The Thinking Man's Guide To Production
One of Britain's most versatile producers talks about working with Howard Jones, forming a new band, and the importance of communication. Paul Tingen listens.
Howard Jones and Tina Turner are just two of the artists to have benefitted from the production skills of Rupert Hine, whose career behind the faders now spans 14 years. In addition to producing and arranging, Hine is a talented songwriter in his own right. Here he discusses his attitude to sound and sound-manipulation, among other things.
'The parameters of my musical work are based on 99% of all popular music being wallpaper', says Rupert Hine, candidly. 'I cannot possibly contribute to that. It's what almost everybody is doing.
'There are so few people who are in any way concerned with making music for the communication of ideas. To me, that's so vital I can't even feel it to be necessary to specify what these ideas should be, even when they would be in support of things I wildly disapprove of. But I feel a real responsibility in working in this business. Most people in rock music think it's sufficient to open their mouths and sing about missing their baby. I think every time you open your mouth in public, you should have something to say, something with some purpose, some relevance or some meaning.'
Yes, Rupert Hine is a man with a cause. The precise nature of that cause is something we'll come back to later, but ideology aside, Hine is a remarkably friendly man who does his utmost to make his guests feel at ease: most of the time, his awkward, angular face wears a broad smile.
We are in Farmyard Studios in northwest London, which Hine owns together with drummer Trevor Morais and wife, and where all of his recent production efforts were recorded, as well as his last three solo albums and his forthcoming solo venture, the Thinkman project.
Indubitably, Hine is one of the most successful record producers in Britain today. He is responsible for the production of two tracks on Tina Turner's Private Dancer album, the entire recorded output of The Fixx and Howard Jones (save the latter's recent 'No-one Is To Blame' duet with Phil Collins), Chris De Burgh's best-selling Man on the Line, two Saga albums, and 60-odd other albums — some successful, others less so — spanning a production career of over 14 years.
Despite his remarkable achievements in the producing field, Hine's own recorded output has remained fairly obscure — thanks, perhaps, to what Hine calls 'The Producer's Syndrome'...
'My previous albums have been, I think rather unfairly, labelled "the successful record producer gets a chance to make his own record". For someone who has always held his own work to be stage one of communication, it's a bit daunting to have it put to one side as being just a flip piece of fun.
'The motivation behind Thinkman is to break away from that. I wanted to present my views at a much more upfront level, with an active group that are out and playing, in which I might be playing live myself. I'm not the integral, essential, performing animal. But the songs have been written and arranged by me here, with contributions from the band.'
The members of the band — Leo Hurll (keyboards and vocals), Andy Paris (bass and vocals), and J McArthur (drums and vocals) — are all relatively unknown musicians. Hine has his reasons for this.
'I wanted to start from scratch, with people who were interested in the ideas behind the songs. They are all people who are in some business of communication. Some of them are actors or writers as well as musicians. So it's four people who are involved in all kinds of areas — film, journalism, theatre. We form the core group around which guest musicians might be gathered.
'Thinkman the band is a first stage towards Thinkman the film, which will be made with one of Island's film companies. The film will go much farther than our songs are able to.'
So, Thinkman is quite an involved venture. Hine adds that it also features a loose organisation of approximately 40 people, working in various parts of the communications industry. What, then, is the motivation behind all this?
'Our aim is to bring about a greater realisation of the conditioning that the media puts upon us. That's the easiest way of putting it. Of course the media are doing positive and useful jobs, but what we're saying can be represented as follows: "don't believe everything you read". I know this might seem so trite that it's almost ridiculous. And yet such a vast percentage of the population believes what they see because it's on TV, or that what they read in a paper with some authority like The Times is actually true just because The Times says so.
'And there are many editors who publish articles with an absolute goodness of faith and are quite unaware that a story, long before it gets to them, might be full of warped truth, possibly also done in good faith.'
Perhaps Hine's message can be summarised by saying that everything you read, see or hear in the media is at best an interpretation of the truth and not the truth itself. As much as this feature, itself, is no more and no less than an interpretation of the things Rupert Hine said on an evening in early 1986, over a vegetarian meal with a very good French red wine. Well, it's always useful to remember.
The Thinkman album is called The Formula. It features Stewart Copeland on drums, Jamie West-Oram of The Fixx on guitar and Liza Dalbello on vocals. It's a collection of fairly straightforward pop songs but, as usual, these are spiced up by a clutch of typical Rupert Hine sound-manipulations like tape loops, sampling and hundreds of little details almost impossible to trace. The songs do sound as though they're being played by something like a band. And Hine's voice — uttering the social commentary of girlfriend Jeanette Obstoj's lyrics — is more relaxed and natural than before.
'I wanted to be more seductive than threatening on this album', he explains.
'On the previous three albums I treated my voice with some harmonising and various mic techniques, to get a slightly disembodied effect. I used that voice to create an alter-ego.'
Those previous three albums are Immunity (1981), Waving Not Drowning (1982) and The Wildest Wish to Fly (1983). They marked Hine's comeback as a solo artist, after he'd released two solo long-players on Purple Records - Pick a Bone and Unfinished Pictures — back in the early seventies.
Immunity is a brilliant, disturbing album, a collection of wildly anarchistic songs on which even the few straightforward instruments present are hardly ever put to their normal use. It's a record full of surprise, gloom and not a little anger, and is more the striking for it. Hine explains some of the philosophy.
'In 1980 I felt very frustrated with the record business. Everything was steering right back to the mid-seventies after the fresh anger of the punk and new-wave period. Now, in 1986, it's totally the same as ten years ago, where music in most people's lives has no greater function than a light-bulb; they walk into a room and together with the lights, they switch the music on. In 1980, it was clear things were going to go that way again, lacking meaning and with a great stress on style instead.
'Style is a form of presentation, but too often it is also 100% of content. So I started to see analogies with the film industry. Why is it that people will readily go and see a film that is harrowing and disturbing, and three days later tell how marvellous that film was? Why is it that regular everyday people will sit through a major heavy movie and accept it, and yet won't accept music on a similar plane? Of course there is a place for dance music but at some moments you might sit back and think: "huh, all this music is so trivial, it's all so superficial, now I want to sit in front of my loudspeakers for 40 minutes and feel like I do when I go to the movies. I want to sit there in my room and if that music disturbs me, then that's worthwhile."
'Immunity was an expression of anger at the fact that this didn't seem to be possible with the record business. It was an absolute outburst from Jeanette and me, which is why I like it so much. It was very much a state of affairs in our minds. The central theme of the album is the fight against apathy. All the songs basically said: "For God's sake, don't just sit there! Don't accept what you see on the TV as being the truth, don't accept what you're being told the way a child would." We felt frustrated that so many people had what I'd call secondhand opinions.'
"There are so few people concerned with making music for communicating ideas; most rock musicians think it's enough to open their mouths and sing about missing their baby."
Soundwise, Immunity is an exploration into new areas — as indeed almost all of Hine's work, solo or otherwise, has been. Though he was quickly branded as 'the Master of the Fairlight', he has never owned one, and didn't start to work with sampling until the Thinkman project. Instead, he worked (and continues to work) with tape loops...
'I might play through a whole song, either drumming or hitting various kinds of assorted percussion, then take out the four or eight or 16 bars which I like the best, and loop them.'
In this way, 'Psycho-surrender' features a rhythm-track made up of knives, forks, and various other domestic sounds, as well as a solo made out of a yawn. The rhythm sound on 'Samsara' is two different sets of traffic noise, filtered through controlled voltage.
'My main stance was to try to avoid the usual', Hine concludes.
I wanted to make recording different. The prime way that was done was by avoiding musical instruments, and starting with the vocal instead of a rhythm track. Then I worked from the top down.
'I'm really not interested in musical instruments as such. If there are other devices that can achieve musical and sound goals more interestingly, then mostly I prefer them. But if you use too many unrecognisable sounds, you suddenly long to offset all those sounds with something that's truly recognisable. If you're working with five tracks of abstract sounds, they will sound even more original if you set them against a track of beautifully-recorded acoustic guitar, a real classic instrument. And now, suddenly, the other sounds that were just lost in a bizarre world have a purpose and a genre.'
After Immunity came Waving Not Drowning, an album very much an extension of its predecessor — still good, but without the original sparkling impact.
Then came The Wildest Wish to Fly, sonically and structurally more easily identifiable than before, and including the odd surprising — and unsuccessful — attempt to create a hit single.
'We were a bit put off, perhaps even depressed, with the fact that people strongly argued that the earlier music was not easy on the ear. Obviously, we expected it to some degree. But we found it a little daunting that even people with whom we felt aligned said there was basically no point in making those two albums unless we had hit singles. That's a thing I have to deal with when I'm producing artists every other day of the week. But we believed an album to be really communicative and enjoyable en route as well.
'In the end Wildest Wish had a couple of goes at 'singly' tracks, but they weren't good enough for that very, very finite singles area. So there are tracks on the album that are stumbling between the two, which have not gone far enough to really work as a single, but that have also left the real depth and intensity of my previous work.'
Hine and Obstoj had a hit single once, though, with Quantum Jump's 'The Lone Ranger'. They also wrote one song on Tina Turner's Private Dancer (16 million sales plus, worldwide), and have been commissioned to write several songs for Turner's forthcoming album, for which the production task is divided between Hine and Terry Britten.
'Jeanette is very much a writer of words, and I am indigenously a writer of music' says Hine, explaining the collaboration. 'I somehow grasp an emotion very comfortably in music, but always feel a little bit awkward in putting the same emotion or idea into words. To work with a lyricist, you have to share an understanding of what you're going to write about before you start.
'But the thing is to get a debate going between music and lyric. That can he very powerful. When music and lyrics work at their best for me is when they create a third thing. Sometimes you can set the lyrics at odds with the music, which creates a song which is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Then there's a suggestion that fills in all kinds of lines in between the words; there's a kind of dichotomy. It's hard to do that yourself, all on your own. For me it's easier to discuss the pros and cons with Jeanette.'
In a similar vein, Hine is also a firm believer in 'instant songwriting'. 'I'm sure most of the recording songwriters who read this magazine will agree that the things they like the best, and the longest, are the things they did the fastest. If you're writing or recording songs that you spend days and days on, they end up beautifully crafted. Everything is in the right place, the song is very neat and tidy, and you sort of end up being pleased with yourself on a level of craft, but maybe a little disappointed on the level of art. I use the word art to mean the soul of a song, the communicative aspect, the motivation; by craft I mean technique. Often, those songs that were written in a rush, that just came out in an hour or in ten minutes, are the ones that stay really true to you over the years. Those songs are like good-quality snapshots.'
Enough, then, about the sadly obscure side of Rupert Hine's musical output. What of the most celebrated part of his work — production? If his main concern is communication, how does he judge the people who approach him to have their records produced?
'The most important thing for me is that the music is properly meant. It has to be written and performed with conviction: people have to mean what they're saying. If that's not true then it just doesn't go any further. And I have to say that 90% of the demos I get sent to me sound like people who think of music in terms of a job. It's as if people are saying: wouldn't it be fun to earn a living from making records, because it's better than a day-to-day job — which of course it is. But the world is full of that kind of music, and I don't want to be responsible for yet another artist in the forum, just wanting to be a star, wanting to make money or whatever.
'Rule number two is that a project should in some way present a challenge for me personally, because then I'll know that I can give my best. And I also have to have the feeling that I have something to add. A lot of people have suggested that I work with Peter Gabriel, but I think he produces his albums perfectly: I like them too much. Peter manages somehow to get his ideas across very well, so there's no place for me there.
'By the same analogy I feel that Kate Bush, who's also extremely talented and an original writer and someone who's trying to communicate, does not produce her albums well. She's not getting the best out of herself and her songs. I'd really like to produce her, because I know in my heart that I could get an album that would be so much more communicative — and I don't mean commercial. She falls short so many times that it's very frustrating listening to her. She's a classic example of someone who lacks the objectivity to sit back and decide that one song is communicating well, while another song isn't.'
As far as rule number one goes, Hine obviously means what he says. Over the last year he's been approached by 23 (!) bands who've already had Top Three albums and singles released all over the world. He consents to only one name of those 23 being published in this interview, because there the falling-out was mutual: The Rolling Stones.
But if Hine is so concerned about meaning and content, what's he doing producing a brawn-and-biceps band like Saga, or a lightweight like Howard Jones? There is a sigh. The producer has obviously heard this one before.
'With Saga, the main reason for working with them was the challenge argument. They approached me because Immunity was their favourite album, and when I refused they came over and tackled me face to face, and threw down the glove. It was then that I was intrigued to see what I could contribute to the music of this typical North American band. Could I make an exciting album out of this ordinary music?
"Music in 1986 is the same as it was ten years ago. It serves no greater function than a light-bulb: you walk into a room and together with the lights, you turn the music on."
'I thought the first album we did together, Worlds Apart, succeeded very well in that. Perhaps the second, Heads Over Tales, was a mistake. The challenge was gone and although it was musically rewarding, it was on the lyrical side that it fell short for me.
'With Howard Jones it's a different thing altogether. In my view he is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in today's record industry. Of all the people I've worked with, he is the most committed to what he's trying to do — which is to use music to present his views as simply and directly as possible.
'The fight against negativism is Howard's main cause. His lyrics are some of the most poignant, most emotional and most direct of any artist in this decade that I can think of. The phenomenal amount of mail he gets from his fans is to me a glorious proof that the musical setting of an important message doesn't have to be as intense as, perhaps, I so often feel it should be.
'But having done two albums together, we both felt the need for new challenges, so he's going to work with another producer for his next album.'
Jones, then, evidently satisfies Hine's need for honest, direct communication. Perhaps surprisingly, the producer gets even more enthusiastic when the conversation turns to his most famous — and most recent — artist collaborator, Tina Turner.
'I have mainly a songwriter's interest in Tina. Compare it with film: I'm like a screenwriter who gets a chance to write for, say, Dustin Hoffman. I mean, what better talent is there at the moment to project an emotional song than Tina Turner? She has the most extraordinary effect on people who write songs for her, as you can see on her last album.
'David Bowie has written an excellent song for her new album, and Jeanette and I are in the process of writing a third song for her. It's extremely inspiring to work with her. She has the rare gift of taking a song that you wrote for her, and in the space of seconds, making that song sound like she wrote it herself. She consumes a song at such a level that when she throws it back at you, she seems to deny that the writer or producer had anything to do with it. I can only say that it's the most stunning experience I've ever had in the studio. So it's almost an addiction from a professional point of view.'
Mind you, Hine wouldn't be working with Turner now if he hadn't earned his reputation working with less inspiring singers and musicians. More than anything else, that reputation hinges on his abilities as a sound wizard.
At the beginning of the interview, Hine had complained about 'all those technical people' who ask him about any of the records he has produced. Hine finds this sort of talk uninteresting, mainly because it is so out of keeping with his wish to renew his work continuously by searching for new methods. And in any case, he usually forgets the specific effects and treatments he's used in the past.
But regardless of his personal attitudes, Hine has a reputation for working in what could be described as a hi-tech area. If his main aim is communication, what is his fascination with electronic gadgets?
'I feel they're the most natural means to an end for me. They are the tools that I work with because of my natural curiosity in constantly manipulating sounds. As I've said, I'm not so much interested in musical instruments as such, and there are areas of musical technology which have opened up so many extraordinary avenues for exploring sound in its purest form, that it's become a real fascination for me.
'I'm the first to admit that those areas can take over, and you have to check yourself on that. But it's essential that you be as much of a 100% producer as you can be. At the moment, the electronic side of music is advancing at such a pace that all that most of us can do is keep up with these extraordinary advancements.
'What many people are guilty of doing at the moment (including, at times, myself) is getting stunned by new equipment. We use it lightly for a short while before being stunned by the next piece. This inevitably means we are never masters of any of these processors. You can easily end up being completely sidetracked, and sent from one side to the other by the next attractive toy, rather than taking hold of one of them and trying to master it, become its most forthright exponent. Because if you make a personal tool out of an instrument, it will never go out of date.'
In his sonic experimentation, and especially in the areas of tape loops, AMS-triggering and sound treatment, Hine is aided by sound engineer Stephen W Taylor, friend and ally for the last five years.
'We challenge each other in doing things differently every time. He's now at a stage where he's creating sounds which are greater than I've envisaged them, which in turn stimulates me to new ideas. It's creative and fruitful, working together. We find lots of excitement in the completely hit-and-miss process of experimentation.
'That's why we never used a Fairlight, because we felt it was far too orderly. You have to do everything in the order that the programmer originally designated. I don't like the idea of being forced into someone else's parameters.
'To me, the Emulator II is the best example yet of a flexible sampling tool, where the programmer's intention is at such a low level that you feel you are truly using the machine in your own way.'
Hine's currently-favoured working method is to use the sequencer part of a Linn 9000 as a 32-track recorder. An MDB Window Recorder acts as a modern equivalent to all the tapelooping, and is triggered from the Linn. On the Thinkman album, other instruments used included a PPG Wave 2.2, some DX7s and a Prophet T8, which he describes as still 'the best analogue synth around at the moment'.
And in the percussion area. Mine admits to having a real phobia about recognising sounds from drum machines.
'I never include the sound of a drum machine itself; I always use drum sounds which I've recorded myself. In fact, I feel that drum sounds in general have been overrated for a while. People have been going to a certain producer just for a certain drum sound. The danger has been that albums were starting to sound very much alike.
'But now I think we've had the cure for completely artificial drum sounds. My guess is that '86 and '87 will see the full variety of approaches to recording drums living happily together.'
In that area of music-making, at least, Rupert Hine is optimistic.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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