Interview with RICHARD X, producer for Sugababes, M.I.A, Saint Etienne, Annie - Aug 3, 2009
“Musicians and producers have always tried to get music out there - the tape for your mates, the local gig etc - and the blog world is a hugely amplified version of that.”
Hailed as one of the “principal architects of 2000s British pop”, Richard X first achieved underground credibility with his mash-up pioneering singles as Girls on Top, before securing commercial and critical success with a string of massive hits for Sugababes (UK No.1), Liberty X (UK No.1) and Rachel Stevens (UK No.2) that fused radio-friendly pop hooks with artistic innovation.
His early success and a revered status amongst artists has since allowed him to pick and choose the projects undertaken by his “international production empire” Black Melody, and has lead to work with some of the most celebrated pop stars of the modern era, including M.I.A. (US Top 5 & UK Top 40), Kelis (US & UK Top 5) and Róisín Murphy (UK Top 40), as well as legends such as the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and New Order.
The northern Englander talks to HitQuarters about innovative pop, treating music as art and not a career, and how the blogosphere has become a fertile breeding ground for new artists keen to show off their wares.
Your recent project, the Saint Etienne 'Method of Modern Love' single seems like a perfect collaboration in that you're both connoisseurs of the modern pop single, how did that come about?
I've been a long time fan of the band and I think it was a few years ago that they asked me to work on a track but I was tied up. Originally I was asked to remix the ‘This Is Tomorrow’ track, which has ended up as the b-side of ‘Method’. That was in line to be a single but I think they decided they'd go for ‘Method’ after I played them a rough demo.
It was originally done by myself, Hannah Robinson and Matt Prime, but was found to be a good fit for Saint Etienne. I'm currently working on some new/old material for them of which more will be revealed shortly I think.
Did it prove to be a meeting of like minds?
Yes, having been a fan I'm sure I've ripped off many ideas from them, hence why we seem a good fit. I was also a big fan of the Icerink label they had for a while, and that informed some of my pop sensibilities.
The artists you've worked with in recent years I'd also see as having similar ideals of creating innovative, forward thinking pop music - such as Róisín Murphy and M.I.A - is there a Richard X vision they have to fit with?
It’s not so much a vision, more an ethos. I like the artist who stands alone or has the ideas that at first seem a little left of centre. Rather than chase a style, where you inevitably end up sounding second best, it's easier to do something new. If the artist is attempting something new they are creating a benchmark rather than trying to reach one.
I also like to write rather than just produce so that has led me to work with artists that want to do it that way.
In that case are you very particular about who you work with?
I am particular and probably turn down 90% of what I'm offered - I think it drives a few people around me mad. We try not to forget it’s art and not just a job.
With regards to innovative modern pop producers, did you run into Xenomania when you were working on Annie's latest album - you both seem to share ambitions of turning manufactured pop on its head, mixing it with unusual influences - what do you think about them?
Yes I met Xenomania whilst doing Annie's stuff. A great setup and I asked Brian [Higgins] if I could do work experience. I think he's still considering my application.
Who else do you think is creating smart innovative pop music at the moment?
I like people like Stuart Price, Fred Falke, [Alan] Braxe, and a lot of bloggy people at the moment just starting to produce. Also a lot of the Americans, who I think have beaten the Europeans hands down in the last year or two for pop.
My personal ambition is to tread the middle ground between Joe Meek and Pete Waterman.
You mention 'bloggy people' who are starting to produce - is the blogosphere therefore becoming the place for unknown producers to promote their skills and get noticed?
It’s blogs all the way these days. I think musicians and producers have always tried to get music out there - the tape for your mates, the local gig etc - and the blog world is a hugely amplified version of that. I hear so much new music, and good stuff as well, through the blogs.
What you notice in the blog world is that you often come to the same blogs time and time again, initially accidentally, and then you realise that there's a similar taste or understanding so you become a reader of it regularly and get to hear so much you might normally miss.
So would you say it was a good way for new artists and producers to get their music out there?
Blogs are hungry so even as an unknown you're quite likely to get in a mention or play. In fact being new is the modern spirit of our times - bands a year old sometimes seem like they've been around forever!
There's a general acceptance now about growing up, both skills wise and music wise, in public that I don't think was there before. It’s OK if you say, “This is a demo, or this is unfinished - what do you think?” So get your stuff out there and don't worry about getting paid, otherwise you won't do anything.
In fact you got your break in the industry after putting out records for free. The now legendary ‘Girls on Top’ underground singles pioneered the so-called ‘mash-up’ movement and led to you being signed by Virgin and attached to top artists like the Sugababes for their chart smash ‘Freak Like Me’. What were your original aims for those Girls on Top records and what inspired them?
The Girls on Top records were more about the art - they were records about records if you like. I'd always been fiddling with records and tapes since being a youngster so they were like the progression from that. There was no consideration of it being a career of course.
At the time it was inspired by anti the po-facedness of the electronica scene as much as anything. The production side, how it sounded - rough and spiky, electronic and modern - was what did it for me. Taking pop and putting it through a blender sound wise was the spirit of the times.
So it was more a serious hobby that took off than a conscious career move?
I still don't think of it as a career although it's my livelihood. I do records I like whether they sell 500 or 500,000. Luckily when I've liked something, other people have too.
Was production always the most appealing side of music for you, rather than being both a performer and creator?
Later when doing my Virgin stuff as a ‘performer’, I was only too aware of being the weakest link in my vision for the records. I was the slightly awkward bearded bloke hanging behind Michelle Heaton. A performer I am not. Making the records was always the most satisfying thing but there is a need for the public to put a face to the name so I got wheeled out. I don’t regret any of it of course, and my mates thought it was hilarious.
As you said earlier, you’re a songwriter as well as a producer. How you go about writing your songs? For example, when you work with Hannah Robinson, does she write the lyrics and you the music or is it more intertwined than that?
It’s most often different ways. I write a lot with Hannah, she's a great writer, and doesn't normally get the credit for what she does. She's worked with me on Rachel Stevens and Annie amongst others, and did a lot on Ladyhawke's record this year, not that you'd probably know.
Sometimes I'll write just with the artist, or like with the new stuff by [Beta Band star] Steve Mason, which I'm working on at the moment, he's written some amazing songs, so maybe I'll just do a bit of an arrangement.
Are your songs demoed and finished separately before you go to producing them, or do you create them in the studio?
Generally the record is, give-or-take-a-mixdown, the same as the demo or has elements of the writing sessions in there. I can't think of one off the top of my head where it's been completely rerecorded. Generally I'm the one who produces the songs that I've co-written as well. Like I say, it's pretty different for every artist and that what keeps it fresh.
You always seem to collaborate with artists on individual tracks. Is that because you see music in terms of singles rather than whole album projects, or is it just how you're approached?
I've always been about singles - it’s how I mainly consumed music. In the 21st century it seems even more valid – it’s bite sized, to the point, and let’s be honest with some of the artists out there you really don't need to hear much beyond the hit.
The way the industry works also dictates that you generally don't get asked to do whole (pop) albums - it’s always one track from him, one from her, one from over there. It’s a kind of a pick ’n’ mix. However I think this has had its day a bit having heard some of the recent supposed ‘big’ pop LPs.
I like the way it can work with artists for me at the moment, the only frustration being as the industry grinds to a halt you find your work caught up in lengthy delays and politics. That's the thing that makes me more eager to do my own thing again.
Interview by Barry Wheels
Next week: We continue our look at Swedish producers that have helped shape modern pop with an exclusive interview with Rami Yacoub.
Read On ...
* Frequent Richard X collaborator Hannah Robinson on taboo lyrics