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Without the Trees

Pitch Black – Paddy Free and Mike Hodgson – have been in the vanguard of New Zealand electronica, dub and dance for more decades than even they care to recall. They brought hi-tech light and sound to their performances and over a series of albums stretched the boundaries and possibilities of the sonic range of electronica.

Outside of Pitch Back which has been an intermittent affair in recent years as they pursued other opportunities, Paddy Free has been a member of Moana and the Tribe and – in addition to his solo work along the axis of electronica with taonga puoro as on his Karekare album – he has brought real sonic punch to the production of their recent work.

But it was a pleasant surprise to learn recently that Pitch Back had a new album Filtered Senses -- nine years on from their last, Rude Mechanicals -- ready to go.

That album is out now so it seems timely to invite Paddy Free to answer our Famous Elsewhere Producer Questionnaire . . .

The song where you really first heard the production was . . .

My parents had The Beatles'’ Magical Mystery Tour on two 45’s. I used to play I Am The Walrus over and over again back to back, when I was about 6 years old. Lifting the needle off and starting it again. I distinctly remember that no other record had “those SOUNDS” in it. By which I mean the orchestral meltdown in the middle going into ““sitting in an English garden” ” and the devolution into sonic chaos at the end.

The first time I’m aware of hearing “production” and knowing that it was actually called production was listening to the Alan Parsons Project “Eye in the Sky” on a friend’s stereo round at their house sometime in the early 80s. It was a much better system than we had at home, and I remember being struck by the clarity of the sound. Parsons WAS the engineer on Pink Floyd’'s Dark side of Moon (though I didn'’t discover that one until later) so he knows a thing or two about studio knob-twiddling!

Ever bought an album for the producer rather than the artist? If so which?

Not that I can remember most of my favourite artists have tended to be their own producers as well.

The one producer you will always listen to, even if they disappointed you previously, is?

Brian Eno - I love the man’s approach! I especially love that since the internet came along and we can suddenly see a plethora of films and interviews with artists and producers etc, Eno seems always so anti-obfuscation when he talks about his process. he always speaks about it openly and clearly without trying to make it mysterious or “more complicated than it is”.

As producers: George Martin or Joe Meek; Phil Spector or Rick Rubin; Quincy Jones or Dr Dre; Brian Eno or Nigel Godrich?

George Martin (see above!)

Rick Rubin - Man that guy has RANGE! Hip Hop to Industrial to Metal to Electronic to Johnny Cash to Quincy Jones - just too many classics!

Brian Eno (see above!)

The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear because they so well produced are . . .

This Island Earth by Coldcut - fantastic sub-bass and drums with a crazy-passionate vocal performance. One of my go-to references for production. The whole Coldcut “Sound Mirrors” album is incredible. That what happens when a “street” album gets a big-studio / big-budget mix.

Better Things by Massive Attack. The intimacy and emotion of Tracey Thorne’s vocal is heartbreaking! And what other song has a music bed that sounds remotely like that? The same could be said for so many Massive Attack songs - Protection / Teardrop / Angel / Inertia Creeps – it just goes on and on. Again, I think you could characterise it a “street” styles that have a big-studio mix on them.

Anything by International Observer/Tom Bailey. He totally sets the bar for me. How he modernises Reggae and Dub styles with this what I’'d call “pointillist” style so many amazing sounds pop in and out of the mix just once, never to be heard again, it’s like having delightful friends who’s company you love, popping round unannounced all the time. So much ear-candy!!

166936The recording studio you'd most like to visit just to get the vibe would be . . .?

Compass Point Studios, Monserrat where Grace Jones recorded all her incredible genre-blending stuff in the early 80s. No doubt it’s quite a different setup now, though.

The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .

“Drumming at the Edge of Magic” by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead is pretty cool. “How Music Works” by David Byrne I enjoyed immensely. Again, he has such a clear de mystifying style of writing that I find so appealing.

If you could co-produce with anyone it would be . . .

Yello (Boris Blank and Dieter Meier) making a Yello album. Or Eno. Or David Byrne.

The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . .

Actually the last CD I bought was in an op-shop just yesterday while my wife checked out clothes. Regatta De Blanc by The Police for $3, just so I could have a CD-quality copy of Walking on the Moon.

One song, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you would be . . .

Oh Yeah by Yello. Yes I know Deka killed it by using it in their ads, but it came out in 1985, nothing sounded like it and nothing still does! Such an accessible track, while having such a unique and eccentric sound-set.

Analogue or digital; vinyl, CD or streaming?

Well I produce in digital, of course, but I agree with all the arguments that high-end analog sounds better. I haven’t bought a vinyl for more than 30 years since I’m not a DJ. I’ll often buy CD’s as its still in many cases the only way to buy an uncompressed file. Streaming’s fine for the radio-equivalent in headphones or the car.

Production on a daily basis: What's the ratio of inspiration/perspiration?

20/80 I reckon.

Ever woken up hearing the sound of a song fully-formed in your head? If so which one?

No. But I do tend to wake up from “watching” a “movie” in my head quite often! I mean like full narrative movie with a plot turns, dialog and multiple scenes, which I “watch” from an audience perspective (ie they’re not happening to me) I quite often half-wake from such a dream, realise groggily that it was a “movie” dream, and I’ll go back to sleep and keep watching the second half!

Filtered_Senses____RGBAnd finally, what do you as a producer bring to an artist which you believe can be your unique contribution?

I'’ll always bring an instinctive response to something when I hear it for the first time. Whether I think its good or bad, I know how to trust my instincts and respond emotionally to the work. Following on from that first encounter with something, I’'ve got a few skills and techniques to progress/polish/finish the idea. If where we are is good, or great, I’ll take that energy I’'ve just received and build on it, trying to improve and amplify the feelings I’m buzzing on. If it’s not-so-good or not-quite-there-yet I'’ll go to work on removing the “offending” thing. It could be an element that I feel is lacking in a certain passion or an emotional truth, I can always identify why an element isn’t yet making sweet sweet love to my ear-holes!

When you’re working with an artist it’s like batting the ball back and forth over the net: I’m trying to have a great game, or a fantastic rally with them where the end result is we both are winners, and the song is quality. There are as many ways to produce as there are producers, but mainly, the producer serves as a-human-who-isn’t-the-artist in these situations.

A foil, a coach, a ringmaster, a cheerleader, a babysitter, a technocrat . . . a producer could be all, or any of the above at any given time. I’m there to help make the million connected, sequential decisions: Is that better, or worse? Is that feel like more love, or less love?

You connect those dots, or decisions, hundreds of times a day and you end up somewhere!

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