In the studio with Steve Levine

Thirty years since his work on Culture Club’s Colour by Numbers record garnered him the Music Week Top Singles Producer award, producer and songwriter Steve Levine talks to Jim Evans about his near 40-year career, moving his studio to Liverpool, and what’s next on his plate.

The old cliché of having many strings to the proverbial bow is regularly overused, whoever the subject, but in Steve Levine’s case it’s most appropriate. From his early days as a tape op at CBS Studios (now sadly an office block) and at Red Bus Studios, through his own various studio projects and a spell working out of Los Angeles, he has forged a successful career as record producer, songwriter, radio show presenter, and industry agent provocateur. Levine is a director of PRS for music and a member of the MU executive committee. He also happens to be chairman of The Music Producers Guild.

“As a producer, I’m as busy now as at any time over the past 30 years,” says Levine, whose past credits include the Beach Boys, Motörhead, and China Crisis – and of course, three multi-platinum albums for Culture Club. “With the changing market, so many bands want several things from a producer now. In some instances, they want 25 years of experience shoehorned into a single session. They want the Sam Philips approach. He was record producer, studio owner, record company boss, mentor, and in many ways an innovator. The role of the record producer has gone absolutely full-circle.”

His broadcasting career took off with the Radio 2 series The Record Producers, while his company also produced the Stephen Fry-narrated Third Reich & Roll for Radio 2, which looked at how Hitler’s Germany pioneered many – if not most – of the recording techniques that made later music possible.

And then there are the industry associations: “Working at the audio coalface, I believe I have much to bring to the table,” he says. “I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of overlapping, which can only be of benefit to all.”

One of Levine’s key reasons for being involved with so many industry organisations is to get the voice of the producer heard, to shout the producer’s corner in an ever-changing music and entertainment industry. “We are all involved in the same business of making and selling music. The various organisations all have their corners to fight, but generally everyone now appreciates that from the inception of the song through to the finished record quite a lot of people are involved in the chain. And it’s only right and proper that all those people are compensated. It’s the same in the film world, but for too long the music industry has been the poor cousin. We need to elevate our position.”

As well as increasing the MPG’s membership and profile, Levine wants the organisation to encourage excellence and lobby for the industry at the highest levels. “The rise of Swedish pop in the 90s was due primarily to the Swedish government allowing Pro Tools systems and other equipment to be tax deductable and you got all these fantastically equipped studios. We need a government that understands the hardware costs. Maybe there needs to be some form of different business rate for something that is a creative space – theatres, studios, rehearsal rooms – just so there’s a chance of survival for the creative community.”

Levine has little time for some of the executives within the major record companies and how they land the jobs they get. “Many of them seem to have no passion, love, or understanding of music, or even the creative process,” he suggests: “Perhaps we need to get back to the era when the person in charge of a record company was a passionate music maker, like Chris Blackwell at Island Records or Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. And Berry Gordy at Motown – he might have been a money man, but alongside his shrewd business sense he had soul and a passion for music.

Levelling off

“The UK has a proud music tradition – and music has never been more popular than it is today – yet we don’t have enough proper outlets. On the main TV channels everyone is scrambling for the occasional spot on the Jools Holland show. There’s little else. Somehow we’ve got to make the playing field a little bit more level.”

Aside from a period working out of California, Levine has spent the majority of his career living and working out of London. He has had a number of his own studios, which were noted for embracing new technologies, most notably the latest digital developments, equipment, and working methods. Now, he has upped sticks and moved lock stock and studio to Liverpool, where his new space is based in the Baltic Creative CIC, a rapidly expanding media and arts centre. So why did he make the move north?

“I’ve been going to Liverpool for well over 10 years, initially as part of the Yamaha Make It Break It competition which was hosted up there, then I was made a LIPA companion, essentially working with Jon Thornton. I found myself travelling up and down to Liverpool more and more frequently and eventually my wife and I thought there were so many things we loved up here, we should move.

“Another factor was the BBC moving many of its operations to Salford; a lot of our BBC friends had moved up here, so all in all it was an easy decision. I got rid of the studio in west London, took the equipment up the motorway, and here we are. Now I have a lovely new studio, which I really think is the best studio I’ve had to date – a hybrid of all the studios I’ve ever owned.

“My first studio in Farm Lane [Fulham], if truth be told, was probably too far ahead of its time – it was so technically advanced. I loved it, and wouldn’t have got my Grammy if I hadn’t been there. But it didn’t have a proper recording room. Then I moved to California and set the studio up there. It was only really a shared facility and for various reasons didn’t work out.

“It came to a head when working with Carl Wilson and Carl was outside tuning up one of my guitars and one day my then business partner had these advertising clients come in and asked ‘that guitarist’ to tune up elsewhere as his client wasn’t very happy. That was the final straw. How dare they. There were other factors involved which contributed to my returning to the UK and setting up the studio in Fulham which worked out really well. It represented – in terms of work – the best bang for buck I’ve had to date. Though to the casual observer it was just a glorified garden shed, it had a brilliant vibe and worked well. We did many albums and radio shows there.”

Once Levine had decided to move north, he began the search for suitable studio premises. “We looked at various potential sites before we met the people at Baltic Creative. It’s an area similar to what Shoreditch was before it became trendy. Once an industrial wasteland, it’s now home to many new businesses, the majority of which are media based. I’m the only recording studio so far, but in our little area at the end of the road is Elevator Studios, which is like Nomis once was – full of creative spaces and rehearsal studios. The vibe is wonderful on so many levels. It’s like Los Angeles once was – and Nashville probably still is. You have access to everything you need on your doorstep.”

Community spirit

The studio is now up and running and Levine has already recorded a number of bands and conducted masterclasses in conjunction with LIPA. He’s currently working with around six acts including The Lottery Winners for whom he has great expectations. He’s also working, in association with the Mayor of Liverpool, on projects with disadvantaged and underprivileged youngsters: “They’re all as keen as mustard,” he adds. “They’re dead keen to get a hands-on feel of a studio and learn. It’s the community spirit I love.”

With regard to the studio itself, its shell is constructed largely of OSB board, which the Baltic Creative architects used for much of the centre’s inner construction. “It works surprisingly well,” says Levine. “It turns out to be one of the best materials I’ve experienced in terms of studio builds. All the musicians who have been here so far have commented on how live it sounds. Somewhere between the old Townhouse and a 1970s Westlake room. I guess it’s to do with the way the board is put together; it breathes a bit and gives a crisp, punchy drum sound.”

Kit list

The studio is home to Levine’s considerable collection of microphones old and new which get used regularly. “It’s good to show young bands alternative ways of mic’ing,” he adds. The desk is a Yamaha DM 2000 – “It more than suits my need at present, though I might upgrade to a larger format console in the future.”

Levine records ‘almost exclusively’ into Logic. “I have Pro Tools and have also recently been using Ableton. There’s quite a nice electronic scene up here and lots of those artists use Live. You have to have Pro Tools as it is pretty much a universal standard. When it comes to the mixing end, you need the touch and feel of old-school mixing. The fact you’re working in a digital environment is almost irrelevant as long as it feels creative. I wouldn’t change that way of mixing. With the occasional exception, I don’t like mixing in the box with mice and faders.”

And so to the inevitable question: Is there going to be a new Culture Club album and will Levine be involved? “I’ve always had a close relationship with George. We’ve done some songwriting together and there’s a lot of love between all of us. George has his solo career, which is doing very well – and currently getting amazing reviews. There’s a lot of will to do another record, how far I will be involved is uncertain, maybe just a couple of tracks. I am doing some separate things with George anyway. I’m doing a really big thing with George in August, it’s a big deal, but the paperwork is not signed yet…

“If the band want to do studio recordings I’d love to be involved. There are various possibilities in the pipeline. What’s good now is that Jazz Summers is managing them. I have met with Jazz a couple of times. There’s a lot of good will and we all get on well, but if they want another producer that’s fine. It has to be the right producer to work with them. There’s only a few that probably could stand it, because it’s not quite a normal session. I’d be happy to do one track or no tracks, whatever. There were no hard feelings. When they were recording with Arif in Switzerland, I was working with Quarterflash at Miravel Studios in Provence. Whatever happens, it’s all going to be down to having the right material.

“George’s voice is much deeper and richer now. And he could always sing in tune. Look at all that X Factor stuff. None of them have got the presence of a proper artist. George is one of a handful of artists that has that level of showmanship backed up with quality performance. If something does come off it will be amazing, after all it is our anniversary year – 20 years ago we all got our Brits.”