The Musician's Producer
In his first-ever interview with the British press, the ‘musician’s producer’ lets Paul Tingen in on a few of his most heavily-guarded studio secrets.
Steve Nye belongs to a rare breed: producers who prefer to bring out the best in musicians, rather than impose their own ideas. In his first-ever interview with the British press, Nye explains some of the philosophies and techniques that underly his work.
As I rush, headlong, through London traffic of frightening, pre-Christmas proportions, desperately seeking a black cab, I think of the first time I met Steve Nye.
It was at a club in Amsterdam called the Milky Way. I had come to see Nye in his musician's role, playing piano for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, but my ultimate goal was to set a time and place for an interview with the man, his first ever for the British press in an engineering/production career spanning nearly 15 inventive years.
I find myself wondering why he hadn't been interviewed before. Rupert Hine discovered him as a tape-op at London's Air Studios, whence Nye had gone on to engineer (and, later, produce) for a whole bunch of illustrious musical names, from Frank Zappa to Stevie Wonder, from Roxy Music to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. More recently, he's worked alongside the likes of XTC, Murray Head, Clannad, The Cure, The Pretenders and Pete Townshend. Not a list of credits to be sniffed at, certainly.
Hine has described Nye as having 'a very musical awareness of both pitch and time, and a real artistic flair' — qualities that have shown themselves most explicitly in Nye's most celebrated work: his involvement with Japan and David Sylvian. He co-produced Japan's swansong Tin Drum album and Sylvian's solo follow-up, the utterly wonderful Brilliant Trees.
The PCO's Amsterdam concert proved to be an erratic but attractive occasion. The Orchestra has a strong tendency toward over-simplicity, yet their music has an indefinable richness and sparkle. Nye's one-hand piano parts — part sympathetic integration, part anarchic improvisation — are quietly compelling, like so much of his work in more conventional musical fields.
On meeting him after the concert, I find Nye displays a real-life character similar to his stage one; externally relaxed, but clearly possessed of a busy, inventive interior that is barely penetrable.
But here I am a couple of months later on my way to see Nye again, this time in the glamorous surroundings of the London Hilton. I arrive late (67 people ahead of me in the bank queue), but Nye doesn't seem to mind, and treats me to a very English tea, complete with live harp accompaniment. 'Not really my sort of place', says the producer, looking disapprovingly at the forced, superficial luxury that surrounds us. Little do I know that I shall soon be encountering a few of the sort of problems which might just be one of the reason is why Nye hasn't been interviewed by a British magazine before...
For the most part, producers communicate easily (it's part of their job) and talk a great deal. In general, they're all too willing to display this ability to journalists like myself, but sadly, Steve Nye is hopelessly deficient in matters of this sort. He has the disconcerting habit of intoning two or three words as an answer to most questions, forming phrases like 'I don't know' or 'I can't remember'. Early on, he sets the tone for the rest of the interview by referring to modern music technology as 'all that crap'.
Nye is a friendly man. Throughout our conversation, he continues to pour me tea (later wine) and offer me scones and cakes. One particularly stodgy, overweight cake inspires him to comment that 'today's music is not at all an influence on me'. He admits that he listens mostly to 'classical music, which probably has a big influence, unconsciously, on my musical outlook. So I'm not very interesting to talk to as far as electronics go.'
He laughs. I am beginning to see that I may have an uphill struggle ahead of me. For a man considered to have been a major catalyst of rock music's musical and artistic development over the last decade, his words are remarkable.
Seeing as Nye's work with Japan and Sylvian is his best-known and his most innovative, I opt to take our talk from there.
'They'd done the two albums before Tin Drum at Air with John Punter', the producer recalls. 'So I'd seen them around and they'd obviously heard me work in various places. They wanted to try something different for their next album and they asked me to do a few tracks first to see how it worked. At the time I was doing a lot of engineering work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, of whom Japan were big fans, so I suppose they asked me mainly because of that.'
It seems 'Talking Drum' was one of the three songs Nye recorded at The Manor during those trial sessions (Q: 'What were the other two?' A: 'I can't remember'). They showed a marked change in Japan's style with which the band were delighted, so Nye stayed. His appointment worked, too, for whereas the preceding Quiet Life and Gentlemen Take Polaroids LPs had seen Japan in melancholic, introverted and nostalgic mood, Nye's dry, simplistic production allowed the band's quirky new rhythms and striking synth sounds to emerge with clarity, without being obtrusive.
'At the beginning of the sessions the band didn't have much idea of what they wanted to do', remembers Nye. 'All they knew was that they wanted something different. Neither David nor the band ever did any demos, so there was never anything to listen to. They'd begin recording tracks without knowing quite what was going to happen by the end — David didn't even have lyrics a lot of the time. It was all pretty experimental. They hadn't done any rehearsals at all: we just went in and started recording. It was very exciting, and we were working on a very small budget, too, which added to the atmosphere and the concentration.
'At the time we were just working on stuff, getting excited about ideas and trying things out, but very little was pre-meditated.
"No matter what you do with a lot of the latest digital instruments, they have an electronic feel to them, a honkiness that I've never liked."
'One of the strangest things was David and Richard Barbieri (Japan keyboardsman) working simultaneously on synthesiser sounds in the studio. Sometimes they would drive me crazy. Each of them would regularly spend two whole days just trying to perfect a single sound. All I could do was sit there with both of them in the same room at the same time, and things became pretty difficult.
'David restricted himself to a Prophet 5, and Richard divided his time between an OBX and a modular Roland System 700, so the technology they were using was quite old. But the sounds which they created were like instruments you'd never heard before. They didn't sound like synthesisers at all — they were more like something acoustic and organic. Nothing went "bzz, bzz", or sounded anything like the digitals and sampling machines of today. I find that, no matter what you put into a lot of the latest instruments, they have this nasty sort of electronic sound, a kind of honkiness which I've never liked.'
After eight weeks of recording, Nye mixed Tin Drum at Air. And although the album's recording had been decidedly unconventional, the mixing stage proved to be typical of this producer's method of working...
'The way I work is to try to get all levels, balance and sounds right whilst still at the recording stage. So I put reverbs and delays straight onto tape, because they're part of the sound. And the band themselves usually put delays on, anyway.
'Then all I do in a mix is blend all the tracks together and maybe compensate for a few echoes that needed to be different when I recorded them; if you put down a synth, say, and it's one of the first instruments you've recorded, it can be difficult to judge how big a track is going to be and what kind of reverb you need, so obviously things have to be corrected a bit.
'Sometimes I have a picture of the overall sound beforehand, but mostly I don't. A lot of the time, what I'm producing is governed by the sound of the studio, or the sound of the band's instruments — not by what I might like the end product to sound like.
'If I had to choose a magnum opus out of all my work to date, then... yeah, I guess it would be Tin Drum — probably because it was appreciated by so many different kinds of people all over the world. I thought the album was very innovative; it worked because the sounds the band got from their synths had a lot of character, and because my approach to engineering is musical rather than technical. I always try to capture the feeling behind a song, or the kind of atmosphere it has, by putting it into the sounds that are being used. I didn't consider the synth sounds on Tin Drum to be separate; they became part of the track, blended into it in a very musical way.'
Things are picking up. Nye is talking more freely, coming out of himself. I am optimistic, but the respite turns out to be brief. I ask him what his 'musical approach' actually consists of, and a long, painful silence follows...
'It's difficult for me to analyse that. It's just a question of how I hear things, a question of personal taste. I just make music sound the way I want to hear it, and that's all I can go for, really. I can't say to myself; "today's records sound this way, so that's how I'll record". I take everything as it comes along, and it's all very intuitive. I don't think about it; if I started to think, I'd probably get confused.'
Nye continued to employ this 'take it as it comes' philosophy during his co-production of Brilliant Trees, on which Sylvian's mood returned to its previous melancholy, while the music moved into a more richly textured area, away from the Japan idiom. The record (E&MM's Top Album of 1984) involved a number of guest musicians whom Sylvian had gathered around him, including Can founder-member Holger Czukay.
'He came down to the studio (Hansa in Berlin) after everyone else, but his role was quite big, what with his guitar-playing and his dictaphone. The dictaphone is like a piece of low-tech office equipment; it does a similar job to a sampling machine, but its inherent sound quality would put most producers to shame. It has this little speaker which makes a terribly scratchy noise, but the atmosphere of the sounds couldn't be made in any other way, really. Holger would record a trumpet, and next to it a couple of vocal tracks; he could then move the playback head along the tracks, backwards and forwards or up and down. It sounds a bit like tuning a radio, but it's unique.
'Again, I was just acting as a mediator between the musicians and the record on Brilliant Trees. My job is to ensure that the ideas the musicians have come out and work — and to point out any ideas that seem incongruous, ideas that need to be changed.
'The atmosphere is the main thing. Once I understand that, I just carry on developing it. But it's difficult to talk about, especially with an artist like David, for whom emotions and intentions are extremely subtle. It's not easy for him to communicate to me.'
"My only rule is: there are no rules. I don't go by any set plan because situations are always different."
Two artists who find it difficult to communicate? Sounds like an interviewer's nightmare. Luckily, though, the Nye/Sylvian collaboration has given the world some remarkable and memorable music, and may continue to do so, if and when Sylvian chooses to release his second album. Nye takes up the story of the follow-up that hasn't, as yet, followed up.
'The album was supposed to consist of two parts: some music David did for a video in Japan (Steel Cathedrals, now available on cassette), and the stuff he recorded with Nigel Walker (now released as a 12-inch EP, Words with the Shaman). He didn't like that album as it was last year, so he asked me to listen to it and record three more songs to replace the side that Nigel did. So I recorded three songs, mixed them, remixed them, remixed the instrumental, put it all together, cut an album from it, and then... he didn't like that, either. Now, I'm not sure what the album is going to be.
'David seems to be indecisive at the moment and there's nothing I can do about that. He has changed in that he tends to take a lot more time and care over things, but now and again he seems confused. In David's case, though, my experience is that what he's taking time over will work out in the end. Some people, if they have a lot of time in the studio, just wank around — and that's when it's my responsibility to get things going again.'
Some producers refer to Steve Nye as 'just a good engineer' and 'not a real producer at all', simply because his contribution to a record's overall arrangement isn't as obvious as that of so many other producers. Yet there is an undeniable consistency that runs through his work, especially the Sylvian/Japan material, XTC's Mummer, Murray Head's Shade and Clannad's Macalla. Doubtless, also, Bill Nelson's soon-to-be-released latest long-player — which Nye has just finished recording in the States — will be recognisably his work.
Not surprisingly, Nye attributes his consistency of output to a similar consistency of attitude.
'It's all a matter of using my musical feeling. Obviously I'm always contributing lines and patterns, but generally I just bring out what I feel an artist is trying to do. I don't go in for all the psychology, though. I don't give singers pep talks, or make people feel at home by being Mr Nice Guy or whatever.
'My only rule is: there are no rules. I don't go by any plan because situations are always different. That's basically my philosophy.'
It turns out that Nye's aversion for preconceptions is what lies at the heart of his limited interest in new electronic gadgetry.
'Obviously I find out what new pieces of equipment can do. But I don't play with an instrument, come up with a sound and then say: "that's a good sound, I must use it on something". You can't try to fit an idea of your own onto another idea that an artist is already trying out.
'That does at least mean my records don't sound like anything else that's going on today. I'm not using DX7s or Fairlights or rhythm machines. My work sounds different, and I do think people need music to sound different. To my mind, music is what's really lacking today. There's too much electronics and not enough music.
'The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is a prime example of the side I'm working on, the musical side. It's what I always come back to. It's simple, it's very strong, and I don't really know where its character comes from. We're like a musical family; we're close to each other and we just enjoy playing together.'
Later, as I watch the evening traffic thinning out, London's heartbeat slowing to a calmer pace, I remember another member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Simon Jeffes, explaining his hatred of categorisation, his preference for listening to music with an open mind (see interview, E&MM January).
It strikes me that the two Penguins have much in common. Possibly, they share the oriental view that one gains wisdom 'through knowing nothing and observing like a child'. Does that apply to Steve Nye, a producer who does his job almost by not doing a job at all, and who finds communication almost impossibly difficult?
Next time. I'll ask him.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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