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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Max Pilley

Wet Leg, Fontaines DC … Kylie? The weird world of post-punk superproducer Dan Carey

Grian Chatten, frontman with Fontaines DC, with Dan Carey, right.
Grian Chatten, frontman with Fontaines DC, with Dan Carey, right. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

Dan Carey’s studio is notoriously hectic at the best of times, but today takes the biscuit. The air is thick with hangovers, the tabletops strewn with empty champagne bottles and Carey’s head has been freshly shaved bald. His new musical project Miss Tiny, a duo with Warmduscher’s Benjamin Romans-Hopcraft, played at Pratts & Payne in Streatham last night, before stumbling the short walk back to the studio with a few select friends in the early hours.

As we retrace those steps back to the venue, Carey rightly strides through this patch of south London as if he has been granted special civic freedoms, such has been his role in establishing it as a hub of alternative music culture over the last decade. In an era when it has been harder for traditional music scenes to solidify, Carey has been the lightning rod for a boom of agitated, prodigious post-punk bands that are bound together not just by time and place, but by an aesthetic that was honed to a significant extent by Carey himself, quietly, behind the production desk.

Carey, 53, runs the influential independent record label Speedy Wunderground (alongside engineer Alexis Smith and manager/A&R Pierre Hall). He has four Mercury prize nominations to his name to date, and Fontaines DC, Squid, Black Midi, Wet Leg, Goat Girl and Black Country, New Road are just some of the bands that have received the signature Carey production stamp.

“Most of my thought goes on how to capture what people are actually like,” he explains between sips of a hair of the dog Guinness at Pratts & Payne. “One thing that often strikes me is you’ll watch a band playing live and they’re absolutely mindblowing, and then you hear them on record and it’s just not the same. There are various games you can play and tricks you can use [as a producer] to make people feel comfortable or to feel under pressure.”

One such trick is that Carey will force a band to commit to recording three tracks back-to-back, and if any mistakes are made then all three will be wiped from the master tape. He believes it engenders the same tightly focused mindset that bands automatically perform with on stage. “It really sharpens everyone’s nerves,” he says. “It just creates that little bit of tension you need.”

Dan Carey with Natasha Khan (AKA Bat for Lashes) working on their side project Sexwitch in 2015 in Carey’s studio.
‘There will be no lunch break during recording and mixing days’ … Dan Carey with Natasha Khan (AKA Bat for Lashes) working on their side project Sexwitch in 2015 in Carey’s studio. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It is that very urgency that has, under Carey’s supervision, come to define the south London guitar sound. Carey himself traces the inception of his relationship with the scene as far back as his production on the 2012 debut album by Brighton psych rockers Toy. The 70s German motorik flavours on that record chimed loudly with Carey’s own taste and he decided it was a lane he wanted to follow further. His reputation quickly grew as each new band he worked with wanted to emulate the one that came before. It ultimately reached what Carey describes as a “critical mass” around 2018, by which time south London, particularly his Streatham studio and the nearby Brixton Windmill venue, had become pilgrimage sites for a certain type of arch, esoteric new artist.

The roots of Carey’s success can be traced back further, though, to an ill-fated record deal with Virgin at the turn of the millennium that culminated with How Things Work, an LP he recorded under the moniker Mr Dan. He was signed at the height of the downtempo-producer-as-artist fad that gave us Zero 7 and Moby, and while he enjoyed the lavish provisions on offer – his studio, also colloquially dubbed Mr Dan’s, was partially built with the advance on the album – it soon became clear he was too much of an outlier for it to truly work. Also, “it came out on the day that the 9/11 attacks happened,” he says. “Even I didn’t want to talk about my album.”

Limited sales meant his label felt largely the same, and he was dropped. “My cousin was crossing the road the other day and slipped over on something. She picked it up and it was a CD of Mr Dan, just in the gutter in Bath. That about sums up what Virgin thought of it.”

He nevertheless remained on the call list for songwriting sessions for pop royalty. “I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would say to them, ‘Have you heard this?’”. Carey makes a strangulated howling sound followed by a few cavernous bass booms. “They’d be like, ‘Aaargh, my ears’. So instead, I’d try something normal on a piano, and that was when sometimes they’d be interested.”

One of his more restrained and elegant suggestions was approved and before long he was sitting opposite Kylie Minogue producing the sultry, seductive pop classic Slow, a UK No 1. Carey takes pride that the finished track strictly followed the future Speedy Wunderground golden rule of only featuring four sonic elements at any one time, reflecting on the experience as “100% positive”.

His credit also sits on tracks with Sia, Lily Allen, Will Young and more, but Carey subsequently retreated from pop, producing indie mainstays such as Franz Ferdinand and Bat for Lashes, then working with young and hungry bands. He established Speedy Wunderground in 2013, beginning the label’s acclaimed Singles Series, 7-inch releases from largely unknown new artists that Carey personally selects and produces. The singles must adhere to a strict 10-point doctrine that reflects the Carey ethos, with an emphasis on quick turnarounds and a rejection of sonic clutter (“There will be no lunch break during recording and mixing days”; “The core of each song will be a live take recorded in the dark with smoke and lasers”).

Miss Tiny, AKA Benjamin Romans-Hopcraft and Dan Carey.
Miss Tiny, AKA Benjamin Romans-Hopcraft and Dan Carey. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

Carey’s recent work away from the production desk has included being part of the group Scottibrains and making the music for Kae Tempest’s brilliant run of albums, but he feels something special is happening with Miss Tiny. He and Romans-Hopcraft have been friends since he produced the latter’s band Childhood in 2012; their first EP together precedes an album expected next year. Carey describes it as “the best-sounding thing that has come out of the studio”, its taut, brittle guitars and deep, nodding rhythms full of joyous combustibility.

At a time when music communities are more easily forged online than in sweaty basements, Carey and his peers have already forged their legacy. Returning to his studio, he climbs over last night’s debris to get to his apartment upstairs, while workmen shuffle past around him. Amid the chaos, he’s having a new sound desk installed: a fresh set of tools ready to capture the next iteration of the Dan Carey universe.

• Miss Tiny’s EP DEN7 is out now on Speedy Wunderground

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