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Trevor Horn: Recording ABC, ZTT, Yes, & The Pet Shop Boys

Interview | Producer By Richard Buskin
Published August 1994

In a UK exclusive on the 10th anniversary of Trevor Horn's ZTT label, Richard Buskin talks to this renowned producer, whose Midas touch has transformed artists as varied as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC, Yes, the Pet Shop Boys, and most recently Seal.

The last time I came face to face with Trevor Horn was on the morning of Sunday, November 25, 1984. The editor of a now‑defunct pro audio mag had asked me to go to London's Sarm (West) Studios at short notice, as he'd heard that some artists would be recording a charity single there — "Status Quo and a few others... Take your camera."

When I arrived, Status Quo were just entering the building. I thought it was strange that so many press hacks and photographers were gathered outside, and they evidently thought it downright peculiar that I was the only one allowed in by the studio staff. "They're all downstairs," an assistant murmured to me. Oh, right! Who? Status Quo? I soon found out...

'They' certainly were all downstairs. You see, I'd just stumbled into the Band Aid 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' all‑stars recording session.

Nearly 10 years on and I'm back at Sarm (West), interviewing the man for the first time (back then I only managed to get a photo!). Trevor Horn doesn't normally give too many interviews about his production work, preferring to let his records do the talking. But this is different. His record label, ZTT, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and this seems to provide just cause for the producer/musician to look back on a catalogue of work that has taken in projects by Yes, Simple Minds, Grace Jones, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, David Coverdale, Pet Shop Boys, ABC, Malcolm McLaren, Marc Almond, Mike Oldfield, Godley and Creme, Barry Manilow and, of course, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, not to mention Buggles and Art Of Noise.

The latest in line is Seal, whose new eponymously‑titled album is released three years after his first record achieved worldwide sales in excess of three million copies. Indeed, all of the above artists have benefitted from Horn's truly innovative state‑of‑the‑art production techniques, and part of the payback for him has been a plethora of awards, including a Grammy, five Ivor Novellos, and three from the British Phonographic Industry for 'Producer of the Year' in 1983, 1985 and 1991 (he was also nominated on six other occasions). In short, Trevor Horn is the man when it comes to defining the modern, slickly‑produced record. Things sounded different before Trevor Horn began to produce records.

ZTT Records

When Horn first met his wife, Jill Sinclair, Sarm Studios — now Sarm (East) — already existed, started by her brother John. Horn himself worked there for several years. When he was later on the lookout for a larger recording environment, the couple were informed that the Island Records‑owned Basing Street Studios complex was on the market. A subsequent deal with Island chief Chris Blackwell enabled them to buy the facility, rebuild it and rename it Sarm (West), in return for which they had to start their own record label. Thus, ZTT was born.

"ZTT's hopefully going to have an interesting year or two, because we've got a lot of new things," asserts Horn. "We've got [ex‑Pogue] Shane MacGowan, whose solo album is going to be brilliant. Then there's obviously Seal's new record; Wendy & Lisa; a three‑girl group aged 16 or 17 called All Saints; plus 808 State's next album, which I'm particularly looking forward to — they're doing a track with Tom Jones. We have a lot of stuff coming out..."

Working Relationships

What exactly was the working relationship between you and long‑time collaborator Steve Lipson?

"Well, that changed as the years rolled by. Steve originally just showed up as the engineer. I remember when he first came in; he told me he played a bit of guitar, and I went 'Oh yeah? great.' I was a bit sceptical and wasn't sure about him, because I could see he had the capacity to be quite rude. I remember walking past the control room one day and hearing one of the Frankie tracks playing with this great guitar part on it. So I ran into the control room and there was Steve playing the guitar! I asked him, 'Why didn't you tell me you could play the guitar?' and he said, 'I did tell you'. He was actually really good.

"We started to work together until, in the end, when we did Slave To The Rhythm — which was probably the last really exciting thing that we did together — I was acting almost like the artist and he was almost like the producer. I was having all of the mad ideas and he was executing them.

"Steve was the first guy I ever saw running a computer all of the time in the control room. We had a Synclavier, which incorporated the first timecode‑based sequencer, and the significance of that was being able to continually run it like a slave machine. It didn't run on MIDI Song Pointers or anything dumb like that, and so if an idea came to us or we needed an overdub, we could instantly sequence it. I never saw anybody do that before Steve.

"Steve was a great guy to work with, because he'd be constantly coming up with ideas. He turned me onto digital, and I'll never forget the day when I came into the studio and he said, 'Watch this. I want to show you something.' He'd copied a multitrack and offset it eight bars, and it was like 'Wow! Let's use this on 'Welcome To The Pleasure Dome'!' So he and I were basically upstairs for three months doing that track, which had started out as three minutes long, and we just kept overlapping it on itself, lengthening it and doing all sorts of stuff. We had a lot of fun together and our partnership lasted five years, which is a long time."

I heard Lipson once say that when he first worked with you he was absolutely amazed by your tendency to just wipe the multitrack and start again if something wasn't working, rather than spend time repairing it. Is that true?

"(Laughs) Yeah, but I think he was probably referring specifically to 'Relax'. I've been producing for nearly 20 years now and in that time I've had some pretty hot tracks up and going, so it's difficult to kid yourself when the track isn't hot. Sometimes it's best to just dump it and start again. This may happen three or four times before you find just the right way to cut a song.

"With the Frankies we cut 'Relax' four times. Back then that seemed extraordinary, but now it's a lot more commonplace and a lot easier to do. Seal, for instance, has got a great voice and, if you get the right bunch of people behind him, on a good day he'll get the vocal in the first couple of takes. That will be your master vocal; you won't have to sweat over it. But at other times it can be difficult. From the current album sessions, I've got alternate versions of some of the songs that are really cool, but they didn't quite make it, and so we dumped them and started again. So, yes, I do have a tendency to start afresh if I think a better version's possible. In the end, however, you can be as clever as you like, but the thing that determines a record's success is how much people like it."


With 'Relax' you really helped initiate the acceptance of multiple remixes; there was almost another one every week, and that song didn't stay out of the charts. How far would you go before you would no longer even recognise the original song?

"One of the reasons we did all the remixes was that the initial 12‑inch version of 'Relax' contained something called 'The Sex Mix', which was 16 minutes long and didn't even contain a song. It was really Holly [Johnson] just jamming, as well as a bunch of samples of the group jumping in the swimming pool and me sort of making disgusting noises by dropping stuff into buckets of water! We got so many complaints about it — particularly from gay clubs, who found it offensive — that we cut it in half and reduced it down to eight minutes, by taking out some of the slightly more offensive parts. Then we got another load of complaints, because the single version wasn't on the 12‑inch — I didn't see the point in this at the time, but I was eventually put straight about it.

"When I was out in New York producing Foreigner, I went to Paradise Garage. The Art Of Noise was happening and I'd just done 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart' [for Yes], which was huge in America. There was a great remix of it which made number two in the dance chart there, and yet it was only when I went to this club and heard the sort of things they were playing that I really understood about 12‑inch remixes. Although I myself had already had a couple of big 12‑inch hits, I'd never heard them being played on a big sound system, and so I then went back and mixed 'Relax' again and that was the version which sold a couple of million over here [in the UK].

"I wasn't being clever. It wasn't some great scheme that I dreamed up to make three 12‑inches; I was just desperately trying to get the record right.

"I had a kind of ethic with 12‑inch remixes. I never wanted them to be boring, even though they were going to be nine‑or‑so minutes long. I didn't see that as an excuse for them to be self‑indulgent or boring, and so we would work quite hard on them in order for them to make sense as pieces of music. I don't hear much of that nowadays."

Was this kind of work a strange realm for a white producer back then?

"Well, at the time of 'Relax' or 'Two Tribes' there was no 'techno' and there was no 'house' music. These were all terms that people came up with later. When we did 'Relax' I hadn't been to a club in years, but I'd had a certain amount of exposure to black music while working with Malcolm McLaren in New York. When we did 'Buffalo Girls', the only scratching record before that, I think, was 'Wheels Of Steel' by Grand Master Flash, and I was no great guru of grooves. I just said to them, 'What's your favourite groove? Sing it to me,' and that took about eight hours, because I kept misunderstanding what they said!

"So I had a bit of a grasp of what people were dancing to, but 'Relax', for instance, was a drum pattern that I already had in my Linn 2. It was like my pet drum pattern which I fiddled about with. I thought it was more like an English square dance than anything else, but when I saw the effect it had on the guys in the band, I realised that it was probably going to be a very good dance record.

"When I was in New York I did this one track with Malcolm [McLaren] called 'She's A Hobo Scratch', which was a nine‑minute scratching track over a beat and probably one of the most hardcore things I've ever done. My wife didn't like it at all, but I said, 'Look, I know it's a little bit repetitive and boring, but certain people will like this in New York.' Then one day, I was walking in Greenwich Village and there was this little black breakdance group on the pavement, dancing to 'She's A Hobo Scratch'. I'd just been to a meeting and so I was standing there and watching them, wearing a shirt and tie. I remember thinking, 'If I go up and tell them I did that record, they'd never believe me!'"

It's interesting that you say your wife didn't like it. Do you use Jill quite a lot as a sounding board?

"Yeah, my wife's got great ears. When were mixing 'Crazy' on the first Seal album, she wanted me to mix Seal really loud. In fact, he is absolutely bone dry; there isn't an effect on him. He's also flat — there's no EQ on him, while the whole track is compressed around him. That's a technique we use a lot. We very rarely put on any EQ, and try to keep the whole thing digital from the minute he sings until it ends up on the CD."

How did you achieve that staccato intro sound on 'Crazy'?

"That's from the original demo. Guy Sigswith — who Seal wrote the song with — did that. He's very bright. He played some of the really nice keyboard parts on the first album, and he created that staccato effect with MIDI volume messages, using [Opcode] Vision software."

Technology Bandwagon

It was around the time that you were working with Frankie that samplers started coming out en masse. Have you always jumped on the back of technology?

"Oh yes, of course. In this business it's very difficult to disentangle the technology from the music, whether you like it or not. Elvis wouldn't have sounded like Elvis without the slapback tape echo, and religious music only used to sound the way it did because a choir of eunuchs was singing in a huge church where there was this fantastic reverb. That's using technology in music, and so have I, although I think I'm a bit less interested in it now than I was back in 1978. Then I was obsessed by it — I had all kinds of visions about it, and was even writing songs about it! Back then, there were far fewer ways to make records.

"With The Buggles we didn't actually have much gear at all, just a Minipops Junior — one of those little rhythm boxes. But when I got going as a producer, and did ABC's Lexicon Of Love album, I put together a little rig that consisted of a [Roland] TR808 — with triggers put on the side by Dave Simmons of Simmons drums — a Mini Moog with CV gates on it, a set of Simmons drum modules, and a very strange Roland sequencer which in essence acted just like a playlist; you'd just bang a list of notes into it — you know, 10 As, four Bs and a B‑flat! I just used to drive the whole thing from the TR808, with a cowbell triggering the synth, and a combination of the TR808 and the Simmons comprising the drums. It was a very effective little system, and I did most of the ABC album with it, as well as the Dollar records. It was almost like painting by numbers — the drummer and I would programme the track and lay that down first, and then he'd play on top of it and we'd take it away.

"You have to realise that this whole business has moved on so quickly — I can remember Steve and I doing a track with Propaganda, called 'Dr. Mabuse', for which I had this idea that we wouldn't use any tape — back in 1983 this was a pretty radical idea. So we got a Linn 2, a Fairlight, an Oberheim DMX and a DSX, hooked them all together and programmed the song into each of them. At that time there was a device called a Conductor, which enabled you to synchronise a Linn drum machine with a Fairlight, and to us it was the most incredible thing ever. So we programmed this song into all of the machines with the idea of the girls singing live, us pressing the button, and the whole thing being performed without going onto tape. Of course, it was a complete catastrophe, because it kept breaking down and losing sync with itself, and so in the end we had to put it all on tape!

"I've always found that I get tired of sounds very quickly, and I very rarely carry them over from one project to another. I like to start afresh. That is one reason why I have to admire Stock, Aitken & Waterman for what they did, because I could never have a situation where the bass drum came up channel 3 on the mixing board for every record."

What consoles do you prefer to use?

"I've been very enthusiastic about this Euphonix [CS2000] because, as it has total recall, I can go between tracks very quickly. It also has a very clear and very open sound, and it's great for vocalists. In fact, if you start listening to vocalists through a Euphonix, it gets difficult to then listen to them through any other boards.

"I like both the Euphonix and the SSL. They're both good boards, but really if you've got a record to make then the board's just something that you work through. I mixed Seal's single ['Prayer For The Dying'] on a Focusrite, which I like as well — I don't mind so long as they work. I don't actually sit at the board, so as long as the guy who works it hasn't got a problem then I'm perfectly happy."

Do you ever push the faders yourself?

"Sometimes, but if I push the faders they all end up at '10'! And pretty quickly! Anyway, it's better to let people who know what they're doing get on with their job. I have some very definite ideas about what I want to hear, but if you've got a good engineer he'll do things that you wouldn't even think of."

With all of this state‑of‑the‑art equipment now at your disposal, do you think it required more innovation when there were less devices available to attain the sounds that you wanted?

"Well, it depends. Nowadays I'm not really as interested in the kind of innovation that I was interested in years ago. If you listen to some of the records that I was making in 1979 and 1980 with The Buggles or with Dollar, I was trying to make records sound like records sound today, before all of the technology existed. I'd be editing multitracks to wipe reverbs in a way that made it cut off dead and doing all sorts of strange things, whereas nowadays I'm more interested in working with better musicians for a start.

"As I get older I don't want to spend days on end waiting for somebody who can't play very well trying to get it right. I haven't got the patience anymore, and when you've worked with people like Wendy & Lisa — who are just such natural musicians — it's difficult to revert to the other way. Also, when you're working with people who are limited as players, that can force you to do quite a lot of gimmicky things to overcome the problems. So, I don't have the same angle on the technology as I used to.

"When Steve Lipson and I worked together, he was so good with all of the gear that I just basically stopped taking an interest in it. But after that relationship ended about three years ago, I really had to make an effort to get back into it. So, now I've got four [Apple] Macs at various locations, with 4‑ and 8‑track [Digidesign] Pro Tools systems, Studio Vision and racks of all the usual junk. I can knock a program up on an S1100 and I can find my way around it all pretty quickly. I love Pro Tools and use it for everything, especially compiling the vocals. What I used to do with Seal was to take home a hard disk with his vocals on it, and work on them there."

Artists In Context

Do you prefer working with unknowns rather than going into the studio with an established, big name artist?

"It can be very dangerous doing somebody's first record, because it can be like attaching a sort of rocket engine to them before they're ready for it. I don't know. I don't really have any set plans. The only criterion is really if I can feel that something is worth doing."

So what kind of artists do you prefer to work with?

"I tend to like singers. I think Sting is brilliant, and without doubt one of the best singers we've got about at the moment. I really liked his last record a lot."

What do you listen for in a voice? Versatility? Tonal quality? The range?

"If someone's a really good singer, then every time they sing something it'll be different. With Seal's singing, for instance, I always approach it like I'm recording a jazz saxophone player. If you actually listen to his phrasing, it is quite brilliant. You can't teach someone that.

"On the new album, on the opening track ['Bring It On'], the first verse and chorus vocal were recorded in Wendy & Lisa's bathroom — if you solo up the track, you can hear the cat scratching and the toilet running a little bit! Seal was sitting in the bathroom and he completely overloaded their mixing board, because he's got a pretty strong voice. There's all this distortion, but it's such a great piece of singing that I just had to keep it."

How do you feel about just working with a live band that's really going for it in the studio?

"Well, I haven't really done that before. Seal's new record is a kind of hybrid of loops and people playing all sorts of things. That's how we tend to work nowadays, but there are so many different ways to do it. At the moment we're kind of in an era where you can do anything — you can play live if you want to, you can use computers, and people will accept it. There's no specific way to do anything.

"There was something that somebody said to me when we were making Seal's record, which really hit me. I won't tell you who it was, but the guy was trying to programme some drum tracks and he said to me: 'You'd better get this album out quick, otherwise these loops are going to be out of date!' Well, that completely put me off the whole idea. I said, 'Oh, I'm not interested. This record might take a year to make, and I don't want to have anything on it that's going to be out of date in six months.' I can still listen to Propaganda, Frankie and the ZTT back‑catalogue, and hardly any of it sounds particularly dated to me."

But surely a good song is always a good song? You can listen to something that was recorded 30 years ago and sounds archaic, but if you like the song that's the most important thing.

"Yeah, but during the past 20 years certain great songs wouldn't have been so great without the then‑novel sounds which gave them their feel. I mean, the Frankies won an Ivor Novello Award [for 'Most Performed Work'] for 'Two Tribes', but before we made that record everyone was saying, 'What are we going to do for a second single? There isn't another song there.' It was only when you put the song in the right context, gave it the right arrangement and organised it properly, that people saw what a good song it actually was. So, I wouldn't necessarily say a good song's a good song; I would say a good idea is a good idea."

"In this business it's very difficult to disentangle the technology from the music, whether you like it or not."

Distinctive Production

What do you think are your distinctive points as a record producer?

"Well, I've got a good instinct for arranging things. I've got a very low boredom threshold, so I'm probably not too good at doing indie bands. I like records that you can listen to loads of times, which take you off on some kind of a journey, and so that's what I always try to make. At the same time, I also like clarity in a recording."

Do you like to work quickly on projects?

"Sometimes, yeah. If it comes quickly then I'm not going to mess around with it, but it isn't always like that. I have been known to spend quite a long time on things..."

What about quality of material? Most producers will say that they like to work with good material, but is it sometimes more of a challenge for you to work with pretty naff material and then turn it into something special?

"Yeah, but it depends on what your definition of 'naff material' is... Working in this business you get to hear loads of songs, and I don't necessarily always like those that are written by 'professional' songwriters. You really can be quite bored by a 'well‑written' song even before you've started working on it, because you know that it's not real — the person wrote it for the money or to get a cover. For me, it's far more of a challenge to take something that's written out of an actual feeling and try to turn it into something commercial. I draw a very big distinction between what I consider to be a composition that's real and something that's bogus."

So how would you classify the original version of 'Relax'?

"Oh, absolutely from the heart, without a doubt! Whatever differences I might have with Holly [Johnson], all of his stuff was very much written from the heart and that's what I liked about it. 'Relax' was a very interesting song because it was a kind of non‑song, and I'm sure I'm not denigrating it in any way by saying that it was an advertising jingle, and a brilliant one. I mean, how can you resist a line like 'Sock it to me biscuit'? That's just a brilliant line!"

Relaxing Kick Drums

How did you get the superb kick drum sound on Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax'?

"It was just a Linn 2 bass drum, but it had a sampled E note on the bass guitar going with it, and that is always the most sympathetic note. So, you had the best of all worlds — a kick drum and an E being played with it. It doesn't come much better than that.

"If you go below E on the bass guitar, speakers have a bit of a problem with it. Nowadays we can go down to a fifth below that E if we use bass synths, but you need big speakers to recreate that. In E, however, it will sound big even on the radio."

Frankie: They Did It Horn's Way

How competent were the Frankies as musicians? Was it mainly you, Steve [Lipson] and Julian [Mendelsohn] playing on their records?

"The only reason the guys didn't play on 'Relax' was because they weren't there; they'd gone back to Liverpool. If you want to hear what the Frankies actually sounded like, two tracks to listen to are 'Born To Run' and 'Krisco Kisses'. That's them playing live in the studio, and they were good! On something like 'Two Tribes' that was Mark's bass part, but we put it through a sequencer, and it was the same on 'Welcome To The Pleasure Dome'.

"When they first came to us they were pretty raw, but when they played live they did a very exciting version of 'Two Tribes'. It was very different to the recorded version, but it was really effective, and in actual fact 'Relax' was a lot simpler too. The version which they originally came to us with obviously had the four‑on‑the‑floor running all the way through it, but it also had much more of a white funk feel from the guitar and the bass. The final version had a very effective, very simple arrangement — the only thing that was clever about it was that we'd hitched up a Linn and a Fairlight and had that piano playing eights and the bass playing fours on the bottom. So when you ask how good the band were, they were better than people gave them credit for."

But, then again, when you say the only reason you didn't use them on 'Relax' was because they weren't there — you wouldn't say that if you were working with Clapton, would you?

"No, but what you've got to realise is that with 'Relax' we did a complete swerve. We had worked for two weeks on a version which the band played, but it wasn't really happening for me. So one lunchtime I suddenly threw a bit of a wobbler and said, 'This isn't working. We've got to start again.' It was just one of those things, and the guys simply weren't around.

"By the end of that Wednesday we had completely re‑recorded the track. It all happened in the space of 14 hours. It was played live onto the tape along with the lyric, and although we did about three takes, the first take was the one we used. Don't forget, you couldn't sync things up afterwards with the same kind of ease that you can nowadays, and so I was manually changing the drum patterns as we played the song.

"Then when we did 'Two Tribes', everyone more or less agreed that we would record the band playing it, and then see what we could do with it. On 'The Power Of Love', however, that is the band playing. I always think it's one of those media clichés to say the band didn't play on the record, and people get obsessed about it over here [in the UK]. That's one of the faults we have. The Americans pull just as many stunts, if not more. People don't just go into a studio and play, and it comes out sounding like Nirvana! The most incredible amount of work and production goes into making it sound like that, but people over here don't seem to understand."