The day I met Stephen Street to interview him for LM Magazine (in French!), David Bowie had just died. And there was a deep feel of sadness in the Bermondsey Studio where Stephen works. “The first vynil I bought was Ziggy Stardust” he told me before asking if “I would care for anything to drink”. “Yes, coffee please, white, no sugar”. So here I was, in the “Bunker”, Stephen’s studio, where a few of my music heroes were before me, putting together tunes and songs, under Stephen Street’s magic musical whip…
EB: What does a record producer do?
SS: I often make the analogy: it’s a bit like being a film director. The director directs the actors, the musicians, he directs the art. The record producer does that role with musicians. So my role is to go into the studio and help mold the sound of that particular recording that they are doing. You are making creative decisions, sometimes you are also doing the mundane things like working on the budgets for the studio and so on, booking musicians… But I often see being a record producer as being part of the team that creates the art, the music.
EB: How did you become one?
SS: In the late 70s, I was sort of a struggling musician, playing in different bands. I realised I was not getting as far as I wanted to… At that point there was a spate of young producers and recording engineers who had gone along to produce the new wave post-punk bands. I am particularly thinking of the kinds of Steve Lillywhite who was producing Siouxie and the Banshees, XTC. They were working more than simple engineers, they were helping create that sound. I decided that it was the best thing for me to do – I enjoyed very much the recording side of things, I liked being in the studio. In fact I had done a session with a producer called Laurie Latham who at that time was doing very well with Ian Dury and The Blockheads and he gave me the taste for being in the studio. I thought: “What I need to do is try to find a job in a studio as a record engineer and through that, if I do well, I’ll come up through the ranks and try to achieve this position of a record producer”.
Very fortunately I started to ask around and I heard about a job at Island Records. It’s a wonderful label. I was about 21-22, I started there. It was the early 80s. For a few months I was the only assistant in the studio, doing quite a lot of hours but I loved it. I managed to find a good team of people there because sometimes you start somewhere and you end up being some sort of glorified tea boy! There, the environment was very keen to make me go my way and so on. Within a couple of years I was at the point I was able to be an in-house engineer for Island Records. And because you are working for a record company, you are working on high calibre, on actually things which are going to be released. But the big, very big breakthrough for me, the one everyobody needs in the industry, when the stars align was… The Smiths.
EB: How did you start working with them?
SS: The studio had put a new desk and they needed some money to run it so they allowed people from outside of the label to book it. One weekend, the studio was booked by Rough Trade Records. My manager said: “We have a session coming this weekend, Stephen can you do it?”, I said yes, “who is it?” “it’s a band called The Smiths”. They came in and did a session, John Porter was still producing them. The first tracks we recorded were “Heaven knows I am miserable now” and “Girl Afraid”.
We did that session and you know, I tried to impress Morrissey and John as much as I could! It worked out great and they took my name as they wanted to put it on the record and I thought they might take me again as a record engineer to work alongside John Porter. Anyway the next session they did was “William it was really nothing” and I was not involved. I thought oh no, it’s a chance lost. But within a few months of that, I got a phone call from Rough Trade that the band wanted to do their second album and they wanted to produce it themselves but with an engineer that they liked and trusted: Would I be happy to be involved? So it was just me and them! Obviously I was delighted, it was my big break really and the beginning of a long term relationship with the Smiths and subsquently with Morrissey.
EB: How was it working for Morrissey?
SS: Well Morrissey is quite a complicated person shall we say but I was always aware of what Morrissey and Johnny Marr had was something really really special – and the band was great, it was a very hard work unit, particularly Morrissey and his lyrics, he was a genius. It was very exciting for me as a young man to be in the middle of this. We were exactly the same age and like kids in the sweet shop without any grown ups about. It was fun. I was still finding my way as an engineer so sonically there are things I would have liked to improve and so on. You never stop learning in this business. When I look back on the tracks we produced, I think they have dated pretty well. They still stand out. What would have happened to my carreer if I hadn’t had that chance?
EB: How did find your place with The Smiths and with other bands? What’s your part of input, creativity?
SS: You don’t go storming in and dictating “do this, do that”. You just have to win people’s trust. I just try to be a good observant. Bit by bit, you are trying to impress by catching the good sound. You are doing your best at the desk to capture the sound that they would like. By doing it, you are getting your influence into the sound. You are beginning to make editorial decisions, whether it’s conscious or not. Straightaway you are giving feedback and you start working like a team. When you are confident that you start to begin to exert some major influence over how it sounds, that’s when you ask if you can have a co-production credit and that’s what I did when we were doing “The Queen is Dead”.
You have to feel a link, an emotional and stylistic link with something you are working on, otherwise you won’t do a good job! I don’t take on work just to fill my calendar. I take on work because I feel I can add something to it. If you feel a link to it, you can contribute, it comes naturally. It’s got to be something that I like to be involved in it.
EB: What happened after The Smiths?
SS: Working with Morrissey on Viva Hate was also a big break through for me. When The Smiths broke up, I thought it was just a small tiff really, they were gonna come back in 6 months, I thought. When we were recording Strangeways Here We come, there was nothing left extra in the can, no extra tracks! I was recording some sounds at home on a four tracks cassettes for my own pleasure and I knew this was the way Johnny would work with Morrissey. Johnny would construct this kind of little demos of songs. They were pretty complete in a sense they had drums and bass, something that was giving you the sense of what the song was going to be about. And Johnny would give those cassettes to Morrissey with his song ideas. Morrissey would work with them and his notebooks full of lyrics. It was not conventional in the sense that they wouldn’t sit in a room and work together at the same time. Knowing how Johnny was working with Morrissey I sent a cassette to Morrissey saying: “Forgive me for being presomptious but these are song ideas, if any of these could be useful as b-sides for the forthcoming album, please let me know”. I came back from my honeymoon to find a postcard from Morrissey saying basically: “I love what you sent me. I have decided I want to make a solo record, would you like to do it?” That was in August of 1987. I just dropped anything else, I just sat at home and carried on producing and writing lots of songs ideas and things and sent them to him. We booked our first session in October. Out of it came “Suedehead”.
And I knew we were on to something. I took a break for another month and carried on writing more. We booked another session from November right up to Christmas and that was it, that was “Viva Hate”, that was quick, an incredibly quick turnaround. The album is not perfect but I still think it stands out. I remember coming back home the day just before Christmas eve and I was absolutely worn out. Anyway from then to February, I didn’t hear from Morrissey at all. Oh My God, he has decided to pull out I thought. He didn’t want to have to do anything with something like that. Suedehead had come out. It actually charted the day my first son was born on the 21st of February 1988. And the reviews for the Suedehead were so positive that Morrissey got back in touch with me again! (LAUGHS) and we went back to the studio and did some fantastic b-sides for the next single: “Everyday is like Sunday”. We did “Sister I am a poet”, “We will never marry”, “Disappointed”. And I thought “My God, if those songs had been on the first album, Viva Hate, we would have got rid of the weakest songs, it would have been an amazing album”. And I thought we were getting better and better at what we were doing. But as always with life, with Morrissey, nothing is too simple.
EB: How did the collaboration with Morrissey end?
SS: There were arguments about royalties and those kinds of things. To be fair with Morrissey the publishing was always fair but as a producer I thought I was due a bit more than before with The Smiths’ records. It just caused frictions. We argued through sollicitors and it just created a situation which unfortunately lead Morrissey to move on and work with someone else. But I am very proud of the music we managed to produce together in that 18 months period.
EB: What did you do after?
SS: I concentrated on record production. I tried to run my own record label for a while: Foundation label. Unfortunately at the end of the 80s there was recession. We were distributed by Rough Trade, they went through a difficult time. And the music industry kind of imploded slightly. It was not the best time to run a record label. And I founded it with my own money. What I should have done is go to a bigger label and say you know let me find things and you found it. Basically it went to a point I couldn’t spend any more money in this label. I had to stop that but you know I enjoyed that, we made some good records. The biggest success we had was a band called Bradford, but nothing really major to be honest with you.
The Blur years
So it was another joyous moment in my life when suddenly I started a working relationship with Blur in the early 90s. They had released one single called She’s so high which I really liked. I remember seeing the video and I thought I really like that, there is something about the band, I can really connect with it. I said to my manager to mention to Blur that Stephen would like to work with them if they need a producer. Anyway the word came back that they were happy to stay with the producer they had. But then the session they had to record the second single didn’t quite work out so they came back to my manager and said actually we would like to meet Stephen. So we went to a pub in West London. We got on very well. We went to the studio, did a test session just to see how it goes. It went well and the first thing we recorded together was There’s no other way. I had to go to America because I was working with The Psychadelic Furs, came back after two months and there is no other way was getting played all over the radio. I did about a third of the first album and again like with The Smiths, after that initial kind of connection it kind of ça m’a glissé entre les doigts! Food Records had decided they would work with Andrew Partridge from XTC for the second album! I was out. I went off and did a record with The Cranberries, their first album which is still my biggest international success. But before I went off to work with The Cranberries, I went to a gig to check them out and Graham Coxon was there. It was a chance to meet him, I said how is it going? He was a bit kinda down because you know the sessions with Andy had gone OK but the label was not happy nor was the band. It was not working the way they wanted. So I said you know cheer up Graham I think you are a great band. I am sure you’ll survive, you’ll be OK, everything will be good. He must have gone to Damon and say oh I saw Streety last night and within a few days, I got a phone call from Damon asking if we could meet up and discuss the possibility of working together again. We went to the studio again and made Modern Life is Rubbish. Although it was not a great commercial success, we knew something there was special, it was a stepping stone towards what came after: Parklife.
I had an even stronget connection with the group than with The Smiths. Because I am from London. I have always found people from Manchester were a bit reluctant to be friendly with people from London. Also they were very busy. No time to hang out! Whereas with Blur, they were based in London so even in between tours and we were in the studio, we went out together. We hanged out as friends too. I felt a very strong bond to the guys in Blur. With Graham for example, I made more albums than any other person. He is a lovely guy.
EB: What was your job with Blur?
SS: My job is to capture the sound of a band, at that particular point in their history. With Blur, it’s wonderful, you can do anything, it still sounds like Blur, you listen to Parklife album, it’s all over the place but it doesn’t matter, Blur can be mellow, they can be disco, punky, they can be like a musical thing but utlimately it still sounds like Blur. Damon is on such a different level. Working with them is kind of a joy. I come back to the analogy of kids in a sweet shop. We try a bit of this and a bit of that. This is just wonderful.
I worked with Blur till 1996. I remember seeing Damon at a gig in Brighton and he said to me we are thinking of working with someone else on the next record. OK I understand I said but deep down inside I was upset. And last year, I was invited to work on the Magic Whip which for me was a pure joy! It was the first time I was sitting in a studio with Damon since 1996 and he had gone off do so many things and had so much success since… I didn’t know if he would take directions from me. But it went on like that (HE CLICKS HIS FINGERS), we picked up where we left off. It was really good.
EB: Then you worked with Peter Doherty, how did it go?
SS: I have a lot of affection for Peter, he is a very troubled character as we all know. Underneath that skin, there is a wonderful, talented human being and I think he is a marvellous song writer. Grace Wasteland is one of those records I can actually sit down and put on and listen to it and really enjoy it. The problem with Peter is his lifestyle: he is sometimes surrounded by vampires. I was trying to be solid, like a normal character in his life, someone there for the right reasons, sometimes trying to give some kind of guidance, it’s very difficult but I love Peter dearly, I think he is a great writer, musician. You look in his eyes sometimes, you can see he is fighting for his life. And we bonded on QPR (Queens Park Rangers)!
Doing a solo album with Peter was a joy. I thought who can I bring in to make him spark a bit and concentrate? And I came up with the idea of bringing Graham. He was up for it. The initial session was just Graham and Peter sitting in front of each other with 2 guitars. It went very well. I got the other Babyshambles to join too. It’s one of these relationships I hope will continue but you never know.
That was the other joyous thing that came out with working with Peter. We decided we’d do some gigs properly with a band. I was asked to be the musical director, so I was playing a bit of accoustic. We actually played The Bataclan in Paris. The second night was especially fantastic. It was in 2010. Graham was involved with the Blur reunion so he couldn’t do the dates planned. The only way was for me to practice like crazy and do it! I ended up playing on stage in Glastonbury with Peter Doherty! At the age of 50, here I am on stage playing! My kids were there. Graham came back and there was a magical moment of us 3 playing at the Zenith in Paris.
EB: How did you get involved with French band Aline?
SS: They got in touch with me. They sent me a copy of their first album which I really liked. I do like the sound of French vocals in pop music. There was a great pop sensibility to the demos. I was interested. I usually say no when it’s in another language because I can’t understand the lyrics. I expressed that worry to them but they convinced me and translated everything for me in English. They were very sweet. I said: “OK let’s go for it”. We worked in ICP in Brussels. I really enjoyed it. It was a pleasurable experience.
EB: What do you think of French music?
SS: France is always intriguing in terms of music. There are so many influences. For example, reggae. Reggae in the UK has kinda disappeared whereas in parts of France, it’s still quite big. You have the anglo influence: The Smiths, The Cure… I think it’s a very healthy music scene. You have also the African influence and of course Daft Punk, Air – I love Air- The audience in gigs is also very positive, “la joie de vivre”. People like to be entertained. Sometimes in London people can be very cynical.
EB: Is there an “ideal” band you would like to work with?
SS: The ideal band… Difficult one. I have been truly blessed. If someone had asked me the same question two years ago, I would have said: I really would like to do another album with Blur and I did it!
I also like finding new things. It’s like when I was working with Kaiser Chiefs, they were an unknwon band. We did three songs and all three songs were three hits!
I’d like to do another record with Peter. There is no one that comes to my mind straight away really. I like to discover new things, some stuff I have never heard before.
The (bad) state of the music industry
EB: How is it to be a record producer today?
SS: The record industry is not as healthy as it once was. The sales of alternative artists are so flat, so small. So people don’t wanna spend any money on recording. So the budgets are a lot smaller. Basically you have a lot of bands going in a studio with kind of glorified home recordings and they are just getting someone coming and mix it. It’s not the same thing as producing a record from scratch. If I was kind of 5 or 10 years younger I probably would have to find a new career. I know so many young engineers I worked with in the late 90s, early 2000s, who have never been given a chance to become producers.
Hopefully it’s not gonna get any worse and things will improve again. People think the kinds of itunes and spotify will replace records sales but it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. People think artists make money from tours. But the only way you make money from touring is whether you are a band like U2, Radiohead or Coldplay but when you are playing 1000 people venues and you got a sound man, a lighting man, hotel rooms etc you don’t make money.
That’s why bands play as many festivals as they can beacause this is the only way of avoiding the production cost: you turn up, the PA is already there, the lights are already there. Every summer, it’s a merry-go-round, every band tries to do as much as they can just to try and make some money. As a record producer, I don’t make any money from tickets sales at festivals. The only thing I make money from is record sales. The recording side of the industry is not in good shape. The festival thing is a bubble about to burst. More and more festivals are closing because there are too many now. And to be a headliner at a festival you need to have a hit record! It’s a catch 22. People don’t have huge albums anymore unless you are Adele, Madonna or Taylor Swift.
But they are not the ones for festivals, they are not replacing the ones of Blur and Oasis, Pulp The last bands that have come through are Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian, they were the last ones to come through that indy thing the status they could actually headline. No one since, because no one is selling records any more. It’s gonna be Coldplay again and again… There is no one getting the status anymore.
EB: Who are you working with at the moment?
SS: I am working with an exciting band at the moment called Tibet. I never stop looking for new stuff and that’s what I am known for really. I am not going to look for big names, bands.
Apart from Chrissie Hynde who was already established when I worked with her, I have always worked with bands who started.
I could go out now and get knocked over by a bus but at least I would have created something, records out there, which give me a sense of satisfaction.