Last night, Catherine Marks was crowned UK Producer Of The Year at the 2018 MPG Awards. Here, in an in-depth interview, she tells PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble about her formative years, production techniques and how she became one of the most in-demand producers in the business…
Tucked away in an unassuming Willesden side street sits Assault & Battery, one of the UK’s premier studio facilities and the setting for PSNEurope’s interview with producer, mixer, engineer and audio extraordinaire, Catherine Marks. Situated behind a black iron fence emblazoned with the studio’s distinctive logo, the site’s exterior is otherwise unremarkable, yet the music that has been sculpted within the confines of its history-soaked walls tells a very different story. And on this particular occasion, it also provides us with a welcome refuge from a bitterly cold February morning in the capital.
Devised by two of the world’s most revered studio genii in Alan Moulder and Flood, it’s unsurprising that Assault & Battery has spawned some of the finest records in recent British history, drawing a potent stream of artistic and technical talent through its gates. To list the full extent of outstanding albums produced inside would command greater print real estate than that offered by a year’s worth of page space. Suffice to say, its most recent client list includes, among a great many others, the likes of Foals, Interpol, Royal Blood, La Roux and Led Zeppelin. Indeed, as PSNEurope awaits its subject in the studio reception, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien can be seen milling around, nodding a polite good morning in passing - presumably in residence to put the finishing touches to his debut solo album, which is being produced with Flood and Marks - as can the aforementioned Moulder.
It is here that Marks is predominantly based, having become Flood’s assistant back in 2005 after departing her native Australia for the UK. She immediately began reading up on engineering techniques and learning the ropes via a process of on-the-job experimentation. Before long, she had acquired mixer and engineer credits on The Killers’ 2012 single Runaways, before engineering the critical and commercial success that was Foals’ 2013 album Holy Fire. After adding to her client roster the likes of PJ Harvey, Placebo, MIA, Ride, Kanye West, Mr Hudson and Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, she was honoured with the MPG Breakthrough Producer Of The Year Award in 2016, while also earning a Grammy nomination for her work on Wolf Alice’s Moaning Lisa Smile.
But if 2016 was deemed a breakthrough year for Marks, 2017 was the one in which her place as one of the world’s most sought after producers was well and truly cemented. Her production and mixing work on The Big Moon’s debut Love In The 4th Dimension contributed in no small part to the record’s Mercury Prize nomination, while St. Vincent’s Masseduction, which landed in the upper reaches of most critics’ end of year ‘best of’ lists, saw Marks drafted into LA to mix a clutch of its genre-defying tracks. Throughout the year she also put her signature to acclaimed records by such diverse artists as Manchester Orchestra and The Amazons. And while it’s only early in 2018, she has co-produced The Wombats’ Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life record and has been shortlisted for the 2018 MPG Award for UK Producer Of The Year alongside Charlie Andrew and Tom Dalgety. All in all, it’s been rather a busy time.
As we take our seats inside the facility’s affectionately nicknamed ‘studio Dave’ – a cosy, softly-lit space sporting a gold record here, a framed portrait of Sesame Street’s Animal there and a small but distinguished smattering of analogue and digital recording equipment – Marks considers not only the range of records she has worked on over the past 12 months, but also the ways in which her multi-faceted skillset has informed her work since her time shadowing Flood.
Catherine Marks at London's Assault & Battery Studios
“I love [engineering, mixing and producing] equally for different reasons,” she enthuses. “I haven’t done as much engineering for a while now, but a few years ago I engineered for John Parish and it was so awesome to be let free to do some interesting sonic stuff without the responsibility of the producer role. But I love production and being at the beginning stage of a record when you can’t wait to hear how it’s going to sound at the end. With mixing I just get totally absorbed. It’s like this awesome exploration of someone else’s vision.”
According to Marks, this blending of roles makes not only for a more varied working pattern, but can also bring numerous benefits to the project in hand.
“All the roles are really fluid,” she explains. “For example, I’ve just been working with Sunset Suns and the engineer we were going to use unfortunately had to go to hospital, so I ended up doing that. How things sound is very much part of production for me and I love creating interesting sonic textures.”
Prior to Marks’s employ with Flood, the call of the studio had never previously been heralded by any affinity with particular sounds or producers. For many years, her love of music was invested in melody and performance as opposed to any kind of sonic underpinning.
“There wasn’t one record or producer that turned me on to sound before I started,” she elaborates. “I remember the week before I moved here I had a little iRiver - like a really early MP3 player - and the only album I could figure out how to put on there was an Interpol record, so I was listening to that over and over again and remember noticing the shit loads of reverb on it! But not much prior to that. I’d loved listening to Bowie records and Led Zeppelin records but I listened to those for enjoyment. Now when I’m in mixing mode I’m breaking it down. If I’m working on a track, someone might say, I really want this to sound like a Queens Of The Stone Age track, and I’ll listen to the song and be like, OK, that’s interesting, it’s not how I thought it sounded. Because when you’re listening to music for enjoyment you’re not breaking down the elements. So no, there wasn’t any particular record that made me decide to do this. Although, Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk is something that excited me early on when I first started, like, God I hope I can make a record like this!
“More recently, I really liked Everything Everything’s latest record. And I love what James Ford does. He creates something that is really tough but delicate at the same time. I obviously love what Flood does - he’s a mad genius and a sonic wizard. Over the last couple of years, since I’ve kind of got a bit more confidence with what I do, I’m just soaking up other records and feeling really inspired and enjoying listening to music.”
So how does Marks describe her own approach to music production?
“It varies from project to project,” she says. “With Manchester Orchestra the songs and the idea of the record had already been established, there was a real story thread that ran through the songs. What they were interested in was experimenting sonically and how far we could take it sonically. Whereas with The Amazons we loved going into the rehearsal room and ripping the songs to shreds and rebuilding them. Sometimes they had songs that were already written or they had an acoustic idea that we would transform into something else. It’s usually just me sitting on the floor saying to the drummer, OK play a Billie Jean beat, or let’s try this beat from Deus, and everyone just trying out different things with me basically directing a jam.”
Modest in scale but boasting an impressive haul of digital and analogue gear, Marks’s current base at Assault & Battery has served her well of late, with many of the items on display utilised across much of her recent output.
“So this is my little mixing room,” she beams, talking us through her audio arsenal. “I have a Fat Bustard summing mixer - I like equipment that sounds how it looks! This is big, chunky and strong. Basically, I mix in the box but I run everything through analogue, so it runs through the summing mixer then through the Obsidian compressor rack, then through a Massive Passive EQ.
“I also have some effects processing. I have a tape echo I bought for The Amazons’ record, which broke on the first day! One of the heads had something sharp on it, which kept cutting the tape so I couldn’t use it as a tape delay, but I thought, Fuck it and decided to use it like a valve distortion and basically everything went through it. It gave it this really nice high-end shimmer. I ran the vocals through it and often when we were doing the live tracking I’d sent the guitars to it and just have it really quietly sitting under the mix. You could hear that little bit of what I call rainbow sparkles - you don’t notice that it’s there, but you do when you take it away.”
She continues: “When I’m recording I use Pro Tools like tape. I’ll usually hit record and let it run for hours. The fortunate thing with digital recording is that you don’t have to change the reel every 30 minutes. But recently I was in Wales and we were recording to tape. I’m down for anything.”
Where some have lamented the rise of digital technology and so-called bedroom producers, Marks believes that the wider accessibility to studio software is something to be celebrated.
“It’s cool,” she states. “Studios are expensive. I wish I had had that opportunity. I remember I had a really old Mac and my dad had bought me this computer programme, which allowed me to play MIDI on a piano keyboard and through MIDI it would convert it to musical notation. I could score these amazing things, but if I’d been able to record all the instruments that would have been even better, rather than trying to get an orchestra to play the songs that I was writing!
“I don’t feel like [technology] has changed anything for me other than it’s really annoying every time Avid comes up with a new Pro Tools and it’s not back compatible! Everything else I will embrace and I love it when one of the bands I work with comes in with something that I don’t know or has a cool piece of kit. I find that really exciting.”
With a 2017 Mercury Prize nomination to its name, The Big Moon’s Love In The 4th Dimension proved to be one of last year’s defining rock records. Bristling with energy and brimming with infectious, stadium-sized choruses, the record received near-universal acclaim. And while the songwriting prowess on show is plain for all to see, Marks’s ability to capture the raucous nature of the band’s live shows provided a sonic dimension all of its own. For Marks, this came about in no small part due to the speed at which the album was recorded, having almost missed out on the project altogether.
“After working with them before on a few tracks, they decided they wanted me to do the record,” she explains. “I said I’d love to but I’m scheduled to fly out to start work with Manchester Orchestra and before that, because I haven’t had a break, I’m going to go and have a quick seven-day holiday. Then the manager texted me saying, We don’t want anyone else, so can you please, please, please do it. I said I’d think about it and I remember waking up at 7:00 am one morning and I rang her and said, This is the only way we can do it, if you’re up for it. We do it in seven days, we have zero expectations, we achieve what we can and we basically just have the best week of our lives. Are you up for that? That’s how that happened.
“We rehearsed hard and had everything planned out and they were so easy to work with, and the songs were really fun. Everything felt quick, which allowed us to play around with a lot of stuff. There was a little weird robot microphone thing and we were all just like, Should we just put on it? They were up for anything. We were reminiscing the other day over a bottle of tequila about what went into each song, like finding a tin can guitar and going, Oh, this sounds cool, we should put this on the album. There are all these little intricate, awesome sonic treats in there.”
Another major 2017 album on which she left her indelible mark was St. Vincent’s Masseduction – another record that came together at a rate of knots.
“I was going to LA and my manager said, St. Vincent needs to finish some mixes, would you like to have a go at one? I was like, Oh my God, yes. I thought I was going out there for a few meetings, catch up with some friends and go on a road trip. I arrived on a Saturday and this request was made on the Monday, so I went in to do this test mix on the Tuesday. They ended up loving it. And she was amazing to work with - she’s so clear about what she wants, and we had really similar ideas. The first song I did was Fear The Future; I said, I want to make it sound like indie Kylie and Nine Inch Nails, and she’s like, Yes I love those things! And there was a bit I wanted to make sound like the rave at the end of The Matrix and goes, Oh my God, yes, I know exactly what you mean! I was mixing literally to the point where I had to get on a plane back to London, where I hopped off, came straight to the studio and did another two mixes for her. I’ve never been so jet lagged, but it was really fun.”
With the clock winding down, conversation turns to the producers and engineers of tomorrow. In the space of just a few years, Marks’s reputation has transformed from up and coming star to contemporary studio icon. Though unable to reveal details as of yet, she currently has requests and projects piling up as her star continues to rise. Her advice to the next generation is simple: be yourself.
“I remember thinking, Why would someone want to work with me over someone else?” she concludes. “If you are unique you could provide something that someone else doesn’t have. Knowing how to set up mics and use software isn’t what people are interested in. They are interested in what you are as a person has to offer and what your personality will bring. I can’t be anyone else, I’m just me. It seems to work.”
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