How much is prepared before you go in the studio?
All I have us “La la la de lah” and some chord changes. That’s it. I deliberately blur the writing process into the recording process because I work best when I’m responding instinctively to the situation.
You seem to operate with your own little rep company.
Definitely true. I have a bunch of people, like Dave Bascombe, Simon Rogers and Terry Hall, who are not the group as such but it’s a mega thing to have people around that you can trust. On top of that I’ve used Martyn Campbell and Chris Sharrock, the bassist and the drummer from the touring album, on this album.
So this is more a group effort than Jollification?
It’s a group album but it’s two groups. Some tracks have parts played by the live band, with other sections featuring maybe me, Simon and Dave. A song might start off based round a tape loop, the go live, then back to the loop and so on. And we all swapped jobs, so there was no division either side of the studio window. Anybody could play and anybody could work the board.
What about guest players?
I almost never use session men. I prefer to get in my mates or people I happen to have bumped into.
How do you know when a song is finished?
I’m totally disorganised in the studio but, generally, something happens in the process which is very hard to explain. I wobble my way to the final version. A great idea happens that sets the song alight and I just know I’ve got it. I know that song has become a definite. Meanwhile this other one could be fantastic, but the something hasn’t happened yet.
Why did it take so long for you to succeed as an artist?
In the ’80s, I was a bit of an idiot. I came to London with Big In Japan and I thought these people here knew better than me and what I should be doing. In fact, the recording industry had been reduced to a set of rules. Studio engineers were all yuppies with electronic diaries. There was nothing emotional or musical about what they did, and because I trusted them, I lost faith in myself.
How much of what you do is craft and how much inspiration?
Well, sometimes I think craft is inspiration. I’m comfy in the studio and that’s a thing about music at the moment. At the start of the ’90s, we had a lot of bands that were great live but couldn’t do it in the studio. Now we have bands who make great records. I dipped my toe in the water with the first Lightning Seeds album and it’s been a gradual process since then. Now I’ve finally got the job I wanted.
What kind of producer are you?
The great thing about being a produce is that there’s no rule about what the job is. Sometimes all you have to do is go out and get beers, make sure everybody feels OK, and let the band get on with it. Sleeper was like that. They have a thing that they do really well, so you let them do it. Dodgy was the other extreme. They have so many things they can do that we knocked the songs about relentlessly and tried lots of things before we got a result.
Can you be objective about producing yourself?
For Lightning Seeds, Dave and Simon are definitely co-producers, but I’d find it hard to be Ronnie Spector and just let Phil control it because I’m pretty good at knowing how a song could sound. I think Dave and Simon tend to let me get on with it and then guide me when they think I’ve got wrong.
In the long run, will Three Lions be a blessing or a curse?
It could be a platinum millstone, but I can’t knock it. It was like Jim’ll Fix It all summer, going to the matches and meeting the teams.
Were you really born in Penny Lane?
Yeah. Funny that, because I saw it in Record Collector and I said to my wife “Look, they’ve made this up”. Later I mentioned it to my dad and he said it was true. I was born in the maternity hospital in Penny Lane, but we’d just never talked about it before.
An Interview with Johnny Black from Mojo Magazine