JOHN DELF: On the road again

API has expanded its editorial offering further, as experienced FOH engineer John Delf joining its team of regular contributors. Here, Delf tells us a bit about himself…

The last few years of my life have been manic. I have been one of the lucky ones. My time has mainly been taken up mixing FOH for UK rapper/singer Plan B and girl band Stooshe. 2012 was one of my busiest years yet. Not only was I lucky enough to mix hundreds of live shows but I also had the insane idea to open a recording studio:

I started 2012 as tour manager for a female artist called Delilah, then went on to mix over 100 shows with Stooshe as FOH engineer, yet I still had time to tour as FOH for Plan B on through the summer festivals, a Forest Tour and also the Parklife Touring Festival in Australia. There were a few trips abroad with Gorillaz Sound System, including a New Years Eve show in Dubai supporting Snoop Dogg; even a few one-off shows with The Feeling covering sound duties for my friend Jon Sword, and a show in Milan with Kylie Minogue.

I have been mixing Plan B since April 2011. This culminated in Feb of 2013 with an arena tour around the UK. I got offered the Plan B gig at a time when I was mixing for Eliza Doolittle on her UK tour; she was asked to support Plan B in the US. Just before leaving for America Plan B’s previous FOH engineer wanted to move back to mix one of his old bands, The Kooks, so as I was also heading out to the USA with Eliza I ended up being in the right place at the right time and got offered the job.

In the previous years before working for Eliza Doolittle I had spent two years on the road mixing The Script and before that, two crazy years with the very talented Lily Allen.

Its not always been so busy. I first got involved in music in 1990 when I spent my time begging the local recording studios in Manchester for a job. They all told me to go away as I had no experience, some not even letting me past the door. So I started a course at Spirit Studios – now known as SSR in Manchester – training to be a sound engineer. After three months on the course I managed to get some work experience in a couple of different studios. One called Startrak located near Piccadilly Station in a railway arch, took me on full time for £30 a week. For that £30 I was working 50-hour weeks.

After a couple of years at Startrak I got offered a job at The Cutting Rooms. It was here that I started to get requests from bands that I was engineering in the studio to come on the road with them. I turned them down as I had no idea what I was doing in a live situation, but eventually I said yes to one of them and ever since then the touring side has taken over my life.

In the first few years I would do maybe one or two weeks of touring a year. I toured with some great indie bands of their day including The Chameleons, The Delgados, Mogwai, Arab Strap, Throwing Muses, Fifty Foot Wave, The Breeders and Urusei Yatsura. I spent an awful lot of time in the back of splitter vans visiting every single service station in the UK and staying at every single Travelodge known to man, mixing shows at such salubrious venues as Fibbers in York and the Princess Charlotte in Leicester.

It’s amazing how you learn your trade in these small venues – a different desk every night with a half working PA and no sight lines to the stage, broken mic stands and a collection of the weirdest microphones you could get, mostly acquired from Tandy. With these bands we did lots of radio sessions at places like BBC Maida Vale and XFM for the various indie programs that played out in the evenings. One of my indie highlights was mixing a gig with The Delgados in John Peel’s back garden for his wife’s 40th birthday party.

My first real break into major label touring came when I worked with Northampton band The Departure. They were signed to Parlophone and had a top 40 hit which at the time was very exciting. There was a noticeable difference to the doors that were opened for these guys due to their major label status compared to all the indie label bands I had previously worked with. We were even flown off to Japan and Australia a few times and had a great time touring the UK’s better sized venues playing shows in front of bigger audiences.

The Departure never quite broke through but It was through connections with Parlophone that I then got to work with Lily Allen and thats when it all started to go manic. I don’t think she ever played a show that wasn’t sold out. We went very quickly from playing in small 200-cap clubs to 60,000 people at the UK festivals. This was when I first found out how busy a successful artist needs to become to break into the mainstream. We travelled the whole world several times including trips to USA, South America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It was an interesting transition time for music as the indie bands I had been working with were starting to giving up because the internet was destroying their income due to free downloads, yet it was the internet that was making Lily Allen. One of the highlights with Lily was playing a show at T in The Park in Glasgow on the Sunday that her single Smile went to Number One in the UK.

After working on the whole of the Alright Still campaign, Lily went back in the studio to record her second album. Whilst she was in the studio, I got offered an Irish three-piece band called The Script. There was a real buzz around them. It was one of those projects that you could tell was really going to go off, and once again they seemed to be only playing sold out shows. The speed at which this band grew was phenomenal. I didn’t think I would be lucky enough to see this a second time after the experience of working with Lily but, this seemed to get bigger even quicker.

The following year The Script went back to the studio to record their next album, so I started working with lots of different female artists including Diane Birch, Martha Wainwright, Rox, Yadi, CocknBullKid, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Alison Moyet, Liza Minnelli, Washington, Lana Del Rey and Eliza Doolittle. On most of these tours I was also tour managing as well as mixing FOH sound, which was easier on some tours than others, and it definitely kept life interesting.

This year began with mixing Plan B’s first headline UK arena tour. Going back from Vocal to Track performances to mixing full band shows was so much fun. The Plan B shows were an interesting mix of his two hit albums – one soul music and the other hip hop. The show was in two halves with massive video screens playing clips from his movie Ill Manors and music videos from the album The Defamation of Strickland Banks. It was great fun to mix a 10 piece band on stage with such variety in the set.

Now that Plan B is back in the studio working on his follow up to Ill Manors I’m currently touring with an Australian band called 5 Seconds of Summer. We are the main support band to One Direction on the ‘Take Me Home’ arena world tour. We have shows booked all through the year until Christmas 2013. Being surrounded by the One Direction camp is amazing. I have never seen such pandemonium outside the stage door. The fans are crazy and scream throughout the show, and my twitter followers have gone through the roof!

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