Tucked away in a Sheffield studio, Alan Smyth speaks to Rachael Clegg about producing the Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and other greats.
"I FIRMLY believe that every band on the planet has one decent tune in them," says Sheffield producer Alan Smyth, founder of 2Fly Studios, whose clientele can boast some of Sheffield's most successful and cutting-edge music.
The list of Sheffield bands that have graced the soundproofed walls of Sheffield's 2Fly Studios is seemingly endless. Its producers, Alan Smyth and David Sanderson, have worked on tracks by – to name a few – Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, Little Man Tate, Paddy Orange and Reverend and the Makers.
I meet Smyth in his studio, a small space densely packed with speakers, monitors, wires, mixing desks and a graffiti-adorned table. Next to him is a huge Apple Mac, its screen covered with miniature soundwaves.
This is where it all happens. Stored on this computer are demos, remakes and final cuts of dozens – if not hundreds of bands, an active, living archive of Sheffield's musical legacy.
"It's lovely having a computer to work on," says Smyth, "we used to have to cut tape up." Referring to the intricate diagrams on screen Smyth says: "It's very mathematical but then music is very mathematical."
Production is the unheard art in music-making. A producer can make a drummer catch a beat, emphasise a band's strengths and tone down their weaknesses. "I tell people what to play and what not to play. A lot of musicians want to do things they think they can do but I have to tell them not to do it," says Smyth.
He demonstrates this by playing a pre-production and produced drum track.
"You see the vertical lines – they're the beat – if you watch the screen you can see how near the drummer is to the beat. This drummer's quite good but he's still just off."
Smyth, peering down his glasses, then plays the post-production track. It's snappier, sharper and funkier. The hairline adjustments make the finished track a world apart from its former sound.
"I love it," says Smyth. "You get an excited bunch of lads and I bet half of them would be a nightmare in school but in the studio they want to do it and because of that I'm enthusiastic."
Among the enthusiastic lads was Judansuki – with Jon McClure (now in Reverend and the Makers) and Alex Turner's former band.
"They came in and did a session and after the session Alex popped his head around the door and told me about his 'other project' (the Arctic Monkeys]. So I went to see them at the Boardwalk – which was their second gig – and it was great to watch but they were a shambles. I really enjoyed the performance but their playing wasn't great but blimey can they play now!
"I firmly believe that every band on the planet has one decent tune in them but quite often they don't have the drive or the willpower. With Alex he had it. I was sat there on the first session listening to the words and his voice and it made me, a grown man, sit back. He was making these (amazing] observations."
Smyth, who produced the Arctics' demos that got them signed, says: "There was a lot of derivation with the Arctic Monkeys at first – they did six covers and three of their own songs when they played live. But when Alex started singing he put his voice with this rhythm and it was very unusual, well it was to me.
I hadn't heard that before and I've listened to a lot of stuff."
While the Arctic Monkeys have ascended to rock and roll stardom, Smyth says comparisons to the have the opposite effect: "When bands get compared to the Arctic Monkeys it's the kiss of death. There are numerous bands in Sheffield (Milburn, Little Man Tate) that have been compared to AM yet they're not really like them – it's dreadfully unfair. It's sloppy journalism.
"Sheffield's always had great music – the moment I met Jarvis his lyrics caught my imagination. His line in Legendary Girlfriend – 'the grey ashtray morning light' – what a fantastic line," says Smyth.
"Pulp asked me to work on Separation in 1989 – it was done in three weeks and is one of their classics."
Now Sheffield's contemporary music scene is as vibrant as ever, Smyth says. "Smokers Die Younger are great and Paddy Orange is writing great lyrics, as is Monkey Swallows the Universe's Nat Johnson, who's doing excellent stuff."
He relates the relative roles of Sheffield's bands to those of rock music history: "I can see how all the bands fit in to it – Smokers Die Younger are Sheffield's Velvet Underground, Nat Johnson is Joni Mitchell – these references help when you're shaping the sound."
Smyth's musical ear stems from his father, a personnel manager at Laycock's in Sheffield. "My Dad always loved music – he played the trumpet and whenever we would go on holidays he would get it out and start playing. It was lovely, people would gather round."
After his fine art degree Smyth got involved with bands: "I was in a band called Ken Forgettable – it was a bit new wave/XTC but veered towards prog." Other bands included Sea Fruit and Don Valley and the Rotherhides: "Rony Robinson (BBC Radio Sheffield] was a big fan, and we played at comedian Linda Smith's memorial do – she was a big fan."
"With Sea Fruit we were signed to Wild Star – the same label as Craig David. I was 41 at the time," he laughs.
Behind the mathematical grids, soundwaves and fine tuning there's a much simpler premise driving Smyth's work: "I just love any music that affects me," he says.
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