BRIAN HIGGINS INTERVIEW |
@ The Telegraph
Xenomania: how to write a hit song
By Neil McCormick
The Telegraph, August 2009
Xenomania HQ appears to be a veritable hive of activity. I thought people went into the music business to get out of working?
We put in long hours here but it doesn't feel like work if it's your passion. Every day we meet at 9 o'clock, a music meeting, and listen to all of the things that need to be dealt with during the day. It's the best time to listen to things. It's quiet and you can't hide from anything at 9 in the morning. It's going to sound very true.
What is your role?
I have the final say on everything, cause committees generally don't get anywhere. I establish the creative direction projects will take, engage the music team who generate the music, then that music will come back in and if it's deemed a hit idea, if it sounds enticing before a vocal has gone anywhere near it, then myself and Miranda Cooper, my long term creative partner, will sketch out the melodic aspect of the song and then it will be lyrics.
Most songwriters talk about the constituent ingredients of a song being melody and lyric. Are you saying that you start from the backing track up?
I separate very clearly, music, melody, lyric. The music is the non vocal part of it, the melody is the tune the lyric is hung on, and the lyric is self evident. They are three disciplines and they are followed in that way. Before we would attempt to write on anything, we need to strongly believe that the piece of music is a hit, so the first ten or fifteen seconds will hook you into it. There is no point in writing on an average piece of music, because experience tells me that it will stay average.
It strikes me as quite an unusual approach
It's 12 years since our first no 1 record, 'Believe'. And 13 years since our first top five hit. If you want to stay at the very top and keep going up and up and up, you have to have different strategies to generate the level of originality and excitement and dynamism in the writing. You can't just sit at the piano, which is how I wrote 'Believe', a very traditionally written song. You can farm a sound, or a method, but I do think there's a short shelf life on that particular thing. So whereas we do still do very traditional writing, it represents one of eight or nine different strategies. If we want to do everything we can to guarantee ourselves a number one melody and a number one lyric, the best way to inspire that out of very seasoned songwriters is probably to give them a piece of music that on its own merit is a number one idea, so that everything and everybody is performing at their best within that creative process.
We are producing a hell of a lot of music here, with incredibly gifted musicians who are very thick skinned, so that if the idea isn't firing or doesn't sound relevant it is shelved. That's not to say it wont be relevant in a year or two's time. We are not listening to the radio here, so we are not following contemporary fashions. We need to find our own way, if you're copying what's going on today, by the time it comes out in ten months time you're f***ed, cause it sounds dated. 'Call The Shots' started as a piece of music in 2005, was written as a song in 2006 and came out (as a number one hit for Girls Aloud) in November 2007. That's very typical of how it would work in Xenomania. It's like throwing a gold seam into your future.
Starting from a very traditional piano based songwriting background, how did you develop these different strategies?
I was lucky to have a very successful career as a songwriter with other people producing the records. I didn't produce 'Believe' for Cher, I just wrote it. But a song of that size was a life changing thing. I only really knew how to produce dance pop records, but I became determined that the only songs that were going to come out from us were ones we had produced ourselves. And it took two or three years to establish what the blueprint of that was. We developed this sound of electronics and guitars fusing together but this was in the late Nineties when R'n'B lite dominated pop music and we had to wait for our opening. The day the Sugababes got dropped by London records, they came to see us and we did 'Round Round' with them, fusing electronics and guitars and tempo changes and melody shifts, so that the chorus was the only repetitive melody whereas traditional pop structure repeats verse melodies. Then we came up with another song, 'Sound Of The Underground', and what was interesting is that both songs were written against pieces of music that didn't end up on the final record. The pieces of music were vehicles to create the song, then we scrapped all the music and wrote knew chords and did it all again. So that's an interesting strategy. It's whatever you need to do to make it work.
In 2002 we thought 'we can dominate the chart here because there's no one doing what we're doing', and we thought with the depth of songwriting experience, if we can get this production originality thing correct we should theoretically stay ahead of the game. And that's probably where the science of it came in. The first two records were very scientifically crafted, painstakingly created, so that led to developing strategies that weaved in and out of that.
Some of the hits are very easy. 'The Promise' (also Girls Aloud) backing track was written by two very young teenage Australian musicians I had spotted playing in Melbourne, and invited over to spend their summer holidays working with us in Kent, and now they are part of the Xenomania team. What they came up with was incredible. Myself and Miranda didn't write it for three weeks, we built ourselves up to it, to make sure we delivered. It was like it was the cup final. We knew that was the piece of music Girls Aloud needed to announce them as a supergroup in this country, so we knew we couldn't drop the ball melodically or lyrically. So we grandstanded the writing session, just like a sprinter would. Why would a sprinter run his fastest race in the Olympic final? How can you train yourself to do that? We're interested in that idea, how can you train your mind to be at its absolute best three weeks from now? That's what we tried on 'The Promise', and we pulled it off, thank God.
Is pop inherently a place where strategy works? If we think of a songwriter in a traditional sense, it is someone who pours his heart out in melody and verse...
Which is exactly what we do. We just have to have a result. This place exists to have hit records. But that doesn't mean our commitment and desire to express ourselves is any less than the guy in the attic writing in a very romantic tradition. That's his strategy. We have developed much broader, hi-tech strategies. But there's no way that Chris Martin when he writes for Coldplay is somehow more interested, or more dedicated, or more artistic than we are. I'm concerned that you may think the word strategy somehow diminishes artistry. It absolutely doesn't. But we have to deliver hit records. So you have to find the space in your own mind where art and commerce are truly meeting in the middle, with genuine feeling and genuine sentiment. Hit records are brilliant things. They make the world go round.
Why is pop music your thing?
Everyone in this country, at their heart, adores pop music. It's what you're reared on, it's in everyone's understanding, everyone's psyche. And then you get into your teenage years and you veer off. I discovered punk music, then New Romantic music, then dance music, which got me into the music business professionally. In 1992 all I gave a **** about was whether Pete Tong was playing my record. Am I on the Cool Cuts chart? I had no interest whatsoever in mainstream pop. But I had five of Pete Tong's Essential New Tunes, which is about as high as you can get in trendy underground dance, and realised no one knew anything about who I was or what I was doing. When I started Xenomania in 1996, it was my reconnection with melody and pop sensibility that I'd been obsessed with from the age of five. Melody is fundamentally what I am all about, from Beethoven to the Beach Boys.
Somebody like me would have an inherent suspicion of manufactured pop, if that's what this is. Why? So Diana Ross and The Supremes, you would dismiss them?
Not at all. In fact, I've always loved pop music. But I like it to have a bit of personality and flavour, some of the character of the artist. Too much of it, especially since the late nineties and the rise of reality TV, seem to be pandering to very low common denominators. It is constructed to tightly established principles, rather than feelings, emotions, adventure. When you have a team of people working to self consciously create a hit, there is a sense that it is always likely to go for something that has worked before and the mass of people can identify easily. And there is also an increasing sense that pop masquerades as something other than what it is. Every pop artist now describes themselves as a singer-songwriter, but then you look at the credits and there are the same teams of old pros behind the scenes. So tell me why I would be wrong to be suspicious.
You're right to be suspicious of it. But I'm dead right to be suspicious of guitar music. Let's think about the worst examples from any genre. The worst type of guitar band, who've maybe come from the same town as Arctic Monkeys, for instance, therefore the A&R herd go to that town, and try and sign anything with a guitar. It's a very common policy, so the worst of those signings, do they have any more integrity in what they do, just because they write it? Does that give them any more credence than Diana Ross and The Supremes, who don't write their material, but whose artistry destroys the tenth group signed from Sheffield in the last year? A band at its very best is a wonderful thing, cause it's a self contained creative unit, the songwriting, the arrangements, and generally speaking the majority of the production. All a band need is an engineer, really. If the songs aren't there, the band producer is not going to fix it - but he'll get the kick drum sounding great. So a band as a total creative unit is a formidable thing but it's a very rare thing, especially for them to be able to sustain anything beyond the first album, when they so often lose site of the principles that made them great. People give groups credence cause they do it themselves, but what's the use of being able to play a bit if you don't have the first idea what a melody is? Everybody's fed up with being told which British band is the next big thing. The bands are hyped as much as Louis Walsh would hype anything. From the promise of 2003-2004, when Franz Ferdinand appeared and everyone went 'We're saved', guitar music has just not delivered. The record companies are fed up with it. The media is fed up with it. The arse end of guitar music is as embarrassing as the arse end of pop was in 2001 with Hear'Say. It's just a big embarrassment.
What the public want is quality. Pop is where the cutting edge is, it's electronic, it's where technology is pushing. Guitar music is looking over its own shoulder. But any kind of music needs to be done with total sincerity and an incredible amount of skill, otherwise it doesn't warrant its own existence. Pop music for the sake of making money is a waste of everybody's time and space. It's not that a great song hasn't been generated by a writer pursuing money, but, generally speaking, if money is the first reason you are doing your day to day job you are going to churn out a load of tripe, cause there's no real love for what you do. You love the lifestyle but you don't live it.
The phrase 'manufactured pop' is such a rude term. I object to the word 'manufactured' cause I think it's invariably said with a vague sneer. The real phrase is 'producer driven'. And I don't think people really care whether it is led by the producer or the singer. We get hung up on ideas of credibility, but you can change the world in three minutes with a pop song. You can change how people feel. What could be more credible than that?
One of the reasons manufactured pop has become such a derogatory phrase is that we see the process on the reality TV pop shows, and it's not pretty. There is a sense that the real emphasis is on marketing, that there are ways to hard sell something but it doesn't really matter what is being sold. You talk about passion and sincerity, but it's hard to get past the sense that all the public is doing is enriching Simon Cowell.
But that's not a music show, that's entertainment. Music is just a vehicle with which to sell advertising space. I think reality tv is about Simon Cowell in this country. There is no artist more charismatic than Simon. If you take Simon away, I think the format becomes practically worthless, cause Simon is the biggest star in his own firmament.
You took Girls Aloud out of one of those reality TV shows and put them in a completely different space.
We never believed the record company were serious about doing 'Sound Of The Underground'. We thought no way they would every put that song out. It was only when we went up to the house with these ten crazy girls (the number of contestants eventually whittled down to the five in Girls Aloud) that we started to believe the guy (Louis Walsh) was serious, he wanted to break the mould, cause once you start with a record like that you have to keep going in that direction. It was amazing. We had a blank sheet of paper with singers who could deliver amazing vocal performances. The vocal span within that group from top to bottom is incredibly wide, which allows you to do a lot of stuff.
How much artist input is there in a Xenomania record?
The reason Girls Aloud have survived for seven years is cause they're clever. Normally, someone has a bit of success, like Liberty X, and then you hear they want to write their next album. Really? Well, see you then! And you say goodbye, cos they're not songwriters. Most music business management is all for chasing the quick buck. They think if they get Liberty X to write their next album they can get a publishing deal and the manager gets commission. It's all short term thinking. Girls Aloud have survived cos they've said they don't wanna write the songs, they think we should do it cos we're very good at it, we do it every day. Just as I wouldn't want to take their spot dancing on the stage. They understand their own skill set, which is why they'll be around for as long as they wanna be around. They're very smart.
If we're signing our own artists, we are either looking for people who are going to totally enrich our experience as writers because of what they are bringing to the table or we don't want any input from the artist whatsoever. You've either got to be good enough to sit with us, or don't entertain it.
You worked with a band, Franz Ferdinand, in an attempt to produce their third album, but it seems to have gone badly wrong. So why did that self-contained band unit not work with a pop producer?
Franz Ferdinand, in 2003 / 2004, were the best band in the world. Unbelievably fantastic, incredibly potent group. 'Take Me Out' was the definitive record of the decade. Huge group. Hugely charismatic, brilliant, everything. Second album came out which was clearly rushed, not a patch on the first one, so the band were on a back foot from that moment in time. So they know the third album's got to be brilliant, got to get them back on form, and they are three years into the making of that third album, and they are hitting commercial troubles with it. There's lots of artistry in the record, lots of experimentation, but what there isn't is an absolute no brainer hit record, the way there was with 'Take Me Out'. They know it, the record company knows it, and I guess I knew it. We had been exchanging compliments with each other for a few years and there was a desire on their part to work with me cause they knew that I would approach it from a totally different angle. The difficulty is that by the time I came to sit down with them, where they were in their own minds was a totally different place from where a young artist with no history would be. I had to deal with five or six years of experience, of highs and serious lows, and I felt after a while that it was beyond me. It was getting in the way of my ability to get them not what they wanted but what I felt they needed, which was a world class pop record. I felt there were too many hurdles placed in front of me to do that. Not because they wanted to place hurdles in front of me, but because those hurdles were just there. And I got round a couple of them, but I could see this was going to go on for months, they wanted me to spend my life effectively sorting out all of the hurdles they put in front of themselves. I just thought I haven't got the will. I don't want Franz Ferdinand, the badge, bad enough to do what I have to do to get through it, which is to fight them tooth and nail to do exactly what's required. Therefore I resigned. Everything I do is based on optimism. If I can see the goalposts very clearly, I probably feel I can do anything with somebody who also sees them as well. If I can't see the goal posts, I think I'm worst than average, awful in every way. With Franz Ferdinand I couldn't see it anymore, and then I'm just a hindrance to everyone around.
You said that at the turn of the decade, you saw an opportunity to dominate the charts. We're coming to the end of the decade, and the music business is changing radically. So what is the goal now?
I think we've built a fine platform. People who know us know we really mean it, we care about it deeply, and we're as into our own music as anybody else on the planet. We'd love to be a modern day version of RAK, where the artists are signed and developed here, and if we're involved in the writing, great, if we're not it's because the artists are standing upright and doing it.
You say RAK (run by producer Mickie Most from 1969-79, it had great UK pop success with Suzie Quatro, Mud, Hot Chocolate and Kim Wilde) rather than Motown, which is probably the greatest writer-producer label ever
I suppose because RAK's English. It's very difficult to aspire to Motown, it was so unique. But RAK's cool.
How is pop going to survive in an era when no one seems to want to actually pay for music? What did 'Call The Shots' do for Girls Aloud? It probably sold 300,000 records and drove the sales of 550,000 albums. It was their first ever number one airplay record, and now that pop TV is gone they needed to become a radio group. But what it really did is sell a 300,000 ticket tour. The sponsorship deals for the tour are worth millions, the sponsorship for the individual girls add up to millions. Cheryl Cole got X Factor and became a superstar. Our records drive the Girls Aloud business but the income generated by the writers and producers is tiny by comparison. Yet take the songs away and the whole thing collapses very quickly. The song has never been more important but the actual monetary value of a song is diminishing to nothing. We are an entertainment company, so we have to understand live music, we have to understand entertainment as a very broad idea. We have to be part of the industry the song drives, or it's all over. It doesn't matter how good a songwriter you are. If no one wants to pay for your song, you're screwed.
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