One of modern music’s most prolific and revered producers and mixers, John Fryer speaks with ReGen about his latest musical outlet and exposing and exploring new talent.
An InterView with John Fryer of Black Needle Noise
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
From what I understand, Black Needle Noise is currently your primary outlet. Is that correct?
Fryer: It is, indeed. Yes.
Can you tell us a little bit about how Black Needle Noise got started? When did you first come up with it and how the project has developed over time from what you originally conceived it?
Fryer: It came around in a roundabout way. I had a couple of bands. I had my bands Dark Drive Clinic and Silver Ghost Shimmer, which lasted one album and one tour, and both times, the singer decided not to continue. So, while doing those projects, I wrote a lot of other music in not particularly one style, and if you’re doing just a band, you’ve got to have something that fits within that box, if you understand what I mean.
Fryer: So I had all this other material sitting around, which I thought was too good to waste, so then I thought to myself that I would go about just getting different singers to sing the songs and not have a band situation anymore, and just do whatever I want to do with whoever I want to do it with.
You’ve had some very interesting guests, one of the most recent being Bill Leeb from Front Line Assembly. You also worked with Chrysta Bell on her cover of the Twin Peaks theme.
Fryer: Yeah, that’s with her. That’s not Black Needle Noise.
Fryer: It’s kind of a bit of both. I have music, and I have someone in mind, and I send them the music. Either they like it or they don’t. Either they want to participate or they don’t. Most people, I think 99.9%, have said yes and liked what I’ve sent them.
Rightly so. I mean, you’ve certainly got a lot of history with your job as a producer, and having worked with so many different kinds of music; not just different bands, but just everything from electronic to hard rock, to just everything in between.
Fryer: The Cocteau Twins to Cradle of Filth, and everything in between.
How does that work exactly, as far as being a producer? What is your process of how to move from one genre to the other?
Fryer: It’s just dealing with music and people. And I like to kind of cross-pollinate and take an idea from one genre or one band and then you can kind of adapt it into another genre of music and another band. I mean, that’s how I look at things. I just like working with music. I don’t really look at genres. As long as it’s good and it’s interesting, I want to work with it.
Absolutely, but I guess what I meant was more from a technical standpoint. Obviously, you have a background in various kinds of music. I mean, my brain is exploding with trying to remember how many different people you’ve worked with. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first came into production and what was it about that aspect of making music that appealed to you before you actually started doing your own music?
Fryer: It’s just another form of art. I’ve always had art within me. When I was younger, a small child, I used to draw and paint, and then when I was in school I got into technical drawing. Then when I left school… well, I carried on with painting all through school, and all my teachers wanted me to go to art school, but then I left and then I went to photography, and then I went from photography into music. So it’s from one art form to another.
In what way do you feel that working in visual mediums sort of affected the way you think about music? For you personally, in what ways did the visual process of making art translate to how you approach music?
Fryer: I’m actually making my own videos too, at the moment, so it’s going back. It’s actually combining the two there because it’s the way you edit music in Final Cut Pro is kind of like how you edit sound in Logic, so the two are kind of going hand in hand. I just need to get more adventurous and more into filming different things, but I really like the way, you know, most of the videos for Silver Ghost Shimmer and Black Needle Noise I’ve made myself.
Fryer: Yes, I did the same thing as last time. It is ten songs, or ‘singles’ as people call them, that have already been released, and then one new track for the album. And then I’ll start on my next one.
I’ve been listening to the singles as they come out, and I’ve been enjoying them, but I still love albums, so it always fascinates me just how all of the songs come together in the final collections. On that note, because you are sort of working on a song by song basis almost and especially now that we have like the resurgence of vinyl, what are your thoughts on the album as a format and how audiences react to albums? Do you think we’re still in this framework of just a song at a time? Or do you think that people are now looking for sort of something to occupy their attention?
Fryer: It’s almost a question of generation to generation of what format they listen to. You know, I would really like to get Black Needle Noise on vinyl, and I’m talking to labels about doing vinyl and maybe a CD too. We’ll just have to see. But when I was living in Oslo and I did a lecture at the university, I’d see the younger generation, especially in Scandinavia, and they just used mainly Spotify, so they just stream. They don’t buy anything anymore. And what they do is they make up their own playlists, so they don’t even really give a damn about the artists or albums. If they like a song, then they would just suck it into their playlist until they get bored. Then they’ll delete it. So after talking to them, it just came to a point where we are in a position now with the internet where basically you can do what you want. So I decided that I would just release song after song. It also means you don’t have to sit around for a year or two waiting for the album. Or, in the case of Tool, it’s like 12 years. You know what I mean? So it’s just a question of I write good music, I send it out to the singer, the singer sends it back, I mix it, and then I release it. It’s a simple as that.
Well, it’s definitely working.
It’s funny you mention that, because ReGen used to have a section for single tracks, and we would just talk about individual songs. And the reason that we stopped doing it was basically because nobody was reading them. Maybe that would be different today, because now there is a propensity for, not just you, a lot of artists to just release individual songs one at a time and then come out with an album that either is a compilation or even something completely different. So now I’m starting to wonder, should I just bite the bullet and go with single songs again?
Fryer: Do you read… what is it called? Echosynthetic, I think it’s called?
Honestly, and this is going to sound terrible, I don’t get to read very much of other publications. I’m so busy working on ReGen.
Fryer: Because he reviewed the album and then he’s just been going back – it’s almost like one song a week, he goes back and he just reviews one, whether it’s a new song or an old song. He’s just been reviewing one song a week and he is getting more hits by doing that for Black Needle Noise than he has for anything else.
Again, I might just have to rethink my approach after so long.
Fryer: But the other thing is, when I used to have a label… god, like 12 years ago or something, and then the journalists would always… it was either it had to be an album or a single because they didn’t want EPs. Because what I did originally was release EPs for the label, and I did three original songs and three remixes, just to introduce the bands to the world. But then, all the magazines turned around to me and said, ‘Well, yeah, but we can’t really review EPs. They’re not really worth doing, and blah, blah, blah.’
See, I love reviewing EPs. I feel like I’m behind the times on everything now!
Fryer: I don’t know. To be honest, with Black Needle Noise now, I just do exactly what I want when I want, and either journalists like you get on board with it or they don’t. If you want to review the singles or every other single, if you find what you like, review it, and then you wait or you wait for the album. So it’s totally up to you what you want to do with Black Needle Noise. To me, I’ve made it now that for myself anyway, there are no rules for it. I write whatever music I want, I work with whoever I want, and release stuff whenever I want.
Excellent. Coming back to the question of vocalists, because you’ve worked with so many people already just in Black Needle Noise and certainly throughout your career, are there any singers that you would like to involve in Black Needle Noise that haven’t been yet?
Fryer: There are lots of amazing singers out there. Unfortunately there are some who’ve died in the last year or so who I really would’ve loved to work with. You probably know who I’m talking about. So, other than that, it’s just a continual work in progress, you know? As long as I’m alive and still making music, then I’m just going to continue doing it.
As a producer, what have you noticed or what have you seen as far as musical developments, not just from a technical standpoint? What sort of things have you noticed about the development of the different kinds of music and musicians that you’ve worked with?
Fryer: Well, to be honest with you, most musical styles are kind of cyclical, you know? Because at the moment, you’ve now got the kind of industrial sound back again; you know, like with the band 3TEETH and sort of that pseudo-industrial sound that’s around at the moment. And you had this sort of hipster shoegaze a little while ago. So everything kind of comes back in some kind of form, you know?
It’s very true. People are calling it synthwave, and I’m like, ‘So it’s ’80s new wave?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, but it is called synthwave.’ I don’t understand the difference, but okay.
Fryer: Every couple of years there’s a new kind of… it’s the old music regurgitated but under a new name. And it’s hard, really hard, to keep up with what they’ve called it.
As far as some of your past work, if I may indulge in a bit of history, not that Black Needle Noise is similar to This Mortal Coil, but in some ways it is, in terms of the fact that every song is sort of you working with different people. Because This Mortal Coil now has a kind of place in music history, and certainly helped by… well, I’ve heard ‘Song to the Siren’ in movies and TV commercials. Gregg Araki used a couple of tracks in his movies like ‘Meniscus/Tears.’ Has there ever been a consideration to revisit This Mortal Coil in any way?
What is your process for songwriting? Obviously you’ve seen different kinds of processes with the different musicians you’ve worked with as a producer. I think Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott once said that’s the job of the producer, to make you better than you are.
Fryer: Yeah, it’s to make the bands’ dreams come true. It’s to make the best of them, basically, and make the best record they can make. That’s what a producer does, in my eyes, anyway.
Is it ever difficult to apply that to your own work? Do you ever feel like maybe you need another producer to sort of give you a more objective view of what you’re writing, or does that really matter at all?
Fryer: No, I write what I want to write. Also, you then have to go out and find someone in the same headspace as you, who can create the same thing as you can create. It’s very difficult. I’ve worked with a few musicians in the past, trying to write my own music, and that’s why I’ve ended up just doing everything myself.
So, what is that process like for sitting down and writing a song? I know it’s such a maudlin question.
Fryer: That’s the thing. When I start with it, I don’t have anything in mind. I don’t sit there and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a three minute pop song,’ or ‘I’m going to write a song that makes you sad,’ or ‘I’m going to write a song that makes you happy,’ or ‘I’m going to write a song that makes you want to puke,’ or whatever. Whatever comes out comes out. With this project now, it’s just wherever the music takes me or whether I conjure up a sound and that takes it in a different direction. That’s just the way it’s working now.
Is there any possibility of taking Black Needle Noise live?
Fryer: It’s a question I get asked all the time, and I would really like to do it. It would just be working out how to do it, because I think I would just have to do it with one singer. And then there are so many songs that I’d have to work out which ones work best live and which ones whatever singer I choose can cover, because they would be singing other people’s melodies. Not all singers want to go out and sing other people’s melodies and words.
That’s very true. You mentioned a third album in the works. Is there anything else that you have planned, or that is sort of on your to do list that you’d like to share?
Fryer: I’m going to learn to ride motorbike.
Fryer: That’s on my ‘to do’ list. I’m going to learn how to surf while I’m in California. I would like to get Black Needle Noise out and I’d like to play in Vegas. That’s three on my ‘to do’ list. (Laughs) Also, to keep writing music and keep surprising you with where the music is and who the singer is.
I enjoy those kinds of surprises. Another maudlin question and one that might seem a little bloated, but in all of your years as a producer, and with all the different musicians that you’ve worked with, what would you say is the most important thing that you’ve learned about how you approach your own art and music from working with all these different people? What would you say is the main thing that you’ve taken away from it?
Fryer: That’s a good question. To me personally, until something’s finished, nothing’s ever been written in stone. This happens to me very often, is I start a song and it’s going along one way, and all the sudden, it veers off in another direction and if that’s the way that it’s going to go, then I’ll let it go that way. I don’t sit there and try to pursue this original direction if it’s not going that way. It’s just to have an open mind about things. I have an open mind about music and people. If you close your mind off, you suffer, I think. You should keep an open mind about everything. To be honest, back in the ’80s and ’90s, it used to get me in a lot of trouble with A&R people, because A&R people just wanted you to… you know, either you work in pop, or you work in funk, or you work in reggae, or you work here or you work there.
They’d try to put you in a box, no matter what.
Fryer: Yeah, they wanted you to be in a box. And most of those people don’t work anymore because they only did one thing. And I used to sit there and they used to say, ‘Okay, what kind of music?’ And it’s like, ‘Good music!’ Just good music; I like to work with good music… good, interesting music. That’s what I like to work with.
There are so many discussions about the way the business has changed, the way the industry has changed, etc. Obviously, everybody has an opinion on it, and I think we’ve heard every kind of answer, but what I would like to ask is because you are sort of working independently, and with the Bandcamp model, which seems to work for a lot of artists, what would you like to see as a development in the way music will evolve business-wise, technically, etc. What would you like to see happen in music?
Well, it is depressing, because it’s the truth. Funny thing; this comes back to what you said calling me a journalist, I actually have artists who…
Fryer: You are a journalist. Are you not a journalist?
I don’t consider myself a journalist. I love music, and it’s a labor of love for me. I don’t get paid, either, so for me it’s just about sharing good music and good art, and letting people know what is out there; that they should listen to it, they should see it, they should support it, and so on.
Fryer: Well, that’s kind of what Black Needle Noise is. I’m trying to introduce a lot of other people to other singers, which they may never have heard of. That’s really the main idea of it. As I said, it’s like the cross-pollinating. It’s sort of like an octopus with his tentacles reaching out into different areas, so you may have heard of one singer, and then you listen to another song and hear another singer and think, ‘Oh, I like that singer too.’ And then you go off and listen to what they’re doing.
Fryer: When I met her, she was touring in Europe four, maybe five years ago. I went to see her, and I contacted her because I said I would like to work with her, whether to produce her or to write songs with her or just work with her, because I really think she is amazing. Have you seen her live?
I’ve seen some live videos. Unfortunately I’ve not seen her like, in the flesh, but I hope to someday.
Fryer: If you ever get the chance, she is a superstar. She is amazing live. She came to Oslo and I met up with her and I took her sightseeing for the day and talked. And then she played a show in the evening, which was amazing. And then we just stayed in contact ever since, and then she played here during the Coachella week. She just did a little kind of almost acoustic concert in a hotel, so I went to see her. Then she did the cover version, and she just thought to herself, ‘I know the perfect person who I can get to mix this.’ So she did a version that was very similar to the original. So I mixed that, and then I said to her, ‘How about doing something completely different with it? And then I just took it off to the version that she released.’
I really love it. I absolutely adore just the arrangement of it. I love how sparse it is in the beginning and then how it gradually builds into just the sort of bouncy electronic section at the end. It’s so unexpected, and so unlike the original, but it absolutely feels true to Angelo Badalamenti’s sort of writing style. I really enjoyed what you did with it.
Fryer: Well, it is, and it’s also very… with the bass being very reverb-y, you know, that was kind of like my little homage to Lynch’s The Elephant Man, that kind of industrial soundtrack. You’ve got this kind of gloomy, almost like a factory noise in the background. The whole thing, musically, is kind of my homage to David Lynch within a David Lynch song, if you know what I mean.
Did you work with her on her new album at all, or was it just the one song so far?
Fryer: No, just the one song so far. I mean, she will do something for Black Needle Noise at some point.
Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you would like to let people know about?
Fryer: People should just go to Bandcamp and download Lost in Reflections. If they don’t want to pay, they don’t have to pay, but they can go and download, and if they like the other singers, they should go off and check all their other work.
Well, John Fryer, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I really appreciate it.
Fryer: My pleasure.
And thank you again for the years of great music.
Fryer: And years to come!
Photography courtesy of Black Needle Noise