Look at many of the most exciting, buzzed-about artists coming out of the UK and Ireland right now and you’ll be surprised to find how many have something in common – producer Dan Carey. From righteous Dublin punks Fontaines DC to London art-punks Squid and the dark knights of post-rock, Black Midi, Dan Carey is behind many of the most vital debut albums of recent months and years.
But to paint him as a man who primarily works with brand new, raw, leftfield talent via a maniacal production bootcamp we might fairly call The Dan Carey Method (more of which later) is to ignore many facets: he’s also the closest collaborator and bandmate of poet-turned-rapper Kate Tempest, he’s the founder of the essential Speedy Wunderground label, arguably the last surviving independent to operate exclusively by its own rules, the owner of one of three existing Swarmatrons – a synthesiser it’s a safe bet only Carey knows how to play – and a producer and remixer who’s worked extensively with Sia and had a Top 10 hit with Kylie Minogue. He’s also a man in possession of a mystic blessing from none other than Lee Scratch Perry – again, more later.
London-born Carey took his first steps in the music industry as a guitarist in a band in the ‘90s (the name isn’t important here), but was soon taken under the wing of producer Nick Manassa, known for cutting dub reggae in Brixton, South London. In his 20s, Carey found himself playing on recordings by the likes of Mikey Mystic and Danny Red, and having a crash course in dub production. “I was just really into watching what Nick did with the desk,” says Carey. “He’d be like, ‘This is how you set a studio up – you need at least three space echoes, echo on everything, never leave the desk alone, cut things in and out all the time. I thought, OK, this looks like fun…”
Carey and Manassas eventually set up a studio together, and Carey’s production journey began – one that would take in techno, reggae, indie, hip hop and all points in between. But he would first find himself signed as an artist in his own right, to Virgin records. This was the late ‘90s, when producers were in vogue as pop stars thanks to Zero Seven, Groove Armada and Moby shifting CDs by the butt-tonne. So Dan set about making his guest-packed magnum opus.
“I got a pretty big advance and was able to set up a pretty nice studio, and they introduced me to lots of different people – Sia being one of them, who came in to do a vocal, and Emiliana Torrini being another,” he says. “But I was then presented with the problem of having to tour a record that had a million different singers on it – and it’s impossible. It was a very short tour.”
Carey may not have succeeded for Virgin in becoming Streatham’s answer to Moby, but the connections he made would be life-changing. He and songwriting superhero Sia wrote her early hit “Breathe Me” together, they still collaborate regularly and have vaults of unreleased material. It was she who first suggested to Dan that his calling may be behind the desk, not on stage. “I think she said, Why don’t you just do exactly what you do, but look at it the other way round: you write with people and produce it, then they go off and tour,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a huge ego about being a star, I just wanted to make stuff, and I get restless. So I thought: that’s a much better job.”
Icelandic singer-songwriter Emiliana Torrini was one of the first people with whom Carey struck up a fruitful producer-artist relationship, eventually recording three albums together including Me And Armini (the one that featured the brilliant, kinetic single Jungle Drum, and Tookah). At one point, Parlophone were courting Torrini and, as a sweetener, they made the pair – Carey and Torrini – an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“They said we could write a song for Kylie,” says Carey, still fairly incredulously some 16 years later. “We were like, Kylie? We love Kylie! It’s so funny because it’s such an unlikely thing, presenting a label with a folk record and them coming back with that. But we wrote ‘Slow’ for Kylie, and they wanted that to be the first single.”
That’s “Slow”, the 2003 single that was not only a massive hit, reaching Number One in five countries including the UK, but also a massive departure for the Antipodean pop legend, being both a laconic techno song and the gear-changing follow-up to the Cathy Dennis co-penned “Come Into My World”.
So – how did they pull that one off? “We just didn’t really think too much about it,” says Carey. “We just tried to picture a scene where someone came round and said, ‘I’ve got the new Kylie single and it’s really cool’. It’s a weird sounding record. If you go into a shop or something and it’s playing on the PA, you can’t hear the first minute cos it’s almost all subsonic.”
Kylie even came to Carey’s studio and did the vocals, but it wasn’t the start of a Max Martin-like pop factory. Carey’s MO is not to chase hits but to make music that means something. “I was suddenly put into rooms with people I have no interest in at all,” he recalls. “We didn’t really have any desire to be pop writers. I spent a couple of awkward days with people who thought I could make a hit, but I’d just sit there making more slow techno.”
Instead, Carey did a 180, back to the guitar music of his youth, fostering a connection with the iconic cautionary-tale-of-mid-noughties-indie-bands-band Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, which became a connection with their British krautrock offshoot Toy and led to Carey’s position as a new master of the British underground. In the middle, he produced Tonight, Franz Ferdinand’s hugely successful third album.
Dan’s decision to work with artists is based on numerous factors, and none of them are money. “The first decision is: do I want to work with them?” he says. “I treat this part very seriously – I’m very picky. They need to have something to say. I know not all music is based around lyrics but I’m really drawn to people who’ve got something they need to communicate. If I can foresee a situation where I’m in a room with someone and they’re wondering what a song might be about, there’s no point.”
This, and his second criteria – “if I don’t like someone I don’t wanna work with them” – is perhaps best evident in Carey’s relationship with the singular Kate Tempest, a woman who’s achieved something close to voice-of-a-generation status in the past half-decade. Tempest and Carey met when he produced her first band, Sound Of Rum, at the request of his old friend Rob Da Bank, the Sunday Best and Bestival founder. When the band split up, Tempest arrived at Carey’s door one day asking if he wanted to write a song. The result was “Lonely Days”, which laid the foundation for the Mercury-nominated album Everybody Down, which was entirely written by Kate and Dan. That year, 2014, Carey was responsible for two of the dozen nominated albums at the prestigious awards, having also produced Nick Mulvey’s First Mind, meaning he qualified for two sit-down dinners at The Roundhouse.
Working with Kate, says Dan, was an inspiration. “We were like, Oh right, why don’t we make the whole thing into a story? She had all these fragments and it was really interesting to watch – the way her brain works is incredible. It’s like she was digging away and finding all these relationships. It felt new and different.”
The success of the album saw Carey join Kate on tour across the UK, Europe and the States, playing guitar and synths. “It’s funny, I know a lot of people in bands my age who’ve had enough of the road and just want to stay at home,” he says. “I’m like, Fucking hell, touring’s amazing! It’s a complete novelty to me. I love being on a tourbus and having a party that lasts six weeks. But it was pretty chilled out – me and Kate had a library on the back of the bus: poetry, quantum mechanics and astrophysics mostly.” We forgot to mention: Carey is a keen astronomer and space photographer, too.
While at Austin’s SXSW festival with Tempest, they caught the attention of super-producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, who was most impressed by Tempest’s spoken word performance and invited them out to his Malibu home to work. They spent three days in a studio there struggling to interpret Rubin’s gnomic instruction to stay away from beats and try not to rap.
“He’d pop in every morning, listen to what we’d done and say, No, that wasn’t what I was thinking,” says Dan. After a dispiriting late night session where they played the same song while isolated in different rooms, they went boozing in Santa Monica to decompress and got “absolutely smashed”. When they woke on the studio floor the next morning, Rubin finally approved of what he heard. “He was all, “This is it! Wait there!’,” says Dan. “He ran away and he came back with Jay Z. We’re sweating the alcohol out, just woken up, and Jay Z was saying, ‘Shit, it makes me think I’ve been a bit lazy with my lyrics’. Then it just went west. We did another track and he came back with Frank Ocean, then another and it’s Beck, and then another and it’s Mike D…” The resulting album is the newly-released The Book Of Traps And Lessons, her third with Carey following Let Them Eat Chaos.
While Carey’s working relationship with Kate was taking off, he launched Speedy Wunderground in 2013, a DIY, white-sleeve record label with a manifesto and a modus operandi all of its own. Until this year only releasing single tracks, with a vocal take on the A-side and a dub version on the B, it operates by its own set of rules. Artists are generally found by Dan or label partner Pierre Hall, and the artist is invited to record a single. The track is always recorded (and often written) in one day, it’s quickly mastered and sent to be pressed before anyone has the chance to object, and each player is only allowed to overdub one other instrument, with no exceptions. Generally, there is no lunch (“It’s quite good when everyone is hungry”) and, importantly, a good time should be had by all.
“On the whole, I reckon that eight times out of 10 people say it’s the most fun recording they’ve ever had,” says Carey. “It’s a much better introduction to a band than sitting with them and telling them what I’d do if I recorded them. It’s 24 hours to show them what it’s like.”
Speedy now has 30 singles and four compilations under its belt, and has just issued its first EP, by Squid, which eventually will lead to the label releasing full-length albums (though not, artists will be pleased to learn, on the same time scale).
Speedy Wunderground has also introduced Carey to a number of acts who’ve seized on a particular sound he’s capable of producing, and one which while by no means is his single trick, is one that’s becoming his signature. Warmduscher (2018’s Whale City), Goat Girl (2018’s Goat Girl), Fontaines DC (2019’s Dogrel) and Black Midi (2019’s Schlagenheim) have all signed up to a method that’s kind of a boot camp for artists.
Carey demands that they must rehearse to the point where they’re able to play the entire album in two unbroken halves, minus the vocals. This is then recorded live onto analogue tape in his pleasingly haphazard Streatham home studio, then transferred into digital files, where the production continues. The rub is this: if any critical mistakes are made during the recording of that half-album, the whole thing is erased. It not only means a band gets a near-perfect take of their album recorded as-live, it also ensures they’re road-ready by the time they finish, even if there are tears along the way. “There’s no such thing as a perfect take – mistakes can be great,” says Carey. “If you start thinking you might do a ‘perfect take’, you could literally be there all day. Early in my career I spent time with bands who’ve done 40 or 50 takes of one song, and it never really gets any better. It just drives you insane.”
That rawness of sound is just part of the magic. “I do think there is a sound to what I do, but it’s quite intangible,” says Carey. “The way I would produce Nick Mulvey or Kate or Squid, they don’t sound the same, but to me there’s an approach that is similar, a unifying ethos, down to some quite technical level where there’s a way I like the sound to emerge from the speakers.”
And, it turns out, a generation of artists like the way Dan’s productions emerge from the speakers very much. It’s made him arguably Britain’s most in-demand producer, but one who operates on his own rules: he works from home, in a family environment, he scouts the local South London scene – particularly Brixton’s The Windmill – for talent, he listens to recommendations from friends and he gives back to the community that’s nurtured him.
That being said, he does have ambitions elsewhere. “It’d be amazing to do a Kendrick album,” says Dan. “I feel that rap is in a really interesting place at the moment, people are saying so much and it’s in a state where it doesn’t have to follow the conventions of boom bap any more.”
Not following conventions comes naturally to a man raised on guitar music, schooled in the vast chasms of dub reverb, distracted by house and techno, once accidentally a pop producer and now the man making punk, noise-rock and leftfield indie exciting again. Which is to sum up Carey’s journey, but also to introduce the Lee Scratch Perry anecdote teased earlier, as Perry is a man of vision too.
Back in the early 2000s, Carey and Rob Da Bank had an act called Lazyboy. They made a track that, they decided, demanded a vocal from Carey’s hero, Lee Scratch Perry, and had a hook-up via The Mad Professor, who fixed for them to go and visit Perry in a studio in Switzerland.
“I had the instrumental track on some sort of digital recorder from the time, quite a big old thing,” recalls Dan. “Neil, the Professor, took me to the studio and just said: ‘Go through that door.’ I went into this big room with writing all over the walls, and in it was Lee Scratch Perry, sitting at a desk, making this mad, high-pitched noise. I stood there for a while and eventually I said, ‘Hi Lee’. He turned around really fast and said, ‘I’ll talk to you later’, then carried on making the noise. After a few minutes, he turned round and was really nice. But I didn’t have the right plug for the recorder, so he wrapped paperclips around it and stuck it in the mains. It kept sparking and coming on and off before finally settling into the ‘on’ position. I played him the instrumental, he got the mic, did one vocal take and it was brilliant. He listened back to it about 35, 40 times, this one take – all seven minutes of it. Then he went: yeah, one more take. He did the same on the next. It was two or three in the morning by the time he finished. He used the first one.”
“When I was leaving, he gave me this blessing, and told me I was going to have good luck. After that, everything just went my way. I came home and, I dunno, it was really weird, for years all these great things have been happening – the first of them being the Kylie song, and it’s continued to this day.”
If you’re lucky, maybe Dan will tell you what Perry said. Or perhaps, one day, maybe he’ll even do the same for you.