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BILLY LUNN: A Producer by Necessity (Part Three)

Laura  Barnes
BILLY LUNN: A Producer by Necessity (Part Three)

The Subways frontman and MI Pro columnist Billy Lunn continues his journey through the recording of the bands’ four albums. This month, he talks about working with Butch Vig.

Conway Studios, Los Angeles: if I were to describe thee appropriately, the only phrasing that could possibly do you justice would be: ‘The Bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise’. That says it all really, doesn’t it? The mixing desk was almost double the length of the one Ian Broudie used for recording and mixing our debut album Young for Eternity at Elevator Studios in Liverpool. At least it felt that way to me.

To add to this, in a semi-circle at the back of the control room of Studio 3 at Conway, there were wall-to-wall racks of blinking lights of all shades and colours, as well as various sized knobs, buttons and switches.

If one looked over the top of the mixing desk, which you’d almost have to get on tiptoe to see over, through the panes of glass lay the deep expanses of space. Okay, so maybe not space, but an incredible amount of space.
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The live room was…orchestral. Not just in terms of being able to accommodate an entire orchestra. The room itself was orchestral. Shafts of sunlight beamed down onto the polished wooden floor from the skylights that hung somewhere up in the heavens. As open and vast as the live room was, there were still sneaky cubby-holes that could be found lined up against the left hand side as you came in. It felt limitless. The studio even had a pool table. A freaking pool table! Even the pool balls felt bigger than the ones you get back in the relatively squashed confines of the UK.

But before we’d even stepped foot in Conway Studios, which sat just off Fairfax (and just round the corner from Paramount Studios), we’d spent two weeks in a rehearsal space somewhere in slummy Burbank laying out the foundations and plotting the schedule for the album sessions to come. We’d never known such organisation before. Butch Vig started to feel like the Real Deal. Even so, that didn’t stop Josh and I having arguments about how we thought some of the songs should be recorded, or even at what tempo they should be played. Sigh – the irrepressible passion and stubbornness of youth.

Butch, being the unbelievably level-headed and calming presence he’s always been, disarmed us of our youthful/English fire so that we could focus properly on the job at hand: making the kick-ass rock album we’d all been excitedly planning for months up to that point.

What had made the lead up to the sessions all the more intense was the fact that only a few months before I’d had surgery performed on my vocal chords to remove two polyps. In recovery, I couldn’t speak for two weeks, and I couldn’t sing for at least two months. During that period I’d also managed to write and demo (using the guitar to play out my vocal melodies) more than half the album. That could be one valid explanation/excuse for my outspokenness during the All or Nothing sessions.

I can’t stress enough how much of a saviour Butch Vig was during this period. The man turned us from a ragtag indie group from Hertfordshire into what we would then refer to as a ‘Proper Band’.

The meticulous nature with which he undertook the recording process set the bar from thenceforward, and made me realise that the head matters just as much as the heart. We’d play the songs along to a mapped click track in the rehearsal space, with Butch stood off in the corner of the room, and if a section lagged or stumbled over itself, he’d map the click track to go either faster or slower in that respective section – depending on what the song demanded, of course.

If the lyrics made no sense, Butch would ask me why, and then send me back to the apartment we’d rented on Sunset & Vine with some homework if he thought I could do better.

“Get to the bottom of the song. Find out what you’re trying to say.” The man, as far as I’m concerned, is responsible for a huge amount of the positive aspects of our band now. “The chorus is nowhere near catchy enough. When you sing this to Reading Festival in front of 60,000 people, are you going to want to hear them sing this back to you? Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus!”

Essentially he was saying: ask more of yourself, always. Butch is one of the reasons why, in 2008, we played what I consider to be our best ever show in front of 60,000 people at Reading Festival.

After we’d mapped the click tracks and arranged the songs to the point where we knew we’d sculptured a set of songs we could really be proud of, we ceased rehearsing and went into the studio proper.

Time. To. Record.

So all of the hired equipment was set up in the live room: Josh’s drum kit at the back, with all the spare snares lying alongside it; Charlotte’s bass rig, which consisted of two huge Ampeg blocks stood abreast; and my guitar setup, which was simply my beloved Gibson SG Junior sat in front of a wall of various amps. Don’t ask me to list them all, because there were so many that I’d simply fail to remember a single one – the bottleneck effect!

My live guitar pedal set-up was out and ready too, but Butch remarked that we’d only really use those for guide tracking: “I have this amazing guitar pedal that I found for Against Me! (it was during their New Wave sessions), and you’re going to LOVE IT!”

It turns out that I did love it, but not enough to risk having it in my live setup following the recording: I’m strictly Boss for the durability and reliability on the live circuit. Anywhere in the world, any time of the day, if one of my pedals goes down, I know for sure I’ll be able to acquire a spare Boss Blues Driver. Having just remembered the Blackstone distortion I used for this album – and this is one of the reasons why typing up our recording/producing history for MI Pro has been such a joy for me – I’ve just gone online to order my own right away. You can do the same by clicking here (

I’d never known such an accepting approach. And it taught me that there is no mere one way of going about anything. If you want to spend time looking for that crazy sound, that’s okay; if you want to spend half the day pondering the tone of a guitar sound for your solo, that’s okay; if you want to rush out a track because you’re digging the chaos of the moment, that’s okay; if it sounds good tracking a part swamped in feedback and distortion because it feels insane, that’s okay.

Butch spent a whole day on Charlotte and a whole day on me just so we could try and find the right microphones and preamps that suited our voices best. But somewhere down the line, when halfway through a song, we’d suddenly hear over the talkback: “Fuck it, let’s try something else and have some fun with it.”

It was a jungle of creativity and experimentation. And that’s why the album sounds as spirited as it does. To counter this almost cavalier approach, Butch had a chart on the wall that displayed our progression throughout the session: the songs were listed along the X-axis, the parts of each respective song were listed along the Y-axis. Drums for Kalifornia? Tick. Bass? Tick. Guitar double tracks? Tick. Guitar Solos? Tick. Just the vocals to go, then.

And because of this chart it felt like there was no rushing and panicking to get things done in time – we all knew what we’d already completed, and we all knew what we had left to do in the given time. I’ve not gone for such a bureaucratic method of listing each element in my own recordings, but I also realise that if you want both a jovial and a hard-working atmosphere in the studio, it’s good for everyone on the project (and it is a project) to know what needs doing and by when exactly it needs to be done.

As we came to the end of the sessions, I finally decided that I wanted Rich Costey to mix the album. As far as I was concerned, it was a ‘what the hell’ situation: Warner Records had already thrown enough money at us at this stage, so why not throw a little more to get what we want done for the final stage!

I was (and I still am) a big fan of Rich Costey’s work, and to have both Butch Vig and Rich Costey working on the same album? A dream come true, frankly! After a year of pure creativity and hard work, I’d decided that I didn’t want to be there for the mixing; most of the work was already done, and we could just give each mix a thumbs up or a thumbs down whilst we were with our respective families before the mad eighteen months of touring begins.

Looking back on it all now with a much clearer head, it looks and sounds unbelievably arrogant – even Conway Studios’ owner thought I was crazy for making such a decision. Who knows, maybe I was as hubristic as he suggested. But with how it was all sounding so far, and with Butch Vig as a go-to, for me there was no way anything could go wrong. And it didn’t. We had just finished making the best album I think we’ll ever make…

Tags: recording , the subways , Opinion , billy lunn , Butch Vig , column

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