Mixing with the best
SUFFOLK's Cenzo Townshend on working with U2, the Kaiser Chiefs and Snow Patrol - and how he was named one of the most influential people in music.
TRY as he might, Cenzo Townshend is far too modest to spell out why he's so in demand just now; why record labels knock on his door when they want their music knocked into shape; why he was recently named among the 20 most influential people in the music business.
“I've always loved music and pop songs so I know what I like to hear on the radio. I suppose that's my forte,” he offers. “Some producers are incredible musicians, some are more technical or there are those who 'bring the vibe'. I'd say I'm a fan. I've got punter's ears.”
But the bands and artists who have worked with the engineer and master mixer - and there are hundreds - may just tell you he's a genius.
Cenzo's innovative recording techniques have shaped the sound of some of our finest bands over his 20 years in the business. He has swapped ideas with U2, taught New Order new tricks and put together pop songs that have owned the airwaves. Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars and Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot are just two.
He's worked with legends but is just as excited to get in the studio with the latest hot new band.
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“Five guys who don't really know what they're doing, making a great noise, that's what I love,” he says.
“It's not about making money, it's about making music, something they love - and I want to be a part of that process.”
Cenzo is hard at work on the process for five days a week, often for 14 hours a day, at the London studio he shares with Stephen Street (long-time producer to The Smiths and Blur). He might be locked away with a band painstakingly recording every high-hat and harmony, or more often he is found on his own, slaving over the final mix. It's a drawn out process and an average song takes five days to perfect.
It can be exhausting, and he's happy to escape to his cottage in Nacton at weekends, and spend time with his wife of 14 years, Rachael, and three children, Luca, 13, Sofia, 11, and Luisa, nine, without a dial or a fader in sight. Then it's back to work; another week, another band, another song, another mix.
BORN in Milan to an Italian father and English mother, Cenzo spent his childhood “50/50” in Italy and England after his parents split. He spent his holidays with his grandmother in Hemingstone and Woodbridge, beginning his love affair with Suffolk, and left boarding school without any great plan.
He grew up idolising The Doors and David Bowie and loved left-field 80s bands such as Visage and Bauhaus, while keeping a soft spot for the pure pop of Abba and Blondie. He tried his hand at playing the guitar and drums but gave up “because I was very poor” and became a mobile DJ in the mid-80s, spending two years working in clubs in Miami.
Returning to England in search of a proper job, he applied to become a “tea boy” at the famous Trident studio in London. There he served his apprenticeship as an assistant engineer, working with bands such as Big Audio Dynamite and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. “I made tea, packed sandwiches and cleaned up after bands. One band asked for a table tennis table at three in the morning. It was a challenge, but we did it.”
After switching to another studio in the early 90s, he set out on his own as a freelance engineer, working with Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie for several years at his Liverpool studio, twiddling the knobs for bands like Dodgy, The Wedding Present and The Fall.
Moving to London - and remaining a regular visitor to Suffolk, where he met his future wife - he began a lasting partnership with Street, doing mixes for Blur and a host of other Britpop and US bands, leaving him briefly when the call came to work with U2 on their 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind.
“I had to first meet U2 when we went out to dinner,” he recalls. “I'd been working on their song all day and had to bring the CD with me. I sat there while eating this fantastic food, listening to this mix I had done of their song and feeling extremely nervous. But they liked it, thank God. It was like 'you can have pudding now'.”
Cenzo remembers working with U2 in Dublin as “like stepping into a completely different world” and was taken aback by the sky-high regard in which they were held by celebrities and cab drivers alike. He soon joined the fan club.
“It takes them on average two years to make an album, and they have to work very hard at it because the quality control is unbelievable. They will record a song four or five times - it can take a month to record their songs, because they will come back to them, change bits of it, change the chorus…
“If they feel a little part of the song is not right they just won't use the song. They are hard taskmasters, incredibly passionate and second best is just not good enough
“I was really asked to go and mix the record at the end of recording and I consequently realised I had arrived a year too early.”
How easy to tell Bono to sing that verse differently, or the Edge to change that guitar part? “Anybody who works with U2 is expected to come up with ideas.
“They may like 10 ideas out of 100 but they want you to come up with things and they are not disheartened if they don't like your ideas. A lot of bands are like that, they want people who are involved in their records to bring something to the table. One has to constantly strive to do something different, something interesting, something new.”
WHILE I was preparing to visit Cenzo's Suffolk getaway for this interview, it dawned on me that, in front of one of the UK's foremost sound engineers, I was about to do some recording of my own - with a sorry little tape machine. But while I apologise for plonking such a pathetic piece of equipment in front of him, he gives it his seal of approval. “I use them to record drums,” he enthuses. “It goes on that little tape and it sounds a bit grotty. You might get a part in the middle of the song where it goes a bit quiet, bring in the Dictaphone and you get this strange, hazy, crunchy drum sound. We do all sorts of things, microphones in dustbins, anything that makes a good noise.”
Being one himself, Cenzo loves innovators and none more so than Graham Coxon, “an amazing musician and great songwriter”. He has worked with the former Blur guitarist on two solo albums and rates them as among the best work he has ever been involved in. “I love working with him - he's one of my favourite artists, definitely.”
And while Coxon has become a good friend as well as a client, he's also close to the band he looks set to forever be linked with. “It's no bad thing to be associated with the Kaiser Chiefs,” he considers. “It was a huge explosion when they made it big, and it's bound to propel you into that world.”
Cenzo and Stephen Street were asked to record the then-unknown group back in 2004 by independent label B-Unique, during breaks from working with a more established band on the label's roster, The Ordinary Boys. “We literally recorded the first two singles in our little studio, in the basement of Olympic Studios. It is probably the size of my sitting room, so if you can imagine all five of them, making quite a lot of noise. And that was (top 10 singles) Oh My God and I Predict a Riot. You don't often think about whether songs are going to be hits when you are recording them but there was a moment when I thought 'this is quite different, quite special'. It's not as if I hadn't encountered that sort of musicianship before, it was just a different feeling I had for that one.”
Subsequently rewarded with a bigger budget, Cenzo and Street upgraded to a bigger studio and finished recording and mixing the album that would become the million-selling Employment, propelling the band to national fame.
You get the feeling it isn't Cenzo's absolute favourite record in his portfolio, but he admits it probably ticks the most boxes on a commercial level.
“Over 20 years I've made a lot of records that have not been as successful but have been as good. It's a very fickle business. Not every great band makes it,” he shrugs.
Not surprisingly, the was also asked to do the honours on the Kaisers' follow-up, Yours Truly Angry Mob, and, after being hailed as an integral part of the band's runaway success, offers of work came thick and fast.
“It all about getting Radio 1 playlisting and, because of a lot of the records I did were playlisted, record companies would ask me to mix their records so they fall in line with what Radio 1 wants to hear. I've done a couple of good albums that were released but, because they didn't fit the demographic for Radio 1 listeners that month, the record company didn't push it as much as the next act.”
His growing reputation saw top producer Garret 'Jacknife' Lee ask him to mix Bloc Party's Weekend in the City album and Snow Patrol's massive-selling Eyes Open - which spawned the huge hits You're All I Have and Chasing Cars - while he is proud to have recorded and mixed the first two albums by one of his favourite bands, Editors.
One of the labels seeking Cenzo's magic touch was Parlophone, who wanted him to knock into shape some tracks by Babyshambles, the band of tabloid target Pete Doherty. He won the gig, and mixed the band's The Blinding EP and Shotters Nation album, but the experience was more memorable for an insight into the troubled singer's world.
“Pete is immensely talented, he really is, such a wordsmith. It's fantastic just even to have a conversation with him,” Cenzo insists.
“He's very lucid, very worthy, but he has his demons, terrible demons. While they were making the album, he was going through a terrible time with his other half, Kate Moss, and that was causing problems with his state of mind. If anyone set foot outside the studio there would be paparazzi and by that I mean big, evil thugs. I'm serious - they are not photographers, they are… hitmen. If Kate Moss came to the studio they would literally stand in front of the car and sit on the bonnet. It's a difficult thing to have to deal with, I couldn't cope with it. One fears for him really.”
MUCH more peaceful was recording New Order at St Catherine's, a Jacobean mansion in Bath that is the home of actress Jane Seymour.
There he took his purpose-built portable studio, which packs away into flight cases and a seven-and-a-half tonne truck and combines Cenzo's passion for 50s, 60s and 70s vintage technology and the latest, state-of-the-art recording gear.
The result was New Order's 2005 and last album Waiting for the Sirens Call. “They are quite hard work,” says Cenzo of the electro-pop legends. “They know what they want, they have been around the block long enough to know what they want to achieve - and you've got to come up trumps.”
But he has now clearly done that often enough to make people sit up and take notice. The Times newspaper recently compiled a list of the 20 most influential people in music and there at number 11, rubbing shoulders with Simon Cowell and Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe, was Cenzo. “Ridiculous!” he laughs.
“I really don't know how that came about. I've never actually thought 'I've made it'. I'm not a rich man - people don't do this job to make money - but I have the luxury that I love what I do and I'm lucky enough to have made a career out of it. I've never had to record an advert or a jingle in my life, never had to do the 'treadmill' jobs.
“But I treat every record I do as if it might be my last and I feel the pressure, every day, to make every mix I do better than the last one.”
For the moment, Cenzo has plenty to keep him occupied for the long, often lonely hours in London. His recent credits read like an index for the NME: The Feeling, The Courteeners, Guillemots, Jamie T, The Infadels (who he tips for big things), the Maccabees, Reverend and the Makers, Mystery Jets, Klaxons, The Pigeon Detectives, Late of the Pier, Elbow. He's also just finished mixing the new Primal Scream album.
But he holds a dream to move his work closer to Suffolk, where he has lived permanently for the past 13 years. He's already brought singer-songwriter Ben Christophers to the county to record an album, hiring a beachfront house in Thorpeness for him and the mobile studio, and has persuaded both The Stranglers and The Wedding Present to record at Gemini Studios in Ipswich, owned by his great friend Pat Grueber.
Now he's after something more permanent and has an eye on opening a recording studio (or to start with, just a mixing room for him) in Woodbridge.
“I love Suffolk and I would love to spend more time here. I think it would be great to bring bands down here. I think they'd love it and I can't wait. I really hope I can make it happen.”
There's a lot of negotiation and relocation to go on that dream, but you get the impression that wherever Cenzo Townshend goes, the artists will follow.