A beaming smile, a warm handshake and the offer of a cup of tea immediately greet me as I spot Billy Lunn, the creative engine at the heart of Hertfordshire power pop trip The Subways, as I enter his personalised room in Hertford’s RiverCity Studios. Adorning the walls of the dedicated Subways space are posters of Nirvana, The Beatles and Steve McQueen, while two of its flanks are lined respectively with extensive and impressive record and guitar collections. If ever there was space designed to get one’s creative juices flowing, this is most certainly it.
As anyone who knows or has met Lunn will testify, his infectious passion for all things music is plain to see, and matched only by a voracious appetite for learning and pushing himself both technically and artistically. Indeed, he is currently in the middle of an English literature degree at Cambridge University, while simultaneously writing, recording, mixing and producing his band’s as yet untitled fifth album.
His ambitious streak has been in evidence since day one, when The Subways sought to take on the world with their own unique brand of stadium-size pop rock, with singles such as Oh, Yeah, With You and, of course, Rock’n’Roll Queen catapulting the band onto the world stage. And while consistently looking to hone his craft as a songwriter and performer, Lunn was equally studious in his observations of the stellar line-up of producers that worked their first three albums. Lightning Seeds frontman and producer Ian Broudie handled production duties for 2005 debut Young For Eternity, with legendary Nirvana producer Butch Vig taking the helm for follow-up All Or Nothing in 2008 and former Morrissey producer and collaborator Stephen Street picking up the mantle for 2011’s Money And Celebrity.
After taking notes on the techniques of each of his production predecessors, Lunn elected to take on the producer role himself for The Subways’ self-titled fourth outing in 2015. Describing the experience as a learning process, he claims that the most important thing he discovered was that “we can do this”.
As our morning together in the studio unfolded, Lunn gave us the inside track on his studio set-up, the key things he learnt from each of his previous producers and what he hopes to bring to the second Subways record with him behind the desk…
Talk us through the recording process for the songs on the next record.
The songs started out as ideas on acoustic guitars. The first idea has to be the best, and then everything stems from there. Hopefully they’ll be better, but you can’t start with an OK idea. I’ll record those ideas on my phone and, if I’ve got a few hours, I’ll go through all the voice memos on my phone, catalogue them into a book, then come into the studio with a compressor mic – my trusty AKG perception 220 – and just record them acoustically. If I’ve got three, four, five good ideas, I'll upload them to Dropbox and send them to Charlotte [Cooper, bassist] and Josh [Morgan, drummer] and they’ll write their ideas. When we’ve all given the thumbs up, we’ll convene in this room– Josh with his electric drum kit, me with acoustic guitar and Charlotte with her bass – and we will just play and play for five or six days until we feel we know and believe in every note and every beat. Then we start recording.
I set up Josh’s drum kit in here, I queue up my Pro Tools 11 HD, I’ve got my HD in/out, I’ve got the Avid preamp inputs – two for kick, two for snare, two for tom, two overhead. We don’t record cymbals or percussion, we just record the shells, so I can really pull the room mics up and get a natural drum sound. In my head, as much as I love listening to other bands, I’ve got this real bugbear about kick and snare sounding too computerised, so I’m waging the war for kick and snare being played in a room. I listen to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and I go, Yeah, that sounds like a kick and snare! Nowadays it just sounds like impact, like a punch in an action movie. As long as it sounds like a drum set I’m happy!
Then I’ll record Charlotte’s bass parts. I’ll have two DI signals going through my Art Pro MPA II compressed by Art Pro VLA II going into Pro Tools, and I’ll put the bass amp through the pre. I use a D112, which picks up a lot of the bottom end really nicely. Then I tell them to go away and it's just me and the guitar amps. I like to think that I’m indulging myself, whereas I think Charlotte and Josh feel like they’re burdening me with the responsibility! So we are both feeling a bit guilty that it's being done this way, but I just love it. I love recording them, making sure they are happy and letting them know everything is in hand.
How are you balancing making the record while studying at Cambridge?
The great thing about making this record is that I spend a lot of time in Cambridge working really hard and just playing guitar for fun, then I get to come in here for 10 hours at a time. I won't always be recording and mixing for 10 hours: I’ve got my guitars, I’ve got my piano, got my TV and pretty soon I’m going to have a PS4 with FIFA! It's just a creative space. The main thing I take away from all of this is that I want everyone to have fun in the recording process.”
The last Subways album was your first as producer. What have you learned since then for this album?
One of the main things I learned from recording the fourth album was that we can do this. One thing that has stopped us from doing albums by ourselves in the past is that people have told us we aren’t ready yet. I think that’s a bit of a cop out because nobody is going to be ready until they actually give it a shot, and I’m glad we took the chance when we did. We had previously worked with Ian Broudie, Butch Vig and Stephen Street and we covered all bases, pretty much. We could have easily worked with another producer, but I think I lost my inhibitions a little bit in a meeting. Our manager asked who we wanted to do the next record and I was like, I’ll do it! And he took me at my word, and I realised I was actually going to have to do it!
Another thing we learned was that there is no wrong way of recording. The real skill is putting the time in. And trusting your ears. You can’t say, Use this mic through this preamp with these settings and it’ll be OK, because in any given situation it won’t work for a variety of reasons, so use your ears, use the time you’ve got and just give it a shot.
I’m infinitely a better producer since the last record, and a lot of that has to do with the fact I was using Pro Tools LE, that I was using a 003 Plus rack - which I’m ever thankful for using. Also, I can’t believe I got through making that album with a computer system that shut down every 15 minutes. After we finished the last record, one of the first things I did was ask our manager to give me £10,000 to spend on new recording equipment, so I bought a new Mac, some cheap displays, new speakers (Mackie MR6 MK3s) and a new amp system. The speakers have been amazing, transparent as hell.
What were the key things you learned from your first three producers?
There’s usually one overriding sense from each producer. From Ian, it’s the value of getting a good performance as a unit. We recorded that pretty much live together with very few overdubs, and it taught me the value of unity in recording. You have to sound like a band, you have to sound like you're playing the room.
From Butch, I don't want to concentrate too much on the pastoral side of recording an album but it's so integral to the recording process. I got that from Butch. Everyone is at their best when they’re happy. And also, I can’t stress enough that Butch is also the greatest technical producer in the world, in my eyes.
With Stephen, it’s believing your ears. A lot of the time he would just look away and listen and trust his ears, not looking at any of the meters or dials, just listening.
What are the three piece of kit you can’t do without?
The AKG Perception 220, because it’s never put away. Then the DI box. It’s just a great way of getting a clean signal straight in there. It’s wonderful to have room some woofing in there but sometimes you just need a really straight signal, and the DI is there for that. And the PreSonus Central Station – it has completely revolutionised the way I hear what comes through the speakers. Everything here is completely invaluable and has to be used, but if I didn’t have that I couldn’t make a record.