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The Subways' Billy Lunn: New music, production and learning from the masters

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.”

I had it in my head I was going to make Nirvana meets Stranger Things! Billy Lunn, The Subways

Throughout those sessions with Street, Lunn took every opportunity he could to prepare himself for his debut production.

“He imported my Pro Tools files and started filtering through, going ‘we’re going to redo this, I don’t like the tone of that’. Because we were using something I started off with as the foundation, any changes that were made, my antennae were hyper alert. I inherently felt some sort of claim to those files because we were building on foundations I created, but at the same time, Stephen knows infinitely more than I do about engineering and mixing. So, I’d be like ‘ah, what’s this microphone, why are we using it and what is it taking the place of from my original recordings’? He’d say, for instance, ‘that’s a Sennheiser E906, you’re going to want to get those for the guitars’. I came out of those sessions with pages of things I needed to do or buy or use. I could hear the changes he was making and that was a massive learning curve. It almost put me off, as I’d listen to a mix and feel as though it was light years away from something I could do. But nothing is impossible; I had an idea of where I wanted to go, and what kind of producer I wanted to be. We’d had three incredible mentors.”

Guiding Principles

“I like to take things in very specific steps,” says Lunn of his approach to a session. “I like to think of the drums as the skeleton, the bass and guitar as the flesh and the organs and the vocal as the beauty. I prefer the band to have a really good idea of exactly how they want to perform the song in the studio, and that comes through pre-production. I love working in Pro Tools, it’s invaluable to me.

“Making sure that the band is well versed on how the session is going to work is really important – we’re going to use a click track, we will tempo map and I want you to perform live in a single room but making sure they know they are going to be overdubbing. I know some bands are adamant that they want to perform live and do it in a couple of takes. That’s fine, I’ll do that, but I prefer to record the drums in isolation and then set up and record the bass in isolation, and the guitars in isolation. And by virtue of everyone knowing what they are doing, that’s where the gelling happens. And it’s also about everyone knowing the song back-to-front, inside and out.”

Though constantly expanding his existing studio setup, there are a handful of staples that have become central to achieving the perfect sonic blueprint for a Lunn production.

“It’s all about the 1073 pieces - I really just love that rich sound, but also the openness with the top end, the air that that offers I can’t do without,” beams Lunn when talking us through his audio arsenal. “I have two 1073 SPXs and I’ve just got two Rupert Neve Designs Shelford channels, which are really handy because you have your pre mic gain, EQ section and compressor section, then you have the Silk, so you can saturate the low or the top end. That’s really great for guitars, snares and vocals. And I have Audio Maintenance Ltd 500 Series 1073s and 54F50 compressors, which are based on the Neve 2254 design. They are absolutely amazing.

“Then I have some other things to add colour,” he continues. “I really like API stuff, I have some Fathom Series 312Cs; the Cranborne Audio Camden 500 Series pres are really good. It’s all surface mount but it’s so clear and transparent. And I’m just about to get my second 8801 channel strip from AMS Neve. Recording vocals on those is like nothing else, they are just so lovely. And I just bought a Neumann U67 reissue. Before, even on The Subways new album, I recorded all my vocals with a AKG Perception 220, and you can really hear it [he laughs], although there’s still some gloss to it. But the U67 is going to be the centrepiece.”

Return of The Subways

For Lunn, The Subways served in part as an extension of the learning curve he had been riding with Broudie, Vig and Street. Not only in his approach to handling the technical aspects of making a record; he was also learning how to manage the people and personalities in the band.

“One of the things that touched me most was that [bassist] Charlotte said I’d made her feel the most comfortable we’d ever felt in the studio,” he says. “So that was great, as we’ve always felt a bit tense in the studio. And it worked out in such a way that we came out with a nice punk record, but at the same time I look back and wish I could have done more. I was using exclusively an Avid Pro Tools print. There was no colour to it. Any changes I wanted to make in the mix had to be done in post and it was arduous. So, I made sure that for our new album I was using a variety of pres, EQs and compression going in – when I recorded that fourth album nothing was compressed going in.”

The new album Lunn speaks of is the band’s upcoming, as yet untitled fifth album. Once again produced by Lunn, he tells us that fans can expect a significant sonic and musical departure from The Subways.

“It was really about making sure there was a lot more character to this album,” he states. “In songwriting terms, I became obsessed with the Stranger Things soundtrack, so once I started to get into synthesizers, I had it in my head that I was going to make an album of Nirvana meets Stranger Things! That’s the direction I’ve gone in. The record label, Alcopop Records, have said they think it’s the best record we’ve ever made, so we’re really excited about it. We just had so much fun making this album.”

A release date and title for the new album remains to be set. But fans can be sure there is much to look forward to in 2022.

Photos by Sarah Louise Bennett 

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