Independent Industry Figures is a weekly column at IMP where we do a feature on a different music industry figure every week and try to better understand what they’re all about. With each installment we try and get a better sense of what it means to make a living in the music industry and how people can get involved. After all – what can we do but work hard and try to help each other live the dream?
Stuart Epps is something of a living legend, and his life is worth at least a book, maybe more. (James interviewed him previously here). As he pontificated about his career and life I was shocked, not just by the kindness and sweetness of this man, but the incredible experiences he’s had and his unique perspective on the music industry that comes as a result of that. He gave me a piece of advice I’ve never heard before and was always willing to elaborate on the life he has chosen to live (And in some ways lucked into).
See- Stuart Epps was on tour in America with Elton John by the age of 19 – he knows what it takes to break a big artist. He worked with Jimmy Page on the legendary Coda album and also with The Firm. He saw Jimi Hendrix back in the day. He gets it. He has a fundamental understanding of rock and roll that I feel almost no one else out there could ever match again. In his years of work it’s sculpted a man who knows what he likes, and what sucks, and I feel like his opinion carries a lot of weight – how many other people can even match his level of brilliance?
At the end of the day – this is just another great entry into the Independent Industry Figures series with a guy who knew all of the not-so-independent figures and who has been able to craft a unique worldview as a result of that. The original spirit of rock and roll rings forth in guys like Stuart, guys who have been through it all and understand the sense of suffering that defined it for so long. Utterly brilliant and endlessly interesting – the man gave me the interview of a life time.
Stuart Epps is now working with independent artists across the globe and is available online for your production, mixing and mastering needs. Find out more info at Epps Music Production as well as the video below.
How are you?
I’m absolutely wonderful!
For those who aren’t familiar with your body of work, can you just explain what you do?
It’s a fairly lengthy story but I’ll try and encapsulate it. At fifteen I left school to work for Dick James the Beatles music publisher. I got the job from a friend of mine who had been office boy. He got promoted and told me about the opening and music was all I cared about so I went for an interview and got the job.
I worked for him starting in 1967, it was an amazing time in London. I didn’t live in central London at the time so it was all a bit new to me. People were freaking out and becoming hippies and all this amazing music was going on. As office boy it was good just to be working for a proper music company. I was seeing how the music business really worked from the complete ground up. I had packages to deliver to Paul McCartney and stuff like that. It was all very exciting. I was one of the first people to hear the Beatles White Album. That was a while later though.
There was a progression with Dick James. You started out as office boy and then you became a cutting engineer. Being a cutting engineer go me to a guy called Reg White who was an outrageous singer songwriter who changed his name to Elton John. We became friends and he plated me some songs that just blew my head off. I thought I was a good songwriter but this was just so much better than anything I could do. So I thought maybe I should change direction and become a part of the industry.
Everything seemed to happen quickly I became a studio engineer when I was 17 and then decided I wanted to go into the music business. At the age of 18 I was working for Elton John’s producer. This was all happening so qucikly – it iddn’t seem like that at the time because we were plugging away trying to make Elton a big selling artist but it seemed to take a long time. Elton was developing his live act – I didn’t go on the first tour but at eighteen I got to go with him as his personal assistant.
Prior to this I had some done some production with Elton playing piano. I suppose I saw myself getting more into the management side But I found myself working for Elton John. This was when I was 18-19-20. At 20 we started Rocke Records which was one of the first independent record labels. We started breaking some newer artists. This culminated in some big tours – the last one was in 1974. We had an incredibly gig in 1974 at Madison Square Garden, that’s the one where John Lennon came on tour.
At the end of that tour I had met a girl in Hawaii and I thought I was going to give up the music business. I was no getting old or so I thought, I was 23. Just before I did that I went to see Elton John’s producer who I had worked with for years. I met him at a studio and he said “It’s a shame that you’re going because I’m about to build a massive studio and was hoping you might want to work with me on that.
I knew anything Gus did would be something special so I changed my plans, had to let down the lady and so I started working with Gus to start working o this incredible studio. I then worked with Gus for about four years. It took two years to build the studio and it cost 3 million dollars. We did all sorts of projects their with amazing artists but concentrating on newer artists.
Unfortunately at some point in the early 80’s Gus had to sell the studio and someone arrived interested in buying it. There was a lot of mystery about who it was going to be and it turned out to be Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. He walked into the control room and was a very shy quiet guy but he loved the studio and decided to buy it. He was happy to keep me on so I worked with him for five or six years. One of the first projects we did – not long after Bonham’s death was Coda because originally the studio had been meant for Zeppelin. That was a great project. It was strange working with Jimmy. I wasn’t a huge Zeppelin fan – he’s a great guy but quite a different guy in all sorts of aspects . WE got on well though. After that album we did the film soundtrack to “Deathwish 2” and did the stuff for The Firm. I ended up working with Paul Rogers on some stuff as a result of that.
When Jimmy bought the studio it was meant as a private studio but he periodically let some friends use the studio. One of those people was Bill Wyman who I ended up working with for the next twenty years. Another one was George Harrison. Another was Mick Fleetwood. It was a pretty amazing time. That was five years. Jimmy ten sold the studio but prior to him selling it I decided to go freelance because he was a little too strange for me.
I missed having my own studio though. I went freelance for quite a few years but I decided to build another studio. I took over Alvin Lee from Ten Years After’s studio and I set up the desk and made that into a studio of my own. It’s all over my website. Then it was a question of getting artists in there. Some of my old friends got in there like Bill Wyman. I was fortunate that Paul Weller got interested early on because he was big in that scene. He ended up telling Noel Gallagher about it and I ended up working with Oasis. I also got Robbie Williams because I contacted the head of EMI who had been an old friend. I worked a lot on the I’ve Been Expecting You album.
Noel Gallagher liked the studio so much he decided to buy it which was a bit of a drag and I kind of got kicked out. So I started freelancing again. Studio’s were becoming smaller and smaller anyway and home record was such a big thing. I got into computer equipment as a way to record music early on which as we all know now is big stuff – although I still use commercial studios when the artist requires that.
This brings us more up to date to now. That just got bigger and bigger until I’m finding that I’m able to work with artists from all over the world without even being in the same room. I call it remote producing where I take basic home recordings and improve on it in my own studio. This is a whole new aspect to producing and recording which I love to do. There’s nothing quite like the magic of being in front of a great bnd and doing it live. That kind of brings us up to date which is what I’m doing now.
What I want to ask from that…. obviously you’ve seen the industry change a lot – but do you think that the industry is in a better state now for the artists than it was forty years ago?
That takes us to 1975… forty years is a long time. It’s a lifetime really. IF you think about forty years being that long a time, the amazing thing is, as far as I’m concerned the music business hasn’t changed much. The music has changed quite a bit though .The music of 1975 was pretty brilliant really. Some of the best bands I’ve heard ever.
A lot of people are quite quick to diss the music business without thinking about the music itself. People like to say that the music industry is down the pan and full of sharks, but how’s the music? Are peoples passions the same as they were forty years ago? Then I’d have to say I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure what’s come off worst, the music, musicians, or the business.
As far as the artist is concerned there’s a lot more out there for the artists to promote themselves. You know this obviously since you’re a part of one of those companies. A lot of those companies didn’t exist back in the day. To do what you’re doing now you’d have to be a part of a record company. Independent promoters didn’t exist. The only way to be working in the music industry was to be working for a record company. There were 40-50 people in my first office trying to break people like Elton John and it still took a lot of sweat. There is still that chance of promoting an artist via the internet. It’s the most incredible medium for promotion of any type. If it’s great music and you keep beaming it out long enough people get to hear it. That’s why here are many more artists now, there is a lot more scope.
It’s never been easy – in a way it’s more difficult now because there’s lot more people trying. I don’t think the standard is quite as high as it was. Where is the Jimi Hendrix, the Jimmy Page, the Stones, the Who, those bands are still around fifty years later. I don’t think there’s a lot of bands on that level.
I’m not entirely sure of the reason for that. I think a lot of it is that some youngsters view it as a bit of a fad. “I’ll spend two years on it and maybe get into this or that” There’s so much mor that youngsters are capable of getting into and want to get into that maybe people don’t spend enough time on any one aspect. I don’t think youngsters spend as much time doing it.
There’s a lot of pain in it and I don’t think people want to put up with that as much. That’s why now if you get a band that sticks together for a couple of years it’s like a miracle. If they become successful then they split up! There’s something wrong with that.
Of course the music business has changed over forty years but I think even as the business side has changed so have the artists. I don’t want to sound like an old fogy – I never liked to hear my parents say stuff like that although I can’t help it.
If you go into a guitar store and young person picks up a guitar the only song they want to play is Stairway to Heaven which is now over forty years old. I find that odd.
There was a battle to go against what had come before when I was growing up. We wanted to be outrageous. But now bands want to get close to the music their parents liked. I shouldn’t complain about that because that’s why I’m still producing but part of making great music is making music that’s different and breaking new ground. That’s what we used to do in the 60s and 70s. Now it feels like a rehash.
Why do you think that is? Why has music gotten less exciting?
It gets watered down with each generation. The music the Beatles and Stones tried to emulate was soul, rhythm and blues. It was pretty hefty, but pretty great music. That’s the music they grew up listening too and the music they wanted to better and include in their producing. A lot of people now might not even know the Beatles. Oasis was essentially copying the Beatles and now here are bands that are copying Oasis. It’s quite sad really. A lot of these bands are just derivative of copies that weren’t great anyway. As we go further down the line it gets more watered down.
But Jimmy Page stole a bunch of stuff from Leadbelly though…
Yes, but if you listen to Leadbelly and then you listen to Jimmy Page there’s not a lot of similarity. Jimmy Page expanded on it. He listened to the early music and then changed it to suit him. The Rolling Stones wouldn’t have been going for fifty years if they had only been copying Leadbelly and Robert Johnson. It’s one thing to grow up listening to it – but then you have to make it your own.
Like Jimi Hendrix – who the hell did he sound like? No one! It was completely unique. He copied all sorts of people, but when Jimi Hendrix came on the scene no one had heard anything like that before. You have to take your influences and make your own thing from them and get a unique product. There are great artists out there, I’m a big fan of rock music still. I’m not into rap and I think heavy metal is one of the worst inventions in the history of music but there have been different musics that have been great in the last few years. But it’s rare that I hear things that just blow my head off where I’m like “Wow this will be around for years.
So I have a few question from that… First – who blows your head off these days?
I think that Ed Sheeran does quite a good job. The thing with him is I’ll be in the car and his song will come on and I’ll think “What a great voice, what a great song, what a great production” For someone at his age he is a pretty talented guy and e has massive potential. He just encapsulates all the old school ideas. He’s spent years at it and performing live, honing his craft. He’s a brilliant guitarist and vocalist and a pretty amazing songwriter. There’s other people like Michael Jackson who was one of the greats as far as being unique. When it comes to bands I don’t know. I was a big Foreigner fan, but I don’t hear bands like that anymore.
To build off something else… I’m something of a metal journalist… I respect your opinion on metal, but why is heavy metal an awful invention?
If you’re talking about heavy metal that has those screaming robotic vocals that’s just the most revolting noise I’ve ever heard. It’s not music to me. I won’t go out of my way to listen to it but sometimes I might hear a track and Ill be like “Wow, this sounds great” and then the disgusting voice comes in and I just have to stop it and throw it in the bin. It’s not a voice it’s just a noise. I’d love to be in one of those sessions do they say “No, you can do that better?” How do you choose which is the right take?
I like to think that I’ve only ever been involved in music. Heavy metal… the Who were considered to be a heavy metal band. The phrase wasn’t coined later on. I’ve done a lot of shouting and screaming myself. Even Jimi Hendrix never really sang as much as shouted. I get the musicians because they’re just playing heavy rock, what makes it heavy metal is the horrible vocals. I suppose it’s heavy and it sounds very metallic. You can tell I’m not a fan.
We might as well be talking about country music I’m not a fan of that at all – I don’t like any of that ‘down home on the farm’ stuff. I don’t like rap either. I probably like rap less than I like metal because some of that is actually disgusting.
You said there are some things you don’t consider to be music… what makes something music?
That’s a funny question. Music has got a hell of a history. It’s thousands of years old . If you wen to Africa and went to a village that hasn’t seen Western human beings or any sort of Western music but you’ll find that for thousands of years they have been producing music. You might hear something you might consider to be rap or something. It’s not disgusting, it’s not about rape. I can relate to it as music. You’ll find it’s related to blues, rock and roll and soul. That’s what I call music because it has a history to it.
Classical music too obviously has a history to it. When I first met Elton classical music was part of his upbringing and genius. That’s what I consider music. It’s normally played on musical instruments which I still consider to be piano, guitar, drums, bass and all that. It needs to be musical. It needs to be mostly beautiful and produce emotion. It generally provokes sad emotions. A lo of the music I love is the depressed stuff and the stuff I make a living on. I don’t get feelings other than anger when I hear someone creating a noise through an electronic process and calling that music.
Did you grow up on heavy metal?
Not really – it was largely an adopted behavior to piss off my parents.
That’s good. That can be a good way to relate to it. My son is older than you but he doesn’t like heavy metal, thank goodness. But that would piss me off – so you’re doing the right thing there. If that’s why people are creating I get it. You were born after punk and punk did that for us.
But for my generation punk rock is a joke.
Well I thought it was a joke then! But when I hear it now it doesn’t sound particularly outrageous. We thought it was outrageous at the time though.
Are you familiar with Napalm Death right? They took it to the furthest extreme possible with ten second long songs and all that and after that happened I feel like punk was dead.
Can you hear the lyrics in death metal recordings?
What are they about?
It depends – my favorite bands talk about spirituality and politics.
It just sounds like a noise to me! (Laughter) What do you like other than heavy metal?
I love Foreigner.
That’s weird isn’t it. But the thing is – you’re so young this is all recent history for me. I feel absolutely blessed to have lived through an amazing musical period. We didn’t know it was amazing at the time. When I was your age I was on our wit Elton and hanging out with John Lennon. There were pretty amazing bands and still are amazing. I don’t know if some of those death metal bands will be around in forty years time. I think that music seems to be a very short phase for people. It all seems to be very short lived for the audience and the artist. It doesn’t have the same depth. If you look back on music the nineties where a short time ago for me so it’s a difficult one to get in too. I liked what you said about pissing off your parents – what do your parents listen too anyway?
Journey, Pat Benatar, The Cure, why my dad raised me on some metal like Iron Maiden or Motorhead…
Motorhead is rock and roll though!
But what do you love so much about music?
It’s a part of me. I like to make, produce, and record music. That’s my work. That’s what pays the bills. I love making stuff sound better, mastering it and helping sell it. It’s a passion for me. It has the same thrill as sex. Ever since I was a kid music is all I wanted to do. I’ve had this conversation with the few people I meet who aren’t in the music business. When people ask me I respond “Why do people start kicking a ball around? Why do they pick up a paintbrush?” It’s just something you find yourself adapted too and loving.
My father was into sound – stereo hasn’t always been around. He bought a stereo when I was five and I appreciated how amazing it was and it just got me excited. The sound, not just the music was my passion. That was quite unusual, certainly for kids now.
I even see the difference between people my age and cousins who are five-six years younger than me. I always assumed that kids would pick up guitars no matter what… but now talking to my cousins kids don’t pick up instruments…
It’s a computer generation now. There’s people who only care about screens and computers. That’s why when you say how much the music business has changed, you don’t become a great guitarist over night. It’s not something you dabble in, it won’t be good or meaningful. It’s like any other thing. If you want to be the best at it you have to be passionate. In that respect nothing has changed. There are thousands of music programs that can help you but still not everyone can do it. It’s a god given talent. You can’t just ‘become’ a singer. You have to be born one. It’s just like having an aptitude for sports or something.
I’ve taken way too much of your time already – but do you have any words of wisdom for me?
Well given what I know about you and one thing I touched on is that there is no main passion Historically, people who have been in bands don’t go on to be interviewers or journalists, they stay guitarists.
My whole goal is to expand on everything I’ve done…
That’s the danger you see. You have to focus on your real strength and be the best at it rather than saying “I want to be the best at everything” In today’s terms you’re still fairly young. You’ve got time. I would say to focus in on what you say is your passion and getting the most out of that as soon as possible. You obviously haven’t spent years at any of them. You obviously didn’ spend much time in college. There’s nothing wrong with being dynamic but you need to pit a lot of energy into one thing for an extended period – that’s assuming we’re talking about the music business, not any individual part of it.