Hit Man Hague
Stephen Hague has demonstrated considerable talent as a producer of classy electronic pop, riding the faders for the Pet Shop Boys and New Order. But his recent work on albums by Robbie Robertson and Siouxsie & The Banshees shows that he has more strings to his bow. Paul Tingen lends an ear.
He arrived before Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and is clearly surviving them. Yet he does very much the same thing: turning out hit single after hit single. So what's the difference? For starters, his hits are usually good fun, not only for the musically moronic or under 10s, but also for the rest of the population. Secondly, he is not nearly as well known as the (in)famous trio. What else? That's something we hope to find out on a cold and windy December evening in North London.
Stephen Hague, the man in question, is a soft-spoken American who is now resident in the UK. It's almost midnight when he sits down in his favourite RAK studios to reveal, or so the tape recorder and its owner hope, the secret of his success. Hague's contribution to UK pop music over the last nine years has been immense. From the Pet Shop Boys' 'West End Girls' and 'What Have I Done To Deserve This', via Malcolm McLaren's 'Madame Butterfly', New Order's 'True Faith/1963' and 'World In Motion', Erasure's 'Ship Of Fools', Holly Johnson's 'Love Train', to Jimmy Sommerville's 'To Love Somebody', his productions have made quite an impression [on] the British charts. Most of them are typical 3-minute pop songs, dominated by the sound of modern technology. But Hague is not just a one-trick wonder; he's also worked with rock-oriented artists like Pere Ubu, and P.I.L., and last year he produced Robbie Robertson's Storyville as well as Siouxsie & The Banshees' Superstition.
Robertson's Storyville is the odd one out in this list, for it bears none of the typical Hague hallmarks. It's a rootsy, epic, sweaty affair, possibly Robertson's (and Hague's) finest work to date, but a world away from the hi-tech sound which Hague has pursued on most of his other productions, with their crafty interlocking rhythms and bright, catchy synth lines. Working with Siouxsie & The Banshees, he even managed to drag them into pop territory on tracks like 'Cry' and 'The Ghost In You'.
Hague laughs shyly when confronted with these observations and admits, almost apologetically, that he "actually played quite a lot of keyboards on the Banshees album. But Martin McCarrick is a very clever player who played many of the keyboards on the album. Like the riff on 'Kiss Them For Me', that was all his. But it's true that I like these unassuming musical synth figures that play counterpart to the vocals." And, he should add, make the songs irresistibly catchy.
Hague is evasive when queried further about the subject, reluctant to define what he played and what the band played, not only on the Banshees' album, but also on other recordings. Interestingly, on many he isn't even credited for playing keyboards, as in the case of Superstition, or The Banderas' Ripe, and even on Storyville, where he played more keyboards than just the three credited parts. Does he have something to hide?
Laughing: "No, it's just that I don't like taking player credits. I'm not trying to get work as a keyboard player. But it's true that I play a lot of things on the records that I do, including drum programming. I can't help it. It used to be very difficult for me to sit back and watch somebody do a performance that I knew I could do faster and get as good a result. But I'm much more relaxed about that now. I've come to appreciate the nuances and individuality of other players much more. But when I hear a demo version of a song it's very apparent to me what needs improving, and when I have the opportunity to do it differently, I'll take it." Which Hague did for example in the case of the Pet Shop Boys' 'West End Girls', where he played and programmed everything. But: "it was based on their design. I suppose I redesigned it to some degree, but I wasn't taking it from scratch."
Stephen Hague considers his involvement in song structure and arrangement his forté. At times this goes sufficiently far that he gets credited as cowriting songs with the artist. This was the case with New Order's 'True Faith/1963', 'Malcolm McLaren's 'Madame Butterfly', the Pet Shop Boys' 'Loves Comes Quickly', and of P.I.L's 'Disappointed'. It makes one wonder why we are dealing with "Stephen Hague, producer" and not "Stephen Hague, artist". He shudders at the prospect.
"No, no. The idea is absolutely terrifying to me. I'm around artists all the time and when I see what they have to go through... Also I'm a very bad public speaker. I couldn't do the most mundane kind of TV interview. Doing this interview is difficult enough for me."
Which must be why one reads so few interviews with Hague. All the more reason to keep asking questions. Like: what's an American doing working and living on this side of the Atlantic? Hague explains that it's because British acts are generally more "adventurous" than their US counterparts. "There's a rich pool of talent here and I think that a lot of kids are quicker to embrace current technology with which they can create stuff in their bedroom. American kids are still busy with guitars and things. They play gigs, and for bands trying to get work in the States there's not a big demand to play original music. So they often play covers. For someone growing up-as a musician that can be a valuable experience, because you learn a lot from that, but there's also an original spark which can get lost in the process."
Finding British bands more experimental and original, Hague is perfectly placed to complement possible gaps in their musical knowledge and experience, because he himself went through the process of playing covers night after night. "I started during my high school years, playing guitar in various bands. When I was 19 I moved from my native state Maine to Los Angeles, still playing the guitar and bass, but also slowly getting involved in the world of the synthesizer."
This happened because he'd acquired an ARP Odyssey and a Yamaha CS80. During the late 70s he was one of the few people in LA who knew how to program this beast, which brought him a lot of work. In 1979 he joined Jules and The Polarbears as a keyboard player, and when they played as a support act for Peter Gabriel in the early '80s, Hague gave him a tape of an artist whom Hague had produced: Mercy Ray. As a result Charisma, then Gabriel's label, signed Ray and in 1983 asked Hague to produce New York breakdance group the Rock Steady Crew. Their first Hague-produced single, 'Hey You, The Rock Steady Crew', was a UK hit, and when Hague's collaboration with Malcolm McLaren, 'Madam Butterfly', did the same, his career really took off.
Apart from the artists mentioned above, Hague has also worked with OMD, Climie Fisher, Jane Wiedlin, The Communards, Blow Monkeys, Pete Shelley, Hollywood Beyond, Jesus & Mary Chain, Marc Almond, and many others, almost all British. With so much criticism directed at The State Of British Pop Music Today, does the American producer still feel warranted in his preference for British bands? When I asked him the same question four years ago he did, and thought the British music scene to be vibrant and healthy. Now he has more mixed feelings: "A lot of new UK records over the last couple of years don't seem to quite make it. It appears that a lot of new bands are one word bands. They have two or three cool things, but I don't know what their staying power is going to be. They can't keep doing what they're doing and expect to hang in there."
The declining quality of new British acts might be the reason why Hague last year took his career into uncharted territory when he worked with Siouxsie & The Banshees and Robbie Robertson. Both are established acts, primarily album-orientated, and with a strong musical identity. Four years ago Hague called himself a 'radio producer', someone who is often only hired to provide an act with a single, and therefore doesn't get to do a lot of album projects. Now it appears that he has moved from the realm of radio pop to that of serious rock.
"I can still do those catchy things," he protests, but acknowledges that Robbie Robertson was "the first big budget album that I've done that was not about recording catchy short songs." Robertson's Storyville was a first in many respects. To begin with, he'd never worked on a project for longer than a few months, yet Storyville kept him occupied for an epic one-and-a-half years! One reason why the album took so long was that Robertson had only a few finished songs when they started working, and many of the other tracks came into being through collaborations with artists like the Blue Nile, Bruce Hornsby, Dave Ricketts (of Toni Childs), Martin Page, Neil Young, Ivan Neville, and former Band members Rick Danko and Garth Hudson.
"I think that the best way to record an album is to have most of the songs ready before you start, so you know where you're going," says Hague. "I'm no stranger to writing songs from scratch — when I did 'True Faith/1963' with New Order we started from a drum beat, but I'd never done an entire album knowing that producing would involve the construction of the songs as well as the recording. When we started Robbie only had 'Shake This Town', 'What About Now' and 'Nightparade' ready. The rest was real sketchpad stuff."
Describing the recording process of Storyville, Hague paints a picture of continually searching and re-evaluating, and even setting up labour divisions to save time. "Sometimes it was like a film set, where you have unit directors taking care of things like special effects, revising the script and coaching the actors. In our case I can remember situations where Robbie would be writing lyrics upstairs, I'd be downstairs getting a bass performance out of Guy Pratt, and Steve Nye would be sitting in another room with guitarist Bill Dillon selecting performances from dozens of live takes."
That was how Nye, originally hired as an engineer, received an associate producer credit. It was not, however, how Gary Gersh received a co-production credit. The question as to how that happened brings a dark cloud over Hague's face for a moment. Then he says, laughing, "You'd have to ask Gary Gersh that. It was a complete surprise to me. Gersh was Robbie's A&R man at Geffen. The story of Storyville was that when the project went on for so long, I had to go back to England at one stage to do the Banshees album to which I was committed. Robbie carried on doing some work with Gersh in LA. Gersh has a record making background and obviously felt that his contribution to the record warranted a co-production credit. I don't understand much more than that."
That's all Hague wants to say on the subject, so I throw him just one more question about the Robertson project: one-and-a-half years, was it worth it? He grins: "Well, you do get perspective problems at various points. Robbie certainly had trouble with that. But I do think that you can get something from working this way which you can't get any other way. I came to understand what the value is of trying so many different combinations of elements and players. For example, we worked with several drummers, sometimes two or three on one track, until we felt we had a great drum track.
"That's the way Steely Dan used to record in the old days. People were amazed how they went through drummer after drummer until they got the right feel. Always shuffling the deck and changing the cast of characters on different tracks and picking the things that are most enduring had an effect that we couldn't have gotten any other way. Overall I'm very proud of this record."
It appears that Hague may have acquired a taste for long projects through the making of Storyville, because Siouxsie & The Banshees' Superstition took a still respectable 20 weeks to make. "Some of that album came together in the studio as well, but in a way that I felt more comfortable with, because the core of the material was already written."
The Siouxsie material was rehearsed and recorded by the band on sequencers, allowing Hague to make extensive use of his computer music gear (based around a Mac SE30 and a Mac IIci; see box) was put to intensive use.
"I used Digidesign Sound Tools, which is great because I could cut and paste audio information as if it was MIDI information. I would select the best parts of performances and paste them back into the track, trying to save playing nuances, so that you don't give the game away."
Whatever one can say about Stephen Hague moving into 'serious rock', the fact is that he still stayed true to his reputation as a hit producer by giving Siouxsie & The Banshees an American hit; 'Kiss Them For Me' reached number 23 in the US charts. Hague seems to be moving away from poppy, largely synth and sequencer-based music anyway, as his last real UK hit was Jimmy Sommerville's version of the Bee Gees', 'To Love Somebody', which was played entirely live. "A unique situation on a production of mine," he says.
Mentioning the Bee Gees gets Hague talking about his songwriting heroes, and how things have changed since the '60s: "I like the early Bee Gees. Their first two or three albums were really good. It was all very much in its time with Mellotrons and time changes, like going from three to four in the chorus and back to three again in the verse. It's stuff that people don't do anymore — I don't know why. Already during the '70s things became more straightforward, and with the advent of the machine age the tempos and time signatures were, of course, flattened right out."
Hit man Hague mentions as other favourite songwriters Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson, Jules Shear, John Lennon, Gary Brooker and early Todd Rundgren. His favourite producers include Roy Halee, "one of the greats of the '60s who was a pioneer of stretching equipment", Trevor Horn and Mitchell Froom ("I really liked some of the stuff he did with Crowded House.")
Many of the people mentioned are old-timers. Does he feel that the machine age has flattened more than just tempos? "I don't think so, but there's certainly more than enough proof out there that you don't need machines to make good, commercially successful music. The reason I've been producing so many machine-orientated acts is because my first successes were in this field. Once you've had success with one thing, you'll keep getting offers of a similar nature. What I do welcome is the emergence of more and more hybrid records, where machines and live playing go hand in hand. The more things become acceptable, the more flexibility you have in the studio and the more creative you can be."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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