Interview with STUART EPPS, producer and engineer for Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Oasis, Robbie Williams, Paul Weller - Oct 13, 2014
ďToo many young music makers want to be the producer when thatís not what their skilled at. Leave producing to the producers.Ē
Itís difficult for new artists to make that first decisive mark in the music industry. It may be the talent and quality is there but the music needs the golden touch of a top producer in order for it to attract the attention of industry string pullers. This is where our interviewee, the respected producer, engineer and A&R professional Stuart Epps, comes in.
With a successful career spanning four decades and past clients including Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Oasis and Robbie Williams, Epps has the experience, expertise and contact book to help new artists launch their careers, and with Epps Music Productions thatís exactly what now heís doing.
In this interview Epps talks about the marvel of ďremote producingĒ where he can turn your home demo into a chart-ready finished article from the other side of the world, and also recounts a remarkable career rise that started with making deliveries to the Beatlesí homes in Swinging London.
How did you first get involved in the music industry, and music production and engineering specifically?
Clive Franks, my good friend from school and who I was in a band with, was working for Dick James Music, the Beatlesí music publisher. He would tell all these amazing stories about the Beatles coming into the studio and about all the goings on at the publisher.
When he was promoted from office boy to disc cutter there was an opening. I didnít waste any time, I went for an interview and got the job. I couldnít wait to leave school as music was my passion. I wore a suit the first day but after taking in the dustbins, cleaning the coffee machines and other pretty messy jobs decided on more suitable clothing. The job did have a few bonuses though. I was taking deliveries to The Beatlesí houses, visiting the great recording studios (Abbey Road Studios) and really seeing how the publishing business works first hand.
We also had a small demo studio at Dick James and it was there I met the young Elton John and some pretty amazing musicians and writers. These were exiting times for music in London 1967.
I went from office boy to disc cutter and tape copier, then to assistant engineer and then chief engineer within two years. However, having met Elton and a certain A&R executive, Steve Brown, I was more intent on working in the record company and so became Steveís assistant. I started working on Eltonís career on a daily basis, booking studios, musicians and basically helping run the record company, DJM Records.
At this time, aged 18, I produced my first album with two girls called Birds of a Feather, and which Elton played piano on. It was recorded at Trident Studios, where Elton, The Beatles and Queen recorded and was the most up to date studio in London at the time. I also toured the states with Elton as his Personal assistant.
I then went on to work at Eltonís record company, Rocket Records. Following a big Elton John US tour, Gus Dudgeon, Eltonís producer offered me a job running the new studio he was building, The Mill at Cookham. This was an amazing two-year project and I was involved in every aspect. It was probably the most expensive and most technically advanced private studio in the world.
I worked for Gus for about five years on some great projects until Jimmy Page bought the studio and then I really started more producing/engineering, working with artists like Twisted Sister, Vandenberg, Bad Company, Bill Wyman, Jimmyís band The Firm and Paul Rodgers.
I opened my own studio Wheeler End in the late 90s where I worked with Paul Weller, Robbie Williams and Oasis.
Can you tell us about your role in helping unsigned independent artists as part of your "music platform" and what made you want to do that?
I started Epps Music Productions (EMP) as a way of helping new artists with their home recordings and any other areas of music making. Many artists have their own set-ups these days but it still takes many years experience to create great recordings and productions.
With EMP I offer personal, hands on advice to artists, in much the same way as I did at the record company. Itís a difficult world for newcomers to the industry and I have now so much experience in this area I want to pass it on.
At the same time I can take raw recordings and turn them into more professional productions for release and broadcast. With the internet itís now possible to share wav files with artists around the world to help them with mixing and general production.
I still love the challenge of creating and helping to create new music.
When you encounter new unsigned artists what are some of things that tend to hold them back in terms of getting their careers off the ground?
I am currently working with many new solo artists and bands and one common problem with young artists is that they try to take on too much themselves: songwriting, arranging, performing, producing, engineering, the lot. I try to get them to realise that in the old days great music was made with teams of people and that sometimes you have to share these roles.
You say you offer mixing and production help by exchanging wav files across the internet, can you give any examples of ways in which you might help improve a particular track?
A lot of the production work I do with artists these days via EMP can be just mixing and mastering, but I also frequently build up a whole production around as little as a guitar and voice or piano and voice. Obviously itís necessary that these were done to a click [track] but then I can add drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and backing vocals Ė a complete production.
There is nothing better for me than when the artist hears the completed version and is knocked out by it. Many times I havenít even spoken to the artists on the phone and they are on the other side of the world.
Do the artists have any input on how the final version of their music sounds or do they just trust your judgment?
Yes. I often ask the artists to send me a track of what they want to sound like, and I welcome this. Itís important to me that the artist is pleased with the result and can relate to it. Itís them that have to go out and promote themselves and so they have to believe in the product.
When it comes to the final mix, if they can hear small changes then I donít mind sorting that either.
ďRemote producingĒ, as I call it, is a great invention. Being able to produce artists from thousands of miles away without actually meeting, and sometimes without even speaking, is amazing. It means the focus is on the one important aspect and that is the music.
In terms of helping create the song for the artist, how much are you influenced by what's happening in popular music right now and what is commercially viable?
Working with artists via the internet is not easy. Itís therefore important to try and establish quite quickly what the artist is looking for in terms of production and its commercial validity in todayís market.
I use my experience to bring these things together to end up with a satisfying result. Itís usually the artist who is paying for this, so itís quite different than working for a record company. Itís much more personal. I donít mind that. Iíve always been against producers or record companies that try to push artists in a different direction than the one they see themselves in and are comfortable with.
So far this is working out and there is nothing more satisfying to me than when the artist sends me the message to say they love it and Iíve taken their song and performance to a new and better level. If it goes on to sell thatís obviously a bonus .
The facility for making good quality recordings is now within reach of the average musician but that doesnít mean itís any easier, and the huge array of sounds and equipment now available can actually be distracting and counter-productiveÖ
Youíre absolutely right. If anything I think that having this equipment so readily available and cheap for young artists has made things more complicated and difficult for them.
In the old days a piano and voice or guitar and voice demo was fine for a solo artist. And in the case of a band, a live recording of a rehearsal with a decent tape machine could be enough to play to a record company.
Nowadays artists think they have to spend months perfecting a demo and then just get frustrated when they realise itís not that easy to make master recordings at home. Recording is actually not that difficult, but layering instruments and choosing the right arrangement for them is a job for a producer.
Then there is the mix. With hundreds of tracks available, demos start to get very complicated and when itís time for the mix it can be a nightmare. This is where I can help. I can take the basic tracks and, using my experience, I can normally sort it out, leaving the artist to do what they do best.
So would your advice to be when recording a home demo to be keep it as simple and direct as possible and not get bogged down with effects, multiple tracks etc. ?
Itís definitely not a good idea to try and over complicate the demo. Just to get the essence and atmosphere of the song and the arrangement.
Of course, if the artist has got access to a professional studio then the best recording possible is good as long as it doesnít take too long.
Once a production is complete what does EMP offer in terms of connecting the music with the right people?
I offer to help in any way I can with promotion. I know some good publishers and would give information regarding this. I would put the track on my website. I also am involved with a company that promotes artists videos to millions of TV outlets.
If I was really keen and thought that it could be something really special I would contact record companies myself.
Do you have any examples of where youíve worked with a young artist and then successfully taken them to the next level?
A while ago I met a young guy (Andy Jordan) who was acting in a very popular TV show in the UK (Made In Chelsea). I just asked in passing: ďCan you sing?Ē He said yes and then I asked if he had any songs. He said he had a couple but had never recorded anything. He was a friendís son so I suggested that he could record it in my studio. He came over couple of weeks later.
We recorded two songs and it turned out that he was pretty good. We released the single on my own record label and it got in the UK charts. In total it got about 100,000 downloads. Here it is. I also took the photo in my studio, which we used for the sleeve.
I did help with a bit of promotion, I mentioned him to my friend Elton John who liked the track and that got him in the Sunday papers.
How would you advise a young producer who looking to gain some professional experience?
Itís not that easy to get an engineering job in a studio these days. There are however some great music colleges where you can learn these skills as well as producer skills. They also have great studios and equipment to learn on. So my advice would be to start there.
Itís also good to work with artist friends, and friendsí bands in home studio situations, experimenting and learning.
Itís all down to being dedicated and focused and knowing thatís what you want to do above all else. I do find that too many young music makers want to be the producer when really thatís really not what their skilled at. Thereís nothing wrong with just being the singer, or the drummer or the engineer. Leave producing to the producers.
*Visit Epps Music Productions to find out more about how Stuart Epps can help you build your career and establish your name in a very competitive music industry*