Gareth Jones is one of those success stories that gives hope to anyone trying to claw their way up the recording studio ladder. With little to no training (other than a minor stint at the BBC) Jones moved from a small analogue eight-track studio in north London to the holy halls of Hansa Studios in Berlin, and beyond. His moody aesthetic, which blends dark electronic with more guitar-driven pop music has led him to work on albums for artists such as Depeche Mode, Erasure, Grizzly Bear, Interpol, and more.
When did you first know you wanted a career in the recording industry?
Gradually, I worked out by looking at record covers that records are made by teams of people and there is always a recording engineer. So I left college, tried to get a job in a recording studio and couldn’t. I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote a lot of letters and got a lot of refusal letters back. Everyone’s got an Abbey Road refusal letter.
Luckily I was able to get a job at the BBC. I just wanted to record music and be around music and bands but it was pretty clear that it would be around seven years before they would let me do any recording because all I was doing was turning one rotary fader and pressing play on a tape machine.
So I wrote to all the London studios I could get the address for, again, and a guy named Mike Finesilver, who was working in one of them, mentioned that he was looking for someone to work in his eight-track studio. He read my application and gave me a call.
So that was your first job in a ‘real’ recording studio?
Yes, it was a really cool, funky little studio – dirty and smelly, but analogue eight-track, one-inch with a custom analogue desk by Barry Farmer, homebuilt echo plate – very simple, but great for me.
I’ve told this story before, but my first time recording a drum kit the drummer said ‘turn the snare up’ and I didn’t know which one it was! That’s how much I was thrown in. I knew about drums, but I had never played the drums or been in a rock ’n’ roll band.
I learned a lot just from the musicians I was working with. Clive Langer produced the first Madness single in there. I did some work with Pete Brown, the Poet and his producer, Ian Lynn. I was the junior engineer and that was one of the first records I helped complete.
So tell me about working on John Foxx’s Metamatic?
John came in and he was really my second great mentor because he had made three albums with Ultravox. He had worked with Brian Eno and Conny Planck, so compared to me he was hugely experienced and I learned a lot from him.
He wanted to make a minimal record. So what he did was use very few instruments in a studio with very few tracks. He had one drum machine, one monophonic synthesizer, and one string machine, and eight tracks. Of course it turned out minimal because how could it not?
And how did that experience lead you to work with Depeche Mode?
We did Metamatic and it worked out well and John, because he chose to make the album in an eight-track studio that was cheap, broke the debt cycle to the record company.
On Holywell Lane [in east London] there’s a big warehouse on the corner and John got together with three other artists and bought it. John went in the basement and that got turned into a studio. We met Andy Munro early in his career because we’d worked at one of his rooms and it seemed cool and modern, which is what John was after.
Because John was such a legend as a synth minimalist, the studio got a reputation and Daniel [Miller] at Mute and Depeche were looking for somewhere for their third LP.
Daniel and the band were co-producing and they needed an engineer. John said I had to meet these guys and it could be good and I just said ‘I don’t want to do that one, it’s too pop’. So they worked in the studio anyway with a different engineer and they liked the studio but not the engineer so fortunately I got a second chance.
Gareth in his Strongroom studio
And then you became their go-to guy. How did this progress from working in John Foxx’s studio to working out of Hansa?
We started in London and took [the album] to Berlin. I was working in Berlin and was taken to the legendary Hansa studio, but originally didn’t want to work there. I wanted to mix in London because I was insecure but then I was shown the penthouse SSL mixing studio. I had never worked on an SSL but I knew all about them because they were the brand in the UK in the 80s. So there was this massive great SSL board and I said ‘ok, we’re doing it here!’
Hansa in the 80s has such a history surrounding it. What was the vibe like working in a place like that?
There were many big bands in there – The Rolling Stones came with Chris Kimsey, Killing Joke came, Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, The Birthday Part, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I was the token British engineer with a rock and roll attitude. I loved it.
Obviously the city was still divided. You could see the wall and the watchtowers from the Studio 2 control room window. From the roof you could look over no-mans land to East Berlin. There was an incredible atmosphere. It was super special for everyone who worked there.
Now you’re back at Strongroom in London.
Yes! This studio was originally built for me in the 90s. When I came back I took out a little space in the building and then my ‘old’ studio became available. Seemed like fate.
Obviously you’ve always been a fan of technology. Can you run me through your current set-up?
It’s a really simple ITB set-up with lots of UAD. I’m a big fan of these Metric Halo convertors – they also have really nice mic pres, which is one of the reasons I went with them. I use the Metric Halo mixer to feed out 14 discrete outputs into my Fat Bustard valve mixer, which is legendary. And then I’ve got high-end EQ on the mix bus, and then the mix streams back into Logic where I print it.
I love the Mackie control stuff as well because it is so beautifully integrated with Logic, better than anything else I’ve seen. I also like the Novation Automap because it allows me to map plug-ins as I want to and then save as a default so any time I open that plug-in in any session it maps back the same. Faders and knobs - old school.
Lastly, what are you working on right now?
I just finished mixing an album for 4AD for a Florida band called Merchandise. They’d started mixing themselves and at some stage realised they needed help to get the intention through. I do quite a lot of work with bands where they’ve recorded themselves but then they haven’t had the practice to mix it as well as it could be done.
Because I’ve got an analogue aesthetic I tend to strip it all back and de-harsh it and make it fat and big and people go ‘wow, that’s nice, that’s got weight now’.