Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Interview: James Darkin @ Herbert Place Studios, Dublin

James Darkin - Herbert Place Studios - Niall O'Kelly Photography
Photos: Niall O'Kelly

Info: On a sunny morning myself and Niall set off for Herbert Place Studios to interview producer James Darkin (Hozier, The Funeral Suits, Gavin James), where he operates with Marc Carolan (Muse, The Cure, Snow Patrol) and John Hanley. "Coffee, tea, water?" we were offered straight away, and would find out over the course of the next two hours that an open door and big welcome was a central part of the Herbert Place team's ethos, even if you arrive late...without delay Darkin took us on a thorough tour of the studio, which was beautiful, including an oasis of calm garden in the middle of the city out the back.

From the band room we were led into the control centre, where every imaginable piece of recording equipment was held. The main console was a behemoth, the state of the art SSL 4032 G Series used by the likes of Dr. Dre, more buttons than a Cadbury's factory. For someone like myself with zero knowledge of music production equipment I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume and array of knobs and switches, but Darkin took the time to explain what everything did, and how it worked, inputs and outputs, a stack of pre-amps, and software tools. How the myriad of technological pathways between the console and where the band performed during recording in a separate room communicated with each other. His passion for his craft was self-evident, as he explained to us in detail how different producers worked with the equipment, down to the level of what tracks on famous albums we would hear certain effects on, and how musicians set up their instruments differently to compliment studio recording equipment for the best sound.

James Darkin - Herbert Place Studios - Niall O'Kelly Photography 1

REMY: To kick off, tell me about your background in music, I presume being involved in bands and making music is where your path to production began?

James: I played in very basic garage bands in Roscommon where I'm from originally, at the very early stages, no gigs or anything, just as a teen. I wasn't really buzzing on my own musicianship, I couldn't really play for shit to be honest! So I started getting into electronic music in my early teens, influenced by some of the big 90's electronic bands. My parents played Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams in the house when I was a kid so that was my first introduction to music, followed by rock / grunge, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. 

My mind was first really blown though when I heard The Chemical Brothers and Leftfield and all that kind of stuff, I knew how a rock band worked, a guitar worked etc., but I'd no idea how these guys were making the sound they did, I never knew that I could do that, someone from Roscommon doesn't make that kind of music I thought, that's 'over there'. That changed when I started DJ-ing in my late teens, reading magazines and looking into what kind of equipment they were using, and started slowly getting into the production side, with two turntables and a mixer. 

In one magazine I saw Liam Howlett (The Prodigy) had a Roland TB-303, the classic bass module, I found one in BuyandSell magazine shortly afterwards, hopped in a taxi to Mount Brown and bought it off the guy, but later found out that it was slightly different to Howlett's, I'd acquired an MC-303. It's an all in one module, with bass, synth, sampler, sequencer and basic drum machine, very difficult to use, you need an instruction manual for the instruction manual! But this was where I started mixing tracks, in 2001-2 I started going to clubs, a regular attendee at the Red Box, and then going back to parties afterwards and playing tunes I'd made on the Roland and transferred to mini-discs, I hadn't a notion at that stage what I was doing though and knew I had to learn more about its functionality.

REMY: Did you feel your 2016 album Go No Matter What which was received very well by the likes of Hot Press, describing it as a "thrilling debut", was the culmination of all of those years of sounds poured into one place?

James: Go No Matter What was a sound that I had in my head for fifteen years, but I could never get it out, I could never make that sound with the Roland, that fusion of organic and electronic instruments, it could only come out when I had figured out how to use the technology. I also wanted it to be a mixture that lay somewhere in between my favourite albums, I wasn't really looking at modern electronic acts. I love really industrial stuff, Trent Reznor, huge fan of his, Hans Zimmer, to fuse those two with Richie Hawtin, Tale of Us, Trentemoller, with a bit of Leftfield and some Prodigy, sprinkle them all together and see what comes out, that was sort of the natural end product of the album.

REMY: How did yourself, Marc and John come together and decide to launch Herbert Place Studios together last year?

James: I worked with John in Temple Lane Studios for many years, I was there as head engineer for 6 of them, while Marc worked with JJ72 and Muse (who he has been with since 2001) which was where his path crossed with John, who toured with band's including Cowboy X as a drummer, so they go back years together. Marc had his own studio here which was called Suite Studios, and John was working for Sun, the pair of them go back a long way together. I had a room in Temple Lane where I'd been for 12 years and I was chatting with John one day and felt it was time to up and move, so when it came to Herbert Place Studios, it made a lot of sense, the infrastructure was in place, we just had to talk to Marc and see how we could make it work. It was November 2016, and at the time studios weren't in great condition, they still aren't, a lot of studios had closed down so it was a big commitment which we approached tentatively together, with baby steps and thankfully it's gone really well so far.

James Darkin - Herbert Place Studios - Niall O'Kelly Photography

REMY: You’ve worked with some great rising bands on the alternative scene here in Dublin which I’m a big fan of such as Vulpynes, Bitch Falcon, Sub Motion, Pursued By Dogs and probably one of the hottest new tickets in town right now, The Murder Capital, it must be exciting catching these groups at the outset and then watching their journeys afterwards?

James: I love it, working with fresh and enthusiastic young bands, they're keen, eager and mad for it, looking at all the equipment. A lot of bands have good technical knowledge these days, a lot of artists have their home studios nowadays, they're well up on all of that. But when they come into an environment like this we want them to get the vibe that they are entering a creative zone, some studios don't have that atmosphere. We want there to be an air of something when they come in, a creative infection, it's great to see bands come in and watch everything get boosted; their game, playing, approach, feeding off everything. 

REMY: What has been your most memorable moment since opening the doors here?

James: The biggest buzz is meeting all of the new artists we've worked with, having an idea at the outset that you think something could work, and after a huge amount of effort to ensure it happens, everything comes together. From that, artists being happy with what we've done, them leaving and telling people they've had a positive experience here after making some great music. So to summarise, it's watching the process from start to finish with acts, trying new things in recording, and everyone being excited and satisfied with the final outcome.

REMY: Finally, what’s the most important advice you can give to someone thinking about going into the world of music production?

James: Go for it, it takes time and commitment, don't be afraid of failing and stick at it, you mess up, you start again, and build those blocks from the bottom up once more. You don't have to be a musical genius or an amazing musician, you just have to love what you're doing, dedicate yourself to it, work hard, and put everything into it. 

After we finished our interview and left, the positivity I'd seen from bands on social media and had conversations with face to face during my time interviewing them with The Sound Feed was reflected in my own experience. Not only was Herbert Place an aesthetically pleasing studio to visit, from when you enter into the band room with its Georgian wooden floors, but the generosity with both time and hospitality of our host (including PJ!) was heart-warming. As Darkin said when we concluded our interview; "It doesn't matter if you come in here just to read the phone-book, if you are a famous well-known musician, or are just starting out and recording your first ever track, each person will get treated with the same respect and attention regardless, and that's our ethos."


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