It was perhaps inevitable that Billy Lunn, frontman, guitarist and creative engine of three-piece power pop trio The Subways, would one day become a producer. In everything he does, in and out of music, there is an almost obsessive determination not just to do, but to conquer in his endeavours. Over the course of the four Subways albums released to date – a fifth one is now written with a release date yet to be confirmed – he has relished in his role as the band’s chief songwriter and leader. In the world of academia, not merely content with being a fan of literature – albeit an extremely well-read one – he took a break from his career as a musician to achieve a lofty degree at Cambridge University. And having been enamoured by each of the producers The Subways worked with on their first three albums, it was only a matter of time before he would seek to master the art for himself and take control of the band’s sonic destiny.
Lunn’s passion for production began long before The Subways were born into existence when he heard Nirvana’s 1991 classic Nevermind, famously produced by alt rock producer extraordinaire, Butch Vig, who would eventually wind up producing The Subways’ second album, 2008’s All Or Nothing.
“I recently listened to Nevermind again and each time I hear it, it sounds as powerful as it was the first time,” Lunn explains to Headliner over a coffee in his hometown of Welwyn Garden City. “But it also sounds quite different to my ears. That’s partly because of my own personal journey I’m going on as a producer and a songwriter, but it was when I first heard that album that I thought, ‘how and by what processes is an album made to sound that good’? That raw, that full, that powerful and that poppy. It seemed like an almost mechanical architecture that was happening. The drums are doing something more than just playing, they are physically interacting with my ears. It felt like the kick and the snare were punching through the speakers. The guitars were like buildings falling down, and then you had Kurt Cobain’s double tracked vocals - that was the first time I realised double-tracked vocals were a thing. There is contouring going on and I started to see an album and a mix in 3D.
“That was when I started getting into Butch Vig’s other works, like Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. It broadened not just my interest in production but my taste in music. And I really wanted to learn how that happens – it can’t just be a case of a band going into a studio and playing what they usually play. There must be a level of understanding of how their part is going to appear through those stereo speakers. That was when I decided to get a recording unit and see how I could achieve the contours that appear in that record. And it’s glued together so seamlessly, which is due to the mixing by Andy Wallace. Hearing how stark things can be but how gelled they can be, that paradox still fascinates me today. It sits at the top of my brain whenever I’m working on something. How can I create separation but also make it feel like a unified whole?”
Three Of A Kind
While working with the producer of his favourite record of all time was always going to leave an indelible mark on Lunn’s path into production, the impact of those who helmed The Subways’ first and third records cannot be understated. The band’s 2005 debut Young For Eternity was produced by lauded producer and Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie, while 2011’s Money And Celebrity, the follow-up to the Vig-produced All Or Nothing, saw Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur, The Cranberries, Kaiser Chiefs) drafted in for production duties. Each of these records would provide distinct and invaluable lessons from which Lunn would draw inspiration. As he puts it, “if I couldn’t take those experiences and repurpose them as a producer myself, that’s my problem!”
From as early as the initial sessions on Young For Eternity, Lunn was eager to learn how he one day would be able to do the job himself. By the time the band was ready to begin work on their fourth album, 2015’s The Subways, he felt sufficiently prepared to take the plunge.
“It was necessity and desire,” Lunn explains of the decision to produce the record. “I’d recorded all of our demos in my mum and dad’s council house, and that came about because I didn’t like handing over power to somebody to decide how we sounded. That has always stayed with me.
“When we were recording our first album with Ian Broudie, I was leaning over his shoulder the whole time and I felt really weird that I wasn’t in control and making the sonic decisions. With Butch Vig, I came to terms with that a lot more easily by virtue of the fact he’s the producer of my favourite album! But also, because he made me feel at ease. That’s been the case with all of the producers we’ve worked with, but Butch is very avuncular, very measured and softly spoken. He claims authority because of who he is, his work and the brilliant ideas he comes up with all the time.
“When we were working with Stephen Street, he made the album sound incredible, but the demos he said I’d handed him were 75 percent done. So, I felt like with the next record I could do this. And I did. A lot of it was also to do with finances – I didn’t want us to spend another £40,000 on two weeks in a studio. I wanted us to buy our own equipment and decide if we were happy or not, and if we’re not we’ll keep going until we are.”