Go West Producer: Gary Stevenson
The phenomenal rise to success of Gary Stevenson came about through his dynamic production work on the first Go West album. Ralph Denyer extracts the details of the saga and discovers what Gary has planned for the future.
Record producer Gary Stevenson has leapt virtually overnight from being a complete unknown to a much sought after talent, purely on the strength of his excellent production work on the very successful Go West album. Having completed recording of a new Go West song for the Rocky IV soundtrack, and producing Marilyn Martin's new LP, Gary spoke to Ralph Denyer about the background to his rise to fame, the setting up of his own studio and plans for his band, Radar.
When Go West achieved singles success with 'We Close Our Eyes' in 1985, just about everything involved with the record was impressive. The subsequent hit singles and Go West album confirmed that not only are Peter Cox and Richard Drummie a very talented pair but also that the production of their records is outstanding. Arif Mardin is reported as describing the Go West sound as 'Modern Motown' after hearing an early version of 'We Close Our Eyes'. Everything to do with the band's music and presentation has been slick and professional, at times standing head and shoulders above a vacuous landscape of vinyl wastage.
Record companies obviously seek to maintain some control of what happens in the recording studio in order to protect their investment, particularly when it's a new band. Of course, the safest and usual way to achieve this is to hire in a producer who has a successful track record and, more often than not at the moment, is willing to trade off musicality for commerciality when necessary.
The production of Go West's records excels in various ways. The records are very bright, dynamic, and have a contemporary sound which incorporates elements of both live and sequenced/sampled/synchronised music with great skill. But strangely, prior to the release of 'We Close Our Eyes' their producer Gary Stevenson's name was completely unknown in the record business. Perhaps this is not surprising as he had never had one of his productions released before!
For Gary Stevenson the initial success of Go West has enabled him to move further towards his dream of owning his own professional standard multitrack recording studio. Currently, this means that he has literally crammed to the ceiling a vast array of recording equipment, instruments and things that go bump in the night, into a milking shed on a farm located less than an hour's drive away from central London.
"Knock on that door down there and you'll find Gary," the farmer told me, and there he was with his canine companion, Solo. Even Solo is musical, turning a dramatic vocal performance laden with pathos and angst to order at the sound of his master's voice. Gary appears very friendly and down to earth, and while expressing reservations about doing interviews in general, settled down to talk. It's only fair to point out that he was more interested in hearing about other producers I had interviewed than talking about himself. He especially wanted to know all about Martin Rushent and Alan Winstanley's Genetic Sound Studios.
"That's what I'd like to do in the end, just to get somewhere of my own where I can work from. I don't love going around different studios." Even if Gary works in studios equipped with the monitoring and desks he is familiar with and likes, he feels it's just not the same as having your own studio.
"That's why I've set this place up. It's silly really, I'm setting up a complete studio for one album, and then we've got to get out. I've got my own band - there's three of us — and we're called Radar, at the moment. We signed our deal before Go West signed theirs actually, but Go West asked me to produce them and I thought: 'Well, I'll delay mine a bit because I'd love to do Go West'. So I produced the album and one thing led to another."
The other two members of Radar are Rod Curtis and Dave West. Dave, in fact, does all of Gary's programming and plays keyboards for Go West. At the moment, for non-musical reasons, the second Go West album looks likely to be recorded outside the UK so Gary is only expecting to stay in the milk shed for Radar's debut album. Then he intends to put all his equipment and instruments in store and find a suitable location to set up his studio when he returns to the UK after the next Go West album is recorded.
Gary originally produced Go West's demos around 1982, at which time he was working in a music shop and operating his own 8-track studio from his bedroom in his parents' house, mainly with the aim of getting his own band's deal together.
"I met Pete Cox first of all and through him met Rik. Pete might have been in our band - it was a bit like that. But our band got on quite well and we got ourselves a publishing deal though Rik and Pete were still struggling."
Finding he had a bit of spare time, Gary availed himself to help out on some demos, offering advice on choice of songs as well as the use of studio gadgetry. "We went in and did a demo for all the publishing companies and they got a great publishing deal from that. I can remember when they came to the shop, jumping up and down and going: 'Yeah! we've got our publishing deal'. They were really pleased. Unfortunately, they went on for about two years looking for a record deal."
"They came to me and said: 'Look Gary, you've got your deal now. There's no way it can conflict with ours. Can you do some tracks for us please?'. Their manager had put up some money just to record some tracks for independent release. And I said I'd love to do it."
They worked on routining the songs in Gary's bedroom for a couple of weeks and took them to Chipping Norton Studios.
"We could only afford five days of studio time, which meant getting up at 9 o'clock in the morning and working right through to 4 o'clock the next morning. At the end of it we were nearly dead! Those two tracks were 'We Close Our Eyes' and 'Call Me', which we mixed and put out to the record companies, then BANG! All of a sudden - interest."
"There were a few companies interested in them - RCA and, of course, Chrysalis. RCA offered a really good deal but they insisted that Peter Collins produce Go West and the boys went for the Chrysalis deal because they wanted me to produce, which was great. I was very pleased about that because everybody had said: 'That's it mate. You've had it now. They'll get a name producer'. I thought: Oh well, fair enough. But I really respect the boys for that. They held out for me and not only have they done well, I've done well too." At this point we started talking about the Go West production in general terms. I said the records are very slick, which I regard as a compliment and not a criticism. "Yeah, I do too," said Gary. "I wanted it to be clean, powerful, punchy - not dirty and messy.
I like to be able to hear everything. I like it to be crystal clear, really. We spend a lot of time doing that, getting the frequencies all right. There's so much more to a good record than just the ideas you know."
Orchestrating or arranging synths is an area where a lot of people fall down, not understanding that synths in particular can sound totally different when mixed into a track. Yet Gary seems particularly skilled in this area.
"Some people will EQ a keyboard while it's on its own. That's all right up to a point but you have to put it in the track and listen to it and then say: Oh, this isn't cutting through, or it's a bit mushy there."
"Then you listen to it on its own and you think: I wouldn't have normally gone for that sound. But that's the whole thing, putting it in the picture, really. I spent a lot of time on my 8-track learning that the hard way."
One of the more intriguing news snippets of recent months was that Sylvester Stallone had personally expressed a wish to work with Go West on tracks for the Rocky IV soundtrack. They, in fact, have one track featured in the movie. Over to Gary...
"That was an interesting part of my time. After I'd been out to Japan with Go West to do some live tracks, we went to Los Angeles especially to do two tracks for the Rocky IV film. First of all it was to do the title track 'Hearts On Fire' and then we put forward a song which we didn't do on the Go West album called 'One Way Street'. We had a meeting with Stallone and he said how he wanted the song. We had the part of the film we were working on (the training scene) coming up all the time."
"Now, Pete and Rik are artists in the true sense of the word as far as I'm concerned. People say: 'Cor! It's commercial, they're selling out! ' They're not, they're doing exactly what they want. But they didn't like the way he wanted the title track to be. He wanted Pete to really sing out in a gravelly voice. He loves the gravelly voice and the old, hard rock stuff - really hard. Now, if I could tell you the amount of discussions that Pete, Rik and myself had sitting there in the studio - it was called Galaxy Studio - about this track, you wouldn't believe me. There's me going: 'Rocky IV! It'll be on the telly! My Dad loves Rocky! Get a track on Rocky IV and everybody in the States is going to hear it'."
As far as Gary was concerned, was it a case of whatever it takes? "Yeah. But Pete and Rik wouldn't have it. I was saying: 'Look boys, we can still do it'. They got up and said: 'We wanna go home'."
"They're not brats or anything like that. They know what they want to do and they know how they want to do it. They felt that if they got stuck into that - that actual rock thing - they'd have to stay there, and that's not the direction they want to go in with their music. We ended up compromising. But in the end it still wasn't what Stallone wanted - it wasn't rocky enough."
Did Gary think Stallone just wanted a repeat of 'Eye Of The Tiger'? "Yeah, I do. I knew from that first meeting that's exactly how he wanted it."
An underlying factor to that episode was that Go West had broken as a major record-selling act in just about every important market - except the USA. Though everyone was very nice about it, Go West were dropped from the main Rocky IV theme 'Hearts On Fire'. Gary was, to say the least, upset. Pete Cox, to his credit, went as far as he felt he could in giving his already strong voice more of a gravel edge without compromising himself. Though the Go West version was completed, it will probably never be released.'
However, all was not lost. Pete and Rik's own song 'One Way Street', which Stallone considered to be "a nice toon", is both in the movie and on the Rocky IV soundtrack album which has already gone gold in the States. Gary, having been very open in talking about the episode, was concerned that I be careful not to make it appear that he was criticising Pete in any way at all.
"Stallone just wanted a rock'n'roll singer and Pete's a lot more articulate than that." I said that we should simply point out that Pete is a singer, not a shouter. "Yeah, that's a good one. I like that."
I explained to Gary that when I hear Go West at what I consider to be their best, one of the features of their music which impresses me most is the way in which they tame the technology and as a result achieve human - not robotic - fresh-sounding records. There's feel and performance involved.
"There's a lot of sequenced stuff on there granted, but what I think helps the whole thing is Alan Murphy on guitar for a start. We're going to get more guitar-age on the next album. But Alan added a lot of human element to the tracks he played on. And I overdubbed hi-hats and stuff like that; I won't use a drum machine hi-hat. I suppose it's the way you programme the devices as well.
If there was anything that couldn't be done by machine I'd get the drummer to overdub it, the snare fills and things like that. So that helps humanise matters.
Pete is fantastic anyway, he's a brilliant singer. I don't worry if a track's a tiny bit too 'techno' because he'll always push it the other way with his vocal performance."
It turns out that Pete not only sings in the studio, he plays keyboards. "Most people don't know that because he keeps it to himself, although Dave West - he's my programmer so I take him with me - does most of the keyboards. Pete also plays guitar, he's a good guitar player. All the clean guitars on 'Don't Look Down' are Pete's. Most of the keyboard stuff was sequenced, so I'm pleased it still sounds human to you." And Rik's contribution? "Writing, backing vocals, keyboards, bass and ideas. You know, they're not like Wham! I don't know how much Andrew Ridgely does but Go West certainly both work together. It's just that Pete is up-front all the time."
Gary asked me to pass him the album sleeve so he could use the sleeve notes to prod his memory. "OK, we've got 'We Close Our Eyes' and that's sequenced bass. Funnily enough, I met Paul King out in LA and he said to me: 'I really love 'We Close Our Eyes'. We put that track up on the monitors as a guide to listen for bass sounds when we do our tracks because we really love the bass on it.' I didn't have the heart to tell him it was two Roland SH101s - which are about £150 each - linked up together.
We didn't have any of the toys for 'Call Me' and 'We Close Our Eyes'."
The main keyboard line on 'We Close Our Eyes' sounds played. "That's an interesting one. It's one of the tracks we did at Chipping Norton. We hired in a PPG Wave for two days but didn't have a sequencer that could drive the Wave, so that line is played about 20 times - all different octaves - that's probably why that sounds human as such. In fact, most of the things on those two tracks weren't sequenced apart from the synth bass. The rest of it was mainly human stuff."
Gary had most of the rack effects gear that currently occupies his studio before the Go West breakthrough. "I have obviously earned some money from producing Go West and our own record deal advance has come through, so I've put the two together and bought the rest of this equipment over the last couple of months. I'm pretty skint now! When we do the next Go West album, it has to be done out of the country, not in my studio, so I will have somebody looking for premises for me. The equipment will go into storage and, hopefully, by the time I get back they will have found somewhere and I will have my own place where I can be most creative, definitely, because I'll be able to use it any time, day or night. I still worry about the money it costs in the top studios. I think it's a joke. I don't like having budgets to work to as a producer. I'd rather record in my own place and have it take a year and if we've only got a budget for a set amount of time, then fine, I'll just bill the record company for that amount. After all, the record has got my name on it too."
We spoke about interviews with record producers in general and I told Gary that I generally hope to get some examples of how a producer works to give some insight into their general attitude and personality.
"My attitude is basically to enjoy ourselves and not feel too under pressure to come up with things. I like to be as casual as possible. And as long as the people I work with can trust me then it's fine, no problem at all. The problems always seem to occur on first albums when the band's nervous and worry about it. And the minute you go in the studio, they want it to sound like a record and you say: 'Don't worry, I know what it's going to sound like in the end - wait till the mix.' For me, mixing is everything. I like to spend as much time mixing as I do recording, which is why I desperately want those Marilyn Martin tapes back please Atlantic."
Earlier in our conversation, Gary had mentioned that he was unhappy with the tracks which he had produced for Marilyn Martin's album because at the time he had overworked himself considerably and his judgement was impaired but he felt he shouldn't let Atlantic down. Obviously, he wants to do the best job possible and the fact that she had a huge hit duet with Phil Collins on 'Separate Lives', which was produced by Collins with Hugh Padgham and Arif Mardin, does rather set the standard fairly high. Did he really want to go on record saying he was unhappy with the mixes?
"Yeah, I actually want to re-mix it because I was knackered, I just couldn't hear. I had to mix them out in New York and I wanted to do them at home anyway. I think Atlantic can let me have them. I'm pushing them for it. But record companies will say: 'Oh well, we love the mix', and you have to get it right the first time because otherwise they might keep the tape, which is another reason why I must have my own studio. You generally have one or two days to mix a track and that's it. With my own studio, if I'm not happy with some details of a mix, I can say I'd like to keep the tapes a little longer to re-mix them. So the key to it all is this studio, having my own place. A lot of people say that it's not a good idea because of the cost of its up-keep. I'm not worried about that. As long as I can work freely just like I did in my little 8-track studio at home, I'm fine."
As you might expect, Gary is receiving quite a lot of requests to produce various acts, some of which include some of his heroes.
"I've turned down an awful lot of things to do my band's album and the next Go West album but people are still coming on and saying they'll wait until after that. It's very weird. 'Flavour of the month' I think they call it? I just want to make sure I'm gonna stay up there now, so I'm gonna pick what I do very carefully."
As soon as you walk into Gary's (albeit temporary) studio, the importance he places on mixing is soon evident. Various monitors dominate the room. He's developed quite a liking for Quested dome monitoring but was unable to get a pair in time for Radar's album. He has a pair of JBL 4035 units and he had just taken delivery of a pair of Westlake BBM12 monitors which he finds more to his liking, being less harsh in general and similar to the Quested dome speakers in principle.
In common with just about everyone else in professional studios, Gary Stevenson uses the now famous little Yamaha NS10 hi-fi speakers for most of his actual mixing at lower volumes. Then there's a pair of similar sized Acoustic Research AR18 units plus his ghetto-blaster wired directly from the desk to give him a cheap and cheerful sound reference. He tends to only use the large studio monitors to check a particular line or instrument for sound quality and fidelity, and not generally for level balancing during mixdown.
"I think it's a bit silly, all the monitoring that I've got, but it helps me. Mixing is both a pain in the arse and beautiful. It's the most important thing in the world to me."
Gary has taken charge of a new 48 channel Amek mixing console for his own studio which he describes purely and simply as - "Fantastic. It's versatile and it's got a great sounding fat EQ." Though nurtured on and a great fan of Solid State Logic desks, Gary had to work to a budget and so went for the Amek. "The automation for it is supposed to be good. I've got it coming. Everyone tells me it is the only one that's any good except for the SSL. I have to have automation, I can't do without it." Anyone who knows Gary's Go West productions will not be surprised by the amount of reverb and assorted delay line units he uses. "I think reverbs are really important. Unfortunately, I didn't buy a Lexicon 224X for my studio but their PCM70 is great. I've got the new Roland SRV2000, the Yamaha REV-7, and Master Room's famous MR3 reverb, which I had in my bedroom when we did the 8-track version of 'We Close Our Eyes'. All the toms on that, all they are is an Oberheim DX drum machine I put through the MR3 - all horrible and gated. We liked them so much that I actually took the 8-track to the studio and transferred it to the 24-track. Basically, the MR3 is my little secret weapon for the horrible sounds. It's alright having all this techno stuff but it's nice to have dirty stuff as well."
"I never have a formula for anything I do in the studio. It's like when I used to work in the music shop. The guitarists who came in and talked about how high the action should be and what strings they use were useless, and the guys who came in and picked up anything, they were great. Alan Murphy - the Go West guitar player - he'll pick up any guitar and play. It's the same as when people ask: 'How did you get that sound and what happened? ' You can't always remember. It's just what works on the day - and how it feels."
"I'll tell you what was mainly on my mind when we recorded 'We Close Our Eyes' and 'Call Me'. I was thinking: I wonder if I'll hear Go West at least once on the radio? It would be brilliant to see my name on a record label."... And brilliant it certainly is!