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A Quietus Interview

You Hum It, I'll Play It: James Ellis Ford Interviewed
Jeremy Allen , May 5th, 2023 11:19

After building a home studio the SMD musician and Arctic Monkeys and Depeche Mode producer James Ford picked up no less than 18 instruments – and a microphone – in order to make his beguiling debut LP. Words by Jeremy Allen. All portraits by Pip Bourdillon

When one thinks of a superproducer, certain associations instantly spring to mind. They might live in Los Angeles and drive around in a tinted Chevrolet drinking Krug. They might go by a mononym, or prefix their name with Dr.. There are no titles of dubious veracity in James Ford’s name, though there has been a recent addition – Ellis – inserted almost apologetically into his name to denote the artiste James Ellis Ford, distinguishing his debut album The Hum from his already impressive body of work as a producer and engineer.

He’s not based in L.A. either. Ford spends much of his time working in his studio up in a Hackney attic, which is packed to the rafters with eye-popping vintage gear. That’s at least when he’s not downstairs with his wife and five-year-old son, Frank. Ford takes me on a short tour of the loft extension via his iPhone, showing off a pair of reel-to-reel recorders hooked up via a long tape loop. There are drums at the rear which benefit from the ‘room within a room’ setup - meaning he can make as much noise as he wants when his son is sleeping – and there’s Beth Gibbons’ tape machine tucked under a desk. Serge modulars, hammered dulcimers and vibraphones are present too, and there’s a sofa where the great and the good park themselves when recording is in progress.

“The last people I worked with here were the Pet Shop Boys, funnily enough,” he explains. “They spent most of their time sleeping on that sofa over there.” At times, he says, he’s considered getting a more professional set up away from the house so that his home life and professional life don’t blur into each other too much. “But then I think people quite like it being a bit more low key. Because it's in a house, it's kind of relaxed. I can make whole records in here. I mixed the [Arctic] Monkeys records here.”

Ford moved to Clapton 13 years ago, with the studio in the attic coming some years later. A lot has changed since he and his partner first moved in: “I had this amazing old Hackney neighbour, and we went round one time and he had loads of great free jazz records. We developed this sort of Cafe Oto relationship where we'd go and see weirdo jazz and stuff. But then they ended up getting priced out, and now it's city boys and lawyer types.” Ford admits that a little gentrification can be a good thing if it means you can get a decent cup of coffee, though when he’s in his studio, it might as well be anywhere. It’s a safe space, “womb-like”, a bubble away from the world’s troubles. For reasons we’ll get into shortly, The Hum is not without a pervading undercurrent of bleakness.

Born in Staffordshire in 1978, James Ellis Ford attended university in Manchester where he began his music career playing drums in the short-lived psych indie outfit Simian. For their second album, We Are Your Friends, Brian Eno would appear in the studio now and then, washing up like a domesticated magus, guiding the boys in his inimitable, inscrutable, invisible way. I wonder if Eno ever got the Obscure Strategies cards out? Ford grabs a set close to hand that were signed by the Professor himself. “I never use them though,” he says, laughing.

Simian’s dissolution coincided with the emergence of Simian Mobile Disco followed by their rise to prominence. Formed initially as a splinter DJ setup with his pal and bandmate Jas Shaw, they achieved notoriety thanks to a Justice remix that became inescapable in 2006. In 2018, however, Shaw was diagnosed with AL amyloidosis – a rare bone marrow condition that has forced Simian Mobile Disco into hiatus. Finding himself working alone for the first time, Ford began experimenting, inadvertently laying the foundations for what would become The Hum, released by Warp Records, a label he considers his all-time favourite.

Following the ubiquity of the ‘We Are Your Friends’ remix, Ford got more serious about production and in 2007, Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future won the Mercury Prize – a record he oversaw and also played drums on. Ford’s credits since then have included Florence and the Machine, Foals, Beth Ditto, Haim, Jessie Ware, Gorillaz, Everything Everything, Little Boots, and many more. In more recent times, he’s been instrumental in the musical evolution of Arctic Monkeys, and he recently presided over Depeche Mode’s sadness-tinged return to form Memento Mori, alongside the producer / engineer Marta Salogni.

“It was just Martin [Gore] and Dave [Gahan] and me and Marta, and it was very, very lovely,” he says of the experience. “Obviously, in the context of Andy [Fletcher] passing away, it was incredibly sad but also lovely. The band was bonding, and there was a lot of reminiscing.”

None of this will quite prepare you for The Hum, which is informed by a rogues’ gallery of Canterbury prog misfits and sonic innovators sometimes verging on the obscure. There’s Fripp & Eno, Soft Machine, Ivor Cutler and Todd Rundgren for starters. You’re never too far away either from Syd Barrett, David Bowie or Paul McCartney – and the latter is pertinent given that McCartney is an artist well-known for his homespun albums, often with the bass driving everything and acting implicitly as an accompanying voice.

On The Hum, the bass lurches and swaggers from one bar to the next, carving out the character of the record beneath the veneer of modular atmospherics and ethereal Frippertropnics. Those tape loops are just as integral, with the title track and ‘Tape Loop #7’ like palimpsests surreptitiously left there to provide clues. There’s a persuasive uncanniness to this album, and you suspect it’s Ford’s ability to shapeshift that makes him such a sought-after producer. He manages to imbue a sonic fluidity that invariably brings a touch of class to the projects he’s working on, though he’s not one for imposing recognised motifs or rebuilding from the bottom up. Such subtlety and nuance is atypical where superproducers are concerned, and even labelling him with such an epithet feels slightly daft. Nevertheless, he has a midas touch that means he has a lot in common with Max Martin and Rick Rubin.

Perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the fact he uses his own voice on the four tracks that required singing, rather than consult the proverbial celebrity rolodex at his disposal. That resistance to collaboration – the tendency to go down the “rent-a-rapper” route – makes for an altogether more personal, more fragile record. It’s one that envelops the listener and is free from any awkwardly jarring moments. Nevertheless, imperfections are embraced rather than erased, eschewing the modern way of doing things such as quantising, playing to a click, endlessly overdubbing and honing at the expense of emotion.

You started out as a drummer, and there are many good people who began at the back before gravitating forwards. Off the top of my head I’m thinking Iggy Pop, Madonna, Cerrone, Karen Carpenter, and that’s just for starters. But The Hum is less about the rhythm and more about the loops isn’t it?

James Ellis Ford: It definitely was a big part of the record. At the end of the day when my wife is watching some weird crime drama that I can't be arsed with, I'll come up here and spend a couple of hours making some loops, and maybe play guitar or vibraphone. It's almost self-soothing. I find it meditative and relaxing as it’s slowly morphing and moving.

Do you consider yourself to be a drummer first and foremost?

JEF: I’m a jack-of-all-trades. I learned flute when I was a kid, then the piano, and then I kind of hated them and taught myself guitar. I was playing in punk bands by the time I was 12 and then I joined a band playing drums… I suppose drums are the thing that I’ve done the most. I've often played drums on production sessions like with Klaxons and the Last Shadow Puppets. But I don't consider myself a drummer. I play like a studio drummer. I haven't really played live for ages.

Apparently you played 18 instruments on The Hum. Didn’t you learn bass clarinet specifically for the record?

JEF: I love picking up new things. I bought a bass clarinet off eBay and learned it. It's got similar fingering to the flute so I watched a few YouTube videos and just had a go. You can hear it on ‘Pillow Village’. All the main melodies throughout the album have been played or written on this thing [he reaches for instrument]. And yeah, it’s that thing of learning something new, which for me, gives you the excitement and impetus to move forward.

18 instruments is more than halfway to Prince isn’t it?

JEF: Yeah, but I'm not very good. I can play enough to get melodies out of them and then once you bang them through the Mu-Tron phasor and fuck them up a bit, they start sounding cool and interesting. I wouldn't be standing in an orchestral recital, playing bass clarinet by any means [laughs].

It probably sounds like a weird thing to say but the bass guitar itself feels like an additional protagonist alongside your voice on this record. Do you know what I mean?

JEF: Yeah, there's a lot of bass guitar. If someone was going to ask me what instrument I played, I would say the bass is probably my favourite one. I feel I'm fairly handy on the bass. So yeah, a lot of these things came from tape-loopy sketches - I've got a whole pile of sketches on the computer. And then, a few weeks later, I'll come back and listen through them, and if there's one that seems moderately interesting, I'll either play drums on it or play bass on it, and then build it up like that.

‘Squeaky Wheel’, which you sing on, has elements of both Fripp and Eno, but not necessarily together?

JEF: I definitely have gone back to my comfort zone in a lot of ways with this record. The studio is a comfort zone for me: it’s got all of my toys in it, and it's soundproofed and isolated and womb-like. Musically, I leant into the stuff that I like the most and listen to, and that tends to be a lot of my dad's record collection. I grew up on the Canterbury sound, Caravan, Robert Wyatt, obviously, Gentle Giant… I didn't particularly like it at the time but I suppose you just kind of come back and gravitate towards your father's record collection at the end of the day [laughs]. The Frippotronic stuff still blows me away, and Harold Budd and all that stuff. It's just what I listen to if I go for a walk.

Tell me about ‘The Yips’, which has to be my favourite track on the album. There’s a kind of fusion of Middle-eastern jazz and Can-like polyrhythms isn’t there?

JEF: ‘The Yips’ literally started with a drumbeat. I’d been going through an Arabic music phase. I love all that Habibi Funk stuff, when musicians from that part of the world were trying to sound like The Meters and so on, but with weird tonalities and scales. I love those odd tunings meeting a kind of Western intonation.

Were you inspired by the trip you took to Palestine?

JEF: Yeah, my wife is half-Irish, half-Palestinian, and she's still got some family there: I think I’ve become more interested since our little boy was born. I’ve also always been very interested in that part of the world with everything that's going on over there. And it's heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measure. I was offered an opportunity to go over there for this Palestinian music conference. It was an amazing trip, but also really brutal. I met some incredibly inspiring people, and people just trying to make music in the most extreme circumstances, like the Palestinian Youth Orchestra, who are amazing. But even getting everyone into the same room is so difficult. If you have, say, someone coming from the Gaza Strip, even if they get there, they might not be able to get back to where they live. It’s eye-opening and awe-inspiring to see the amount of effort these people will make just to be able to make music.

When you say it’s heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measure, what do you mean?

JEF: I’ve always followed the Israel/Palestine situation for as long as I’ve been with my partner, which is 26 years now, but it’s a very different experience to actually go there though. To see young people who look like my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who really just want to live their lives and learn how to make beats or whatever, but are having to deal with an impossibly difficult situation is beyond heartbreaking. It’s depressing because I can’t imagine any kind of resolution. The situation is so convoluted. It’s the home of organised religion and the axis around which a majority of geopolitics turns and those kids are caught in the crossfire.

In the biography that came with this record, you said “my life changed dramatically overnight” when Jas Shaw received his diagnosis…

JEF: Yeah, well, suddenly not touring with Jas and not being able to be in the studio with him left a big hole in my life. We spent more time together at points than we did with our families. He’s brilliant, weird and kind. Trying to fill that musical gap was a large part in my deciding to make my own record.

With this record, were you keen to do something very different from Simian Mobile Disco?

JEF: I wanted to do something that felt authentic to me and my music tastes and was quite personal. I've made lots of different types of records, from dance stuff to folk stuff to big rock records, and I suppose people don't necessarily know what I'm into or what I like or who I am in any way – not that I care if people know who I am. I just felt like having a channel where I can put my own music out on my own terms. It seemed like a good idea at this stage in my life.

It must have been tempting to call up your pop star mates?

JEF: Yeah, it was, and I'm sure my management would have loved me to have called on all of those people to do a collaboration record, but it just seemed a bit cheap. It feels braver to do it like this. And it's definitely pushing me out of my comfort zone - even doing press and photos and the thought of singing live. I'm usually very happy behind the scenes, and I get a lot of creative input into all of the things I do and feel very satisfied with that. I don't have this urge to be an artist at all, but I do have an urge to make music on my own terms.

Why did you decide to sing?

JEF: I originally intended to get some guest vocalists. And then when I was halfway through that process I just thought: ’Why am I not singing? What is stopping me from doing it?’ It’s just a thing of getting over myself, in that it still seems like a bit of a mad thing to do for a 40-year-old producer to start singing. It felt like a good challenge, another push out of my own personal comfort zone, because I’m actually a fairly shy kind of guy. And it goes back again to learning something new.

What about writing lyrics? That must be a new discipline for you too?

JEF: I found it quite a struggle to get over myself and actually commit to the lyrics. But as a producer, having put myself through that and realised how hard it is to make yourself vulnerable in that way, it's really good for me to be more sensitive to how difficult that can be for people, and to remember that and what I'm asking other people to do. I think these things will feed into each other.

It's contemplative music you’re making, and there’s little doubt the world we're in is becoming darker and stranger. Did personal experiences find their way into the music?

JEF: There's definitely a thread of existential dread running through it, if that's what you mean. In this room, I'm very cocooned and I feel like I’m in my little bubble. Obviously, with all the pandemic stuff going on, and stuff like Jas and other things that have been going on in my life, there is this sort of darkness out there. And I suppose it's just trying to parse those two things where I'm lucky I get to make music every day of my life, but also there are these more dramatic things going on in the world. Balancing that feeling of gratitude with that sense of impending doom. It’s unrelentingly bleak.

Mortality seems to be a strong theme that you’re confronting on The Hum. Would you say that's fair? With songs like ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Closing Time’, we’re staring into the void, aren’t we?

JEF: Yeah, mortality was definitely very much on my mind while making the record. Staring into the void is a good way of putting it, or more specifically trying to find ways to make friends with the void. The invincibility of youth has definitely faded for a number of reasons. Jas’s illness, obviously, but also having a young child makes you project into the future as well.

Domesticity also plays its part, but I was wondering, is there any hope to be found on the record?

JEF: I suppose it is fairly bleak in the lyrical sense, but I think the hope is in the mood of it and the feel of it. I'd like to think so, but yeah, there isn't any explicit hope [laughs]. But yeah, I think domesticity is a huge part of this for me. And I know it's not a very fancy home studio but it is a home studio. It is very much a cottage industry. I've made it all myself in between hanging out with my wife and Frank. And he did the cover art, doing little art experiments with a blow pen, which Trevor Jackson took and inverted the colours on. I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Wyatt records where it sounds like he’s in the kitchen doing something.

When you’re young there’s this pull towards angry John Lennon but then Paul McCartney becomes a lot more relatable as you grow older, wouldn’t you agree?

JEF: Those McCartney records where he's blatantly on his own, stoned out of his mind, and it's sort of like a one-man band affair… I just find them interesting. And they're very human. I'm kind of obsessed with that more and more. It's so easy to allow the tools to intervene on every part of the recording process. I think it's often to the detriment of everything when the editing basically irons out all of the humanness. The records I always love are the wonky human ones where you can literally hear the person in the room doing the thing. That's kind of what I aspire to.

And lastly, why did you go with the name The Hum in the end?

JEF: The Hum is a term for an unexplained noise. Often a low rumble that not everyone can hear. I went on holiday to the British coast near Whitstable and we kept hearing these crazy low rumbles like underground explosions miles away, but never could find out what it was. Reading into it, there are lots of hums all over the world. Some are quite famous like the Taos Hum. They can be caused by geological phenomena or heavy industry or odd things like wind creating resonance in a cooling tower. Tinnitus is also an explanation – which is a mind game in itself. These noises can drive people mad but there’s also the idea that a low, inaudible rumble can provoke a religious experience. There are some pipes on massive church organs that are subsonic. You can’t hear them but they give you goosebumps.

The Hum is out on 12 May via Warp