Producer Jolyon Thomas: The secret to a magical sound ...
Jolyon Thomas, son of the notorious producer Kenneth Thomas, was the main key to the success of Slaves' debut album. He had to transfer their live energy to the record and... he coped with this challenge with dignity!
Slaves are one of the most prominent contemporary British bands! Slaves' musical aesthetics, attitude and lyrics are inspired by punk: they oppose the conformism and apathy of modern British youth, giving new meaning to the epithet "Disgust for Tunbridge Wells". Unusually, the band's lead singer is also a drummer, and a rather unorthodox one at that! Isaac Holman plays standing up, with a kit consisting only of a floor tom acting as a drum, snare drum and cymbals.
Since forming in 2012, Slaves have earned an intimidating reputation for the powerful riffs and stage energy of guitarist Lori Vincent. The band's mini-album titled Sugar Coated Bitter Truth (2012) and single "Where's Your Car Debbie?" (2014) caught the attention of a wide audience. And when the duo signed to Virgin EMI in 2014, the search began for how best to capture the band's fronted and energetic live approach in a studio recording... That's when the band enlisted the help of the relatively unknown Jolyon Thomas, who recorded, mixed and produced the album Are You Satisfied? which hit the UK top 10 shortly after release!
Now about Jolyon Thomas... Why is his influence so vast?
There's nothing punkish or brash about the quiet, polite and long-haired Jolyon Thomas. Slaves initially considered him a bit of a hippie, which he vehemently denies. Thomas does, however, have a kind of credibility as a famous producer, as he is the son of the legendary Ken Thomas, a producer and engineer whose credits include recordings by Queen, David Bowie, Public Image Ltd... As Thomas Jr. explains, although he spent a lot of time in his father's studio as a child, his production skills were largely self-taught:
"I've been saturated with creativity my whole life," Thomas recalls. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the studio watching my father work. But I didn't help him. I started out as a musician, playing drums and guitar in bands like everyone else. When I was 13, my sister gave me a Tascam four-track cassette recorder on which I recorded my own demos. Eventually, when I turned 18, I started recording tonnes of music. That's how I taught myself how to do it. I'm still a musician, but I also became an engineer! I think about production in terms of colour, feel and mood, and how to get that with gear is interesting, but that's not the point. The gear is just a vehicle, you know?"
Thomas eventually started working with his father, first as a musician and arranger and then as a mixer, sound engineer and co-producer. He worked with Polly Scattergood, Daughter, SCUM... And then, in 2014, he met Slaves:
"I first met Slaves when I recorded them for a live video session with Youth Hymns, and they just wowed me. They're a great band, and their music is very far removed from the vast amount of epathetic, sterile music that surrounds us today... They really liked the sound I got for the video: I ran Isaac's drums through one of my amps while he played. I later recorded, mixed and produced their first single "Hey" and then we did their other two singles "The Hunter" and "Cheer Up London". After that we recorded the album. Of course, the big challenge was to transfer their amazing live energy to the record... People often say, "I saw this band live, they were great, and then I listened to their record and it was terrible...".
"Recording live energy, punk in particular, is not easy. It may sound simple, but it's not. The reason they wanted to work with me was because they wanted to make an album. Slaves love aggression and loudness, but they have other sides to them. They're artists, and they'll write songs too, for example on acoustic guitar. If I said: "Let's try 20 overlays," they would have tried it, but we didn't. Instead we created sonic energy by putting the material through tonnes of amps and adding effects. We changed some of the lyrics to make them a little heavier, I added delay lines to make things more interesting, and so on. When we played "Hey", I added a delay repeat at the end of the phrase "Standing in the park", and when I went to see the band play later, the audience was singing the delay - "park, park, park, park, park, park, park, park"! So... it's turned into its own signature hook, and it creates its own energy!"
About the recording of Are You Satisfied?
Thomas insists that they did not reference the work of other power duos such as the White Stripes, Black Keys, Kills or Royal Blood while recording the album.
"We tried to develop our own sound structure, and in general we weren't bothered by the need to sound 'normal'. For example, I like the big bass, and the way we filled in the low frequencies with guitar/drums. It was challenging, but it didn't really bother us. We set our own rules and took risks. We experimented with a lot of different approaches to give the sound more volume and texture. We added some sub-bass to some tracks and used a Moog synthesiser, and maybe some octave material on the guitar..."
Isaac's unusual drumming approach was a really important part of the whole production.
"Most of the bass energy on the album comes from the way he hits the drum. Slaves' bass drum has its own character! People tried to replace it with a sample on some of the early demos I heard and it never worked. So I refrained from doing that..."
Thomas emphasises several times that he generally likes to work quite fast, with the motto: "Just hang in there, go crazy, take risks!". This clearly resonated with the mentality of the band members, and Thomas remarked:
"They'd do three or four takes, and after that it was never the same. They were bored and losing energy, so I rarely insisted that they do more takes. If after four takes we felt the song still wasn't there, we'd discard the tape, take another look at how we approached it, and re-record it again..."
When the singles 'Hey', 'The Hunter' and 'Cheer Up London' were ready, the company travelled to Strongroom Studio in East London to record the rest of the album. There they recorded another 15 songs in three weeks, with Drew Bang, the studio's owner, helping with their development. Thomas then took the recordings back to High Bank for final mixing.
"Here at High Bank, the drums were about five feet away from the guitar amps, so to say there was a leak would be an understatement! We always started with the band playing the song live, which is the best way to work with a band: just get them to play it! We looked at what the song needed in terms of tempo and arrangement, and then recorded each song differently. Some songs were recorded entirely live with the two of them, some songs we played drums first, and some songs they recorded on a drum machine. Like I said, we always recorded very quickly..."
Slaves and Thomas began their three weeks at Strongroom Studio by setting up, familiarising themselves with the room and preparing for production.
"By this point, we knew what we were aiming for and how to approach things," Thomas recalled
"I think the most important thing I learnt from my dad was to listen to the mix from the producer's point of view, trying to be objective and not get distracted by all the options," says Thomas.
As it turns out, for Jolyon Thomas, the problem with analogue to digital conversion is not so much the sound as the attitude.
"Often young bands want to record on film and expect some kind of magic from it. But really it's just another tool. My argument in favour of not using it has nothing to do with sound, but simply that other things are more important. If you want to follow in Led Zeppelin's footsteps, don't focus on using tape, but instead play without a click, use only 16 tracks, don't put microphones on every drum part, and so on! These things are far more important than the format you're working in. As for Jack White, the important thing about his approach is that he only uses eight tracks, not the fact that he uses vintage gear, valve mics and the like... As for me, I'm not really interested in things that slow me down."