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INTERVIEW: Ben Hillier on making Nadine Shah's new album and how Blur and Depeche Mode shaped his songwriting

Laura  Barnes
INTERVIEW: Ben Hillier on making Nadine Shah's new album and how Blur and Depeche Mode shaped his songwriting

From Blur’s Think Tank (2003) and Elbow’s Cast of Thousands (2003), to Depeche Mode’s Delta Machine (2013) and this year’s critically acclaimed Holiday Destination by Nadine Shah, to say Ben Hillier has an impressive body of work is somewhat of an understatement.

Having produced albums from some of the most iconic British bands of the past quarter of a century, Hillier has also co-written, produced and performed on Nadine Shah’s three albums and is part of her touring band.

The latest offering, Holiday Destination, is an honest and bold look at the political climate, not just in the UK and the US, but around the world. With its powerful lyrical messages comes a musical direction that’s one of the most exciting things you’ll hear all year.

MI Pro editor Laura Barnes caught up with Hillier to chat about making the album, and how he went from ‘the drummer that would play with anyone’ to the bona fide studio master that he is today…
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You started out on the drums. How did that lead to your career in production?

I started drumming when I was about 10. I played in lots of bands, but I never really found THE band that I wanted to really be in. So, I said yes to everything and would play in any band that would have me – from classical, brass bands, anything.

When I was 18, one of the orchestras I was in was being recorded and I just sort of followed the cables around in the studio until I got to the control room. I thought: “this is really cool”. I got chatting to the people in there and they were really welcoming and said I could come and assist them.

Blur have such a great feel. You put them all in a room and get them to play, even if they’re just jamming, and great things happen.

Once I got into the studio side of things, that was it. I went to college and in the third year of that course I got a placement in a studio assisting for Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne. Once I finished my college course I went back there to work with Steve and Paul and got into engineering that way.

You’ve worked with lots of huge bands. Are there any projects that stand out as a real learning experience?

There’s a definite difference working with a big, successful band and a lesser-known band and it’s to do with the level of politics involved.

With the big bands, you have a lot more people with a vested interest and you have to keep a lot more people happy, rather than just the actual band members. So it’s a lot harder to be left to your own devices with a band if they’re a bigger act. On the flip side, you’re working with people who have already made massive records and that’s really inspiring.

I’ve learnt so much about songwriting and band musicianship. For example, Blur have such a great feel. When they play together they’re just there. You put them all in a room and get them to play, even if they’re just jamming, and great things happen.

They way they feed off each other is great. They’ve played together so much and done such a vast amount of gigs that real magic happens.

From the songwriting point of view, if you work with someone like Martin Gore from Depeche Mode, his songwriting is so advanced that you just sit back in awe. The way he pieces together and joins his lyrics with the chord structure of the song is amazing. How everything eventually locks together is incredible.

I did Elbow’s debut album. They actually already started recorded it once with a different label but they had been dropped half way through. It was really interesting going in the studio with them. They had a sense of purpose because they knew it was the last chance they were going to get to make it work. They had a real focus to what they wanted to do.

If you work with someone like Martin Gore from Depeche Mode, his songwriting is so advanced that you just sit back in awe.

The band had already done a few tracks, which were great. They had a clear idea of exactly where they wanted to go, and they knew exactly where they wanted the record to be. The band was basically saying to me: “How do we do it like that? How do we make it sound like this?” and that was a real joy to do.

Were there any times where you went to make an album with someone and thought: “this is going to be huge”?

There are definitely points where you record a song and think: “this is really special”.

I remember recording something like ‘Out of Time’ with Blur. The first time they played that it wasn’t even a complete song and they were still jamming down ideas, but the atmosphere of it was fantastic. I never thought it would be a single because I thought it was too slow. But I was very glad when they chose it for a single because it was my favourite track on the record.

Do you think having that initial drummer mind-set makes a difference to how you work and how you produce music?

There’s quite a few producers that are drummers, and I think its because you’re a bit shit on your own. You need to work with other people. You very quickly learn the positives of group playing. So I’ve always collaborated with people since the beginning of my musical career. I think it’s great learning to collaborate as a drummer.

You’ve worked on all three of Nadine Shah’s albums and Holiday Destination is getting a lot of attention. What was the process of making that album?

It’s a little bit different from some of the other projects I’ve done because we write everything together. I’m much more involved in the whole arc of the project. We sit down together and demo everything. We do go back and re-record things but about half of it comes from the original demo. Because we do it in my studio, it can be used the whole way through.

From a production point of view it’s a very different gig. The decision is much broader. So we decide what kind of direction we want to go in. By the time we’ve got to the end of the writing, production is all kind of laid out. It’s really obvious where we’re going to go with it. I’m playing in Nadine’s band as well so it’s a very different experience for me. It’s great. I love it.

In current times, how can you not be involved in politics?

Also, because I’ve got a long-term involvement with her, we can make long-term plans. Producing a band, you never know if you’re going to be involved in the next record, or even the whole album. Whereas with Nadine, it feels like we can build something bigger than that.

The album has quite a heavy subject matter. How did that affect the music and production?

We discussed it quite a lot – about what she was going to write about, and also whether or not we should be writing about it.

There’s a lot of talk about whether bands should be political. The conclusion we came to with that was that, in current times, how can you not be involved in politics? It’s not like it’s all just rumbling along as usual, life is the same and you can talk about your boyfriend without it being about politics. That’s just not the case anymore. It’s kind of rudely butting into everyone’s lives so we thought, well you can’t really write about anything else.

The musical direction was a conscious decision. We wanted to make something more up beat and groovier, and with more of an upfront poppy production. We made that decision early on, probably before we wrote any lyrics. And the two just worked together really well.

What’s different or special about your writing partnership with Nadine?

I heard a demo of hers in about 2008 and just really loved her voice. When you first meet an artist it can be quite difficult to know what their story is, how they make their music and how involved they are in creating the album. When I went and met up with her, we thought we might try and record something together and it just turned into a writing session. I hadn’t really done much writing at that point and it turned out that Nadine had only written on her own.

The first track we wrote together became the first single off the first album, so we realised this works really well. We’re both really good mates, we’re like brother and sister.

I had tried doing a bit of writing with various people and I sometimes found it great, sometimes found it awful. Writing is quite a personal relationship with someone. To go in a room and write something means bearing your soul. You have to be very relaxed with that person to create something good. You have to be very comfortable with them.

Are there any other artist or bands that you’ve toured with?

No, not at all. I’ve done some writing with various people but it was always a little bit here and there. I’ve never toured with anyone other than Nadine. When I started working in studios in the early 90s I pretty much stopped playing because I didn’t have time. I probably spent 10 to 15 years locked in a room in a studio behind a mixing desk and never really had time to play.

When I started writing with Nadine I remembered how much I loved playing and how much I missed it.

What bands are you into at the moment?

The music industry is really odd at the moment. There are so many bands that are all doing really good stuff, but it’s really hard for bands to get to a high level. They don’t get the funding to spend time in the studio, and they don’t get the money to spend on rehearsing and recording.

There are some really good punk bands out at the moment. There’s a great band touring with us called LIFE who are brilliant. I’m really into IDOLS who have been around for a bit. They’re just getting bigger at the moment. I really like the new Grizzly Bear record, that’s really good.

It feels like music is great and exciting and really pushing forward, but the music industry is just really confusing.

Pete Wareham, who’s the saxophonist in Nadine’s band, is getting me into grime. He is obsessed with it at the moment. It’s wicked. He’s been sending me lots of Wiley stuff that’s really great. There’s so much good stuff out there at the moment.

It feels like music is great and exciting and really pushing forward, but the music industry is just really confusing. There’s loads of really good stuff going on, but it’s really hard to find it because the music industry is trying to work out what it is. Some of the industry is wonderful, some of it is awful.

Do you have any projects coming up that we should look out for?

It’s a fun time right now. I’ve just finished a whole load of things. I’ve just mixed an album for Josh T Pearson and that’s really exciting. He is an astonishing songwriter and singer. It was great to work with him.

I’ve just done a load of stuff with Rich File who used to be involved in UNKLE, hopefully that’ll be coming out soon.

I also did an album last year with Kings Of The South Seas. The whole album is about Franklin’s voyage to find the Northwest Passage! It’s quite a crazy project. We recorded it in a week in a church in graves end. It’s really “left field”.

Follow Ben on Twitter at @BenHillier

Tags: elbow , depeche mode , blur , Interviews , producer , Nadine Shah , Ben Hillier

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