Thursday, 16 June 2011

The work experience boy - day four: decision time

Day four: I arrive at Assault & Battery studios and, as is now customary, Drew buzzes me into the reception door. It transpires that once again he hasn’t been home so that’s at least four nights he’s spent in the studio – his girlfriend must be understanding.

With the Big Pink sessions finished, Alan Moulder and his two assistants aren’t in A&B1 today (a day off?!) and maintenance man Barney leaves in the morning to complete the studio fitting he’s doing on the south coast. At lunchtime, Drew – finally! – leaves the studio. He’s going to London Bridge to meet his girlfriend (I hope she recognises him) and even has the next week off to go to Disneyland Paris with her and her family. It’s reassuring to know that he does actually get to take time off, and Disneyland is probably removed enough from the real world to be manageable after so long being holed-up in the alternate reality of the studio. He kindly leaves a couple of beers behind then leaves. I imagine him emerging through the security gates, blinking back the harsh sunlight that he’s grown unaccustomed to: a free man at last.

So, all in all the studio is pretty quiet today. Paloma Faith and her (severely hungover) songwriter/co-writer Ed come in to see Dimitri (who is similarly hungover) once again. As I did yesterday, I offer her tea but she just asks for a hot water as she’s brought her own teabags in. Is this yet another indictment of my hot drink making skills? I decide it’s best not to dwell on it.

Being a music journalist I don’t tend to get overly nervous when speaking to musicians any more (just a few pre-interview nerves that keep me on my toes). But as it’s still my first week in the studio and the fact that – unlike most of the electronic artists I usually interview – these people have the aura of ‘stars’ (which is of course a load of old bollocks), I fear I have the appearance of some fawning teenage sycophant. It’s one of those circular paranoid feedback loops where I know the worst thing I can do is be a red-faced, bumbling buffoon around these people (as that’s all they are after all) so that’s exactly what I become. Whatever the reason, it’s bizarre to feel like a novice when speaking to musicians in a different context. It’s a good job I only have to offer them hot drinks and fetch their lunch eh?

With not much to do but browse Sound On Sound online (brownie points if I get caught), follow Andy Murray’s progress at the French Open and play Scrabble on Facebook, I offer help as often as I can. Steve Rhodes (the 'writer' from upstairs whose name does nothing to help me place his accent) finally takes me up on the offer and gets me to carry some old tapes (the huge reels, not cassettes) down from his studio to place in storage. In a bid to prove myself indispensably helpful I take a few too many than my normally sedentary arms can handle but, in spite of a slight slip at the end, I manage to transfer them to the storeroom successfully.

Having not spoken much to him during the week, Steve comes across as a humble and quiet – perhaps even shy – person but he seems like a genuine person free of the ego many producers may develop after continued exposure to working in the studio with the stars. Shortly after my odd-job is complete he places some cake on reception, which I’m grateful for and have a good munch on.

A few minutes later he asks me how long I’ll be in the studio. I say three weeks but that I don’t know which Miloco studio I’ll be based in the week after. Steve says he’s got some work moving his studio to do in July and asks if I’d like to come in with a friend to help out. He says he’ll pay us £80 each for a day’s work – the rate he normally pays his assistants. So, after a week of gaining an insight into studio life but with little to show for it as far as future prospects go, here was a chink of light. Perhaps I’ll only be training to be a removal man rather than a producer but other opportunities may arise through this.

When I told him I would be working for another fortnight, I wasn’t being entirely truthful though. I’d already decided that this would be my last day. The people were welcoming and friendly and the work, while menial, was exactly what I’d been expecting. But I soon realised that it would take far more than three weeks to earn myself a genuine opening with one of the producers in the studio, and even longer if I insisted on retaining my life outside the studio and not effectively becoming a live-in tea boy.

Besides, even if I was given an opportunity, I lacked the studio knowledge to be able to grasp it. Other people who had done work experience placements at the studio included award-winning Australian heavy metal producers or had at least been plying their trade as producers with local bands for the past few years. I decided that my time would be better spent getting myself up to speed so that I could grasp such an opportunity if it came my way.

Besides, work experience is unpaid and completing the three weeks would have meant turning down paid journalism work. Being a poor student I desperately need to earn some money so surely it would have been stupid to stay? But one opportunity has already come my way after only four days work so have I cut off my nose to spite my face? Have I let fear take over rather than rationally thinking things through? Should I have stayed and worked until the early hours to show my worth or have I made an intelligent decision? What do you think?

Originally posted on on 16 June 2011.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The work experience boy - day three: trying to keep the Faith

Day three: Once again I wake up feeling nervous and feel slightly reluctant on my way into the Assault & Battery studios – I know this is normal when starting a new job but the prospect feels even more daunting than it should somehow. Surely it can’t be down to the fear of making the tea badly or loading the dishwasher incorrectly?

I arrive in the office and Drew still hasn't made it home, making it at least three nights he’s slept in the studio to my knowledge. Out of interest, and also to see if I am really putting myself in the frame to be Alan Moulder or Flood’s next full-time tea-boy, I ask him if he tended to stay till everyone else went home when he was doing work experience. His reply is an unsurprising yes. So does that mean I should be staying in A&B2 with the unknown female singer and her band until their session ends at midnight then sleeping on a couch that has seen some of rock music’s most famous arses (I would say arseholes but that has other connotations!)? Do I really want to be using the shower in the gents’ toilet then eating my Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in reception every morning before the whole process starts all over again? I have my doubts. Besides, I still have freelance journalism work to do that happens to be paid (when the cheques are finally coughed up following the usual pleading and legal threats that is).

French producer Dimitri Tikovoi, who I haven’t shared more than about 15 words with all week so far (perhaps he’s either shy or aloof or both?), has Paloma Faith in his studio for the day. I offer her a hot drink and she asks for herbal tea, 'But no berries, something more grown up than berries!' she giggles. So green tea it is. Who knows, perhaps mixing her tea could one day lead to mixing her album? Doubtful I know but you have to be blindly optimistic in a situation like this.

Alan leaves early having tied up the loose ends and burned a stack of CDs/DVDs for the Big Pink session, that’s not before he and his assistants have indulged in the vegetarian curries I’ve been sent out to buy them. I indulge in one at my reception desk as well, it smelt and looked too good in the takeaway to miss out on yet I realise this is lacking the restraint I would need to show if I ever became one of the impoverished ‘chosen ones’ and ended up with a full-time assistant’s job. Drew’s mystery singer and her gang settle for kebabs on the other hand – which would again be way out of my financial reach.

There’s really not much happening on reception, nobody seems to want to indulge my tea-making expertise as often as I would like and the dishwasher is fully loaded so I ask Barney, the maintenance guy, if he’d like any help. Shortly after I’m scrubbing a fridge outside with warm soapy water and emptying the outdoor ashtray but I did ask for work and I realise you can't consider anything beneath you if you really want to get in there.

Having picked out the congealed, tar-covered cigarette butts and shoved them into a binbag, I go into A&B1 to see if Alan’s assistants would like a drink, an offer that they accept. Chief assistant John says I can sit in on the project they’re currently working on if I'm bored so I find myself a seat next to one of the huge floor-to-ceiling racks of hardware and listen to him preparing and tweaking the rough mix of a track by Chairlift (biggest hit ‘Bruises’ can be seen here) for Alan to pick up later.

John's attention to detail is understandably amazing. I wonder to myself if I’ll ever be in a position – i.e. have the technical skill and the finely tuned hearing – to fine-tune six kick drums and tiny, seemingly inaudible effects and get the balance of a mix right for a world-renowned producer? I decide that while I'm not there yet, if I apply myself I could get there. However, I am still the same person who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown just a few months ago when it came to recording a band made up of Bachelors students. Although that went OK in the end, I still have a fear of looking stupid and looking like I don't know what to do in the studio. I realise that only I can change this and I have a year to do so before my MA ends.

Anyway, work experience is all about taking every opportunity that presents itself and I fear that, by leaving at 6ish rather than staying in A&B1 until the Chairlift prep work is finished, I may have missed that opportunity. The problem is, I have some of that paid journalism work to do at home so leave I do to review the albums I've been commissioned to write instead – even falling asleep at my computer in the middle of the final review.

Would becoming a full-time studio assistant mean forsaking all other aspects of life? I was quickly realising that was probably the case.

Originally posted on on 11 June 2011.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The work experience boy - day two: the real coffee challenge.

Day two: Having screwed up yesterday and getting lost in Hammersmith, I could feel a bit of dread and fear in the pit of my stomach travelling in for my second day at Assault & Battery studios. I arrive in reception to find Drew eating Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, having spent another night in the studio. Again, I feel a mix of admiration and fear – is this what it really takes to make it as a producer?

It’s clear – and completely expected – that I spend much of my time sitting on reception, grabbing every solitary cup and plate from the sink and putting it into the dishwasher almost before the owner has fully released it from their grasp, offering tea either too often or too infrequently (why do the studio assistants keep making it – that’s MY job!) and even gluing down the carpeted skirting boards which are hanging off due to being kicked by irate indie frontmen (well, perhaps). Being asked to go out and fetch lunch again – takeaway English breakfasts for the unnamed American singer upstairs and her band – makes for some sort of highlight.

The day is genuinely brightened up by the affable Howie B, however, who is in the mastering suite playing what sounds like a brilliant piece of dirty electronica. I ask if it's one of his own tracks and he says yes. Apparently the album is due out in September and if the track is a fair reflection of the album it'll definitely be worth getting hold of. Howie (whose production credits include Bjork, U2 and Tricky), has a laugh that’s not so much infectious but viral and says it’s taken him four hours to do the one hour journey into the studio because it’s such a beautiful day and he kept having to stop off to go to the pub and soak up the sun. Yes, nice work if you can get it you may think, but you can bet that he’s had to spend years making tea in the warren-like, sun-impoverished environs of the studio to earn the right to take such so-called liberties now.

In A&B1, Big Pink finish their six-week stint with Alan Moulder and his two assistants make it clear that they’re relieved it's over - not because the band were particularly hard to work with but because it's been quite a laborious process getting the right sound that the band are happy with.

The only other point of note is making my first ever ‘real’ coffee in a cafetiere (good job I Googled it the day before). This may strike you as a bizarre admission for a 33-year-old man but as a staunch tea drinker who’s not allowed near a coffee bean any more, this is quite a moment – especially as it’s for Alan Moulder who I’ve been told is quite particular about his coffee. Having accidentally taken credit for the coffee his assistant made him in the morning, I say, ‘I hope it’s to your liking,’ as I place it shakily on the table next to a few thousand pounds worth of hardware in the studio. Alan replies, ‘I’m sure it’s fine. It was earlier on,’ and I cringe a bit inside as I walk out. It’s not just the first time Alan asks me to make him coffee, it’s also the last.

Originally posted on on 7 June 2011.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The work experience boy - day one: learning the ropes and getting lost

I have to admit, I felt like I was a 16-year-old boy again, which was about the age I last did work experience. Having spent the past nine months studying an MA in Audio Production at the University of Westminster my first year of the two year part-time course had come to an end so I felt I should get some industry experience somehow. Steve Dub, who was one of the guest speakers that came in to speak to us and has worked with the Chemical Brothers almost since day one, said that there were work placements available at the Miloco group of studios so I felt I should make the most of the opportunity. I got in touch and ended up having a three-week work experience placement confirmed, starting the week after my course finished in May.

I was placed in Assault & Battery in Willesden, London which houses two world-class producers in Alan Moulder and Flood. As I travelled in on my first day, I went through the usual mix of neuroses, paranoia and nerves that you get when starting any job (or is that just me?!). This was amplified by the fact that I was going to be sharing an environment with producers who have album credits including U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Arctic Monkeys etc. and that they could potentially offer an opening into their world – if I could make the tea and coffee to a sufficient standard of course.

Today’s award-winning producers had to be prepared to make tea and empty the bins as well. Indeed, Flood reportedly earned his nickname from being a particularly good teaboy/runner. I imagine his fellow runner at the time – nicknamed Drought due to his ineptitude and can't-do attitude – probably didn’t get to mix any million selling albums! So I knew I couldn’t afford to be too proud. Most potential producers also start out not being able to afford to live, or indeed be able to conduct a relationship for large chunks of the week. But that's the way most producers start their careers, at the bottom, making tea for the people sitting in the chair they one day want to inhabit behind the truck-sized mixing desk.

I imagined that meeting bands and artists wouldn’t be a problem as I’m used to doing it when I interview them for features so I felt fairly comfortable on that front. Offering drinks to bands and artists you may or may not recognise/admire would surely be easy? If you can handle that then it’s at least a start I thought.

So how did I get on?

Day one: I arrive outside the huge metal gates of Assault & Battery and ring nearly every button to get in (aside from the one marked ‘Flood’ – I don’t want to upset him on day one by interrupting a session now do I?). Eventually I send a text to the person who had arranged the placement and she assures me there is somebody there and will call and get them to let me in.

Flood’s assistant, Drew, opens the gate and tells me he didn’t hear the buzzer as he was having a shower – he’d slept in the studio that night. This is apparently par for the course and his record of not going home stood at a month. I admire his commitment but it also scares me a bit – does he ever get to go out or form meaningful relationships? He says he has a very understanding girlfriend.

Drew gives me a quick tour and shows me the ropes and tells me it’s down to me to show initiative and commitment and to make myself busy. So tea making is done for anyone coming in the door, the TV is put on a music channel (MTV Classic as I hoped it would show vaguely rock related videos) and I monitor the kitchen area to make sure anything left in the sink is transferred to the dishwasher.

So, I end up making drinks for quiet but friendly duo Big Pink, who are in Assault & Battery 1 (A&B1) with Alan Moulder working on their latest album, and a female solo artist (unknown to me) and fellow musicians upstairs in A&B2 (Flood’s studio but he’s not in). I also meet other studio residents, the enigmatic French producer Dimitri Tikovoi (credits Placebo, The Horrors, Sophie Ellis-Bextor) and Steve Rhodes, who’s says he’s a writer when I ask him what he’s working on at the moment. When reception is really crowded and Alan is there, Ricky Martin starts blaring out of the TV – I wait for the area to clear (which unsurprisingly happens quite quickly) and switch the TV off. Damn you MTV Classic.

I go out to get lunches for Alan, his two assistants and Big Pink – jacket spuds and Chinese soups all round if you're really interested - and get myself an exciting Sainsburys sandwich. I chat with one of Alan’s assistants and he tells me he has just been taken on having done two work experience stints and won Alan over by cooking for him (being a former sous chef). I wonder what hidden talent I can offer to get myself noticed but draw a blank – unless Alan wants his biography written by me which I doubt.

After lunch I get sent to pick up an iLok (a USB license key) so that a certain software plug-in will work for the female solo singer and her musicians upstairs. I look up the address of where I have to go to buy the iLok on Google Maps and it says it’s in 'Hammersmith'. I do wonder why they don’t have a supplier based somewhere closer to the studio but think no more of it.

I head to Hammersmith on the tube having got my wife (who has an internal tube map hardwired into her brain) to check which route is best. When I get there, I realise that Drew told me to get the bus TOWARDS Hammersmith, not TO Hammersmith and that Google Maps has sold me short (or are both Willesden and Hammersmith in erm Hammersmith which must surely make it the biggest borough in London?). By this point I am convinced I've ruined the band's session in A&B2 and decide I shouldn't come back in tomorrow as even if I stick around for the full three weeks I will need to stick around a damn sight longer (with no pay) to get any meaningful studio experience. I knew this at the start to an extent – but studying an MA and getting into thousands of pounds of debt means I need to get money as soon as I can when I complete the course.

Anyway, I return to the studio having taken two-and-a-half hours to do a half-hour job but while Drew is miffed at how I could get so lost he says they continued working on ideas while I was AWOL and that it didn’t cause a major issue.

I leave the studio at 6.30pm vowing to make tomorrow a better day and to be less of a klutz. Commitment and long-hours are the catchphrases of the day and the mantra that you won't get anywhere unless you prove through personal sacrifice that you desperately want this. Do I? Perhaps I’ll have a better idea by the end of tomorrow.

Originally posted on on 4 June 2011.