Puff Daddy? He's got no flow," says British producer Paul Epworth, clicking a mouse on a cluttered desk in the cozy West London studio where he does most of his work. Gnarly, clanging electro blasts from the speakers. Two minutes later, an unremarkable Diddy verse enters the fray. Then all hell breaks loose.
This is Epworth's just-completed official remix of Diddy's "Tell Me"; it will be released–should Diddy's people approve–under Epworth's Phones guise, and it sounds nothing like the original. "I sped up his voice," grins Epworth, "because it shortens the distance between his timing mistakes."
Epworth is used to tidying up the mess made by others: As a producer, his job is to get the best out of artists. But it's as a remixer and musician in his own right–he releases grinding, peak-time electro as Epic Man on the Kitsuné and Good & Evil labels–that Epworth really expresses himself. Although you may not be familiar with his name, you've almost certainly heard plenty of the music that Epworth has committed to tape.
Two years ago, Epworth was hailed as the U.K.'s hottest new producer, a rough diamond whose crisp and edgy signature sound defined the second wave of Britpop. In quick succession, he helmed debut albums by Bloc Party, The Rakes, The Futureheads, and Maximo Park, a crop of quintessentially English art-rock bands who (following Franz Ferdinand's lead) gleefully ripped off Gang of Four and plunged into the mainstream. After that he produced a host of new British acts, adding a whip-smart, angular disco dimension to records by White Rose Movement, The Long Blondes, Shy Child, and, surprisingly, hip-hop MCs Kano and Plan B. Epworth estimates that he was responsible for 100 pieces of music between the summers of 2004 and 2005, which accounts for his decision to slow things down.
"[At the end of 2005]' found myself in a very different place, professionally and personally, [compared] to where I had been just one year before. I was working so hard and when I stopped' wanted to go out and let off steam. But I had to check it," he says, referring to his dedication to partying and DJing on London's hipster circuit. "Now I find that whole scene really unhealthy for my headspace."
Recently engaged and a homeowner, Epworth certainly has more grey hairs than most 32-year-olds, and he puffs four menthol cigarettes down to the filter in little over an hour. He looks tired but healthy, roguishly debonair in jeans and a t-shirt even though he's currently working 14-hour shifts producing the debut album from electro goths Black Strobe. It transpires that the Parisian duo, comprised of Ivan Smagghe and Arnaud Rebotini, has turned into a metal band. "I'm keen to pull them back to electronica but they're very much up for rock," he shrugs. "When Arnaud sings, he could be Johnny Cash. The album sounds like a fight between Tiefschwarz and Muddy Waters."
Epworth's last major job was co-producing The Rapture's second album, Pieces of the People We Love, with Ewan Pearson–in New York and in this very room in Eastcote Studios. It was, he says, a fractured process, which perhaps explains the funky but aimless result. Epworth became the band's sound engineer when they first toured the U.K. and Europe in 2002, and soon after assisted LCD Soundsystem on the road. He would later apply their disciplined punk-funk approach to bands like Bloc Party.
Epworth grew up to the east of London in the commuter town of Bishop's Stortford, rave heartland in the acid-house era. Like his father, an electrical engineer who designed optical fiber, Epworth has worked hard to master the technical side of his job. In the mid-1980s, he fell in love with U.S. electro and Public Enemy. At school, encouraged by the Beastie Boys, he got a criminal record for running a hood ornament-stealing racket. "We used to go 'round car parks [prying] VW and Mercedes signs off, then sell them to the rich kids."
Then he discovered Richie Hawtin and Kenny Larkin and their "soul music using cheap synths," and flipped out over Arthur Russell and Terry Riley. Inspired by King Tubby and Hawtin, he spent his studio apprenticeships learning to make dub mixes of various tracks. "Before I could program, that was the only way I knew how to make interesting sounds with bland guitar bands."
Today Epworth is easing off the indie diet. "I get more satisfaction making dance music at the moment than I do working with bands," says Epworth. "At one point last year' thought, 'If I see another guitar I'm going to scream.'"
His early Phones remixes for Annie, U2, and Death From Above 1979, among others, were crude but effective big-room floor-fillers for which he bastardized Bobby O. "They all sound cheap 'cause I did them on a laptop," he admits. Upcoming reworks for Roxy Music and Black Strobe are meatier and more supple, while his latest Epic Man tracks, "Sharpen the Knives" and "Worryin'," are nifty, new-rave bass bombs targeting Klaxons kids and the Ed Banger bunch.
"I always look for a fundamental response in the music I make," he says, stubbing out his fag as Black Strobe saunters into the studio to start work. "I like my hair to stand on end."
Epic Man's Top Five Studio Tips
1. Learn How to Use a Microphone
The sound of an instrument changes depending how far away you place the mic; you can create the tone of something depending where you put the mic. The 'body' I'm able to get off a snare drum is partly because you tune it low and partly because you put the microphone as close as you can physically get without it distorting.
2. Learn to Program
When you can 'fix' tracks and sound, it allows you infinite creative freedom. For me I felt like, 'Okay' can really use my imagination now.' When I learned how to use software' knew I could create some of the ideas I had in my head.
3. Keep Everyone Happy
A lot of production is man-management. You have to be sensitive to the overall atmosphere of the studio and to individual members. Sometimes when people are unhappy they won't say it, and occasionally when bands are happy with something they won't say so. It's juggling guesswork, trying to make sure no one's dragging their heels; if they are, you have to deal with it.
4. Listen to New Music
In my work I've tried to strike a balance that's modern and fresh-sounding and forward-thinking and kind of classic. Obviously I've realized now that doing all those things together, you actually create something of the time, which is a shame. There are some records that that just don't age, like Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden.
5. Short Cable Lengths
Short cables means better signal quality. It's the old, purist, Steve Albini style: Don't use the desk to record. Keep the distance between the mic and the place you're recording from as short as possible.
And Finally... Employ An Engineer
Get someone who knows what they're doing, because I've forgotten most of it, despite the fact I've been doing it for years.