It’s not often you get to speak to someone who has literally made history. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ by Trevor Horn’s band, The Buggles, was the very first song played on MTV, almost exactly 34 years ago – 12:01 AM on 1 August 1981.
Trevor Horn however is to be remembered for so much more than that. He’s produced pretty much everyone you’ve ever heard of. His recording studios, Sarm Studios, were where Band Aid recorded ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, as well as where Bob Marley and the Wailers made ‘Exodus’ (Bob even lived in a flat above the studios for a time)…plus Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Rolling Stones…you name them, they’ve recorded there. Rising costs, and a change in recording methods has seen the necessity for Sarm Studios to close. All is not lost however: it has been replaced by Sarm Music Village, a new bespoke recording and business facility, in nearby Ladbroke Grove.
It was a privilege to be able to speak to Trevor Horn. Hope you enjoy our interview.
EP: I’m of an age to be fairly familiar with your work, but I’ve been doing research the past few weeks, and – you have done so much – The Buggles, Yes, Art Of Noise, Sarm Studios – you’ve been described as the man who invented the 80s – I know that’s pretty cliche…but you’ve certainly had a massive hand in it! What’s your greatest memory of that time?
TH: I suppose my greatest memory would be that it was a very exciting time, because technology was going so fast, that every week there was something new, some sort of new development. For a couple of years, probably from 79 to 85, we were going from a situation where most records were made in real time, to a point where most records were made offline, if you know what I mean.
EP: So before, everything had to be done by hand, didn’t it [TH: yes!] – but you were at the forefront, weren’t you, in that you saw the technology come and you just embraced it – would that be right?
TH: Yes! Absolutely! Because I was if anything, I was interested in the technology more than anything else. We were just coming off the back of rock gods thing, where people like Elton John dominated everything, and Kraftwerk and that whole new European ethic seemed the most interesting thing at the time.
EP: So which came first for you – are you producer or musician first, or anything in between?
TH: I think I’ve been more successful as a producer than a musician, so I guess being a producer would have to come first really.
EP: Do you think it helps, being a musician as well, in your production? Because you know what is needed, musically?
TH: Well it definitely helps you make records – I don’t think it helps you in life. Because some of those who have gone on to be the most successful producers in the music business, people like Jimmy Iovine, weren’t actually musicians when they started out, and knew very little about music.
EP: Do you think there’s a magic formula for creating a hit record, or do you think it’s just down to chance? Do you *know*?
TH: Yes there is! Everyone’s got their own formula – to me, it’s to make something entertaining.
EP: If you were starting out in the music industry today – Trevor now talking to Trevor starting out – what would you say? Or to someone just starting out – what would you say?
TH: I don’t know what I’d say to them because if you want to be in the music business, you generally don’t want to be in any other business, there’s no point in trying to discourage people by telling them it’s a tough business – but it really is a tough business! I’ve managed to survive for 30 odd years, I’m kinda still hanging on, but that’s the kind of business it is! Anybody coming into it now, it’s a very tough time – they’re screwing us right left and centre. I’ve got an issue with the major record companies, regarding streaming. The situation right now for producers is quite hopeless right now, because they don’t pay us for streaming. The majors have made themselves a business out of our catalogues, and we don’t participate in it. It’s wrong, and there’s going to be a day of accounting. It’s got to happen.
EP: We have this situation now where the record labels are not signing new artists because they see they can make all their money from just back catalogues!
TH: They can’t make THAT much money from back catalogues, but what they’re tending to do these days is, before they sign a new artist, they want them to be up and running already. They don’t do much development these days. And there’s very few spots on the TV for new artists, there’s only one programme, Jools Holland, and that’s about your lot. Top Of The Pops is long gone. My recommendation to any young person going into it now is, make sure you really like music, and you really enjoy it, because you might have a tough time making money out of it.
EP: If it is their passion they don’t care about the money so much anyway.
EP: So – talk us through the closing of Sarm Studios! How hard was that?
TH: We’ve built studios in Ladbroke Grove, and well, closing Sarm, we’d been going for 30 years. It’s another victim of, well it’s a combination of things. Property prices in inner London have gone through the roof, so that all the small businesses have been forced out – it’s not just recording – it’s just about everything else really – anything that can be made into residential is so much more lucrative than keeping it commercial. And there’s an enormous shortage of living space in London. In reality, recording studios, the way that they were in the 60s and 70s, they started to struggle in the 90s. There was a great big British dance movement, it’s all about bleepy stuff, that’s when we really started to die, because all that bleepy stuff was made on cheap little boards, and you know, we’ve got boards that cost like 400 grand, and quite honestly, for certain kinds of dance music, they just don’t sound as good [made on the big boards], it’s not what you want, you know. And that was when they first started to struggle.
EP: You’ve diversified though. There’s more than just the studios.
TH: Yeah we’ve got a few different things. There’s a character in the film, “The Social Network”, who says he just ruined the music business, well he did! And if I ever meet that guy, I shall tell him what I think of him! It’s not funny! Our business was ruined by this dude! People have this idea in their head that anything to do with music, and films and whatever, they’re just fair game, that you really don’t have to pay them, but what they don’t see is all the work that goes into it. And I’ve noticed this attitude among normal people that all of us in the media business are so wealthy that we don’t need the money or the royalties, that they can give away all of our work.
EP: It’s terrible isn’t it! You and I are talking here for free, I can talk to big names but I’m not making money out of it, you’re not making money out of it – who IS making the money!
TH: The record labels!
EP: The people who aren’t actually doing the work!
TH: The ones who are dealing with the streaming services and so on. It all began in the 80s when CDs came in, the record labels became such cash cows that they were bought by the wrong people. There’s not one record label that has its own website – for instance, you can’t buy Warner Music records from the Warner website, it’s all Apple. And Apple have just decided arbitrarily that they’re not going to pay us any royalties. It’s sort of lame you know!
EP: Talk to me about Sarm Music Village. What have you got going on there?
TH: There are 9 rooms, the smallest room is *quite* small – they all have daylight, and three of them are bespoke control rooms basically, and the rest of them are workrooms, it’s sort of mixed. You’d have to see it – it’s a different sort of studio. It’s lots of small places rather than a few big rooms. We’ve found that’s kind of what people want – they want when they’re not working to be able to have some social interaction with other people.
EP: Is it a creative hub?
TH: A creative hub is a good way of putting it, yes! So you feel like you’re a little community.
EP: Do you have accommodation out there as well?
TH: We have apartments around the corner, opposite the old studios.
EP: ZTT was named for Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist poem Zang Tumb Tumb…
TH: Yes, Marinetti was a Futurist poet, he had a band called The Art of Noise, and a pamphlet called Zang Tumb Tumb…
EP: So there’s that – ZTT, The Art of Noise, and the theory behind The Buggles being a band created by a machine, based on you reading JG Ballard at the time – do you go out of your way to make Intellectual Pop? The average person wouldn’t look into that and think, “Oh they’re based on blah blah blah…”
TH: I suppose I’ve always really liked Pop Music. Pop Music is the only sort of musical form that isn’t conservative. All of the others – once they hit a groove – I mean, you know what Blues is, you know what Jazz is…you know what Trad Jazz is…it’s like it’s in aspic now, and it never changes. And Rock is just as bad! The only music that changes is Pop Music! It’s like a hamburger, it takes meat from everywhere. You can see the American R’n’B records suddenly have chunks of Classical Music in them, really quite incredible what those guys put together – and to me that’s the most interesting part of it – but you’re right – I’ve always tried to put a bit more content in, than it normally has. That’s just an affectation, because that’s what I like. Sometimes it’s a positive problem, to have that way of looking at it – because it makes you way too picky. I’ve never been one to knock records out one after the other, they always take a bit of something out of me if it’s a really good record. But that’s what I like, I’ve had a lot of pleasure out of Pop Music in my life, and I like to make Pop Music that I think people might get pleasure out from. All my records run from one end to the other – I don’t give up after the first chorus. So many records these days have it coming in the first minute and after that, there’s just nothing left.
EP: The Buggles are really really underrated! I listened to both Buggles albums today (‘The Age of Plastic’ and ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’) I really don’t know why you’re only known for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’.
TH: There’s a couple of reasons for that. We really weren’t sexy enough. Also, in 1979 we were making Techno Pop, the first records you could play around with a sequencer. I suppose, if I’m going to be brutally honest, we weren’t good enough songwriters. It’s one of those things people ask me – I don’t always record my own songs. I mean, I’ve written songs, and lots of them, well I’ve done very well from it – but…one of the things that always appealed to me about record producing is to always do the best songs – because as an artist, you’re not always going to be able to write songs consistently. You might have a brief burst, but then you might have five years where all the songs you write are average. When you’re an artist, and you’re hung up – you’ve such a shorter life. But when you’re a producer, you get to work with really good people who are young and motivated. I was young and motivated – but when ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was a hit, I was 30. I looked younger than that, I always have because of the kind of face I’ve got, but I wasn’t really into that being an artist thing, I more fell into it than anything. I wasn’t really a singer, I was a bass player, I was a producer. I began to see fairly quickly as a producer that unless I got some really good artists I wasn’t going to get anywhere, because it was all down to the artists I had – so I became my own artist for a brief period of time.
EP: What’s your dream collaboration? If you could produce anyone, any time, in history? Who would you want to produce?
TH: [laughs] That’s a difficult one! Because whoever’s got the best songs is the answer. It doesn’t matter about the artist, it’s the songs…
EP: Which song would you have liked to have produced?
TH: ‘Uptown Funk’! I’d have like to do that one!
EP: Would you have done it differently?
TH: I don’t think so! It’s the kind of record I’d liked to have done. Mark Ronson, because he’s a musician, he’s got guys playing dance music and he’s making hits with it, I’m really impressed with that. When you say who I would have liked to produce – there was a time when I would have liked to produce Bob Dylan, but that would never have happened, because my reasons for wanting to produce him were because I was a huge fan.
EP: You’ve worked with Seal for 25 years or so – is that still happening?
TH: Yes! Believe it or not, when I go back this afternoon I’m listening to the first master of his new album!
EP: BRILLIANT! So – are you and he mates as well as collaborators?
TH: Are we mates? I think we are! We do a lot together. We’ve always got on well, we have a similar sense of humour. Somebody just has to say a word and Seal’s and my eyes will meet across the room and we both know the joke. Seal’s really into old English comedy from the 50s and 60s, Terry-Thomas and people like that, the same as me, so we have a lot of laughs. I suppose you could say we’re mates, we’ve been working together for 5 or 6 records. And we’ve actually been doing some concerts together recently!
EP: Yes! I’ve been reading about that! You’ve been performing as ‘The Trevor Horn Band and Seal’.
TH: Yes! It’s been really good fun! He’s really taught me a thing or two, because live, he’s amazing. I tend to just stand there and play. But I’ve realised after seeing Seal I have to do more.
EP: What sort of Bass do you play?
TH: It’s a 5-string Bass, made by a guy called John Carruthers, who works in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. I play it with a pick, not with my fingers.
EP: Do you like playing Bass still – I know you did the Cornbury Festival recently – how was that, was that cool, to be standing there, playing a festival?
TH: Yeah it was great! 10,000 people watching them all jumping up and down enjoying it! What was really great, I’ve been friends with Stewart Copeland for years, and he called me and said, “I’m in town, let’s have an argument about the Old Testament”, and I said, “Come on come on we’re doing a gig! Come and play with us!” It’s the first time I’ve actually got up on a stage with him – he’s tremendous! We had a great time – the audience loved it!
EP: You didn’t announce anything? You just brought Stewart Copeland along with you?
EP: I was looking at the posters, and ‘The Trevor Horn Band’ was in little writing, and I thought, “Oh that’s a bit sad!” you guys should have been further up there…
TH: Yeah but the thing is, people haven’t seen us. I think we were a pretty difficult act to follow. We played about 12 or 13 songs and probably 11 of them were number ones, so people recognised them all.
EP: So they’ll put you further up and in bigger writing on the poster next time I think.
TH: Yeah! They want to do us another one next year, now they know what we do, they will change the spot, if you know what I mean.
EP: Ah – so now you’re going to have live up to this year!
EP: I’ve got one more question! Which is, what else are you up to? You’ve pretty much told me everything, you’ve got Seal this afternoon, you’ve been playing, you’ve told me about Sarm Music Village – but – what else is going on?
TH: You’re very nosy!
EP: Haha! I’m sorry! Tell me everything Trevor! I need to know everything! I want to write it all down!
TH: Well…I’ve got a few things on the go. Do you know, the Seal album has been taking so long – it’s been over a year – I can’t sort of believe it’s finished yet! We’re going to do a couple of shows as well. We’re moving, that’s the big thing. I’m building another place just around the corner from the Music Village. I’ve got plenty on the go.
EP: Thank you so much for talking to us – it’s been an absolute pleasure – one of these things talking to the heroes of my teenage years. Thank you so much.
TH: Ah we’re only musicians. It’s been my pleasure too. Thank you.