Super-producer Paul Epworth on Adele's hygiene, Bono’s calls with Obama, and Oasis’s bad behaviour
To reach the point where he could make his fantastic first album as an artist, deep space psychedelic soul odyssey Voyager, producer Paul Epworth first had to make some more quotidian journeys. Some with Adele, with whom he’s had a hugely successful, Oscar-winning partnership. And some with Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, Coldplay and Paul McCartney, just a handful of the 60-odd artists with whom he’s made records.
But many more of them, it seems, with Bono. “U2 have a very considered process,” begins this multiple Brit- and Grammy-winning 46-year-old from Bishop’s Stortford, carefully, as he discusses working on the band’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence.
“There’s a lot of exploring every possible avenue. And that’s something I realised I had to undertake. I imagine if you’re that many albums in [to your career], and especially when you’re elder statesmen of the rock game, you’re trying to find your angle.
“They’d obviously done most of the record with Dangermouse,” he recalls, mentioning the equally iconoclastic American producer, “and I think they’d just run out of stream. But they had all these ideas – they just needed someone to come in and have the confidence to say: give it some snarl.”
His broader brief, though, was to give the Irish band' 13th album some focus. Or, as he puts it, to “corral the cattle. It wasn’t to find the key, it was to literally f______ build a fence round it and gradually make it smaller!” he laughs. “And do that until a record pops out the other side.”
Epworth, though, couldn’t stay the course due to the birth of his second child with wife Danielle. “The record went right up to the week my son was born,” he says of Eli, now four, younger brother to Vivienne, nine, “so there’s a deadline there that couldn’t be moved.”
For all that it sounds like a lengthy, challenging process, Epworth was honoured to work with a band who were a huge part of his musical life. Was Bono willing to be produced? “Yeah, he was. I pushed him as well – to the point where he was like, ‘get the f___ off my back! That’s far enough,’” Epworth relates with a smile. “I was doing this all the time,” he says, miming a jabbing finger. “But then again, they were doing that to the songs all the time.
“It was a really interesting process, watching people in the studio working who clearly have a deep desire to prove to themselves they can do it every single time. So they had this idea for two records,” he says of 2017 companion album Songs of Experience. “And it feels like they do a bit of crowd-sourcing with their music – they’re very open to opinions. To the point where Bono invited in a bunch of fans who were stood outside the studio to come listen to the stuff.
“They were all sitting in here with their heads in their hands, incredulous that they were listening to unreleased U2 music – and Bono’s asking their opinions on it.”
And on it went. “Bono called me up a few weeks later and said: ‘So, I’ve just been thinking about the tracks. I was playing it to Barack the other day.’ And I was like: ‘Who?’ I just had to make him say it twice! ‘Barack Obama.’ And I said: ‘Oh, really? That’s what I love about you, and that’s why you’re never gonna finish this f_____g record!’ And Bono goes: ‘But I played it to the cleaning lady, too!’ I was like: ‘That’s the problem! Too many opinions!’”
I’m talking to Epworth – lean, coiffed, stylish and tanned from a quick family holiday to Sardinia – in a control room at The Church in Crouch End, north London. It’s the fabled studio formerly owned by ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart and then singer-songwriter David Gray, from whom Epworth bought it in 2014. The last time we talked, in early 2013, we were in his much smaller previous north London studio, Beethoven Street, set up by Seal in the Eighties and location of the recording of his track with Adamski, Killer.
At the time Epworth was working on the debut album for Haim, while Canadian future-superstar The Weeknd was waiting outside the door for me to leave. The producer had just returned from Los Angeles, where he and Adele had won the Best Original Song Oscar for their James Bond theme Skyfall. Two years later her album 25, to which he also contributed, won the Grammy for Album of the Year. But he and the singer’s relationship stretched back to her equally blockbuster 2011 album 21, for which Epworth won four Grammys.
He told me about meeting her for the first time. “As I was going out the door, the wife went, ‘you haven’t even brushed your teeth!’, and made me go back and do it. And of course, I arrived late and Adele was there – she’s super-punctual, that’s the thing I’ll say. I said: ‘Sorry I was late, the wife said to me, “you can’t go and work with a Grammy-winner without brushing your teeth.”’ And Adele said: ‘I haven’t even had a shower!’ That sorta sums her up!” he laughed.
Talking about Skyfall now, he says it remains the song of which he’s proudest. “It was such a considered piece of music, and that song means a lot to me for loads of different reasons. The feeling I wrote that music with came from an experience that is very personal, and I feel like I wasn’t able to articulate it emotionally until I made that piece of music. Then I realised what I made it about.”
No, he wouldn’t care to articulate what that experience was. “But somehow, the lyrics and the story of that Bond film were able to transform that [feeling]. And Adele knew – she was party to what I went through, and she was probably the most supportive of all during it. She was the first person who texted me: ‘Only when it’s dark can you really see the stars,’” he says, pushing back a tear. “And that brings us nicely back to this Voyager continuum,” he smiles, happier to be on spacier ground.
Seven-and-a-half years ago, Epworth told me he was “70 per cent” through the first album he’d be releasing under his own name. As if it’s been on its own mission to a galaxy far, far away, Voyager is only coming out today, the prog hip hop of opening track Mars & Venus setting the agenda. What kept him?
“It didn’t have any theme, any context, the songs weren’t about anything,” he replies. So he junked the whole lot and started again. “My tastes are so diverse, I love good music of all types, and I just felt I was making a record that was what people would expect based on the stuff I was working on at the time.”
Does he mean the likes of Florence’s Shake It Out and Adele’s Rolling In The Deep? “Yeah. Maybe more in that epic pop thing, and trying to make it a bit more commercial. I was caught up in the psychology of that. I guess I hadn’t really thought through what it was to be an artist, and what that identity was. So, I knew it wasn’t good enough.”
Still, the easiest thing in the world would have been to ask those artists, and other past collaborators like Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, Plan B, Cee Lo Green and Bruno Mars, to jump on a track each. That would have been some all-star album.
“Yeah, it would, but I would have felt like I was selling them short, and selling myself short by doing that.” Also, he admits, “I don’t know if I’ve got that relationship with any of the artists I’ve worked with. But even if I was invested in this idea of the superstar producer – and I’m not in the slightest – because my love is the creative process, I [still] don’t think I’d ever have the guts to call someone up and ask.”
So he started to think about what records he was liking: “the new jazz stuff and what was coming out of LA – Brainfeeder [record label, founded by Flying Lotus], Thundercat. Then, all the records those went back to. And I’ve had a big Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock phase, and a boom bap phase,” he says of the Eighties American East Coast hip hop production style, “and a techno phase. So what’s the common theme here? If you draw a line through Wu-Tang Clan through Carl Craig through Parliament through Sun-Ra. And I grew up on my dad listening to [Pink] Floyd and Jean Michelle Jarre. So I thought: I need to make a record about space.”
Voyager is indeed a record about space, and a record with space – both for Epworth’s boundless musical imagination, and for a brace of interesting and/or largely unknown British and American vocalists and rappers, including Lianne La Havas, Kool Keith, Jay Electronica, Elle Yaya and Vince Staples.
It is, loosely, a thrilling, transporting album of rhythmic cosmic jazz, part Sun Ra, part LCD Soundsystem, part Dark Side of the Moon, with this studio whizz variously deploying “every phaser coupon and every production trick in the book”, not to mention his grasp of both a big tune and a big contact-book. Distant Planets, for example, features Kool Keith and a gospel choir plucked from the pews of Kanye West’s Sunday Service church in LA.
“If you’re gonna get gospel singers on a track, you gotta do it in the States,” he says with a smile and a shrug. Clearly there was no residual beef from an incident he told me about in 2013. Then he played me a brilliant song called Trouble, based round a Deerhoof sample, that he’d written with John Legend. But to his evident frustration, it had been nixed from Legend’s album by West, who was the overall producer.
He also played me Struggle, one of four songs he made with McCartney for his 2013 album NEW. It, too, didn’t make the final cut. “It made the bonus edition, though!” he laughs. “I loved that tune. I remember doing it with him and I thought: Paul sounds like The Fall! I loved the randomness of comparing Sir Paul McCartney to Mark E. Smith! I’m thinking: ‘What am I saying?’ But he was doing this Wolfman Jack thing with his voice, but it was like a rap.
“But that shows his ambition. I work best out of my comfort zone, and I think lots of artists do. You’re confronted by stuff you wouldn’t normally [consider]. Paul could really easily knock out a song every two hours. But sometimes, it’s exciting when you’re out of your comfort zone – and when you’re excited you reveal parts of yourself that otherwise you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing. You take risks.”
Still, he’s experienced enough, not to mention rich and successful enough, to understand that “not everything you do makes the grade”. The Kanye/Legend song has still never appeared, but that’s OK.
“In retrospect Kanye was right,” he allows – it didn’t fit on the album. “I’ve got hard drives full of stuff that will never surface. But if timing and fate and circumstance had been different, who knows?” he wonders. “That’s another space-time continuum thing,” he adds, the all-enveloping, seven-years-in-the-making thinking behind Voyager clearly ever at the forefront of his creative consciousness.
Still, I drag him backwards to what we might call his professional Big Bang, landing his first studio job as a runner, tea-maker and “very bad tape op” at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios in Hampstead, northwest London. “My abiding memory was George at 70, with a hearing aid, and [his son] Giles was working with him on his swansong record that had Robin Williams and Jim Carrey on it,” he says of 1998’s In My Life by the “fifth Beatle”, who died, aged 90, in 2016.
“And he says: ‘I want to record an orchestra and put it through that filter bank thing, like Daft Punk do.’ I remember being gobsmacked that, at the age of 70, George was culturally aware enough and technically savvy enough, to see that you could take those risks, and see what happened. And did he do it? No, he didn’t, but I marvelled at that freedom of ideas.”
While at AIR, a 22-year-old Epworth was there for the recording of Oasis’s Be Here Now, the third album that was infamously recorded when the band were high on, well, everything. “Yeah, they had fun making records,” he tells me with a meaningful smile. “I really enjoyed listening to Be Here Now really loud in the studio while they were making it – and watching Liam chase Noel round the live room at AIR with a conductor’s baton!”
Technically, there was another takeaway. “On Be Here Now, what I learnt about making records is that you can make them sound great if you compress the living daylights out of them. You can make a record sound really angry if everything’s fighting for space. It makes things exciting.
“Sometimes that’s useful, but sometimes you want dynamic.” Or, as he told me last time, with Be Here Now, “it was a case of everything as loud as loud as everything else.”
Fast forward to 2014, and his brief from Coldplay for Ghost Stories – a quiet, reflective album written and recorded in the context of Chris Martin’s split with wife Gwyneth Paltrow – was very different. Let’s call it a sonic conscious uncoupling. “They’d done most of it… But it needed direction, because of course they were trying to avoid going for any of their obvious clichés. So my main influence on that album was: the whole record needs to be electronic drums.
“And they went: ‘Oh, wow… great.’ So [drummer] Will [Champion] got his little f______ drum machine out. They were trying to make an intimate record, and as soon as you put live drums on it, it becomes very [big]. It’s that subtle thing of saying: ‘You can make things much smaller.’ And for Coldplay, doing something like that makes things feel new.”
So, who’s next? During lockdown, The Church – a beautiful, expansive all-mod-cons studio housed, yes, in a former church – has obviously been operating at reduced capacity. But there are bills to pay, and Paul Epworth is perhaps the most in-demand producer in the UK.
Not Adele – he hasn't been involved (so far) in her hotly anticipated fourth album. And not The Rolling Stones – they’re working on their first album of new material in 15 years but he’s never had the call, surprisingly.
So? Expworth exhales. “I can’t say,” he says with a gnomic grin. But he confirms it’s someone “young and British. I’m always nervous about setting myself up for a fall,” he acknowledges, ever aware that even with the best will in the world, recordings can never see the light of day – nothing of his work with Haim nor The Weeknd, the two artists he was recording with when I met him in 2013, ever saw the light of day.
“So, I’m just gonna focus on Voyager right now and see what happens. Maybe,” he smiles again, “this is the last record I ever make.”
Voyager (Sony) is out now