The legendary producer discusses his extraordinary career, including his acclaimed work with Phil Collins and Sting.
The job of a music producer is often something akin to that of an unsung hero. A great producer can help define an artist’s sound, yet very few can reasonably be called household names. Quincy Jones comes to mind, the guiding hand behind Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), and Bad (1987). Think of the many varied contributions George Martin made to the Beatles' recordings, interpreting their conception for such experimental classics as “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But for the most part, an individual producer’s fame is often limited by the fact that many listeners don’t read an album’s liner notes.
Beginning in the 1980s, one of those names most commonly found on hit albums and singles was Hugh Padgham. During that decade, Padgham achieved great success through his working relationship with Phil Collins, with whom he produced four multi-platinum albums. In addition to Collins’ solo work, Padgham produced Genesis’ 1983 self-titled album and their blockbuster follow-up, Invisible Touch (1986).
Three of his four Grammy awards were for his work with Collins. The fourth was earned for his work with another longtime collaborator, Sting—a partnership that dates back to Padgham’s production of The Police’s Ghost in the Machine (1981) and Synchronicity (1983). In short, many of pop music’s most memorable and biggest selling releases from the past 30 years or so have Hugh Padgham’s fingerprints all over them.
While many well-known artists self-produce (Prince, for example, has been at the helm for every one of his albums), even with the proliferation of electronic music and digital recording systems most artists need a skilled recording engineer. Padgham began his career as an engineer, lending his technical expertise to capture artists such as Peter Gabriel and XTC on tape. In a pioneering transition, he made the move to full-fledged producer at a time when the two positions did not generally crossover.
From that point on, he continued as both an engineer and producer. Some associations stuck, such as those mentioned above, lasting for multiple projects. Others were one-offs, some fondly remembered (on producing David Lanz’s Grammy-nominated East of the Moon: “Quite a different thing for me—it was a real pleasure”), while others not so fondly (on producing Paul McCartney’s 1986 Press to Play: “One of my least favorite experiences in my career”). I had the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Padgham about projects past and present, touching on everything from his superstar collaborations to his reflections on the massive changes seen in the music industry of late.
What have you been working on lately?
To be quite honest, the last year or two I’ve been quite quiet. The way the music business has changed so much, and the fact that the record companies refuse to change their models, makes it very difficult to want to work for the labels when you know you’re not going to get paid anything at the end of the day, which is pretty well what happens. The budgets have gone right down. Very, very small budgets right now.
You’ve been working outside of the major labels?
I made a record with my friend Dominic Miller [5th House, 2012], who’s the guitar player for Sting. We just make little records that are released independently. It doesn’t take very long to do. I enjoy doing that sort of thing. I‘ve been mixing odd projects by old friends or odd bands. But I’ve not really been doing anything particularly much in the commercial world. And I have interests in other things, as well, which aren’t necessarily music based. I’ve been able to devote more time to them.
More time for personal pursuits.
Well, another reason is my wife [Cath Kidston] has ended up running a very successful business and we made a pact. She’s incredibly busy running her business and we just thought that if I was still working in the studio until 11 or 12 o’clock at night—I’m on my second marriage. I didn’t want to see that go down the tubes the same as the first one, where my career, looking back on it, ended up being more important than my marriage was at the time. We’d never see each other if I worked like I used to. So the last couple of years I’ve really been pulling back a lot, actually.
There seems to be a lot of people frustrated with the music industry these days.
You know, a couple of years ago I made an album with a band that I found. It was a really good album that I really enjoyed making. And could we sell it at the end of the day? We couldn’t give it away. And that kind of really depressed me as well, because that was a long time making—as far as I’m concerned—one of the best albums I’ve made. That’s the climate of the music business today. If you were Steely Dan you couldn’t get a record deal.
How do you feel about the current popular music scene?
The music scene has picked up, I think there are a lot of good bands here [U.K.] now. I enjoy listening to them on independent radio or through Jools Holland, who has this TV series called Later. The one thing that never goes away from generation to generation is the necessity for new music. Because what we liked when we were kids, our kids won’t like. I mean, yes they do, in a way. I have a daughter who loves Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. But generally, new generations want their own music, don’t they? So there’s never going to be a shortage of people either wanting to be a musician or going to see musicians, and as always the cream will rise to the top.
Perfect metaphor really, because then the kids can skim the cream, so to speak — i.e. download it illegally.
Well, when I was growing up music was the only thing really that you could spend your money on. Everyone was obsessed with it, whereas now there’s so much more, such as computer gaming and so on. I mean, I know most kids still love music. But from what I can see with my kid’s generation, they take it as normal that they don’t buy music, basically. Or if they buy it, it doesn’t cost very much. And of course, that’s had a huge knock-on effect in terms of the business aspect, even to the extent that being a rock star is not something that a lot of my kid’s friends who are musicians are necessarily interested in anymore. They just want to make music and make a living out of it. And if they can do that, they’re very happy. Whereas in earlier eras it was more like these guys wanted to be rock stars and be rich and famous.
Are you frustrated by how commonplace it is for music to be listened to as MP3s through cheap ear buds? Or is it no different than the '80s, when people listened to cassettes played on Walkmans?
To an extent, yes. I mean, I had a Nakamichi cassette machine that actually sounded very good—relatively speaking. But yeah, you’re right, it is slightly frustrating. But you know what? If you make an amazing piece of music that is very well produced and well put together, that will sound good as an MP3 as well. I think it’s when people throw the kitchen sink on things, whether it be back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, or even now—then it does sound terrible.
What do you think the future holds in terms of what format we listen to music in?
Well, in terms of video, we’ve gone from black-and-white television to color television to high-definition television. The picture quality has improved massively. And weirdly with audio, it’s gone the other way. CDs definitely didn’t sound as good as vinyl and MP3s definitely don’t sound as good as CDs. I would love to think that one day perhaps, with [computer] memory as sort of—for want of a better word—cheap as it now, that we could go to better quality sounding songs. In the studio, we’re recording on high definition digital, it’s only when you buy it from iTunes or whatever that it drops right down again.
I was talking to an old friend of mine the other day who used to work in the quality control department of a record company. When you made a record and you had it mastered, the acetates—the test pressings—were then listened to and critiqued by the quality control department of certain record companies. And the idea of that still being in existence now is just completely laughable. Pretty well soon after CDs came out, the record companies said, “Okay we don’t need a quality control department anymore because a CD is digital. It’s either right or it’s wrong.” In other words, there’s a plus or a minus there. How can it be wrong? [laughs]
Jumping back to early in your career, when you began as a recording engineer, did you find it was a natural transition into producing?
It was, really. I have to say, when I started off working in the studio as an assistant, the highest aspiration I had was to become an engineer. And in those days, an engineer at a big London studio was a massive job. To be honest, in those days, we weren’t long out of the days where the engineers used to wear white coats. Engineers did not become producers, and engineers did not get involved in production either. It was only really in the mid- to late-‘70s, when I was growing up, that the whole thing became a bit more relaxed. It was really only when I started, when I very luckily managed to get a job with Virgin Records at their studio in London, that these rather formal barriers started to come down. And I think if you look back at the history of it now, I would’ve probably been in the first top ten batch of engineers to become producers.
What motivated that switch to the producer’s chair?
I just got fed up sitting next to producers in the studios doing sessions when I thought they were just a waste of time. There was a guy called Simon Draper who ran Virgin Records in those days, he was a cousin of Richard Branson [Chairman of Virgin Group]. Richard wasn’t really involved in the music so very much. He was there as a figurehead, but the actual technical nuts and bolts of it was really run by Simon Draper. And there were only 30 of us in the whole company in those days, so I said to Simon, “Can you give me some sort of lower grade sessions as a producer, so I can try to cut my teeth? Because I know I can do it.” So he was very kind and gave me a couple of opportunities.
And then I met Phil Collins through engineering Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. Phil saw what I was doing [as engineer] was probably as important as what the producer was doing. So he was amazing for my career in the sense that when he decided to do a solo album, he came straight to me, not to the guys who produced the Gabriel album.
Why do you think your working relationship with Phil Collins was so successful?
Well, I think one of the main positive things to start with was that I had thought that records, particularly drum sounds on records, had gotten very dull and boring in the ‘70s. People were making studios that were very, very dead and therefore there was very little ambiance on the instruments. As opposed to the ’60s, when studios were more like big orchestral rooms and everybody used to play together in the same room, like on a Phil Spector record or something. And I got to think that a lot of rock records had become rather sort of boring sounding, particularly the drums. The thing with a rock record is that the rhythm section, the drums and bass, is really the spine of the record. If your rhythm section doesn’t sound any good, then the band won’t sound any good. And I kind of got the feeling that I wanted to sort of change that on records, hence the sort of roomy drum sound we had on the Phil Collins stuff. So I think we both very much saw eye to eye in that respect, and also the classic old cliché of “less is more.” We absolutely strove together to try and make the record sound great without having much on it. Because if you haven’t got much on it, that what you have got you can—number one—hear, and—number two—make sound better. It’s when you’ve got a record that has the kitchen sink on it, it’s really hard to make everything sound good. So that was the basis of our relationship, I think. And for me it was like a breath of fresh air to work really closely with an artist, producing together. It was so brilliant, I absolutely loved it.
How was your collaborative process with Sting similar or different?
Well, I equally loved working with The Police and then Sting afterwards as well. It’s kind of different, in a way. With Phil and myself, we would sort of be co-creating the sound of the record in a way. Whereas with Sting, he would have the music, he would write the songs, and kind of…not leave me to the production of it. But I felt I was very much sort of in charge of the sonic side of things, which I loved as well, because it gave me more power. And The Police, for instance, was amazing because it was just a three-piece band. So you had less-is-more before you even started. Then consequently with Sting’s stuff, if I said, “Come on, we don’t need harmonica there,” or something, it was like, “Okay cool, let’s try that.” Again, it was a great facility for me to exercise my skills and desire to make records that sounded good.
What was it like working with David Bowie on his 1984 album, Tonight?
Well, to be honest, it came about because of Bob Clearmountain, who did Let’s Dance. Bowie rang him up to do Tonight, but he’d already started working with Bruce Springsteen on one of his albums. So he couldn’t do it. So, because I’ve always been good friends with Bob Clearmountain, he said to Bowie, “Look, get Hugh to do it instead, because I can’t do it. I’ve said yes to Springsteen.” Bowie didn’t want to wait, and that’s how I got involved.
How would you characterize that working relationship?
I loved working with Bowie, we got on really well. He’s fantastic, one of my highlight artists that I’ve worked with in my career. I think if I had a problem at all, it was the fact that Bowie was coming off the back of Let’s Dance, which was his first really commercially successful record. And a lot of Bowie fanatics thought he’d sold out with Let’s Dance, and the truth of the matter is I think David had gotten slightly big-headed about being an international star. I think he was a little bit lazy, because Tonight doesn’t go down in the annals of his more famous records, by any means. Part of that was doing collaborations with Tina Turner and things like that. It just seemed to be a little bit too poppy. And we had a whole bunch of songs that he couldn’t be bothered to finish the lyrics on. At one point, he got Iggy Pop to come up and help. If you look at that record, there are a few co-writes with Iggy, which was more on the lyrical side. If he had finished off more of the unfinished songs with Iggy, thrown away “Blue Jean” and the more poppy stuff, like with Tina Turner, and not had the Beach Boys cover [“God Only Knows”], the album could’ve been quite different. We were doing it in this studio up in the middle of Canada, in the middle of nowhere basically. I think he got bored of being in the studio after a bit and just wanted to finish it. But I continued to work with him on some Tin Machine stuff after that. He’s definitely one of the best, if not the best, singers I’ve ever worked with.
In recent years you have put together your own studio in London, Sofa Sound. What motivated the decision to do that?
Because it had become impossible to find a studio in London that I really liked working in, because they were closing down left, right, and center. To get into the studio that I wanted to be in, you had to book it a month or more in advance. It was just becoming too difficult to do it. And I had kind of a little what I call post-production room in the cellars of the old Townhouse Studios, where I had a little Pro Tools system and so on.
And basically it suddenly dawned on me one day that it was actually kind of viable to open my own studio. Before that, equipment had been so expensive and it was only really when Pro Tools came into being that the old sort of equipment, the big consoles, dropped a lot in value on a second hand basis. So I was able to take on a proper studio and build it how I wanted to. Of course, I’d never wanted to do that before, partly because I was always traveling and didn’t want to have the responsibility of having a studio in London if I was working with Melissa Etheridge for three months in L.A. or something. So it suddenly became more viable, I was less interested in travelling a lot. And so that’s basically how Sofa Sound was born really.
© The Morton Report, by Chaz Lipp