In 2005 the only problem facing Arctic Monkeys was how to capture their frenetic live sound in the studio. Producer Jim Abbiss was ready to accept the challenge...
The last British rock single that can be truly described as a phenomenon, upon its release in October 2005, Arctic Monkeys’ propulsive ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ went straight in at number one in the UK chart. For most people, the Sheffield four-piece seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
The story behind the band’s dizzying rise was a very modern one. Having handed out free CDRs of their demos — a collection that later became known as Beneath The Boardwalk — at their increasingly packed gigs, Arctic Monkeys turned the apparent curse of online file-sharing to their advantage. Even before their first official release, their rammed shows were filled with fans who already knew every word of their songs.
This presented a problem, however. Having signed to Domino Records, the homegrown indie founded by Laurence Bell (the band turned down bigger offers from major labels), there was a real urgency to get their music properly recorded and out into the world. Sessions with producers Mike Crossey and James Ford were aborted, having somehow failed to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of Arctic Monkeys’ live performances. Next up to try his hand at producing ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and the band’s debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was Jim Abbiss, who had recently who had recently worked on projects with Kasabian and Editors.
“Laurence rang me,” Abbiss remembers. “He said do I know this band Arctic Monkeys and do I like them? I’d heard a couple of demos on Myspace and there was a lot of talk about them. I thought it was a really interesting story... the fact that there was this huge buzz around them that the mainstream didn’t really know about. They had this really loyal following and people knew all their words before they’d ever had a proper record out. These days people are used to going to gigs and knowing all the words because of social media. But in those days, no one went to a gig and knew the words to the songs unless the band were huge. So there was a massive story bubbling under about this band.
“They had loads of stuff lined up, a really busy schedule because of this buzz about them. They had a tour booked and a potential promo launch on Radio One and various things really building up for them. But they hadn’t got the recording done. So it was very much kind of, ‘We haven’t got very long to do this. Can we still make this record?’”
As such, from the word go, the pressure was on. “They put a gig on so I could go and see them at The Grapes [in Sheffield], which is where they played one of their first ever shows. Then a day or two after that, we went to the studio and started recording. We had 15 days to make the record. It was pretty stressful, if I’m being honest. I’ve never been under so much time pressure to try and record something that everyone’s waiting for.”
Everything Arctic Monkeys had done up to this point had been at a hurtling pace. Formed in summer 2002, the four — singer/guitarist Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders and original bassist Andy Nicholson — were a bunch of 16-year-old schoolmates who would hang around St Mary’s Field in High Green, Sheffield, lying around on the grass and talking about music. Inspired by the Strokes and the Libertines, the quartet started playing together in the music room at Stocksbridge High School during their lunch hours. It was only six months since both Turner and Cook had first picked up their guitars.
Secretly, the apparently bashful Turner began writing his own songs, featuring perceptive and withering lyrics that looked at everyday life in Sheffield, matched to angular guitar rhythms. But at the same time as Arctic Monkeys were busy honing their sound, Turner met the older Jon McClure, later the singer in Reverend and the Makers, joining his band Judan Suki as guitarist. “We were shit,” McClure later admitted to this writer. “Alex was an intelligent kid and a nice lad. I used to call him Big Ears ’cause he just listens to you. I never knew he could write like that. Every day he was just writing bangers back then.”
When Judan Suki entered a Sheffield Studio, 2fly, run by engineer Alan Smyth, to record demos in autumn 2003, Turner pulled the owner aside to ask him if he would like to come to see his other band play a gig at local venue The Boardwalk. “They were shambolic but fantastic to watch,” Smyth told me in 2010. “They played nine songs and over half of them were covers. But I couldn’t tell the difference between the covers and their own stuff. There was no drop in quality. Alex kind of shambled around on stage, but there was something there. I couldn’t stop watching.”
From here Arctic Monkeys went into 2fly to record in their own right and their sound began to quickly develop. Interestingly, given that one of the main features of their sound is Turner’s distinctive South Yorkshire accent, in these early sessions he was singing with an American twang. “I said to him, ‘You’re singing like an American. Are you meaning to?’” Smyth remembered. “He went, ‘Oh... no.’ And as each session went on, the American twang just disappeared.”
These 2fly demos were to make up Beneath The Boardwalk and very rapidly the Monkeys’ popularity grew. “Their music was obviously so good,” Jon McClure said, “it just spread so quick. It just went daft. Alex knew he was onto something. It reaffirmed for him that writing songs about those things touched people.”
“You’d bump into them in town,” recalled Smyth, “and they’d say, ‘Everybody’s singing the words at the gigs.’ It was like, ooh, something pretty big’s going on here.”
Before producing Arctic Monkeys, Jim Abbiss’s recording history had found him working in genres other than indie rock. Playing keyboards and bass in local bands in the Peterborough area from the age of 14, he first became interested in recording when he started assisting a friend of his father who ran a mobile studio taping live shows.
“He told me that you could do it as a job,” he remembers today, “and I’d never really thought about that before. I did a few recordings in a little tiny studio and I just fell in love with it. It was a really simple analogue setup with a 16-track Tascam tape machine. That really sort of ignited my first interest. Then I found out about a college course that you could do which combined a bit of music and recording. I always felt way more comfortable doing the recording than I did being on stage. And the more I found out about the fact that you could just sort of work with musicians and make records, I just got more interested in that idea.”
Abbiss then got a job at Spaceward Studio near Cambridge, owned by Gary Lucas and Mike Kemp, who would go on to develop the SADiE digital recording system. It was a big step up for the aspiring producer, giving him the opportunity to get his hands on the facility’s 24-track Studer and custom-built 56-input desk. At Spaceward, he worked alongside future Oasis/the Verve producer Owen Morris, renowned for his unorthodox approaches, who even then was regarded as something of a wildcard.
“Oh yeah, a total lunatic,” Abbiss laughs. “But very interesting. I was doing this college course where I was learning the supposed correct theory about how you do stuff, and then I went to work with him. He’d never been taught properly in his life. I had I guess a formal way of learning about stuff and he had a completely informal way of doing it. And I just learned loads from him because he used equipment however he felt like using it. At first I was like, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t put a mic in there.’ And he was like, ‘Well, it sounds alright.’ It opened my eyes up to the fact that there were many different ways of thinking about how you record stuff.”
In 1988, Abbiss left Spaceward and moved to London where he got a job engineering at The Power Plant in Willesden, just as dance music was beginning to explode. “It had all kicked off then,” he recalls, “and there were loads of remix sessions with DJs coming in. I’d just started to get an interest in that kind of music. Tim Simenon [Bomb The Bass] and Neneh Cherry both used to use the room quite a lot. I worked on various kinds of things in a couple of years there that were more dancefloor orientated and learnt a lot more about sequencing and the computer side of things.”
Two years later, in 1990, Abbiss went freelance, and ended up working mostly with three different producers: ex-Gong guitarist Steve Hillage who was by then deep into technology and collaborating with the likes of the Orb and the Shamen; Nellee Hooper, who used Abbiss to engineer Bjork’s first solo album Debut and his soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet; and Mo’ Wax label founder James Lavelle, who in turn introduced him to DJ Shadow, the team pooling their talents on the making of the first UNKLE album, Psyence Fiction.
It was an intensive education, which then allowed Abbiss to step out as a producer in his own right, capable of working with both electronic outfits and live-band setups. “When Britpop had come and gone,” he points out, “people started to put different influences into guitar music and use different instruments. People were just borrowing technology and ideas from everywhere. You could mix stuff up and mess around with sounds and whatever. If you do it well and people like it, then they just like you for experimenting really.”
When it came to recording Arctic Monkeys, however, the plan was to nail the power and dynamics of their live sound. Listening to the band’s 2fly demos, Abbiss felt he could improve upon them. “I liked the demos,” he insists. “I just didn’t think they sounded as exciting as they could potentially sound, having seen them live. It seemed as though, for this first record, it wanted to be raw and as live as possible. But the thing about that is you want kind of flaws and some personality in it, but you don’t want it to be so flawed that it starts to annoy you that things aren’t played well or whatever.
“So the balancing act was between getting the sound for them, getting the best performances possible, but without trying to smooth it to sound like it was over-produced. It certainly isn’t. I mean there’s hardly an overdub on it. It was meant to be as live-ish as possible and as near as we could get to a gig without being messy, really.”
For the sessions for what would become Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Abbiss decided to book Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire. “Firstly, I knew it pretty well because I’d made a few records there and it’s a very comfortable place,” he says. “They’ve got really good equipment and the people really look after you. They do anything to help you make your record. Unfortunately, especially around that time, when the industry was going through a massive change and a lot of places were closing down or running on a shoestring, you didn’t always get the best service you could get. And that place, they still kept the standards up.
“That was one reason for going there, but secondly, the guys were from Sheffield and they were kind of a little gang and they were wary of anything from London and the music industry. They were wary of me to start with and they were wary of their record being something that didn’t represent them. So the idea of a relatively local studio, which they could drive to in, like, an hour and a half, was really appealing to them.”
Aside from the actual business of recording, gaining the band’s trust was of course a priority for Abbiss. “We didn’t have a lot of time to hang out and get to know each other,” he says. “We met at the gig, chatted a bit about what they wanted and what I thought it should sound like, and that was kind of it. Then we started work and we had to do ‘Dancefloor’ in the first couple of days because we had a mix session booked in London with Barny [Simon Barnicott], who at that time was mixing a lot with me. They had to go to a cutting room the day after that. They were still kind of their little closed gang... didn’t really say that much to me.”
One of the key features of the setup at Chapel that appealed to Abbiss was their Amek 2500 console. “It’s just very simple,” he says. “There’s so much fuss made these days about mic pre’s and boutique microphones and EQs, as though you actually shouldn’t use the mixing desk for recording. It’s like, well, what was it designed for? It was designed to record stuff. Amek desks are really simple, good clean signal paths and they’ve got a bit of character to them. So we used the desk for over half of the sounds.
“If there was a specific thing that I liked through an external mic pre, they’ve got loads of other stuff. Everything sounded pretty good and pretty true and it was just a choice on certain things if you wanted to break out of the desk and throw something else in. They’ve got some old Telefunken V72s and 76s [valve mic amps] which are really nice for bass. And Urei mic pres that are quite good for kick and snare. They’ve got Neves [1073s and 1080s] which are nice on loads of things... great for the vocal. But we used the desk loads.”
In terms of monitoring, Abbiss worked between Chapel’s ATCs and Yamaha NS10s. “I’d been using NS10s at that point for 20 years,” he says. “I just know what they sound like and they’re vibey. The ATCs in there are absolutely awesome. They’re a great playback speaker for the band. Y’know, they were 18 and they wanted to hear their music back loud and be excited by it. So at the end of the night, you put it on and turn it up and enjoy your music.”
At Chapel, Abbiss wasn’t spoiled for choice when it came to recording environments, however. “There’s one main room there and there’s a small booth and there’s a corridor and that’s your lot,” he explains. “So you could put everything in the same room, but then you’d have to booth it off so much. I think with the concept of live recording, the only reason for having all the amps and everything in the same room is if you’re not gonna use headphones. But everything’s gonna bleed on the drums and your drum sound is gonna be compromised. So if you’re going for a live take, warts and all, no headphones, just like a rehearsal, then put everything in the same room, but be prepared for compromising your sound.
“We were using headphones. They have a really good individual headphone mixer system at the Chapel, so everyone was happy using headphones. They all stood around the drum kit with their own little mixer and the leads went off to a booth for the two guitar amps and the corridor for the bass amp, and that was it. On the ones where we felt like Alex would be better singing live, we just built a booth for him which he could step into. We’d close the back up and he could do his stuff from in there.”
Mic-wise, when it came to recording Alex Turner’s vocals (and the backing vocals sung by Matt Helders), Abbiss moved between a Shure SM7 and a Neumann U67 and U87. “If Alex was doing a vocal live, we used the SM7, ‘cause it’s really good at rejecting spill from anything else. The U67 they’ve got there is good and middly sounding. Matt never did his BVs as part of the live takes, he concentrated on his drumming. The 87 was there for the BVs.”
Abbiss laughs when he remembers that Turner was actually in a pretty grumpy mood when he recorded the vocal for ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’. “Alex was kind of jarred off with recording that song, ‘cause there was so much focus on it from everybody. Everybody you met in the industry was talking about that song and wondering if it was going to be the big first single. And I think he was already, like, ‘What is going on?’.
“He did a guide vocal and then once everyone was kind of feeling it, we recorded it instrumentally and he sang the vocal afterwards. But all the performances were live on it, apart from his lead. He sang three takes and at the end of every one, he went, ‘like a robot from 1984... shit... this song’, or ‘I fucking hate this song’ or ‘I’m sick of this’. He was really not into recording it. And there was one take where he didn’t do that at the end, so I used that for the end of the song, basically ’cause I had to. We chose the best bits of whatever else we had and did it in a day.”
With the deadline for the single looming, the album sessions broke, so that Abbiss and Barny could mix the track at Olympic Studios in London. “It was done to Pro Tools but we mixed the whole album on an EMI TG1 desk and it only had 18 channels. We had 16 channels of music, so that would’ve been eight channels of drums, then the bass, couple of guitars, vocals, backing vocals, bit of percussion, any other overdubs and two effects.
“We mixed it live, there was no automation. I had the left-hand side of the desk and Barny had the right-hand side. He did most of the EQ’ing and balancing initially, because he’d heard the monitor mix I’d done and he was like, ‘OK, I get what we need to do.’ So he took it over for an hour or two, then played it to me, we’d make adjustments and then we’d work out what we needed to do on the mix.”
Given the channel limitations, in terms of effects, Abbiss and Barny were working with only an Echoplex tape delay and mono plate reverb. “The other effects were all from ambient miking and the amazing spring reverb built into Alex’s Hiwatt amp. So that was it. And we were riding it live. It was really good fun. You basically just did a few performances and chose the one you thought was best.”
Once the track was mixed, the band came down from Sheffield with their manager to hear the finished result. “We played it back,” Abbiss remembers, “and they sort of gave a little smile and they went, ‘Can we hear it again?’ And they played it again and played it again. And they just went, ‘Oh it sounds fucking great, it’s really captured something.’ From that moment on, I think they realised that I wasn’t trying to make them sound like Def Leppard or whoever. They were scared of it being too polished. So they relaxed then and from that moment on they really were a pleasure to work with.” Returning to Chapel, the rest of the album was nailed in less than two weeks. “It was still really hard work,” Abbiss stresses, “‘cause we had so much to do in such a short time. But there was never an issue about anything else. I think they stopped questioning whether their stuff was being ruined or not and just got on with it.”
Upon release, not only ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, but also its parent album were enormous successes, with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not becoming the fastest-selling debut album ever in the UK, shifting 363,735 copies in the first week alone. Then, in 2012, Arctic Monkeys performed ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics for an estimated worldwide TV audience of one billion.
“It’s incredible really what’s happened to them,” says Abbiss, who has gone on to produce the likes of Adele and Emeli Sandé. “I’ve had loads of success working with young bands and artists, and to see where they end up is amazing. You help them in some small way, then they go off and have these amazing careers. All the best of luck to them.”
Thanks to Chapel Studios for their help with the photos in this article. www.chapelstudios.com
‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ Label: Domino Released: 2005 Producer: Jim Abbiss
Only one track on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was to prove problematic, namely fan favourite Mardy Bum. “That was a nightmare for us,” Abbiss admits, “and that’s because they’d slightly changed the way they did it. It’s a song I absolutely love, but the version we did for the album was faster and in a different key. And then they went back and went, ‘Aw no’. And they slowed it down. I’d gone on to do something else and I couldn’t re-record it.
“Al Smyth went out to Germany where they were on tour and they just went into a studio for a day and recorded another version of it, and then they sent it to me to finish it off. I was kind of gutted because I really like the song.”