A chat with John Leckie, John Leckie interview, the Stone Roses, Radiohead
John Leckie

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Uber-producer John Leckie's presided over an incredibly diverse cross-section of rock (Pink Floyd and all four Beatles solo recordings, for starters) to pop (Simple Minds, Radiohead) to punk (PiL's "Public Image," Magazine) to what many folks consider his crowning achievement, The Stone Roses. Upon that album's 20th anniversary release, Bullz-Eye caught up with Leckie to ask him about the Roses and beyond.

Bullz-Eye: Good morning. How are you doing?

JL: All right. I’m fine.

BE: Well I’m glad to have the privilege to speak with you today, on the 20th anniversary of the Stone Roses album. 

JL: Okay.

BE: It’s very interesting reading all of the blog coverage and stuff on the Stone Roses anniversary. Some parties consider the record as great as Sgt. Pepper and others are putting it down as average. Where does it fall on your personal spectrum, as far as greatness?

JL: (Laughs) It’s better than Sgt. Pepper.

BE: Really?

On sound quality of the original US pressing of the CD: "We would make the vinyl master that would then be a CD master, and then it would be copied again for overseas. By the time it’s pressed in America or Australia, it’s a copy, of a copy, of a copy, of a copy."

JL: Well no, they’re the Beatles. Where does it fall with me? I think it’s very, very good. I think it’s all really well. It’s one of the few records that I have done that I do play when I’m doing the washing up or when I’m driving…you know, I play it for my own pleasure kind of thing. I think it does have this kind of lasting quality, it seems. I mean, it doesn’t sound particularly dated. There are loads of details in it, like Sgt. Pepper, which always catch your ear. Like, every time you play a track, you hear something different going like that. It’s the mystery about it kind of thing, you know, the blend, the resonance, the sound of it I suppose, with the sound of the guitar.

BE: At what point in the process of making the record did you realize that you were working on something that was, say better than average?

JL: At the beginning, I would say, when we got together and once we got rolling in the studio, like we had done a couple of tracks. Then I thought, “Hey, this is really good; it is better than average.” It was not without its problems but the end result…because of the way we were recording, we didn’t do it in one go and just record the whole thing.

We started off recording four tracks, which we finished: “I Wanna Be Adored,” "She Bangs the Drums," "Waterfall," and I think "(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister" was the fourth one. We finished them and said “Yeah, that’s great. Let’s go in and do some more.” That’s how it happened. So it was a kind of…even the first four tracks were good. It wasn’t a case of us getting better. The first four tracks were great. So yeah, I knew it was better than average. I didn’t think it was going to be the most amazing record of all time.

BE: And what was your level of involvement? I know that producers can be involved at varying levels, depending on the band and the finished state of the compositions.

John LeckieJL: As you’ll probably hear from the demos, which are being released in this book, most of the songs were formed at the time. All the lyrics were written, the guitar parts were all there. My job really, was to maybe comment and change some of the arrangements; maybe if the bits were a bit lengthy, shorten things; develop the intros to songs. And then record it and get the best performance and create the best sound around the band I could from what the songs were. But the songs were already formed by the time I got into rehearsal room. John (Squire, guitarist) and Ian (Brown, lead singer) would go away and write, and so they would present the demo that was just guitar and voice. And we would maybe work on some drum parts or the bass line in rehearsal and then come record it. That’s how it’s kind of done.

BE: Something else I wanted to ask you about the production part of it, they have these songs that I call backwards songs, such as "Don’t Stop." They're not technically backwards but they have backwards spinning stuff in them. How did those come about and what was your involvement in creating those?

JL: They came about really from having to do B-sides because in those days, you didn’t just have one B-side, they wanted two or three B-sides, so they could do an EP. What was one time a single became an EP because they wanted three extra tracks. And the Roses were, because they worked hard at the songs, were always short songs on the B side. Sometimes they thought these songs did good for the B-sides.

So I often had this little trick that I used through the '80s, turning the tape over. In those days, it was all recorded on 24-track tape, which if you played it backwards, you get the backwards sound, but you could isolate the different tracks. Of course the tracks, instead of it being track one, it would be 24. So all the tracks would be backwards so you could go like 17, 16, 15, 14, so you’d never quite know where you were because it was all backwards. But it was good fun; it was always a fun thing to do. And that’s how those tracks came about, really, was when we finished with something and we were pleased with it, “Hey, let’s hear it backwards.” Out of that something else would come out. And I understand they also released a few of the unused "experiments that we did” kind of thing.

BE: How has the sound improved in the remastered edition of the record? And what should people who have listened to it for all these years hear new, in the new version?

"Most people listen to music on iPods or even little speakers on their laptop. Or in the car, with the windows open. Vinyl is an experience. You don’t do anything else. You just sit and listen to it."

JL: Well, really we’ve gone back to the original stereo tape. So we haven’t sort of mixed anything; we haven’t kind of changed the balance or created anything new with the mix. What we’ve really done is gone back and kind of polished up and put back what might have been taken away before, is really what I’ve been saying. Because when we mastered onto vinyl, sometimes the bass was cut off and sometimes there’s distortion and that kind of thing. Sometimes it’s even a bit too compressed to squeeze it onto the vinyl.

The original CDs, they were the same masters as the vinyl masters. So it wasn’t the full range of sound that was possible – that was actually on the original recording tape which we heard when we mixed it – was not really represented on those early CDs. So we’ve gone back to the original and really just added a bit of…like you might do on your amp at home or in the car. You add a bit of treble and take the bass off and add something here, turn something up. So we’ve kind of approached it as a new, fresh thing and let’s see what we’ve got. Not worrying what we did last time. Not even comparing it really to the existing record. Just going for what felt good today, you know?

BE: As a non-studio layperson, but somebody who has played this record over and over for the last 20 years, I think the biggest improvement I have noticed is the introduction to "I Wanna Be Adored." I got probably one of the earliest American pressings of the CD. And the big revelation with the remaster was, oh, "I Wanna Be Adored" doesn’t have a bunch of sonic mush at the beginning. There is actually stuff happening in there that I could hear.

JL: If you got one in America, what would have happened is that we would have made the vinyl master that would then be a CD master. So our vinyl master would be copied for the CD master and then it would be copied again for overseas. So by the time it’s pressed in America for instance, or Australia, it’s about a copy, of a copy, of a copy, of a copy kind of thing. So that’s why these things get a bit mushy.

BE: Well, it’s like you’ve been looking at an out-of-focus picture for 20 years. And it’s snapped into focus upon the replaying because there are fewer filters between the original and my ears now. Right?

JL: That’s right.

BE: Tell me about the video documentary of the making of “Fools Gold” that you shot, and is in part of the high-end of the 20th-anniversary boxed sets.

JL: That’s right. That’s just me messing around with the camera. I always had the little camcorder…well it was quite a big one, it was like a VHS…and often, people would just pick it up and shoot something. Most of it is us kind of looning around, really. I mean, there is a bit of playing in the studio. There is no kind of profound statement or things happening. It’s just us looning around, I’d say. But it’s good; it shows their character and kind of what it was like really. It doesn’t show any intense moments, but I think it captures the period; the clothes, the haircuts.

John Leckie

BE: Tell me a little bit about the vinyl editions of The Stone Roses. Where do you fall on the vinyl vs. CD debate?

JL: Difficult one, isn’t it? Well, vinyl itself is a different kind of experience, really. It’s more direct, I believe, that’s the only way I can put it, really. I mean, you do have to have a different system. You can’t play vinyl in your car, for instance. It looks better, it feels better. It’s more of an artifact. It will bring out different things, if you play the CD, as you say, you can hear different things. Like if you played the vinyl against the CD, it would just be a different experience, you would hear different things.

BE: Why do you think there’s enough support for vinyl as a format, for Sony to come out with a new vinyl edition of The Stone Roses? Why is it still popular? What do people like about it?

JL: They like it as art, as an object more than anything. It’s a twelve-inch piece of plastic with a cardboard wrap, but it’s much more. It’s something to hold in your hand and feel good about. And playing it. There’s a thing about having vinyl and showing off your hi-fi, which is what everyone was doing in the ‘70s.

BE: Right.

JL: It’s like, well, what are you playing it on? Most people listen to music on iPods or even little speakers on their laptop. That’s the way most music is played, new music; modern music. Or like in the car, yeah, with the windows open in the car or something. Vinyl is an experience. You sit down and listen to it when it’s on the proper speed. You don’t do anything else. You just sit and listen to it. You don’t put vinyl on while you are washing up or cooking, because you’ll mess up the record. Anyway, I’m a fan of vinyl.

BE: Right. So it’s all about the tactile and the presentation. And not necessarily a huge difference in the way it sounds, to the average person.

JL: Well, maybe not a huge difference, but the actual operation of playing vinyl is a hell of a difference. There’s just sliding a CD in or having a record deck and then putting the needle down and scratching it and all that stuff. That’s the difference.

BE: Well, I know that you are doing a bunch of interviews today and our time is limited. I would like to ask you some questions about some other things that you’ve done over your career.

JL: Sure.

BE: You have produced and engineered a lot of tracks for a lot of bands over the years. Are there any records that weren’t particularly commercially successful, that you felt in your gut were truly great? And which ones come to mind off the top of your head?

JL: I don’t ever think about that.

BE: Or you just admired a lot.

JL: Well, I could say something like Baaba Maal. It’s a bit off the wall, it’s....African, Senegalese music. I think that should be heard by everyone.

"I wasn’t a great lover of punk music. I used to go into gigs and it was all like goblins spitting on me and beating each other up and all this stuff. I always liked the energy, but the playing ability was a bit poor. The new wave stuff was just a little bit more interesting."

Oh, that’s difficult. I did a little single with a band called the Troubadours, which is called “Gimme Love." A band from Liverpool which I thought was fantastic and no one took any notice. So there is one. And My Computer. I did the record with two guys in Manchester, one played acoustic guitar and sang, great voice. Dave (Luke) then spent months fiddling with the computer and making up crazy sounds. He was a real mathematician. He was a great musician as well. And we mixed the whole thing in 5.1. We actually recreated the whole thing in 5.1 in his basement. It was fantastic. It’s like sculpture, 5.1. Of course no one heard it except us, because we had to release it in stereo and it’s a bit of a letdown it never got released in 5.1. So My Computer in 5.1, I would recommend.

BE: You worked on a lot of traditional or mainstream rock and roll in the '70s, and then punk came along. All of a sudden, you’re working on Magazine and Public Image Ltd. What was your first impression of this punk stuff that was coming out, after working on things like solo Beatles records and such? Did it excite you, amaze you? Or was it just more work?

JL: Well, [the time] between solo Beatles records and the punk thing was about seven years. So I’d say it was a progression up to that. Yeah, things were getting edgier. Yeah, I was aware of a different attitude to things when the punk thing came in. I wasn’t a great lover of punk music. I used to go into gigs and it was all like goblins spitting on me and beating each other up and all this stuff. It was really exciting. It was scary exciting. I always liked the energy, but the playing ability was a bit poor.

Somehow the new wave stuff, what we call new wave, was just a little bit more interesting. I mean, Real Life from Magazine was fantastic. And of course XTC are the most excellent musicians in Britain, probably. So Andy Partridge then, when punk came along…XTC were pre-punk, really. When they first started, they were like a glam rock band in 1974. What they called the Helium Kidz, XTC in the early ‘70s. And then when punk came along, Andy Partridge said he had to unlearn everything he had learned. So up until then, he had really tried to learn his instrument, songwriting, his craft and everything. Then punk came along and said, "Oh you don’t really have to play." Boy, that was an interesting sidebar between the two of them, because XTC was a new wave thing, not an outlying, snotty punk band, were they?    

BE: No, not by any stretch. I have a question from my editor: what do you remember most about working on the Radiohead record The Bends?

JL: What do I remember most? Trying to do The Guardian crossword before we went home. It was in the newspaper, The Guardian newspaper. It’s a daily sort of chore that has to be fulfilled each day in the studio. Not by me but by some bands.

John Leckie[On the] Radiohead record, I most remember Thom [Yorke, lead singer] moving in “Fake Plastic Trees” when I said the string players were coming in the next day. That’s right, we had the violin and the cello coming in the following day and we didn’t have a track for them to play to. I said, “Look, if they are coming in, let’s have two songs that we can put these strings on,” and we had done “Nice Dream” but we hadn’t done “Fake Plastic Trees.” And so Thom rushed out there and it was like 10, 11:00 at night, the day before and they were coming the next day. And we recorded it, just playing the song on the guitar.

As soon as we started recording, there was a big buzz. I had two microphones on the guitar, a quality microphone and a Shure microphone, which is like a P.A. microphone. As soon as he started playing and we started recording, the quality microphone started buzzing so we had to turn that off. So the guitar is just recorded on the cheaper microphone, if you know what I mean. Anyway, we did that track and Thom sung it beautifully and that was it. Then the next day we put the strings on.

I sort of remember that evening and next day as being something sort of special. I don’t know why; it was probably the magic of the song. What can I say? The tenderness of it and not really knowing if we had it, you know, that kind of thing. Having to commit ourselves to these string players and Jonny [Greenwood, guitarist] writing the parts and things. And then we spent a number of days doing the Hammond organ part, which was quite interesting because every little tone kind of has a different thing going on.

BE: Right.

JL: We kind of learned a lot, anyway. You learn a lot about them, even though you go through those things. But when you get to the end result, you kind of go, “Whoa, that sounds really simple. Why didn’t we do that in the first place?” But you have to go through that process to get there.

BE: Another colleague is a die hard Trashcan Sinatras fan. He wanted me to ask you about working with them.

JL: Trashcan Sinatras. Shabby Road. They had this studio that the record company bought for them in Kilmarnock, in Scotland. A studio that they called Shabby Road because there was a crossing outside and it was shabby as well. It was on top of this shop. I went there and recorded. Previously, I had mixed something that they had already done, they had already recorded, which was the album Cake. Yeah, so I have fond memories of them. And I tell you what, something I do remember is the Berlin Wall came down, it was about 19…what year was that? It was about 1990 or '91 or something.

BE: Thereabouts. [Note: it was 1989.]

JL: Yeah, when the Berlin Wall came down, I bought the newspaper and I was in Kilmarnock, in Scotland. I was going, "Wow, the Berlin Wall has come down!" and I showed it to them. They didn’t take any notice, because it didn’t mean anything to them at all. I was astounded at this kind of world-breaking news. But they were great people, I just loved them. I haven’t seen them since, actually. I know they are big in Japan, someone told me.

BE: Well, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

JL: Okay. Great.

BE: Best of luck on all of the projects you are working on now.

JL: Thanks a lot.

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