In the third of our In The Studio features, Getintothis’ Martin Summerfield talks to Joe Wills – owner of the Obscenic record label who’s worked with Stealing Sheep, All We Are and James Canty.
From his beginnings organising new music festivals through to producing some of Liverpool’s finest music talent, Joe Wills has played a key role in shaping new sounds in the city.
Having run the Obscenic music festival in Wolstenholme Creative Space back in 2011, Wills went on to produce the likes of Stealing Sheep, James Canty and All We Are‘s first forays in the studio. Dan Croll and fellow LIPA acolytes Mikael Paskalev followed suit while he also road tested rock and roll math outfit Dire Wolfe on the stage – a firm favourite with in Liverpool back in 2010.
There was also a good part of his early music life in Liverpool helping assist Mike Deane in Liverpool Music Week. However, it’s been somewhat quiet (or at least under the radar) for Wills in recent times – so earlier this year we thought it about time to catch up and see what he’s been up to.
In the third of our series of in-depth chats with producers, we visited his recording studio located in Liverpool city centre to talk Merseyside music and the pressures of the industry.
Getintothis: How did you make your start in the music industry?
Joe Wills: Mainly just by accident. When I was in uni I was living with my friend Dan Croll and also playing with another friend Mikhael Paskalev. I was involved in those two projects and I was messing around with the bubble that came with our little uni group. And Stealing Sheep was the first band I started recording.
I approached Becky because I’d seen them live and as I was going into my 3rd year I wanted a proper project. If I’m totally honest I wasn’t sure I wanted to do production. I always felt like maybe I’d be suited to something else but I took a plunge and Becky trusted me blindly to deliver a record for her, just a little EP. I think it was the first thing I did and we finished it off and it was quite a creative, indulgent process. It was quite freeing for me, and she relied on me to make a lot of weird sounds.
She’d only just brought together the line up that we know now with Emily and Lucy so it was quite a new dynamic of recording them. They were quite unfamiliar with each other as a dynamic so that was my first baptism of fire. That went on to get released and printed on vinyl and I remember receiving that back and having a real “whoa flipping heck” moment and then saying “cool, next!”
In the meantime while I was doing that I was also working with Dan and Mikhael and yeah through natural selection I ended up producing both of their debut albums. Both of them had done singles, worked on singles together and I was playing live with them so I was all in with both of them. And a couple of singles that we did went down really well in the music industry, and then we got commissioned by various labels to produce full albums and I think that both had options and I think that Mikhael’s label was quite insistent on trying other producers but then in the end I guess familiarity and the confidence of our scene that we had together and what we could do together, blagging it in a way it was the excitement of blagging it together and set our sights higher than we can probably achieve and say “fuck it.”
So yeah so we just went with it from that, and Dan’s record the Single From Nowhere that just went down crazy, that record still keeps on giving now in times of views from YouTube. It was pretty surprising. I don’t think we truly realised what an achievement that was. Mikhael’s single too, it took off majorly in Norway and the U.S. so both of those records really floated me and gave me the confidence to keep on doing it and think “I’m a professional producer now, I’m getting paid by studios now to produce and mix tracks.” So I was mixing two albums for major studios and I was mixing stuff for Radio 1 which I’d never done before. I was very reassuring that I didn’t know what I was doing really or didn’t think I did.
Getintothis: Learning to swim in the deep end pretty much?
Joe Wills: Pretty much yeah. Making records is pretty much like swimming out to sea. I always think it’s quite hard making records and full albums in general. It’s a huge pain in the arse and I think it should be. The various processes that you go through there’s a lot of really stressful moments where you don’t know what the hell the direction is. It’s like jumping in the sea with your mates and getting caught in a rip current and you’ve got to just relax and wait till you can find your way out, swim back to shore and say “ok, now we’ve got perspective and we’re safe now.”
Getintothis: So it’s like learning anew with every new collaborator and artist?
Joe Wills: Yeah working with great people. Every creative person, myself included are pretty insecure in being quite flippant and not settling very easily on finished ideas and products and never being quite sure or in the other essence of being quite stubborn and being quite fixed on a certain idea. Being a producer, from my limited experience so far is mainly all down to communication and counselling confidence in those people.
Getintothis: Like drawing the talent out of them and saying you’ve got all this already?
Joe Wills: I think often it is like that. Most of the people I’ve worked with I’m pretty fortunate to say they’re pretty talented independent thinkers who have their own vision. Often even if they’re quite insecure or haven’t been through the recording process before it’s generally about reassuring them of what they’ve already got and what they’re onto holds significant value already. I wouldn’t be working with them if I didn’t.
For anybody to do well you’ve got to gravitate to working with the best people in your scene. I think that’s what I did in uni with Dan, Mikhael and Tarek in Spring King. I think that’s the foundation of producing – find the best artists you can to work with and then most of the time what they’ve already got cooking is a perfect foundation, and if they’re insecure about it start bringing that out and reassuring them. In general I’m pretty concerned with sonics and imbalances. I think that’s part of my little style quest. When I hear demos I try to always hone in on what makes it jar more and what elements make it a little imbalanced and then bring those out.
Often in the mixing process after you’ve done a draft mix of a production or abandoned a production early and printed it you’ll leave it for a while, and on an instinctual level it’s quite imbalanced so once you return to balance it out and perfect it and finesse it, quite often I’m chasing my own tail in finding that same imbalance again because it had a signature that’s hard to replicate when you go about perfecting something. It can be quite a pain in the arse in that last 5% of the stage where you’re trying to retain what was fresh and immediate about it but also bring it up an extra level. That last stage can be quite tormenting sometimes, but you get there in the end so long as you keep your head and don’t drown in the currents too much.
You’ve got to be a lifeguard for the process but lifeguards can drown too. [laughs]Of all the people that I’ve worked with especially Dan, Mikhael and James they’re very insular, creative relationships between me and one person that can be really intense sometimes and we go in shifts of losing it at one another and then having to drag somebody up from drowning and losing their head or confidence or self esteem with the idea, so yeah I’m pretty thankful the times I’ve been saved from that process as well with the people that I work with.
Getintothis: What do you look for in an artist when you’re fostering talent? I know you were speaking of imbalances and likeness with yourself in terms of what you go for in musical sounds…
Joe Wills: I think I’m quite faddish. I’ll often get sent stuff that people think “oh Joe will like doing that” cos it’ll have a similar essence to something I’ve worked on or something that’s worked well for me. But from a selfish standpoint I rarely want to do the same thing. When I work with another artist I want to do something that I’d never quite done before or subtly different or with a different focus.
I think its normally just vocal style and lyrics became pretty important to me, especially after working with James Canty and realising how much onus he put on his lyrics. When he lived with me while we were doing his record you could see how much time he spent writing lyrics and editing the lyrics and the whole editing process which really turned me on to lyrical potency and how important that is as a writer. Whereas to me I come from a world of being more preoccupied with sounds and wouldn’t necessarily always be concerned with a if a lyric was crap or not whereas over the years working with different people I realised how important that is in the authenticity it has in a record and how timeless it becomes.
More and more I’m more preoccupied with lyrics or if it’s not a lyrical song, if it’s purely sonics and mainly interesting sounds it just comes from something being abrasive. When it comes to mixes and imbalances something has to have an abrasive quality to turn me on to it. I like it when a sound sits weirdly or is kind of difficult.
Getintothis: When you hear a band/artist that’s new, raw and promising how do you tease out and polish that potential?
Joe Wills: It’s generally performance and arrangement. I think each project starts and I have a worrying lack of confidence in how to approach it, I don’t have a fixed idea of what I’m going to do. And often if I do have those preconceived notions then I fall on my arse. I suppose the first thing is just trying to listen to what they’re doing and listen as openly as possible. I’ve fallen into this trap before of building your own aesthetic for them very quickly and pushing that on them, and in the long run of working with a band that can become a problem after a while.
Even though I might have strong visions for something, strong aesthetics, it’s about starting with a level playing field for an aesthetic battle. And listening to what suits them naturally. It’s quite hard not to come at a band or artist with a biased perspective or what you’ve got to do to make it cool in your own head but I think in terms of a relationship and teasing out the best of somebody and them teasing out the best in me, I think it starts by listening to each other and then trying to be as free as possible in experimenting with ideas.
Because you’re both when you start very insecure, what we’re bringing to the table and the process between us when we’re in the studio is like watching each other make decisions in real time which is quite daunting, especially for them cos they’re laying out these premature ideas and trying them out. I think patience is a staple of an early relationship with somebody. You have to be quite patient and indulge in each other’s ideas to see them through to get a good feeling of what excites them, and me too to make it worth both our whiles working together. I think there’s a good reason why it feels like that, because of the fact you’re performing in front of each other in the studio in your respective roles.
Getintothis: You’ve worked with bands and artists that have since became fixtures of the Liverpool scene such as Stealing Sheep, James Canty and All We Are. How does it feel to find new sounds at the ground level?
Joe Wills: When I started out with Dan, I was doing a lot of promotion and promoting nights and putting on bands and that was the start of it, really. It started off with a group of mates putting on nights and I remember getting asked by a couple of mates to put a band from Norwich on in Liverpool and I thought “great, I’m going to book a load of bands I want to see or see together” doing it without conscious motive just being over excitable.
And it was through promoting those events and DIY warehouse in Wolstenholme Square and getting all the sounds in there with shitty PA’s – that’s how I started piecing together a scene in Liverpool from the hardcore and punk bands like We Are Tigers, to Outfit and Wave Machines – all of which I was in adoration of. I wanted to fanboy them and get them to play. I said earlier about gravitating to people you’re fans of – that’s my approach to working with people or at least that’s what got me started, by fanboying artists pretty hard or just having a connection in uni and start working with the people in class I found cool. I really wanted to work with Stealing Sheep but I didn’t really have a portfolio so I had to reassure Becky and the others that I’d do something that was interesting for them.
Same with the events after a while, the friends I had from doing that with the bands that I really respected started appreciating the efforts I was going to watch them play and put them on and that was how I started finding the scene in Liverpool and really getting my head round it and especially people like The Kazimier who played a big role in that and the venues and creative spaces that we were doing it in. They all had associated artists, bands and musicians that were hooked into those different circles so a lot of it came from running around excitably.
Even though I’m a bit older, disillusioned and lazy now, I still feel like that is the way of unearthing things by just digging really hard and fanboying stuff. I suppose it’s more difficult as I get older in the Liverpool scene because you do feel like you lose touch a little bit and drift in and out of communities because I’m a lot more based in my studio and the work that I’m doing now as a professional sometimes feels like it’s less interaction with the community and more behind the scenes. So it’s nice in between doing records or having my head up my arse in the studio when I start scheming again about unearthing collaborations and being inventive with the people in the scene and just digging around about what people are listening to.
Getintothis: How do you feel the sound of the Liverpool music scene is evolving?
Joe Wills: I think it always is. It’s difficult to say, as I’ve been more insular the past couple of years it’s quite difficult to have perspective. In the last couple of years I feel like I’ve started to get my head back round the community that’s here again and I feel like people are going in a harder, heavier direction. All We Are are coming out with a new record soon, I’ve heard some of that and it’s got a more driving slightly more aggressive element to it, and I feel a little bit like that myself for the aspirations of stuff I want to do.
I want to be a bit more unrelenting but there’s so much scope for everything to co-exist right now. I think that’s what becomes most apparent and overwhelming as well because anything goes in a lot of ways and I feel like that is pretty relative here to this scene at the moment. Anything goes and people have a lot of aspirations to make a lot of different things and that’s why I was talking about the pressures of album commitment and cohesive sounds. I feel like a lot of people want to do a lot of different things, myself included.
I want to try my hand at something quite playful, but also something quite sincere and driving, and hard edge, abrasive and raucous. As for the Liverpool sound…I’ve got no idea! [laughs]We all feel pretty sentimental about the Liverpool scene and what’s been made here and is possible here, and being independent. But I always feel like that’s been a thing with the North West, it’s a thing of flashing the two fingers at London in a way. A lot of people get dragged down there by the labels, this is no disrespect to the labels because it’s about convenience and having control over and oversight on what the project is so it’s a good reason to want you to go down there.
But most people I’ve worked with end up coming back to Liverpool because it’s our natural stamping ground. I guess Liverpool is a pretty sentimental place to be, sometimes in a sickly way, but also in quite an amazing way cos people do feel the energy when you’re here that you’re capable of doing anything here and you don’t need to be anywhere else to wrap up what you want to do and present.
People rely on each other up here to do things and to do things cheaply even in terms of film making and videos – I know a couple of friends who went down to London to do film work, and you see how the money gets spent in other cities like London and it’s pretty overwhelming when you’re used to being in Liverpool and used to making things work and use to thriving off a community that doesn’t constantly ask each other for money they just want to do things for fun and involvement and the money comes naturally I suppose, so maybe that’s part of the sound as well, it’s more collaborative up here.
Maybe I can’t say more collaborative because that’s bullshit, everywhere is just as collaborative when you find your little scene in London or wherever cos there’s always scenes but I feel like Liverpool is particularly helpful to one another, which is what I found when I was promoting the shows early on when I was coming out of uni, promoting vastly different acts and putting them on next to each other. Like Russ from Bold Street Coffee is in a really great punk and hardcore band.
There’s a lot of appreciation for different scenes because it’s such a small place that in a lot of ways people mix with each other a lot more readily and I think that that helps spread influences in a more diffuse way. There’s a lot more bastardised sounds that come from a scene like this when people are feeding off each other in stranger collaborations and the venues are very creative. I think that’s part of it as well, there’s a lot of venues in Liverpool, particularly the Kazimier bunch – now The Invisible Wind Factory, when you have venues like that and that kind of community it does when you’re making projects or conceptualising them, you start to see how the y would be performed or collaborate visually with some of those people.
I think that affects the general outcome cos you’re designing it for your mates down here in a lot of ways and that’s the first auditioning process, because you want to see how that resonates with the scene and with the varied different scenes and bands co-existing. It’s hard to tell cos I’m pretty biased.
Getintothis: So, what advice would you give a band or artist who’s just starting out, trying to find their own sound?
Joe Wills: I think the punch line is trust your own take on what sounds good and trust your own vision on things. I think when you’re starting out generally the people you work with have more experience than you or you end up in working relationships with people and you feel like they stand above you in your vision and what you bring to it. I’ve been in similar positions when I was starting out, mixing and producing and feeling like I was totally blagging it but I would then hear versions that the bigger guys had done or the more established producers on the same projects, and I know the artists I’ve worked with who’ve had similar experiences where they’ve worked with people who are really well esteemed and has a huge reputation but then there hasn’t been a level playing field in respect.
I think you can sometimes respect your collaborator too much, that’s not to discredit the big dog producers because they’re obviously sick and do really good stuff, but I think it all comes down to the creative relationships you start with people. And it think when you’re starting out it’s always a good idea to roll with the people that are a part of your own scene and to put trust in somebody whose level playing field with you if you feel confident you’re cool. I think I’m thankful for the people I’ve worked with like that like Mikael and James, All We Are and Stealing Sheep because they entrusted me to their projects when I wouldn’t necessarily be the big dog who they possibly could have paid money to work with.
Sometimes it comes down to budget as well, but I think a lot of a time it does come down to trusting the people, trusting your friends to make interesting stuff to relying on them. And if you do get the opportunity to work with the best people, go for it cos it’s always a huge learning experience and you learn a lot from it. But I think the main thing when learning through every process, mixing process, mastering is to trust your own analysis and reference points that you have for the vision when you started out and never be too shy of pushing that.
But it’s like any relationship, it can be exciting to be overpowered and let somebody else run with your idea and not be too controlling, sometimes that’s quite liberating. If you’ve been knocking your head continuously trying to make something and you’ve got no confidence or lost your head a little bit , find somebody who can inject something of themselves in it for you and once you get to the end of that process see how that felt and see if it overpowered you or see if it was exactly what you needed at the time.
Like I said each different process , each stage of a band’s lifecycle or an artists trajectory is just generally about trying out new processes so I suppose if you have the time to indulge different processes – do it. And try to make stuff as good as you can possibly o it and that normally means a lot of heartache annoyance and frustration cos it does really take it out of you making records that are the best you can do. It requires two different parties collaborating and pushing each other to an annoying amount sometimes.
Getintothis: If people want to find your studio how can they find you? How can they get in touch with you?
Joe Wills: I haven’t tended to advertise that much really just cos i’ve been a serial monogamist jumping from one project to the next has kept me ties up for quite awhile. If people want to find me just search me on Soundcloud: joe wills, or joey mcjoe on Instagram, that’s a popular place for picking up mates these days so you can find me there, i’ve got a producer page on Facebook, but yeah normally people find a way of reaching out. I’m sure they’ll find a way.
All pictures by Amin Musa.