John Leckie: Producing the Goods
The music industry would be at a loss without British record producer John Leckie. Since he began his career in 1970 at Abbey Rd Studios as an in-house engineer, he has gone on to produce pioneering acts ranging through the likes of Radiohead (The Bends), The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses), Muse (Showbiz), Verve (A Storm in Heaven), Ride (Carnival of Light) and My Morning Jacket (Z). All of these albums have had a cult following, every success marked by the intrinsic individual sound of each band.
In the same way, Leckie produces for music that he himself can “get inspired by.” Considering Leckie's down-to-earth attitude, he is nevertheless a source of inspiration, not just to established musicians looking for more than a nebular deference towards their work, but also to those who are starting their career path in music.
I sit down with the genial Leckie in Bangalore, India, he's here for The British Council Music Exchange programme- helping to choose four Indian bands and consequently set up concerts, and produce and record for them. Upon arrival to Smriti Nandan Cultural Centre with my photographer, it is he who initiates our hand-shake first, gives a big smile and welcomes us, chit-chat commencing quickly. What a change to the airs and graces of many famous faces. It seems clear to imagine how Radiohead opened up to his salt-of-the-earth nature, admitting to him that “they questioned their abilities” and thus he “gave them confidence to record their best performance and helped them create their sound.”
Watching Indian folk and fusion band The Raghu Dixit Project perform live, Leckie taps his feet to the sounds, with a subtle, serene smile on his face, and does not act like a judgmental audition panel member towards the musicians- he is ultimately a music lover at a gig. Yet the band is in no doubt to Leckie’s status in the music industry being a legend. Winning awards for Best Producer numerous times- in 2001 for UK Music Managers Forum, a Brit Award in 1997, a Q Award in 1996 and a Music Week Award in 1995, seems to have in no way blown up an ego bubble. It is evident Leckie just loves all sorts of music and is not concerned with the commercialism seen so much today in the likes of X Factor.
As technical as producers need to be, Leckie’s music adoration is not clinical. “I produce for music I enjoy the most," he admits. "It’s usually obvious as to which I’ll pick, as it is the ones that have a heart-felt thing; giving musicians inspiration and ones that are simple with a universal feel.” Working class ethics are not to be amiss in his quest either, “In the studio some musicians only pick up their instruments when they feel like it- they are lazy and want to find an easier way. A musician however, needs dedication to their music. Who lives for their music.” And he practices what he preaches too, working intensely for seven days at a stretch of three months at a time.
Leckie still works hard at the top of the music industry ladder, but he started out as a tape-recorder engineer in Abbey Rd and describes it as “a responsible job” where he had to sit at the back of the studio and listen very carefully, run the tape and, “Go forward, go back- quickly learn what language people used. I was lucky enough to work with all types of music.” It was his assertiveness which got him there in the first place- by writing a letter to the studio for the job.
Since the digital revolution a lot has changed since those formative days, some 39 years ago. I ask him how this has affected his work ethic. "It has given exercise for freedom, to explore possibilities- there are different avenues to go up and it has made recording a lot cheaper.” Yet Leckie claims the essence is still the same when comparing digital rights management and “people have always been copying music and demos from one tape to the next”. He explains laptops have meant musicians do not need a studio to record and can advance a lot quicker than before, but that “quality can go out the window” compared to the past.
Nevertheless, Leckie has no qualms referring to his “old-school” ways, where he learned his craft from an analogue one-track machine, and stresses it was the case before digital to use two or three microphones next to instruments, but “now you can choose exactly where they go and there is more scope for choice, giving stability.” A taste of vintage via vinyl is still personally preferred to listen to (although he does “occasionally” listen to his i-pod “when he has the time”), and as he points out, a lot of bands still do 7 inch recordings, have collector’s items and special edition vinyl box sets regardless of the digital revolution. Great changes aside however, the parts played in recording music are still for the same scene.
The job of the producer during the recording process is to raise the caliber in music, creating suitable sounds in their detail to construct a bigger picture. Leckie explains his role depends on the act he is working with and what is needed: “I’ve done records with bands who would need a months rehearsal-they mix and match their good verses and choruses. Other bands go in the studio right away and capture their performance” and he has to adapt to whatever response. He does not tamper with musicians’ music, nor makes producing a profanity, believing it to be “dangerous to change the sound too much” and remembers more often than not he is “not a performer, but a listener, someone who communicates with musicians.”
This outlook differs to many record companies, who perceive music to be a mere product to sell, rather than give musicians artistic license to create on their own accord. Leckie smiles knowingly with the mention of them- he resonates a low laugh: “Record companies can at times want something which is not there in the music, and lose touch of what it is they heard in a band in the first place. It is almost a cliché because of how stupid it is, that they only see the marketing potential.” In calm explanation he says his job as a producer is not as a salesperson or a marketing man, and it is up to such professions to convince the radio stations what to play, with the aplomb they use a way of the music industry. His job satisfaction however, has always been found in “discovering a sound and then recording it.”
Leckie’s reminiscence for the “old days” is not in a clingy sentimental way, but his bright blue eyes flash acceptance for the changes in the present, “Back then, all musicians did was play their music. Nowadays they need to know about all aspects of the business.” Ticking off each finger on his hand like a mudra he continues, “Know how to record; how to work computers with so much information technology; multi-track; how to make a music video, how to write a script for it- their time is spent doing all these things.”
So with all these swift changes in how music is interpreted, how it is recorded and how it is played apparent since his early days in the 70’s, could there be any room left for a vicissitude in vintage- “In reality, vintage equipment is still being used 50 years after it has been invented.” He is particularly partial to Martin and Marshall Amplifiers which “do the job properly” as do Fender and Gibson guitars. For microphones, he has a soft spot for the German Neumann 47 and says it is what should be chosen today “if you are going to use the best tool to sing naturally.” The irony in such a choice? It was designed for Adolf Hitler in 1936. Yet it just goes to show music equipment can either be used for cherishment or degeneration- the ethics all depending on the hand which feeds it. And just as legendary John Leckie sums up music producing: “It is all about making decisions- the right ones.”