@ Music Week

'Only the best songs survive, not the tightest trousers'

October 4 2008 By Ben Cardew

As one of songwriting and production team Xenomania, the publicity-shy Brian Higgins has been responsible for some of the most life-affirming and innovative pop songs of the last decade. Here he offers his insight on the cut-and-thrust world of pop songcraft

To be called legendary by an act as highly respected as the Pet Shop Boys - in many ways the archetypal pop band of the modern era - you have to be onto something pretty special.

But, sure enough, when the duo announced that they would be working with Xenomania on their new studio album, due for release next year, such was the honour they bestowed upon the celebrated production/writing team.

"They're based out in Kent - that's quite important because it's a world of its own. It reminds me of Smash Hits," Neil Tennant told Pop magazine in a recent interview. "I very much liked the single Biology by Girls Aloud. I think that was an amazing single. It's funny, 'cause it's nothing like anything Xenomania or Girls Aloud have ever done. It exists in its own world."

Such praise was well earned: under the watchful eye of Brian Higgins, Xenomania have written and produced for superstar pop acts such as Sugababes and Kylie Minogue, although they are still probably best known in the UK for their pioneering work with Girls Aloud, whose new single The Promise went to radio last week.

Girls Aloud's fifth album, again produced and largely written by Xenomania, hits the stores in November, while the team has recently worked with upcoming pop talent including Gabriela Cilmi and Annie, as well as launching a talent competition to find singers and groups for its own Xenomania Records.

The label hired former US music journalist Sheila Burgel as head of A&R last year, adding former EMI product manager Matt Dixon three months ago to look after its roster of seven development acts.

"I am trying to avoid situations in the future where I am signing anything to a major that is essentially cold - I want to make their job a lot easier by arriving with fanbases and records already out in the marketplace," Higgins says.

"The roster covers a broad area from amazing bands to the purest of cool pop - the launch and success of Gabriella Cilmi has given us so much confidence - we now have a blueprint firmly in our minds as to the quality of artist we need to sign as well as the originality of the record we need to deliver."

Over the years, Xenomania's furiously inventive pop style has won plaudits from sources as diverse as the NME and influential US website Pitchfork, who pondered the producers' "deathless hooks and multi-genre pyrotechnics... songs stuffed to the gills with two, three, sometimes four different choruses, sounding like patchwork assemblages of the best bits of a hundred fantasy pop songs."

Meanwhile, long-time online supporter Popjustice, recently wondered whether Xenomania could be putting together "the greatest girl group of all time".

Perhaps less well-known, although arguably equally important, is the team's work beyond excitable British pop, which includes production for the likes of Saint Etienne, New Order, Texas and Franz Ferdinand, while Higgins co-wrote Cher's 8m-selling worldwide hit Believe.

In this exclusive masterclass interview, Higgins reveals the secrets to his - and Xenomania's – success and why you should always, always avoid the formula.

Develop long-lasting creative relationships...

I have great belief in the development of long-lasting creative relationships. I have been with Miranda Cooper for 11 years now, Tim Powell for 12 and Nick Coler for seven. We have a very strong bond and we fight very hard for each other. I think this helps us in the creative process and the inevitable ups and downs of the business.

...but keep relationships fresh

I spend time each year looking to freshen our relationships by signing hungry, ambitious writers and musicians. That is crucial, but I only want to work with people who feel they can give everything to what Xenomania is trying to achieve; I don't think you can do that if you only visit every three months.

Don't rest on your laurels

We are a very restless group of people. We rarely celebrate success, we just enormously enjoy working together. Invariably, when a record has come out and becomes a hit, we are too engrossed in the record we are currently making to really register anything but relief that the hit has been achieved. I should also point out that it is great fun and a real test.

Pan for gold

Myself, Tim and Nick tend to develop small musical ideas that I think are the acorns of hit records. I will have a lot of conviction in a tiny idea and that idea will be developed by all of us to the point where the melodic and lyrical work can really start on it. This is where Miranda's genuine brilliance really comes into its own. The whole thing is then revisited on as many occasions as needed until there is enough material to make a hit record.

It takes real conviction and mental strength to have hits year-in, year-out, so it is vital to only work with artists who are good enough to bring that level of commitment out of you. The better the artist, the harder you try and the more you will give of yourself. It's a lesson we have painfully learned over the years.

Don't copy other producers

Our sound is a mish-mash of lots of things. As a producer you can either say we are going to make a record just like X who is having a hit now or we can allow our natural influences to bubble up during the process, confident that at some stage the effort will pay off - this is the much more exciting way.

We want to find something that is our own sound or unique to the artist. I think there are often many influences going on in our records but it is the hybrid that creates the originality.

Pop doesn't have to be straightfoward

[Girls Aloud's] Call The Shots is a fairly conventional pop song, with verse, chorus, verse, etc, as is Sound Of The Underground. The more complex side has just evolved as we have tried to make better records, but it is not something we feel compelled to do. [Sugababes'] Round Round is very odd; there is a tempo change and few repetitive melodies but that was still an international hit. At the time we thought we can do this our way and still be successful. If you listen to The Police and Bowie you realise that in a lot of their greatest hits the verse melodies never repeated.

Non-traditional structure has been done very successfully before, but you have to genuinely feel it.

From a pop perspective, some of our music over the years is odd when compared against traditional genre pop and I accept that, but when we made our breakthrough as producers in 2002, pop music was largely on its arse and the last thing it needed was another formulaic pop song or producer.

Pop music needs sincerity and conviction. My own desire is to search for the middle ground where originality meets commerce: you cannot always achieve it, but we always set out to.

Avoid the formula at all costs

The only thing we have wilfully tried to achieve over the last six years is that none of the records ever repeat themselves. I accept that you cannot hide your identity from the records you make, but I reject completely the idea that you should roll out a formula sound for each artist you work with; that leads to shortened careers and burnout, or a collection of very dull records. I am determined to push for new, exciting ideas whenever possible.

In the end, it's all about melody

I think that whatever scene is providing the best melodies, they are going to be enjoying the lion's share of success. Over the last few years that has come through singer-songwriters and bands. Traditional pop had become a fat, bloated, lazy thing and was ready to be taken over.

Now, however, how many indie bands sound the same or are struggling to come up with great melodies and lyrics? The idea that you judge a record's quality on whether the artists are playing guitar or not is rubbish. The indie scene will eat itself too as the best of the writers may well have already come on through. In the end, only the best songs will survive, not the person who wore the tightest trousers.

It is all about competing. We have to get out there and make people want what we do. We can only do that if our ideas are brilliant, competitive and recorded with sincerity. That is what the public can identify with. The public will buy sincerity.

Declare independence

To me, the idea is to try and create something original, or at least something with no current reference. That is it.

I have got to put a flag in the sand and say, "This is what we stand for." That will get up the noses of some people and I guess they won't phone me, but if the alternative is to follow a prescribed creative process then so be it - I know myself well enough to say that if I followed the generic process demanded by some, I would deliver a shit record. Great music, great production and great A&R is sometimes all about risk taking - that's the side of the business we want to in exist in.

We have the desire to make something stand out from the crowd but be totally accessible at the same time. As a result of that, it is very difficult to prescribe how the record will be until it is actually finished. With [Girls Aloud's] Love Machine, it ended up sounding like The Smiths bumping into The Sweet. I didn't know it would turn out like that. We got the beat. Once that was right we set about it. The group was just singing against the beat and the bassline; it was a work in progress. For us, a song isn't finished until it is finished. The way we work allows anything to get in there creatively right up until mastering.

So I guess we do work in fragments. It can be slightly uncomfortable for artists, but I am always confident that we can make that record work in a final delivery situation. We don't do demos as it were, the final version of the song is made on the hoof. It's part of the challenge and is exciting.

It is crucial to work with A&R people who complement and appreciate the way you work. Colin Barlow, Nick Gatfield and Darcus Beese are all very patient with me and are confident enough to see where our ideas will lead, without having to hear fully-formed masters. These are rare skills and I am lucky to work with those people.

Stay true to your musical heritage

[Sugababes'] Hole In The Head is quintessentially British and it was an international hit; Love Machine even more so, yet it was only a hit on these shores. The Girls Aloud records have, at times, been quite complex, but I think they needed their own unique sound in order to survive. The international success of [Gabriella Cilmi's] Sweet About Me has been amazing and very deserved - Gaby is an outstanding artist and songwriter. It helps us feel that we are getting our sights in line with what we need to do to adapt our sound so that it will always have international appeal - we are consciously thinking about this now for the first time, but rather than fully change what we are, we know it's time to adapt.

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