Aside from being one half of Simian Mobile Disco, James Ford is the guy you could – alongside Miles Kane, I guess – most realistically call the ‘Fifth Arctic Monkey’ on account of his studio work with the band since 2006 (not to mention The Last Shadow Puppets and Alex Turner’s ‘Submarine’ soundtrack). Alongside Ross Orton, James co-produced the Monkeys new album ‘AM’ at LA’s Sage & Sound Studios, something I spoke to him about for this week’s magazine cover feature. He had so much great stuff to say though, and I just couldn’t let the stuff we couldn’t fit in the mag go to waste. So here’s the full Q&A, in all its glory…
NME: Can you tell me about the very start of the ‘AM’ sessions. What was the first conversation you and the band had?
James Ford: When they first came to me they were like, ‘We’re thinking of recording it in our rehearsal room’, and I thought, ‘Er…alright’. I went along to Sage & Sound, which is on not a very glamorous street in Hollywood – there’s pretty much a building site right outside – and I went in and was pleasantly surprised, because in terms of recording it’s a really nice room. It sounds really good. It’s all wooden with these slightly strange faux Greek pillars and architecture. They had been camped up in there for months, even before I’d arrived, and they’d been doing loads of demos on these pretty shitty ’70s four-tracks. I know they were getting really into the four-tracks, which played quite a big part of it. We ended up using a fair bit of them on the record – bits that were usable like interesting vocals. We tried to incorporate that as much as we could. I always love that, because the first time you record something, or the first time you have an idea, sometimes there’s a magic in it that it’s hard to re-create. So I’m all up for using as much of that as possible. I think it really influenced the way that they put the songs together.
Alex Turner said having that studio as a band HQ was key – the first time they’ve been in that position since making the debut album.
I think it was really important. That studio was so important to them – to have their own space to experiment and fuck around in was just great. The general routine we tried to stick to was 11am to 8pm, or something like that. But it really depended on what was going on at the time. When we’ve recorded stuff in the past we’d go somewhere like a residential place, and it was all about recording and that’s it. But because they all live in LA, someone would run off and pick up the dry cleaning one morning or whatever. It was actually quite laid back, which was nice. We’d go and hang out in the evenings. It wasn’t a very stressful recording situation – it was quite day-to-day.
On the other hand, the band told us they never wanted to see the studio again by the end of it. Cabin fever?!
Hah! They spent so much time there. The amount of time I spent there was just putting the album together in the later stages. I popped in a few times early on to hear what was going on but they were in there for months before that, rehearsing and writing, fucking around on the four-tracks. So I’m not surprised they were glad to see the back of it! I know I was, and I was only there for about a third of the amount of time they were.
How long were you there in total?
I dunno. On and off probably about a month, or something like that. They spent a fair amount of time writing, but I don’t think it was as intensive as it is when you go away to a studio. I think they were doing bits here and there. They were definitely preparing it for quite a while.
Did you have a brief before you started?
There was no brief other than to make an interesting album. Obviously I’d seen the songs as they were demos, and I think that around the time of ‘R U Mine?’ they struck upon this riffy, slow and heavy thing. But then with this slightly strange hip-hop, slightly R&B sense to some of the melodies and structures. There was a bit of that in there. Really, they just wanted to push it on and do something different, and keep moving forward. My job is to really to try and help bring their ideas out and distil and crystallise what they want it to be, and help them achieve that. There’s a Sabbath-y thing in there too, but obviously it’s all filtered through Alex’s songwriting and the band’s playing.
The backing vocals might shock some fans – they’re overtly R&B in places.
There is quite a different take on the vocals. There’s a lot of Alex in falsetto, of Alex singing in a really high register that he hasn’t really done before. Obviously Matt and Nick are both great singers as well, so Nick did a lot of really low Outkast-y, octave down vocals, while Matt did a lot of high, R Kelly-type stuff. We were interested in some of the vocal production ideas and, I think, the way that the good modern R&B records sound. They’re often a very simple loop or beat, but a lot of the dynamics and the structure of the songs comes from the vocals and how they interact and build. That was definitely something they were interested in exploring. Often in the past it’s been Alex’s voice in the front, and obviously it’s still largely that, but we just found it interesting to play around with some of the other voices in the band.
What was your favourite moment recording the album?
It was actually when ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ came together, I just remember thinking, ‘This sums up what we’re trying to do’. It felt kind of heavy – and heavy in mood as well. It had a weight to it that I really like. I remember when that came together being really excited, and seeing the picture crystallise in front of me a little bit of where we going. It was one of the first ones we got done, and it was that thing of it coming together – I could see the end call from that point onwards.
That riff was written on Alex’s 12-string Vox guitar, right?
Yeah. I remember when we bought it, I’ve got a picture of Alex playing it when we did the previous album [‘Suck It And See’]. He found it at the end of that record, and we never really used it on it. But I remember it quite distinctly, because it’s got these effects built into the guitar and I think he actually bought it as a bit of a joke. But I think it actually turned into a bit of an inspirational instrument! A lot of the riffs were written on that particular guitar.
The drum machine on ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is a first for them too.
That’s right, I think it is. That’s the thing, on the last record we tried to do a ‘band in a room’ type thing, with barely any computers used. It was very much to tape. But this one was a case of ‘all bets are off’. The band wanted to push things on and do something different. So to move it on and make it sound different we were very open to using bits of keyboards or drum machines, or whatever worked for the song really. Obviously it still has to link into them and feel like them, but…
…It’s not like they’ve gone dance?
Yeah! It was probably the same one Suicide would have used. It’s not like they’ve gone electropop on us! It’s not an 808 or anything! It’s from that kind of era when drum machines were invented as an accompaniment to keyboards. Like the kind of thing old people playing in bars use. They’ve been used in rock bands for a long time – I think as long as you do it in the right way, it’s great.
Alex’s vocals on the fast bit of ‘Arabella’ sound different to his normal style…
I think it’s doubled at that point. I don’t know if we’ve really done that before. He sings it really loud, but there’s two of him. It kind of seemed like a good idea – in an Ozzy way.
You’ve been producing the band for years now, and they told me they couldn’t foresee a time when they weren’t working with you. How does that feel?
I dunno. It’s quite weird, because it’s gone past the point of me feeling that I’m working with them. It’s like we’re friends and we can hang out, and making music is something we do for fun or something. A bit like I do with Jas [Shaw, James’ Simian Mobile Disco bandmate]. It’s something I would do for a laugh! So, I dunno. I think they probably should work with other people and get other influences in there – I think that’s really healthy. I’m always willing and eager for other people to get involved. But if they ever ask me, I’d always do it because they’re such amazing people to work with, and I consider them good friends.