Steve Osborne

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz



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Steve Osborne got into the audio business just in time to be “old school.” He came up through the ranks — all the way from tea boy to house engineer — at Trident Studios (London) in the '80s. As an engineer at Trident, he had the opportunity to work with some of the hottest producers in the business, including Flood, who brought Osborne over to Ireland to help record U2's Pop (1997). He cut all of Paul Oakenfold's productions to analog tape for four years, including the Happy Mondays' seminal Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, which he co-produced. By the time analog tape was on its way out, Osborne was ready to become a producer in his own right: one of a new breed that would blend not only analog with digital technologies, but also real instruments with synthesizers in a way that supported a band sound.

In his production work, Osborne truly lets the music be his guide. His breakthrough was arguably via the band Starsailor, whose processed vocals are layered with electric rock/pop instruments. Osborne has also produced all of KT Tunstall's albums, bending her singer/songwriter sound to suit her vision and her latest crop of songs. And it was Osborne's rhythmic, guitar-heavy production of New Order's 2001 comeback album, Get Ready, that convinced guitarist Keith Strickland of The B-52s that Osborne must produce Funplex, the new wave pioneers' first studio album in 16 years. Osborne says that Funplex is a “B-52s album, but for now. It's a bit more raw, and I think we're a bit more up-to-date with the beats.” It makes for a striking combination — an album that is undeniably The B-52s, but somehow even more danceable and almost punk; woven through it are many of the sounds and techniques Osborne has cultivated during more than 20 years in the studio.

Did you start out in the business as a musician?
The first thing I played was trombone, when I was about 6. Then I got a guitar and spent a lot of time playing that when I was 12. Then piano, then drums. My main instrument was trombone, but I got distracted by other things. We also had an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. I had a bedroom full of instruments, and I used to mess around all the time on different instruments.

Later, I got to be friends with some people at the local university who had a [Tascam] Portastudio — the original kind of cassette one. I borrowed that and learned how to use it, and started recording bands at the university. Then I had a friend who had an 8-track and we had a little demo studio, and we would put stuff on 8-track. That was when I was 19 or 20.

A few years later, I actually moved to London and had one of those lucky breaks. I met a friend of a friend who was going to get a job as a tea boy at Trident Studios, and then he decided he didn't want to do it. So I managed to get myself an interview at Trident, which was actually managed at the time by Ros Earls, who is my manager now. She gave me a three-day trial as a tea boy.

How did you do?
[Laughs] I made a lot of tea, and I always made sure there were biscuits, and I always made pots of tea rather than cups of tea. I was keen, very keen. Then I worked my way up to tape op.

Did you then go out freelance to get engineering jobs or did you stay on staff at Trident?
Trident Studios actually got sold, and the people who owned Trident when I joined kept another studio in Victoria. They sold the Soho Studios, where I was a tape op, but when they took me on in Victoria, they took me on as a house engineer because all the people who had been engineers in Soho left; they went freelance.

How did you get involved with Oakenfold?
I was in-house engineer at Trident for a while, and then a production team came in to do some remixes. I did a remix for them, and they asked me to be their engineer. I worked with them for about a year doing remixes, and through doing that I bumped into Paul Oakenfold, who was looking for an engineer to work with. The whole house [music] thing was just starting to kick off, and he was one of the pioneers in the scene. I think the first thing we did together was a remix of a cover of “Love to Love You,” the Donna Summer song. When that worked, we began a partnership.

What made that partnership successful?
What was great about that partnership was that Paul was out there [in the clubs]. He knew what was happening on the dance floor. We could do mixes, and he would take a copy that night and go out and play it; get people's reaction to it. I wasn't out there clubbing; I was always working in the studio. My expertise was doing the music programming and engineering, and Paul would give it direction in terms of the club culture and what was going on.

I've read that because of drug problems, working with Happy Mondays might not have been so “happy.” What was it really like working with them?
Loads of people say, “It must have been a nightmare doing Pills 'n' Thrills,” but actually we didn't have any trouble doing that album. We said, “This is how it's going to work. We're going to start at 12 and finish at 12 every day,” and that's how it worked. They were very keen to do it.

It wasn't anything like the stories you hear about the Yes Please album they did with Tina Weymouth; that was a completely different atmosphere from what we had. The bad stories happened after Pills 'n' Thrills, when the press were on their backs and things weren't going well. When we were doing Pills 'n' Thrills, we'd already had a hit with “Step On.” The vibe was really up; everyone was happy. I would tell [lead singer] Shaun [Ryder] to come in by 5 or 6, and he'd come in by 9 or 10, but you'd know that. You'd know how to deal with him. We'd say, “We're going to cut vocals every day,” and he'd say he's not feeling up to it. But we'd say, “We'll just do a bit every day,” and we did.

Why did you work on that album at Capitol in L.A. when you were all from England?
The idea was they wanted to get away from everybody — from dealers and friends. When we did “Step On,” we had a fantastic vibe. That is still one of the favorite sessions I've ever done, but you always had gangs of people coming down, and to make a whole album like that would have been difficult.

What made you decide to break out on your own as a producer?
I'd worked with Paul [Oakenfold] for a few years, doing club stuff and a lot of remixes. But my background — much as I enjoy doing club stuff — is in more guitar-based music. Happy Mondays was perfect because that was beats and guitars. And to me, that's the most important part of production: getting the right groove, in whatever genre. So working in dance music was great, but I wanted to get into working with bands, more guitar stuff. So I changed management to Ros and said I wanted to move away from so much dance mixing.

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