Exclusive interview with Neil McLellan (March 2021); Part 2
On June 9, 2021, we posted the first part of this conversation — it was fully dedicated to The Prodigy. Neil Mclellan, being a well-known English record producer, composer, and mix engineer, talked about meeting Liam, about the recording of Jilted Generation, Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned and The Day Is My Enemy, about the rejected Matrix soundtrack, and about the legendary No Souvenirs. He also shared a bunch of exclusive important behind-the-scenes details.
Now it’s finally the time to post the second and the last part of this interview!
In the second and last part of the interview, Neil talked about what he is doing now, shared his view of the modern music industry, discussed the benefits of digital and analog sound, reflected on his own solo work, and revealed a few further plans for The Prodigy and Liam Howlett!
We express our deep gratitude to Anton Armtone (questions), Sergey Burdey (transcript), Canyon Hill (translation), Dima Wuks (transcript, editing), and of course to Dima Gordi, without whom all this would never have happened.
Russian translation can be found here.
Can you tell, what are you doing now? On what music or music styles are you working on at this moment? And maybe you can recommend any bands or projects you like.
Right now, to be honest with you, I’m doing a fair bit of music, but I just had a kid, so… It’s not like it’s on the back burner, but I’m just not there every day and anyone who’s had a kid will get this. I really didn’t get it until I had a kid, but once you have a kid I just needed to focus on that.
But right now I’m getting called in to do a lot of things like, uh… People spend a lot of money on something, they can’t get it right.
I’m like the guy «if you have an oil fire, nothing’s putting it out, we call him». So that’s kind of what I’m doing right now.
Let’s say they’ve had three people mixed the record. Can’t get it right. OK, I’ll take it. But then I have to have carte blanche to be able to change that sound, do that and do that. I tend to rebuild multitracks like I’ll rebuild your song for you. I’m really like doing that, you know, rearranging it: take that out, fuck that verse off, do this… What are you doing? Putting that bit at the end of the song when it should be in the first 20 seconds, you know, basic arrangement things that people can’t see if they’re inside it. When I look at a problem like that and I enjoy it, I’m like «Wait! Your best bit in the song is there, so put that here, move that». I do a lot of fixing for people now.
I’m working on an album for a band called Circle Machine at the moment. And I’m really enjoying this. We’ve got Matt Robertson, who’s Bjork’s string arranger, and he’s just amazing, — he’s on board, he’s doing all of the songs with me. And I’ve got Emre Ramazanoglu, he’s a phenomenal drummer (he is Noel Gallagher’s drummer), I brought him on board as well. I’ve got this crazy Venezuelan dude who learned to play guitar on YouTube, there’s nothing about his guitar playing is normal! And he’s got a fucking afro out here, — yeah, he’s amazing. He’s incredible. And right now I’m sort of six months into this album, and I think it’s going to be really different and very interesting. It’s a bit like if I took a combination of Talk Talk, Talking Heads and a few other crazy bits and pieces, put them together and then put them in 2021. What music would they make?
It’s not signing to a label, we don’t have any restrictions, we don’t have any pressure. We’re literally just going «come on, what makes music amazing?». So I’m on this, that Circle Machine stuff is really, really nice, I’m enjoying that a lot.
Musically, what’s getting me going right now? I’m afraid to say I don’t think there’s a great deal of music that’s certainly in the charts.
Um, I know, I sound like an old guy and I am an old guy, but… To a young person that would sound fresh, but to an older person who’s actually analyzed music for 25 years, I’m like «okay, but there’s a hell of a lot more copying now than it used to be, when you’d make something because it was your own and you’d stand up for it!»
Now It’s like «that really works for somebody else, so let’s try and borrow things from it and put it into our music without getting sued» — and there’s a huge element of that in the music now, and that’s slightly depressing. Even if you look at Mark Ronson, a stupidly talented geezer, but it sounds like a pastiche of everything that was really cool in the funk era. Well, nothing wrong with that, and he is one of the few people that can stand up on his own doing that thing. But I don’t find anything that original anymore! I’m begging people: if you’re making music out there, please be original, fuck what everybody else is doing, stop trying to… you know, everyone’s trying to listen to everything else and go like «well, that’s that!». But it’s not that you’re being original, so…
Do you think that the problem is not because of the musician only? The listeners don’t need original music now. They want just to listen to a radio, where every fucking tune is the same. So maybe it’s because of them?
Sure, absolutely, that’s the point. So the nature of where music is and what it is… Music is battling against, you know, games online, music is battling now against a plethora of an unbelievable level of video and film content. So there’s this huge thing that where is music in this? The other thing that if you went through a lot of the younger raves, like the Ultra Music Festival raves and things like that… Look, if you go and see a DJ like Carl Cox (he is still one of the best DJs on the planet), if you want to get a music education, just go and listen to him. You start at the set and you fucking ping yourself for two hours listening to it! You go fucking crazy! When you hear «Go and get a drink from the bar», you’re like «No, I’m alright. I’m just going!»
And then you go and look at the sort of more commercial things like the Ultra’s of this world. And again, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just an observation. The thing I realize is, you know, like I was asking myself, why do all these songs have these huge bills, and then they go into the drop, everything’s about the fucking drop, right. But, you know, how many drops can you fit in a song? I was going like «why are there so many drops?»… And then I would go to these Ultra’s and I’d look at the people: the people are not there on their own anymore or with a group! They’re there with their phone. So the condensed version has to be: I’m going to be able to jump into the crowd for three minutes, get into it, my phone will go, or, I’m going to break my concentration and film what I’m doing. Once you’re doing that, you’re not listening to the music. And so the highs and lows have to just happen a lot more. The concentration on the music is not as it used to be.
Therefore, it stands to reason that music then takes some kind of a low priority. Now, having said that, if I took away all the music in the world, everyone would be pissed!
Also as a profession now, it’s incredibly difficult, because people believe that music should be free. I don’t know anybody that works for free, but as musicians and audio engineers we have a really hard time with that, so you’re not going to get something necessarily
If somebody’s young and starting a career, unless they’re completely fucking crazy, they don’t go into music, because it is 90 percent likely to be endless poverty and constant striving. Even more so than it was before, because you just don’t get the royalties. I mean, I can get a million plays on Spotify and get nothing for it. So there is a point where the quality of people making the music is no longer there, right? That’s a definite thing.
Look, the number of guitarists that you can find that can actually come and play on a record is really small. The number of people that actually do this as a profession is actually shrinking in terms of the real pros. The number of people making music from their bedroom is insane, but when I get sent demos, I hear that everything’s exactly the same! Like, I’m not just saying that! I literally can get 10 demos, and I will tell you where those sound libraries have come from. That happens because that’s the amount of time that they’ve decided that they need to spend on it.
Now, the other thing that’s really critical with this is, is that the people that really want to make music don’t give a fuck about being famous.
Yeah, that’s the main point!
And then you get people that want the fame and the music is a vehicle to be famous. This camp, the famous camp, is really, really intense and heavy. And for the people that really want to make the music and don’t want the fame, this is just a by-product with which they have to deal with, — because the only music’s really important for them.
Our society now is like paper-thin in terms of the content. As long as that person can be up there in number one in whatever Spotify, in every Twitter, Twitch, whatever the fuck it is, as long as they’re there, they’re famous.
The only thing I say to that is: «Oh God, being famous?!» — it is got to be the hardest, fucking most least rewarding thing at the end of the day, like it costs a lot of money to be famous unless you’re in the top two percent, you’re paying for all that shit, so you never can make any money from that. And then when you look back on it in like five, six years later and you were famous five years ago, you can say: «Wow, I really spent one hundred thousand on my security for three months. Why?..»
So I think the price of fame has really affected the quality of music. It’s just the music’s a calling card to make you famous. You know, like I saw someone on this Jimmy Kimmel show the other day, and I saw a person who is famous for doing a tik-tok dance. She has 67 million followers, for doing a tik-tok dance, I can’t remember her name… Uh, God bless her. She’s 18 or 19 years old. Look, fucking good luck to you, but don’t please tell me you’re going to release a single like now you’re suddenly an artist. And then she’s going to be an artist for six seconds, and then she’s going to go and do something in film for six seconds… Everything is six seconds long now. So I think once we’re in that era in society, I don’t know if it will change. But the music cycle is shorter and shorter, and the quality of music is not the same as it used to be, and then people aren’t listening to music in the same way.
- Most likely, Neil was talking about Addison Rae, in March she was a guest of Jimmy Kimmel — and yes, a week before the broadcast, she did release her single! (editor’s note)
By the way, how many houses do you go into where there’s actually a pair of speakers set up and not just the USB player somewhere? Everyone’s on headphones, so you’re not going to share that with your mates. You’re not going to sit down in the room and go «fuck!» — and everyone’s look at each other with a look of pain because there’s fuck a bit of the tune comes on (unless you are in a club, and that’s a rare thing as well). So the inclusion of people also, you know, it’s a very personal thing now, it’s in your headphones, it’s not this thing that you can share with your friends. And you might do that, but everyone’s listening to their own headphones, so it’s a totally different feeling.
So the next one is about your old website, neilmclellan.rocks — why is it not available now?
I just stopped it. It’s only me doing it. And I just thought I either got to get a whole bunch of people to do it or… not! But that’s what you’re gonna help me with because I’m really just not good at that stuff, you know. And I answer that honestly.
But what was the idea when you ran it?
I just thought about having a website. There was no real idea with it, it was just like, fuck, I better get a website so people can find me! I’m so into being under the radar, you know, below the radar, that I’ve sort of been below the radar too much. And that was part of it. But I realized that I just didn’t know what I was doing. I literally built it in like 20 minutes, and then I went, no, that’s all wrong, just take it down. So I will start once again with your help, but it’s just not my area man. When you’re in the studio all the time doing 18 hour days, the last thing you want to do is sit down and try and work out how you look. You know, I’m just not good at that, I’m not good at self-reflecting, so that’s why I stopped it. No nothing else other than I’m just not very good at it, you know.
But we will fix it!
Thank you. I appreciate that!
By the way, the next question is really interesting. I think you may remember the story of Richard Russell from XL Recordings, who’s being a boss of the label from the ’80s, — he decided to make his own album Everything Is Recorded just in 2017. Did you ever think about something like this? I mean, to release a solo album as an artist under your name? You had a great experience in production. You’ve been producing so many worldwide known artists. You’ve done dozens of remixes, but you still don’t have your own tracks. Why?
Good question. You know, it’s a glass of water, but it’s not endless, okay? And when you worked so hard on other people’s things, it’s very, very hard to find the energy to do your own stuff… I’ll give you the analogy. Most electrician’s houses you go to, the electrics are fucked, but they do a really good job to the person that they’re paid for, right? So I really want to do it, but after you finish projects, you just need to go chill, you know, got to refill the glass of water. And you either stop doing that and do this, right? It’s very hard to do both things. Especially when it’s just me.
if I had an army of assistants and all these people around, surely I’d be able to do that. But I don’t have that, you know. And maybe that’s what I should have done. But, it’s never too late! I might do something, I might just put out something for fun. I’ve got so many ideas that are insane. Most of them’re quite militant, quite edgy, quite a «fuck you» in that — but it’s more like an expression rather than I really mean it, you know. But you can’t, you can’t do… You just can’t. You can’t put so much energy into mixing and production and then sit there and do that yourself. I would need a producer, I would need somebody to drive me in the same way I drive my artists. And no one’s offered to do that. So I’ve never done it.
But one day, maybe…
Maybe one day, I’ve just got to get those ideas out! Whether it ends up just being a splurge on the Internet or something, I don’t know, but I’ve got literally 20 years of ideas sitting there. A lot of the times I use them in things, like I have a little, you know, three-minute thing, and think «oh fuck, I did that thing, where is it?», then I find it and put it into a remix.
So certain things, a lot of that data and those ideas end up somewhere else anyway. But just doing it as an artist myself, I would need to put a different hat on. And often I just need to rest after, you know. You’re giving a lot of yourself when you’re doing this stuff, and then give the same amount of justice and energy into yourself means you have to really decide to do that. And I just never felt right about that.
I love collaborating with people, that’s really nice! But most of the time I’m on my own because making decisions about certain things and production and mixing, I need to be on my own. Because I just work better like that, you know, I can make my decision, I stand by it, I put my flag in the ground, I go like «I made that decision». I don’t have five people in the room mumbling. But of course, when you’re producing a record, you have got that.
And then there’s a whole another aspect of production, which is working things in such a way that you get to where you want to go, but you’re also keeping everybody happy.
But at any moment in time in production, please, do not make the message weaker to keep the people in the room happy. That’s a really big rule to everybody out there as a producer: do not ever water down the subject just because you need to keep people in the room happy. Don’t do it. Keep it clear. Understand what the message is and keep it as concentrated as you can, you know.
The next question. Digital sound against analog sound. What is the main difference between your work in the 90s and nowadays? How do you combine digital and analog in your work?
Okay, awesome question. First of all: there’s a romantic idea now that somehow tape was better. It’s better for some things, but generally, for electronic music it ain’t (in my opinion). Sometimes things need to have a certain… people call it warmth. But if I pull up a multitrack right now, a reel tape multitrack, and push go on it, everyone’s gonna go «fuuuck…». The amount of work you have to do to analog is insane. Also, people forget: rewinding tape. If a tape is traveling at 30 inches per second, the reel is 14 minutes long, and when you have one three-minute song it’s going to take you ages to go back! Ages compared to instant.
The times when I have worked with people that’ve only worked with digital, they got really excited because they’re recording on to it. But what actually really happens on these sessions is about halfway through they will get fucking bored and frustrated. They go like «Oh my God, we better not say stop and rewind because that takes two minutes!». So there’s a romanticism that’s attached to the tape.
There’s also a technical thing that you have to understand. For example, I wanna fit an 808 kick drum to go boooooooom, but I want to record it onto tape beautifully and not affect any of the other tracks, either side of it. So there’s a whole another technical aspect that when people record digitally now, they don’t think about it! You really have to fucking do your homework when you’re recording with analog stuff. It had massive limitations. It also is much more expensive because you have to do a lot to it to mix it and make it sound amazing. With the digital stuff, you don’t have to do a lot to it, and that sound will always be that sound.
Now you’re getting to a point where you’re talking about «Okay, I can have a shitty digital converter that costs 200 dollars, it will definitely not sound as good as my studio converter that costs 8000 dollars». There is a huge difference there. Obviously, once you were on 2-inch tape, all the tape machines were pretty much the same, you were at that standard, at that level. If you were at home, you recorded onto an analog tape or onto the DAT or an eight-track thing. And that was all digital. So that became the same. So, just because it’s digital, make sure you have really lovely converters on everything now. With digital, you can make everything sound really hard, really raw.
- In this article, Neil explains how did he get The Day Is My Enemy sound with Universal Audio instruments & plugins (editor’s note)
And the other main difference is that people use plugins now, right? So they emulate a compressor from the 80s / 70s / 60s / whatever, — like UREI 1176, a classic compressor. But what they don’t realize when they’re recording digitally is that they record this fucking digital level so high! This machine is an emulation, so an emulation means it was expecting a tape-level input, not a digital input. Tape-level is really low, and the digital is extremely high. And these people don’t understand that, man, just read about this, it’s really critical. If you want your digital stuff to have a really nice feel and breathe, don’t bring everything so loud. Just drop the levels of things. So when you’re hitting these emulation plugins, you’ve got to emulate them as if they were tape, right? If you emulate them at the highest level possible, this thing just goes whack and it just doesn’t do what it says on the tape. It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. So my advice to all of the fans out there who make music, please: It doesn’t matter if you bring a digital level quieter, cause there’s no hiss, there’s no artifact that we used to worry about with analog. Just remember that the plugin that you’re going into, if it’s an emulation of something classic, it probably works really well if you just don’t feed so much gain into it.
So a lot of people, a lot of the youngsters that write to me and ask to have a look at their stuff — I check out their sound and say «Okay, those your high levels and you’re feeding that directly into a classic compressor and you’re wondering why when you just turned one knob it’s gone whack». With the digital game, you don’t have to bring loud on everything. Think ahead of what you are going to do to that thing. You can always turn something up later but just get the levels right.
- In this article, Neil explains how did he get Music For The Jilted Generation sound with a bunch of analog stuff (editor’s note)
I always tell people: when you’re recording keep your faders all at zero point and get your tape levels right. Your hi-hat doesn’t have to be really loud, it just needs to be this quiet because that fits in with the mix. And because we’re all digital, there are no artifacts, no hiss, so do it like that. Then the next person who gets your mix, when you hand it over or you hand your tape to someone to mix it, they put the faders at zero and there’s your song. It’s a really thoughtful, helpful thing to do for other people.
I love analog, I just love it, but there are some great emulations now out there. Arturia does amazing ones, Softube does amazing modular emulations… But spend the time in it. Instead of treating something with a mouse, spend the time setting up your controller to really get every button going, and that’ll give you some feeling of what the analog does. But of course, there’s really nothing that can ever be the same as actually doing it on a real synth. It’s just how that is.
Cool! Thanks for this incredibly detailed answer!
So all the fans are waiting for The Prodigy to come back with the new stuff, with the new album or maybe some singles, and go back to the road for the concerts and gigs. Could you say something for the fans about this?
Well, I’m not in a position to say anything. I know roughly what’s happening. I know Liam’s working really hard in the studio, which is great. He’s got a great energy, you know, after everything that’s happened… It’s just been really lovely to talk to him and let me know that he’s in the studio, he’s making beats, he’s doing it right, and he sounds really confident and really good.
So I know a lot more than I’m saying, but whatever that means, he’s really on top form in terms of breaking through again and, you know, putting his best foot forward, I will say that. Just hearing the way he’s talking about this stuff, I feel really confident that there’s something really good around the corner. However long that corner is!
But most of The Prodigy fans will be used to waiting. So, you know, that’s okay. I think there are really good things ahead.
And anyway, they’re really good at waiting! The Prodigy fans are the best ones at waiting!
They are really patient and, you know, all credit to them. I think it’s worth the wait!
So… Thank you for all your answers, it was really interesting! And hope to see you one time on the road with the band!
I would love that! So thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate that! And thank you to all the fans out there, it’s just fucking brilliant. And I will say one more thing! My wife’s Russian, which is awesome. And I would love to get over to Russia more, now that half of my family is Russian. So that would be awesome. Thank you guys!