Chart-topping frontman, legendary producer and music industry businessman with interests including Sarm, Perfect Songs, ZTT and Stiff. Now Trevor Horn is turning his hand to a new talent as a musical composer.
Under a new manager, Sandy Dworniak, he has teamed up with former 10cc man Lol Crème to pen a stage production set appropriately enough in a recording studio.
“I’ve nearly finished it,” he tells Music Week, revealing: “I’m a big fan of musicals. I got to see a lot of them. The musical Billy Elliot was brilliant. That’s the best modern one I’ve seen. I loved that.”
It marks a new departure for Horn, best known as the lead singer of Video Killed The Radio Star chart-toppers Buggles and ace producer of such albums as ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasure Dome, various from Seal and more recently Robbie Williams’ Reality Killed The Radio Star (see what he did there?).
Besides the musical, Horn talks to Music Week about what else he has been up to, how he became a record producer in the first place and whether it is still possible to make a living out of the profession.
You have worked with so many people over the years - is there anyone left?
I always like working with people who’ve got really good songs and something they want to say. I don’t care if it’s a first record or a 15th record. In fact, if anything I prefer the first record. I don’t really like going through the motions. I like things where there’s something in it. Like Johnny Borrell, I did his sort of album and Johnny definitely felt like he had something to say, he had to get it out and I like that. ABC: Martin [Fry] had something to say. Seal had a whole new view of the world, Future Love Paradise or whatever. He was saying something.
Do you get lots of approaches or do people think you are probably too busy?
Most people think I’m way too expensive so they don’t bother.
Are you way too expensive?
It depends how much I like the music. I like to do a good job of things.
What do you make of the way production is often done these days with songwriter/producer teams - sometimes a whole series of them for one album?
It obviously depends who you are, but when I started out I wrote sort of three songs for Dollar with Bruce Woolley and then I produced the records, but then I thought if I just write them it’s really going to limit me. In the same way, if I have to play on every record I make then that’s going to limit the kinds of records I make. Back then in the Eighties you could still earn money from selling records so I didn’t [write] . If you look at all the Seal albums I’ve done I’m not credited anywhere as a writer. Frankie Goes To Hollywood I’m not credited as a writer, yet we chopped that stuff up a lot, but I had this ethic I was the producer. That was paramount. These days writer/producer teams are fine. It works. It’s a different sort of job really, because all the stuff, all the keyboards that we had to buy in the Eighties, now you can get all of those sounds so easily. It’s a different world.
You mention you like to work with new artists. Some of the biggest records you worked on like ABC’s Lexicon Of Love you didn’t subsequently work on the second albums. Were there circumstances there?
There were circumstances with ABC because I was wrestling with [the creation of Frankie single] Relax and they kept saying to me, “You’ve got to start our second album.”?I said I couldn’t and, “You’ve just got to wait until I finish this one.” Mark [White] the guitar player said, “We wouldn’t wait for God that long so we’re certainly not waiting for you,” which I thought was funny at the time because I said, “You’ve got to let me have another four weeks” or whatever. So that was the reason I never did the second one - but after the second one I was off and running somewhere else anyway.
Do you think there’s a chance of working with Robbie Williams again?
Yeah, I thought there was a nice album we made together.
At the time of making the album he said it was the most positive he had ever been creatively.
He was lovely - I saw him the other day coming in here. We had a cuddle and I said I’d been writing a musical. It was nice to see him and there’s a couple of tracks on that record I really love. I though the first single was great, Bodies, I thought was hilarious, really good fun and Deceptacon and a couple of other things that I’ve got on my own personal playlist. He looks in good shape and has got a great voice, too.
Is it still possible to make a living out of being a producer these days?
Oh yeah, especially if you work on the Adele album. If you’re a producer, my advice is: if Adele phones up take the job.
Can you make it just as a producer now?
No, you have to be a songwriter as well.
People can now record their music on their laptops, so what is it that a great studio and great producer can still add to the recording?
It’s not just the right producer, it’s the right manager and the right song. It’s surprising what producers can bring to certain things. In the case of a band like Yes where I’ve done quite a few albums with them - I’ve been a Yes fan since year dot - I just run the whole thing because it stops them falling out with each other. The thing about an old school producer you’re the central focus of the making of the record. Every decision comes back to you so when everyone’s gone home you and the engineer are still there at 1 o’clock in the morning. Back in the Eighties it was sometimes trying to figure out how to get something sounding like it was in tune with whatever we had at the time. It’s trying to get something to sound in time by slicing bits out of a two-inch tape in the late Seventies, early Eighties, whatever you had to do to get that record finished. And, of course, a recording studio like [Sarm] isn’t like your bedroom. It takes a bit of learning. This is like my bedroom studio is, but back in the Seventies people would have no way of getting anywhere near [Sarm’s quality] unless they actually came in. You might be a writer with a great script but unless you know the process of making a great film your first film will be terrible. Well, exactly the same thing happens when they come in here.
Can you remember when you first came across the phrase ‘record producer’?
Yes, I do. I was aware when I was 14 that George Martin produced The Beatles and I was intrigued by it and I saw him on television and I thought, “He’s a bit like a music teacher,” but I didn’t really understand what he did. Then I remembered looking at the producer credits on records: Andrew Loog Oldham and the Glimmer Twins and weird stuff on Rolling Stones records. I was obsessed with recording and recording studios.
I started playing when I was about 11 and by the time I was 15 or 16 I was playing semi-pro, playing bass guitar. My dad was a bass player so I used to stand in for him so the whole producer thing didn’t really happen. When I was about 24 I built a studio with another guy in Leicester and we were working seven nights [a week] at a nightclub while we were doing it and because we got no work we put an ad in the paper. Some guys came around with songs that they had for the Leicester Song Competition. We got these guys’ song out, gave it a structure and arrangement and somebody said to me, “You know what you did there was being a record producer” and I was like, “That’s what record producers do?” I had no idea. But he said, “If you become a record producer the production of the record is more important than being a bass player so that comes first.”?It took me five years after that to get a hit.
Those records you made in the Eighties like the Frankie Goes To Hollywood ones still sound ultra-modern today...
That’s the funny thing because in a way they were the first time you heard that kind of record. I just had this idea of making pop records with a mechanical rhythm because I liked Kraftwerk. All records have got mechanical rhythm sections now, but that was the big idea then.
Those records are still heavily hammered on the radio as well.
Yeah, thank God. If they sound good it’s because we were in studios like [Sarm] to analogue tapes even though they were digital records. A lot of people in the music business have come from Sarm and they’ve been trained here and I’m pretty proud of all the people who we’ve worked with. They’ve all gone on to do really good things. If you can work for me you can work for everybody.