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Ben Hillier on 25 years producing some of the biggest names in music

The UK producer and songwriter has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including collaborating on one of the finest records of 2017 in the form of Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination. We caught up with him to find out how he's still finding new ways to challenge himself…

Boasting one of the most eclectic CVs in the business, UK producer Ben Hillier has spent the best part of quarter of a century balancing major projects with some of the biggest names in the world of rock and pop with an on-going series of collaborations at the cutting edge of the indie scene.

Having produced and mixed records for the likes of U2, Blur, Depeche Mode, Elbow and Suede to name but a few, he has also served as a songwriting collaborator alongside the likes of DM STITH, Soffía Björg and Nadine Shah, whose third album Holiday Destination, released earlier this, year has garnered universal acclaim.

It is with Shah that Hillier has worked most closely over the past few years, having collaborated and produced each of her three albums to date – 2013’s Love Your Dum And Mad, 2015’s Fast Food and this year’s Holiday Destination. And in a departure from the more lo-fi recordings of albums one and two, the pair’s latest work marks a move towards a bigger sound and the introduction of sax – courtesy of revered saxophonist Pete Wareham – to many of its tracks.

Here, PSNEurope finds out from the man himself how he produced one of the best albums of the year and what he considers to be some of the most exciting and, indeed, most challenging projects he has worked on to date…

Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination showcases a very different sound to her previous two records. How deliberate was that change in tone, and how did the production process differ?

There are quite a few records written and recorded by producers and they have a very production-y sound, there’s sometimes more production than writing that has gone into it. So I was trying to remove control a bit on the first two albums. Once we’d written the record we’d go into my London studio and record the record live. This time we decided we’d have a slightly up front, poppier sound, and I was more confident in my writing by then. We wrote and recorded a lot of it as we went along. A friend of mine, Ben Nichols, came into the studio and quite often we would be working on the music together and Nadine would spend more time working on lyrics. As a result the music is much more realised and advanced, and we’d be working on sounds at the same time. To finish it off we had a week up in Flood’s studio and recorded some of the drums again and some live takes to expand the sound a bit, but we kept a fair amount of the first demos in the songs. It was quite an organic process and I allowed myself to produce it a bit more, whereas before it was more about limiting myself.

What gear did you use to make the record?

I’ve got my place here in the countryside, which is called Agricultural Audio. I have some space in the middle of a working farm; me and a friend started off building a couple of control rooms out of straw bales, we used those to insulate it and acoustically treat the rooms. They are quite big rooms with 3.5-metre-high ceilings. And I moved my mix room down from London, so I’ve got a vintage 1960s Studer I’ve been using for a while now. A lot of the stuff was recorded through that. I also have a lot of synths down here – my ARP 2600 and a VCS3 and a bit of Eurorack modular stuff as well. I tend to run quite a few things through that. We recorded through the vintage desk on to the computer and then I mixed it back through that desk again as well.

As for mics, I wanted to get some more ribbon mics and we found some on eBay that were handmade with no name on them at all, and they cost £200. So we thought we’d give them a try and they sounded amazing. We recorded quite a lot with them, and they are quite un-ribbony, they are quite open sounding and clear on the top-end and the bottom end is really nice. I tend to use a lot of dynamic mics; I record mainly on an SM7 because it fits her voice really well. And she does most of her live singing into an SM58, which is the same capsule so she works the mic really well. We also used a couple of vintage condensers – ad old Lomo and a Neumann CMV563.

Tell us about how you made lead single Out The Way – one of the most sonically distinctive tracks on the record. Was that song built up gradually or was it always intended to pack such a big sound?

In general we write the music and Nadine will come in with a top line or a skeleton of a top line, then I’ll rework the music or change the chords. And sometimes I’ll send her instrumentals for her to write top lines on. Out The Way was done that way. It started off with the drum pattern and then I put the guitar on it. So I gave Nadine the drum part, bass and guitar and then she came up with an amazing top line for it, pretty much to the structure I’d already written. Then we discussed getting saxophone on the record – and I’ve known Pete Wareham for a long time – so I said let’s get Pete in. That was one of the first tracks where the sax settled in and found its place. It was the first point where the way we were going to use sax made sense and we coud use it as a blueprint for the rest of the album. The DNA of that song is really bizarre. The way pattern is really intense – you can try to play it quietly and it still sounds really loud. Then the guitar part is very similar, it’s open tuning and pretty simple to play, but the rhythm of it makes it really intense. And Nadine’s vocal, because of the register she’s singing in, which is a little bit higher than usual, makes everything really loud!

What’s your approach to entering the studio with an act you haven’t previously worked with? Do you have a specific sound and working method you like to stick to, or do is it more about understanding what each artists wants from the project?

I try to adapt to the artist, I’ve never been very formulaic in my approach. I like to get people playing as much as possible, so I’m not really the ‘record the drum, record the bass, record the guitar’ type. I’d much rather get a band and get them playing and find out what they do and what excites them about what they’re doing. They are all so different in the way they operate so it’s a question of working out what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at doing, what frustrates them and whether or not it’s good to remove that frustration! Sometimes you remove it and then they are just coasting! I guess you’re trying to find that sweet spot where they are very productive and being challenged, but without being unreasonably uncomfortable.

What has been the most challenging record you’ve worked on to date? And what’s been the most enjoyable?

Often the most challenging is the most enjoyable. I have a great relationship with Depeche Mode doing their stuff. Their demos are so advanced; they do so much work before you get in the studio. They wouldn’t think of presenting me with a song until it has all the lyrics, the middle eight etc. A lot of bands will turn up with a vague idea for a chorus and go, right; we’ll work it out in the studio. By the third album I did with them (2013’s Delta Machine) where we knew each other so well and were really up for challenging each other, we worked really hard. Because Martin [Gore’s] tracks are very well realised it would be quite a battle to push the songs further. You’d have to really get into the detail to work out how you could make it better, rather than just changing it for the sake of it. Every time we tried to push things further I‘d have Dave [Gahan] do a whole new set of vocal takes, and by the final version of the song he would have done 10 sets of takes. Each time his performance would get better and it would be a gradual process of pushing things forward. From a techy production point of view that was always great.

The Blur stuff was almost the opposite. On Think Tank we would do the first two or three sessions in Damon [Albarn’s] old studio in Ladbroke Grove. We’d start really early and he’ll come in with a vague idea of a song and we would start playing straight away and they’d be like, Quick, record this, record that, and by lunchtime they would have written and jammed out a whole song, which I would spend most of the afternoon editing. That was stage one and it was really exciting because it was pure creativity. The really difficult stage was finishing all those ideas – we ended up with about 36 – into completed songs without losing that initial spark.

Does it throw up problems between the band and the producer or the various band members when you have that many ideas to work with?

That was the hardest thing on that record. I still don’t think we ended up with the best songs on the record! I think the best songs are on the record but there were a few I wouldn’t have had on. There were eight songs that everyone agreed on and then with the remaining ones there was a little bit of negotiation among the band. That’s always the hardest part of making a record.

One of the strangest albums I ever worked on was one with Clinic (2002’s Walking With Thee). It’s probably one of my favourite records I’ve ever done, but it was insanely hard to make, because they were really paranoid. They’d done their first record and then they spent about a year trying to finish it because they argued and argued about how it would end up. They are very intense about their music and take it very seriously. So when they came to do the second album, I turned up to start the record and they gave me this booklet that was about five pages of A4, all very neatly printed out, that told me the exact structure of each song, the exact tempo and the timings of the songs down the second, a list of the instruments on it and a description of how each one should sound. I was like, well what do you want me to do?! They said, Stop us arguing! It was hilarious. But at the time I was thinking it was awful because it was quite early in my production career and I’m wondering what I can do to be creative in this environment. I had so many limitations in the recording that my creativity ended up going entirely into areas where they weren’t that worried. So it was like, drum sounds. The drum sounds on that record are some of my favourite drum sounds, because I could just put all my creativity into that and they would go, Great, it sounds wicked! Getting a guitar sound would take hours because they would be so specific about it so I’d just do whatever they wanted to keep them happy.

What’s next in the pipeline for you?

I’ve done a really nice record with Ben Nichols who plays bass in Nadine’s band. He does this really dark folk stuff called Kings Of The South Seas with Richard Warren and Evan Jenkins, and that’s coming out next year. And I’m just finsihing a record with Josh T Pearson. I’m mixing that. He’s a fantastic singer and songwriter.