A man who opened up a whole new dimension in music, Simon Posford has changed electronic music as we know it and brought it to another level. Our whole team, as well as most of our audience, are huge of fans of his talent. He is literally a genius and a hero of our time. Despite the fact that Simon has chosen not to pursue the commercial route, he has still achieved total success and become a guru of his self-founded psybient style. It is hard to boil down to just a few words all the love and gratefulness that the lovers of Shpongle, Hallucinogen and Younger Brother feel for Simon for opening up them the new worlds and horizons. As the wonderful journalist Michael Ellsberg once said, "he raised the bar of human creativity so high, like no one ever did before". Today we will talk with Simon about the past and the future, about his vision on changing the world and will also touch upon some of the issues associated with studio work.
Backstage Secrets: Simon, please tell us, how did you start your career? How did you find this keen understanding of sound?
Simon Posford: When i left school at 17 i got a job at the famous Olympic Studios, owned by Virgin at the time, but now sadly closed. They employed me as a Tape-Op (therefore invalid as a human being, but in a great position to learn) making tea, plugging in cables, doing total recalls etc…. Fairly menial tasks, but i got to work with some of the greatest engineers and producers like Mark Spike Stent, Dave Bascombe etc… That’s where i learned the craft of How To Make A Record, but i was soon frustrated at having no time make my own music. I was commuting from Oxford to London every day, often sleeping on the sofa in the studio and working 18 hour days… It was a thrilling environment and i met loads of very talented people, but i realized that Virgin wasn’t for me, and one day Spike Stent told me that Youth was looking for an engineer to work in his newly formed Butterfly Studios, and he thought i’d be ideal for the job… And within weeks i had a job at Butterfly and a record deal with Big Life for my band at the time, ‘Purple Om’. That was the launch pad for everything i’m doing today.
I’ve always been interested in sound, since i learned piano aged around 7 by watching a friend. I can remember the first album where i noticed “the sound” or the “production”, was The Wall by Pink Floyd… I was 8 or 9 years old and it just sounded different from the other stuff i listened to (Sex Pistols, Madness, and pop music), warmer, richer and…just well produced, i suppose…. I still love that album now..
BS: Do you have any formal musical or sound engineer education?
SP: I taught myself piano by watching a friend, aged about 7. He was a child prodigy - already brilliant, writing his own songs and unique. I would scrutinize his playing, then when nobody was around i’d go back to the piano and piece together what he had been doing. It wasn’t long before i could write my own songs. My grandfather was a composer in the 1930s-40s, so maybe i already had some disposition towards it…. But one day my parents came to school and i showed them, “Look what i can do!” and they replied, “We’d better get you some piano lessons then!” which instantly killed any passion i had for the instrument, and i gave up very quickly. But i was always fascinated with music and production, so i read a lot and was always in bands throughout school… It consumed my life even then. I learned the rules of sound engineering while i was at Virgin… and how to break them while i was at Butterfly.
BS: Normally, before creating a masterpiece, musician needs to work on hundreds of tracks. Did you save any of your early works? What did they sound like? Is it possible for our readers to listen to them?
SP: I don’t have much. I have a few old cassettes , but no machine on which to play them. There is a Simon Posford app, for android and iPhone, which has some of my Purple Om stuff…. maybe a track from my school band and a few alternative mixes.
BS: What kind of music did you listen to back when you started, and what kind of music do you listen to now? Which groups influenced you the most?
SP: The music that my parents listened to: Supertramp, Donna Summer, Elton John, The Beatles, ELO… it was all quite tame but very melodic and musical… needed more psychedelia! Now i listen to all kinds of music from Radiohead to Oneohtrix Point Never… electronic, rock, indie… anything that has character and a uniqueness to it. Even a well-made horrible pop record can appeal to me if i like, for example, the sound engineering, or the mix, if not the tune. For example, ‘All the things she said’ by your fellow compatriots Tatu… a dreadfully catchy tune, and probably quite a cynical pop project… but a textbook example of how to produce and mix a pop record by Trevor Horn.
BS: Do you have your own algorithm of creating an interesting track? You said once that you love to create as the work progresses, and you do not plan anything in advance. But I’m sure, you have some pre-sets done when you enter the studio? So to say, a couple of aces in the hole.
SP: No presets or algorithms… I’m just not that organized! I’ve tried making a few preset FX channels in my DAW - a ping pong delay, a reverb or whatever, stuff that i always use - but i found that i would usually change it anyway, so there wasn’t much point even doing that.
BS: Your songs are similar to a huge oil painting canvas – of Bosch, for instance. How do you manage to avoid overproducing, when the number of elements in your songs goes off the scale? Do you brush up on your settings before mixing?
SP: I’m not so sure that i do avoid overproducing! Often i feel that i’ve “overcooked” a mix and ruined it. I try to separate the elements of the mix in my head: Sub, Bass, Mid, and Tops and also Front to Back.
BS: By the way, what is the average number of tracks in your songs?
SP: About 180-320 usually.
BS: How do you know that a track is accomplished? Don’t you want sometimes to add a couple of new instruments when the song is already mixed?
SP: A mix is never finished, in my mind i’m never 100% happy with it, a mix is only ever abandoned. We have one rule in the studio: when the stash is finished, it’s time to go home.
BS: Talking of mixing, do you always mix your tracks by yourself?
SP: Nearly always, yes.
Although i’m not pleased with any of the mixes i’ve been doing for the 6th Shpongle album - i’m thinking of getting someone else to mix it, or maybe renting a studio with an engineer.
BS: What kind of speakers/monitors do you normally use? Can you mix while wearing headphones? What headphones are you favorite?
SP: I used Mackie hr824 for many years… Some shitty Hi-Fi speakers before that. I’ve finally got an amazing pair of monitors a few months ago: Klein & Hummel… But they are so revealing that i hate all my mixes!!
BS: Do you use Abletone? Why do you prefer this sequencer? Do you think, there is a difference between, for example, Logic Audio, Pro Tools, Studio One and Ableton?
SP: I don’t use Ableton. Except for when i perform live, because it doesn’t crash. In the studio i use Logic Pro, which crashes all the time.
BS: More and more producers and musicians start to work with program keyboards and software. What can you tell about your preferences? Do you use real (analog) devices?
SP: I prefer to use devices that have one knob per function, like the Roland SH101. But i like what can be done with plug-ins too. I’m not one of these analogue vs digital guys… I love elements of both, and they both have their drawbacks. However i still haven’t learned to mix in the box, i need the headroom of a mixing desk.
BS: Who comes up with vocal lines and texts in tracks of Shpongle and Younger Brother?
SP: In Shpongle, it’s usually the singers: Michele Adamson and Abigail Gorton, with input from Raja Ram and myself. I’ve always been hopeless at lyrics. I still don’t know the words to many of my favourite tunes, because that’s not really what i listen to…
BS: Which instruments do you like to play?
SP: Drums are the most fun to play, but the most irritating for everyone else, so i keep it to a minimum if there are other people around. I love to play guitar but i’m not very good. I love playing bass, on one string only, but it’s the only instrument where i will most often do just one take and it is satisfactory enough to use. I’m probably most accomplished at piano/keyboards but i hate playing them… Unless i’m sat in front of a real piano and it’s not being recorded. Then i can play for hours!
BS: By way, here is a question that not too many people can answer: how was the name Shpongle created? Is there some special meaning behind it?
SP: One day a very high Raja Ram said to me, “I feel really Shpongled!” It was a mixture of several words that all fell out of his mouth at the same time, forming one word, “Shpongle”
BS: Which musicians and producers would you like to work with?
SP: Beth Gibbons, Bjork… I’d love to work with a great singer.
BS: Which sound producers do you respect the most?
SP: Spike Stent… surely the best mix engineer around.
BS: Could you, please, give any advice to the beginners in producing and mix engineering?
SP: If you aren’t prepared to sacrifice everything: food, a social life, family and friends…. Then you are probably in the wrong business. If you are really into making records your friends will forget about you after a few years, your family after a few more… But if you have that single burning desire to create music then… welcome to the club!
BS: You have already achieved a lot in your career. Do you still have any unrealized dreams or plans? What goals do you set up for yourself in your professional career?
SP: I don’t really set goals anymore: either i disappoint myself by not achieving them, or i achieve them and realize that nothing has changed, i’m still the same miserable sod and it hasn’t made me happy.
I wouldn’t mind having a number 1 hit though. I just have no interest in making it.
BS: What plugins and musical programs do you need at the very minimum to create a perfect track?
SP: It depends on the track: possibly none. But i always find myself using Logic Pro, UAD plug-ins, and some Waves. However if you took them all away from me, i’d still find a way to make music.
BS: Do you plan to continue your collaboration with Benji Vaughan? As far as we know, now he is shoulder-deep in business. Is there any future to the Younger Brother project?
SP: I hope so. I know we both are very keen to get back in the studio together. But he now has an app business… They made the Simon Posford app that i mentioned earlier.
BS: Where do you think things are going in global musical business? What awaits us tomorrow?
SP: Oh god, it all seems to be flushing down the tubes! With ever decreasing sales, there’s less investment in musical talent by record labels, and so the music that is pushed upon us becomes more disposable, homogenized marketable crap…. However there are always the pioneers who don’t give a shit, working away in their bedrooms creating something unique and interesting. And now they can release it themselves, fairly easily. But how will i find it, amongst the vast catalogue of music being put out? It seems we need some sort of curator (like record companies used to be in the 50s, 60s, 70s) now more than ever, to nurture and promote this talent.
BS: You founded your own label Twisted Records because you didn’t find adequate support from existing recording companies. Are you satisfied with the results of your decision?
SP: In some ways. It has allowed me to do my own thing, release when/who/what i want. But we never had access to the big promotion and marketing strategy that i imagined a big record label might have.
If i was starting again now, i wouldn’t have a record label… I’d release it myself.
BS: Did you receive offers from big labels? Could you please, tell a bit more about it?
SP: Not really. We never courted a big label.
BS: What advice would you give to younger musicians in relation to the evolution of their career? Should they stay independent or look for the contracts? Are there any effective strategies?
SP: Every person and career path is unique. I couldn’t generalize. But it does seem like record companies are out of date now. Why would you want a record deal, and how do you know a deal would deliver what you are hoping for?
BS: Has the idea of creating or producing just commercial project to enter mass-market ever came to you?
SP: Of course… I made a joke pop record with a friend just for fun. It amused us greatly, but the song was pretty hateful. I don’t think you can make music for some strange idea that you have of what “other people” want to hear. For me it’s only possible to make music that i want to hear myself, and i just hope that my taste isn’t so avant-garde or strange that nobody else will get it. There are other souls out there that want to hear the same sounds that i like myself. And if they like it, hopefully they’ll even spend a few pennies to support me so i can make more.
BS: Live performances of Shpongle demand expansive visual imagery. What would your concerts look like if you had an unlimited budget for setting up the show?
SP: They would make the Olympics opening ceremonies look like kindergarten!
BS: Which country has the most powerful fan club of you and why?
SP: Probably the U.S now… I have toured there so much that it finally seems to be paying off…
BS: Which profession would you choose if you decide to quit music?
SP: Racing driver or author/writer
BS: Now I would like to ask few personal questions: what are you afraid of?
SP: I have a phobia of wasps/hornets/bees
BS: What three things would you change about the world we live in?
SP: Less people, no religion, more love.
BS: What do you value most in people?
SP: Intelligence, humour, and kindness.
To be continued. 2nd part of the interview is coming soon...
Konstantin Korsakov (Backstage Secrets)