The success of Slaves’ debut album depended on producer Jolyon Thomas finding a way to bottle their raw live energy.
Slaves are one of the biggest UK breakthrough acts of 2015. While standing in the power-duo tradition popularised by the White Stripes, the Tunbridge Wells guitar/drums twosome have managed to give the format their own unique slant. Slaves’ musical aesthetic, attitude and lyrics are inspired by punk: they rail against conformism and the apathy of the British youth of today, giving refreshing new meaning to the epithet ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. Unusually, the singer is also the drummer, and a rather unorthodox one at that, as Isaac Holman performs standing up, with a kit consisting only of a floor tom that functions as a kick, a snare drum and cymbals.
Since forming in 2012 Slaves have built a fearsome live reputation thanks to Holman’s vocal sneer and pounding drums, and guitarist Laurie Vincent’s thumping riffs and on-stage energy. The band’s small-label mini album, Sugar Coated Bitter Truth (2012), and single, ‘Where’s Your Car Debbie?’ (2014), brought them wider attention, and when the duo signed to Virgin EMI in 2014, the search began as to how best to capture the band’s full-frontal, high-energy live approach in a studio recording.
One would have imagined Virgin insisting on a big-name producer, but instead the band enlisted the help of relative unknown Jolyon Thomas, who recorded, mixed and produced the band’s first big-label singles, ‘Hey’ and ‘The Hunter’ and debut album Are You Satisfied? On its release last June the album went straight into the UK top 10 and received unanimously positive press.
There is nothing punky or brattish about the soft-spoken, polite and semi-long-haired Jolyon Thomas (his first name is pronounced like ‘Julian’ but with ‘o’ instead of ‘u’ and ‘a’). In fact, Slaves initially considered him to be a bit of a hippy, a charge he cheerfully but spiritedly denies. Thomas does, however, have big-name-producer gravitas of sorts, as he’s the son of the legendary Ken Thomas, a producer and engineer whose credits include Queen, David Bowie, Public Image Ltd, the Cocteau Twins, Sigur Rós, Moby and many more.
Thomas junior was talking from father and son’s joint studio in Hampshire, High Bank, which is within walking distance of one of rock & roll’s most hallowed sites: Headley Grange, where Led Zeppelin recorded some of their most enduring tracks. Thomas explains that although he spent a lot of time around artists and leftfield music as a child, his studio skills were mostly self-taught.
“I’ve been saturated with things creative all my life,” recalls Thomas, “and have an older brother and sister who both are creative as well. I certainly spent time as a kid watching my dad work in the studio, but I never learned to record from him or assisted him. I started out as a musician, playing drums and guitar in bands, like everybody does. My sister gave me a Tascam four-track cassette recorder when I was 13, on which I recorded my own demos. Eventually, by the time I was 18, bands asked me to record them, and I ended up recording tons of music. That’s how I learned to record. I’m still a musician, but I also became an engineer, because that’s what you have to be today, and as a producer I’m inspired by the more musical guys, like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Tony Visconti and Quincy Jones. I think about production in terms of colours and feeling and mood, and how to get there with the gear is interesting, but it’s not the point. The gear is just a vehicle.”
Thomas, who is now 29, eventually got to work with his father, initially as a musician and arranger and later as a mixer, engineer and co-producer, while simultaneously amassing similar credits alone. During the last few years, Jolyon Thomas has worked with the likes of Polly Scattergood, Daughter and SCUM, also co-writing three tracks on the latter’s Again Into Eyes album (2011). He also co-founded the video collective Youth Hymns. Then, in 2014, he met Slaves...
“I first met Slaves when I recorded them for a live video session with Youth Hymns, and they just blew me away. They are a great band, and their music is worlds away from the enormous amounts of shiny, sterile music that’s out there. They really liked the sound I got for that video — for example, I put Isaac’s drums through one of my amplifiers while he was playing. I later recorded, mixed and produced their first single, ‘Hey’, and then we did their other two singles, ‘The Hunter’, and ‘Cheer Up London’. After that we did the album. The big challenge was, of course, how to translate their amazing live energy on record. People often say, ‘I saw that band live and they were great, and then I heard their record, and it was crap.’
“Capturing live energy on record, from punk in particular, is not that easy to do. It may seem simple, but it’s not. There are many ways to harness punk energy on record, and it’s not necessarily a matter of shouting at someone. We could have gone into the studio and recorded the band live as a two-piece, and that would have sounded all right, but I don’t think it would have sounded like a record. And the reason they wanted to work with me was that they wanted to make a record. Slaves are about aggression and being loud, but they also have other sides. They are artists, and they will also write songs on acoustic guitar, for example. If I’d said, ‘Let’s try 20 overdubs,’ they would have tried it, but we didn’t do that — most of the album is just one guitar, the vocals and the drums. Instead we created sonic energy by putting stuff through tons of amplifiers and adding effects. We changed some of the lyrics so they hit a bit harder, I added delay lines to get things more hooky, and so on. When we did ‘Hey’, I added a repeat delay at the end of the phrase ‘standing in the park’, and when I later went to see the band live, the audience was singing the delay — ‘park park park park park’! So that turned into a hook, and that creates its own energy.”
Thomas insists that they did not reference recordings by other guitar/drums power duos, like the White Stripes, Black Keys, Kills or Royal Blood. “We tried to devise our own sonic framework, and we were in general not concerned with needing to sound ‘normal’. For example, I like big bass, and how we filled the low end with a guitar/drums outfit was an issue, but we were not too bothered about that. We made our own rules and we took risks. We experimented with many different approaches and colours to give the sound more body and texture. We added some sub-bass to some tracks, and used a Moog synth, and maybe some octave stuff on the guitar, and we also sent Laurie’s guitar through a bass amp, and on a couple of tracks we have actual bass.
“While Laurie did few overdubs, he played through several amps at the same time, and used tons of pedals. Also, Isaac’s unusual drum approach was a really important part of the production. Not only is his kit different, but because he is a singer who started playing drums, he plays them very differently from normal drummers. So we ended up with him using his live kit, which has this weird subby tom for a kick-drum sound, which he hits with a stick rather than his foot, making it sound a bit like a sub-808. He hits it really hard — we went through several skins every day! So a lot of the bass energy on the album comes from the way he hits his drum. The Slaves kick drum has tons of character! People had tried to replace it with a sample on some early demos I heard, and that just didn’t work. So I refrained from doing that.”
Thomas stresses several times that he in general likes to work pretty quickly, under the motto, “just go with the vibe, go mad, take a risk”. This obviously chimed with the mentality of the band members, with Thomas observing, “They would do three or four takes, and after that it was no longer the same. They’d get bored and lose energy, so I rarely insisted on them doing more takes. Isaac in particular has a short attention span. For him it is like: ‘Do the drums, or the vocals, and go home.’ And obviously they do have a punk attitude. It’s not prog! The performance is 99 percent of the point of recording these guys. If we felt that a song still wasn’t there after four takes, we’d scrap the recording, look again at the way we approached it, and we’d re-record it.”
The singles ‘Hey’, ‘The Hunter’ and ‘Cheer Up London’ took place at High Bank. Having devised the blueprint for capturing Slaves’ live energy and enhancing it to make the end result sound like a record, the company then went to Strongroom Studio 1 in East London to record the remainder of the album. They recorded another 15 songs there over a period of three weeks, with the studio’s Drew Bang helping out with engineering. Following this, Thomas took the recordings back to High Bank for the final mix.
“Our recording process was pretty similar in our studio and in Strongroom, but obviously the latter is much bigger. Here at High Bank the drums were about five feet away from the guitar amps, so to say that there was bleed would be an understatement! We always started with the band playing the song live, which is the best way when working with a band: just get them to play it! We’d looked at what the song needed in terms of tempo and arrangement, and then we recorded each song differently. Some songs were recorded entirely live with the two of them together, with some songs we did the drums first, for a couple of songs they recorded with a drum machine. And as I said before, we always recorded very quickly.
“In our studio Laurie was set up with three amps: his own Selmer head going through a Matamp cab, my Marshall Lead 12, and an Ampeg bass amp, plus I recorded him DI. I had Sennheiser MD421s on the Matamp and on the Ampeg, and a Shure Unidyne 57 on the Marshall. But the gear is more important than the mics, and we spent a lot of time working on the guitar sounds, and tuning the drums, before we started recording. For the drums I had an SE Electronics Voodoo ribbon as overhead mic, which also is really good on guitars, and a Telefunken AK47 over the kick and an Audix D6 underneath, and the snare would be SM57 top and bottom. To prevent Isaac hitting the Telefunken it was backed off a little bit. But most of the sound of the drums came from a Shure Beta 58 in between the kick and snare, which also was his vocal mic. It went through my UA 6176, the compressor of which completely smashed the sound. When recording drums the SM58 pointed downwards and when recording vocals it was angled upwards. I also had an Audio-Technica 4033a in the bathroom, opposite the live room.
“The synths we used during the making of the album were something that I brought to the table.We weren’t really too keen on doing guitar overdubs. Although we did a few, we preferred to have the live setup as the foundation. So I brought in some synths to experiment with, which Laurie really enjoyed, because he had no idea what would come out, and this created interesting results. When you have a Big Muff and a Fender guitar amp, you know roughly what you’re going to get, but not when you put a guitar through one of my modular synths. We used an old Minimoog, also at Strongroom, and my Korg MS10, plus my modular synth that is made up from various modules by Doepfer, Make Noise and Pittsburgh Modular — notable are the Make Noise Echophon, Phonogene, MMG and the Doepfer A-136 Distortion Waveshaper. I recorded the synths DI, because Slaves already had so many amps going and we had so many crazy frequencies that I was more interested in a sense of fidelity coming from the synths.”
Slaves and Thomas started their three weeks at Strongroom Studio 1 by setting up, getting to know the room, and in the process doing some pre-production. “By this stage we knew what we were going for and how to approach things,” recalled Thomas, “but the idea was also to write new stuff at Strongroom. They wrote two new songs there and there are several other new songs that were unreleased. After these five days it was a matter of recording a song every day. My recording setup was pretty similar as at High Bank, one of the main differences being that I used the mic pres of the Neve VR60 desk for many things, plus Strongroom was obviously a lot bigger, so we had far more space there to set up the drums and guitar amps. I put the drum amp in a separate booth, and the additional guitar amp was in another booth.
“Just like at High Bank, I recorded the vocals with the Beta 58 middle drum mic, which in this case was going into an API 512 mic pre, then an API 550b EQ, and finally a Urei 1176, which again totally smashed the signal! The drums were recorded with a Sennheiser MD421 and Neumann U47 FET on the kick, the snare had Shure SM57 top and bottom, the overheads were a Coles 4038, and the all-important Beta SM58 of course. Drew had set up some pencil condensers as room mics, and we had a Neumann U47 on the Fender Bassman drum amp in the booth — we did not have the space to use the drum amp at High Bank. The big guitar cabinets had an AKG C414, the smaller Fender Twin amps an SM57 or Royer 121, while I used different mics on the bass amp that we sent the guitar through, just to get some more low end, which could be either the [Electro-Voice] RE20, an AKG D12 or an SM57. I’d sometimes use my SE Electronics Voodoo to mic up the rear of the cabinets, and I had a Neumann U67 ambient mic in the room.
“We spent a lot of time getting the sounds right before and during the recordings. This meant sometimes using a lot of outboard, in addition to Laurie playing through up to five amps and tons of pedals. He has many pedals, and I brought mine, so it got pedal-mad, really! I compressed Isaac’s vocals very radically, with all buttons in. I did not want to do that later in the mix. It was the sound I was after, and it was a matter of making decisions quickly and taking risks. In some cases I added yet more compression to his vocals, usually from a Distressor, during the mix! While we were recording I would also dial in the sound we were after on the guitars with the API EQ. I like parallel processing, so I would also have had Distressors on the drums while tracking, quite hot, and I had the Neve 33609 on the room mics as well as another compressor like the Dbx 160 or an 1176. Another example of us taking risks was the title track, which is just a demo of them playing acoustic guitar and piano, which they recorded with their iPhone in their rehearsal room. It sounded great, and I did not feel that it needed me to do a ‘produced’ version of it. I sort of mixed it, taking out some funny frequencies and making it stereo, but that was it.”
The use of the iPhone demo recording of the album’s title track also was another example of Thomas and Slaves choosing punk spontaneity and boisterousness over perfection. These were elements that Thomas was keen to maintain during the final mixing at High Bank. Rather than endlessly polishing the recordings Thomas simply, he says, “did a lot of editing, deciding what things we needed, adjusting levels and making it sound like a record. With all the processing and amps and pedals, we had recorded things the way we wanted them to sound. Also, I had been doing rough mixes at Strongroom, and they were sounding pretty good. So the final mixes were fairly straightforward. I mixed completely in the box at High Bank, because the way we had recorded things was already very analogue, with mics, mic pres, amps, effects, pedals and so on, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to degrade it further by running it through the analogue domain again, apart from running the finished stereo mix through the SSL G-Bus right at the end.”
As an example of his mix approach, Thomas describes what’s going on in screenshots (download hi-res version here) from ‘The Hunter’: “I mixed all the songs quickly, because this is not the kind of music that you want to over-think. I prefer to mix a song twice, rather than work on it for two days non-stop. You can mix forever, but if it ain’t working, you have a crap song or recording, and you’re better off re-recording it. There were two things that needed particular attention with these mixes: one was the phase, and the other was making sure the songs did not sound too different from a production perspective. Some songs had been recorded live and others more with overdubbing and additional textures, and so I tidied up the live songs in some cases, and roughed up the more produced tracks a bit. Bearing in mind that some of the guitars were recorded in parallel through five amps with five different recording chains, and sometimes with the drums in the room, phase was a big issue. I checked it on the Neve desk at the Strongroom and with my ears, making sure it sounded good. But it was never 100 percent resolved.
“I think the biggest thing I learned from my dad is to really listen to a mix from a producer perspective, trying to be objective, and not get distracted by all the options. It’s so easy to start mixing, and half an hour later your session is covered with plug-ins. I mixed ‘The Hunter’ just once, very quickly, no recalls. It wasn’t too thought-out, it was just a matter of making decisions. I did not use tons of plug-ins, though there are a fair amount there, but each is doing stuff in small amounts. I normally work with stems when I mix, so I have a drum stem, a bass stem, a guitar stem, and so on, so I can just solo and adjust the volume of each subgroup, which won’t have any plug-ins. However, ‘The Hunter’ doesn’t have these subgroups, probably because I recorded the track in a day and then just went for it with the mix. It’s just one take, recorded without a click.
“There’s not a lot there in this session. I use the Waves SSL Channel E-series plug-in a lot. It’s my go-to EQ, particularly in a rock situation, and I have it on each of the close-mic drum tracks. There’s also a [SoundToys] Decapitator on some of them, for some more distortion, and the drums go to an aux with the Avid AIR Spring Reverb, and another one with the [Waves] Kramer Tape plug-in, for some colour and saturation, and the [Waves] RBass, to add a bit of sub. I have the Waves CLA76 on the bathroom mic, adding that classic big smash, with a ratio of 12:1 or something like that. The guitars sounded pretty much the way we wanted them, so I did not do much to them. The most important treatments on them came from the [Waves] Renaissance Axx guitar compressor, and the Waves Abbey Road REDD.17, which is good for pushing up the top end and still making sure it sounds like a guitar. There’s a guitar aux with the Waves RS56, adding some top end and width.
“Underneath the guitars are two modular synth tracks, which are an important part of the song. Every time they played the song I heard this pedal or this drone. I am into frequencies and believe everything is frequency — humans love music for a reason! The band thought this was quite funny, calling me a hippy, but it worked putting this pedal note all through the track. You don’t notice it’s there, but if you took it away, you’d miss it. Then there’s an MS10 which I recorded through Laurie’s amp, I chopped up the sound so it leads into the choruses and the breakdown. Anticipation is an important part of music. Laurie did some feedback on his guitar, obviously responding to my modular synth drone idea, and that also goes through the entire song. I automated the level and sent these two feedback tracks through an aux, on which I had the Avid TL Space plug-in and the SoundToys MicroShift to modulate the reverb. The [Waves] CLA-2A is bringing out the room a bit more.
“You can see from the waveforms how compressed the vocals are! That’s how I recorded them. I have a Waves V-EQ on them, which is a great EQ, a bit broader than the SSL. The Kramer Tape adds some slap, the CLA-2A yet more compression, and the RS56 some more openness in the top end without adding much colour. It’s all about the performance, the way he is singing it. I also have a SoundToys EchoBoy for a couple of slap delays, and the Space for reverb. Back at the top of the session I have a mixdown track, with the Waves Kramer Tape and the Pultec EQP1A, going out of the session to the SSL G-series compressor, and then back into the session. I always monitor after things come back into Pro Tools to be able to hear what the converters are doing. It was not a complicated mix. Once again, it all comes down to instinct and speed, without complicating things.”
Which also is a nice summarisation of punk’s ethos. Clearly Thomas and Slaves are not such an odd couple after all.
“For a long time I had my own studio in the countryside, where we did SCUM, for example, but as so often, a good studio was turned into a residential property,” says Jolyon Thomas. “With my two siblings and me having left home, my parents had space to spare in their house, so my Dad and I decided to build a studio here. We just wanted a small mixing place, and we fitted this room with some acoustic treatments, like SE Electronics Ghost acoustic panels, and I moved all my gear here. Today High Bank still mostly contains my gear, with Pro Tools 11 HD native, Yamaha NS10 and Unity Audio Rock monitors, which are fantastic, two Distressors, SSL XL Logic G-series compressor, Avalon VT737sp channel strip, UA 6176 channel strip, Shadow Hills Equinox 30-channel summing mixer and monitoring controller, patchbay, Focusrite and Chandler mic pres, Audient eight-channel preamp, and a few other boxes. Plus we have tons of pedals, guitars and synths. We also added a small live room, which turned High Bank into a recording studio. The walls in the live room are half brick and half cork, to take the edge off the reflections. I don’t like plastic and foam in studios!”
For Jolyon Thomas, the entire analogue-versus-digital issue is for him not so much about sound as about attitude. “It is often young bands who want to record to tape, and they expect some kind of magic from it. But really it’s just another tool. My argument for not using it is not about the sound, but simply that other things are more important. If you want to follow in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin, don’t focus on using tape, but instead play without a click, use just 16 tracks, don’t have a mic on every part of the drums, and so on. Those things are far more important than the format you work in. With Jack White, the important thing about his approach is that he is using only eight tracks, not the fact that he’s using vintage gear and valve mics and things like that. For me, I’m not really interested in things that slow me down. I know Pro Tools inside out and can use it in any studio I go to, and I prefer to focus on sitting with an artist working on new songs and arrangements than worrying who is going to maintain the tape machine.”