An interview with Stuart Epps, British record producer and sound engineer
I’ve always believed that the universe conspires yet ever so gently, and so, these days, I try to take most of my opportunities as they are delivered. It’s almost a trend for people around me to speak of the “law of attraction”, but if you don’t really live it, how can that be?
I prefer Hindi values, myself, that is to try to vibrate with the very frequency of the universal “hum” itself, I find good things come to me, it feels like singing in tune with the universe, in harmony. Oh, and of course, these days I’ve also learned to follow the pull of my inner tummy too, it’s just like the sat. nav. to the soul.
Even if my skills do not always exactly match the challenges at hand, I’ve had the most fabulous adventures.
Would you care to come with me? On one of these adventures, there’s room in the car, and petrol in the tank.
This particular tale began one evening, last year, with an introduction in The Kings Arms, Cookham, via a mutual friend, to Mr Stuart Epps. Not a name I recognised at first, but certainly one my colleagues whispered in near reverential tones.
It was soon made clear to me, through gentlemanly banter, that Stuart, to say the least, has played quite a role in music history itself, his career spans over 4 decades – so far.
Not least having worked alongside Elton John, with his producer Gus Dudgeon and many others at the almost mythical studios, The Mill, at Cookham. This I believed, was an opportunity just too grand to miss, and Stuart very kindly agreed to an interview with me just a few days later.
Allow me then would you, to take you with me, for this begins a thrilling connection to a “golden age” if you will, and to a man whose career really mattered (and continues to matter), through the times when music simply mattered most.
I arrive at his apartment in Cookham on the most beautiful day in late August, the sun is literally bursting with energy, splitting through the gaps between the houses and street shops as I drive past, like the light shining through a zoetrope animation. A groovy, wrought iron staircase leads to the roof-garden entrance above, and I approach somewhat tentatively, trying to muster a little courage. I’m no interviewer you see, and I realise I should have brought a digital recorder with me at least, damn it.
To the left is parked a classic Jag X12 which tells me this is the house of someone who salutes the “old school” and frankly I admire that. In fact, an old girlfriend of mine (who always reminded me of Marian Faithful) used to drive the very same model, “like faded aristocracy” she’d explain.
Stuart greets me at the door beaming, with a wonderful glowing energy and leads me immediately to his studio room; he is thoroughly convivial and boundlessly determined, as he enthusiastically begins to show me his latest projects without a second thought, remixing tracks from all over the world, via computer.
His remix is frankly fabulous, where there was once ‘mulch’ and ‘fog’ to the track, everything is lifted and clarified, Stuart effectively remasters and saves this digital recording from America, via the net. Using not only an eclectic knowledge of how to operate complex recording programs (which are frankly harder to learn in many ways than an “analogue, hands-on” desk) but also applying his vast experience to the final product.
On top of the producing and sound engineering, he is lecturing and delivering eLearning online via platforms like Skype. He is also promoting his current passion, The Epps Factor. This, he tells me, is an opportunity for unsigned acts to gain professional feedback from a panel of industry stalwarts such as Stuart himself, Kiki Dee, Paul Gambaccini and Tony Blackburn, to name but a few.
Stuart, quite unlike the Jag then, is by no means “faded aristocracy”, but completely “on the ball”, contemporary and VERY much in demand.
For a moment I feel quite overawed, I’ve never conducted a “proper” interview before and suddenly feel out of my depth. Stuart, in contrast, is wholly self-assured, an old hand if you like, he’s done this a hundred times, or even more. But, I want to capture something slightly different, an impression of the man if you like, not just the history. I glance at the walls around us and see that they are adorned with gold discs, one for example, (I’m quite sure, sure as I squint), is Elton John’s Rocket Man. It may not be, but it’s certainly Elton John.
Above us dangles a mirrored disco ball, “this used to hang above Gus’s bed” Stuart smiles wryly, following my gaze, as if it was always an old, ironic joke between the two of them. Below, and to the right, is a wonderful pair of older, tweed-covered, Tannoy speakers that also belonged to Gus, and sitting on top the old industry-standard (but oh so challenging to the ear) Yamaha NS10s reference speakers - of course. If you get a mix right on these, the old adage goes, the mix will sound right on anything. I would expect nothing less.
As the last of the summer sun bursts through the window behind us I begin to feel uncomfortable. Inadequate. Stuart, for me, is that direct connection to the eras in music that I love the most. Like a silver astral thread to the past. A doorway at the back of the wardrobe. In a way, it’s like dialling memories on one of those rotary phones, where you have to wait for the dial to return to the beginning for each number to register with a mechanical ‘whir’… A bead of sweat wanders down my face as I realise I am woefully unprepared.
Stuart sees I’m struggling a little and takes control.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years” he explained, “I’ve met so many wonderful people you know, but the one thing I always try to remember is, that we are ALL just human beings…” As he speaks, he wishes to reassure me with an aura of both command and calm about him, but there is an endearing kindness too. Essential skills for an engineer or producer.
It is that confidence that every free-flowing artist needs, someone to act as a unobtrusive guide, to provide safe working parameters and perimeters without setting negative constraints. “Gus would run his studios like a Sergeant Major,” Stuart explained proudly, “everything was meticulously planned and executed, it had to be in those days, because of the limitations in recording equipment”. I can see this military approach has rubbed off on Stuart. Like a George Martin amongst Beatles then? Within a moment, he has put me at my ease and begins to tell me about his extraordinary career.
Stuart began working as an office boy at the age of 15 for Dick James Publishing in 1967 (The Beatles first publisher). “I was earning £6 a week” he enthused, “but it felt like a fortune, it was an atmosphere of amazing music and extraordinary characters, I was being introduced to brand new music everyday, seeing and hearing new records, like the White album for example, before public release” he recalled, “ and Harrison and Elton – Reg Dwight – were very much part of that scene at the time”
Stuart then quickly worked his way up this heavenly “Jacob’s” ladder, from office boy to disc-cutter. Finally becoming assistant engineer to Steve Brown, the ‘Head of Label’ at Dick James Music, which finally resulted in Elton and Bernie Taupin’s very first single, Lady Samantha.
It was Steve Brown in fact, who along with Gus Dudgeon (fresh from producing David Bowie’s 1969 hit, Space Oddity) teamed up with Elton himself, to set up Rocket Records, one of the very first “independent” record labels.
Soon would follow the wonderful records we all know and love, Tumbleweed Connection,Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau,Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player and of course Yellow Brick Road, all of which Stuart engineered and Gus produced (in fact, it’s Stuart’s jacket I believe, that Elton is pictured wearing on the yellow brick road album cover itself)
Unbelievably, Stuart was not only A&R manager for “Rocket” at this time, but also co-manager for Kiki Dee as well as being Elton John’s personal assistant throughout his initial successes and American tours, all at the age of only 18, culminating 4 whirlwind years later with John Lennon’s legendary concert appearance at Madison Square Gardens in 1974. Where John Lennon joined Elton on stage, marking not only John’s first public appearance for many years, but indeed, his very final one. I mean, can you Imagine? I can only dream.
By the time Stuart returned to England however, everything had changed, “No one thought anything was going to last, I’d met a girl who lived in an ice cream van in Hawaii” he laughed, “and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do, retire there and sell ice-cream.”
Gus Dudgeon, however, had other plans and by the end of 1974, asked Stuart to join him in his new studios, The Mill at Cookham, as head engineer. “This was the best equipped studio of its time.” enthused Stuart, explaining that the MCI mixing desk Gus had installed was tailored to his every need. He also told me how he and Gus would describe the Slough West exit from the M4 motorway as “the big willy turnoff” due to its curious shape.
I can see them now, in my mind’s eye, and it makes me roar with laughter thinking of every time they would have approached exit 7 travelling out of London Town toward Cookham, I mean, you can’t help but smile at the thought can you? Stuart and Elton? Roaring with laughter.
Stuart worked on many projects at the Mill throughout the 70s, Elton John, Lindisfarne (Run For Home) and Chris Rea recorded hits there to name but a few, (Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over was produced by Dudgeon, and engineered by Stuart, at the Mill in 1978) but the biggest change came in 1980 when Jimmy Page, from Led Zeppelin, bought the studios and appointed Stuart as the studio manager….
“I didn’t meet him for 3 months,” Stuart laughed. “The Zeppelin myth always painted Page as being a dark disciple of Alasdair Crowley” I interject, “was he?” “Well, he was real Howard Hughes I can tell you that,” grinned Stuart “I didn’t see him often, he was a strange guy, a total eccentric.”
Here, Stuart engineered for the likes of George Harrison, Bill Wyman and Paul Rodgers(Free/The Firm) but it was Stuart’s work on the very last Led Zeppelin L.P., Coda, in 1982, that lead to him being asked to produce Twisted Sister’s 1983 debut album for Atlantic Records, giving Stuart’s craft true, transatlantic, rock appeal.
It was Chris Rea who finally took on ownership of The Mill, high on successes from records likeShamrock Diaries and On the Beach, eventually downsizing however to what became known as The Garage, but things were far from over.
“It was an amazing time,” says Stuart “Chris could be difficult to work with at times, but so can any artist.” By 1994, however, Stuart had moved over to Alvin Lee’s nearby private studio, Wheeler End, transforming it into a residential commercial studio. Among his customers here were a brand new tribe of Britpop varieties, Oasis, Robbie Williams, Mark Owen and Paul Weller, as well as old mainstays such as Chris de Burgh.
An amazing career then, by anyone’s standards, and I haven’t even begun to explore the half of it here. The list of people he has worked with is eclectic to say the least, from the very, very famous, to the very cool, and the fact that Stuart embraces new technologies wholeheartedly, has kept him firmly in the driving seat for decades. “I have my son to thank for that,” he explained “he introduced me to Myspace, which in turn helped me discover a whole new way of working.” It is a great testament to him that he is held in such high regard in the music industry.
“I have always felt privileged to have a career that I am passionate about” he is quoted as saying, and THAT is what singularly comes across to me; that Aries passion, that competitive fire, the child-like excitement for new ideas, and a delight in finding fresh sounds with contempory technologies, in an industry where so many become so jaded so soon.
Some 3 hours by now has whisked by, and momentarily, whilst we talk and enjoy our lunch in the very last of the summer sun, I have a small epiphany of my own. I suddenly remember, as if peering through my own fog of time, that I have actually helped to install the very control desk of which Stuart has spoken, the Mill’s MCI, into another studio 10 years ago. I really had absolutely NO IDEA of this when I arrived all those hours ago. Once again the universe has conspired it seems… but ever so gently. This is MY connection to The Mill, no matter how small or humble. “It’s a fabulous thing” I say, thoroughly excited, “it’s all a buzz and a hum with crackling valves, it was introduced to me as Elton’s desk, a mystical thing imbued with magical powers.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s valve” replied Stuart, furrowing his brow, pausing for a moment chomping on his petrol-station chicken sandwich… and then he remembers “Oh no, you’re right, yes, it did have a valve section.” We smile like musicians smile when they just “get it”. Like singing in tune.
I so regret not having had time to prepare 20 blistering questions for, in retrospect, there are so many things I would like the answers to now, “what was Harrison like to work with?”, “What was your favourite moment with Elton?”, the list is endless. But them’s the breaks. You only get the opportunities you get.
Stuart Epps currently performs with Juliette GoughThe Epps Factor. Please join Stuart on his website www.stuartepps.co.uk
This must be a lesson for me then, to do my research, and to “man up” as a journalist. But then, you know, I do so love approaching these things simply as “A Fan”. For primarily that is what I am.
He interviews musicians and industry personnel, and reviews music and gigs.
He writes @ The Astral Caravan
photograph by Dean Feltimo