemed that a familiar setup was the favoured one. "Mani likes his bass to be round and warm‑sounding — he's quite into the Reggae bass sound, so I did think at one point, why not get an Ampeg in? We tried it for a bit, but it just didn't seem to fit as nicely, so we went back to the Mesa."
Computers and synths weren't a major part of the album. But the guys aren't against all that — they're into using all the tools they can to get the sounds they want.
- Reni — Drums
"Reni's got a Gretsch kit. I used an AKG D112 and a Neumann U47 FET on the bass drum, an SM57 for the snare, and an AKG 452 for the hi‑hat. The toms were all miked with Sennheiser 421s. The whole thing was a pretty standard setup really — I normally find you get pretty good results from it. We did try the odd experiment — we had an acoustic tunnel on the bass drum for some of the time, but we liked the live sound, so most of the time we didn't use it. I put a stereo mic, a Telefunken SM2 valve mic, in the corridor outside the studio to give the sound some ambience, too. The overhead mics on the kit were Neumann 56 valve mics — I think they're the best‑sounding ones for overheads, really good. I also had a pair of Neumann U87s in the room as well. We wanted the kit to sound like a real, live kit in a funky‑sounding room — just like it was, basically!"
- Ian Brown — Vocals
"Ian used his own vocal mics, two Groove Tubes valve mics. We used whichever one sounded best on the day. Again, we did try other mics, but we kept coming back to the Groove Tubes. They do sound good — lovely and warm, and Ian likes his voice to sound quite warm and thick, so he felt most at home with those, I think. We stuck Ian in a vocal booth at the back, which I called 'The Dogbox', and when the guys were jamming, he would be scatting and stuff. There's a bit of that on 'Breakout' [the 'Love Spreads' B‑side], which he made up on the spot and we kept."
- Simon Dawson — Keyboards
"Putting keyboards on the record wasn't my idea. It was always just 'can you try this, Simon, give this a go' — which was great. I never felt like I was under any pressure, and it was really enjoyable to do. We mainly used the piano in the studio, a Yamaha acoustic. That's what's on 'Love Spreads' and 'How Do You Sleep'. I used a Wurlitzer electric piano on Ian's song, 'Straight to the Man', and there's a bit of it played backwards at the start of 'Tears' — that was my idea, I think. John also had the idea of using a Hammond on the end of 'Daybreak', to try and create a sort of Doorsy kind of feel. It's all from the original keyboards — we didn't see a synth the whole time!"
Ah. Synths. This, it seems, is one area where Simon's interest in technology refuses to enter. Asked if he has any at home, he reacts sharply: "Not at all. I don't play synths at all, I don't particularly like them. My dad plays pub piano, which is where I picked up playing. I like real pianos — they're great instruments to sit and tinkle with. But I'm not a professional player — for example, I'm not a Hammond player. I was just playing around with it." What, then, was the strange pinging noise on Ian Brown's song 'Straight To The Man', if not a synth? The answer, it appeared, was a Jew's Harp.
"That was quite funny. It was just lying around in the control room the whole time, and I picked it up and started playing it in the control room. Ian went "oh, that sounds good — go in there and put it on. And that was that."
- Outboard gear
Simon has a simple answer when asked about the processors and reverbs used on the album. "We just used the stuff in the racks at Rockfield — we didn't hire any gear in at all. For reverb, we're lucky enough to have natural chambers down there — four main reverby rooms, which we used mainly for the guitar and vocals. Also, there's a drum room next to the studio, which we built a few years ago, but it's a bit too live for drums — the cymbals end up sounding way over the top. But it does sound great if you put a speaker in there, play your stuff through it and mic that up. I used the pair of Neumann 87s for that. So we used that room like a fifth chamber. We hardly used digital reverbs at all. We've got a Lexicon 224, which I used a bit, but it was just that and the chambers really. I know that Bill [Price, who was called in to mix the album] used quite a lot of Lexicon 480 in the mixes — he had two of them, because we moved on to Metropolis Studios in London for the mixing, and we didn't have chambers there."
"The band have got an Akai S1000 which they use mainly in the writing process, for recording loops, slowing them down, turning them round, to create a groove to write around [both 'Driving South' and 'Straight to the Man' were written in this way]. They haven't felt the need to upgrade to anything newer because it does the job for what they want. They just use it to create basic loops, and get them onto their Portastudio.
"In the studio, our main sampling workhorses were the two TC Electronic 2290s sampler/delays, which have got 32 seconds of sampling time each. You can stereo‑link them, and they're really good quality."
"I'm quite into PCs — I've got a laptop at home, and I'm hoping to get a big one any day now, so I can do some music on it... However, the only time we really used the computer was for 'Groove Harder' on the twelve‑inch of 'Love Spreads', and that was mainly Paul Schroeder's bag. He took a couple of samples from 'Good Times', messed with them a bit, and ended up triggering them from a keyboard.
"We had an Atari in the room, but the main thing I thing I used that for was for triggering the TC samplers... I know Cubase and stuff, although we normally get a programmer in to do anything complicated. I use computers all the time to generate click tracks for other bands. But I couldn't do that all the time here, because not much of the stuff was done to clicks — the only sort of click we ever had were the occasional loops. Computers and synths weren't a major part of the album. But the guys aren't against all that, you know. They're into using all the tools they can to get the sounds they want."
With the album finished at last and in the shops, I asked Simon whether he had exhausted the vaults of finished material, or whether there were more as‑yet‑unreleased tracks? Sheepishly, Simon admits that there's "loads of ideas, not actually finished songs. There's a couple of new tracks for B‑sides on the new single ['Ten Storey Love Song'] which grew out of the album sessions: 'Moses' and another one which we did in London at the start of January called 'Ride On'. We did that very quickly, in just three or four days, because the guys had to go to the States, but we did it, and it sounds great".
I wondered whether Simon has a favourite track, looking back at the finished product. "It's very difficult to answer that. I've got a special feeling for 'Love Spreads' and 'Your Star Will Shine', because they were ones I did with the band from scratch. 'Breaking Into Heaven' I think is a really great song, and I like 'Begging You' because it's different to the rest of the stuff. 'Tightrope' is a great song, 'Good Times' is so live and real, and 'How Do You Sleep' and 'Ten Storey Love Song' are good pop songs! I think there's something there for everyone. The guys are all coming from different places, as any four different guys will, you know, so I felt that one of my main jobs as producer was pulling together all these different elements, and getting one thing out of it that everybody was happy with."
For the mixing of the album, Simon Dawson handed over the reins to studio veteran Bill Price, best known for his work with the Clash and the Jesus And Mary Chain. Why did he feel he didn't want to do it? "Well, some of the guys wanted me to do it, because that was the natural thing, but I wasn't keen, because I'd spent 14 months in the studio with them and felt really close to it all. I really wanted to stick around, but get someone in with a fresh pair of ears, and see what he came up with."
To this end, Simon remained present while Bill worked, even at the final cut. "He was really good. He came in to do a couple to see how he got on, and did 'Ten Storey Love Song'. Everyone was really pleased, so we were happy to let him do it. That took the pressure off me, but in the end, it was still very much a team thing — Bill didn't come in and take over. As I've said, it was quite complicated by that stage, because we'd built everything up using the computer on the desk, and there were so many takes running in the computer that I needed to be around to tell him what was going on — there were mutes that he needed to keep, and EQ settings on some of the loops that were important."
The Stone Roses (Ian Brown, vocals; John Squire, lead guitar; Gary 'Mani' Mounfield, bass; Alan 'Reni' Wren, drums) formed in the mid‑1980s. After the release of their highly successful eponymous debut album in 1989, and a string of equally successful singles which culminated in March 1990's 'One Love', the group became tangled in a lawsuit whilst attempting to free themselves from their contract with the Silvertone record label. During this time, they were not allowed to record any new material, and their planned second LP had to be indefinitely shelved.
The band finally won their case in May 1991, signed immediately to US‑based label Geffen for the rumoured sum of £20 million, and took the rest of the year off. In March 1992, the group vanished into the depths of Wales with John Leckie, producer of their first LP, ostensibly to begin recording the follow‑up. Little concrete news emerged for another year, and various rumours began to circulate: that the Roses had lost the plot, that at least one of them had developed an expensive drug habit, and that the new songs John Squire had written had been rejected by the rest of the band.
As 1993 progressed, the stories got worse — John Leckie quit as producer in August. Reports suggest that he felt the budget was getting out of hand, and that not enough of the album had been completed for the money that had been spent. Leckie's replacement was Paul Schroeder, who had produced 'Fool's Gold', the November 1989 single that had seen the Roses approaching the peak of their success. In February '94, Schroeder quit in turn, leaving the project's engineer, Simon Dawson, to slip into the producer's shoes. Once again, all news concerning the state of the long‑awaited follow‑up ceased.
At last, the Stone Roses broke their four‑and‑a‑half year‑long silence at the end of November '94 with a smash hit single, 'Love Spreads'. This was rapidly followed at the beginning of December by the new LP, Second Coming, which reached number four in the album charts — no mean feat in the pre‑Christmas sales rush. At the time of writing, the Roses are enjoying a hit with the second single from the album, 'Ten Storey Love Song'. They plan to release a radically remixed and extended version of the album track 'Begging You' later in the year.
- 'TEN STOREY LOVE SONG'
"We created the intro and the outro to this around what John Leckie had already recorded, partly at Loco Studios, where we went for a couple of weeks, and partly at Rockfield. There's an old Moog analogue synth on it, actually. There's a particular kind of synthy noise at the beginning and the end of that track, although you hear it more at the end now, I think. I didn't play that, though! That was from a late night session with Reni and Paul Schroeder, before he left. The Studio Manager at Loco had this Moog at home, and he bought it in for us to play around with."
"This was done all around one mic. The band did try an electric version when they were still recording with John Leckie, which actually works pretty well too, but they wanted a more laid‑back kind of vibe to it. For me, the finished version conjures up a picture of a guy sitting in a flat or something with some coffee, picking at his guitar, and then somebody picking up some bongos and joining in. You can hear things dropping on the floor, and the singing's a bit out of tune, but it's a great song."
- 'BEGGING YOU'
"This was really the main one for sample loops. The loops were done before the group came to Rockfield, by a guy called Brian Pugsley, who structured the loops they had created. John had them on disk, and I think Brian just got them in the right place and at the right time — quite a lot of work, I think. Brian also programmed a bass pulse, a sample of an oscillator generating a sine wave at a low frequency, which we ended up using in the verses of the song. Mani had come up with a bassline, but we liked the pulse. It was quite difficult though — because the pulse was a straight sine wave from an oscillator, it had no harmonics, so we had quite a problem at the mix getting it so you could hear it. We were cutting from the bass to the pulse, and matching it up was quite tricky. You can hear it when you've got a really nice pair of speakers.
"Other than that, there are a few different loops in there — old soul loops running backwards, slowed down — so no‑one can recognise them — and there's also a backwards guitar riff, which John had to learn to play in reverse. We turned the tape over so it ran the opposite way, then John experimented over the backwards music until we found something that worked when we turned the tape back over. It became the main riff, and we decided to triple‑track it, so John had to do it the same three times, which is quite hard to do over backwards music! There are also some jets in the middle of the song, which John Squire recorded at an air show with his DAT player holding his mic up in the air, and which we layered in."
- 'YOUR STAR WILL SHINE'
"This was written at Rockfield, by John. He demo'ed it in his bathroom with his Portastudio, so the acoustic had this very bright sound to it which we really liked. We tried to recreate that in the live room at Rockfield, using Nashville tuning on his acoustic, which sounds very bright, and added some chorus from a TC Electronic effects unit. This was one of the ones we used a sample to keep in time on. The clap noise is a real clap — three guys clapping, heavily EQ'd. We sampled them into the TC and then triggered the best one so it's smack in time, just to create a bit of percussion. There's also a floor tom, which is supposed to sound like one of those Irish drums, a bodhran.
"At first, we were just going to use the version we recorded as a proper demo. Reni wanted to play percussion at the same time as John was playing guitar, so we put him in the corridor. They came in and listened to it, and really liked it. I thought, 'we can't go with that', as it speeds up a little at the end of the intro. But they decided to go with that version, and we finished it really quickly, in three or four days."
- 'LOVE SPREADS'
"They did this in pre‑production with John Leckie, and when it came to Rockfield it was completely different — quite thin‑sounding. We decided to redo it with Paul Schroeder, before he left, and spent quite a lot of time trying to get it right. John added some guitar, and I didn't think the riff was right for it. After Paul Schroeder had gone, we ended up scrapping it completely. We started from scratch again, and just had the band play in the studio until Reni came up with something that sounded quite groovy with Mani. John detuned his guitar and came up with the riff that goes through the verse, which I thought was great. We worked from there.
"The end was quite a problem for a while — where it all breaks down and then builds back up again. I had the idea of building up a lot of backing vocals, lots of lines and harmonies, and it was difficult getting it all to sit. John had a guitar idea from one of the earlier versions which the band really liked, so he put that it in about three‑quarters of the way through the build‑up. But he wanted something similar to echo that at the start of the build‑up. So that's how you got the piano coming in at the start of that build‑up. For quite a while, the ending sounded quite messy, but it all came together in the end."
- THE HIDDEN TRACK
"This was nothing to do with me at all — it was something they did before they came to Rockfield. I know I'm credited with the keyboards, but I didn't play them on that! I think Reni played the piano, Ian played the violin, and John was playing the mandolin. It was something they did late one night when they were with John Leckie and he'd wandered in with his DAT player — it was just a bit of a joke, I think.
"I don't think it was supposed to be found that easily — it was supposed to shock people who'd left their CD playing while they were studying or whatever. The working title was 'The Foz' — well, I say working title... that was what was written on the box, anyway..."