Finding studio space in London is a tricky business. Spiralling rent costs on commercial buildings, allied to developers’ insatiable appetites for throwing up blocks of flats wherever they can squeeze them in, mean that property is at a premium in the capital and the outlay needed to acquire the space needed for a successful studio is often prohibitive. Throw into the mix the amount of noise created and a few angsty neighbours who have the local council on speed dial and you’ve got the recipe for a whole load of hassle and bliss free recording.
When Rory Attwell found himself sans studio, having been kicked out of his previous one by the latest wave of Dalston developers, he remembered an interesting proposition fellow producer Ben Phillips had put to him around a year earlier. Ben had mentioned a project he’d embarked upon to bring a boat, previously used to guide ships up the Thames estuary, from Kent to Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London and converted it into a recording studio.
“It was a bit of a weird one” remembers Rory, kicking back with a cup of tea below deck on the Lightship95. “Ben contacted me about it because he has similar taste to me and records similar bands. I think at the time loads of stuff was coming out with my name on it and he saw that and thought it would be quite good to join forces. I got back to him about it but we didn’t actually sort it out until around a year later when it turned out that someone wanted to knock my studio down and build flats on it. That’s kind of what happens with everything in Dalston, people move in and do something useful and then it gets bulldozed because they’ve made the area a bit nicer and it’s worth something. So a year later I asked Ben if he was still up for it and he was.”
Having been in the middle of a particularly prolific purple patch before the move there was always a risk that bands may not be as keen to follow Rory to his new maritime home, but with a 50’s style American Diner next door on shore, and a remote controlled drawbridge, visitors were smitten before they even checked out the recording space. “I was a bit worried when I first started doing things here” says Rory. “I think my rates went up slightly when I moved in here, and I was a bit like ‘What if people don’t want to come?’. It turned out to be a lot busier, I’ve struggled to squeeze in the people I need to be in here, there’s so many people that want to be here now. I think maybe that’s got something to do with the fact that it’s on a boat. Maybe people are going ‘We could go here... or we could go here... or we could go on a BOAT!’ I think everyone is pretty impressed with it because it’s quite hard to tell from photographs exactly what it looks like or how big it is and what’s in there. It’s such a big space I think most people are a bit shocked when they see the boat in real life because it’s fucking massive; it’s not like being on a barge or something.”
When boarding the Lightship95 there’s an immediately noticeable rocking motion, but it’s one that is easy to acclimatise to as opposed to the type that leads to lunches taking a trip overboard. Rory has spent so much time on the boat he’s started to encounter a different problem. “You get used to the disorientating boat rocking after about a day or so, although for a little while I was getting a bit wobbly on land. I was going to the pub and having a drink and then slowly swaying to one side and thinking ‘Hold on a minute, am I pissed after one drink?’... I had a bit of a land legs situation going on.”
The live room and control room are situated below deck in the hull of the ship, and they’ve been almost constantly occupied since Rory set up shop, with more projects being thrown at him than he has time to take on. “I’m starting to get more well-established bands and it’s cool to try stuff like that out. It’s a bit more of a challenge because they’ve already been around for a while and so have certain expectations. It’s still quite nice to pick random bands, like if you hear someone’s crappy recording from their band practice that sounds like someone’s being murdered or something and you can’t really tell what’s going on but you get the impression in might be alright... I quite like to still just have a shot in the dark with stuff like that. It doesn’t always work out but for the most part you find some interesting stuff, plus you get to work with younger people. I don’t want to work with bands that’ve been around for 10 years all the time; it’s nice to work with new bands and people who might not have been in a studio before. It’s interesting to see what they come up with... it’s sometimes a bit bizarre.”
The role of a producer is almost universally accepted as being a key element in the creation of a successful album but it’s one that can drastically differ from project to project. “Sometimes it might be a case where people are a bit lost on what they’re trying to achieve and I have to take on quite a big role as a producer, trying to form it into something and help them out with it” explains Rory. “There’s other people who’ve got their ideas a bit more settled and it just sounds good off the bat because they’ve been playing their songs for 2 or 3 years and there’s a bit less room for manoeuvre as far as actual production goes and it’s just about me making it sound good.”
Rory’s take on making something sound good is to try and convey as much of the experience of seeing a band live as possible. “This sounds a bit lame but I generally try to capture the energy of what people are doing. I hear a lot of stuff that other producers are doing and it sounds really overworked, like a really polished studio recording that doesn’t have much character. I try and take elements of the fact I want it to sound like a big studio recording but still sound as exciting as if you were going to watch a band. I think, just from growing up, I’d always go and watch a band then buy their CD and it’d be really underwhelming. With Pro Tools and everything like that, you can edit everything up and cut everything to shit and it’s almost harder not to do it. It’s harder to leave everything as it is, with maybe a small mistake in it... I think some people come to me after they’ve had really bad experiences with other producers who’ve really changed the way they sound.”
Having enjoyed his ridiculously productive 2012 there’s some big albums on the way in 2013 from bands that boarded the Lightship95 to work with Rory. “There’s a Let’s Wrestle album which I think is really great” says Rory, going through just a few of the records he’s produced which are to be released over the next couple of months. “That was a bit of a pressure one for me because Steve Albini did their last one. I’ve finished a Veronica Falls album and the whole thing is done and mastered and I think it sounds really great. I worked with them when they didn’t even have a band name years ago, so it’s nice to be able to finish this album which I think is full of amazing songs. I’ve done an album with Big Deal as well which I’m really excited about; I think it’s going to be really good. More recently I’ve been doing some stuff with that band Palma Violets, which is kind of weird because they’re becoming this big, massive indie band who are on the front cover of the NME and stuff so I’m thinking ‘Shit, I don’t know what’s going to go on with that’. It’s going to be a new thing for me because the majority of tracks on their album are going to be produced by me and this album is potentially going to be very big, so it’s a weird one for me.”
Words by Paddy Hughes
Photographs: Tom Armstrong