John Fryer is a legendary producer and a musical phenom. His production credits include albums from Depeche Mode, Cocteau Twins, Love and Rockets, and many more. He has had multiple music projects and his most current musical iteration comes in the form of Black Needle Noise, which is a project that comes in digital form at present. Fryer chatted with me via Skype on February 14, 2017 and the transcript that follows is a result of that conversation. We talked about many topics including his hunt for a label (come on labels, how is signing John Fryer even a question), his various projects like Muricidae and Silver Ghost Simmer, as well as his philosophy behind producing and what that role entails.
I usually have most artists introduce themselves to our readers but I don’t think you need any introduction John. So, I guess I will start with a broader question about what you do when you have your producer hat on. How do you approach producing bands, especially ones you’ve never produced before, and what is your philosophy in terms of the roll of a producer?
My philosophy is always try to make the bands’ record. To make the best of their music and the best of what they’ve got. Other people don’t, but that’s not my philosophy. Other people will walk all over their music and sounds. I mean, I can make my own music so this is all about making their music. Making their dreams come true. Making the best of what they have and hopefully fulfilling what they wanted.
There’s an interesting thing that happens on your records though, that you produce. You have this sound that comes through anyway.
I always try to make what they want but obviously, there is something of me that is going to come through in that. There’s an aesthetic there that’s me. It’s in my DNA and it’s just going to be there. But, if you notice, luckily, all the records sound different. They don’t sound like one person or one band over 200 albums. It’s not like “oh it’s the same sound, it’s the same”…. Obviously there are going to be bits of me in there because I’m doing it but the overall picture should be different on each record.
Right, and mixing is an art form in itself. Your another element of the band when you’re at the board.
A lot of times when I’m working with bands and it’s a four pieces, then they are like, oh, you’re the fifth member of the band. It’s sort of like George Martin and the Beatles. If you are working with the band and making their music, then you kind of… I mean, every record I make is very personal to me as well. So I try to put 110% into all the records that I make and obviously a bit of me comes through at the end of the day. I hope all the records sound completely different and sound like them rather than sounding like a John Fryer record along with some band he’s working with.
Can you take us through your writing process when you are working on your own material? How do you approach a song from start to finish? And when do you say “this is done”?
Well, it’s never done. You just have to come to a point where you say “I’ve got to finish here” because it will just go on forever and ever. Every time you go back to a mix, you say to yourself “I could’ve changed that or I could have done that.” When you come back two or three months later, you think you could have done something completely different. To me, there’s no right and wrong to making music. It’s whatever comes out of you at the time. You’re in a particular headspace at the time and that’s where things end up. Two months later you might be in a different headspace and feel like you could have gone in a whole different direction.
So, with the Black Needle Noise Project, you are trying to release a song a month? Am I understanding that correctly?
Some months, it’s been two songs. When I was in Oslo, I did some lectures at the university. It was interesting talking to the students about their perception of the world and the music world. The younger generations don’t really care about albums. In Norway and Scandinavia, Spotify is the biggest thing. So they stream music. They don’t buy music. They make up their own playlists. They don’t particularly care who a song is by or what it is. If they like it, then that’s it. So, we are in a digital age and why not use the technology in the way that it can be used? I mean, if you’re Tool, you can get away with waiting 10 to 12 years to make a record. There’s still a fan base there.
Even though I’ve been a producer for many years, I’m still sort of a new artist. I’ve made the albums with Dark Drive Clinic and Silver Ghost Shimmer and I’ve made EP’s with Muricidae. And now, because I’m using different singers, I wasn’t going to actually do an album. I was just going to release one song after another and have there just be a continual flow of music. It would be like a never-ending cup, once you think you’ve gotten to the bottom of it, another song comes along. Then I spoke to some people in the press and it’s difficult for them to keep up. They asked if I would put it together in an album so we can review them. Some people wrote about two songs and some wrote about six songs and it was all random. That’s why the first album came along. “I Face the Wall” was only released on the album to make the album different and special.
“I Face the Wall” is my favorite track on Before the Tears Came, if you don’t mind me saying.
That’s the thing. I’m writing a lot of different tracks. It’s whatever comes out of me. Some of the tracks are left over from when I was writing the album format for Dark Drive Clinic and Silver Ghost Shimmer because it all has to fit sonically into a sound. So I had this other music left over and, it’s like, what do you do with those? Because with Black Needle Noise, I don’t have any rules or boundaries, I can do whatever I want. It’s sort of like “Queen of Dust” is more Americana Noir sounding, so I can release that, then I can release an ambient song or an electronic song. It doesn’t matter. As the listener, it’s up to you to like whatever song you like, which is still good to me. As long as you like something. Each song should be it’s only little thing. You could see it as a concept album, but with every song you should be able to close your eyes and see your own little movie in your head which will take you off to a different place.
You are known to be a shaper of sound. Would you talk a bit about how you experience sound both as a producer and writer and how you see emotion playing into it?
Hopefully, the sound will bring an emotion to you. That’s what it’s all about. I was lucky when I started in the studio and was growing up in the 80’s when I worked with Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert from Wire because their approach to music was different from a lot of other people. Working with Daniel Miller… it was a lot about making soundscapes and making moods and that’s what I still try to do is make a mood and try to get feelings into the music. So, when you listen to it, it touches you.
I also think that when you are growing up as a teenager, music attaches itself to those experiences. That period from about 12-25 has a lot more emotional attachment to music because of that period of growing up and what you are doing in your life.
Speaking of sound, I really enjoy the sorts of tones and textures you seem to gravitate toward. What attracts you to particular tones and textures in your music and are there particular things that you generally return to when crafting tones and textures in your work?
When I write, everything is cinematic to me. You know, that spacious sound. That’s what I was saying before that, when you are listening to a song, it should conjure up images and take you on a cinematic journey. That’s what I try to do with all my songs. I try to create that feeling and vibe. When you are making sounds, you could be making a particular sound and going in one direction but then come across another sound and then everything will take a different direction. For me, sounds talk, they tell you things. One sound can influence a whole song and take it in a completely different direction from where you were heading.
There was a moment in “Human” that has this door creek in it. The lyrics are about psychotic breaks and this sound communicates this sort of brilliant feel for being human and not entirely “perfect”, whatever that might mean.
Sounds are very important in the whole thing… more than playing a melody or phrase. That’s why I call what I’m doing “Noise Pop” because there is noise in everything that I’m doing. There is noise in all the songs. It could be underlying noise or loud noise, but there is noise in there. The vocalists kind of create the pop side of it.
Your work with Louise Fraser in Muricidae has a particular sound and aesthetic to it while in Black Needle Noise you seem to be using an open palette. Can you talk a bit about the challenges a sort of constricted, band sound brings and the challenges one might encounter when the palette has no boundaries?
The band thing has these restrictions and you have a box that you must fit in. You can’t be varying outside the lines too much. It was a bit what I was talking about when I was talking to Lush the other day when I went to see them. We talked about them writing their new songs and how they sounded like their old songs. People were complaining that their new songs sounded like the old songs and they were like, yes, but you wanted us to play the old music. So we had to keep the old sound for the new songs. It’s a funny thing. The fans like one sound and they like you to stick to it. If you vary from it too much, then they are going to complain and go “Well, you changed the sound.” So, being in a band, you kind of have to have a uniform sound because if you vary too much, you can lose fans and they get upset with you.
Right from the beginning of Black Needle Noise, I wanted things to be totally different.
So let’s turn specifically to Black Needle Noise and its birth. What was the impetus for this project?
The first band was Dark Drive Clinic which took me twenty-five years to complete because I started writing those songs in the mid-80’s around the This Mortal Coil period. Because I’ve always been so busy, they’ve always been on the back burner. So I would do an album for six months or so and then come home and I would work on a song for two weeks. Then it would be put away again. So that took a long time to complete. So that was our first album. Then Rebecca, she had a band with her husband anyway, had two kids, became unwell, and had a job, ended up not having time to fit in doing any more music, which I understand completely.
So then I wanted to keep going but I was now without a singer. So that’s where Mericidae and Silver Ghost Shimmer came from. I didn’t want to continue using Dark Drive Clinic because that was Rebecca, so I wanted to change the name and do something else. So then I started working with Louise and Pinky. So, with Pinky, we did the album and did a small tour and then she decided she didn’t want to continue either. So, it left me in a place where I had music. I mean, it’s very stressful when you have a band and you end up setting up all the social media and you build up the name and then all of sudden it’s like “I don’t want to do this anymore”. It kind of leaves you high and dry. So, I didn’t want to do that anymore.
So now I work with a singer maybe once or twice… perhaps three times, but I don’t want it to become a burden for them too. So all they have to do is record their vocals and send them back to me and they don’t have to do anything else. Also, I am trying to use Black Needle Noise as good exposure for them and for me. It’s like trying to cross-pollenate because a listener might know the work of one singer but not the work of another singer and, when they hear that new singer, hopefully, they will go and listen to that other singer’s music. That’s what I’m hoping it will do.
I like to ask artists about a few particular recent tracks they’ve produced that stick out to me. I really dig the track “Heaven” you did with Jennie Vee as well as your most recent “Swimming Through Dreams” with Mimi Page. Can you talk about writing and recording both those tracks and working with both singers?
The whole process of the whole project is I write and record the music. I then send it to the singer and, if they like it, they sing on it, and send it back to me. Most of the time there is no editing or there may be a couple of little edits to fit the music or change the music to fit the vocals. But, usually, the music and vocals do not change. Then I mix it and then release it.
So what attracted you to Jennie Vee’s vocals?
Well, I’m trying to work with people who are in different genres. This is the thing about cross-pollinating. People who like Jennie might have never heard of Jarboe and people who like Jarboe may have never have tried listening to Jennie or Mimi. So that’s what I’m trying to achieve. I’m trying to open the world up.
It was interesting when I was talking to Mimi [Page] because she was working with Delirium. Then I happened to be in Los Angeles last September and was asked to come to the launch party for the Delirium album. Then, I didn’t really speak to Mimi there but we started communicating through Facebook. She said “Oh my goodness, if I had known that that was you” and we started to talk about music. At one point, we decided to make a song together. So, with that song, I tried to make it like This Mortal Coil style. You know, go back to the 4AD, ethereal ambient sound.
On Before the Tears Came, I really like “I Face the Wall”. Dare I say that it’s my favorite track in the collection? Are you planning to do vocals on any more of your tracks?
I also sang on the track “Bang, Bang”, the very first song that came out [for Black Needle Noise] and is a Nancy Sinatra cover. I will do the same again when there are enough tracks for the second album. Then I will do another Dr. Strangefryer vocal on the extra track.
“I Face the Wall” is one of my favorite tracks on the album.
I was asked by a friend of mine who works for a trailer house. They wanted a song for the Underworld trailer. Unfortunately, “I Face the Wall” didn’t get used in the end.
So, let’s talk about some gear. Can you talk about what sort of gear you use when recording Black Needle Noise? Also, what are your favorite pieces of equipment to use as a guitar player?
At the moment I have Schechter guitars. I use a Hughes & Kettner amplifier. Most other things are plug-ins because I’ve condensed my studio to be as small as possible. I do use the Orion 32 Antelope Converter as my interface and I’m using my Funky Junk 3202 Summing Mixer. I used to have a Neve but I got rid of that and started using the Funky Junk mixer. Basically, I use 32 channels for audio so the Orion is a 32 channel interface in one box and the Funky Junk is 32 channels in one box. So I stripped my studio down to two boxes rather than the six pieces of equipment I used to have in the studio. I also use Pro Logic.
What about monitors?
I’m using the new Neumann KH 310 8.25″ 3-way Powered Studio Monitors. For the price, I don’t think you can get anything better than them on the market.
Do you think you’ll ever get to perform as Black Needle Noise live?
Everyone’s asking me and I’m going to look into doing it live. But I just need to work with one singer to sing all the songs. It’s going to be too difficult to negotiate twelve different singers to be in the same place at the same time. Even watching Massive Attack last year and they had three or four singers, I can imagine it’s a lot of work. I mean, not just for the shows, but you are also going to have to rehearse a few weeks before the shows. Somehow, I’m just going to have to get a band together and then just get one vocalist. Then, maybe, if we are playing in a vocalist’s home town, they could join us for their song when we are there.
It’s certainly something I want to do. Playing live is good fun. It was easy before because it was just me and a singer and some other musicians. Doing this… I think I’m going to have to find one singer who can sing everything. We would also have to work out which songs to do. Once I put out a hand full of more songs, there will be enough for another album. So, it will be two albums worth of music.
What’s next for you and your various projects?
I’m talking to a label about doing a CD and a vinyl release. I talked to one label, which everyone knows, and they turned me down without even listening to it. I’m disappointed with their response. I’m talking to another label but there is already enough for a triple album. But I have to see how it goes and how the label wants to play it. It can get complicated. Also, working with a label, I want to release one song after the other digitally so you don’t have to sit around for two years and wait for the next album. I just hope they don’t want to stop that. Most labels want the digital side and the physical side and I want to keep doing what I’m doing.
In terms of the new tracks, I am just waiting until the end of the month and I’m coming out with a song with Ana Breton from Dead Leaf Echo called “And Nothing Remains”.
[John played me a clip of the track and it’s really good. Ana has an incredible voice!]
It should be out by the end of the month.
Producing any new bands?
I’m working on about four new projects right now. In between, I work on Black Needle Noise.
Thanks for talking with me today. Anything else you would like to say to our readers?
There are new songs on the way with different singers. You might be surprised with who might be singing next!