The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Power, Corruption And Sighs – Ewan Pearson Interviewed
Michael Hann , July 25th, 2017 11:47

Ewan Pearson was the academic who became a remixer, the remixer who became a DJ, and the DJ who became a producer of some of the best-sounding records of recent years. But if it hadn't been for a ZX Spectrum he might still be listening to Rory Gallagher, says Michael Hann

Portrait by Aliya Naumoff

To get an idea of the economics of the music industry, don't bother poring over royalty statements or Spotify accounts. Try instead to go to the home of someone who works in it. Like Ewan Pearson. He has been making music for nearly 20 years. For the past 10 of those he has been a successful DJ - not at Vegas superstar level, but playing around the world - an in-demand remixer, and an increasingly notable producer.

Ewan Pearson and his wife and kids live in an utterly unremarkable terrace on a 1930s estate in north-east London, a couple of streets in from the six lanes of the North Circular, a hike from the nearest tube station, and very much not in one of the areas that magazines tell you are the place to be this year. There are no craft beer shops on the corner or hipster bars. It's exactly the kind of place my friends from school in Slough grew up in, a house built for the aspirant working classes in decently paid blue-collar jobs. Pearson's eyes water a little as he mentions his mortgage repayments. This is not what you imagine when you picture the home of someone in their 40s with a long and successful career in the music industry behind them.

"I still do remixes," he says, sitting among the detritus of parenthood in his kitchen, "but because of the way the industry's gone, even if I do a remix for a major I can't get even half of what I used to get 10 years ago. A lot of people still don't understand that. You are expected to be able to deliver the same results and the same quality of work for a third or slightly less than a third of the fee you would have got 10 or 12 years ago, in real terms - that's what anyone in music is doing."

He moves on to his unabated anger at the rates paid by streaming services - it's not a rant, because he doesn't rant; he talks quietly and good humouredly - and how stupid the music industry was to give up its powers of distribution to web entrepreneurs who were never interested in music or musicians. "I used to get hugely aggrieved by being lectured to by people in internet businesses about how we should get real and live in the real world. No! We gave up our distribution. All of this is about transfer of power in terms of distribution. You pay a lot less. You pay shit. And before it paid quite well." He then pauses, to reflect on the fact that people tend to be unsympathetic to the complaints of anyone - music people, journalists, sports people - able to spend their life working in their chosen field. "Saying that, I feel for anyone who's ten, 15, 20 years younger than me in any field, trying to get a house." He sighs.

I'm an unlikely person to interview Pearson. I've never been a clubber; never immersed myself in dance music. But in the past few years, it's often been the case that I've loved a record, for combining a beautiful sound – often clean and clear, with every element discernible, but warm, too – with elegant melodies, and checked the credit to find Pearson is the producer. He's worked with Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, he produced Delphic's excellent debut, Acolyte, worked with Jagwar Ma. This year alone, he was the producer on two sparkling pop albums: Ten Fé's Hit the Light and Jens Lekman's Life Will See You Now.

"I know I have an aesthetic," he says, "but it's harder for me to see my tics than it is for other people. Production-wise, a lot of my early influences were maximalist producers. One of my favourite records was Propaganda's A Secret Wish, which wasn't produced by Trevor Horn - it was Steve Lipson. I like intricate and maximal production, but at the same time, I always wanted to be able to hear everything, even it was incredibly elaborate. These days, with computers and DAWs [digital audio workstations], you can end up with huge amounts of tracks. On the first album by Delphic, some of the songs were 150 tracks - mixing's like a funnel and you're trying to get all of these things through this tiny aperture. And now with loudness, you've got less space because you've got reduced dynamic range, so everything has to be loud and you have an increasingly small aperture to get everything through."

"Dynamic range compression" is the technique whereby the peaks and troughs in recordings were brought closer together, allowing the entire record to be mastered at a louder volume (or "hotter", as the industry put it) – to make songs stand out from the competition on the radio, and to compete with advertising. But by the middle years of the last decade, pretty much everyone was doing it, with the result that an awful lot of albums sounded like someone screaming at you; nuance and subtlety was lost, and a lot of music was a constant pitch of hysteria, rather than an ebb and flow. Recordings were mastered so loud that they were distorted: famously, Metallica fans were astounded to discover how much better Death Magnetic sounded when uncompressed stems of the album tracks were used on the Guitar Hero game, as compared to the distorted and compressed masters used on the record. It stands to reason, really, that if you compress the dynamic range, you lose dynamism.

"It's less of a problem now than it was," Pearson says. "Five years ago, I would regularly hear masters that were deliberately distorted, because that was the extra step in loudness."

Has the rise of streaming, and concomitant decline of the importance in radio, not helped disabuse labels and managements of the desire to always be the loudest thing around?

"The theory now is that because all streaming services use an auto-adjustment algorithm to get things to come out at the same level, there's no advantage to reducing dynamic range to get loudness, and something that has very little dynamic range will sound worse coming through streaming services. That said, mastering's still hard. I have one particular mastering engineer I work with when I can, but even then I'm still trying to persuade him not to make it as hot, and he still wants it quite loud, and we have a bit of a push and pull. When A Moon Shaped Pool came out last year, I went and bought the Wav version of it, thinking it would sound more relaxed, but not, it was just as hot - a 24-bit file but hot. The record was great, but it doesn't need to be that dynamically narrow. It could be relaxed a bit and sound amazing."

So if what came to be known as "the loudness wars" are no longer being waged in massive aural assaults, there are still skirmishes. "It was unwinnable war," Pearson says. "But it takes a while for people to unclench, and it comes from artists and labels. I send notes to people, saying 'My masters usually average around -9dB or -10dB, so please bear that in mind.' But things have improved."

What does he look for when considering whether to produce an album?

He laughs. "There has to be a basic amount of money. You'd be surprised … Then it's: do I like the songs? Do I like the artist? Can I bear the sound of their voice? There are plenty of acts where I don't really like their records because I can't stand the sound of the singer. And then it's meeting up with the artists and thinking: 'Do I want to spend time in proximity to these people?' Sometimes it's also about the label - with remixing I've done a lot of work for Mute. You get asked to do something for a label, and it's like being called up by a football team. You get to be part of the story of something you hugely respect."

As for his appeal to artists, he says, "People know I can get a lot of elements into something and make them make sense. I'm maybe not the first choice to record a band who are going to track everything live, but being in the studio is magical. It's never not going to be completely fascinating. At some point in my career I gave up being interested in art, and became more interested in craft. They're not polar opposites - they're on the same spectrum. But I don't feel the need to express myself. I want to help other people make their own well made thing."

The challenge he has faced in recent years has been adapting to working with musicians who play acoustic instruments – by which is meant not acoustic guitars, but sounds that are generated not from computers and programmes, but instruments played live in a room: non-digital sound. "I'm only now getting to the point where I'm mixing records that involve acoustic recording which I've produced myself, and I'm comfortable in my own ability to mix without outside assistance. With keyboards and electronics, I know how to get something that sounds good. I certainly know where to start. I'll find it in a few goes of trying some different things. With guitars, I look at what someone's set up and think about what's good about their sound and how to bend it to my use. Same with acoustic drums - you've got all this different mic approaches. Do you have lots of different mics, just a few mics? You've got a choice of drums, you've got tuning. Every time you learn something new about it, you realise there's more to learn. But that's the other attraction of doing it: you can never master it."

Ewan Pearson grew up in Kidderminster, in a musical home. His dad, an amateur musician, was involved in the local folk scene ("We had Martin Carthy sleeping on our sofa"), and he grew up hearing his parents' record collection ("Apparently I used to ask them to play Rory Gallagher"). At school he was baffled by the insistence that one choose one of the two acceptable groups to like: either the Jam or Status Quo. Instead, "the first thing that really perked my interest was that time when screamingly hi-NRG disco started charting, things like Man 2 Man Meets Man Parrish and Dead or Alive, things like that. I didn't know anything about the context" - he laughs at the idea of being the champion of gay club music in a school of rock fans, without him even knowing it was gay club music - "but I knew really liked them." He loved Bruno from Fame, Howard Jones, then his mum recommended a record she'd heard called 'West End Girls', and he fell for Pet Shop Boys, followed by New Order, Depeche Mode and the rest of the synthpop groups who began to define his taste. (He notes that Tracey Thorn says he has the gayest record collection of any straight man she's ever met.)

"I think it was partly a nerdy thing," he says of his infatuation with the synthesiser. "This was when personal computers were just starting. My parents bought me a ZX Spectrum and it was an overwhelming, 'holy shit!' moment. I guess part of it is that computers were starting to enter people's real lives. When I was really young, at my first school, they took us into their administrative office and showed us this Commodore computer, and they were essentially saying: 'This is the future, these are the things that you will eventually be operating.' It was very exciting; this was our encounter with what Kraftwerk were singing about. And it was partly certain aspects of British cultural life. BBC Radiophonic Workshop was a huge part of it. I used to buy BBC sound effects records - 100 tracks on each side of Blake's 7 and Doctor Who noises that had been made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop."

He got fascinated by the process of how records were made, and how things ended up sounding the way they did – he obsessed over the drum sound on 'Some Like It Hot' by The Power Station – and then he started trying to make sounds himself. A family friend lent him a monophonic synth, then his dad got him a Casio CZ synthesiser, and he began tinkering around.

Acid house blew up when he was 16, and though he'd dismissed its earliest iterations ("I thought 'Jack Your Body' was a really annoying novelty record at the time"), rave was to become his musical home. "There was a place in Birmingham that used to do a Sheffield bleep techno night and I used to drive my friends from sixth form there because they wanted to go out. They weren't remotely interested in music, but I would drive them 40 minutes to go to Birmingham because I wanted to hear the music, and they just wanted to go out. it was one of those stages where it was liberating because it wasn't about dancing as performance. It wasn't about demonstrating skill. It was about participation and loss of self. You can see skill and dancing in the different waves of club music and club culture over the years: there are times when it is more communal and times when it is more about display. Acid house stepped much more towards the communal." This was when he realised that clubs need not just be places to either cop off or get pissed or get in a fight.

It's also worth remembering how crucial club nights were for the dissemination of music in a pre-internet age. That wasn't just true of early house; at exactly the same time, for example, a network of nights across the nation were playing indiepop and introducing audiences to its influences from decades before. You couldn't hear much of this stuff on the radio, and clubs were where you went to hear music you hadn't heard before. "Absolutely," Pearson says. "At that time I started to listen to people like Andrew Weatherall. He would play something, I would think, 'Blimey that's amazing,' and I would go up and ask what it was. You had to pluck up the courage."

He read English at Cambridge, took a master's at Royal Holloway (he and the future academic Jeremy Gilbert ended up turning their respective masters' theses into a scholarly book about the culture of dance music), and was set to enter academia: he had the offer of a scholarship from Yale, which he turned down because he'd just released his first single, and then he jacked in a PhD to concentrate completely on music in 1999.

"I'd bump into people at parties," he remembers, "people who'd graduated from university and were doing blue chip jobs, and they would take me to the corner and go" - his face forms into a rictus of concern, his voice that of a slightly disappointed teacher - "'Are you OK? Is everything all right?' The subtext being: Isn't it time you gave up this hobby and got a proper job?"

The point at which it became clear he did have a proper job came in 2002, when he remixed Freeform Five's 'Perspex Sex', helping to define the electro house genre ("which was horrendous") in the process. "I didn't invent it," he says of electro house, a riff-heavy style that rock fans might identify with. "DJ Hell's label Gigolo in Germany was starting to do that kind of more electro riff thing. There were records at that time that were moving back towards new wave electro with bits in, but they weren't really club records, they were essentially electronic rock. Whereas we were trying to make sure it was still a club thing – it was still 4/4 with that ecstatic element for the dancefloor. That was the difference in terms of what we were doing. It was just putting together and reconfiguring preexisting stuff. But nobody had quite combined it that way before."

'Perspex Sex' gained momentum through 2002, until it was being played everywhere. "I remember being in my kitchen in Hackney, on a rainy Monday, and getting a call from Damian Lazarus from the toilet at DC10 in Ibiza, and he held up the phone: they were playing my record. It was a rainy Monday in Hackney and I was feeling sorry for myself and they were playing my record. I started to DJ off the back of those things and everything started to coagulate into a job."

The remixes started coming thick and fast. He remixed Goldfrapp and "had this little run of being flavour of the year. I was offered 120 one year and I only did seven." He turned down a Shakira remix because he couldn't think what he might do to the song; now he rather regrets not pocketing the money and sending in a dub with a few noises on top. Especially as he no longer gets 120 offers a year.

As with production, he has a remixing aesthetic, at the heart of which is: you have to know it's the same song; it's not a different piece of music. When he takes on a remix, "there are considerations of: do I like the artist? Are they credible? Can I do something that will make us both happy and look good? One of the things I like about remixing is that it's this very weird mixture of supercynical commerce and real art. Some of the best dance music records ever made have been remixes, and remixing started out of the functional need for longer songs on the dancefloor, and Tom Moulton using reel-to-reel tape to lengthen songs. Then you had the opening up of the structure of songs. For me, listening to 12in versions of New Order songs was like a music school, because you got to hear some of the parts. Nowadays you can find multitracks on the internet: you don't need to be an autodidact anymore. You can go online and learn anything. There are videos for every single thing. But then, listening to the Shep Pettibone remix of 'Bizarre Love Triangle', it was like sitting at a desk and being able to press a solo button. That was why I loved 80s extended remixes. So when I started doing remixes, it was because I liked lots of the parts, and I could think about how to deploy them in a club friendly way."

These days, Pearson tries not to get too emotionally involved in the fate of the records he works on: he was pretty cut-up about the commercial failure of one of his early production jobs, Pieces Of The People We Love by The Rapture (even now, when I say that by the time it came out in 2006, the world had long since moved on from The Rapture, he starts detailing the radio play for the first single, and talking about what he and Paul Epworth had wanted to achieve with the group, and how disappointing the gap between expectation and performance turned out to be). Nowadays, he says, he just wants to be as happy as he can be with any job, "which is only so happy. Make sure you aren't ashamed of it, and that it makes the artist and the label happy."

And then?

"Then try not to think about it."