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Jolyon Thomas: The Art of Producing

"I'm not particularly interested in things that slow me down..."

Producer Jolyon Thomas: The secret to the magic sound...

Jolyon Thomas, son of the notorious producer Kenneth Thomas, was the main key to the success of the band's debut album Slaves. He had to transfer their living energy to the plate and ... he adequately coped with this test!

What are Slaves?

Slaves are one of the most prominent contemporary British bands! Slaves' musical aesthetic, attitude and lyrics are punk-inspired: they oppose the conformity and apathy of today's British youth, giving new meaning to the epithet "Disgusted by Tunbridge Wells". Unusually, the band's vocalist is also a drummer, and quite unorthodox at that! Isaac Holman plays standing up, with a kit consisting only of a floor tom acting as a kick drum, snare drum and cymbals.

Group Slaves
Group Slaves

Since their formation in 2012, the Slaves have built an intimidating reputation for the powerful riffs and stage energy of guitarist Laurie Vincent. The band's EP titled Sugar Coated Bitter Truth (2012) and the single "Where's Your Car Debbie?" (2014) attracted the attention of a wide audience. And when the duo signed to Virgin EMI in 2014, the search began on how best to capture the band's frontal and high-energy live approach in a studio recording...Then the band turned to the relatively unknown Jolyon Thomas, who recorded, mixed and produced Are You for help. Satisfied?, which hit the UK Top 10 shortly after its release!

And now about Jolyon Thomas... Why is his influence so extensive?

Quiet, polite and with long hair, Jolyon Thomas is nothing punkish or brash. Slaves initially considered him a bit of a hippie, which he vehemently denies. Thomas, however, has a sort of reputation as a famous producer, as he is the son of the legendary Ken Thomas, a producer and engineer whose credits include Queen recordings, David Bowie, Public Image Ltd… As Thomas Jr. explains, even though he spent a lot of time as a child, time in his father's studio, his production skills were mostly on his own:

“I have been creative all my life,” Thomas recalls. As a child, 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 four-track Tascam cassette recorder, on which I recorded my own demos. Eventually, when I turned 18, I started making tons of music. That's how I learned it myself. I'm still a musician, but I also became an engineer! I think about production in terms of color, feel and mood, and how to get that with gear is interesting, but that's not the point. A mechanism is just a means of transportation, you understand?”

First meeting…

Thomas eventually began 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 so, in 2014 he met Slaves:

“I first met the Slaves when I recorded them for a live video session with Youth Hymns and they just blew me away. They're a great band and their music is a far cry from the vast amount of outrageous, barren music that surrounds us today... They really liked the sound I got for this video: I ran Isaac's drums through one of my amps while he played. Later I 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 an album. Of course, the big challenge was getting their amazing live energy onto 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. This may seem simple, but it is 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 too. They are artists, and they will also write songs, for example, on acoustic guitar. If I said, "Let's try 20 overdubs," they would try, but we didn't. Instead, we created sonic energy by running stuff through tons of amplifiers and adding effects. We've changed some of the lyrics to be a bit heavier, I've added delay lines to make things more interesting, and so on. When we played "Hey" I added a repeat delay at the end of the phrase "Standing in the park" and when I later went to see the band's concert, the audience sang the delay - "park, park, park, park, park"! So… it has become its signature hook, and it creates its own energy!”

On recording Are You Satisfied?

Thomas insists that during the recording of the album they did not refer to the work of other power duos such as the White Stripes, Black Keys, Kills or Royal Blood.

“We were trying 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 the low frequencies with the guitar/drums. It was difficult, but it didn't really bother us. We made our own rules and took risks. We experimented with many different approaches to give the sound a more spacious and textured character. We added a bit of sub-bass to some of the tracks and used a Moog synth and maybe some octave material on the guitar…”

Isaac's unusual drum 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 it…”

Thomas emphasizes several times that in general he likes to work rather quickly, under the motto: "Just hang on, go crazy, take risks!". This clearly echoed the mentality of the band members, and Thomas remarked:

“They did three or four takes and after that it wasn't the same. They were bored and losing energy, so I rarely pushed them to do more takes. If after four takes we felt there was still no song, we would discard the tape, take another look at how we got to it, and re-record it again…”

Structure

With the singles "Hey", "The Hunter" and "Cheer Up London" completed, the company went to Strongroom Studio in East London to record the remainder of the album. There, they recorded another 15 songs in three weeks, with Drew Bang, the studio owner, helping to develop them. Thomas then took the recordings back to the High Bank for final mixing.

“Here at High Bank, the drums were about five feet 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 make them 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 completely 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 really fast…”

Slaves and Thomas began their three weeks at Strongroom Studio with setup, getting to know the room, and pre-production.

“By this point, we knew what we were aiming for and how to approach the matter,” Thomas recalled.

Conclusion

“I think the most important thing I learned from my father is 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 of analog and digital conversion is not so much in sound as in attitude.

“Often young bands want to record on tape and expect some kind of magic from it. But really, it's just another tool. My argument for not using it is not about sound, but simply that other things are more important. If you want to follow in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin, don't focus on using tape, but instead play without a click, use only 16 tracks, don't put mics on every drum part and so on! These things are much more important than the format in which you work. As for Jack White, the important thing about his approach is that he only uses eight tracks, not the fact that he uses vintage gears, valve mics and the like… As for me, I'm not really interested in things that slow me down ".

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