Ed Buller on producing Suede

This interview with Ed Buller, created by Alice Gustafson, appeared in Headlinermagazine.net, issue 8 (Feb ’22). Please note that all (c) are with the magazine and its author(s). We have included the original magazine pages for your convenience. The original article can also be found here.

After leaving The Psychedelic Furs, songwriter, producer, engineer and programmer Ed Buller knew he never wanted to be a front man, preferring to sit behind the desk in the studio. He reflects on working with Pulp as the Britpop movement kicked off in the ‘90s, and clears up what really happened with Suede during those fraught recording sessions.

Rumour has it you escaped boarding school to sleep in the electronic music studio of Reading University to get your hands on a synthesizer. Is this true?

It’s kind of become this myth. But truth be told, I really did escape. It was a Quaker school, and it had this fairly large campus right next to the Reading University campus. I found out that the music department had a synthesizer, and in 1974, synthesizers just didn’t exist. They were very low on the ground, and one of the only places that could afford them were university music departments. 

This music department was a bit forward-thinking and they bought themselves a synthesizer. I went down one day and said, ‘I hear you have a synthesizer, could I see it?’ They were like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ [laughs]. But very nicely, they said, ‘Yes, it’s in this little shed in the garden. Here’s the key, go and have a look’. They couldn’t get much of a noise out of it, but the really funny thing was this synthesizer was made by a friend of my dad’s called Peter Zinovieff. 

My father was a composer and he knew this machine quite well – we actually had it at the house a few times, so instantly, I got a sound on it. It had all these little pins, and you couldn’t make a sound out of it unless you put the pin in the right spot on the pin matrix. So straightaway I got it to work, and they were like, ‘How did you do that?’ After a few trips, they said, ‘You can come as often as you want,’ so I actually started to spend a lot more time out of school…

You met the Psychedelic Furs when you were working in a music shop in London, and went on to co-wrote one of their best known tracks, Love My Way, as well as The Ghost in You, Heaven, and Heartbeat. After becoming a touring member in 1982, you realised you were much more at home in the studio, and left to become the in-house engineer at Island Records, later branching out on your own as a producer and engineer in 1991. Why do you prefer the studio?

Truth be told, I just didn’t like the idea of the front man mentality. All I really wanted to do was play the keyboards. Watching Richard Butler [The Psychedelic Furs] dealing with all the politics… Front men have a personality and an ability to project themselves into an audience. It’s a bit like acting in some respects – a good front man is very hard to find. 

It’s not that they’re all dickheads, but I was very put off by the sort of person I thought I was gonna have to become if I wanted to do it, and it just didn’t interest me. I was much more interested in music and the gear. 

I’m interested in the sounds, I’m interested in getting all those sorts of textures. So I decided to become a producer, and I asked a few A&R friends how to do this, and they said, ‘At the moment the engineers are doing the production’. So I thought, ‘I better become an engineer first!’

You worked with Pulp and Suede as the whole Britpop movement kicked off; what was it like to be a part of it?

It was just absolutely fantastic. It was so good. Myself and my wife Laura used to have the bands around for tea. It was a great time. 

When we won the Mercury Award, that was one of the most amazing nights. We were all sitting there at The Savoy, and all my friends from Island were there, and when we won, literally everybody from the table came over to congratulate us; they were so pleased for me. 

It was a brilliant time, and then it got kind of gnarly with the fight between Suede and Blur, and it all got a bit political in the second year of it. But it was still fun.

What are your memories of producing Pulp’s breakthrough studio album, His ‘n’ Hers?

From a career perspective, I’ve got to be honest, I think Pulp was a bit of a disaster for me because when I first worked with them nobody knew who they were, and I was trying to get them signed. I remember going around record companies saying, ‘You’ve got to sign this band!’ They had a terrible time – no money, nothing, and eventually they got signed to Island, so I got the call to do the album. 

We went to Britannia Row, and one of the things that was really obvious to me when I was working with them was that some of their playing wasn’t quite up to speed for a record. It was still very indie and it wasn’t as tight as it should be. I locked horns a bit with Nick and said, ‘You’ve got to practice, mate’, and then when we did the record, he was just in a different league. It was like a different drummer turned up: he was so good. It was unbelievable how much better he got. 

They’re fun people; there’s no drama with Pulp; Jarvis is just a hysterical character. They’re hyper-smart people as well. The thing I wanted to bring to it was, I kept playing them Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, which was my downfall because they went off and did the next record with Chris Thomas, so I screwed up completely with that [laughs]. 

What I was trying to do was to bring this very lush, Trevor Horn-style production to the music, because the music is quite straightforward, so I was trying to make it a bit more orchestral and huge. It worked really well on some tracks. 

But I was always slightly out of my depth, because those sorts of records I was referencing took years to make and teams of people making it, and it was just me on my own in Britannia Row for six weeks. 

So I bit off more than I could chew. But I’m very proud of that record.

You produced Suede’s debut album (along with many of their subsequent albums), which was at the time the fastest-selling debut album in British history in almost a decade, and is often cited as one of the first Britpop records. In terms of production, how does it feel to have been so instrumental in the early days of that genre?

Well, I’d like to take credit for the production, but I don’t think that’s true. For me as a producer, at that point it was still very early days, so I was trying to get all the bits to work. 

The thing with Suede that was so challenging was that they had one of those things that very few bands rarely ever have, which is a virtuoso musician in Bernard [Butler]. Suede had one of the most accomplished guitar players we’ve had in English pop music for a long, long time, so it was very important to me as a producer that I let Bernard shine as much as possible. 

On songs like Animal Nitrate and Metal Mickey, the guitar playing was of such a high caliber that Bernard really helped sell the songs. I don’t think that’s a Britpop thing, bizarrely. I think that’s almost a prog rock thing. 

But I do think that for a lot of people listening to those records for the first time, they were hearing that energy that they hadn’t heard in pop music for a while.

It’s no secret that there was a lot of tension during the recording sessions for the band’s second album, with arguments about production and between the band members leading to sessions being recorded in shifts and ultimately, Butler leaving the band. How did that affect the production?

Well, I thought I was doing a really good job until I got fired! [laughs]. To set the story straight in the sense of a timeline, this had been brewing for a long time. It’s not like we all rocked up to Dog Man Starand things went south. It had gone south long before. 

Bernard is a very, very different person to Brett, and they were in a pressure cooker environment together, posing on magazine covers together and being asked about each other all the time, and it just turned into this kind of thing. 

Brett was much more comfortable being a frontman than Bernard. Unbeknownst to me behind all of this, I think Bernard was quite critical of some of the sounds I was getting, and I think his ear was being bent by Geoff Travis. 

When I finished the album, he said, ‘Look, I don’t like the sounds you get’, but didn’t say any of that to me. So when I started the record I didn’t even know those sorts of conversations were taking place, but I did know that he’d fallen out with the rest of the band fairly badly by the time we started the record. It was very uncomfortable. 

We spent all our time trying to keep Bernard in a good mood, and it was absolutely awful. Then it all exploded over that stupid interview he gave to some magazine where he slagged everybody off, and it just collapsed in the space of two or three weeks. 

All these awful stories have come out that are completely untrue. One of the classic ones is that they left all his guitars in the street. This is just complete fiction. Of course we didn’t leave his guitars in the street! He rang me up and said, ‘I need to pick up my guitars; I don’t want to come into the studio’. I said, ‘I’ll leave them in reception for you; is that alright?’ 

So they were leaning up against the front desk inside the building; they weren’t in the fucking street [laughs]. It’s just nonsense. Things like that just really upset me because it all got very poisonous. 

It’s a shame because the record is such an incredible record. I mean, it’s not flawless – there are some songs on it that didn’t turn out the way they should – and I made many mistakes on that album. But the bulk of the album is a fantastic record. It’s a shame that Bernard left, but he left.

You’ve continued to work with Suede since then; is there anything new coming out soon?

We finished the new album last year, but we’re still tweaking it. Despite the covid situation, we managed to go into the studio to do it properly. Suede play really well together. In the old days, My Insatiable Onewas the third take, and pretty much everything you hear is the first recording. 

But as time progressed, Suede albums got more and more complicated and involved more and more bits, and we really didn’t want that to happen on this album, and unfortunately covid interfered with that, but we managed to do quite a lot of it live which was great.

Your composing work has seen you work with Hanz Zimmer on the soundtracks for Chappie, Little Prince, Boss Baby, Dunkirk, and the recent Lion King reboot. Steinberg recently released the new version of its notation and composition software, Dorico Pro 4. How has that helped your composing work?

Like all software, you’ve got to wait for them to make the software that they really want to make. I got hooked on Dorico last year when I moved over to 3.5 – I was just blown away. 

Dorico 4 is another huge leap forward. It’s such a powerful piece of software – there’s nothing like it. For me it’s a dream come true because the front end looks like an orchestral score, and on the back end is a very powerful DAW. It’s a massive leap forward. I mean, it was a big leap in three, but the huge leap in Dorico 4 are the editing capabilities in the MIDI data. 

It’s now got a dedicated window and it’s very easy to write CC data and draw CC lines. I’ve got three screens, and a brilliant feature lets me click on a note and it opens up a different screen, and on one of the other screens you can see all the MIDI data for that note without interfering with the score data. 

That’s really, really clever because you can manipulate it so that the MIDI is a separate thing. So if you want a note slightly early or late because your sample library isn’t quite on the beat with that particular note, you can nudge it in the MIDI page without changing anything on the score editing page, which is absolutely fantastic. 

I think it will become THE program in a few years. I think more and more film composers will be using this because so many of them read and write music. People that are used to looking at scores, I think they’ll fall in love with it.