Los Angeles based producer Tommy English tells us what it was like making the BØRNS record and gives us a peak into his production mind. Tommy has been putting out some of the coolest music and is helping to carve out the modern rock/alternative sound. His work can be heard from New Politics, Ladyhawke, 5 Seconds of Summer, Against the Current, Dark Waves, and Robert Delonge.
Tell us about your method for producing and how you tackle a song idea that an artist might bring you.
It depends a lot on the artist. If it’s a band it’s about figuring out, sonically, what the best ‘version’ of that band might sound like and how to begin to make that happen. If it’s a solo artist, I’m usually co-writing as well. So for me initially it’s about sound design and finding something interesting sounding to get an idea started. Usually something a little weird that gets a vibe started. Then building a song from there.
You’re a native of Chicago now residing in LA, do you find that the change in your geographical location influenced your taste and sound?
There is just so much music being made in LA. Even just among my close friends there are so many talented artists and producers here. It’s easy to be inspired when you are surrounded by fresh music. It’s also true that the weather and location seems to influence things, but I don’t know how that works. I think the sunshine just soaks into things.
Many producers had one mentor who brought out the excitement of the craft within them, did you have such a mentor when you started production?
Johnny K [owner of Groovemaster Recording Studios in Chicago] taught me so much about producing and mixing. My last band recorded with him and I got to work under him a bit as an engineer and mixer. He’s old school and has a great deal of respect for the craft. He taught me to respect every part of the process, even the unglamorous tedious parts – like spending the extra hours getting an uncooperative guitar in tune or getting one lyric totally perfect. With Johnny, like a lot of great producers, every single decision about making a record is a thoughtful one.
Who are some of the artists you’ve recently worked with?
In the past year or so the focus has mainly been producing albums for Ladyhawke, Against the Current, and BØRNS. Also songs here and there for other artists like Dark Waves, Robert DeLonge, New Politics.
How did you come to work with Garrett Borns of BØRNS? What was the music making process like and what things did you learn from your venture with him?
We met through our mutual friend Titanic Sinclair who suggested we work together. The process was about experimenting and finding his identity as Børns, which took some time. Garrett is a one of a kind talent, and someone like him could pull off a variety of styles very convincingly. So the challenge was to find a sound that is uniquely his own, and one that speaks to his personality and musical background. It was really about trying different styles and slowly developing a sort of unspoken rule-book as to what ‘Børns’ is. That goes for sounds, lyrics, instrumentation. There’s sort of a musical framework we’ve developed in the studio over time, and now we don’t have to talk about it or really think about it that much. Like a band.
Now to a bit of gear talk, tell us about some of your favorite pieces of gear to make noise with?
I have this guitar amp, we call the Birdhouse. It’s on semi-permanent loan from Nick of Dark Waves. His friend made it I believe from one of his mother’s old birdhouses. It’s the only amp he ever made. It’s a really weird little rickety amp with four unlabeled knobs and a 8″ speaker. I use it on everything. Also I’m obsessed with Earthquaker Devices pedals, especially the Ghost Echo. I also love my Juno 6. I like using the arpeggiator to add a bit of chaos to a track that might seem too square. It’s impossible to sync the arp up to anything so it always makes things a little woozy sounding.
How did you hear about the Little Blondies?
I read about them on a forum. I was looking for a stereo SDC pair to mic my upright piano.
What was your first impression of the Little Blondies and how do you use them?
I was amazed how much they capture the sound of the room. It really sounds like you are sitting in the room. The only way I can describe it is it’s like 3D sound.
Tell me your philosophy of creating and capturing sounds using room space.
Sometimes I’ll have the Little Blondies set up as stereo room mics in the control room while I’m mixing. Certain things like virtual synths can come off sounding fake or dry. Recording things like that off the mains with the room mics can help put them in a space, and give it more of an ‘in the room’ vibe. It’s subtle but it makes a big difference when something just isn’t sitting right in a mix.
How much critical listening do you do vs listening to music for pleasure?
Any time I am listening to music it is definitely both. I can’t listen to a song without thinking about the recording process.
What’s the future looking like for you, and what new projects of yours can we look forward to?
This month I’m in with a new band Tigertown from Australia who I love. Going to try to develop another new artist next year and been doing some cool collaborations with other producers and artists so we’ll see what comes out of all that.
What advice can you offer young producers?
Just keep doing it. The learning curve never ends.
And finally, do you have any “Blonde” moments in the studio you can share with us?
I forget to plug things in a lot. Pretty much daily I’ll spend 5 minutes trying to figure out what is wrong with a guitar or synth only to realize it’s not plugged in. Yesterday I thought the birdhouse amp was broken because I had mistakenly plugged in a space heater instead.