Recording the Musical Underworld: John Loder’s Southern Sonic Style
Samantha Bennett, Australian National University
Recording has always been a means of social control, a stake in politics, regardless of the available technologies. – Jacques Attali
I got in touch with John Loder and said, ‘How about us doing a demo?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ll get an 8-track.’ – Penny Rimbaud
ABSTRACT: In recent years, fora such as The Art of Record Production and scholars including Albin Zak, Mark Cunningham, Greg Milner and David Morton have made significant progress in filling the scholarly void existing between popular music performance and reception. Socio-cultural and analytical works on sound production practice[s] have, however, reinforced a ‘recordist canon’, prioritising the work of 1950s and 1960s pop and rock recordists. However, little acknowledgement has been afforded to the work of later recordists, particularly those working in non-mainstream music[s].
This paper considers the work and influence of John Loder, sound recordist and founder of Southern Records and Southern Studios in Wood Green, London. As a key member of pre-Crass collective EXIT and later referred to as Crass’ ‘9thLoder’s commitment to DIY aesthetics, analogue recording practice[s] and contract-free music production can be traced in a sonically discernable production style. Upon analysing the technological and processual attributes of Loder’s work, namely Crass’ The Feeding of the 5000, Side 1 of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, Ministry’s The Land of Rape and Honey and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, such underworld[ly] sound aesthetics become apparent. To conceptualise Loder’s work as representative of a musical ‘underworld’ seems apt. The counterculture-affiliated, alternative acts with whom he worked and his avant-garde recording influences conflate to represent the antithesis of 1970s-1990s commercial music releases. Avoiding problematic diagnoses of ‘auteurism’, this paper evaluates Loder’s role as one of ‘sonic orchestrator’; bringing organisation and control to the often challenging, chaotic and noise-driven post punk music[s]. Further consideration is given to Loder’s legacy and the extent to which his influence is present in the work of contemporary recordists.
Sam begins, as chair, by summarising the panel overall (full set of abstracts and summary for this session can be found on Sam’s academia.edu site). She then gives a brief historical overview of the origins of Southern Studios, and notes the contrast between Loder’s apparent reclusiveness (and lack of presence in recording historiography) and the highly significant, famous and influential artist recordings he produced.
As Loder himself is now deceased, there are many methodological problems in investigating his life and work, and Sam briefly lists these and how they were addressed. We hear a detailed studio kit list, including information about the analogue tape multitracks, the EMT plate reverb and AMS digital ones, and an ‘idiosyncratic’ patchbay [!]. The setup was largely unchanged over 20 years.
Crucially, there was no direct line of sight between recordists and musicians. Complicated negotiations took place over talkback. There were benefits to this – one interviewee notes that the fact that he couldn’t see the bands forced him to listen more carefully. The live room environment was hostile – there was no drum or vocal booth and no attempt was made to create a comfortable physical environment for the bands. We hear ‘Do They Owe Us a Living’ from The Feeding of the Five Thousand by Crass (1979) is cite, particularly the deliberate absence of time-based signal processing (that is, the album is sonically dry: “we’re punks – we don’t have fucking reverb”).
Another sonic characteristic of Loder’s work was the tendency to bury vocals deeper in the mix than most contemporaries. Our next example is Big Black’s The Power of Independent Trucking (1987), featuring distortion on multiple instruments, including vocals. The album form which is came (Songs About Fucking) was deliberately anti-digital, and the album sleeve provided a statement about the way digital technology was reproducing analogue tape recordings (ending in the phrase ‘feel stupid yet?’).
Loder’s stake in feminist politics is noted – Crass’ Penis Envy (1981); Babes in Toyland’s To Mother (1990); PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me (1993 – mastering). Loder’s lasting friendship with (and influence on) Steve Albini resulted in the former mastering Rid Of Me.
Now we hear the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey – Psychocandy (1985), with some detailed interviews with the band, describing the low key feel of Southern as a reason for choosing it. Loder’s sonic signatures are discussed, including buried vocals and dryness/discomfort (apart from the reverb added to the J&MC’s lead vocal).
Sam’s summary deals with the legacy of Loder’s anti-production aesthetic, noting that Psychocandy was an exception to Loder’s body of work – partly due to the J&MC producing and Loder himself only engineering. She also notes his anti-industry approach, of choosing high-risk, politicised artists, undertaking negligible contractual negotiation, and aggressively maintaining an analogue aesthetic in the context of the digital revolution of the time.