In a market that is proving tough for guitar-based pop and rock acts, writes Chris Barrett, one apparent guarantee of success for axe-wielding musicians is the involvement of Markus Dravs (pictured). The German-born producer was behind the desk on a pair of big-selling Brit winners – Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs – in a year dominated by pop, urban and dance releases. Despite his efforts having recently won Dravs both an MPG and a Brit award, he appears to be taking the sudden rush of acclaim very much in his stride, emanating an easy-going modesty as he relaxes in Hampstead’s Air Studios dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.
While 2010 was undoubtedly an outstanding year for Dravs and his collaborative projects, a quick glance at his CV reveals it was far from a blip. He is currently busy co-producing Coldplay’s new album alongside Brian Eno and recent years have taken in Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible as well as albums by Björk, The Maccabees and Brian Eno, to name but a few.
Dravs’ desire to become a producer ignited when he first heard Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Having written to literally hundreds of studios in his native Germany only to be advised to go to university, he decided to head for London where he landed the role of tea boy at Parsifal Studios. It was the start of a hands-on education in production that no university could ever match and the start of a career path that would lead him to become a longtime collaborator with his hero, Brian Eno.
“I worked my way up [at Parsifal] before joining Westside Studios where I met Brian. We did a session and got on really well – he is so easy and generous with his knowledge and time no matter what position you are in, and that really impressed me,” says Dravs.
A year later Dravs received a call from Eno’s manager asking him if he would assist Eno for a week in his Suffolk studio. He ended up staying for four years.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” recalls Dravs. “It was the combination of [Eno’s] free approach to experimentation coupled with his encouragement to try whatever you want and establish new ways of working. Living in the
countryside working on the tunes of the guy who inspired you in the first place – it was a good time,” he smiles.
Drav remains tight-lipped about the results of the recent Coldplay sessions alongside Eno but he does reveal that there is already enough material in the bag to release a full album. Indeed, Dravs has something of a reputation as a hard taskmaster when it comes to encouraging musicians to get their heads down.
“There are some producers that like to just let it happen but I like to push people,” says Dravs. “If you are going in to work you should work, with the common goal of making the best possible record with the budget and in the
timeframe available. If you don’t want to do that it’s a little pointless. I can do between 12- and 14-hour days, six days a week and any band that is serious about a project can do that as well.”
Dravs’ work ethic and open-minded approach to recording techniques came in handy when working with the seven-member strong Arcade Fire who he approached after seeing them perform on Later with Jools Holland.
“The way they perform and change instruments – I just thought, ‘that’s the band I want to work with next,’ so I started writing to them,” explains Dravs, who ended up producing the band’s second and third albums.
Known for their multi-instrumentalism and epic sound, Dravs was inspired by Arcade Fire’s enthusiasm and love of vintage equipment, himself being partial to recording on audio tape, but he notes that their desired recording technique is not for the faint-hearted.
“A big chunk of the song goes down early on in one go and then there are overdubs later. For them it is really important to feel each other when they are recording together, and any kind of spill is embraced, so you have a guitar amp or whatever bleeding all over the drum ambient mikes and that immediately sets the tone for the way you work,” he explains. “Early on I was trying to get them to separate a little bit more and Iremember the phrase ‘deal with it Dravs’; and I am glad I did deal with it. That whole playing together really comes across in the recordings; it’s old school.”
Dravs describes The Suburbs’ recording process as very organic, with the songs coming together over the period of a year, but when it came to producing Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More it could have hardly been more different.
“They were able to play the songs out before recording them,” explains Dravs. “They played me the whole record in demo form and I liked the fact that it was very different from anything that was out there and from anything I had done before. It came from the instrumentation and so from a different place from your usual rock band.”
While Dravs has undoubtedly played a part in ensuring rock has maintained its profile in the UK charts in recent months, he reveals he is now looking to branch out and try something completely new.
“I would love to work with some hip-hop artists; hip-hop with strong, socially-conscious lyrics and content. It would have to be the right artist and I am talking to a couple,” he smiles.
But in the meantime with the Coldplay project ongoing and his mantelpiece growing ever more crowded with awards, Dravs appears content to enjoy the moment and appreciate his achievements and the acclaim thus far.
“When I look back and consider that I have been able to work with Brian Eno, Björk, Coldplay and even The Maccabees and many others, I am glad I have been able to continue working on records that I love. I find it difficult to look at it as a career really. It’s weird to think that it is really a job. I’m just so glad that there is a lot of enthusiasm for projects that I am enthusiastic about.”