Nick Launay interview
First published Fodderstompf, February 2003
© 2003 Fodderstompf.com
Fodderstompf.Com: As well as producing the 'Flowers of Romance' album in 1981, Nick also worked on 'Home is Where the Heart is', and was brought in as a "full member' during his time with PiL. The interview gives a rare insight into PiL's studio approach and reveals the story behind Phil Collins' PiL drum sound… Interview conducted via email in February 2003.
When was the first time you worked with PiL. How did you get involved?
The first time was when I had just started as a very new assistant engineer at the Townhouse studios in London, which back then belonged to PiL's label, Virgin. They came into work on a song, which I could have sworn had the working title 'Doom Sits in Gloom', I only recently realised the song was released as 'Home is Where the Heart is', the B-side of 'Flowers of Romance'... I know "Gloom sits in doom" is the lyric from 'Four Enclosed Walls', but maybe John liked the lyric and decided to keep it and use it later, and then rename the track 'Home is
I wonder why they were only doing one song? Do you know if it was just meant as a demo, or the beginning of what would have been a third album with Wobble?
I'm not sure why they came in to do it. Wobble had already left. I think maybe it was an outtake from 'Metal Box'.
So Wobble had already left? Fuck, I'm confused even more now! The track seems to originate from the April/May US 1980 tour, but maybe you're right. Or most likely, they just never got round to recording it before he left... I remember Keith saying in an old interview that the first thing he did when you started recording the 'Flowers' album was that he went into the Manor and redid Wobble's bass line with a loop, I always thought he meant re-dub it, he obviously went in and did it himself, Wobble style... I know Wobble knows nothing of it...
Anyway, sorry, back to my first question... When was the first time you worked with PiL? How did you get involved?
Well, none of the other assistant engineers at the Townhouse wanted to work with PiL because of John's reputation for throwing up, walking all over the mixing console, and being verbally abusive. Being the youngest and newest assistant, I got put on the session... I couldn't believe my luck, I had been a fan since they started, and had also bought tickets to see the Sex Pistols three times, only to find they had been cancelled...
Did you work on 'Metal Box'? What were you doing, engineering or producing?
Actually I didn't work on 'Metal Box', that happened before I started at the Townhouse. Another Nick, called Nick Cook engineered it. He had left the Townhouse by the time I started, but he did visit occasionally and we were friends.
So, you didn't do 'Metal Box' then, show's you how much I know! I even half thought you might have worked on 'Live in Paris', obviously not...
You co-produced 'Flowers of Romance' with the band. Given that PiL were so against ANYONE touching their work, why do you think they trusted you?
think it's partly because we all got on well, we just clicked, and
had the same taste in music. It also goes back to what happened
when we first met during the 'Home is Where the Heart is' session.
It's a bit of a story, but it will help put things in perspective...
The session started very slow because the engineer/producer they had chosen wasn't very familiar with the then very new, and experimental SSL Mixing console. This meant I had to keep showing him which button did what. Back then an assistant engineer's place was to stay very quiet, at the back of the room, operating the analogue tape machines (they were also known as a Tape Op).
John sat in a big arm chair with two crates of Red Stripe, the Jamaican Beer, one on each side, and watched with amusement at me going back and forth trying my best to help the engineer out. At some point he got fed up with all the politeness, and said, "Oi, Nick, for fuck sake get your fucking chair and sit up at the desk, you're going back and forth like a fucking Yo Yo, you're making me dizzy." So I moved my tall chair up to the mixing desk, and sat next to the engineer.
This led to me pushing more buttons, more often. John wanted a triplet delay on a particular vocal line, and the engineer didn't seem to understand what he meant. I was really into Dub Reggae at the time, so I set it up and it worked well. John in his amusing way clapped and said, "Bravo Bravo at least someone round here knows what they're fuckin' doin!" Later the engineer got up and left the room to have a piss. John got up and locked the door behind him. When he came back he stared thumping on the door shouting, "Let me in..." John told him to fuck off. The next thing we know he's calling on the phone, John got up and answered. "Your position has been taken... kindly fuck off home, we're busy in here making music which is something you seem to know little about."
The engineer eventually gave up and disappeared, so me and John spent the rest of the day messing around with every effect imaginable. It was a bit like two kids let loose in a Toy Shop. We talked a lot about music and realised our tastes had a lot in common. A few days later I got called up to the managers office, I thought I was in big trouble, I was sure the engineer had complained. Barbara the then manager said, "We've just had a call from the PiL office, and they want you to mix the song that you were working on last weekend... Do you know how to do that? Have you ever done a mix before?" I remember lying and saying, "Yes of course I have." She told me I would have to work alone, as no other assistant would do it. Once again I couldn't believe my luck...
The following Saturday I went in early and started setting things up. No one turned up for hours, so I started mixing. After a while I got something that I thought sounded good. Still no one had turned up, so I thought what the hell, I'll just do my own personal mix and keep it as a souvenir! And two hours later I was done. Just as I'm packing things up, in walks Keith Levene with a huge bowl of custard and a big spoon, I hadn't met him before as the previous time had just been with John. He said, "Hello you must be Nick... John told me all about you", "Have you done it then?" I remember feeling like I'd been caught in the act. Nervously I told him I'd done a mix, but wasn't sure if he'd like it? The song had a reggae feel so I had used lot's of delays and made it very dub. I played it, and Keith listened very intensely. I was sure he was going to say it was crap. The song finished and he said, "That's fucking great! Lets hear it again." He listened on other speakers and said, "I like it, can you do me a copy and send another to Virgin tomorrow" and that was it! Virgin liked it too and it was released soon after... I don't actually have a copy, I'd be very curious to hear it now!
About a month later I got called up to Barbara's office again, and was told John and Keith wanted me to do their next album... I remember walking around in a daze, not telling anyone in case there was some mistake. When we started I had so many musical and technical ideas floating round my head. I was 20 at the time, and had been messing around with tape loops since I was 12. It was really the first time I had been let loose at the controls, and my taste in music seemed to fit in well with the bands... I guess it was meant to be.
In a recent interview Keith Levene is quoted as saying they respected you so much that during the recording of the album you essentially became a member of the band for the duration of the recording. Did they tell you that at the time?
Yes, I remember really liking Keith, he was skinny like me. We were getting all tangled up in cable's, and he asked me if I would join. I was so flattered... At the time I wasn't sure what it would entail. But I remember saying YES.
I think it's fair to say PiL had a 'reputation' in the studio. Were the band difficult to work with?
Maybe I caught them at a good time. But I didn't find them hard to work with at all. I was so into their music, and I liked their sense of humour. I remember being constantly amused by Johns wit and sarcasm. I often dished it back at him. I think that's why we got on... Somehow I just didn't feel intimidated by him and treated him like a normal human being, which I think was unusual for him at the time. I also remember he was very focused, and seemed to enjoy being in the studio... He had been arrested a few weeks earlier for starting a fight in a pub in Ireland. He was convinced he was going to be sentenced, and feared he would be killed if he went to an Irish jail. He told me he was minding his own business and someone in the pub took offence to the colour of his hair. I got the impression he thought this would be the last record he would make...
What were your impressions of the band?
Without a doubt they were, and are, very talented people... I don't think you make that kind of impression on the world if you don't have something unique to offer. John wrote practically all the lyrics on the spot, and most vocals were first take, same with Keith's guitar parts, he seemed to have a very specific idea of what he wanted, even on only hearing the song once. I still rate Martin Atkins as one of the best I've worked with. I was certainly a fan, I had been going to Punk gigs for the previous three years... It was all about rebellion, and doing anything to bend rules and be unique. To me It seemed part of the times. I really didn't know much about the music business back then. Virgin had quite a lot of unusual bands, that's why they were such a cool label. I remember Richard Branson came down a few times just to hang out. It was a very friendly vibe. Even though PiL were a very unconventional as a band, they were probably one of the few acts who actually made money back on their recordings...
The band were very interested in new technology at the time, were there any ground breaking techniques or machines used?
I remember Keith was very into these synthesiser boxes that plugged into each other with little red cables, I think it was made by Roland... It was a bit like the giant Moog synth that Kraftwerk used, only in miniature. You can hear it on 'Banging the Door.' It sounds Like an evil giant frog! We also had an AMS digital sampler, one of the first digital devises ever available. One day Martin played a drum groove and I pushed "Loop Lock" and tried to make a perfect loop. The AMS was so primitive you couldn't actually edit it, to get it in time, so I randomly kept locking in different beats as he played them, till I got one that sounded cool. That loop became the song 'Track 8'. It's actually out of time, but somehow it grooves. I was very into backwards sounds, so I constantly flipped the tape over so it was in reverse and recorded things, then flipped it back to see what it would sound like... You can hear a few instruments like that through out the LP. Probably the most notable would be the backwards piano on 'Four Enclosed Walls.'
Can you remember much about the recording of 'Flowers'? What sort of recording method, if any, did they have? Did you find them unusual. There's an interview quote from Levene where apparently he told you to record everything because they didn't know where the records would come from.
It was unusual when I think back, but at the time it just seemed like fun. It's true, Keith told me to record everything. They came in with NO songs. On a typical day, Martin Atkins would turn up first. We were both into big drum sounds, so he would go into the Stone Room, and play a big Bohnam-esque rhythm, I would fiddle with controls, and he would tailor his playing to the sound I fed him in the headphones. Sometimes I'd add delays and echoes, and he'd play to that.
On 'Four Enclosed Walls' for instance we placed Martin's Mickey Mouse pocket watch on a floor tom, so it would resonate and have more tone, then I added two Harmonizers with a 15 second delay fed back on themselves. One paned left, one right. I recorded about 7 minutes of it ticking away . Then Martin went out and played that amazing beat to it. The toms that come in at the very end were an overdub. I remember John came in and said, "All right, let me hear what you two wankers have been up to!" Sometimes I'd push play, and he'd say, " That's fucking pathetic, ERASE IT IMMEDIATELY. I don't want to hear it ever again." This time he heard it, and calmly said, "Oooo, I think I like that... lets hear it once more!" and sat down and scribbled on the inside of a cigarette packet. "All right... Is there a mic up, I think I'll have a wail" and one take later the vocal was done! We then added this strange instrument called a Violumpet. Which looks like a Violin with a large trumpet horn sticking out of it, like those old wind up 78 Gramophones have. It sounded like an Arabian flute. I added backwards reverb to make it more snake like! I think the whole thing took maybe five hours. Keith came in, heard it and said, "That's fucking amazing It's done".
Many of the songs were done this way. Someone would turn up and do something, then another would get inspired and add to it, and if John put a vocal to it, it was done. The band had a very distinct range of sounds, the dynamic drum sound, Keith's ringing guitar, and of course John's voice.
Did you find them difficult to record? Are you happy with the end result?
I've always liked making things sound different to whatever else is out there, that's what makes it fun. Working with people who already have their own distinct sound only makes things easier. Keith had the oddest looking guitar, it was all metal chrome, no wood, made by Jim Dean I think, it sounded like melting ice, very glassy. Because there was no plan other than: Play what ever comes to mind, get a sound and push record. There was actually very little pressure other than John or Keith saying It was rubbish, which from memory only happened three times. I was very happy with the result, and still am. It was very magical.
Did the band allow you any input? Were you free to suggest recording methods or ideas. If so, what sort of ideas did you bring to the records?
I suppose the answer to that would be yes! I didn't really suggest things so much as just do it, and if it was a good idea it was kept, if not, it was snarled at, and erased pretty quick. Sometimes it's hard to explain why things work. Most of the unconventional ideas going round my head, were as much to with me never having made a record before, as they were to do with me being eager to express them. A lot of them had to do with Big drum sounds, and noises that we created together, some I've already mentioned.
On 'Under the House' I had quite a lot of ideas that got through. Again Martin laid down the beat, then we overdubbed the toms, and doubled them with harmonizers, a trick used a few times on this record. Having grown up in the South of Spain. I was really influenced by Spanish Gypsy music; Flamenco. And I don't mean the tacky touristy type. I kept hearing that kind of clapping, so after explaining what I meant, we did it, and added a simple delay to get that effect of two clappers playing off each other. The Operatic wailing in the back ground is exactly that. There was an Opera on TV while we were playing the song back in the control room. I thought the combination sounded so cool, I put a mic on to the TV speaker and recorded it to tape randomly till it made some sense. Once the track had some kind of shape, John went out and sang on it.
Did you realise that you've been immortalised on 'Banging the Door', when John stops singing and you clearly hear him say "Wind back Nick", why did you decide to leave that on the record?
Well, the truth is that all the mixes on the album are actually rough mixes that we did manually at the time of recording. John said "Wind back Nick" when he ran out of lyrics to sing on his second run-through of the song. After I had dropped out of record, there were more lyrics and singing left over from his first take. It was left in because I didn't get to the cut button in time when we did the rough mix, which became the final mix ... or at least that's what I'm going to tell you here... !
After the recording of 'Flowers' did you ever work with PiL again? Would you have liked to, would you still?
The only thing I did since finishing the album, was to go back in a month later with Keith and John to remix the song, 'Flowers of Romance" for single release. Which is a much better mix. I believe it got into the Top Ten in the UK, and they went on 'Top of the Pops' with Jeannette Lee playing cello.
This may not have been you, but I once head John say in an interview that Phil Collins had stolen the PiL drum sound! Apparently, after hearing the drum sound on 'Flowers' Collins requested the same engineer that PiL used and set up the drums exactly the same! Is this true? Was it you!
Yes, this is true, and it was me. John is correct but there is a bit more to it. I learnt how to get that "kind" of drum sound by watching Hugh Padgham record in the same Stone Room at the Townhouse. Hugh recorded Peter Gabriel's 3rd album and if you listen to a song called 'Intruder' you will hear what I'm talking about. When It came to doing the PiL album I used similar methods to achieve a similar sound. During the making of the 'Flowers of Romance' I bumped into Phil Collins in the corridor of the Townhouse, I had worked as an assistant on his first LP, and he was very inquisitive about how I was surviving working with the evil Johnny Rotten! I told him John was a top class geeza, and promised to introduce them if he was keen.
Later that day me and John went to the Townhouse canteen to eat boiled cabbage and mash, and in walked Phil so I introduced them. Much to all our surprise they got on like a house on fire! Anyway back to the drum story... Much later Phil was producing a Chris Bailey (of Earth Wind and Fire) album, and he wanted THAT drum sound, but Hugh was off working with the Police. Phil had by then heard snippets of the PiL album. So, the day we were in mastering the 'Flowers' single remix at the Townhouse cutting rooms next door, I got a call from Phil saying HELP! So I went in for an hour or so and dialed it up!
Between the recording of 'Metal Box' & 'Flowers of Romance' the band recorded the track 'Pied Piper' with Steve New on guitar, were you involved in those sessions? If so, what can you tell us about them?
No, sorry, I know nothing!
Do you know of any unreleased material from when you recorded the band?
Yes, there is one song I remember that escaped getting erased, it was called 'Woodnymphs'. John said it sounded too like a "Gay Disco" and suggested it be used on Martins solo album! I don't know what happened to it...
What sort of band's have you worked with since PiL?
Around that time I also recorded Kate Bush's 'The Dreaming' album. In fact, we used PiL's bass on Kate's LP, Kate loved the tone so much she wanted to buy it. Just after 'Flowers of Romance' I did Killing Jokes: 'What's This For'. The Gang of Four's: 'Capitol', and 'To Hell with Poverty'. The Slits: 'Earthbeat'. The Birthday Partys: 'Release the Bats' and 'Blast Off' for the Junk Yard LP. Virgin Prunes: 'Pagan Love Song'... More recently I just finished Nick Cave's new LP called 'Nocturama', which comes out in February 2003. I have done many in between, probably the best thing is to go to my site: www.Launay.com
What are you currently doing?
I am having the best time at the moment, lots off cool bands around, and I seem to be getting younger - Ha Ha!
Do you still see or talk to any of the band?
I saw John a few years ago in Hollywood. We had a ball, we went to the House of Blues where he kept asking people for a FAG, and then accused them of giving him Cancer. I met up with Keith also in Hollywood through a mutual friend of called Alex, who also grew up in Spain. It's a small World... I saw Martin very recently when his band Pigface played at the Key club in Hollywood, fucking great!
What do you think of the present music scene? Do you find it hard to work within the industry when things, on the whole, are so bland. Do you choose carefully who you work with or is it a case of paying the bills first?
I still enjoy the "scene," I think it's a case of being choosey about what you listen to. There is so much more out there now, and the bland stuff always gets played the most to middle public. I think these days it's a case of digging a bit deeper because the pile is taller. Once you find your knish that appeals to your taste, there is plenty to go round. That said, I hate the music business. It's very unfair. So many great bands never get heard because of political reasons. Or because of money based decisions made by people who don't seem to give a damn about long term, or building a bands career. It's easy to get jaded, something I refuse to do. I love music and sounds too much, and made a decision a while ago to learn how the Music Machine works so as not to get hurt and try keep it fun without compromising on what I and the bands want the people to hear. I am very lucky I met PiL when I did. There is no doubt that John and Keith's decision to take the risk in asking a 20 year old to record their LP, and then saying such kind words in the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, etc... 'The Flowers of Romance' was one of the most important things that happened to me, so the memories are very strong... It led to me working with other cool bands. I am also lucky that a lot of those records are still admired today, so I am still kept busy.
Any last thoughts or comments on working with PiL?
Let's do another one RIGHT NOW! We are all still alive, and have something to say!
Picture Credits (top to bottom)
Nick Launay at the desk © courtesy www.Launay.com
Flowers of Romance poster 1981
PiL circa 1981: Jeannete Lee, Lydon, Levene © uknown
Flowers of Romance 7" 1981
Flowers of Romance LP 1981