Paul Blakeman

[wide]paulb banner | Paul BlakemanI drove through the snow on a cold darkening afternoon arriving at Club 60 studio just as Paul Blakeman arrived. I had met Paul before on several occasions, a likeable man with stubbly beard that was once so big it had its own facebook profile!

We walked into the legendary Club 60 studio and amidst all the paraphernalia of a studio producer’s domain we sit and I try to find out more about the man known to most as just Blakeman or Blakey. His role is behind the scenes, where his reputation as a sound engineer is second to none.

His story is one of a true lover of music who could have earned much more money doing his previous day job, but that love of live music drew him like a magnet back to first playing, then producing via the magic room we sit in and also perhaps more famously live sound engineering for the likes of Reverend and The Makers, Bromheads Jacket and Paulo Nutini. In all his chosen roles Paul has become something of a legend, but where did it all begin?

He is very relaxed and open, constantly smiling he opens with a potted history of the young Blakeman “I was born in Nantwich, my father was a teacher and he got a job in Manchester after he graduated, when I was a little kid. He then got a job at Wath Comp so brought the family to Barnsley where I went to school. After that I went to Nottingham Uni, and hated it! As a teenager I played drums in bands and I also discovered sound engineering around that time, when I was 19, and I have been doing it for the last 20 years!”

Paul later worked for a PA company, he continues, “We did a lot of work with SJM (promoters), their founder was Simon Moran and the Madchester explosion was the thing that started them off. They’d use Nottingham a lot, I saw the Stone Roses for £1.50 in a room of about 100 people, I also saw The Happy Mondays there before they took off, they trashed the sports cabinet and nicked all the trophies!”

“you’re driven by passion and youth but a lot of that had been worn down.”

He then left Uni and found a job at Sheffield Polytechnic as assistant to the technical manager providing sound and lights for bands and audiovisuals. “In Sheffield I found myself drumming in a band called Millions Of Honey which went on for 4 or 5 years. We played on Yorkshire TV and had some good support slots at Leadmill; the best was probably with Oasis! We had a big following in Sheffield but live music was dying then in the 90’s, the opposite of what’s happening now.”

Paul continues with a potted history of Sheffield recording studios “so here I was a young man, performing and writing and there’s this cultural change and demise of live music. In the mid 90’s I met Dave Taylor from FON Studios. He took me under his wing, went onto manage our band and at the same time put me to work in the Sheffield studio where I learnt about recording. FON was used by Eliot Kennedy and his team to record and produce all the Take That’s hits (along with The Spice Girls and many more) and is now Eliot’s Steelworks Studios.”

By the end of the 90’s Paul had stopped playing music and says ruefully “you’re driven by passion and youth but a lot of that had been worn down so I ended up going to University in Sheffield and did an degree in software engineering. I then got headhunted and Sun Microsystems gave me a ridiculous amount of money to work in Munich.”

It was a radical change but he didn’t regret it as it made him realise he did want to make music and was good at it so he moved back to England. Paul continues “at the point of coming back to England I met Jon McClure, who had just started working under the name of The Reverend, they’d just started doing the demo’s with Alan Smyth (2Fly Studio). I’d also known Geoff Barradale for years, he managed them at the time.”

I digress by adding that the aforementioned Smyth and Barradale were in the band Seafruit together, Paul adds to my education by explaining “yes also in that band were Tom Hogg (later Hoggboy and now The Hosts), plus Joe Newman and Stu Doughty the keyboard player and drummer out of Reverend and The Makers, they also had Scott Gillies teching it and Tim Cleasby doing the sound, Tim is now Arctic Monkeys tour manager.”

“When I met Jon (McClure) I started doing live work again, at first I did everything, driving them everywhere, doing the sound, generally looking after them and I helped them get to where they are now regarding their live stuff.” Paul also played a role in Jon’s offshoot Mongrel last year “I did all the Mongrel too, then when they were doing their album I went all over Europe with Bromheads, who went down very well, particularly in Holland and Germany, they did lots of festivals.”

full heart | Paul Blakeman

“I also came back to England for this place (Club 60 Studio), when our landlady bought this building it was completely derelict, dishevelled, generally in a shocking state and over the years we did the cellar up bit by bit and now we have the recording studio. That’s why I’m here today.”

What drew Paul to want to do it up the derelict building in the first place?

“Two things, collectively we were a group of musicians, a sort of collective, who used to meet weekly for jam sessions at ‘The Old Calabar, which was actually Jonny Dean’s house (named randomly after a dog biscuit!).After Liz the owner realised the cellar was a club in the 60’s (appropriately called Club 60) she approached several people to see if they could do something with it, a couple(Dave Milliband and his mate) were interested in turning it into a sort of Club 60 museum, they started painting the walls white but realised it was a hell of a lot of work so they eventually gave up.”

“Then I heard Richard Hawley (Mercury nominated singer of Coles Corner fame) and his uncle Frank White (legendary local blues musician) were approached to see if they were interested but dismissed it when they had a look round. Eventually Liz said ‘why don’t you do something with this space?’ so we did and still do it to this day. We still do the jam sessions but we now call it traffic jam, because we have a traffic light on the stage and the people watching, who also participate, get to decide if the current jam is good or bad by going through the traffic lights and when it gets to red you get the hook!” he says laughing “peoples names are put into a hat, basically you have to be able to play and be willing to be put with anyone to play something you may not know, its quite a challenge but great fun, which is what playing music should be all about.”

He continues in serious mode “other things associated with music can be crap, fame is crap, ask anyone who is famous they hate it and often have to move somewhere they aren’t well known. The reason they got into it though was because it was fun.”

The studio itself is Paul’s passion, out of the collective he mentioned, he’s the one who loves sound engineering and has the background in recording. “We had Dave Sanderson of 2Fly recording studio, but he’s tied up there so I had to be the driving force. We took the studio control room on about a year ago and basically in that time, in between touring, myself and John Trier (keyboard player for Richard Hawley), put all this together and have gone through the process of tweaking it since. A lot the equipment had to be bought and it’s an expensive business but we wanted to capture performances downstairs (in the cellar).” He adds ruefully “that’s traditionally what a recording studio was, but with electronica and the ability to self produce and do it at home, peoples concept of a studio has changed.“

“I’m going to start recording on tape, when I started everything was done that way, no computers or sound cards. I like the way it was captured and delivered to you.”

A big supporter of the local scene Paul emphatically adds “I’m a big believer in trying to do as much business and get as much industry as possible in Sheffield, going back 10 years ago there was FON where I worked, next door was Axis but with Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby’ success they moved to London. The Human League have a studio in there but they don’t use it as a commercial studio. With FON becoming Eliot Kennedys studio Steelworks all the big studios in Sheffield had gone. Mike Timm’s reopened Axis which is great, it has an amazing live room in there. Its where The Longpigs recorded their album and Finley Quayle did his new album there. Fundamentally all the facilities in Sheffield need to be world class so people don’t need to leave Sheffield to record.”

Labels have for a long time been able to dictate where artists record but that is changing as Paul explains “they haven’t got the money or that power any more. People need to be more creative about making music, doing it cheaper, its got to be affordable, which is a very hard to balance to achieve with decent studio equipment being so expensive.”

The list of artists who have been through Club 60 are virtually too many to name but Paul tries “Michael Eden decided to do an album whilst finishing a degree (Paul bursts into laughter again) so we’ve been doing it for nearly 18 months. Skeletons and The Hosts played several showcases, Reverend and The Makers did one of their first ever gigs here, I’d like to think it was their first ever gig but I know its not because they did one at BOK studios before then. Arctic Monkeys visited but as band never played here. Mabel Love played their first gig at Club 60, Heebie Jeebies played there, Skint and Demoralised did his first stage performance, a spoken word set at Club 60 too. Richard Hawley’s been jamming down the cellar and in one of his album cover shots he was sat in the studio chair I was currently sat in, we mused over which album, Coles Corner? Low Edges? Paul chips in “wasn’t Hole in the Road was it, no that’s his next one “followed by hoots of laughter. “Hawley loved it down here.”

couchfull | Paul BlakemanOther acts to play here include Shake Alletti, The Crookes, Lords Of Flatbush, Dead Like Harry, Sarah Jay, Dead World Leaders, Violet May whose first demo was done at Club 60. Little Lost David, Slow Club, the Lost Brothers from Ireland, Thomas Truax, and many more.

What’s Paul favourite genre? “a lot of music in Sheffield has a very distinctive sound, but personally my tastes are unbelievably eclectic, from jazz to new age American punk with a bit of world music thrown in. I’m not swayed by whatever’s considered trendy, though when I was younger the Madchester scene did sweep me along for a year or two as it did everybody. At the moment, Elbow with its originality and beauty, fast grungey stuff like No Age from LA and Fucked Up from Canada” the musical oracle continues “they won the Canadian equivalent of the Mercury music award.”

Paul also helps develop bands like Oblong “yes they have just done another session here, Backhanded Compliments have been in and done some new stuff, Heebie Jeebies have been in a few times, they are one of many favourites so far out there and original, and you can’t help but dance and smile. I’m quite interested what the electronica scene is doing in Sheffield with Mixed in Sheffield (via Liam O’Shea) pulling things together.”

Who has Paul got respect for in his own line of work, i.e. sound engineers and producers? “I’m not particularly impressed by a lot of modern producers to be honest.”

Paul enthuses “I’m going to start recording on tape, when I started everything was done that way, no computers or sound cards. I like the way it was captured and delivered to you. It was a lot harder so people generally had to play better. I saw a programme on TV about the 40 year anniversary of Sgt Peppers album and they asked several people to come and perform the songs off that album live, Bryan Adams came in and did it first take then a nameless big name band came in and said ‘normally we just play and the producer fixes it with pro tools’, that for me shows how things are. Live sound is different, I’ve recorded a gig and come home and played it back and it sounded crap which wasn’t my perception during the gig, then it’s all about atmosphere and about the moment.”

Continuing with the people he respects “I love the way music used to be played on the Beatles records so George Martin and his team Geoff Emerich and all those at Abbey Road studio. I grew up hearing a lot of The Who, produced by Glyn Johns and his son Ethan has continued that having just done the first two Kings Of Leon albums, and produced Ray LaMontagne and co-produced the Paulo Nutini album. Ethan tracks everything to tape no computers are used.” Digressing I ask if Paulo had been to Club 60 “yes Paulo came down to a traffic jam down here, I’ve worked with Paulo before last summer, his regular was unavailable so I got a call to go to Porto for a couple of gigs.”

Paul gets me back on track “I like the traditional way of recording as I call it, the capturing of a live performance, but times have changed, I’ve got a computer in my studio and occasionally use a synth and a beatbox, so I’m looking around at more modern producers now, I got to know Jagz Kooner (producer of French Kiss In The Chaos, Reverend and The Makers 2nd album) and I like his approach, computer based, he cuts it up and mixes new wave kind of music with dance music. I’ve found that intriguing so I’m pursuing that myself at the moment. I’m not a tape snob, it’s about different options. I love the sound of LCD sound system (aka James Murphy), I love his modern electro sound, he only started making music in his late 30’s, before that he recorded punk music in New York City, his live sound is punk v electronica.”

Paul’s knowledge of music locally, nationally and internationally is staggering wide and his enthusiasm is contagious. When you add to that the fact Blakeman is a legendary sound engineer and top producer, the humility he displays is endearing to say the least. He is confident and talks openly in such a calming manner it’s hard to imagine him losing his cool.

Paul Blakeman and Club 60 studio have been generous with their time both for this interview and a competition they have sponsored in Counterfeit Magazine, with the prize of a days recording with the legendary Blakeman at Club 60 for the winners, a chance to become part of the club’s illustrious history.

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