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Q&A: John Metcalfe

From Factory Classical in Manchester to Real World in the West Country, he’s a well-travelled soul, finds Simon Duff

John Metcalfe, former Q&A backpager from 2015, is coming to PSNPresents 4 on Thursday, November 2 at Sway Bar in Holborn.

From Factory Classical in Manchester to Real World in the West Country, he’s a well-travelled soul, finds Simon Duff

A talented composer, viola player, producer and arranger, John Metcalfe started his professional career while studying for his music degree at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, joining the legendary Durutti Column and working in A&R for Factory Records svengali Tony Wilson in the heyday of The Haçienda. Since then Metcalfe has toured the world with the Duke Quartet and arranged for the likes of Stephen Street, Morrissey, the Pretenders and Blur.

More recently, he has collaborated as both producer and arranger for Peter Gabriel, working on his album projects Scratch My Back and New Blood and touring with him as musical director.

Recent high-profile assignments include orchestral arrangements for Coldplay and co-production on an album for Monserrat Caballe. In June this year he released his fourth solo album, The Appearance of Colour, on Real World, an exploration of classical influences and ambient electronica.

Factory Classical must have been a great learning experience…
Tony Wilson gave me carte blanche to do the whole thing. I was a kid in a sweet shop. I chose the artists – The Kreisler String Orchestra, the Duke Quartet, Robin Williams, Steve Martland, Rolf Hind and Graham Fitkin – then organised the recordings, editing and mastering.

We did a lot of recording using Calrec SoundField microphones in places like remote farmhouses, as well in studios in Manchester such as Peter Hook’s Suite 16.

It was important for the music to be 20th century, with at least one British composer on each CD in the case of the ensembles. Beyond that the musicians could do what they liked. In a way my work with Peter Gabriel and Real World is a continuation of that philosophy.

You have worked for Gabriel extensively. What sort of ‘workflow’ do you have?
Peter is not frightened to try new ideas and take risks. Once I had approval for my arrangements, the
orchestra was recorded at AIR Lyndhurst: a 50-piece orchestra with a 12-piece choir from Magdalen
College Oxford.

One of the most interesting things for me was the set-up in the live room. Bass is really important to Peter, so early on we decided to put the double basses and cellos in the middle of the live room at AIR to ‘pin it down’. Violas were set up to the right – where the cellos traditionally go – on the outside, facing the violins. The track count was very high: well over a hundred that we could edit [in Pro Tools]. Mixing was done on the Sony Oxford OXF-R3 console in Peter’s room at Real World, with Bob Ezrin producing.

Turning to your new album, The Appearance of Colour: What is the intention behind the work, and how was recording approached?
In some ways the album is an exploration of synaesthesia and people’s non-verbal reaction to colour. I engineered a lot of the album myself at my studio but recorded drums and bass at Eastcote Studios with Philip Bagenal. Some viola and piano was recorded at Real World, with Patrick Philips engineering. It was mastered by Guy Davie at Electric Mastering.

My studio is a dedicated set-up away from my house in a room called The Bus Stop. Monitoring is off a pair of KRK V4s and a KRK 10S sub: I love their accurate bottom-end definition. Separate amps for the woofer and tweeter keep things clean.

What about your beloved viola?
It’s a Giovanni Batista Ceruti, made in Italy in 1800 and one of only a handful in the UK.

I use a Neumann TLM 103 or a Schoeps CMC 6 and MK 4 cardioid capsule [microphone] to capture all the detail of [my playing], and I have a choice selection of Neve 1073 mic-pres recording into Digital Performer, plus a host of sample libraries and plug-ins running on a Mac.

This summer you played on the B&W stage at the WOMAD festival. Tell us about your live set-up…
The John Metcalfe Band is a seven-piece, and Chris Ekers is my live engineer. The challenge to present it live is that my music ranges from quite intimate chamber music up to a full, lush orchestral dynamic.
What we try to do is to reduce as much as possible the pre-records. You want it to be live, though occasionally we need those big string sounds I have recorded and built up myself – but integrated as
much as possible.

What are you working on at the moment?
I have just been at Real World working with an artist called Tom Kerstens, a Dutch classical guitarist and his ensemble, who I have composed a new work for.

I am also MD and doing arrangements for a huge new opera, an Italian production at Arena Di Verona, called Intimissimi on Ice.

Ice? Nice! Technology-wise, what would you like to see developed in the future?
A brain headset interface that can tap into neural transmissions might be an extraordinary way forward. Maybe something based on the Oculus Rift model. I know that the LA Philharmonic is using Oculus Rift to explore new audience ideas. And [I’d like to see] much more emphasis on tactile interfaces.