Industry Insider: Speedy Wunderground's Dan Carey
The producer and label head talks about why he loves what he does.
Scan the credits on any highly touted indie-rock record from the British Isles in recent years, and chances are you’ll find Dan Carey’s name somewhere in there. The producer was behind the boards for the breakthrough debut albums from Dublin garage-punk poets FONTAINES D.C. and London artcore technicians black midi, as well as buzz-generating singles from Squid; Black Country, New Road; and other acts he’s nurtured through his Speedy Wunderground studio/label operation.
Carey’s Midas touch with confrontational left-field rock bands is all the more remarkable when you consider his roots as a dance music artist who’s co-authored hit singles for pop stars like Kylie Minogue (“Slow”) and Sia (“Breathe Me”). As Speedy Wunderground preps the release of Year 4, the fourth installment of its ongoing compilation series (the first three came out in 2014, 2016, and 2018), Carey spoke to us about how he's kept his ear to the ground, and what he looks for in a band before inviting them into his studio.
Spotify for Artists: Describe what you do and give us the short story of how you got there.
Dan Carey: On a day-to-day basis, I’ll usually be in my studio, just recording with the bands, trying to get the best out of them. I’m really focused completely on the music and A&R; the other two people I run the label with [Alexis Smith and Pierre Hall] take care of the administrative side of things.
At the beginning of my career, I was making very underground, electronic stuff—like techno and hip-hop—and putting it out on small labels. But then just for fun, I started making a whole bunch of downtempo instrumental stuff for my own amusement. I didn't really think I was going to put it out, but it got sent for some reason to Virgin Records, and I got a deal as an artist [in 2001]. This was at a time when a lot of major labels were signing producers as artists, and getting featured vocalists on the records. So I was able to build a decent studio using the advance, and [Virgin] introduced me to a lot of people like Sia and Emilíana Torrini, who did featured vocals on the stuff I was doing.
But then it kind of dawned on me that I was in the wrong job, because I was expected to tour, and it’s really difficult to get these singers to come on tour because they all have their own things going on. I think it was Sia who suggested to me that, you know, instead of me being the artist, there is this other job called the producer where you do the same thing, but I could write and produce records for her and other vocalists, and then it’s up to the artist to go on tour. And I had never really thought of that! I was like, “That suits me so much better!” I really like being a producer, but I don’t really like being on tour.
Although I have done some things by established pop artists, I've found myself more comfortable working at a small underground level where there's not so much expectation to deliver hits all the time. I started the Speedy Wunderground thing purely to have an outlet for stuff I could do very quickly and there’d be a guarantee of no fiddling around with it after it's finished, and we wouldn’t have to wait months before it came out. I had read all these things about how, in the ’60s, people would record a song on a Monday and mix it and then by Friday afternoon, it would be on the radio. That really appealed to me, and I wanted to have something that was a little bit like that.
Is there an artist you were a fan of growing up, a story you heard, or an artist you crossed paths with at some point that sparked you to pursue this as a career?
I've taken influences from all over the place, you know, from film music as much as popular music. I suppose when I started to make records, I found people like Beck quite interesting—there were certain people who seemed to be able to do whatever they want and they could switch it up. I kept wanting to switch genres, because I’d be very involved in something quite techy-house, and then suddenly I’d think, “I want to make a folk record!”
What do you look for in an artist you want to work with?
Sometimes, it’s just a feeling. I always like to see bands in a small venue, as the first way of hearing them. What I really like to do is go to the Windmill in Brixton and hear something there, because when you stand in the middle of that room, it’s like you’re in the band. It’s so small, and the music’s so on top of you. There’s a particular feeling where I feel transported, and I lose all sense of the room. Seeing black midi in that situation was really mind-blowing, because I completely lost all awareness of my surroundings and I was just inside this crazy piece of music. So that's one thing that makes me want to work with someone, but it might be something different. It might be just a set of lyrics. It might even come down to one line in a song—when you hear something that connects with you so effectively, you just want to help that person say that thing to as many people as possible.
What's the biggest tool at an artist's disposal in 2019 from your perspective, and why?
It could just be a really nice room to play in—a place where people go and you can always play, where you have the beginnings of a scene. Like I was referring to the Windmill in Brixton—that’s a place where everyone always goes to check out each other’s bands, and there's a huge kind of cross-pollination. There's always new combinations of people coming up, because everyone goes there all the time. It holds 150 people, but even if you do a gig for 30 people there, it’s still great. So I'd say the most valuable thing a band could take advantage of is whatever their equivalent of the Brixton Windmill happens to be.
What's the best advice you have for any artist just starting out?
The advice I would give to anyone would be to figure out exactly why it is that you're doing what you're doing, and make sure the way you're doing it suits the reason that you're doing it. If the reason is to get across a message coming through the lyrics—you know, like it's a politically driven thing—you have to make sure the music that you're making is made in such a way that it delivers the lyrics properly and you can hear them. But if what you're trying to do is confound people with how complex and powerfully you can play, then that’s a different thing. I recorded the FONTAINES D.C. and black midi records really, really differently, because with FONTAINES, I thought the lyrics were the defining thing—I even recorded and mixed the instruments before we recorded the lyrics, and then I put them right on top because it’s really important you hear the words. Whereas it’s different with black midi—it’s a complex mesh of stuff, and so they’re all much more connected together. But if those two processes had been swapped around, it wouldn’t have worked so well.