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‘A producer’s dream’: Joe Chiccarelli on working with Morrissey on Low In High School

Renowned producer Joe Chiccarelli spoke to us about producing his second consecutive album with Morrissey in the form of Low In High School.

It seems these days that to work with Morrissey on consecutive records in any capacity is something of an achievement. Throughout the course of his solo career, which now spans some three decades, he has cut an increasingly enigmatic and controversial figure. Whether weighing in on divisive issues like Brexit with suggestions that the result was “magnificent”, or mocking the monarchy at every available opportunity, he appears to be flirting on the fringes of public outcry more intimately than ever before.

His reputation as an agitator has only been fuelled by the public, often venomous, spats he’s had with record labels, former band mates and collaborators over the years – of which there have been too many to mention here. All of which makes the role of Joe Chiccarelli all the more unusual.

Save for a select few, Morrissey – or Mozz – as Chiccarelli regularly refers to him during our conversation – has rarely relied on the same producer more than once during his solo career to date – only Steve Lillywhite and Jerry Finn have attained that honour. With Chiccarelli, however, it could certainly be argued that no previous producer has ever been able to lure Mozz and his band into such unknown sonic territory.

Having worked with several major acts, including the likes of U2, Beck, The Killers, The Strokes, Glenn Frey, The White Stripes and Counting Crows to name but a mere few, Chiccarelli is no stranger to working with the stars and pushing them to take risks in the studio. This has never been more evident than on Morrissey’s previous record World Peace Is None Of Your Business (2014). The album veered heavily from the muscular, electric guitar-driven rock of predecessor Years Of Refusal into a world of less conventional musical flourishes by way of harp, accordion, keys, brass and greater structural variation, moving from minimalist acoustic guitar-led croons (Mountjoy) to four-to-the-floor pop (Staircase At The University) and twinkling soundscapes (see the title track).

Now, with Low In High School, Chiccarelli has raised the bar once again, taking a similar template to WPINOYB and dialling up its extremities to 11. Recorded at Ennio Morricone’s Forum Studios in Italy and mixed at La Fabrique Studios in the south of France and released on November 17, the resulting collection of songs is unlike anything else in the Morrissey canon. From the unfamiliar but pleasantly surprising pop of lead single Spent The Day In Bed, to the bombast of glam rock, brass-backed stomper My Love I’d Do Anything For You.

Here, Chiccarelli tells PSNEurope what it was like to work with Morrissey in the studio for a second time and how he produced one of 2017’s most spectacular studio triumphs…

Tell us how you came to work with Morrissey on a second consecutive album.

Well, he enjoyed the process so much doing World Peace Is None Of Your Business that he just wanted to repeat it. But unfortunately La Fabrique Studios in the south of France, where we made that album, was booked up and the timings didn’t work out. With Morrissey, he really wants to be inspired when he’s making a record – to be in a place that’s really exciting and inspirational for him. Fabrique is a really idyllic location; it’s a fantastic studio. He had done an album at Ennio Morriconne’s studio in Rome about 10 years prior (Ringleader Of The Tormentors) so he suggested going back there, because he feels that the energy of Rome is good for him, so that’s how we chose working there.

What was your approach to producing the record?

As with the last album, he presented me with about 26 demos in advance. The tricky thing with Morrissey is he never records any vocals until he gets in the studio and does the actual vocal takes, so you’re left guessing where the song is going to go. It’s quite a unique process. What he brings to a song in terms of melody and lyrics is just extraordinary. I’ve never worked with anybody in my life who can come up with such unique melodies and lyrics that really transform a track. Home Is A Question Mark is a Morrissey classic; it was just obvious when he went in to sing the first guide vocal for it, like, Wow. It’s a clever lyric, a brilliant statement and a classic Morrissey melody.

What’s he like to work with in the studio? Is he open to collaboration with the producer?

He’s a producer’s dream in a lot of ways. When he talks about what he wants from a track, he talks about it in a very broad, big picture way. Even down to the emotion or the colour he wants to achieve with a given song, so that gives you a lot of flexibility. It’s not like he comes in saying, I want the piano part to be like this, and I want the guitar sound to be like that. He’ll say, This is a very brooding song, I want it dark, I want it barren, scary. And he leaves it up to you to craft that. Normally our process would be that we’d go in, put down a guide vocal with maybe a guide keyboard track or the band would play along with him and we’d do a sketch of a take, get the song formed and the tempo correct. Then we build everything around his vocal. Unlike the last album, where most of the vocals are those guide vocals – around 60% of them – this album its probably 60% of the vocals that were redone after the fact. He’s good with his voice in terms of a director, where he will push the energy of the band by pushing his vocal. Sometimes he’ll go too far to drive the band to get the energy in the room up, so we’ll go back and redo the vocal with a lighter approach. But he really has a great sense of the big picture and what he wants from each track.

How involved do you get with arrangements and structures?

It’s a very collaborative process. Some of the tunes are demo’d thoroughly, some are just piano, so we definitely mess around with structures, adding choruses and those kind of things. With Morrissey it’s all about the lyric and when he feels that the lyrical message of the song is delivered properly he doesn’t necessarily feel the need for extra long instrumentals or repetitive choruses. He’s a storyteller, and the songs are like little movies or acts in a play. When the point is made and the dialogue is served, that’s all that’s necessary.

Both WPINOFB and Low In High School feel very visual and cinematic at times. How did you bring those performances out of the band?

It’s definitely about serving the story. And I always like to make cinematic records and to make things as big and expansive as possible. Oddly enough, for me, these are very easy records to make, because it’s all there in the story.

Tell us about the studio set up.

That studio is a really big room, it’s a scoring sized room. Oddly enough, rather on the dead side acoustically, but it’s a big expansive place and we tried putting drums in various locations for different songs. In terms of microphones, it’s the standard kind of microphones augmented by ribbon mics in front of the kit at times. We did use some crazy Italian ribbon mics called Braingasms – believe it or not! We used those on guitar and accordion and a few other things. The studio had a beautiful sounding Neumann SM69 that we used on a lot of the more orchestral instruments. Mozz’s vocals, as with the World Peace album, were done on a classic Neumann U47. We did some of the vocals in Italy on that mic and we also did some at La Fabrique with a Telefunken USA U47. He has a very classic style in the way he sings. He’s very much like a ‘50s, ‘60s crooner in the way he sings. It’s very big. It might sound intimate on a lot of these tunes but he’s really a foot or a foot and a half away from the microphone, he’s got a big voice. There were a couple of times where I tried to get him closer and more intimate on the mic but it just doesn’t work, it doesn’t sound like Morrissey. There is something about the way he sounds a little further from the mic that is just his sound. In terms of preamps, we used a Neve 1073, a Pultic EQP-1A3 on the vocal and some tracks were Universal Audio LA2A – it’s a pretty classic, simple approach to recording his vocals.

And the mixing process?

Everything was done in Pro Tools 3296. No tape on this record at all because of the want of the ability to try different song structures and have easy editing. It’s always best with him to record direct to Pro Tools. The record was mixed by Maxime Le Guil who helped engineer it and we did that at La Fabrique. Both studios have older Neve consoles – Forum has a V Series Neve console and La Fabrique has a Neve 88R, which is the last version of the V series. They are very different sounding; the difference in tone was very surprising.

Does Morrissey have any involvement in mics he uses?

He’s pretty hands-on. He’s been really great and trusting so he’ll leave those decisions for us to make. If he hears something specifically he’ll say something. The Forum has a really great live echo chamber that sometimes he’d suggest recording the trumpet in, or the background vocals. It’s all about character for him, he’s not too keen on what kind of EQ or compressor is being used, that’s not really that important to him.

How did working on this album compare to WPINOYB?

The great thing with this is that the band and I all knew each other well after the last album, so they knew what to expect and everybody trusted and respected each other. The collaboration with the band on this album was fantastic, they really dug in and they are really sensitive towards him and helping him get what he wants out of things, even if he can’t verbalise it in specific musical terms. With Mozz it’s funny, it might be one guitar part that’s a little out of character or is a little jarring and will put him off the tune, and if you just rectify that with a simpler part or a more acoustic sound or whatever, it all falls into place. The process was definitely very healthy in that respect.

There is a lot going on musically on this record. Were there any tracks that were especially challenging?

There were a couple. With each of these albums we had around 20 songs, so the tough thing is choosing what makes the final cut because everybody has their favourites, and it can be frustrating or heartbreaking when your favourite tune is left behind because it doesn’t quite fit the picture. There were tracks like Spent The Day In Bed and Who Will Protect Us From The Police? that we spent extra time reinventing because we felt they didn’t work or they were a little unfocused. Mozz is great at having listening sessions, so once every two or three weeks we would all sit back and listen to the record and see what shape it was in. One day we had a listen and I said, You know Mozz, I listen to all these tracks and it feels like it really needs some orchestral touches, and we’re here in Morricone’s studios and we haven’t taken advantage of that. I could hear a solo violin on some of the tracks, I could hear some horns and strings, and he was like, I love it, let’s do it! So we put some more orchestration on a few tunes. He’s very open like that.

What are your favourite tracks on the record?

Home is A Question Mark is a real classic Morrissey melody. From the moment we cut it I was just like, Wow, this is the type of melody I want to hear from Mozz. Israel is a really powerful statement. My Love I’d Do Anything For You is interesting in that it almost didn’t make the cut. As much as everybody loved it, it felt lyrically a little different to everything else on the album. We worked at it really hard in the last week or so, brought in the orchestration and turned it around. And when Mozz heard all the extra horns on it he was like, Wow, this feels like an opening track now. I Wish You Lonely is really powerful with another great melody. I actually wanted to get Mozz to repeat the chorus a few times but it’s all about serving the lyrical point of the song with him.”