Interview by Niels Kolling, picture from www.paulrabiger.com
This months exclusive interview is a bit of a scoop as then engineer Paul Rabiger goes into details about the recording of the Crash album around 1985 before Jam & Lewis got involved. Or as he put it "my perspective which I have to add, is that of really a teenager who went from listening to 'Dare' on his walkman some years before to sitting in the studio with the band".
First a little background. How did it come about that you ended up in the music business as a well respected composer, musician, song writer and sound engineer? Was it always in the cards you would go down this route or did the music industry miss out on a swaggering rock star?
Well firstly, thank you very much for this kind introduction. I don’t really consider myself any of those things apart from perhaps a respected engineer/mixer and more recently a film composer for Television.
Actually I was lucky enough to find a job as a ‘tea-boy’ at Utopia Studios keen to learn about music production and also to record my own music - which I did extensively. I recorded a lot of music with two other musicians, Steve Monti who is an amazing drummer (Ian Dury, Curve, Jesus and the Mary Chain and also Ed Shearmur who is a well known Hollywood film composer.
I was given my job by Tim Palmer at Utopia and later had help from a producer called Pete Smith (first Sting album) who encouraged us as a band, he set up a staged performance and we were offered a management deal leading to a recording contract with the then Genesis Management company. Sadly it all fell apart – that is a complicated story but in a way I was relieved, even though we had worked hard to reach our goal. I think relieved because things were moving too fast for a band that had never played a gig. This all happened when I was 25 years old . To be honest, the let-down took me a long time to work through.
So, to summarize after a long answer to your question; yes – perhaps there was a sort of missed-career there as a band or artist.
What was your knowledge of The Human League's history before you started working with them?
The Human League were of great significance to me during my early teens. Firstly, that memorable video for ‘Don’t You Want Me ‘ was playing endlessly and second of all because I became obsessed with listening to the ‘Dare’ album on my walkman (that was relatively new technology then. At that time I was 16 years old and in that year it was a beautiful snowy winter in London and sadly my younger sister was also very ill in hospital. Listening to the ‘Dare’ album sent me into another world somehow and I was able to get away from the worries that I had concerning my sister Joanna. She recovered fully and that is why that album sort of sticks in my mind and is associated with my sister’s recovery.
Also musically, not only did the songs capture my own imagination but also the synthesizer arrangements I found absolutely exhilarating – I think Martin Rushent’s work on that album is nothing short of genius! Before that, I was aware of ‘The Lebanon’ and perhaps ‘Being Boiled’ but it was really the very structured and orchestrated nature of the ‘Dare’ album that got me interested - because I wasn’t at all interested in electronic music at the time, perhaps Ultravox but generally I was more interested in music that was performed, especially growing up in the Punk era.
How did it come about that you got involved in the making of the Crash album back in 1985/86?
This was purely an accident.
Firstly, I had met the producer Colin Thurston once as a fourteen year old. I was taken to ‘Red Bus’ recording studio by a friend of mine’s father (Alan Mair of the Only Ones) – it was the first time I had seen the inside of a studio and I was so impressed I sort of knew at that point that I would like to end up working in that environment in some form or other. Colin actually remembered me, even by name after having only met him for 10 minutes some years before – I was very flattered and surprised to say the least.
Colin was extremely kind in a gentlemanly way I would say. He was really happy to have me as his assistant on the session with ‘The League’ as he called them, and confided in me to an extent. He had recently gotten married and was itching to go away on his honeymoon which he said he’d planned way before. The band were somewhat skeptical …. In the end Colin said to me ‘well Paul, I’m going on my honeymoon next week and I’d like you to take over for a while, do you think you can do that for me ‘ – these were pretty much his exact words because this doesn’t happen everyday ….
I felt awful actually, first of all it was clear to me that Colin was running out of patience with the project because things had being going on for a long time and perhaps he was used to a different way of working - the sessions had a somewhat vague atmosphere at times. Adrian was hardly there and I sensed that these were difficult times for the band, personally as well as creatively simply because of the lack of vitality with the sessions and I seem to remember Adrian being missed by the others .
I hasten to add that this was one of the first sessions - well, the first, that I had ever engineered - I had worked with Tim and Pete and others as an assistant and so I knew what a creative positive atmosphere could or should be like as those two producers had and still have great vitality. I have to add that between the band there was a good atmosphere and everyone was incredibly kind to me. I was treated by the band with unusual respect, despite my being very young.
I felt awkward actually because I was a bit of a novice really. What use could I be to the band?! - I could operate the desk which was an old Neve and quite complex in its own way but I wasn’t a producer – however, I could play keyboards and think of some arrangements at least. I could also let them take the driving seat with me helping out in any way I could (or in any way that they would let me – ha!)
The room at Utopia Studios that we were mainly working in was called the ‘Remix ‘ room and it was hardly capable of housing all their gear, a small mixing studio with a vocal booth. Eventually, as the band gained more confidence in the recording process and in me I guess, we went into the larger main studio and the atmosphere eased because of the increased space and I think because the band were able to sense some kind of progress, being without a producer actually gave them some reprieve. The band were also all people I took an instant liking to, I had closest contact with Phil and Jim Russell with whom basically everything was happening.
So here we were. Me having just turned twenty, having worked at the studio for just nine months and the band – the producer absent. We got on with the various things that needed doing like sampling backing vocals and retriggering them, recording vocals and adding keyboard and drum parts, creating some sounds etc.
How would a work day typically be for you in the studio?
Probably we would have started around 10 am and sort of worked ad-hoc, making constructive things happen according to who was there and what lyrics were finalized. There wasn’t really a producer who was directing the band – instead there was just me with my slightly apologetic manner and my well-meant suggestions. Phil was really in charge in a very non-authoritarian way - because he’s such friendly relaxed and generally lovely person – knowing his character, how could it have been any other way?
Jim was the catalyst between the band and the studio I guess – he was incredibly supportive to me, something I have never forgotten. Eventually it would be clear that the day would best be spent on recording vocals, or adding musical parts to tracks that were unusually sparse – I say unusually because the music definitely had a more dance-floor type of approach – there weren’t the sort of arranged approach that had been heard on ‘Dare’ for example – by that I mean that there weren’t those kinds of instrumental passages where the music took over for a time. That was my impression – I found it a departure from the music that I knew and liked of theirs: this music had soul to it but it wasn’t as conceptual as the ‘Dare’ album somehow. Maybe the idea was more on a dance-floor music level and less ‘conceptual’.
What was very entertaining and also endearing were our sometimes long conversations about all sorts of things, musical, political , creative, our different histories. How the band began etc.. I would say the atmosphere was incredibly open and friendly – these were very special people I remember thinking: to be so kind everyone at the studio and to be so relaxed in such a pressured situation like the one they were in - and also to be so trusting in my abilities.
Judging from the credits on Crash I’m guessing you worked on those tracks penned by the band as opposed to the Jam & Lewis ones. So would it be fair to say you contributed to Money, Party, Love On The Run, Jam, Are You Ever Coming Back and The Real Thing?
Yes, those are the songs I contributed to in terms of playing some keyboards and recoding various drum and keyboard parts and their vocals of course..
Any memories if you worked on tracks that didn’t make it to the album?
There must have been other tracks but I’m afraid I can’t remember them now
You actually hold the key to a part of Human League’s history fans would love to learn more about. The Colin Thurston sessions didn’t match what the band wanted and they decided to fly to Minneapolis and work with Jam & Lewis. But since no one has heard those sessions it’s taken on almost mythological proportions among fans. So any recollection of how the sound was? Electronic like Thurstons early work on Reproduction or more with “real” instruments? Any kind of detail will be most welcomed!
I remember there were a lot of drums programmed with the Linn Drum 9000 believe - I think it was even Colin’s machine …. The tracks were quite sparse and lacked the counterpoint and voicing’s of the ‘Dare’ album. It’s true, Colin was an established producer and had recorded many bands - I actually liked his sound and especially the rawness of the ‘Only Ones’ records which seemed to me to be very honest representations of a band.
The electronic music scene was very new and I guess new to him. You have to remember that there was a revolution going on: people would program at home and then come into the studio, eventually program in the studio, suddenly there was less for an engineer/producer to do if he wasn’t involved in that side of things. This was very much the case here and I hope that Colin would agree with me if he would read this.
I was such a fan of ‘Dare’ that I found myself looking for the same vitality somehow. For me too it was really hard to know what could be the answer at some level. I had played in bands, guitar bands from my early teens but I had no real experience concerning entire albums or electronic music for that matter. I had quite a bit of experience with my own synthesizer’s which were simple Korg and Roland synths – I also had some knowledge of the PPG Wave .
The Human League were there with a large Roland System 100 and various other pieces of gear which were quite alien to me, but all the same, this gear was part of their sound- so it was really an unknown what would or should come out of our combined efforts. It seemed obvious to me that Phil was going for a more groove thing rather than great orchestrations of Synths and instrumental melodies – the drums all sounded kind of similar because of the Linn Drum 9000 – that sort of coloured everything . So I would say that the results of the Colin Thurston production were sort of lacking in musical detail – I think if Phil would comment now, he would say that was a fair judgment- at least I hope so.
Perhaps there was a lack of counter melody, that struck me first because their other material was so full of sing-able counter-melody! – think of ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ for example. But again, I think that there was a move towards a more dance music type of direction – that meant groove and rhythm, not the kind of more unusual and original approach that they had started with. Here the sound was much more mainstream. Where it really works well is actually the single ‘Human’ which is pure genius I think.
When I heard that song for the first time I was extremely happy for the band. The song communicated so much and is so soul-full . Perhaps that was what the vagueness was all about- the main focus was missing in terms of an outright ‘hit’ single? There were good tracks like ‘Jam’ and ‘Are You Ever Coming Back ‘ ‘Love On The Run’ but there wasn’t that clear and obvious ‘Single’.
The Human League has a vast collection of vintage synths. Which ones were the most fun to twiddle the knobs?
That’s a difficult one. I remember us waiting for Phil to program a four voice sound on the system 100 which took him most part of a day. I think the band members and I laughed a bit and made fun of him because in the end it sounded like quite a normal sort of synth brass type sound that could have been called up on a JP8 or something.
They might well have had a JP8 there as well, that was a favourite of mine. The PPG I found fascinating and I’m almost certain Colin had a PPG there on the session. There were also FM synths like the Yamaha range, I think an expander as well. There were more synths in flight-cases than you could ever imagine actually - they filled the live room and the studio at Utopia Studios.
As mentioned the album ended up being produced by Jam & Lewis. What did you think of the end result of the tracks you worked on?
I was amazed and reassured that Jam & Lewis had kept all (as far as I could tell) the parts that I had added to the tracks – so that was indeed a complement! I thought that in the end, they had mixed the tracks well and they were pretty much as we’d left them back in London (I hasten to add that I never left London- sadly!) The mixes are really fabulous I think. This music needed to be mixed with that kind of wetness and smack.
I’ve mentioned that ‘Human’ was a revelation to me when I heard it – I think Jam & Lewis also really got the point of what the band were creating – it was that big American sound that the band were after - and they captured that for them .
How was it working with the band. They come across as very nice people but had a reputation in the 80’s of arguing a lot among themselves?
Well, I’ve already answered part of this question earlier to a certain extent we had fun – I mean, it was a kind of disaster situation for them, all of a sudden, not having a producer – but we did actually just get on with it. So when you consider their situation I confidently say that there were a lot of discussions at times but never heated. Let it be known, I never saw anyone angry or bad tempered – EVER !
It’s actually a great lesson for life and was for me – how to deal with unexpected and potentially disastrous situations? – do you look around for someone to blame or do you simply make the best use of what you have and harmonize with your environment? As the band leader Phil chose the latter of course. I think if I remember rightly that other members were more worried and concerned – or at least expressed more concern. Phil and Jim were very solid and pragmatic.
This is very unusual actually, often I came up against people striving for success in the studio. They would insist on working 14 hour days until everyone is sort of dropping with exhaustion and with that would also come a lot of ego. For me Phil’s approach was extremely democratic – everybody’s opinion seemed to matter to him, and their feelings too I think.For that reason the band might have gained a reputation for ‘arguing’ but I think really they were trying to find direction through lengthy and patient discussion. That kind of openness can unnerve some people perhaps but for me it was a good sign. This had its sort of own charm.
Towards the end of our recording sessions which went on for months, I remember Phil mentioning in the studio that the band had been contacted by Jam & Lewis’s management specifically about the song ‘Human’. I also remember Phil’s positive reaction to this, its all a bit of a haze now but as I understood it, they had this song and thought that the band could best perform it. Phil called me after they had returned to the UK and said that they were going to give me a credit on the album which I was very grateful for, and I felt honoured to say the least - this was my first real credit on a record as a musician or arranger.
Out of the bands vast back catalogue, can you name your favourite Human League album and song?
I think ‘Seconds’ because the imagery is so strong somehow … although I really love ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ – especially the keyboard arrangements on that one. Album-wise it has to be the ‘Dare’ album really. This album was something so new to me at the time and so imaginatively and musically put together by Martin Rushent, the songs are also brilliant I think - so that album for me is a great meeting of minds, between the band and the producer. Each song is its own ‘universe’ if you like, fantastically original.
Have you experienced a Human League concert? And if you have, when was it and what was your impression?
I have never seen the Human League in concert -. I live in Cologne and I think I missed them here some years ago - that was a shame. Perhaps they’ll come back? – if they do I will make sure to be there.
The band has some very loyal and dedicated fans that try to get to as many shows as possible on a tour. Have you had the same passion for a particular band? You know, following them around the country, sleeping on train stations as you wait for the first train home?
I never had the time because at the age of 19 I started working for a studio and sort of didn’t stop … I like all forms of music, I remember seeing an amazing ‘Pink Floyd’ concert, I remember seeing ‘The Clash’, Penetration, also Bob Dylan in my very early teens.
Wall Of Sound released first new Human League material in 10 years with the Credo album in march 2011 which was hailed as a return to form. Have you had a chance to hear it?
Well, I’m listening to ‘Never Let Me Go’ now on Youtube - so the answer is ‘in part, yes!’
You have a highly interesting CV, but if I could choose one artist, how was it working with fellow Sheffield band ABC on the Skyscraber album around 1997? Judging from the credits you had quite an active role as you’re credited on several tracks with both saxophone, piano and mixing?
It’s funny coincidence: both the first and last sessions I recorded were Sheffield Bands – The Human League at the beginning and ABC at the end. As far as ABC went:
I enjoyed working with Glen Gregory and Martin Fry and Keith Lowndes very much. We had great fun. Glen insisted that we stopped at 8 pm ( or was it 6 pm? ) and that we all went to the Pub afterwards to wind down or just go home to our lives - we started at 10 am and we ended at early evening, this was unheard of really - as I said, most bands would push themselves and work 14 hour days, which leaves you sort of reeling after a while and is actually counter-productive.
The personalities here were open and friendly and we were intent on having a good time - enjoying both the privilege and experience. The unconscious idea being that this energy finds its way into the music. Again, I found myself suggesting parts here and there – I boldly went where I had never gone before and played -well more like ‘belted’ a sax solo on one track – Glen made the flattering comment that it was his favourite sax solo – so that was encouraging. We were talking about Roxy Music and their sometimes wild sax solos. That’s what spurred that one on.
Martin and Glen were always full of wit and humor and we talked a lot about music, our favourite bands and influences. Martin has endless enthusiasm for music and song ideas , so does Glen. I should really say here that I think perhaps this musical crowd from Sheffield are blessed in some way – I think these musicians who are connected (ABC, The Human League etc) have a particular approach to people, their music, success, call it what you like but I hold them in the highest regard, I really do and I want people to know that these are just fantastically thoughtful, friendly and down to earth people. It means so much when you are in a small room with people for days, weeks, months on end. The personal side becomes quite important actually and if you are together with musicians that have that kind of positive energy, it’s uplifting .- the work becomes something other than work, it becomes an experience.
After the ABC album I relocated to Cologne and decided to try and get into film music. I won’t go into why here, I just ended up going that way as more and more studios were closing and people were recording at home a lot, this made working quite difficult at that time.
How was it working in the music industry when you started out compared to today where technology has changed it almost beyond recognition?
When I started out, all those little plug ins in our computers nowadays, well many of them, were in fact 19 inch rack units! A Fairchild compressor was a very rare thing indeed and most of the valve type equipment like the Pultec EQ had to hired in because it is rare and expensive. Studios were large and also expensive which put a lot of pressure on the whole recording and mixing process. The studios and the more so, the record companies that could pay for them formed a powerful elite really. It’s good that this aspect has changed, on the other hand, due to the new digital age of publishing and distribution, can musicians really make a living selling their songs online? – many producers and musicians say n .
Back then I had little to do with the record companies or A&R departments themselves, except on occasion. I was hired for sessions, either albums or singles or remixes - many of which with Pascal Gabriel with whom I really enjoyed working with. What was inspiring about that time, was being in a studio with different people and being able to listen to and work on music in that kind of specialized environment – I miss that today I must say …. the large studio monitors, the pristine acoustic environment and of course mixing desks with real channels, buttons, outboard gear etc.
It’s fantastic working in Protools or Cubase but having everything taking place inside a computer is somehow limiting and creates a sort of one-man show really – at least, that’s my experience. On the other hand, everyone is liberated because we can all exchange files and ideas with each other. It’s never a perfect world is it? What is sort of missing is the ‘recording session’ itself; where people work together and spend time all together to create something special. What is also different and now difficult for bands is getting in a room and actually playing together, although it has to be said that the upside is that it is easier than ever to record in a mobile situation.
I’m now involved solely in music for Film and TV so that is again very different and perhaps one of the few areas where the situation is actually better because of the speed with which one can work - and the technology has improved the sounds and sample libraries capabilities .
You seem like a very busy man, so what are the future plans for Paul Räbiger?
Oh! – nice to be asked!
I mostly produce and write music for documentary films these days – who knows, perhaps I’ll get to produce a song again but for now I’m happy being a father to my six year old daughter and working with film and music.
Phil, Glen or Martin – if you’re out there and read this and you fancy having a laugh again in the studio, please – don’t hesitate to get in touch – I’m only a four-and-a-half-hour train journey away from London, okay?
Check out www.paulrabiger.com for more information about Paul's career and future projects.