An Interview with Producer John Leckie on The Stone Roses – HuffPost 9.8.09

In the U.S., The Stone Roses is remembered as one of those critically acclaimed U.K. rock acts that almost achieved superstardom in the States but mysteriously never did. In England, the Manchester lads rose from the late ’80s pub scene to become critics’ picks, pop chart conquerors, and heroes of the “Baggy” movement; but the legendary five-year lawsuit between them and their label Silvertone deprived vocalist Ian Brown, guitarist John Squire, bassist Gary Mounfield, and drummer Alan “Reni” Wren of their otherwise well-deserved musical fame and fortunes. Sadly, after half-a-decade, Second Coming, their follow-up album on Geffen, was that in name only despite its minor hit “Love Spreads.”

Regardless of the drama that occurred across the pond, the album The Stone Roses still is considered a classic, and its 20th anniversary easily qualifies it for a Legacy Edition. The album’s sound has been enhanced along with the bonus track/college radio hit “Fool’s Gold,” and the accompanying second disc documents the project’s creative evolution. For those unfamiliar with their sound, think Byrds psychedelics meets sixties chord patterns and haunting, reverb-drenched lead and harmony vocals; throw in something akin to light Frippitronics that occur during elongated and backwards guitar solos and licks, and you get the picture.

Brown’s moody vocals always are tucked artfully into the mutli-layered Britpop, and when the Roses are not jangling away through great pop-rockers such as “I Wanna Be Adored” (#18 Rock Track) or “She Bangs The Drums” (#9 Rock Track), “Waterfall,” and “I Am The Resurrection,” they’re offering up miniature treatises like “Elizabeth My Dear” during which Ian Brown borrows the melody of “Scarborough Fair” and perverts its traddy lyrics into “Tear me apart and boil my bones, I’ll not rest till she’s lost her throne, my aim is true, my message is clear, its curtains for you, Elizabeth my dear.” Angry? Nah, not really. Addicting? Absolutely, these tracks are mesmerizing–just check out “(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister” or the last four minutes of “I Am The Resurrection” for proof.

Remarkably, the “demos” are barely that, with non-album tracks like “Mersey Paradise,” “Where The Angels Play,” the b-side “Something’s Burning,” and “Pearl Bastard” also shining. Even the stray single “One Love” is included, making this a pretty tight historical excursion. All of these recordings were nurtured by famed British producer John Leckie who oversaw projects by acts such as Simple Minds, Magazine, Be Bop Deluxe, XTC, Public Image Ltd., The Fall, The Posies, Gene Loves Jezebel, Robyn Hitchcock, My Morning Jacket, and The Verve. Leckie graciously made himself available to chat about the boys’ early studio days while traveling somewhere between London and Oxford…

Mike Ragogna: How did you first meet The Stone Roses?

John Leckie: Our first meeting was at the rehearsal up in Manchester because the record company sent me some demos and I jumped in the car and went. They used to rehearse in this pub called The International–the manager used to run some clubs up there like International 1, International 2–and they could rehearse on the stage there in the afternoons until the gig started in the evening. So when I first met them, the place was empty, there was nobody there. We had a good time, and afterwards, we went out for pizza.

MR: As you watched them at the rehearsal and eventually at their gig, did concepts on how you’d produce them become clear?

JL: When I saw them play live, it was full-on really…the place was packed. People were hanging everywhere and screaming, and it was all a bit more bombastic, more drum-heavy, like a drum spectacular going on. Everyone was dancing and raving in the audience.

MR: How soon did you take them into the studio and what was that like?

JL: It was two weeks, and there we were. It turned out really well, it was a great studio. Because of the record company not wanting to spend money, they booked us at a cheap rate, so we started at seven and worked until about nine in the morning. The band was staying at a guesthouse that was down the street, and of course, they’re trying to get to sleep at nine or ten in the morning. It was crazy, and a little bit difficult from the hours we were doing, but we managed to capture something really good. We started out recording four tracks (including) “I Wanna Be Adored,” and “She Bangs Drums.” We went on and did the rest of the tracks, we went to Rockfield Studios as well, and recorded “I Am The Resurrection” and some of the others. So, it was recorded over a three month period, there wasn’t this sort of inventive thing, like going into the studio and not coming out ’til it’s finished. It was done in pieces, and the band was playing in-between. It was a kind of growing thing as well by the time the album was finished.

MR: How much guidance did you give?

JL: All the songs were written before I came in, all the lyrics already written. In fact, when you hear the demos, you’ll see that all the songs are formed, really, with the guitar and voice. John and Ian would go away, John would record, maybe record parts on top, and then take it to the band and work out the bass and drums. And so I would come in at that stage, after the songs have been written, and maybe rearrange things. Maybe if things were a little too long, or we might work on an intro to the song, or make something end nicely with a fade or with something special. Like on “Resurrection” which was originally just the song, but we decided to extend it and it goes on for another five minutes after the vocal finishes. All that was tightly arranged and recorded.

MR: What was the process for recording the band?

JL: I liked to record the band playing live really for the first off, there were no click tracks used until we did “Fool’s Gold” which was later.

MR: Yeah, “Fool’s Gold” seems to be the odd duck on the LP.

JL: On the U.S. version of the album, the record company put “Fool’s Gold” on it. The record’s meant to finish with “I Am The Resurrection”–that’s meant to be the last track. “Fool’s Gold” was done after this album came out in the U.K., and when it came out in the States, they just tacked “Fool’s Gold” on the end which kind of spoils the balance of the record.

MR: Did you use any special techniques when you recorded them?

JL: Not really, no different than any of the records I did at the time. It was all recorded on twenty-four track tape…actually, it’s forty-eight because you could run two tape machines together. You kind of fill up the first twenty-four, then work on the other twenty-four, and that would be just for one song. So no, there were no special techniques except on the guitar sounds…always trying to find new ones. We’d often get the latest box in, or the latest amp, and try different things.

MR: How did you separate The Stone Roses’ sound from all the other acts you were producing?

JL: For the time, it wasn’t technically that different from anything I was doing. I mean, sometimes I’d use a sample for the snare drum or, particularly, the bass drum. You’d get the drummer to record one really good hit, and you’d sample it and trigger it from the “played” snare drum. So as the drum in the track is being played, it’s triggering a sample to fire so all the drum hits are the same kind of thing. But I’d never replace the original snare, I’d always use the sample to back up the live. Bass drum tones needed to be the same each time with the same impact on every hit, and you can do that with a sample quite easily. It’s just a normal technique I’d even use today.

MR: So that was part of the layering-in of the sounds.

JL: Yeah, things were layered–guitars were double-tracked, sometimes we’d double-track an acoustic guitar playing what the electric guitar did. We’d have two electric guitars and two acoustic guitars on each side all playing the same part, and it creates a kind of drone and harmonic thing.

MR: I imagine you used a couple of other non-traditional tricks too?

JL: We’d do anything for what the part was to make it sound amazing. Like on “Bye Bye Badman,” the guitar is being played through a revolving Leslie speaker.

MR: But, generally, the band played live and you captured the moment.

JL: That’s right, yeah, that’s where you start off, you come and set the band up as if they were on stage, and they play. You get a guide vocal so everyone’s in the mood as if it’s a gig, and you just go for the best take. Sometimes it takes a few goes, sometimes you might get it in the first take. Or sometimes it can take twenty, thirty, forty takes, you get depressed and really hate the song, then you come in and do it again and it’s perfect. Luckily, nearly all these songs had been played in front of an audience before they were recorded. I love that because you know if the song works. When you’re dealing with songs that have just been written that have never been performed in front of an audience, you never quite know how good it could be or what the “fat” is or what you’re indulging in that the audience really isn’t going to get off on. So it’s great that the Roses actually performed these songs on stage before they were recorded.

MR: How much part replacing did you have to do?

JL: From the original track of them all playing together, you may only keep the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar, but you don’t tell them that because everyone’s going for a great performance. It depends on what the song is really.

MR: With forty-eight tracks to fill, did you find yourself keeping those original performances anyway?

JL: Yeah, you save everything if you can. But twenty-four tracks is easily used up once you start doing things in stereo like keyboards, or once you have two amps going, that kind of thing. It’s not like working with digital Pro Tools or a work station where you can record every microphone kind of thing, like when you have four mics on the guitar. On tape, it’s recorded on one track, but on Pro Tools, you would record those four microphones, which gets really tedious if you start double-tracking. Before you know it, you’ve got endless tracks.

MR: Do you prefer recording with a fewer amount of tracks?

JL: At that time, I was getting into slave reels, but I recently did a record with My Morning Jacket where we used a sixteen track machine, and only twelve of the tracks were used. If you think about it, if you get a good drum sound, the drummer’s going to love it, everyone’s going to get off on it. And there’s no reason why that couldn’t be on two tracks. But just for safety, I put the bass drum on another track, so there were three tracks of drums.

MR: How did you oversee the new Legacy release?

LR: They asked me to go in and remaster it, and look for the old tapes. I asked them to send me a list of what they had, and I got a list of about 5000 reels of tape, and I had to go through it and see which ones to use by the final dates plus my memory and notes on what exactly was done. Luckily, it was on two reels of tape–side one, side two–and they were the masters, no dispute. Then I had to dig out the mix of “Fool’s Gold.” It was fascinating, actually, to get all those tapes out.

MR: So did you use the LP cutting masters or the originals?

JL: The original masters.

MR: I ask because some reissue producers use LP cutting masters since they contain all the original mastering moves…

JL: …or they go to the shop and buy a CD. [laughs]

MR: What are your favorite songs from the album?

JL: My favorite songs? Oh, I don’t know. “She Bangs The Drums” and “Waterfall,” I think. It keeps changing. I like hearing those two songs on the radio, but, you know, I like all of them.

MR: What are some of the highlights of the second CD?

JL: It’s got demos, a-sides and b-sides, and there are some very interesting ones like “Something’s Burning” which was the b-side of “One Love.” There’s an extended version of “Elephant Stone” as well. On some of the compilation CDs, they have the short radio-edit version of it, but I did the extended 12″ version. What I did was take the whole song, without vocals, and dubbed some snare hits and did some crazy stuff with the guitar. So we played the whole song through, and then did an edit, and repeated it with the vocal in, so there’s a nice nine-to-ten minute little epic there from some rudimentary beginnings.

MR: What else did you do with these additional tracks?

JL: Well, we took the tape on “Waterfall” and played it backwards, and that became “Don’t Stop” so it’s actually the previous track on the record. We also did that with some other songs and created some b-sides from it, and had a few sort of outtakes, experiments. I think when they release the “singles” over here, it won’t just be 7″ singles, but the b-sides are going to be a few more crazy little abstract pieces of music. I always thought they were songs that were sound pictures, really, a bit like John’s paintings, because they were kind of like splashes of sound…

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