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Nitin Sawhney: Direct to vinyl

Earlier in the year, Nitin Sawhney spent a day with his band at Metropolis recording his new album, One Zero. The twist? The entire album was recorded directly to vinyl, a feat that hasn't been attempted since Thelma Houston's 1975 album I’ve Got the Music in Me.

Earlier in the year, Nitin Sawhney spent a day with his band at Metropolis studios recording his latest album, One Zero. The twist? The entire album was recorded directly to vinyl. Thelma Houston was the last recording artist to attempt such a feat for her 1975 album I’ve Got the Music in Me, recording eight tracks in three days. By contrast, Sawhney recorded 17 tracks in just one sitting, and shared his experience with PSNEurope. What was it like when you heard the vinyl for the first time after the recording session? I was really happy, I think it came out really well. I knew it would sound good because I knew the band was playing well. All of the people involved are great at what they do, especially the technical guys: I think (Metropolis mastering engineer) Stuart Hawkes did a really good job of cutting it, Dave (McEwan, Sawhney’s regular engineer) was superb at mixing it. The fact that we actually pulled it all off was what I was most relieved with. It was a very high-pressure situation for everyone. Dave said straight afterwards ‘Lets never do that again.’ (laughs) But having said that I think everyone really rose to the occasion, and we got a lot out of doing it. So how did your expectations of the recording process compare to the actual recording process? I knew it hadn’t been done for 35 years and that there was probably a very good reason for that. In a way, I didn’t really have huge expectations. I wasn’t really thinking about what it was going to be like afterwards, I just knew that we needed to play at our best and really live in the moment and actually perform the tracks as well as we could. I think I just wanted to make sure we did a good job and that was all I was thinking. I assume you’re focused on performing well regardless of whether you’re recording on not… You’re absolutely right and that’s a very good point. When you perform live, you’re on a vibe, in front of a big crowd who are cheering and it’s a very different type of experience. It’s purely about live energy. When you know that something is being recorded, and that the main purpose of (the performance) is to get a recording down, and everyone works together –particularly the technical crew – to make sure they capture it in the right way. You’re also very much aware that each time anything goes wrong they have to throw away the lacquer and start again. It’s much more about the detail than it would be if you were playing live. Live you can relax a bit more. It’s not because you don’t care as much, of course you do, but it’s more of a vibe thing and energy. With this it’s both energy and precision. That’s probably the difference. After 10 years many bands issue a “best of” compilation of existing tracks. It’s almost as if you’ve decided this is going to be your ‘best performance’ compilation. It’s an incredible way to celebrate the time you’ve had together and the music you’ve made. Absolutely, and I think that’s a good way of putting it. Just doing something that was just going to be a compilation of these tracks wouldn’t have worked. They’ve changed in many ways; I’ve played with the arrangements and expanded out some of the ideas. The music I make is pretty eclectic and to get a band together that can actually play so many different styles and yet still have their own sound – that’s what I really wanted to get down. I understand that it was through a conversation with Ian Brenchley at Metropolis that this idea came about. What was your conversation about? We were chatting about our love of vinyl. The fact he felt strongly about vinyl as a medium, as do I, and that we had a lot of sentimental, nostalgic connection with that particular medium. The conversation built up into thinking about possibilities: when he told me about Thelma Houston doing (a direct-to-vinyl recording) 35 years ago – apparently she’d only done eight tracks in three days – I thought the idea of actually doing a whole album in a very short time would be an amazing challenge. I knew the band was capable of it, and I knew I’ve got great engineers and I knew he did as well. So I thought well why don’t we try and do this and see what happens? What was a highlight for you during this process? Obviously having Joss Stone come in was great. She’s really emotionally plugged in to her own sound, and to ours. She’s also really professional: she came in, had all her stuff down and knew exactly what she was doing. She connected with the band emotionally, very quickly and I think that was great to see. A lot of people forget that she’s very young. She’s only 25 still yet she has done so much and worked with some of the great legends in America, from James Brown to Lauren Hill. She’s got an absolutely stunning voice. To have her come in and do this was really nice, and she gave the whole thing a great energy. What was your first vinyl? The first vinyl I remember being really blown away by was when I was about six or seven: my dad played one of Ravi Shankar’s albums, I can never remember which one. I was actually there when he passed away last year. I was thinking about that first experience, and I had said to my dad at the time, “how is he doing that trick”? I was already playing as a musician at that age. My dad asked what I meant and I said “well how have they made it so when you put on that record that its sounds really fast”? He said “No, that’s Ravi Shankar, that’s how he plays.” I said “No one can move their hands like that!” I kept going over it and trying to copy what he was doing on my little guitar, and I was really confused as to how someone could play like that. I remember holding his arm shortly after he passed away and looking down at his arm and thinking “That’s the same arm I was blown away by at the age of six or seven.” It was a very moving moment. Any final thoughts on your direct-to-vinyl experience? Overall it was really rewarding; going back to those first principles really brings into focus your own sense of being a musician again, and how precious music is generally. That’s something I’m feeling again with this album. Recording these tracks brought new life into them, and I felt a lot more connected to them again.