Dan Carey

‘I enjoy being scared by music’ - Mercury Prize nominated producer Dan Carey delves into his studio past and how he and Kate Tempest created Everybody Down…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 11 Feb 2015
  • min read
Look down some of the UK’s more idiosyncratic musical success stories and there’ll be one factor joining the dots between them.

That is producer Dan Carey and the South London studio he calls his home. Over the last year he's come increasingly to the fore, earning nods from the Mercury Prize judges with Kate Tempest on her album Everybody Down and Nick Mulvey’s First Mind.

Alongside that, Dan's played an instrumental role in releases from future indie stars All We Are, Boxed In and JUCE while also collaborating with everyone from the likes of Kylie and Bat for Lashes to Bloc Party and Yeasayer. His Speedy Wunderground imprint, a label devoted to limited vinyl releases, has helped signpost his recent activity.

Dan has been a strong influence on these leftfield songwriters, helping artists find their voice and with Kate, creating the musical backdrop for her striking way with words. We caught up with this producer du jour to find out more about his passion for discovering music that frightens him...

How did you first get into music?

As a kid, my mum used to play me Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys and it really struck me. I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of being scared by music. I used to listen to her other records like Jimi Hendrix but that was the most striking as I found it so frightening.

What was your entry point into the worlds of production and studios?

As a kid I got hold of two recorders and used to record on to them, play it back, record again. My uncle was a composer, showed me other ways of working and got me very into the whole process.

It just gradually took over as I got older. Myself and a friend started a label, put out records, I was able to earn money via remixes. It all eventually led to a deal with Virgin as a producer. At the time, around 2000, when Zero 7 were popular, it was a common thing for producers to be signed to labels as artists, then get featured vocalists on a record. The first LP I did with them didn’t do very well and I got dropped. But someone pointed out that if I could do tracks with different singers, I could start offering to produce lots of artists. That’s what I did and still do now.

What is the process for acquiring new work? Do you approach people or do they come knocking on your door?

It’s a mixture of both. These days there are lots of people asking me all the time if I’ll do stuff with them. I have to pick very carefully. But if I hear something I really like at a gig, I’ll run up to the band and tell them I’d like to work with them.
I want to feel that when they’re playing live I’m transported somewhere.

What do you look for when working with an artist?

Primarily good songs. If I was considering collaborating with a solo artist or singer and I’d make the music, I’d look for a great voice and the ability to write lyrics that make me feel something.

There’s too much music around which sounds good, great production, brilliant singing - but there’s nothing being said. You have the chance to say something and missing that seems pointless. I only try to work with people whose lyrics startle me slightly.

If it’s a band, then it’s a bit different as I really like psychedelic rock. I’d be happy to work with an instrumental band so the lyric thing isn’t really the same. But they have to be sonically really good at playing together. I want to feel that when they’re playing live I’m transported somewhere.

How about comparing artists like Kylie and Toy - do you approach them in totally different ways?

I’d approach those in totally different ways - with Kylie, it was more of a case of making the song and she came in fairly late in the process. She heard it, liked it, did the vocals but we worked on the track beforehand.

With a band like Toy, you try and create the right conditions for a performance, then let it happen and capture it as well as you can. The first part of the project with Kylie was about coming up with a beat. But that’s the difference between writing and producing. I don’t very often write with bands. It’s better that the core of the band write their own material. I wouldn’t suggest chords to them - it wouldn’t feel right.

You were Mercury Prize nominated with Kate Tempest for her latest album - could you explain how the creative process worked with her?

Me and Kate had known each other for a while, wanted to do something but had found it difficult to find the time. We decided to go into the studio at night and make a tune for fun.

But straight away you could tell it was the beginning of a story. It had an interesting narrative. We finished that tune - Lonely Days - and began again in the evenings putting together more tunes and developing the story. Kate went off and thought about the whole structure, who the characters were, what might happen and mapped it all out in her mind. Each time we had a session we would do another part of the puzzle.

With the writing, I would spend an hour getting a beat together, then she would straight away do a really long version of the vocal over it, in some cases 40 minutes long. Then cut it down, and do the same process a few things. I didn’t really refine the beat after that. I never saved anything for instance. Normally on a drum machine you’d save your song but I’d delete it and move onto the next one, almost as a way of making ourselves commit.
Everyone thought it was too weird and too wordy

How did the LP emerge on Big Dada?

We were halfway through and took it to some labels. Everyone thought it was too weird and too wordy. We were disappointed at the time but in a way it was a good thing, we thought fuck it, let’s not make it less wordy or less weird, we’ll just finish it. Hannah at Big Dada/Ninja Tune happened to baby sit for my kids when they were younger. I played it her, she said it was great, took it into work and they called the next day saying they wanted to put it out.

It was made in the absence of anybody. I’m not saying that someone from a label would have made us do anything in particular. But when you play it to someone at the end of every session, you do try and reign it in a little bit. We did make some quite weird music.

Are you working on a new LP together now?

Yes we’re working on another. We’ve made a slightly different bubble. Sonically it’ll be different. We’ve changed how we work in that we’re using the piano much more and trying to write music with more melody.

What’s next for you?

We’re doing another record which is slightly less clear about what it’s going to be. But it’ll be less rhythm-based. Rick Rubin is going to help us record that. It’s his idea really. He’s said come up with some songs that aren’t hip hop. We’re not quite sure but we’re working on that. We’re doing a project with Natasha Khan and Toy. We’ve found a lot of Iranian psyche tunes and Moroccan, from the early sixties which is just drums and chants. It’s a pretty crazy record. It’s really out there…

Visit the Speedy Wunderground website for more information and watch Dan performing with Kate Tempest at the PRS for Music office reopening in Streatham, South London below...