By Jack Sharkey
In July 2011, I had the extreme pleasure of taking a motorcycle trip from British Columbia down through Montana and ending in Idaho with the ChildLine Rocks charity. As part of that event I got to listen to members of the UK bands Thunder and The Union play seriously unplugged sets every night in the bars of the respective hotels we stayed in. For a music fan, it really doesn't get much better than that.
Sharing a common love for motorcycles and music, my conversations along the way with Ben Matthews were an extreme highlight of the trip. Guitarist/keyboardist for Thunder, Ben is also a studio engineer and producer.
It should be pointed out that Ben and I rode our bikes under a waterfall of melting glacial ice in Glacier National Park, and no one else did, so yeah, consider it pointed out, but in a non-bragging sort-of-way (for those of you who chose to stay dry).
Ben was kind enough to sit down with me and reiterate the cool points from a bunch of those conversations to share here.
JS: As the lone Yank, I rode with you and the band and a bunch of other illustrious types in 2011 from British Columbia down to Idaho. This spring you’ll be taking part in the fourth Childline Rocks motorcycle run from Nashville to New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about the charity and the run itself.
Matthews: Childline Rocks – Hands Across the Water we have supported for several years now. It raises money for Childline, a charity that provides a confidential service for children. A trained counsillor is available on the end of a free phone number 24/7 for kids to talk to in total confidence, a worthy cause indeed. We encourage people to join us on our amazing Harley-Davidson bike rides in the USA. This year it takes place in the South as we’ll ride the US Highway 61 – The Blues Highway. Following in the footsteps of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and many other blues legends, it’s one of the major highlights of my year.
JS: Who do you listen to when you’re just wearing your music fan hat?
Matthews: I’m pretty much a classic rock fan, nothing makes me happier than getting the Led out for a spin or a bit of Deep Purple. Saying that, I do have a soft spot for Pat Metheny – I went to see him live and was totally blown away, far too much talent in that band.
JS: What’s your biggest pet peeve when listening to music that isn’t produced as well as it could have been?
Matthews: It’s hard to switch off the engineering side of me when I listen to music because you always think to yourself I wouldn’t have done it like that. My pet hate? It really annoys me when drum kits are mixed the wrong way round. It’s not rocket science, just ask the drummer if he’s left or right handed, he may well know.
JS: As an engineer what are your priorities as you prepare to make a recording?
Matthews: Assuming all the equipment is functioning correctly (and really you shouldn’t assume all the equipment is functioning because that will come and bite you on the ass later in the session), you need to walk around the area you’ll be recording in, get a feel for the delay time and reverb, choose a good spot to place the instruments or equipment. This is not just a matter of acoustics but also sight lines: do the musicians want to face each other? Can you see their faces from the control room? You really need to be able to read those faces as they ain’t going to be shouting what they want in their headphones during the take, they’ll be blaming you for not having it after the take. Have a backup plan for when a mic or cable goes down or a stand breaks. The quicker it gets fixed the happier everyone is. Long pauses for technical issues are a vibe killer, as opposed to long pauses for lunch or video games which appear to be perfectly acceptable (is there a hint of sarcasm in my voice?)
JS: What’s more important, the room or the gear?
Matthews: Room or gear? Not an easy question to answer in one word as it’s a bit of both! A crappy sounding amp will sound shit in an amazing room and a 1962 Marshall Bluesbreaker will sound horrible in my bedroom. Push comes to shove I’d take gear over room, but only if I’m forced to choose one.
JS: Assuming the player is rehearsed, what’s the most important thing a musician can do to get their sound prepared to make the best possible recording for their audience?
Matthews: I’m a huge believer in being in the right frame of mind before the session starts. Most musicians will take very good care their instruments and equipment, usually better than their loved ones (much to their loved ones annoyance) but if they’re really pissed off with the traffic on the drive in to the studio or they argued with the wife on the way out – you’re on a hiding to nothing. To get the best performance you need to make sure they are relaxed and happy, Neil Morrissey is the obvious exception. Trust in the engineer to capture what the musician hears in his head is paramount as is the trust needed in the producer’s ability to spot the good takes.
JS: One word: auto-tune.
Matthews: One reply – learn to sing! Why the fuck are people so hung up on perfection? I’ve never understood it. Humans aren’t perfect, music is not meant to be perfect. Mistakes and imperfection have another title – soul and feel.
JS: As a musician, do you prepare differently for a show in front of a theater audience than you do for a show in front a festival audience like the size of the audience at Monsters of Rock in Germany last summer?
Matthews: I really like this question as I really haven’t thought about it before. With huge festival audiences, and we’ve done some real biggies over the years, you have to remember that they are not solely your audience. They have come to see a selection of bands of which you are one, this means you can’t take anything for granted. We are lucky, we have a secret weapon – he’s our singer. I’ve seen him get the entire Wembley Stadium audience (over 70,000) clapping with their hands in the air. Even Eddie Van Halen mentioned it to me as I stood next to him having a piss before they went on. With a theatre show they are your's already, you’re the reason they turned up. This doesn’t mean you take them for granted but you are on safe territory. You are usually more relaxed as you are in control of all aspects of the show. You have had a soundcheck, the sound and lighting rig are to your own spec and most importantly the caterers are your's.
JS: Thunder played a show with Mott the Hoople in November at the O2 Centre, which isn’t terribly far from where you live. What’s it like to commute to work from your house to play a show in front of 20,000 people?
Matthews: That was a fun night. I have been to see some very good shows at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, The Wall with Roger Waters sticks in my mind as one of the best. So it was very nice to know we were going to play there, the fact it was a short ride from my house was the icing on the cake. Mott weren’t bad either.
JS: You did some dates with Danny [Bowes, Thunder's lead singer] a few years ago where it was just you, him, a guitar and a kazoo. The Danny and Ben CD is one of my current favorites. How does that differ than playing a full-blown Thunder gig?