Interview with Gordon Raphael

Gordon Raphael is a musician and music producer. He’s worked with Ian Browne, Damon Albarn but is probably best known for working with The Strokes. The Seattle native now lives in Berlin and is just about to release his debut album, ‘Sleep On The Radio’, on 30th March.

So what does a record producer normally do on a Friday night? I don’t know but Gordon spent his on Skype chatting to me.

Nessy: This is your debut collection, why is it happening now?

Gordon Raphael: Well, I’ve been making my own songs and making albums since I was about 20. I’ve made like 10 albums of stuff. I am very good at making music and recording and singing and doing all the parts of the music but I’m no good whatsoever about “Hey Mister record label, don’t you want to sign me?”.

If I do go to a record label they go “that’s very nice but no that’s not what we’re interested in.” So I’ve been really actually making songs and recording albums and trying to get the stuff out for my whole life.

Nessy: This time was different though?

Gordon Raphael: A friend of mine in London has a little label. For the first year, he said “Just put it out yourself that’s what everybody does”. I said “Yeah I always put up my stuff myself and nobody hears it except for my sister you know? So please help me!” And finally he jumped onboard and said “Okay, I don’t know what your record is going to sound like but I’ll help you put it out”. And then he wrote me back a couple of days later said “Actually, this is a cool sounding record I think it’s going to be fun to put it out”.

Nessy: If you’re talking to a young artist who’s releasing their debut, they tend to be almost like a greatest hits album, a greatest hits of their lives up to that point. But where do these songs sit for you?

Gordon: That’s what this is. I mean, I’ve written a thousand songs, at least a thousand songs and recorded most of them. There are certain songs that just stick in my mind and they go “How can I actually live without trying one more time to record this even better and really try to push it?”

These are songs that have been with me a lot of my life and I just can’t let them go until they have a chance to actually be heard by other people other than me. That’s the basic idea. So it is definitely a collection of some of my greatest hits.

Nessy: Some people would let older material go, saying “That’s that’s not me anymore”. How have you ensured that some of the songs remain relevant to you?

Gordon: One of the interesting things about this record is that I kept getting called to go to Argentina to work with rock bands. In my view, a lot of Europe and USA got a little bit over guitar based music in the last ten years. But Argentina has like a political history with guitar music and they never lost the love.

So I kept getting invited there over and over again to produce bands and I got a little bit popular and people like me there. And one year, which was 2014, I was there for 100 days I went three different times. I stayed 100 days.

Well what did I do? I started not one but two bands to play my music and shows were offered. So I thought “OK, what songs should I play live?”. And I thought “Wow I really like this one and I really like this one. I really like this one. And so what you hear on the album is both bands. One of them has three female musicians and one has five male musicians and some are with the girls and some songs I did with the boys but they’re all songs that I really enjoyed playing live that particular year. So they are very relevant to me and I love playing them.

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Nessy: What are the differences the dynamics between the two bands?

Gordon: Boy, that’s a good question. Very good question. They’re all just amazing musicians. Every single one of these people that I got to work with was like a blessing. They were so good and they had such different personalities and different strengths. A song like ‘Seven Stars’ on the album, that really represents the huge sound that I had with them with the boys, because there were five of them instead of just three. For one thing, it was very big, of a lot of sound coming up and they just played a certain powerful cool way.

With the girl band, they had the biggest smiles. Whenever we played shows, the smiles on their faces were so big that it lit up the whole room and it made me beaming with smiles while I was playing my music, which isn’t something I always do. So, there’s an element of joy and fun and excitement in the songs I did with them.

“I Sleep on the Radio” that particular song was them, or ‘Noisy Chair’ was done with them. It’s just there’s a bit of a joy and a bit of a punky rock sound when I work with them and there’s really serious musicianship you know? Kind of like ‘rockers who’ve been doing it a long time’ feeling with the guys, for example.

Nessy: You’re used to working with other people, other bands, other artists and it can be quite an emotional time for an artist when their project is finished. So how did it feel for you?

Gordon: Well, I’m going to tell you a little funny story about that. I worked for about a year and a half on the record. I started what always do, I sent it to everybody I know in the music industry, all the cool bands and all the managers and all the labels. And, by and large as what always happens, I didn’t get one single e-mail back. I mean nobody even said like “Whoa Gordon, this is really weird” or “I don’t like it or I heard it, it’s kinda cool”, like nobody wrote me even back. OK. So, I had this joy of finishing my record but I also had this really horrible feeling..I showed this this music to these people and nobody says a word to me. That’s messed up and I was sad and I was bummed out about it for a little while.

I listened to the record very closely and I said “You know what I’m going to erase half the singing and I’m going to play the bass parts myself and I’m going to add the keyboards into the mix it way better“. And I just spent another half a year trying to improve it. I thought “I don’t want something that somebody could ignore. That’s awful”.

I thought I should take it upon myself to work even harder on it and I put another six months of re-singing and mixing in it. And when that was done and I really thought “You know I got something here this is I don’t think I could do a better job and it wasn’t lazy about it. I really put in some effort” and I was really happy about having it done. It was a real nice sense of completion.

Nessy: How much have the bands are the artists that you’ve worked with influenced your own music?

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Gordon: That’s a very good question. I started recording other bands and becoming a producer, it was an accident. I never wanted to do that, I only wanted to record my own songs and bands I was in. It just so happened that I wound up working for one band and then another and then another and then The Strokes came along and suddenly I got a reputation as a producer, that brought more work.

I was overjoyed about all that. I was great, happy to be working, happy to be associated with The Strokes. But, the upshot was that the more I went traveling around the world producing bands, the less time I had to work on my own music. So, it’s kind of like a dichotomy and I felt a little tense about it. I finally have the money for my own recording equipment and all the guitars and keyboards but heck I’m not even in the same city as my instruments! And, when I’m home, I’m resting between jobs. It was really weird time but I realised that along the way, listening to all those bands tell me how loud their vocals should be or how the tambourine should fit in or where the backing vocals to sit.

I think I learned a lot of things being objective and not being the one whose music it was, just helping other people do their music. I think it taught me a lot about production and how people hear backing vocals and where they want to lead vocals to sit, where the snare drum should be. So, I think it really helped me. It was a great education and still is.

Nessy: You’re now living in Berlin and what prompted the move

Gordon: Around 2005, I was working on “First Impressions” with The Strokes and I was living in London actually but I was in New York at the same time. So it was like I was living between New York and London. I was really happy doing that as I loved both of those cities.

But a friend of mine, a great producer here in Berlin, sent me a video of an empty seven room apartment with 12 foot ceilings in the middle of a really cool area and the rent was eight hundred dollars US per month. And I thought “Whoa! the rent is so cheap and the space is so much.” I certainly wasn’t having that much space in London. I wasn’t having that much space in New York. And I was paying five times more! So I just moved here because there was a giant sense of space and I could unpack my stuff from my storage units. I could try living my European classical music and art odyssey – plus Bowie did it and Iggy did it so it seemed like a logical step.

Nessy:You said before that classical music is something that you love. If you’re living in Germany, that’s kind of heaven for you really.

Gordon: It really is and of course I was overjoyed when I had the opportunity to move to London in 2002.When I lived in Seattle, I thought that all the bands I liked were from London. It wasn’t until I moved here that I learnt that, actually this band is from Liverpool and this band is from Leeds and this band’s from Birmingham.

Going to live in England was kind of like my rock n roll history coming to life. That was great. And then coming to Berlin and Germany and this parts, was like all those painters I grew up looking at all, that classical music Bach, Beethoven, you know all this great stuff, Schumann, it’s from here you know?

Nessy: How important do you think no one even a little bit about classical music is important to contemporary songwriting?

Gordon: I don’t think it has much to do with a lot, especially really modern stuff and contemporary stuff. But for me, when I was like 10 or 11 years old I wasn’t looking for classical music, I wasn’t looking for European painting. But when I opened a book on my parents coffee table and saw a Peter Bridal painting, it was like bells went off “What is it that? You mean people could sit there and make images like this?” Or when I went to my first Bach organ concert when I was about 13, I never heard music like that. I never felt the physical sensation of what it’s like to hear a pipe organ music at that level. So for me, it was just a natural gravitation and it seemed very important to me to know about that music and to study it and learn how to play it and listen to it and think about it really.

Nessy: You’re a tutor at BIMM (music school) in Berlin?

Gordon: They asked me to do some tutoring but I actually just give some talks and also sometimes I do master classes for BIMM and the other music school here, dBs, another British one. I sometimes take bands in the studio with their productions students and show them some ways I work. So, I really like talking to those students and I really like doing those masterclasses.

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Nessy: Speaking about younger bands. What do you think is the biggest obstacle that new bands are facing right now?

I guess one of the obstacles is, we seem to be in a phase where being in a band or especially guitars and, like the typical bands scenario that has been with us so long for rock music, it’s kind of not really that fashionable, not that I know of! It’s not so societally rewarding! People don’t go “Ooh and Ah”, when you’re in a band they don’t think too much about it. I think that’s an obstacle. And then there’s always the business models about how you make money at music being in a band.

But, it was always hard. It was never easy. Back in the 70s and 80s, there were labels in certain cities that would sign you if you live there and they could see you. So if you live in the United States, you pretty much had to move to Los Angeles and New York with your mates. You know? And everybody living in one apartment or something and it’s never been an easy job. That’s why I guess they call it “Rough Trade” records. It’s a pretty rough trade to make a living at.

I think we’re in a very interesting time where the function of the recording is much different than it used to be used to be. You could get a record deal and a big advance and get a car and live in a mansion and stuff on the advance. But now labels don’t want to pay advances and they don’t really want to pay for studio time. They just want to kind of license it and you can get some streaming royalties, if you’re lucky. Things are really changing but I think those are some obstacles. Some of them have been with us forever and some are new to this day and age.

Nessy: What’s your favourite studio device?

Gordon: Studio device. Oh undoubtedly a microphone.

Nessy: So if you had a thousand quid, what would you recommend getting for a home studio?

Gordon: I’d say get a cheap condenser mic and a 421 sennheiser. That’s only going to be, say, seven hundred quid and then you have 200 left over for some cables or a cheap compressor or something like that.

Nessy: So we have to talk about the Strokes, do you ever get fed up talking about it?

Gordon: I don’t, I don’t. It’s been a blessing in my life. I get a lot of work still to this day because of it. It’s just been a source of joy and support and a lot of love, even to this day, however many years later. And to this day, people want to know about how the guitar sounds were made and what it was like with those guys. I don’t ever get tired of talking about it to be honest and I haven’t exhausted all my stories yet. I’m saving some of them for my little book.

Nessy: Are you going to write the book?

Gordon: Yeah. When I can force myself to sit still for a few minutes.

Nessy: It would be great to read it, It seemed like guitar music was dead at the time and this just seemed to catapult everything it. There was just such an energy, such a passion about the music.

Gordon: Yeah, it was really nice especially for me having listened to rock music and been vitalized by rock music my whole life. The fact that people said “You know before The Strokes I didn’t really like rock but then when they came I thought it was cool and I joined a band I got a chance to do a little bit of payback for all the love and support that music has given me. It felt like a cool little arrangement.

Nessy: Whether it’s The Strokes or any artist, you have to have an enthusiasm for their music, you have to believe in their music as much as they do. So what gives you that little spark to work with someone like that?

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Gordon: Well that’s an easy question to answer. It’s more like even beyond the music and the band. It’s each person. There’s a bunch of people there. There’s individuals, a guy playing the drums. Ok, so I’m a piano player and a guitarist and I remember what it’s like in the studio. I remember what it’s like walking into a bunch of older people or more experienced people with their attitudes and their education.

There’s a way to make someone very uncomfortable and try to gain rank from that process. And then there’s a way of going “That guy’s just like me. What would I have liked?”. I would have liked someone to make sure I can hear myself correctly. And when they want to ask a question take their questions seriously and if they want you know a purple guitar sound, do your best to give them a purple guitar sound.

I think being a musician and having as much experience as I have with all kinds of people just gives me a respect for somebody who is doing the art of music. And I think they feel that. People feel like “This guy knows what I’m talking about he’s listening to me and he actually has some good ideas and he’s not just trying to get us done quickly get our money and get us out the door”.

Nessy: Is that what the relationship you had with The Strokes was like because you worked with them on numerous occasions? Is that was that the concrete was that the cement that started the whole thing going for you then?.

Gordon: Our relationship started with them coming to my studio to do a demo and announcing to me very straight “You know what? We don’t like to go in studios we don’t like people who make recordings and we find them generally to be very dismissive and they don’t really listen to us, they act so snotty and so know it all”. So the relationship started with almost nothing but suspicion and they didn’t have any feeling that something good was going to come out of this.

And at the end, they were kind of pleased, they weren’t like overjoyed. Julian didn’t jump up and down and go “Oh my god, we sound so great” It’s like “OK, thanks a lot, Thanks for the good work. We’ll we’ll talk later”. Then they had a good reaction. They got signed to Rough Trade when that little demo came out and they got some attention. So they kind of said “Oh that was cool. We went to that studio and that guy did this sound. And I wonder if we could do it again?” You know a little less suspicion but not really high hopes and so the relationship kind of built up over some albums.

Nessy: You were lucky but they were lucky as well that you had met them first before they got signed up, before they had any kind of demo. From what I know, traditionally a producer would work for a record label and a producer would work as to basically the job description of what a record label would want from this artist.

Gordon: Yes yes. Or the radios or knowing what radio was playing that week and knowing what the A&R guy needs to sell to keep his job and you want to be the studio guy that the A&R… there’s a whole bunch of relationships. But luckily for me or whatever, my whole life I just have relationships with the musicians. I don’t know people at labels. I don’t know people at radio stations. I just know lots of musicians and they come to me because they heard that I’m a musician and that I listen to people. That’s a blessing and a curse right? It means that of hundreds and hundreds of bands I’ve recorded only a few have had their albums released or gotten popular or gotten attention. And many of them don’t get heard and don’t get on the radio. Maybe if I knew more about it, I could have been more helpful to them.

But this is who I am and this is what I know how to do.

Nessy: You have a label yourself would you ever think of putting other bands in more of that?

Gordon: Yes I have my own label Shoplifter Records. And at one glorious moment when I lived in London in 2004, Sony gave me money and said “You know what you’re kind of a popular guy right now and you did a couple of good things so why don’t you take some money to whatever money you want you just bring us some bands and we’ll give you a budget for any band that we think is worthwhile.” So the first thing I did was, I luckily met Regina Spektor and I went to my label I said “I met this great piano player would you help me put out a record for her?” And so the first person I actually signed to that label was Regina and we did the album ‘Soviet Kitsch’.

Now unfortunately for me, I had a partner in my label.. and before I knew it while I was recording The Strokes’ First Impressions in 2004 .. he basically embezzled the money from the label and pissed off Sony at me. “You’re taking all this money and we’ve got nothing to show for it”. And they quickly dropped me. So my little Shoplifter Records only lasted about six or eight months before it got dropped.

At that point, I would have loved to sign tons of bands. I had many bands waiting. I had my own album ready to go. And it’s been ever since then I have not had really any kind of distribution or funding, so I’ve mostly used it as a label to promote my own projects or my friends’ projects.

Nessy: Before I let you go because it is a Friday night and you have a life other than talking to me, what are the albums that you can’t live without?

Gordon:

  • Burnt Weeny Sandwich by Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention
  • Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
  • Freehand by Gentle Giant.
  • Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie.
  • Cry of Love by Jimi Hendrix.

Damn fine taste!!

Gordon Raphael’s album ‘Sleep on The Radio’ is out on Morch 30th.

You can find out more from Gordon’s website, Twitter and Facebook.

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