Victor Van Vugt Producer Interview
Miloco Recording Studios, August 2008
In 2008 record producer Victor Van Vugt came to Miloco Recording Studios to produce the debut album from The Rushes, the latest band to feature on the CV of a man who has helped the likes of Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Beth Orton and Billy Bragg on their way to stardom. So, it was great that we had the chance to meet the man himself, to discuss all sorts from his home studio in the Big Apple through to questionable airline cuisine! Here's is Miloco's Victor Van Vugt Producer Inrterview...
MILC: So how are you, Victor?
Victor: I'm excellent, thank you. Just getting some rest after finishing a record and feeling good......
MILC: Enjoying the events of 2008 so far, we hope. What have you been up to in the first few weeks of the year?
Victor: I've just finished a record for a talented guy from Manchester, Liam Frost. Great guy, great band and great songs. Can't really ask for more than that.
MILC: It was great having you with us in our Neve and Garden studios in the latter half of last year, when you were working with The Rushes tracking their debut album. How did the sessions go?
Victor: The sessions with the Rushes went really well too. Another band who are great musicians, great guys with great songs. I've been very lucky recently. And of course being in Miloco is always a good and fun experience.
MILC: There must be certain things you look for in a band before you agree to work with them. What do you think initially attracted you to working with The Rushes?
Victor: The two main criteria I always have when agreeing to work with a band are great songs and whether I feel as if I have something to add. Sometimes I hear a band with great songs but don't have strong opinions about how to move them forward. Often because I'm not very versed in the genre they are playing or I feel that they should be just left alone to their own devices but sometimes there are other reasons that I just cant put my finger on.
MILC: Tinkering around on the band's MySpace, as you do, I came across an interesting self-description they'd given themselves; "we're into songs, not scenes". Would you say this ethic has proven healthy in getting the most out of them individually and creatively?
Victor: Well, I would say exactly the same about myself, so that helped us work together. I think it's a great attitude for a band to have as it does free them up to try things and be focused on just making the most of a song without restrictions of what's in vogue or not. Of course a great band will always have it's own distinctive sound as a great band is a collection of people expressing themselves, which everybody should encourage and with the good bands the combination works.
MILC: This project was of course a debut album. Are there any aspects about working with a band on their debut, which you find particularly enjoyable in terms of being a different experience to say an artist's third or fourth album?
Victor: Yeah, it's usually like working with kids in a toyshop. They are keen to try things out and are curious as to where things may go rather than restricting the outcome by having predetermined ideas of how the song will end up. Of course working on a band's third or fourth album has it's good points too.
MILC: Are there any aspects you find less enjoyable?
Victor: It's easy for all of us in the industry to forget that a band will be nervous about entering into a studio for the first time. Hopefully one can remember this and ease them into it but just those nerves and self-doubt can slow down getting a good performance out of a musician. I much prefer to spend time on creating than labouring over a part I know the musician could play easily in a rehearsal room or on stage.
MILC: Miloco have a reputation for catering for new bands, amongst others. How do you feel (from experiencing the Miloco studios you worked in with The Rushes) young artists benefit from bringing their early projects to Miloco?
Victor: There are many reasons. The main ones that come to mind are the fact that it has a great atmosphere, not too clinical with very nice people working there. The bands feel relaxed and at home quickly. This is also because it is very well managed and maintained. The best studio experience is when you don't know you are in a studio. Break downs, bad assistants and when practical problems are present will all really ruin a session's progress quickly. Especially when there's self doubt bubbling under the surface to start off with. There's also the fact that there's great gear all at a good price. This takes more pressure away from the band.
MILC: We often like to hear the various opinions from producers and engineers over the increasing trends towards digital in the modern recording industry. What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of the growing prominence of digital practices in the studio?
Victor: All the complaints I hear about Protools can be put down to operator error as far as I'm concerned. People say that it makes records to clinical, where I would say that it actually allows you to keep first takes and repair them if necessary, even demos. Dropping into a good performance for two notes can be a downward spiral and one can end up entirely redoing what was a great take apart for a couple of bad notes or beats. Sure the digital domain is clean but there are is so much gear out there now to bring back some dirt or irregularities in the signal, I can't see that argument holding up. It's also the quality of the equipment. Bands compare their demos recorded by themselves on a $400.00 interface with their favourite record recorded by a great engineer onto a $50,000.00 tape machine and draw conclusions about the medium from that. I always say that the importance of the chain starts with the song, then the musician, then the instrument, then the amplifier, then the microphone, then the preamp or desk, then the compressor and right down at the end is the medium it's recorded onto.
In saying all that though, if a band feels more comfortable using tape, I will use it without argument. Whatever helps them feel more comfortable is fine by me. It's better than having to all wear clogs in the studio or meditate before takes or something nebulous like that.
MILC: Do you find yourself generally moving with the trends and using digital technology more and more, or are you inclined to stick to old school analogue techniques and equipment in your own work?
Victor: I love Protools but find myself using analogue techniques I guess. I will push for a great complete take. Comp takes together and delete out takes straight away. I make decisions as I go. None of this 96 tracks of choices. Why shouldn't you decide right then when you're in the moment and song? As far as other equipment goes, I try hard to research what's actually good and what's hype. There's great gear being made now and there was crap being made in the sixties. One should use one's ears.
MILC: Tell us a bit about your own home studio setup back in New York. Have you got it to a point where you have everything you'll ever need at your disposal at home?
Victor: It's not so much of a home studio, more of a working space. It's not at home to start with, which is so great. It's got a small live room, big enough to record vocals, guitars, that sort of thing. I had an eight piece Balkan brass band in there last year. That sort of stretched the capabilities to the maximum. I have a handful of microphones, pre amps and compressors but only very good ones, good monitors and such. Enough to do any overdub at the best quality possible. I'll go into a studio like Miloco to record a band set up and then go back to mine to spend time experimenting. It's nice to have time to experiment and know the quality is good. Of course, I'm always wanting more gear. I'm a boy / man after all. It's also my shed. If I have a hangover I can just say that I'm off to work and sleep it off on the sofa without being hounded.
MILC: What projects have you been working on back home over the last year?
Victor: I just finished Liam Frost's record which we tracked at a studio similar to Miloco for a couple weeks over in New York and did all the overdubs and mixing at mine. I recorded Gogol Bordello's and Voxtrot's records exactly the same way. I also mixed Australian bands called The Panics and Sarah Blasko at mine. It was a busy year when you include the months over in London working with The Rushes at Miloco.
MILC: Taking a quick glance at your lengthy CV, you've worked with some tremendous artists throughout your years as a record producer. If you could go back and re-live the time you spent making one of those records, which would you choose...
Victor: Hmmm, that's a tough one. Trying very, very hard not to sound pretentious, I would prefer not to revisit the past. If I had to, without naming names, the ones where I got on with the band so well we laughed most of the time. Oh, and the records I know I could do so much better now with hindsight. I know that's not really answering your question but it's the truth and the limit of what I think about records I've done.
MILC: Two names which have become somewhat synonymous with your career in music are Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Beth Orton. As a producer and engineer, what do you find you learn most about working with artists of that calibre, especially having worked with both for a long time?
Victor: Working with Nick Cave taught me the most valuable thing and that is to make the studio as invisible as possible. It's not a technical exercise, it's a creative one and musicians, especially The Bad Seeds don't have the patience of setting up and thinking about the technical side. They just want to play, NOW!!! Both artists care about the song more than anything, which is a great inspiration. It is very liberating to forget about everything else but a song, what it means and where it will lead, nothing else.
MILC: What do you think they've learnt from working with you? (no need for modesty !!!)
Victor: Ha! Some patience! As much as is needed to get a good performance or at least an illusion of a great performance. I'm into details and try to keep a balance of tightness and expression.
MILC: All producers have their own individual style when at work. Do you approach each record you work on with a similar plan of how you will produce it, or do you prefer to go in with a more "anything's possible, let's see where it takes us" sort of attitude?
Victor: I will hopefully have lived with the demos for a while and have accumulated ideas of what to try and what might help each of the songs. I'll start from there but of course there are so many variables it would be foolish to stick to those ideas without flexibility. The musicians with have their own take on those ideas and bring something unforeseen to the picture. I also really believe that every studio has it's own sound and atmosphere which definitely rubs off on the recording. You've got to try lots of things and see what's best at the time.
The only constant is experience let's me know what mistakes not to make again and what type of technique, instrument or gear can get a desired result quickly.
MILC: I dug out an interview Athlete did with BBC Suffolk, as it happens, where bassist Carey let it be known that the reason you didn't produce their third album, having produced the first two, was that you'd actually encouraged the band to get into production more. They certainly listened!! Did you mean to encourage them to the extent that they ended up doing it all themselves??
Victor: They are smart guys, have lots of good ideas and unusually, can bridge the task of being a performer and listener. They are together as people and listen to each other without ego or insecurity getting in the way. Not many bands have all that (I absolutely don't think it's a prerequisite to be a great band) but I think they have what is needed to produce themselves. Too often, when a band produces themselves, they lose the bigger picture. They might think they can do it because they have many ideas but nobody is editing. The record ends up a mess of lots of interesting parts that negate each other. Or no ideas at all but standard beats, chord progressions and sounds.
MILC: It wouldn't be a Milco interview without a few banter questions, so here are a few less serious ones.
Let's have some preferences...
London, New York or Sydney?
Victor: New York. Everyday I learn something new on the subway ride into the studio. "Wow, I've never seen that before".
MILC: British Airways, American Airlines or Qantas?
Victor: American Airlines, only because I'm a platinum member so I can use the posh check-in and lounge. They are also connected to Qantas so when travelling to Australia I will definitely use my frequent flyer miles to upgrade and get to lay down. Can't say much for the pizza and ice cream, they pass off as a mid flight meal though!
MILC: Cricket, Rugby or Aussie Rules?
Victor: Mud wrestling.
MILC: Last but certainly not least...
You get a call one day from an artist requesting your services for their new record. You can choose which artist it is, and it can be any. What's the dream ticket?
Victor: I've always said Ray Charles - for years. I know that's not possible now but this is just a dream isn't it?
MILC: Is there anything you would have done differently given a second chance?
Victor: Not married my first wife and some haircuts in the eighties.
MILC: Which moment or work in you career would you single out as being the most important for your transition into a top producer?
Victor: Argh, that's so hard to answer directly as every record has taught me something. Maybe "The God Son" by Nick Cave because record companies took me more seriously after that.
MILC: If it weren't a career in music, what do you think it could have been instead?
Victor: I studied at film school and loved that but who knows if I had the talent or desire to keep a career going up to now?
MILC: Any future projects you're doing that you'd like to tell us about?
Victor: No. I try not to talk about future projects until they are well underway and going well. It's too embarrassing or boring to explain why they didn't happen. Let's just say that I'm very optimistic about the future of music and am looking forward to hearing more music that is moving forward, not backward.
Victor Van Vugt was talking to Miloco in August 2008.
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