XENOMANIA INTERVIEW |
@ The Observer
Heart of the country, home of the hits
The Observer, Sunday 18 July 2004
In rural Kent, the future of British pop is being shaped by Brian Higgins - a Phil Spector for the 21st century. Ben Thompson meets the producer/songwriter responsible for smashes by the Sugababes, Girls Aloud and now Mania - and discovers the secret of chart success
We live in an age when new musical sensations are processed so quickly that many people can claim intimate familiarity with the megalomania of the singer of Razorlight, or the fact that two-thirds of Keane are frightened of spiders, before even having heard one of their records. So it seems strange to be going to meet the man behind the most instantly recognisable British pop sound of the 21st century without having the slightest idea of what he looks like.
From the centrifugal assault of Sugababes' 'Round, Round', to the magpie euphoria of the first two classic Girls Aloud singles, to the very human whistling on 'Looking for a Place' - the demonically catchy current debut by upsurgent pop duo Mania - Brian Higgins's Xenomania production house has acquired a reputation for packing more avant-garde surprises into three chart-topping minutes than you'd find in a stack of Sonic Youth or Tortoise albums. While he's so far (mercifully) avoided the behavioural extremes of Joe Meek or Phil Spector, Higgins's unusual degree of personal reticence - if he's ever done a proper interview before, I've certainly not come across it - has already given this maverick writer-producer a hint of his predecessors' enigmatic lustre. For anyone who dares to dream that the future of British pop music might be as exciting as its past, the name Brian Higgins is almost talismanic.
Arriving at Xenomania HQ - a newly converted rectory in the sort of Kentish village which you'd probably call 'chocolate box', if they still put pictures of villages on chocolate boxes - I'm expecting to meet an absent-minded Professor Branestorm type, his tweed jacket strewn with lyric-spattered Post-It notes. Either that or some kind of clinical, white-coated studio boffin on the run from a 1980s Thomas Dolby video. Instead, the door is opened by a lean, fit-looking individual dressed in the manner of a racing driver - specifically Damon Hill - making his debut appearance on A Question of Sport.
Higgins's almost intimidatingly normal outward demeanour is the perfect cover for a guerrilla operation of stunning audacity. Setting out to establish 'a Motown-type setup' with 'the artists, the writers, the musicians, and the business all under one roof', Higgins has - along with co-conspirators Miranda Cooper and Tim Powell - used 15 years' painful experience of the music business's worst vicissitudes to infiltrate some of the darkest, most sinister corners of that decaying industry with an alien gospel of dedication, innovation and artistic integrity.
Watching the grisly early stages of Popstars: The Rivals in the late summer of 2002, the idea that the show would eventually produce a song as brilliant as Girls Aloud's 'Sound of the Underground' would certainly have seemed pretty outrageous. This deliciously overegged pudding of drum'n'bass beats, echoing surf guitar, day-glo girl group sheen and so-manifestly-bogus-as-to-be-gloriously-authentic punky lyrical attitude still functions as the perfect Xenomania manifesto.
'What we stand for', Higgins insists, 'is everything about the interesting side of music, but with tunes the postman will whistle.' What does the name Xenomania mean exactly? 'It's the exact opposite of xenophobia. It means a love of everything - of all cultures ... ' Higgins grins. 'All through the years when I wasn't being successful [a gruelling but instructive apprenticeship to which we will return in due course], people were telling me, "You've got to change the name." Now everyone thinks it's great.'
My guided tour of Higgins's bustling Kentish nerve-centre has the dream-like quality of an episode of Mr Benn . Passing along corridors bedecked with gold and platinum discs, we step around kitchen tables surrounded by people who look vaguely familiar and turn out to be ex-members of B*witched. In the garden, Brian's crisply attired right-hand woman Miranda Cooper describes her fellow Xenomania employees as 'the hobbits of the Shire'.
A wiuth-us-or-against-us mentality underpins the bucolic high spirits of the whole enterprise, which rather supports its founder's claim to being 'more like a band' than a Stock, Aitken and Waterman-style hit factory. 'If you're a production house, you're supposed to work with anyone and everyone: that's the rule,' Higgins explains, 'but if we don't feel excited by the prospect of the artist, then the record's going to be shit. The MDs don't tend to understand it when you turn them down - they just think you're being arrogant - but if we'd made records for everyone we'd been asked to over the last couple of years, I'd be a husk of a person by now. There'd be loads of money around, but the music would be terrible, and the depression would be raging through me.'
Initially reluctant to give examples of the sort of people he's turned down, Higgins is eventually beguiled into letting slip the names of Gareth Gates and Atomic Kitten, with Texas and - any diehard Factory snobs are advised to cover their eyes at this point - New Order among the commissions he has recently accepted. Listening to 'Graffiti My Soul', a standout track from the forthcoming second Girls Aloud album, it's easy to understand what might have drawn the wily Mancunians to Xenomania. Originally written for Britney Spears's last album - 'The record company loved it, but Britney's people said "Where's the chorus? Why are there no repetitive parts?"' - this song now sounds like a full-scale collision between Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Prodigy, with all three operating at the top of their respective games. (Having failed to get what they wanted - 'which was essentially "Sound of the Underground 2"' - Britney's people then got Cathy Dennis to write them 'Toxic' instead, so pop music was ultimately the winner on every front.)
The revelation that the new Girls Aloud record will also feature ballads co-written by Sarah, Kimberley, Nadine, Nicola and Cheryl seems rather less auspicious. Surely no self-respecting writer-producer can take anything but a dim view of performers penning their own material? 'We don't let them out of the room till they've given every ounce of melodic instinct that they've got in them,' Higgins grins. 'Then we pile some more in. And when you listen back to the completed track at the end, you find they've contributed really well'.
'He thinks everyone's got at least one number one hit in them,' says Miranda Cooper, with obvious scepticism.
'That's not quite as glib as it sounds,' maintains Higgins. 'Music is a fundamental human need. Well, maybe not as necessary as water, but there's a natural tendency towards melody and rhythm in everybody [at this point he decorously neglects to add the words 'even Westlife']. It's just a question of bringing it out ... '
'Ultimately,' he continues, 'I probably believe that everyone is capable of writing a number one hit - the thing is, they wouldn't know they'd written it, and they'd move on to something else, or the bit that they liked themselves would be crap, but there'd be another bit they thought was no good, which was actually excellent. It's the editing that's essential. Which is why I tend to work on the principle that anything can be achieved by anybody, so long as one other person in the room knows what they're doing.'
So, with regard to the old saying about a sufficiency of monkeys and typewriters ultimately coming up with the complete works of Shakespeare, the Xenomania position would be that the whole process could move on much more quickly with the right person keeping an eye on it?
The short silence which follows this suggestion indicates that Higgins is reluctant to take it any further - perhaps for fear of appearing to compare any individual member of Girls Aloud to a monkey. (No one could question Higgins's belief in the talents of the people he works with. 'I'll get on my soapbox here,' he says of husky-voiced Sugababe Mutya Buena. 'She's undoubtedly the finest female singer this country has produced in years - for me the closest comparison is Dusty Springfield'). But the notion of the diamond in the rough is integral to Xenomania's success.
'A lot of us weren't songwriting before we came here,' admits Miranda Cooper (who has named credits on all Xenomania's biggest hits). 'Miranda was the blonde-haired beauty singing, "Ooh aah, just a little bit," with Gina G,' Higgins reveals gleefully. 'That's where I saw her first ... and now she's one of the most gifted female songwriters in the world!'
Higgins's capacity for recognising 'certain people's innate capacity to create hit songs' is not to be taken lightly; among the other graduates of Xenomania's university-of-life songwriting and production foun dation course are a former headhunter and 'someone who worked in a cab office'.
'It's all about the feeling that something's inherently correct and right: a perfect little equation,' he enthuses. The seductive contrast in the voices of Giselle Somerville and ex-Cinematic Orchestra singer Niara Scarlett - alias Mania, whose snappy debut single is the first fruit of a joint venture between Higgins and BMG - is one such satisfying formula. As is the other strand of Xenomania's expansion programme: launching a trio of independent labels devoted to the leftfield drum'n'bass, trance and electronic releases which are the base metal of their intricate, multilayered productions.
Yet there is nothing mathematical or precise about Higgins's career progression. Hailing originally from the Lake District, he first moved down to London at the height of the late-Eighties Acid House boom. He'd landed a record deal with someone from Chrysalis who 'thought he was a DJ', but was dropped almost instantly.
By the mid-Nineties, he'd established himself as a session musician with a mid-ranking outfit called Motiv8; playing hi-energy keyboards on remixes for Pulp and Saint Etienne (with whom he still works). Then another short-lived deal - this time with WEA, 'sort of as an artist' - found him setting up Xenomania and writing his first top five hit (Dannii Minogue's 'All I Wanna Do'). Asked if he 'had any songs for Cher', who was then contemplating her lurch in a pop/dance direction, Brian came up with 'Believe'. The rest would probably be history if he hadn't missed out on the chance to produce the soon-to-be transatlantic number one single because he was too embarrassed to invite the former Mrs Sonny Bono to his home (a flat above a shop which, he claims 'looked like where Top Cat lived') as it 'didn't have a helipad'.
'There was no way I could have made a version as good as [rival producer] Brian Rawling did at the time,' Higgins insists gamely, 'I certainly wouldn't have thought of the Vocoder ... ' But his subsequent realisation that the writer's talent is no use without the producer's clout ('It's all about "delivering the smash": if you can't do it they'll find someone else who can') was not the last lesson adversity would teach him.
At the end of 1999, the fledgling Xenomania organisation signed a 'really big' deal with London Records just as that company was sold, and then spent a year and a half trying to get things back on track (a bad experience later poignantly immortalised in the lyrics to Girls Aloud's 'No Good Advice') before being ignominiously dropped.
'I now realise,' Brian says, 'that once things have started to go wrong with a record company, the only sensible thing to do is get out. But in this case, all the things that have made us successful were established while trying to fight that unwinnable war.'
Very much in the same way as Afghanistan's mujahideen honed their martial spirit in the seeming unequal struggle with Soviet Russia. Except they went on to become the Taliban. And Brian Higgins went on to produce the Sugababes.
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