JOHN LECKIE • PRODUCING BAABA MAAL

Producer and engineer John Leckie is renowned for his work with English pop legends such as John Lennon, The Stone Roses and Radiohead. Recently, however, he left behind the comforts of Abbey Road to record one of Africa's best-known singers on location in Senegal. Sam Inglis finds out more.

A full list of John Leckie's credits as producer and engineer occupies five sheets of closely typed A4 paper, and makes impressive reading. Entering the music business as an Abbey Road tape-op in 1970, he soon found himself working under Phil Spector on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band albums. After graduating to engineer, he worked on classics such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, before leaving to become a freelance producer in the late 1970s. In that capacity he's been responsible for some of the most influential albums of the last 20 years, including The Stone Roses' classic debut and Radiohead's The Bends.

The majority of John Leckie's credits, and the records he's best known for, are by British guitar bands. When Sound On Sound last interviewed him in May 1997, he had just won a Brit Award for Best Producer for his work on Kula Shaker's K, and talked at length about the highlights of his career as a rock producer. However, he also has another string to his bow: a long-standing interest in world music. It was this that led him to brave the hazards of heat, humidity and vicious insect life in West Africa, engineering and producing Baaba Maal's album Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) .

"It started, as with most things really, with a phone call," begins John. "I knew who Baaba Maal was because I'd seen him play a couple of times at WOMAD festivals, so I jumped at it. I thought it was one of the best offers I'd ever had, actually. I knew Jumbo Vanrenen, who's the A&R guy at Palm Pictures [Baaba Maal's record label] from way back, and after the call they said 'We'll go out to Senegal and meet Baaba Maal and look at some studios to record in.' They really wanted to do it there, because his other records have all been done in Paris or LA, so we went out to Dakkar in Senegal and met Baaba Maal and his band and his entourage. He has a lot of people around him, because he's quite a popular figure. You can't really compare it to anything in Europe or Britain. He just has a lot of people around him, his musicians, his friends, and he has a lot of brothers and sisters and cousins.

"We saw some studios. There's another singer in Senegal called Youssou N'Dour, who had a hit here with Neneh Cherry, and he's quite a big figure too. In fact, they're the two artists in West Africa, not just in Senegal, who are huge superstars. Youssou's music is more urban, and he sings in a language called Wolof, which is like the national language. One of the special things about Baaba Maal, though, is that he sings in a language called Fulani, which is from the north of Senegal and the south of Sahara and Mali. There's a vast area where people speak Fulani, but they don't really have a representative, because it's not the recognised language in Senegal — a bit like Welsh, I suppose! But because Baaba Maal sings in this language, he gets lots of followers — anyone who speaks Fulani follows Baaba Maal. He's the only major artist who sings or writes in Fulani, and so his singing really helps to keep the language alive.

"Anyway, Youssou N'Dour has quite a respectable SSL-based studio in Dakkar, and there's another studio which is Amek-based. It's a studio with air-conditioning in the city, but you could be anywhere, really. You'd go in there and you could be in any country in the world, it's just a generic studio. So they took me to a house that Baaba Maal has about 80 miles south of Dakkar, down the coast, and it was great. It was like a farmyard spread, with some stables and some mud huts with grass roofs, and just open sand. There was no electricity or anything, but it was so great that we decided to do the record there. So we took all the equipment and recorded everything in the open air."

Setting Up

With the decision taken to record in rural Senegal, Leckie and the others working on the project faced the challenge of turning an unpaved yard and a couple of rooms with no doors, or glass in the windows, into a professional recording environment. They knew that the equipment they would be using was unlikely to be available in Senegal, so the first problem was to work out what would be needed, arrange for it to be hired in the UK from FX Rentals, and get it shipped out to Africa. Even this was not entirely straightforward, as John explains: "Nothing happens unless you give people gifts, 'cadeaux'. If you did it yourself, you'd never get through, you have to go with someone who's experienced, and who knows when to give someone 10 quid to get your equipment out. It's the same with your passport — as soon as you arrive they take your passport, and if you want your passport back, it's a tenner. Otherwise you sit there for a day or two. That's Africa.

"I took a guy called Ben Findlay, who's an engineer at Real World. He came with me, so the two of us did everything. There was quite a lot to set up and control. We took two generators. It may be that you can hire or buy a generator there, but it's better to assume that you can't get anything, and be totally self-sufficient. At one time we were looking at gas generators, and huge bloody 3kW things on trailers, but we ended up with a Honda generator which was just like a little box with a handle. It only used half a gallon of petrol for six hours, but it delivered 1kW, and it was fairly quiet — you could just put it behind a wall or round the back of the house, and you wouldn't hear it at all. We ran a couple of lightbulbs from it and we were charging video batteries, and we had all this gear running with no problems at all."

Most of the equipment choices were dictated above all by the circumstances in which they would be recording, as John explains: "We took Tascam DA88s. I think the reason for that was size and reliability, really. We couldn't really take a tape machine like an Otari MTR90 or something, just because it might pack up and we wouldn't be able to get spares. We took three DA88s, and Baaba Maal had two (of which one was broken), so we knew that if one went down, we'd have a backup, and we could always obtain another quite easily. I'd used them before: I'd been out on the road with Dr John, and I took a couple of DA88s in cardboard boxes and just lashed them to the back of PA desks. They're quite reliable, and they sound all right. People advised us not to take Alesis ADATs because they're a bit unreliable.

"As well as the DA88s we took Focusrite 115HD mic preamps, the little yellow and blue ones — we took four channels' worth — we took API mic amps and API EQs, the 550 'lunchbox' model which has four of them in a unit. We took Urei 1178 compressors, which are the stereo model, and Neumann U87 mics — some 84s and AKG C414s too, but mostly 87s. We took a Yamaha SPX1000 for some reverb, although we never really used it, and we also took a Studer eight-channel mic amp, because I knew that sometimes I was going to be recording a whole band and I'd need 12 or 16 mic amps. The Studer unit has eight little mic amps and a digital out, so you can just plug it digitally straight into the back of the Tascam. We took a little Mackie 24-input desk, for monitoring only really. We never really used that for recording. All of the recording was done through the Focusrite and API mic amps and straight into the tape, and all the monitoring on the Mackie. We used Genelec 1030A self-powered speakers, which are great. They're quite compact, and sound really good. We had to take a backup of everything — in case one of the speakers went, for instance, we didn't want to monitor in mono for the rest of the time there!

"We didn't quite know what the conditions were going to be like. We knew it was going to be hot and humid, but dust was not a problem — Jerry Boys did some recording in Mali and there were real dust storms. Our main problem was humidity — some mornings we'd come in and turn on the DA88s and we'd get a warning saying 'caution: condensation', and they wouldn't accept tapes until the caution light went off. We just had to leave them on and put the fan against them, and they dried out in 10 minutes. We also had problems with condensation on the faders on the Mackie desk. You would often have to move the fader right down to the bottom before it did anything, because condensation on the track was shorting it out, and sometimes things would suddenly get louder because the condensation had dried up!"

  Insect Nation  
  As well as heat, humidity and lack of electricity, working outdoors in Senegal put another obstacle in the way of record production, as John Leckie explains: "One of the things about Palm Pictures, which was the record company I did it for, is that everything is also released as a DVD. So everything we did was filmed. The problem, of course, was that at night, when the cameraman put the film lights on, every insect came from all around. There was lots of noise on the mics — sometimes we just had to stop because it was too much — and the other thing is that they bite! They have these insects they call 'wanks', which are actually what they call blister beetles in the Southern states of America. Basically, you don't feel that you've been bitten, but immediately they bite you they spray you with acid, and a blister comes up, and it bursts. So you don't really feel the insect bites, what you do feel is the burst blister, and they get all down your T-shirt and up your sleeves. So as soon as it gets dark you have to button up your clothes, because before you know it, you've got blisters all over.

"There's also locusts and cicadas, big ones, and they're everywhere, they jump up on the desk and on all the equipment and everything, but you sort of get used to it after a while, because they're harmless. But the thing is that the wank beetles eat the locust eggs, and so if you kill the wanks you get plagues of locusts, and the locusts get out of control, and they eat everything!"

 

Engineering Challenges

John Leckie was understandably wary about imposing too many of his own musical ideas on Baaba Maal and his band, and most of his efforts went into tackling the significant engineering challenges posed by the circumstances, and by the distinctive instruments that were recorded: "Baaba Maal would say what he wanted as far as the instrumentation went. I was really involved in getting sounds up and making sure that it stayed on the right track, and that there wasn't too much on it. Very often they'd want to put everything on it all at once. Although Baaba Maal wrote the songs, they're derived from very traditional songs, so when the musicians came in to play they all knew the songs, although they hadn't rehearsed. It was a bit like us playing Lennon and McCartney songs or something.

"He'd done records before with drum machines and drum loops, and also big-band projects with horns, and what he really wanted to do this time was a more traditional acoustic album. So most of the songs started with acoustic guitar and an instrument called the kora, which is like a harp. It's a big gourd with a post in it, and I think there are 21 strings; you hook your thumbs round pegs, and pluck the strings with your fingers [see photo on previous page]. The kora and the acoustic guitar went down with no click or anything, they just play with their own rhythm, and then we'd add percussion after that.

"Baaba Maal, of course, is known for his singing, so the singing's quite an important part. Sometimes the singing would go down with the acoustic guitar — it'd just be him playing, and things would just be put on top. There'd be a lot of backing vocals. Everyone in the room would go out and sing backing vocals, there might be 10 people, or at other times three or four girls would come in and sing backing vocals.

"The main Senegalese percussion instruments are called saba drums, and they're like conga drums on a stand. Usually there's at least two drummers, and often seven, or 10. 'Tomorrow I bring my brother!' they'll say. I'd turn up and there'd be eight or nine guys with big drums. They play them with their hand and a stick, so it's like 'boom, whack!' The dynamic range makes it difficult, because you want to capture the 'boom' when he hits it with his hand, but when he whacks it with the stick, of course, it's too loud. One problem with recording outside is that you've got no room sound, you've got no reflections, so it's totally dead — and if you move the mic away, it's late! You can't move the microphone too far away, because there's no reflection coming back, it's all direct sound. So that can cause problems, because if you mike it too close, you don't get the full tone and depth of the drum.

"The saba drums are quite important in Senegal. 'Saba' also refers to a celebration or a party or a dance. It's usually in the evening, and it's like street party; everyone's out on the street and you get the saba drummers going crazy, and all the women dress up in their best clothes and they all come out and dance one at a time. None of the men dance, it's just a big circle of people and every now and again a woman will come out and go crazy, and the drummer encourages her to go madder, and the drums go madder, and the woman either falls down or runs off, and then another woman comes out!

"Two of the tracks were done with a live band, and again, we set up outside with a drummer, a conventional rock drum kit, saba drums, electric guitar, electric bass, and kora. Again, because it was outside, we had to get everyone to sit close together, so that the spill wasn't late. When we had the band playing, it was so loud that we just invited the local villagers, and they sat around. To them, it was probably like living in a little village in Cornwall and having Paul McCartney come and make a record in the house next door!

"There was a number of acoustic guitars, there was electric bass, and there's a couple of other instruments like the calabash, which is just a wooden bowl, really. The guy sits down with the calabash on a cushion and taps it with his fingers, 'dacka dacka dacka dacka', and then whacks it with his fist, 'boom!' So the 'boom' is like the bass drum. That's a traditional instrument all over west Africa. The talking drum is another traditional West African instrument, every track has a talking drum on. We had a troupe of three of them — they'd driven down about 400 miles from the north.

"We also had a hoddu player, called Barou Sal. The hoddu's a four-stringed instrument which is very primitive, it's basically just a broomstick [see photo on opening spread]. There were three hoddus on the record, including a bass hoddu. In Senegal, and all of Western Africa, there's this tradition of Griots, which means that if you're a singer or a drummer or a hoddu player, it's in your family, so your father and your grandfather were also drummers or singers. It's very difficult to be recognised as a musician unless you come from a musician family. So Barou Sal is from a Griot family, although Baaba Maal isn't. Baaba Maal's self-taught, his family are farmers, but most of the other musicians are Griot musicians. It's more than a job, it's an honour and a responsibility and a privilege to be a musician, so you get instant recognition if you're from a musician family."

The approach of the Senegalese musicians to recording was also unusual for a producer more used to rock guitarists. There was no 'red light syndrome' here: "They're quite different to rock musicians. Nothing fazes them. They just play, and that's it. There's no 'Do it again' — they don't need to do it again a lot of the time. It's all first take, you don't get much opportunity. They'll say 'OK, we'll do drums' and that's it, there's no second chance. Or if you do want to do it again, it's exactly the same."

  The Importance Of Attitude  
  "The main thing you need in producing or engineering, in terms of advancing your career, is attitude and positivity," says John Leckie. "I've worked with a lot of engineers who just basically do the job: they put the microphone out, put the fader up, get the level, and that's it. But they've got the opportunity to create something really special. What got me about studios is that every day you can come into the studio and create magic. You've got all this wonderful equipment, and all these possibilities, and it's a privilege to be in the studio compared to people in other jobs. Very often I go into the studio and the band, or the engineers or the people in the studio couldn't care less. They're a bit jaded, and you have to give them a kicking and say 'Look, you could be working in a garage. You could be anywhere else, and this is the best place to be. Today, we're in the studio, and we're going to make magic for people that's going to last for years. Whatever we do will be there for ever, so let's make it really special, rather than just putting the fader up and that's it.'

"In the old days there was a lot more competition, because you didn't have so much equipment to work with, you had to make the best of it, so it was much more of a challenge. Engineers were known for their vocal sound, or their drum sound — the Geoff Emerick vocal sound, or the Chris Thomas Roxy Music sound, or something like that. It was still done in studios with the same equipment, but the sound was made and it was identifiable, and it was down to the special way you used an echo plate, or the way you got a piano sound. People might say it put too much of a stamp on the music, but it actually makes something really special, and that's what lasts, and that's what people recognise. When people say the old records are better, that's because of the attitude with which it was done. It's things like doing vocals on the computer — nowadays people say 'Oh, we've got Pro Tools, we can do lots of tracks and comp the vocals.' I'll say 'No, you won't. You'll do it right first time. We've only got one track left on the 24-track, and you're going to sing the song.' And so the attitude of that is totally different to a singer thinking 'Oh, I'll do loads of takes, and let the producer sort it out.' If the musician is put on the spot, and there's one track left and there's no drop-ins, so he's got to go for it, you do get a much better performance, you don't get a lazy performance, and when it's done it's done. You don't have to spend six hours listening to every word and choosing what's the best.

"That's always the thing in the studio, you use attitude to put the musicians on the line. Very often when you're doing a backing track, people will be thinking 'Oh, we're only doing this to get the drums down,' so the bass player's thinking 'I can always drop in on the bass', and the guy doing the guide vocal is thinking 'It's only a guide vocal.' But if you get everyone vibed up and you say 'No, this is it, we're recording straight down to stereo, guitar, bass and drums and vocal. Every bit of it has got to be together and great,' and they get that, it's great, because you've got something special, everything's gelled together, they're all bouncing off one another, and that's what the magic take is."

 

Back To The Real World?

The Senegalese sessions lasted approximately four weeks, but there was more to be done before the raw material captured there could be turned into a record: "When we finished, after the four weeks in Senegal, we then went to Real World studios, and were there for about 12 days. Some musicians from Paris couldn't come to Senegal for whatever reason, and so they came from Paris to Real World. Baaba Maal's oldest friend is a guy called Mansour Seck. Originally they were a duo, and usually they sing together, so Mansour came and did all his vocals in Real World. Mansour's blind, so it's quite an experience working with him.

"We also overdubbed balafon, which is like a kind of curved wooden xylophone. The guy sits on the floor, listens to the tune, and chooses what notes to play, so he makes up his own xylophone. At Real World we also recorded a guy called Kante Manfila, who's another great Senegalese guitarist — he's more jazz-influenced — and some bamboo flute as well. The flute is quite interesting, because I thought it would just be a couple of little lines, but Senegalese flute is very abstract, very free-form and improvised. They just play notes all over the place for ever, and it's kind of sunk in the background. It's a textural part."

After the Real World overdubs, the finished album was mixed there and in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, but retains the atmosphere and intimacy John Leckie and Baaba Maal were aiming for by recording as they did. Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) was released in the UK on April 2nd.

"A lot of people are disappointed with African records, because they always sound like they're recorded in London or New York, they don't sound like you're actually in Africa," concludes John. "And I think when Western people buy an African record, they want to be transported there. I just wanted to use traditional instruments, because we were making a traditional record, and my vision was that when you put the record on you'd get a little picture of Africa."

  John Leckie On The Producer's Role  
  John Leckie has followed a classic career progression: he began as an assistant engineer at Abbey Road, moving up the ranks before crossing over into production and becoming a freelance producer in the late '70s. He is, however, ambivalent about the value of an engineering background to record producers: "You don't really need to be an engineer to be a producer, that's what engineers are for! Sometimes I hate the fact that I'm an engineer and that I come to it from that way, because you're always seeing it from a sonic point of view. You have to drop all your preconceptions. You have to keep your fingers off the desk, really, if you're going to move from engineer to producer. It took me many years to trust other engineers, and I'm still a bit twitchy, that's why I only work with engineers I know. I like to give other engineers the chance, but very often it's quicker for me to do it myself, and sometimes people want that from me, sometimes people want that sound or that engineering quality that I give — I don't really know how it comes about, it's just what I do.

"You can still be a successful producer without touching the desk, without being an engineer. You have to know how the process works, but the great producers of the past, like George Martin or Phil Spector or Mickie Most, they'd never touch the desk, and they'd never know the engineer they were working with. They'd turn up at the studio and use whoever was engineering the session, but they'd still make hit records. I think the thing with producing is always being aware of the overall picture. You may not know what the finished record's going to sound like, but you've got to look at the overall picture of the song, because very often in the studio you'll get bogged down in the verse, or the solo, or a little bridge, and what the producer should be aware of is what the whole song's going to be, that's what people are going to hear.

"The other thing is that the performance is 99.9 percent of what people hear. It doesn't really matter what mic you use for the vocal, or what reverb you use, or what studio you use, or all that stuff. That's 0.1 percent of the finished thing. The main thing is the song, the singer, and the performance, and it's the producer's job to get the best performance out of the band. And that doesn't need engineering skills: in fact, being an engineer can mean you get so involved in engineering the sound that the performance suffers and you lose the band. What they want a producer for is to be the listener.

"I'm probably in a funny position, because I've never been a musician, I'm not a songwriter, I've never played in a band or anything. So to me, musicians are like magicians, because they can do something I can't do. They can play guitar, sing, play drums. I can't play drums to save my life, and so drummers, to me, are amazing people, because they've got this incredible skill. So I've got a lot of respect for musicians, because they're doing something I can't do. I like to think it's a good position to be in, that I'm the perfect listener, because I'm not influenced by the music. I'm not thinking 'Oh, I could play that better,' or 'Why don't you try a G there?', but I know what I want, I know what's going to better it, and maybe that comes from experience."

 

  Other Leckie Projects: Recording Muse  
  Although his love of world music provides some fascinating projects, the bulk of John Leckie's production work still comes from guitar bands, and he shows no signs of becoming bored with the genre or running out of inspiration. When I met him, he was in the late stages of recording the second album by one of Britain's most exciting new rock bands, Muse, whose successful first LP Showbiz was also a John Leckie production. "Matt [the band's frontman and guitarist] is the most inventive guitarist I've worked with in recent years, because he's completely un-retro," says John. "He's not influenced, or he doesn't know about, all these other guitarists. Matt's never heard Pink Floyd, he doesn't know what their names are, he's never heard Dark Side Of The Moon, because he's young and he's never come into contact with it, so he doesn't know what Pink Floyd guitar sounds like. When we made the first record he was asking me about Jimi Hendrix — 'What should I listen to for Jimi Hendrix?' — and Eric Clapton. He's been in contact with Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, those sort of American guys, and Rage Against The Machine and that sort of heavy American stuff, but none of that '60s kind of retro guitar stuff has influenced him. He's using some crazy sounds and pedals, and now he's got a bit of money he's getting guitars made with everything built in. He's got a silver Telecaster with a Roland VG8 pickup, phaser, distortion, and a piezo pickup built-in.

"One of the interesting things, though, is that we're still using a Marshall amp. Marshall amps are now 35 years old, but people still use them, they're still their first choice. Guitarists, engineers, producers, if you want to get a sound, use a Marshall. Sometimes you turn to a Fender Twin, but I find you're never satisfied unless you've got a Marshall there and you've used it. All bands, all types of music use Marshall amps and always have done. Muse have got a Matchless, which is good, and a Soldano which is all right for an intense, saturated sound, but we always go back to the Marshall."

So what can we expect from the new album? "It's quite a bit more adventurous," says Leckie. "On one track there's just church organ, no guitar, and on another track there's just grand piano. There's some crazy acoustic atmospheric tracks, not folky acoustic but with a beat-up old drumkit and a bit of clanging industrial noise, so it's quite varied, and a lot of synthesizer stuff. We haven't blended them together: if it's a synthesizer song, that's all we've used, and if it's a church organ song, that's all we've used, and if it's a guitar song, it's all intense guitars."

 

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