Industry Focus [INTERVIEW] with ... Gavin Monaghan

Gavin with Thomas Haywood  - Photo Credit: Sam Crowston/Nasty Man Creations

"The most important thing is to keep listening to new music all the time and to keep trying to push boundaries. It is still exciting for me, even after doing it for a long time, it feels new and there is just nothing like the feeling of getting a fantastic bunch of people in a room. Artists who have got these brilliant songs, a good attitude, great live performances. To be able to turn that into a record is the most rewarding part of the job, there is also the whole process of finding someone to work with or they find you and at the end of it you have got this album everybody can listen to that is still a magical process for me."  

The control room at Magic Garden Recording Studio where Gavin Monaghan works has an almost cave-like feel to it. Two comfy sofas are placed at the back, next to the window. Guitars jack leads and cables are visible on one side of the room and although they only take up a small section of the space, they somehow appear to take up more. The orange coloured wall stands out as a contrast to the studio environment with the hard surface of the mixing desk being the physical element in the room. A miniature Buddha takes a central position on the window sill.

 This place is called Magic Garden for a reason. Extraordinary records continue to be made here and the level of creativity that goes into it really is something else. A fascination with and a need for contrast and balance might hold the key to understanding what Magic Garden in Wolverhampton is about. But whether that holds the key to  getting to know the studio's owner and founder, producer legend and mixer extraordinaire Gavin Monaghan, who works there with engineer, producer and mixer Joseph Murray, remains a question to be answered.

With thirty years of experience gained in recording studios, counting some of the most iconic recording destinations including BBC Maida Vale, Abbey Road, Olympic Studios, Rockfield, Real World, Air, Townhouse and Manor Studios, a change was always on cards.

 A remarkable CV richer comprising collaborations with some big names in music and some platinum and gold disks, Gavin decided to set up his own studio based on his values and ideas. Magic Garden really does have a unique vibe.

"The artists like this place because it is not an Ikea studio, the whole place is the completely opposite of that. I try to build a place of work but it is also an inspiring place."

Visual art and illustrations take up space on the walls in the control room and studio. Small instruments are placed randomly across the two rooms. Or maybe the positioning is not be all that random, but it certainly gives that impression. The idea behind it is to encourage musicians to play about and test their ideas, Gavin wants them to feel like they can try things out and make it part of  the recording work.

"I leave loads of instruments around for people to play with, loads of weird funky instruments. For example I will hear somebody in there just play on a xylophone and that person will maybe say 'oh that would be really great on a track', it is good to leave stuff around on purpose so the artists can write interesting parts for their songs."

"I want this to be a place where people can have fun, enjoy themselves and come out with something that they are proud of, something that represents them. Whenever I work with a band, I probably join the band for the time they are in the studio, I get on their side and to an extent I become part of their thought process and I really want them to be successful."

"There is quite a few instances where artists I have worked and spent a lot of time with have gone on and to do very well and achieved great things. When that happens it is not only a validation of my own belief in them it also means that other people recognise that they have got it and that is highly rewarding. My whole work ethic is growth, build things, help people to establish their lives in music and get them to the point where someone is interested in giving the band or artist a recording contract. That is the point of it if you like."

The Blinders, No Hot Ashes and The Cosmics are only some of the current bands Gavin has been collaborating with but other recent examples are The Sherlocks, The Twang, The Editors, Ocean Colour Scene, Robert Plant and Scott Matthews. The Blinders are just about to release their debut album Columbia - due for release on Friday 21st September through ModernSky UK.

"I am more than happy to play you a couple of tracks if you want to have a listen, play you some songs you might not have heard yet.", says Gavin.

To have The Blinders' producer offering the opportunity to listen to songs from Columbia, ahead of the release date, in the studio where they were made, is an irresistible and once in a lifetime opportunity.

 The three songs Hate Song, Where No Man Comes and Orbit sound even better than it would have been possible to imagine. The raw sound coming from the speakers is such a close match to the live sound that recent memories of the band's incredible shows are triggered immediately. The intense sound coming from the three individuals just beggars belief, the sound they make when they play together live is definitely recreated and matched on this studio recording. It is a remarkable achievement.

"I think a lot of people won't be expecting how far we have pushed things, they are probably expecting some of what they have seen live. In a really good way the three singles that have come out so far have indicated that we wanted to capture as much of what they do live as possible. But there is a lot more depth to the rest of the record and people probably won't be expecting quite how far we have stretched things. I am very excited about the album coming out."

Video Credit: Sam Crowston/Nasty Man Creations

"The Blinders are a perfect example of a band who only consists of three people but when they get together something just happens and I love to see that, it is just magical. They are polite, intelligent and funny when you speak to them but when they are on stage it is like a shift in consciousness happens and they become a band."

Gavin remembers the moment when he received the career changing phone call from his friend Tim Abbott, formerly of Creation Records.

“I started working with The Blinders about two and a half years ago, says Gavin, but I have known Tim for years, he is a good friend. I know if Tim rings me about something it is going to be something pretty special. After listening to The Blinders I just knew how great they were. When people ask me to listen to some new music I don’t always know the effects it is going to have but that was definitely one of those times where I felt that way about a band.”   

Tim was right to react and take the action to ring his friend, “It just makes sense when you see the whole package, says Gavin, when you start talking to people, you realise they have a real chemistry as people. They can play their instruments together in a way that is far more powerful than anything that is separate. When the whole makes up something more powerful than the component parts that is always what I look for. If I don’t watch a band live then I like to see action all over the stage, not just a great front person but something special going on everywhere."

No matter how diverse the range of artists may seem, there is a number of features Gavin looks for in an act before he will decide to work with them. He likes to see really good lyrics. They have to be able to play well together and transfer that to when they play live.The fascination with the power of good lyrics, the idea of having a message and something to say is a requirement. 

"There is some great music around at the moment. I think it is a good time in a way, dark time politics usually does bring out a great time for people in music who have got more to say because there is more to work with I guess."

Into lyrics in a big way, The Blinders are probably as close to being the ambassador for the type of band Gavin really takes to and the same counts for No Hot Ashes from Stockport are similar to The Blinders in the sense that they also put a lot into their lyrics and have messages they want to get across. Most of them are also of a political nature but sonically they draw on a different range of influences. 

"Not Hot Ashes are such a great band. They are so much fun and such lovely people. They are an example of a band who you might think sound like a straight funk band and that is all there is to them but that is only one level, just one part of them. When you are dancing to their music that is when you realise that they are talking about social injustice and contemporary issues in such a great eloquent way and I just think that makes the whole thing entirely different." 

Some of Gavin's influences include Tony Visconti,Andrew Scheps, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and Nick Cave but as a producer he chooses to describe his sound as the 'bands' sound'. "I have always wanted the bands I work with to sound like themselves and that again is the most exciting thing, to make them realise how great they can be."

Despite acknowledging the importance of attention to detail, Gavin knows that getting caught up in a lot of detail is not a recipe for making the best record. Using what is considered to be the most effective way to record a snare drum is hardly what people who listen to the finished record are going to be pay attention to. Far greater importance will be attached to elements such as the lyrics, melody and rhythm.

"Sometimes you end up spending most of the time on unimportant things and very little on the really important stuff and that is kind of a ratio that I always try and correct because a little tiny thing is great but as long as it does not distract you from the big holes in other areas that should be filled with something more important. It is something to keep an eye on this. The big picture is the important one really that is all anybody is ever going to see. I am fanatical about detail but the big picture is what is important to keep your eye on at all times."

Photo Credit: Sam Crowston/Nasty Man Creations

The studio equipment at Magic Garden is an interesting mix of the latest technology coupled with vintage. "I have a lot of vintage gear but I also love new equipment and computers, says Gavin, I like the idea of combining old and new equipment and make something sound really interesting. I can be in here every day if or when I want to so it really helps if the gear is all functioning. Combining the two is what I enjoy doing and hopefully this means that I create something that sounds different."

Few sectors of the music industries have undergone as many conflicting changes as the recording industry. But Gavin has demonstrated real adaptability and an understanding of how the requirements and core skill sets keep changing over time and he knows what to do to stay fresh, relevant and ahead of the game. To be current, to have his finger on the pulse and to know what is happening in music is absolutely crucial. It does seem as if the producer knows more about new bands than the same bands know about the scene they are part of.

"I have always tried to stay current. I think that the most important thing is to keep listening to new music all the time and keep trying to push boundaries. It is still exciting for me, even after doing this for a long time, it feels new and there is just nothing like the feeling of getting a fantastic bunch of people in a room. Artists who have got these brilliant songs, a good attitude, great live performances. To turn that into a record is the most rewarding part of the job, the whole process of finding someone to work with or they find you and at the end of it you have got this album everybody can listen to that is still a magical process for me."

There is clearly some idealism and belief in the possibility of being able to change things for the better through excellent work. For all the experience, skill and expertise Gavin has built and the incredible reputation, he only cares about the fundamentals and he has a motivation for continuing to work in his field; he loves helping artists, see them develop and grow, become established and successful.

Video Credit: Sam Crowston/Nasty Man Creations 

"I am fortunate in the sense that when I started out I got to work on a lot records. It was in an era when people used to buy physical copies so I ended up working on records that went platinum and gold and that has been really great for my CV. It does not make you any better than anybody else but it does look good on paper and it really helps when people are looking for someone to work with. Most artists want somebody with experience, somebody who has great ideas, someone who is able to bring something interesting that they might not have thought of. Or someone who can  look at their songs in a way that they might be too close to look at and bring something new to it that way."

"Hopefully that is my function if you like. I do not have a sound like some producers do, I have never wanted that. All I ever wanted was for the bands to sound like themselves and that again is the most exciting thing, to make them realise how great they can be and find the ideas that may have been at the back of their mind but then try to delve in there and bring everything out." 

The style of music made by the talented solo artist Scott Matthews from Wolverhampton is entirely different to The Blinders and No Hot Ashes but Gavin really enjoyed working with the singer songwriter. 

"I remember the first time I met Scott. He is a very funny guy, quiet and unassuming and when he sings the voice that comes out is just amazing. It sounds so effortless, it does not seem like it is coming from a human being, it is almost like something angelic."

"I loved working on his album. We had kind of known each other for a while and he wanted to make a record that was a bit different to something he had done before so when we worked together he thought I might be the person to help him achieve that. We had a great time and we made a very interesting sounding album and we even had Robert Plant guesting on it. It was just a brilliant experience."  

It is obvious that Gavin still has a lot of passion for the field he works in. But he does not pretend that the term sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll really is all it is made out to be, especially for new and emerging bands. There is a side to it which is anything but glamorous and the producer knows this all too well and has seen enough to be able to talk with some certainty about it. 

"It is easy to think it is all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but it is not. It is a lot of hard work and all the successful people are all hard workers. It has to be the most important thing in your life to actually get you anywhere and then a lot of people can't really handle that. There are so many sacrifices you need to make to get to it, you never see the people you care about, you are always touring, always in the studio or doing face time in a field somewhere."

"There is the whole self-promoting thing and there are so many levels that you have to be at. I think people don't realise the level of self-deprivation you have to go through to be in a band. It is not like you just do nine to five where you can forget about it for the rest of the day. You are always in that band, you are always working and you never switch off because there are no hours. People who think it is glamorous should watch bands packing up at three am or try and get paid by a promoter that just disappears or turn up at a venue with five people but you have been promised more than two hundred. All of that should be reason enough to make sure you really know' how to be in a band."

Gavin is as ambitious as he has was when he first started out in bands which led to studio recording work. Being the best that you can when you work with an artist and inspire the artist to work hard as well. 

"I am still exactly the same, I always want to make the best record of my entire career every time someone walks in. I want to do my best and make sure that the people I work with are doing their best. Not that I go out of my way to try and make things difficult but I always try be the best that I can be. I think that is incredibly important for everybody but particularly in music because it is an area where you are putting your soul and beliefs, lyrics and everything into, it is something very personal." 

Photo Credit: Alistair Jamieson