Who’s the most naturally talented A&R executive to have emerged in the past four decades of the British pop music industry?
Perhaps, you might argue with good reason, it’s Muff Winwood – the former CBS/Sony and Island executive, and founder member of the Spencer Davis Group, who worked with everyone from The Clash to Alison Moyet, Prefab Sprout, Sade and Shakin’ Stevens. He says of Lincoln Elias: “Lincoln has an excellent eye and ears for talented artists. He has an inbuilt understanding of what they need to succeed – and how to go about achieving it.”
Let’s go indie, with one of the all-time greats, Alan McGee – founder of Creation Records and the man who launched Oasis and Primal Scream into the stratosphere. He says Elias is “just quality, a brilliant talent” and describes him as “the best A&R guy of his generation.”
What about Universal Music Publishing UK boss Mike McCormack, the A&R thoroughbred whose career has seen him gel with everyone from Take That to Stereo MCs, Simon Cowell and Steve Mac? He says that Elias is a lot of things – amongst them, “brilliantly intuitive… wise… unique”.
Modern day major label maven? Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, current Columbia boss and former head of Polydor, whose standout career successes include everyone from Portishead to Ellie Goulding, Keane and George Ezra: “Lincoln has a fantastic ear for music, as you would expect, but he also an has an eye for what makes an artist special. His smiley demeanour makes him that person that artists love to be around – but don’t underestimate him, for he is whip-smart and incredibly driven to boot.”
Modern day indie A&R don? Ben Parmar, co-founder of trend-setting British label PMR, home to Disclosure, Amber Mark and Jessie Ware. “Lincoln is the blueprint for what I think an A&R [executive] should be,” he says. “Honest, instinctive and passionate, with a sprinkling of magic.”
The point, if it wasn’t patently obvious, is that Lincoln Elias is highly regarded by the highly regarded; the A&R’s A&R. Ask around the smartest music biz minds who’ve worked in British pop from across the past half century and a consensus generally emerges: he’s a bit special, that one.
Why, then, doesn’t Elias’s name appear more readily in broader conversations about British A&R triumphs, especially in terms of the veterans who have sculpted the nation’s charts in recent decades? Why is he so often left unmentioned when we talk about the great and the good of the British music business? To a large part, because he wanted it that way.
Elias’s official history in the music business is a matter of poor public archiving, but some scraps are widely known. After arriving at Sony/CBS as a teenager in the mid-’80s, Elias soon made a name for himself by signing and developing one of the most revered, mercurial talents ever associated with a UK label: Terence Trent D’Arby.
TTD’s debut album, 1987’s Introducing The Hardline, remains one of the most astonishing, joyous pop-soul records of the eighties. Thanks to monster hits like Sign Your Name and Wishing Well, it’s spoken of in the same breath as timeless efforts from Prince and Michael Jackson. It sold over a million copies during its first three days on shelves, and has gone five-times Platinum in the UK.
TTD’s second album, however, 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, is infamous in industry circles for another reason: one of the biggest creative missteps in UK pop history. That’s a subject we shall come back to on this very page.
From there, Elias went on to found Sony sub-label S2 Records (aka Soho Square Records) alongside his mentor, Muff Winwood, in 1991. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that label became one of the most influential London-based major imprints ever seen. Elias’s signings during the ’90s included Des’ree, Reef and Toploader. But it was with Jamiroquai, the Jay Kay-fronted funk-pop marvels who have sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, that the young executive truly made his mark.
Having jumped in bed with S2 following their early days on Acid Jazz, Jamiroquai hit their commercial height, enjoying a run of smash hits including Virtual Insanity, Cosmic Girl, Alright, Deeper Underground and Canned Heat – while making their presence felt on the US charts too.
Elias lasted 20 years at Sony, before stepping down amid personal turmoil in 2005, a year after Sony itself had merged with BMG in a corporately traumatic marriage. An attempt to bring Elias’s magic touch to the then Ferdy Unger-Hamilton-led Virgin Records in 2006 was short-lived and comparatively unproductive. And then Lincoln Elias just… disappeared. For over a decade.
Now, though, Elias is getting a taste for glory once again.
In recent months, he’s become an increasingly significant behind-the-scenes presence at PMR Records, and is helping the
label’s co-founders, Ben and Daniel Parmar, with some exciting new material. Elias, it seems, is steadily regaining his hunger for A&R once again.
In February 2019, Music Business UK sits opposite Elias at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3. With his eyes full of fire and his face full of glee, he looks back on his remarkable career, explains why and how he pulled the plug on the music industry for more than a decade – and why he’s ready for one last crack at it…
Your documented career history is patchy. Let’s start at the start – what was it?
A big love of music, obviously, which led to me traveling to all the [UK] record labels and being kept waiting in reception by people who are running the industry now. And then Muff Winwood just taking a chance on me, and sort of saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to give you a job.’ I was 17 years old, the youngest person in [CBS/Sony], and the only black person in the building.
That’s why, a few months later, when Miles Davis was flying into the UK, they asked if I could go and meet him at the airport. Could you imagine? At 17!
I presume you took that opportunity?
I jumped at it. When I met him at the airport, he was all in leather and I was gushing, as you would. And he was just saying, ‘Yeah. I only talk to my agent, so you just be quiet.’ I was startled – I thought he was joking – so I just kept talking to him. By the end of that drive into London he was my new best friend. That youthful kind of exuberance won him over, even though he was deadly serious asking me to shut up. What a cool guy.
What was your situation in life when you were going into those record company receptions and saying, ‘I want a job’? Did you even know what A&R was?
I didn’t, but I knew I had that thing of spotting talent, being able to develop it. I always had that thing of being able to listen to music – I was a bit of a nerd like that. I couldn’t afford to buy [vinyl] growing up, but I would go around to friends who had older brothers and sisters and borrow their records.
I saw someone the other day who I hadn’t seen for ages, when I was back visiting my mum. He hadn’t spoke to me for about 25 years, and I said, ‘Miles, something feels funny mate. What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, number one you owe me 70p, and, number two, you have about six records of mine that I’d like back!’
“Everything changed when I met Muff; I think he’s the first person in my life, other than my art teacher, who said I was good at something.”
Everything changed when I met Muff; I think he’s the first person in my life, other than my art teacher, who said I was good at something. And you know, hearing that, I grew about 10 feet tall.
From that point, I knew that I was destined to do [A&R]; Muff got me in, and he just trusted my instincts. And in return, I never wanted to let him down. I look at kids [getting into the music industry now] and many of them don’t tend to have that kind of confidence, and that comes from guidance, support and discipline.
What was your first week on the job as an A&R scout like?
I had to serve an A&R department of about eight people, and every Thursday we had an A&R meeting. And in my very first A&R meeting, after the weekend of Live Aid [summer 1985], it was really hot. It was always in our Chairman Paul Russell’s room, and I overheated; I was so giddy, I fucking fell asleep! Fully asleep for about five minutes, before I got a kick in the leg from someone. I’ve never been so embarrassed. And I just thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re just gonna think they’ve hired someone useless.’ Strangely, that moment actually drove me on even more to prove myself.
I had a very structured week, which was really brilliant. I don’t know if kids do this now, but for three days of my week, anyone could phone up [and pitch music]. There was no kind of vetting, and then [if they were credible] they’d get a half hour with me.
“Honestly, I was surviving on rice and tomato ketchup every day on the wage I was getting back then.”
About 95% of the people who came through that door were white, either in that A-ha style, or heavier, hairier rock music. They would walk in, and look at me, and assume certain things; so for the first 20 minutes of those meetings, I’d be trying to convince them I could do my job, with these bands sort of like, ‘Little black kid, what do you know about rock or synthesised music?’
I think Muff detected that. He sat me down and said, ‘Listen mate, you don’t have anything to prove. They’ve got half an hour to convince you; they’re selling to you. I’ve got you in here for a reason.’ Conversations like that were a big thing, it completely changed the balance, you know.
The other two days of my week, I was going up and down the country [looking for talent]. I was too young to drive, so the company would get me a version of Addison Lee or whatever, or I’d get the train. Honestly, I was surviving on rice and tomato ketchup every day on the wage I was getting back then.
How much were you getting paid?
God knows, but it definitely wasn’t enough. But, you know, you just did it. And it was travelling up and down the country like that when I bumped into Mike McCormack, and all his sort of contemporaries, and they were just brilliant. They were all doing the same as me – sofa surfing, or sometimes [your employer] would have to get a hotel for you. One thing I remember vividly is going round the clock [awake], and then always being in the office for 10 o’clock the next day.
One time, I was slumped on my desk, sort of snoozing, because I’d come in early with no sleep. This is genius; it couldn’t happen now. George Michael was bringing out [1987’s] Faith, I think, and the night before the artwork was being delivered on the back of a bike… and it fell off and got lost. So someone out there in London has got the true original artwork for that album.
“I left a little note for everyone in the A&R department, and there I was at the airport with a plastic bag, with just enough money to buy a toothbrush, a new pair of pants and a T-shirt.”
Anyway, I’m slumped on my desk, and the Head of International, Andy Stephens – who became George Michael’s manager – comes in and says, ‘Lincoln – you’re in early!’ I went, Yep! He said: ‘Have you got your passport with you?’ And I did. My room then was always a mess, but I could find things. And he said, ‘Would you mind going to New York? The artwork for George’s new album was lost by a courier last night, so we need someone to take it [to NYC by hand]. If I get you some money, and get you a ticket, will you go?’
I left a little note for everyone in the A&R department, and there I was at the airport with a plastic bag, with just enough money to buy a toothbrush, a new pair of pants and a T-shirt. I turned up at [JFK airport] and they were like, ‘What’s going on? Is that all your luggage?’ They looked at me pretty funny when I said, ‘I’m here for George Michael on very important business.’ This was my upbringing!
What were the politics of those weekly A&R meetings like and who was in them?
One person in there was Annie Roseberry, who did Sade, who’s a goddess to me – a complete genius. She always had time for me. I’d have to play five or six things [to the A&R meeting each week], and you learned, after a while, not to cry wolf and say, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ But hands used to go up [to sign Elias’s acts] and everyone there had really good, if different, taste.
They’d always come into my small room, shut the door, and go, ‘Alright Lincoln, what’s going on this week? Is there a gig we could go to?’ And I was like, ‘There’s a gig to go to every single night!’
Did that life, eventually, take its toll?
Not really. I mean, maybe. I nearly died when I first passed my driving test. I went up to Liverpool on a Friday afternoon, ready for a gig that night, and I just wanted to get home. I hadn’t had much to eat, saw the gig, and drove back.
No-one knows this to this day; I was in the fast lane and I fell asleep. I had a lorry right next to me, I was asleep at the wheel, and I cut across him, as he was in the middle lane. I veered across three lanes, and ended up with the car rolling over, hitting the bank, and rolling back on its top with a dented roof. I was lucky.
You were what, 18, 19?
Yeah. If a car was coming in the slow lane that day… it doesn’t bear thinking about. It was awful. It taught me to always eat and get a hotel. Before those A&R meetings I used to get this sick feeling, thinking, Have I missed anything this week? A paranoia, like a cricketer going out to face their first ball. I never wanted to let anyone down, and I took pride in it.
I don’t think I went on holiday for the first two years [at Sony], ’cause I was just so desperate not to miss something. And then, I got fortunate: someone in my own art department had a band, and I got on really well with their managers. [Those managers] brought me a cassette, and on that cassette was Terence Trent D’Arby.
That’s a defining moment.
I said to Muff, ‘This is a really good tape – but he’s over in Germany.’ And Muff said, ‘Just go!’ So I did. I’d never been in a hotel on my own before [Elias would have been 18 years old at this point]. I remember the door knocking, and it was [the maid] who’d come and clean, and my reaction was, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry – the room’s a bomb site!’
Anyway, I met him [Terence Trent D’Arby, now Sananda Maitreya], and he was just on a different level. This guy had it; I cannot tell you how excited I was. This was the time before mobile phones, and so I reversed the charges back to Muff [in London]. That conversation was just me going, ‘He’s a genius! An absolute genius!’ And Muff going, ‘Slow down, Lincoln, slow down.’
We brought him over to London and signed him for, I don’t know, something like £20,000. He was sleeping on park benches in Germany at that time. And the rest is history. His first album has now sold 19 million copies worldwide I think. It was mad.
What did that do for you personally and also in terms of the office dynamic?
It was really brilliant, and I think people [at Sony] were genuinely happy for me. A couple of them wanted to [A&R] the record once I brought it in, but Muff said, ‘You know what Lincoln, I think you can do it.’ And I absolutely refused to let him down. Martyn Ware produced [Introducing The Hardline]; I’d listened to Heaven 17 before, but I really listened to British Electric Foundation, where he’d rejuvenated Tina Turner, and they cut Let’s Stay Together. I thought, That guy might work with TTD.
Martyn was an absolutely wonderful guy who treated me on a level, despite being older than me. By the end of [that first meeting], we were hugging each other, I was going, ‘You’re the guy who’s gonna do it!’ Luckily, Terence and him got on really, really well – it was a genius time. And then, of course, comes the story of the second album.
What is that story?
I had no involvement in it, and no-one at Sony had any involvement. Here’s what happens: when [an artist] sells that amount of records, they can surround themselves with ‘yes’ people. [After TTD’s first album], he shut the door; he surrounded himself with people who were on the payroll, and I could never penetrate that world.
Literally the only time on that second album I had anything to do was to go get a rattlesnake from London Zoo, ’cause he used a rattlesnake at the start of one of the tracks. I also think I got him a Yamaha piano at one point. That was it. Imagine: one minute [after the first album] you’re up in a helicopter going to Graceland together, off to buy one of Elvis’s cars… the next minute, you’re shut out. And he could really shut you out.
When was the first time you knew the second album wasn’t destined for commercial glory?
It’s the night I’ll never forget: the night Arsenal played Liverpool, and Michael Thomas scored that goal. [On May 26, 1989, Arsenal and Liverpool played an evening league title decider at Anfield; midfielder Michael Thomas scored Arsenal’s crucial second goal in the 91st minute.] Guess where I had to go? To Crouch End [North London], to the Church [Studios], then owned by Dave Stewart.
I’d driven up by the clock tower in Crouch End, and people were jumping all over the car – they thought I was an Arsenal fan or whatever, and they were so high on life, jubilation everywhere. I parked the car anywhere I could, and walked into the studio, and all the [Sony] big wigs were in the room. And it was just… [pauses, lets out long sigh].
“I promised myself that from that day on I’d alway be bold; I’d always say something if I thought that [a record] didn’t have the legs or the right kind of makeup.”
I clearly remember seeing our Chairman [Paul Russell] with veins in the back of his neck; he obviously couldn’t make head nor tail of the music. That night was the first time any of us heard it. No-one had the courage to say, ‘You know what Terence? You’ll have to go back and at least get a couple of commercial tracks on there.’ Because everyone, every fan, was waiting for it around the world.
I promised myself that from that day on I’d alway be bold; I’d always say something if I thought that [a record] didn’t have the legs or the right kind of makeup, because [Neither Fish Nor Flesh] was a massive fall from grace.
If Terence Trent D’Arby had the right people saying no at the right time, do you think that he would be in that all-time pop pantheon of Prince, George Michael, Paul McCartney, Madonna etc.?
Of course. And do you know what? It was self-sabotage [that stopped him]. Knowing what I know, and without going into great detail, it was self-sabotage.
You know, artists sometimes have that thing of thinking, ‘Really? Why? Why me?’ I always say now, with hindsight, it would be better to [take a dip in popularity] when you’re on the build as an artist, rather than the Alanis Morissette, James Blunt kind of thing. Once you reach those heights, where is there to go? You’ve scaled the mountain, you get to the top, you turn around and you realise there’s no-one around you who you can talk to.
“You’ve scaled the mountain, you get to the top, you turn around and you realise there’s no-one around you who you can talk to.”
With artists, it has to be gradual, you know? You can see that with Jamiroquai; it was a gradual thing where he just got bigger and bigger. You have to be careful what you wish for as an artist. If you shoot your load on your first record, your whole circumstances change like that [clicks fingers]. And being famous, and I’ve been around famous, I can’t even tell you how crazy that is.
With a few of the artists [I worked with], back in the day when HMV and Virgin were down Oxford Street, in their pomp, they would shut the stores down, and open them up [after hours] for these famous artists. It was like Disneyland for me, but it showed how, when fame happens, the real world starts getting left behind.
What are the worst aspects of fame that you’ve witnessed?
Fame changes everything – everything. You know, I heard this fantastic story of the guitarist in Def Leppard – I had nothing to do with them, to be clear. They’re a working class band who made it big, and the guitarist apparently said, after he went to his working men’s club or local pub [in the first flushes of fame], ‘If I buy everyone a drink in here, I’m a flash bastard. But if I don’t buy anyone a drink, I’m stingy. So I’m going to stay at home and drink on my own.’
That says everything. You don’t change when you get famous; everyone around you changes. And so some artists, when they get famous, they build this impregnable wall around them. [As an A&R], somehow you have to get through to these acts when they get that big, and it’s not easy.
It’s just interesting watching these young [artists] today, ’cause I’ve been full circle on this. Sometimes, with your creativity, you need to put the brakes on, and just say, ‘You know what, I’m going to save that [song] for a rainy day.’ Because when you’re at the top of that mountain, you might need it.
Give me an example of what you mean.
I was fortunate enough to meet Stevie Wonder and, honestly, everything about meeting him was magical. Even parking the car at The Lanesborough hotel where he was staying felt amazing! He was [in the UK] doing a press day, and I was fortunate enough that his European manager [Keith Harris], who I knew, said, ‘Lincoln, come, you can meet him, you can have five or 10 minutes with him.’ And of course, I’m waiting in line behind this journalist and that journalist. [Stevie] walks in, and right away, he goes, ‘Where’s Lincoln?’ And it’s just like, Oh my God, Stevie Wonder knows my name!
I walk in to his room, and he says, ‘Are you the guy who signed Des’ree? Are you the guy that did Jamiroquai?’ I was nervous as shit. And then he took my hand, and I could tell he was checking my pulse to see if I was nervous, which he knew I was. Then he goes, ‘You’re my new best friend!’ I spent an hour with this incredible guy, and he would not shut up; his press assistant was giving me daggers.
“It’s difficult, because sometimes artists feel like the magic is never going to end.”
Anyway, after a while, I got more confident, and I’m going to him, ‘You know when you had that golden period of Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, winning all those Grammys…’ And he said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘Lincoln, I wrote all of those songs in a period of 15 months, and a lot of the songs from In the Key of Life too.’
What does that tell us? There’s a time where your inspiration and creativity is at the top of its game. Learning that all of those great albums were written in that furtive 15 month period, it blew my mind. That, to me, says so much about artists. If you can catch that moment of inspiration, become aware of it, you’ve got to harvest as much [music] as you can, because after that, artists get caught up in the industry hamster wheel, and they can lose that impetus.
[As an A&R], if you can capture that kind of thing, try to hear as much material as possible and, at the right time, say, ‘Well why don’t you keep some of that for tomorrow, and use some of it today…’ But it’s difficult, because sometimes they feel like the magic is never going to end.
You do get rare artists where the magic lasts and lasts though.
Absolutely, and that’s why you’ve got to admire Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Arctic Monkeys, Massive Attack, Radiohead, Coldplay, Drake… they obviously all had a master plan, and they were able to map it out in a really good way.
Look at The Beatles or Led Zeppelin: these are people who were putting out singles that weren’t on their album, and doing two albums a year. Two albums a year! What discipline.
So, after the Terence Trent D’Arby second album, what’s happening to your career? What was the next big moment?
It was The Pasadenas, who were sort of big at their time, and then, following that, I remember Muff ringing me on a Sunday and just going, ‘Lincoln, don’t get cross.’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘We’re making you a Director.’
I said, ‘Muff, you know, there’s like 20 of us, I mean, I don’t want to be a Director.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re giving you more money.’ He said a figure and it was just, like, Whoa. All my mates were apprentices. How am I gonna go down the pub and put 10 quid in the whip now? I can pay for everyone!
“How am I gonna go down the pub and put 10 quid in the whip now? I can pay for everyone!”
Being a Director meant that I didn’t have to buy lunch every day, ’cause they had a chef [for execs of that level at Sony]; that was one of the first things I realised. But I’d be sitting there with blokes in their 40s and 50s. [Elias would have been 23 when he was made Director of S2 Records alongside Muff Winwood.]
Everyone was nice, but you know when you’re that age, you’re young, you don’t always have much in common with [older people]. Do you know what I mean? I’d go in if I was really skint or feeling really lazy, and have a meal – and they’d be drinking wine, silver service! It was nice, but sometimes you want to be with your own peer group.
So did you struggle a little bit with that seniority? Feeling like you deserved it?
I’ll tell a story that bring tears to my eyes. At this time, I used to go home to get my washing done, and eat a good solid meal, you know? And when I [collected my washing from my mum], there’d be a black dustbin bag lying out that would hold all my clothes, washed and pressed and stuff. And this time, after I got promoted, there was a tenner sitting on there. I asked my mum what was going on.
She said, ‘Well, your cousin Pauline rang.’ My cousin Pauline, a few years older than me, is a big lawyer, and she’d noticed in a trade paper that I’d been made a Director. She told my mum, and I would have never told them anything like that – I didn’t used to tell them what I was up to, other than bringing home the odd plaque now and again.
My mum said, ‘Well, I thought that as you’ve been made a Director, it must mean that you need to put money into the company, so I left that for you to help.’
I’m assuming, just from something that you mentioned earlier, that your parents weren’t flush with cash when you were growing up.
Yeah, that’s right. But they were really smart. Totally smart. My dad was a chemist, with a really good brain. My mum’s still alive – she worked in care homes and stuff like that. But we moved a hell of a lot, always in London or just outside London.
When I speak to people in the business about you now, they talk about you in hushed tones; the A&R maverick who rode out of the industry never to return. Where did you go?
Do you know what? I got tired. I got really… Look, it’s hard to explain without sounding arrogant. [A&R] is not easy, but I found it. Do you know what I mean? It’s just like, ‘I can do this – I know how to do this.’ And I really, really needed a break. I’d been doing it a real long time.
So when it came to walking away from Sony [in 2005], I have three kids, and I hadn’t spent the sort of time at home they deserved. I’d just lost my dad, Muff was about to retire. And then there was a fire at my house – all my kids were under five and I’m not lying when I say we all got out by a hair’s breadth. And I just thought, ‘You know what? I need a rest. I just… I just need a rest.’
“Muff retiring, my dad going, the fire – it felt like the end of something.”
You know that feeling when a chapter’s ending? It’s really hard to explain. Muff retiring, my dad going, the fire – it felt like the end of something. Looking back, I should have had six months or a year off. Do a Keith Wozencroft, a genius A&R guy who did Radiohead, Coldplay and stuff. I could have just taken a year. But then, [Elias’s time away from the industry] just went on and on.
You get burnt out in the music industry if you’re not careful. You’re always building another campaign, and then another campaign, and you can start going through the motions. It’s never a good thing to not fully believe what you’re saying to a young artist.
There were so few black executives in the UK music industry in your era who were well known. Have you got a view on that? Was it a lonely time for you?
Hmm. Here’s a story for you, and make what you will of it. I worked with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin when they were flying in America, on about 750,000 albums. I remember going over there, and everything in the US is segregated, so black people do black music, ‘urban’ or whatever they call it.
I go in early to a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin meeting at the [US] label, and there’s a guy there with pink hair, piercings… I walk into the meeting room and he says, ‘We’re having a meeting in here, buddy.’
I didn’t say anything; I’d heard it all before. He goes, ‘Didn’t you hear what I said? We’re having a meeting going on in here – are you here to collect the post?’ I just smiled, pulled out the chair, and sat down, and he was getting annoyed: ‘Do you not understand? We’re having a meeting in here about a rock band. You’re in the wrong room.’
“I’m a music maker, not a policy maker.”
The guy who was chairing the meeting came in and was like, ‘Ah, Lincoln! The man who signed Ned’s Atomic Dustbin!’ This guy couldn’t associate me, because of the way he’d been conditioned, as having anything to do with a band. He went bright red, and there’s a moral in that story.
The other thing to say is that I never wanted to [rise to a corporate executive position within a label]; there’s a lot of shoe shuffling that goes with that, and it’s not me. You have to have a certain mentality to do it. I could never do that, look after all those people [working under you].
I’m a music maker, not a policy maker.
How did you feel on the day you walked out of Sony for the last time?
Relief. Pure relief. They were really good people, but they could tell I was in a tailspin. Too much change was going on in my life.
I didn’t really talk to anyone during that period of my career, I just withdrew. It was just like, ‘I don’t care. Just let me go,’ kind of thing.
“I’ve watched all these people rise, and I’m pleased for them, but I also know I’m a gunslinger. I know how fast I am.”
What’s really interesting is I’d had a chat with Lucian Grainge a few years before, around the time he was going through a personal tragedy. And I said, ‘Do you know what? I wouldn’t mind going to Israel, getting into a film programme, something like that. Getting out for a while.’ And, typical Lucian, he goes, ‘Why the fuck would you want to go and do that for?’ I said, ‘Because I wouldn’t mind a little change in my life.’ And he goes, ‘Well, always keep your links in the business. If you’re going to do it, phone me up every few weeks – just keep in touch with people.’
Now, of course, all these guys – Lucian, Rob [Stringer] and Max [Lousada] – they’ve risen to the very top. That was never my dream, you know. I liked being in the lab; bit like my dad, I suppose. I’ve watched all these people rise, and I’m pleased for them, but I also know I’m a gunslinger. I know how fast I am. And at any time, I could pull that trigger [grins].
You seem genuinely modest and awed about most things you’ve experienced in the industry, but also very certain of your own A&R ability. It’s an interesting mix of characteristics.
I don’t care who the artist is, I just know I can work with any kind of talent and bring it through. But I also know that, in this business, you’re only as good as the last thing you do.
I never did any of it for monetary reasons; I did it because I thought I had good taste in music, and I was lucky that, for a time, everyone around me had really good taste in music too. So that whole time became this really cathartic experience.
For a long time, no-one could find me. No-one. One year I was in Los Angeles and went to the Grammys with Benny Blanco, who’s a friend of mine. Benny goes up to Lucian, and [points out Lincoln], and Lucian goes, ‘What the fuck! He’s sitting right there!’ He hadn’t seen me in years, no-one had. I just went underground.
Looking back on your time before you left the business, do you feel like you still owe Muff?
I’ll always owe Muff a lot for taking that chance on me and believing in me. I grew [as an A&R] and by the end [of the partnership] things really felt equal between us. Muff gave me that opportunity and I never wanted to let him down.
Come on then, what’s happening now – are you back in the game properly?
A while ago, I was in Canada, it was really cold, with my youngest son, staying with my mate who trains racehorses just outside Toronto. And I get this email saying, ‘We’re two brothers and we based a lot of what we do with our label on your label. Do you think we could meet up with you?’ It was such a sweet email.
That was from [Ben and Daniel Parmar] at PMR. What lovely guys, my God. When I met them, I could really see me in them, 15 years ago. They have such great taste. And they sucked me in! I told them, I don’t want to work every day, but I’ll help you as much as I can, and that’s what I’m doing now. PMR have given me the access to move forward.
It’s my turn to do the Alan McGee or the Muff thing, where I can sit above it all – doing my best to be the wise old owl.
You seem to have a lot of respect for Alan McGee and vice versa.
Have you ever seen him work a room, or work at close quarters with a band? I come out of those situations challenged; I’m a fast gunslinger, but that man is something else!
He doesn’t care. You know what he reminds me of, Al? He’s got a lot of Malcolm McLaren in him.
Al’s a genius. I’ll go a year without talking to him, and then I’ll just be with him the whole time. I’ve recently reconnected with him; I saw him the other day and I left with my tail between my legs. I was so inspired by him, how good he is, it was like, I know what I want to do – and I know where I’m gonna go and do it.
What do you want to do?
I can pass some of this knowledge down to some of these kids; that’s what it’s like with PMR. The fundamentals haven’t changed in the studio. All that’s changed is how people listen.
The guys [Parmar brothers] look after Two Inch Punch, who’s a brilliant producer. I was with him recently, and I said, ‘Who are you in with?’ And he said a certain big artist, and I asked, ‘Have you met them before?’ And he said no, he hadn’t.
“It’s really like speed dating today, isn’t it? You write with someone, and you have no idea if they’re gonna have a connection with you. How do you slit your wrist and bleed your soul in front of that person in the studio?”
It’s really like speed dating today, isn’t it? You write with someone, and you have no idea if they’re gonna have a connection with you. How do you slit your wrist and bleed your soul in front of that person in the studio? I mean, surely you at least have to go out and have a cup of tea and a biscuit together first!
I guess everything now is more instant, and you have to keep up. I’m getting used to that. But what’s definitely the same is that you have to go into the studio with the right intentions.
Are you used to the idea of five-plus writers taking credit for the world’s biggest pop songs?
Last time I was in LA, wow: there was someone doing the beats, there was someone doing the top line, there was someone doing this, someone doing that. Literally, someone fine-tuning the drums. And everyone gets a cut! That would be called ‘arrangement’ back in the day. There’d be one producer, and that would be part of the job. I’m not complaining about it – but I am getting used to it.
The game’s changed, the way they cut the pie up is completely different, and maybe it needed to get to where it is today. But, still, that thing of sitting down and talking to a young artist, helping them guide their way through, that’s never changed.
It’s not rocket science, is it? My dad used to say, You can judge a person by the company that they keep, and he was right. It’s exactly the same with artists.
Nearly 15 years on from when you walked out of Sony, you still think you have something to offer?
Yes. This feels like the right time to get out there and do the good work again, you know, and just gather some good people around me.
I never wanted to make small talk – I don’t care about that. I never wanted to run a company or anything like that. And I’m glad for those sort of people, and they’re probably pulling down massive wages and stuff. It’s never been my thing. I just want to work, you know, the little components – putting on the paint, and doing the lights. Now it’s really exciting ’cause I can see the way it’s actually going. Put me in a room, and, you know, I can still make things happen.
The gunslinger’s got to have his final showdown. Then it’s time to ride off into the sunset.
MBUK is available via an annual subscription through here.
All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide