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Dan Carey’s south London studio makes a fast impression. In the corridor looms an austere, floor-standing tape recorder, its array of metal spools, erratic dials, and flashing red LEDs conspiring to evoke an eight-year-old's idea of a spacecraft cockpit. Blu-tacked beside it is a Grammy nomination, for co-writing Kylie Minogue’s Slow, unframed and printed on yellowing card with tatty corners, like a swimming certificate stuffed into a miscreant’s book-bag. Next to that hangs the quaintest of antique posters: a hand-drawn lion tamer, top hat in hand, bowing his head into his beast’s open jaws. “You’re not paid to take risks,” reads the caption, a reminder to sixties industrial workers that rapid production needn’t mean sloppy work.
Gauging the degree of irony in the latter acquisition is hard. Dan's 7” singles label, Speedy Wunderground, prides itself on efficiency; as well as a strict one-day recording policy, it has a charter of principles designed to eradicate “over-cooking and faff”. In truth, though, it’s a relatively loose operation, and in Dan's dedication there’s a sense of liberation from the industry trenches.
He's certainly served his time. Along with Slow, Dan acquired another Grammy nod for mixing Hot Chip’s Ready for the Floor. He has co-writing credits with Sia and Lily Allen and has produced for Franz Ferdinand, Django Django and Chairlift. At August’s Green Man Festival, he unveiled the Sexwitch project alongside Bat for Lashes and TOY, both longtime Carey disciples.
This afternoon, his Streatham studio’s door is flung wide open. Speedy’s latest clients are BOSS, the unlikely trio of Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman, All We Are’s Guro Gikling and Sarah Jones, a session drummer for Hot Chip and Yeasayer. Last July, at Dan’s behest, the trio convened in Streatham to mess around in the studio, where a boozy, 15-hour jam produced precisely 20 seconds’ salvageable material. Today, that snippet has become a hook, and the hook is doing its best to become a song.
When I walk into the studio, the band, heads bowed and brows furrowed, are analysing competing takes. Dan spins gently on his office chair. Noting a new presence, he almost threatens to look interested but quickly returns to studious contemplation. He’s an unassuming kind of authority. When Guro asks if they can splice the two takes together, he grins sympathetically. “It’s all on tape” he answers finally, spinning back around to his desk.
For all the laid-back vibes, fucking about is kept to a minimum. Even forgetting the time constraints, laying down takes chez Wunderground is something like a ritual. When Dan’s ready to record, he scans the room, calls in engineer Lex, outlines a brief and sends him out through the soundproof door. In the corridor, Lex dons headphones and steadies himself before that relic of a 24-track, a machine as tall as its operator. A moment before the band begin, its features stand dead still. In the main room, silence falls like a stage curtain. And then the dials start dancing.
In February 2013, Dan began Speedy Wunderground to reconnect with old clients and scope out new ones. The first single, a collaboration with Steve Mason and Emiliana Torrini, was vintage Carey, full of noir undertones and psychedelic excursions.
Despite dressing in minor bling, black skinny jeans and beach-dad shirts, his vaguely youthful appearance is belied by a hangdog expression and sad, possessive eyes, which give him the stony demeanour of a warlock banished for trafficking dragon eggs. As a producer, he wants “to make it feel like you’re recording round someone’s house”, meaning no headphones, booths, or assholes. On the Speedy website, his philosophy is codified in a “10-point plan” listing requirements for each session. Along with the practicalities – no lunch breaks, one overdub per person – there are quirks: the “core of each song” must be recorded in the dark, amidst smoke and lasers; likewise, each track must, without exception, include a musical cameo from Dan’s Swarmatron.
You’re tempted to describe the Swarm, Dan's most prized catch, as a cross between a theremin and a harmonium. In fact, it looks more like an antique board game, its lacquered wood, smooth green surface and different switches and knobs a recipe for childlike wonder. It strikes a tone somewhere between Hitchcock and Kubrick. Sometimes it wavers at a frequency so chronically shrill you expect to look up and see Kim Novak plummeting from a bell-tower. Others, it's like a real-time manipulation of the PS1 startup sound.
The machine is symbolic of Dan's sometimes manic pursuit of unheard sounds. “There are certain things I’ve been trying to do,” he admitted in a recent interview. “You know that technique in films, time-slice photography, where you have lots of cameras and they take a picture at the same time, and then you run through? I’ve been trying to recreate that in sound for years, but I can’t get it. I don’t even know what it’d sound like.” To the untrained eye, the studio is like a reliquary of failed experiments. Pointing skyward is a metal dustbin lid implanted with a lightbulb, seemingly awaiting Martian transmissions. In one cluttered corner rest various descendants of the sitar, all gathering dust; their conqueror, a sitar simulator pedal, perches atop a poetry volume called The End of the West.
Dan moved here in 2006, upgrading from a Brixton bunker where a local dub producer taught him the ropes. Luckily for the neighbours, the house is detached, and Dan’s family owns all of it; upstairs, family life proceeds relatively unhindered. During a session break, three girls swarm in and assemble themselves at Dan’s feet, regaling him with tall tales. He listens closely and smiles warmly, hands planted at the Swarmatron controls.
Given Dan’s slightly obsessive nature, it’s no surprise he can be a little cagey when talking. At one point, we wander outside to conduct the interview, but there’s less material in his answers than, say, his boyish apprehension of computer screens, or the way he tails off just as he’s warming to a subject. It's as if the listener’s expression were a pesky reminder that nobody enjoys this quite as much as him.
Besides, time is short. After a less than revealing chat, Dan paces indoors and picks up a rain stick, prepping a percussion part. “My forearm is gonna be huge after this,” he announces to the room, smiling. As they record, every electrical instrument seems to switch on of its own accord. (Dan has a penchant for keyboards evocative of those 70s sci-fi films that taught you not to trust technology, all with esoteric knobs labelled "Memory Protect", “Pulse Width Mod”, “Eternal Requests” – the contents of a Oneohtrix Point Never song title generator.) Taking up the piano, Guro taps out a few counter-melodies, undecided which fit the groove. Eventually, she flitters between two candidates with a quizzical expression. “The first one’s better,” says Dan. And so it is.
Later, when the band return from a sandwich break, Theresa is muttering a new mantra: “To walk through hell and sing angelic, you need a bit of a psychedelic.” Humming the line in sync, the three of them crash on the floor as Dan assumes the Swarmatron. When their murmurs die out, he hits play on the backing track, fires up the machine, and improvises a whirling monsoon for the middle eight. Theresa gives Guro a look that says, “Sick.” The music stops, but instead of winding down, Dan keeps playing, suddenly gaining intensity. At his feet, Theresa, Guro and Sarah gaze up, waiting to see where he takes them.
BOSS release I’m Down With That on November 27th through Speedy Wunderground (pre-order).