Pretty much weekly, I get students and other musicians messaging me or sending questionnaires about how to become a music producer. I’m generally happy to answer, as I’m not precious about what I do.  In fact, I thought I might actually write this all down in the hope that it’s useful to someone else.  

I’ll do it in a number of parts as there’s a quite a lot to say. In this first part, I’ll give a bit of my background story.

I was obsessed with music pretty much since I was born.  As the youngest of four children, I was surrounded by different musical tastes from the word go and absorbed them all;  One sister listened to rock, the other listened to pop, my brother introduced me to hip hop, indie and weird 70s psychedelic stuff.  My Dad listened to classical and my Mum listened to music from the 50s and 60s, as well as taking me to church where I heard lots of folk and organ music in the church, and traditional Irish music from the church club.

Me (the small angry one) and my siblings, last week.

My Mum also taught me to harmonise at an early age by singing hymns and showing me and my brother how to do the harmonies.

I made up my first song at the age of 4 – it was called Dark Tunnel as I was a bit scared of going through train tunnels.  I have a vague recollection of performing it in front of my family with a home-made drum kit made of a bucket, a biscuit tin, a saucepan lid and an ironing board leg. This was my go-to drum kit for the next decade!

My first band (Jenimb, an anagram of Ben and my mate Jim) was formed at the age of about 7.   Jim and I simply pressed record on our tape recorder, hit my “drums” with wooden spoons, strummed chordlessly on a cheap, out-of-tune Argos guitar, and sang whatever came into our heads.  We recorded three albums this way, and I still have a couple of the cassettes.

Here’s a short, political track that we made called War. Hear our anger.

Me and Jim. Eating crisps, while we should have been making more albums.

However, one of Jenimb’s great innovations was “studio” recording, where we’d record our buckets and guitars onto a cassette and then play that cassette back right next to another tape recorder which would pick up the buckets and guitars but also record our randomly-plonked pianos and vocals.

This was genius.  We were convinced of our greatness, and that early conviction fuelled my music for the next few years.  I taught myself guitar and the very basics of keyboards.  But what I really wanted was to play drums.

At the age of 13, I was in Derby centre with my Mum and I dragged her into the local drum shop, as I always did, as a strong hint.  The guy in the shop let me have a go on an ancient budget Premier kit and did a bit of hinting himself – seeing as I’m so enthusiastic, he’ll let this kit go for £95.

My Mum took the hint.  Christmas was coming up, followed by my birthday.  If I was willing to have this as a joint Christmas and birthday present, and up my household chores, then she’d buy it.

I was ecstatic, and poured myself into drums, forming a series of bands – Dedd Cloze, The Relics, Broken Toys, Fatal Comfort, and other awful teenage two-word band names.

Me, aged 14. When I got the picture back I was annoyed with my Mum for not getting the drum kit into the photo!

For me, the goal for every band was always the same – to get signed and be as successful as possible.  I wanted to be playing multiple nights at Wembley Stadium by the age of 20.

However, I couldn’t admit this to my head teacher when he quizzed each of us before our GCSEs on what we wanted for our future career.  “International rock star”, even from a 14-year-old, seemed rather quixotic, so I told him I wanted to be a producer.

He suggested I might want to do more than just play drums.  And with that, I branched out in other areas.  I wrote all the songs and music for school musical with my best mate Matt at the age of 16; I started putting together MIDI on Cubase; I rented a four-track cassette recorder to try things out; I borrowed an effects pedal; I wrote more songs and played more guitar.  It was all looking pretty good and I was happy to spend all my free time making music.

Musically, my twenties consisted largely of rehearsing and gigging with a succession of bands.  One band called Pala did reasonably well, getting national radio play, playing hundreds of gigs over the UK and releasing a handful of singles but that petered out towards the end.  (We still occasionally play and record just for fun).

In my mid/late twenties, I decided to take control of things in any bands I was in, writing all the songs and doing all the organising, but ultimately, it was doomed to fail.  I was not having one bit of fun, I was jaded and had completely lost sight of the actual enjoyment of playing music.

On stage, just before I quit band life for good.

Then a weird thing happened. On my 30th birthday, I woke and simply realised that I didn’t have to do band stuff any more.   I quit the band I was in – it was such a massive relief and a weight lifted off my shoulder.

The question then was what I was going to do musically. Bands were pretty much all I’d ever known.

I’d been getting more and more into there recording side of things – it was always the thing I enjoyed the most about being in a band – and I focussed in on my recording equipment. That’s for part 2.

UPDATE: Here’s Part 2!