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BILLY LUNN: A producer by necessity (part two)

Laura  Barnes
BILLY LUNN: A producer by necessity (part two)

The Subways frontman Billy Lunn continues his three-part column about the changing face of the recording process.

So incredibly easy is it to forget even the most obvious details of all that surrounded the paths that led us to where we now stand, and to forget all the hills traversed and ditches trudged along the way!

But writing up the first part in the history of my producing career for this column has probably been more enlightening for myself than it has for anyone else.

All those untouched memories – those barely-thought-of and mostly forgotten days – their being too long neglected somehow indirectly undermines the value of those lost hours toiling away at what felt then like tediously pointless tasks.
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But, in the long run, those brain-frying sessions are what laid down the solid foundation for a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what I spend a lot of my time doing now.

The big step up, of course, was our debut album, Young For Eternity, which was produced by Ian Broudie at Elevator Studios up in Liverpool. We’d signed with Warner Records after meeting the then managing director Korda Marshall on the last date of our first UK tour in 2004, which was the natural follow-on from our “big break” playing Glastonbury’s ‘The Other Stage’ after winning a rock contest at Michael Eavis’s local pub in Pilton. The reason we ended up playing this rock contest in Michael Eavis’s local working men’s club in the first place is a story in itself, so forgive me for indulging in contextualising.

In order to help pay my mum and dad back for buying the Yamaha AW-4416, I’d decided to record and mix the efforts of the other local bands that couldn’t afford the extortionate fees demanded for two days in the only recording studio in Welwyn Garden City, then called Farm Factory. £20 and a couple of cans of Foster’s was my usual rate, and it offered me the chance to really get to grips with this complicated piece of recording equipment, which, day after day, continued to blow my mind, confusing and enlightening me in equal measure.

“Where are you planning to send the CDs once I’ve mixed the songs”, I asked the singer of local band Overdrawn as I set up the tracks for recording, “because Charlotte and I have a ledger full of names and addresses you could use if you want some tips for venues in London…”

“We’re just looking to get some songs down and we’ll just see how it goes…” he replied, nonchalantly. “…And there’s that Glastonbury competition too…” the bassist chimed in.

“Oh”, I said. “That sounds cool! I might just have to look that one up for ourselves.”

We ended up getting a call from a guy called Wes White (who, to this day, remains a beloved friend of the band) saying something along the lines of: “the CD you sent us is great – we’d like to ask you to play down here in Pilton as part of the contest!” The CD we’d ended up sending the guys at Glastonbury was a “best of” of sorts, a whittled down, three song demo of our favourite tracks - though not necessarily the best quality recordings: 1) At 1am, 2) Rock & Roll Queen, and 3) Oh Yeah. All of them recorded in the teeny-tiny living room and mixed in the even tinier kitchen of my parent’s council house in Kilworth Close, WGC.

The song titles were written on the CDR in my mum’s hand, as it was then simply another demo we were sending out as part of a batch of thirty-or-so others, all destined for promoters in and around London. By the time the call came in we’d already forgotten we’d actually entered the contest, having excitedly spent weeks logging all the return calls from London promoters and methodically booking in gigs over the next few months, though the contest immediately took precedence once I’d got off the phone with Wes.

Anyway… back to producing!

When we first arrived at Elevator Studios to record with Ian, one of the main notions running through my panic-addled brain was that I wouldn’t be in control of the recording – that I wouldn’t have sole access to the desk – and it really freaked me out. It lasted right the way through the project. But, luckily, Ian always intended on including us in the process, and openly told us so, and that naturally allayed any undue concern on my part – the concern was all my issue, nobody else’s (I was an odd kid – many would say I still am).

We were shown exactly where we’d be set up in the live room, and we were told that in order to get to the control room from the live room we’d have to climb some narrow wooden stairs to the top floor. In this respect the environment was perfect for the band we were at that point in time: we’d mainly established ourselves as a live act tearing up and throwing ourselves around the stages of most of tiniest, dingiest venues London had to offer, and the separation from all the gizmos upstairs in the control room meant that we could just play in a room together all by ourselves, as though we were back in our old rehearsal room at Ludwick Youth Centre – though obviously paying an awful lot more than £3.50 an hour for the privilege.

That’s all Ian wanted from us in the recording: just three kids rocking out whilst he captured the magic up in the heavens where the flashing lights of outboard equipment, the big tape reel, and the Pro Tools setup sat abreast the grandest mixing desk I’d ever seen in my life.

Aside from opening my eyes to all this new, grandiose equipment, the main thing I took from Ian over the weeks spent making Young For Eternity, apart from the prospect of there being something strange and new called “balance in the mix”, was that it’s so important to just let the band PLAY. Let it bleed. Let the music speak. Let the instruments inform one another in those few minutes they’re given to create that polyphonic joy. You can’t fake unity in a performance in the mix: it just exists. Just let the band PLAY.

Touring Young For Eternity was a two-year adventure that took us all over the world, and during those two years spent on the road we morphed and changed into something quite different from what we started out as, and the learning had only really just begun.

Next stop: Los Angeles, and the legendary Butch Vig along with it…

Tags: recording , the subways , Opinion , billy lunn

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