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Jolyon Thomas on producing records for U2, Royal Blood and Slaves

Jolyon Thomas on producing records for U2, Royal Blood and Slaves
Murray Stassen

Interview

30 November 2017: By Murray Stassen

December 1st sees the release of U2’s fourteenth studio album Songs Of Experience, which Thomas helped to produce alongside Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, as well as Steve Lillywhite and Andy Barlow.

"I came into this through a completely musical point of view,” says Jolyon Thomas, when I ask him how he became a producer.  

“I was a drummer originally and then I just met a lot of musicians and started working with people and got into loads of different types of music. I did a lot of things before anyone called me a producer.”

Thomas studied classical music at college, and his musical knowledge and experience of playing in bands has helped inform his hands-on approach to producing, which often sees him playing various instruments  on sessions or co-writing.

“I’m musically aware,” he says, which is clear from his co-writing credits with the likes of Slaves, and guitar and keyboard credits on U2’s new single featuring Kendrick Lamar.

“I wasn’t so in tune with studio stuff at first,” he continues. “That happened later. But then it became immediately exciting. I started recording people off the back of my band, because people just heard that and were like, it sounds wicked, will you do our demo? Then suddenly I was a producer, to cut a long story short.

“Luckily I’m in the position where I now choose [what to work on] and I’ve had a couple of good bits here and there. I’ve had a really good run.”

A good run is probably a bit of an understatement. Thomas has producer, co-writer, mixer and engineer credits on Slaves’ acclaimed, Mercury Prize-nominated 2015 album Are You Satisifed? And in June this year, Royal Blood’s second album How Did We Get So Dark? - which he produced at Belgiums’ ICP studios, hit No.1 in the UK.

December 1st sees the release of U2’s fourteenth studio album Songs Of Experience, which Thomas helped to produce alongside Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, as well as Steve Lillywhite and Andy Barlow.

Here, Thomas tells Audio Media International how to produce a hit record…

Does being a good producer and a good musician go hand in hand?
For me it does, but there are different kinds. You’ve got musical producers, like myself, people who are very musical, who can play and understand. If you play a chord progression, I could tell you what it is. I could say, Oh why don’t you move the third or the fifth? I could speak in that lexicon. Then you get producers who are non-musical producers, who are much more engineer producers. For me it is really important, because most of the time I am pretty musically involved. If I’m not playing on it, I am potentially writing.

How do you choose the projects you work on?
If I start talking to someone, or someone comes my way through whatever avenue, I first of all ask, Can I benefit this music? Can I bring something to the table? Sometimes you think, No, I don’t really think I can. It’s not that I don’t like it. There are many reasons why. I don’t ever assume that I know what the artist wants. You have so many experiences with people in the studio and some of them aren’t always positive for many reasons. So, I hope that when I come to it, I come to it with a positive energy and I don’t assume anything.

I’ve just heard U2’s new song, Get Out of Your Own Way... can you talk about that?
That was one of the first songs I worked on with the band. Bono and I did a demo of it first. It’s actually produced by myself and Ryan Tedder and I think some other people might have some credits on there, but essentially it’s me and Ryan Tedder. I’m also credited with playing guitar on the track because that melody in the chorus was something that Bono and I came up with quite early on. That really stuck, even though this track has gone through a few different versions as it always does with U2 and a few different versions is an understatement. That’s kind of how they work, always trying different ideas out.

They might go off at a tangent and go, Let’s make it acoustic or let’s make it electronic, or let’s make it half time. It gets quite experimental. That’s what’s fascinating about working with them. They are really into production and they are really into producers. They always credit producers for having a big input in their songs, which after doing it, I’ve experienced.  All the U2 albums are made over about two years, so I would dip in and out. That was one of the very first one I worked on at the very beginning when I first met them. It was probably two years ago when I did the first version. All I remember is coming up with that melody with Bono. It was just me and him. I was playing guitar, he was singing. The first version of it I played every instrument on it. Just writing and demoing around the vocal he had.

Bono just rang me up on my phone, like, Hey, do you want to come in and work on the album?

Jolyon Thomas

How did you end up working with them?
Like I said, they are really interested in production and producers. They know who has done what. So if they hear a record that they really like, they will know who has produced it. They’re not stupid. They know the amount of input producers have on a record. They get it. They know what they are doing. I heard a rumour that U2 had brought me up in a conversation. I was like, Amazing, that’s a really good compliment. A week later, Bono rang me up on my phone, like, Hey, it’s Bono. I was like, alright mate?  And he just said, Do you want to come in and work on the album? They really liked stuff I had worked on, like Slaves for example and the rawness of that. They thought it was recorded in a cool way. There are different producers on the album, as I mentioned, so I think I bring a lot more of the youthful energy and...

Punk rock?
A little bit of that, yeah. They mentioned that before, like Jolyon is more on the rock side. Ironically, of the songs that they ended up using on the album, my ones have a lot of Euphoric feeling about them. The opening of (Get Out Of Your Own Way) I made on my iPad. It’s all just my voice that I sampled. I made this sort of euphoric, reverb sound and some of the other tracks on the album have this sort of euphoric kind of situation going on. So I don’t know if my songs are that punk rock, but the energy of them may be, I hope. And also this song and another song both have Kendrick Lamar on them.

What is it like working with Bono and The Edge?
Fun. They are just really nice people and really cool. They are also quite sharp witted. So you can give a lot and they give a lot back. And of course, they know what they are doing in the studio. They’ve obviously made a shit load of hit records and they know what they are talking about. So you can be very open, because if you come up with any ideas, or play a guitar part, they will be open to the idea. They will listen and give it a try. So from that perspective it really gives you freedom to express yourself. They are a great band, which goes without saying. And going back to the boundaries thing, they don’t have any. 

Of course they have a good budget, so there is no boundary there, but that of course brings the problem that you can end up making a record forever, which is something they have battled with. There have been numerous times where they say it’s being released, then it’s delayed another year or something, but ultimately the freedom means that you can be experimental and have a laugh and try things and do stuff that you couldn’t necessarily do if you had three days in the studio. And also, through all of that, they still have the punk aesthetic. All the vocals are done with an SM58 in a room. For The Edge’s guitar sound, you stick a mic on the cab and you hit record. There’s nothing fancy. You just come in the room, stick a mic on it and get on with it. So if any engineer asks, How did you get that sound, you just stick an SM58 in front of the source. There is no other answer.

What about outboard?
Minimal. You’re writing a song as you’re going along, so there’s no time for that stuff, really. Of course there’s little pieces I had going on, but nothing really worth mentioning. Most of the sound came from the Edge and out of his amp. I did lots of stuff with my synths and pedals and all of that, but nothing that ‘engineer-nerdy’ I’m afraid. There was no time. You’d literally walk in the room and be like, We’re recording a guitar, OK fine, SM58, let’s go. That’s it. DI, go. Mic, in hand. There’s not a mic stand around so chuck it on the sofa, and Bono pick it up.  I think that’s still cool that they are doing that stuff now. It gives quite a fresh approach. We weren’t recording things in a sterile way. That’s not the sound ultimately.

You worked with Royal Blood on their second album. How did it feel when It went to No.1?
Amazing. It’s definitely good to get that under your belt. It’s a nice feeling. I was just happy to be honest. They had a successful first album, so there was definitely a lot of pressure to deliver.

How do you normally start an album project?
I’d normally start by hearing [a band] play, whether that’s pre production or a gig, or both. I might go see them live to understand how they play together, because often a band is the sum of it’s parts, which is obvious to say, but it’s quite easy to extrapolate it. For example, if you were to multi-track a band, like do the drums first, then the bass next and so on, it’s a completely different experience from them playing together. So many people are used to doing it that way, but you can actually destroy some elements of the music in the context of a band. So I’d identify those things, like, How does this song sound live and how do they play together?
can you talk us through the recording process?

With Royal Blood it was a lot of arrangement, so again musically going through things. What’s the chorus saying and what’s the riff saying? As soon as they add something there is no going back. If you add that extra note in the riff, you’ve filled up that space. You can’t undo it. So you really have to work on the arrangements. Then recording, gear wise with Royal Blood there are lots of tonal things going on. There are shit loads of different sends and effects, although it sounds really simple. There are pretty much no overdubs on the record, as in the guitar. It’s just one bass the whole time, which people don’t believe, but it’s true. We wanted it to be just that riff, or that part. Like, that is the part, commit to it.

But in doing that, we had multiple amps. I also had DIs set up. I had a clean DI, a dirty DI. I had a smashed through the desk DI, like a mic amp distorting. I think by the end of it we had about seven DIs for the guitar which all did different things. Like the verse would have one sort of sound and the chorus another and so on. It wasn’t all DI, there are amps as well. There were two guitar amps and two bass amps, so four amps and seven DIs and a couple of room mics. So, I wouldn’t necessarily be EQing very much. It would be more colour coming in, so we would be using the amps, DIs, effects etc. as colour. So if there’s a bright guitar, it’s not been EQd that way, that’s just the way it is pretty much. When it came to the mix, it was the same as the tracking.

What is your own studio set up like?
I have two studios now. One in Wandsworth and it’s just a mix room - a production room essentially. It’s just one room with a booth. It has an amp in it. It’s more for like mixing and writing sessions and listening, or whatever. there are so many things you need to do before and after the production that it all adds up. I’ve got a fair amount of gear in there considering. I’ve got a Pro Tools HD rig, I’ve got an Avid interface, the new one. I’ve got a couple of channel strips, an Avalon VT-737 SP, I’ve got a Universal Audio 6 176.  I quite like valve stuff and ribbons and dynamics. I gravitate to them quite a lot. I’ve got an SSL G bus. I’ve got a couple of Chandler mic amps, which are really good on guitars. I’ve got a Shadow Hills Equinox. I’ve got various speakers, but the ones I’ve got set up are NS10s (Yamaha) and The Rocks from Unity Audio. I’ve done a lot  of mixing and I’ve moved towards those because of mixing really. I wouldn’t say they’re like vibe speakers but they are amazing for accuracy. In my line of work, you need good monitors.

My studio in Margate is  where I live and I have a completely different set up here. I’ve basically got two floating rigs, which can move. So I’ve got Pro Tools HD set up in London and then I’ve got a Universal Audio Apollo set up as  well, as a kind of B rig. But I have plugins everywhere so I can move between studios really easily. I also have a lot of things like synths and guitars.,not just mic amps. I’ve got something to put in them. I’ve got a bunch of nice guitars and pedals and synths. I guess that’s more the creative  stuff, which is where I’m coming from.