The music of Sheffield is often associated with a familiar cast of names: the 1970s pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League, the electronic output of Warp records, the infectious pop of Pulp and the indie-rock of Arctic Monkeys. Yet stomp through those surface level names and you’ll find a wealth of innovative, obscure and distinct artists bubbling away in the underground, many of whom have been doing so for decades. One Sheffield man, the artist and producer Dean Honer, is something of a connector between these two artistic worlds of mainstream gleam and underground oddness.
Honer most recently has spent the last two years touring with his band The Moonlandingz (which itself is an offshoot of another one of his bands, the Eccentronic Research Council) but beyond that, he has had a significant hand in shaping the musical output of Sheffield for decades. Usually from his studio, The Bowling Green Studio (named so because it looks over a bowling green), he has produced the likes of The Human League, Add N to (x) and Roisin Murphy, worked with countless Sheffield names from Jarvis Cocker to Tony Christie, remixed Moby, mastered countless tracks and albums and even appeared as a credited producer on Britney Spears’ debut album. Alongside all of that he’s a part of the long-standing wonky electronic outfit, I Monster, and was part of the All Seeing I, with both groups seeing huge success in the late 1990s, with Honer’s work appearing on TV shows, films, adverts and landing him on Top of the Pops.
Honer already has a new post-Moonlandingz band on the go with Adrian Flanagan in the International Teachers of Pop. Their debut gig was a sold out one in a cave supporting Jarvis Cocker, and the output is a brilliant blend of contagious pop and pulsing electronics; Flanagan calls it a sort of “acid ABBA”. Sitting in his studio, surrounded by synths, Honer talks me through his life in music as both an artist and producer.
“I left school at 16 and got a job at the post office,” he recalls. “I then used what money I had to buy a synthesiser”. This started a life-long love affair with the instrument and electronic music. Honer soon found himself moving to Sheffield. “Coming from a very small town in Essex, Sheffield was very exotic and cosmopolitan to me,” he reflects. “The city seemed really exciting at the time. You could sign on and still survive and make music.”
It was whilst playing in a band called This Machine Kills that Honer began to develop a taste and skill for work beyond simply playing instruments. “That was the first time I started doing multi-track recording. That was when I started taking over the recording sessions and programming the drum machines. That was my area, that got me excited about what you could do with tape.”
Growing up, Honer hadn’t initially paid too much attention to what the role of a producer was. However one person who did pique his interest, was the German producer Conny Plank (as featured in the March 2018 edition of Audio Media International). “I remember the credits on DAF albums, it said: “recorded at Conny’s” and that was slightly mysterious. Then I noticed the name showing up on Ultravox and Killing Joke albums. In the early days I didn’t really think about things in terms of production. With bands like Kraftwerk and Yello, I’d just be like, ‘how did they fucking do that?’ I just imagined they had teams of people building this really expensive stuff, and to some degree that was true.”
Honer’s abilities developed and he opened Neptune studio in 1990 with Duncan Wheat. As the decade went on, Honer soon found himself in two signed bands (I Monster and the All Seeing I) as well as producing an Add N to (x) record for Mute, the label that had provided much of his early eye-opening musical experiences via groups like the Normal and Fad Gadget. “There were record companies coming up to Sheffield all the time and you’d play one label against the other,” he recalls with a laugh. “That was the big thing, seeing who you could get the nicest dinner from.”
The All Seeing I (also consisting of DJ Parrot and Jason Buckle) signed with London Records and had a hit with “Beat Goes On” in 1998, which led to a flood of work. “We were doing a lot of remixes and we were turning things down, we even turned down a Madonna remix. We were like, ‘oh we don’t need to do this, do we?’ That was really stupid.” The song was so popular that it was selected to be covered by a then unknown singer, Britney Spears, on her debut album.
Honer and co produced the track. “Nobody had heard of her, it was before Hit Me Baby (One More Time) came out. We didn’t think anything of it but our manager at the time suggested we do it, that it could be really interesting. If you listen to the debut album you can tell its us because you’ve got all this big sounding pop music and then...” he stops and starts laughing, “our track comes on.”
In 2001, after being evicted from Neptune, Honer set up the Bowling Green Studio and has been here ever since. “After that I thought I’m not interested in having a big studio, I’m more interested in the electronic side of things, I don’t need a big live room for drums and shit. If I need to do drums and guitar I’ll just go round to Ross’” The Ross he refers to is Ross Orton, another Sheffield producer who has worked with everyone from the Arctic Monkeys to M.I.A.
Despite being on the road a great deal of late, Honer is happiest surrounded by bleeps and beats in his studio. “I’m not that bothered about touring, with the Moonlandingz I just got stuck in and did it.” The Moonlandingz record was also recorded in this room with finishing touches done in upstate New York at Sean Lennon’s studio. A place filled with “mad instruments,” as Honer recalls.
There’s a fundamental compulsion from Honer to keep doing new things and pushing forward. “I don’t like sitting about not doing anything, I need to be working,” he says. “I probably take on too much stuff. A record label probably isn’t going to be too happy if they come to me and say can you produce this band and all I can offer them is one day a month and it’s probably going to take three years to finish.” he says, laughing.
But this balancing act clearly works for Honer, whose schedule is as busy as it is eclectic. “I do a lot of things,” he says clicking through files on his computer to show me. “I have about 10 other projects on the go, I do mastering, I’m developing a new artist, I’m starting a new I Monster album....” The list goes on. Some indie bands are even sending him stuff to lay down his synth wizardry over the top. “They all want a bit now,” he says with a chuckle. “We got thrown in the basement a bit after the Arctic Monkeys and now they all want a bit of fucking synth.”
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