Longtime Blur Producer, Stephen Street Reveals How His Career Could Have Gone Another Way
Stephen Street is a record producer that is known for his longtime associations with The Smiths and Blur, so it comes as no surprise to see him crowned the winner of this year’s MPG Outstanding Contribution To Music award. Although the way he tells it, his career could have easily gone another way.
“I'm known for working with bands, and I do try and become like a big brother to them – in the nicest sense – not Big Brother in 1984,” clarifies Street. “I’m a big brother in the sense of being family or an extra member of the band. I try to instill a feeling that we're in this together, that I'm working for you, and that I’m going to help you make a good record. I like to think of it like that anyway! That is something that has paid in dividends for me.”
He’s not wrong. This year, Street is the winner of the PPL Present the MPG Award for Outstanding Contribution to UK Music – an award from two organisations he sees a real value in:
“I am humbled to have been recognised for this award. I think that producers by nature tend to be quite a disparate bunch, so it's good that there's something that brings people together. [The MPG] is a place where people can air their grievances or worries and have someone represent them when it comes to agreeing how the record companies go about the business of drawing up contracts with producers and so on. And especially for people coming into the industry, as young people, they need guidance as well. If they can go to someone like the MPG, they can find out how to go about this and get some advice as well.”
Best known for his work with The Smiths and Blur, Street began his career during the early '80s as an engineer, later going on to work with Morrissey, The Cranberries, The Pretenders, Babyshambles and Kaiser Chiefs – amongst many others. Before this, Street played bass in a band that never quite made it – a factor that led him down his eventual career path.
“It wasn't really getting anywhere,” he recalls. “We had a record deal, but we didn't really have much success. I knew that I was really enjoying being in the studio with the band, and I also realised that there were young producer-engineers that were having success at the time. So I formed an idea in my mind that studio work would be something that I would like to do.”
Street was determined, approaching numerous studios in the hope of securing a job – eventually finding an assistant position at Island Records’ basement recording studio.
“I was a bit green,” he admits. “But I was at Island for the best part of three years, and for a long time during that period I was the only assistant, so I was getting quite a lot of training; I wasn't just working as a tea boy! So I was actually hands-on on the desk, setting up microphones and so on, and I applied as much knowledge as I could to try to be helpful. I think it was noted.”
It must have been, as one of Street's first jobs as in-house engineer was for a session for The Smiths's Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. He continued to work with The Smiths for years, working as an engineer on their album The Queen Is Dead before assuming a producer role for Strangeways, Here We Come, the band’s final album.
“Sometimes you have to wait for the stars to be aligned,” he says. “And that definitely happened to me when I met The Smiths. If I hadn't done that, it could have been so very different. They definitely gave me the big step up that I needed as a young engineer. If that first single with them had never happened, my career path could be very different."
Although the band parted ways, Street’s relationship with Morrissey was still going strong. Working on the singer’s solo record felt like huge step up – a fact that was not lost on Street:
“The Smiths were so revered at the time, so if I had failed miserably I would have been public enemy number one! So that was an incredible relief when the first couple of singles were such big successes. That really gave me the springboard to go into the new decade of the '90s.”
Fortunately, that's when Street ended up working with Blur. After hearing She's So High, the band’s first single, Street contacted their manager. He went on to produce their second single, There's No Other Way, then the band’s next four albums: Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur.
“I’ve worked with them on so many records, especially throughout the ‘90s, but I’m also very pleased to say as recently as four years ago, so that was wonderful,” he says proudly. “I have managed to retain a lot of working relationships with various acts throughout my time. That means hopefully I'm doing something right!”
However, working with Blur is another example of success which Street insists could have easily gone another way:
“After I heard She's So High and I saw the video, I thought that there was something about them. I let them know I was interested in doing something, we met in a pub in Soho, and they said they’d give it a go.”
Recording swiftly got underway, resulting in the smash hit, There's No Other Way – which is still in rotation to this day.
“It was just one of those fantastic things,” he remembers. “I got involved for about a third of the first album because they had recorded a fair amount already. But it nearly didn't work out: I wasn't in the frame to do the second record, to be honest with you. I think they intended to work with Andy Partridge of XTC, so that could have been another ship that passed in the night. It could have ended very differently and could have been me done in that relationship.”
As luck would have it, Street bumped into Blur’s Graham Coxon at a gig. The pair got chatting and arranged to link up again.
“Fortunately, that is what happened,” laughs Street. “Then I worked on Modern Life Is Rubbish, which was a big step towards Parklife coming out the year after.”
In his home studio, Street is using an Audient Zen console that he’s had for years. “I bought one when they first came out, and it has proved to be very practical and absolutely perfect for my needs. I find it a very simple, easy desk to use – it’s very well laid out and makes things easy to route, such as the power knob compression. It's got a good, clean signal path as well.”
Not a fan of mixing in the box, Street needs a decent number of returns from his DAW Pro Tools system:
“I like to sub group things with different groups of faders, and I can patch in my outboard effects as well – I still like to use some outboard as well as plugins.”
He’s a fan of Waves plugins, however his favourite brands are Universal Audio and API – particularly liking the latter’s 550 EQ plugins.
Good monitoring is crucial: he uses a combination of KRK and Focal Twin 6 studio monitors with his “good old trusty” UREI 1178 stereo compressor, and a Thermionic Culture stereo compressor for drums.
“Mixing in the box works fine for some; you don't need to have a big room. It's famously known that that Billie Eilish record was made in her brother's bedroom, but then again, with that kind of genre, it can be. Because of the genre that I’m known for, I like to get in the studio and have space and air around the musicians – you capture something that has a little bit more depth to it.”
When it comes to some historical studios having to close, Street makes his feeling clear:
“I find it quite sad that so many of the great recording studios that I've worked in and laid albums in over the years have now disappeared; I find that a very sad thing to be honest with you. I would like to see a return to decent studios that have been designed to be studios rather than just some kind of rehearsal room, or some kind of industrial unit that has suddenly turned into a studio because it’s got some microphones. I'm hoping that we've reached the bottom of the barrel in the choice of studios and that we can see a trend again of people opening up decent recording spaces that can accommodate musicians that can perform to their best.”
Having worked at Olympic Studios for a number of years, Street was particularly crestfallen to see the studio shut its doors.
“I find it really sad that a studio that was probably only second to Abbey Road as far as its catalogue of incredible records, was allowed to close. I just found that a travesty. I just hope that now we are beginning to see a little bit more income coming into the recording side of the music business. At least now with the official streaming services, there's no reason for people to go on to pirate sites anymore and completely rip off the artists and the producers involved in making records. Hopefully we'll see a bit of an income increase on the recording side from streaming and so on, and hopefully some of that money will be reinvested into recording studios.”
How has Street’s job changed in the last 10 years?
“You've got to be a lot quicker,” he answers, ironically, without hesitation. “The budget to make a record is so tight that you have to be really ready and on the case. Don't waste time. That doesn't mean you’ve got to do mammoth long sessions; I have always been someone who likes to get in the studio at about 10am and do a good 12-hour day, but no more than that because you just get tired and worn out, and that just means you start later the next day. You want to get the job done efficiently, on time and under budget. I've always been very aware that it's not the record company’s money that’s being spent, it's the artist’s, and I do not want to leave them in a deep hole.”
Street says that PPL, the UK-based music licensing company and performance rights organisation founded by Decca and EMI in 1934, plays an important role in the music industry:
“I find that that's what we have to rely on to help fill in the gap that has been left by the lack of CD and record sales,” says Street. “So to get some income from the PPL side of the business is a very welcome and much-needed income stream. I think the worst time was about 10 years ago with all the downloading on pirate sites. So many producers and engineers that were expecting to get some income from their royalties found that it had completely dried up. So it's very good that there is another source of income, because I think when tracks are performed, it's not just the music you're listening to, it's the sound of the record. That's why you get so many artists sampling things – because it's not just the music contained in that motif they want, it's also the sound sample that they want as well.”
This is a subject Street feels passionately about:
“Exactly,” he nods. “When records have been sampled heavily and there is a songwriter that gets a percentage of that record because their music is in the sample, I would argue that the producers can get a cut too, because it's your sound that they're sampling.”
With an outstanding contribution to music award under his belt and an enviable client roster, Street is in a position to pick and choose who he works with.
“I don’t take on projects just for the sake of it just to keep the diary full. I only really want to do things that I particularly want to get involved in, and I'm lucky in that respect. I've always been...not, choosy,” he pauses…“I'd say that's a bit too hard a word. I’m a little bit particular about what I take on. I suppose you could say that's choosy,” he laughs.
Words: Alice Gustafson