A cold, dark evening sees me pull up on John Street, Sheffield, just past the renowned Stag Works, which has been home to countless practice rooms ranging from Reverend and the Makers to Book Club, Heebie Jeebies to Hiem, plus a more than a few recording studios too. Tonight though the Harland Works next door is my destination to meet Alan Smyth, a true local legend, though that definition would no doubt make him laugh.
In these parts though no-one would argue with his status, as main man of his beloved 2fly recording studios for the past 10 years or so, he has helped launch many careers not least Arctic Monkeys, Long Blondes and Reverend Jon McClure.
More of that later though the first task is getting into 2fly which is like a fortress, as I search for Alan’s mobile number a young lady comes to my rescue and summons one of tonight’s visiting band Dead like Harry to open the front door. I am greeted by Alan’s fellow resident recording engineer / producer Dave Sanderson, whose own CV is very impressive in its own right; Dave led me to Alan’s inner sanctum upstairs where I am greeted with a smile and warmth.
Alan Smyth ‘s musical journey began as a small child being given canisters with rice in them to shake, his Dad played jazz trumpet, the doctor who delivered him played double bass, an auntie was part of a group called The Rhythm Sisters during the war and his uncle played jazz guitar a very musical family. Alan says with fondness “My Dad played trumpet all the time, when we went on holiday the trumpet was in the car, he’d get it out at the strangest moments and just blow it and things would just happen. We were taken into French Chateau’s and stuff like that, so my childhood was music all the time!”
“we helped to lift Sheffield music from the doldrums, nearly all of the stuff that flew came from here” he adds with his usual modesty “I’m either lucky or quite good.”
Alan loved music and was making up tunes on the piano when aged four, and formed his own band with schoolmates when five, playing plastic guitar, progressing to a real guitar aged 12 Alan continues “I wanted to document what I was doing so with a reel to reel tape recorder I recorded the sound onto that then played it back and had a portable cassette player recording the output from the speaker whilst playing something else, so I had a two track.
I was always playing piano but the guitar was something I also wanted to play but my dad didn’t, so he refused to support it unless I learned to play piano properly, so we had a stand off. I started playing in bands when I was about 14 and bought a bass guitar off a mate who couldn’t play it. You only had to play ‘dum dum dum’ and you could get in a band.”
“I’ve always written songs but I’m not a great player” he confesses, he is surely doing himself a disservice but he insists “I always seem to be able to surround myself with great players, cos I can write a good tune. That happened from the first band onwards, I can play but I’m not great, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I taught myself and can’t play anybody else’s tunes.”
Disillusionment even came to someone with music as entrenched in his blood as Alan as he admits “When I was 20 I’d had enough of music and sold everything, the guitars, amps, everything !” then he bursts in laughter “ then three weeks later I bought back the guitar and the amp, I realised I couldn’t survive without it.”
Life then took him to Uni doing a Fine Arts degree (at Birmingham); he loved it, did sculpture and was offered a one man show. “I used to make machines in wood that fell apart, but everyone else loved it. The show was at Hanley, Stoke On Trent, which was Museum of the year, and they put my piece right next to a Henry Moore” and adds with obvious understatement “so I was really pleased about that”.
Even after that Alan chose music as his career direction and moved to Sheffield and set up Tootaboo studio on Sheldon Rd, near the Wicker, and recorded the likes of Slap 14 and Splash for £6 an hour!
He carries on the history lesson “It was sandwiched between the old FON Studio and Vibrasound. When a fire started in the floor below it smoke damaged everything and screwed it up for me good and proper. Then I tried to set up a studio in premises in Hackenthorpe that had steam hammer rights so I could make as much noise as I liked but unfortunately I went into partnership with someone which was a big mistake. I sold all my gear to pool our resources and he pulled out at the last minute as he was on his way to pick up a 16 track machine, which had come out of Abbey Lane, but he bottled it, said he couldn’t do it and I was fucked. I didn’t start again for years.
I was sound engineering at FON and recording bands like Age Of Chance and I did Pulp’s Separations album. I’d met and worked with Pulp since 1982/3 and they asked me to make the album sound somewhere between Pet Shop Boys and Barry White!”. “I was doing live sound as well; I did Stars On Sunday (Religious TV Show) at the Crucible. I’ve always scratched a living out of music somehow.”
The passion of playing in bands was in Alan veins for quite a while, in the late 80’s he was in a band called The Man Upstairs, he expands “ that was the first time I popped my head over the parapet and thought wow. We had a Melody Maker centre fold, Sounds and NME also wanted us for front cover or centre fold, we played café jazz and just as we started going places the singer left and that was my first plummet to oblivion”.
Alan far from giving up explains where that leads “That’s when I met Tom White and Don Valley and the Rotherhides was formed. Tom said I want a country band so we got Jim O’Shea and Tom’s brother Jason said he’d drum and we started writing silly songs “ he considers and adds “ that’s the best fun I’ve ever had in music, definitely in the live scene. Everyone was very good and we all four sang good harmonies. (Martin Roscoe came along later)” he smiles again recalling “we got paid by councils from all over the country to come and busk plus we got whatever we collected. That lasted 5 years then Jim left for Nashville, can’t blame him, but we couldn’t go on without him.”
Alan then did some dark electro with the aforementioned Jason before joining forces with another impressive line up in Seafruit. Boasting Geoff Barradale, Arctic Monkeys and formerly R+TM (Reverend and the Makers) Manager, both of whom Alan recommended to Geoff. “They all came through me, I was recording Judan Suki featuring Jon McClure and Alex Turner and Alex said ‘can I record here’ so I said ‘of course’ and I went to watch them play their second ever gig and really liked them. They didn’t play that great but did 9 songs 6 of which were covers and I couldn’t tell which were the covers and which were theirs so that was a good sign. Just watching Alex on stage I thought they’ve definitely got something. Then Geoff came round a few days later, he’d just got into A&R / management with our old Seafruit record label and he asked if I’d heard anything good and I said yes” and the rest is history.
I suggest Geoff owes Alan big time for the heads up but he says, tongue in cheek, he’s still waiting for his reward.
Alan then goes onto R+TM and explains how those wonderful early demos came about that were to lead to the groundbreaking debut album The State Of Things on which Alan had several writing credits. “They’d come into the studio and Ed (Cousens) played bass and Jon (McClure) would sing the vocals but that’s all they had then I’d tell them to fuck off for a bit and I’d put some ideas down. I’d get some bits of Ed’s guitar playing and mess around with it, it was really good fun. Then they got the band together and they were really good.”
R+TM actually co-opted two members of Seafruit, Stu Doughty and Joe Moskow (Joe Newman) Alan reminisces “Joe is a great musician and a great character; I actually met him when he was 21 and he was the third member of Seafruit after me and Geoff, when we were just called Fruit. Tom (Hogg of Hoggboy and Hosts fame) came much later, half way through recording the album. All five of us could play so I found it very easy in a band like that.”
2Fly officially opened in 2001 when Seafruit got dropped by their label but Alan says in truth it really started up in 2002 when he had no job and started the studio in earnest. An odd name but Alan recalls the moment it came into being “ Seafruit were rehearsing in the Stag Works and I think it was Stu who said ‘you’re too fly you’ and Joe wrote 2Fly on the door frame and there it was so, I never changed it”.
Was 2Fly a gamble? Alan answers quickly “no, I’d done studio work and all the demos for Seafruit in there so it was all set up” he adds intriguingly “we got the money to erect the wall in there (to separate the studio from the live room) from the record deal and the reason it went in at an angle was to allow room for the sofa to go in but by creating a room that wasn’t square we created a very nice sound, which I why I have copied it in all the rooms in the this ( newer studio). Later I read on the net ‘never build a studio with parallel walls’ a very fortunate accident.”
Was working with Arctic Monkeys the break that raised Alan’s sound engineering profile? without hesitation he says “ no it was Rumpus, I did a load of recordings with them in 2002 /3 and The Woods was such a cracking tune it went flying all over the place and many came on the back of that including Jon (McClure) and his lot did so it was Rumpus. A lot of the work was getting well received anyway, but of course being part of the Arctic’s story didn’t do me any harm but that was much later once they became successful.”
Lots of top acts followed but breaking the pattern Alan actually approached Monkey Swallows The Universe after seeing the then duo of Kevin (Gori) and Nat ( Johnson) perform. “I listened to their songs and thought bloody hell! I have been doing some stuff with Nat recently. “
The wonderful 65 Days Of Static have done 3 albums at 2Fly Alan takes up the tale “after one of the first sessions with them they came in to listen to a play back and Rob their drummer said ‘wow is that what we sound like, it’s brilliant. He plays to a click all the time so clack clack clack is mostly all he hears.”
A lot of Richard Hawley’s early albums were done with Alan. Long Blondes he heard develop through practicing in BOK and it wasn’t long before they had great tunes and Kate has a fantastic voice. Alan mastered their first recording then they came in to 2fly to record.
Three years ago Alan took on Dave Sanderson when he felt ‘flummoxed’ by the workload and didn’t want to fall out of love with the job. Dave had worked at BOK and having heard his work Alan asked if he wanted to join him. Dave actually had a Seafruit trial at one point when the bassist left and he subsequently played in Reverend and the Makers for a while.
Very much wanting to let his work do the talking Dave, a highly talented sound engineer was reluctant to be formally interviewed though he is a very amiable and chatty character away from the Dictaphone.
I mentioned an Arctic Monkeys Gold Disc that I’d was spotted in the loo Alan said “it’s not meant to be derogatory I just thought it’s where it should be, where else do you get chance to sit and look at it. I had hoped to have one from Reverend and the Makers but it’s not arrived yet” he smiles.
The inevitable move from the small Stag Works Studio was made in 2008 but only to next door, literally 50 yards away at the Harland Works. He recalls “looking at the partition walls I saw what a great space it could be but help was required so I said to Dead Like Harry, you help me build it and I’ll record your album, a swap which worked great.”
Who would be his dream act to work with? After a “ Blimey” and a few “ Oh’s” he says as if struck by a lightening bolt “Brian Eno, I’d love to work with him, I loved the Roxy Music from the off. Not so much the ambient stuff but Here Come The Warm Jets which is refreshing to listen to even now.”
Smyth the musician has just finished an album of songs recorded via omnichord; he’s keen for it to be used in adverts and was promisingly talking to a publisher.
Finally taking a bit of credit, he admits to being very proud of 2Fly and the work they have done “we helped to lift Sheffield music from the doldrums, nearly all of the stuff that flew came from here” he adds with his usual modesty “I’m either lucky or quite good.”
“Though we do have quiet spells (at 2Fly),” he adds philosophically “you are only as good as your last mix”.