Exclusive Interview: Ben Hillier

We’ve added an exclusive interview with Ben Hillier, producer of “Playing The Angel “to our features.

Don’t miss it!

On September 9, 2005, Empty World 3’s Pete sat down for a chat with the album’s producer, Ben Hillier, about the process of making the new Depeche Mode, what’s in store for the future and much more. The interview reveals alot of nice details about the recording process, as well as future b-sides and much much more.

Ben Hillier produced the album for 140dB, the same company the represents such producers as Flood, Steve Osborne and a whole host of others. His previous credits includes Blur and Doves.

This is the full interview, originally posted as a two part interview on September 9 and 13 on this site. We’ve put both parts together here, for your convenience.


Ben Hillier interview, London, September 9th, 2005

How did you come to produce this album?

Well, they asked me (laughs)… it came through the record company, so I don’t know who chose me… I would imagine it was a discussion between the band and the record company. Maybe it was just the band, I’m not sure actually.

So you’re not aware of one of them watching you from afar, picking you out?

No, not specifically. When I first got asked to do this I was a bit confused as to why they asked me to do it, because I didn’t know they’d even know who I was, and I haven’t done alot of electronic records recently, which I used to do. But I thought it was an interesting choice on their end.

Were you worried about the project?

Was I worried about it? Well it’s always a bit of a worry (laughs). Yeah, you always hit points in projects where you either can’t see the wood for the trees, or you realise how much work you’ve got to do. And there were definetly points where both of those things happened, during this record. I was actually probably more worried before I met them. I was sort of a bit worried as to what they’d actually want. I’d heard some demos before I actually met them, and I didn’t know what stage those were actually at, and some of them I liked, and some of them I didn’t. But when I met them and actually spoke to them about it, it was more exciting than anything else.

How much did the tracks change from demo till final version?

It varied actually. It varies quite a lot.

Was there a big difference between Dave’s and Martin’s? Because Martin’s tend to be very accomplished…

Well, even that varies… some of Martin’s were very accomplished, and some of them were kind of rough ideas. They both had all their lyrics and stuff written before we went in. But on quite alot of tracks we were changing chords, and structure on quite a few of them. The two that are closests to the demos are ‘Precious’ and ‘Macrovision’… those two are pretty close to the demos. Apart from that, everything else kinda changed quite alot really. I mean, both of those demos were absolutely excellent… especially ‘Precious’, I thought that was really good but it just needed to have a bit more dynamic and sort of drive to it.

How many songs were demoed?

Uhm… let me think… Martin already had seven songs when we started the sessions, and Dave had about fifteen. We’d agreed how many songs of Dave’s were going on the record before we started…

Who made that decision?

Oh, I don’t know… that was all done before I got there actually (laughs)… but it kinda made sense. And Dave very bravely let us choose what tracks [to use].

What criteria did you use to choose which of Dave’s songs to use?

Well I was kinda looking for things that would fit the album best really… Dave’s got an awful lot of good tracks that he’s written. He’s sort of honing his craft as a songwriter, and the best way to that is write alot of tracks and not be too judgemental about them. He wasn’t *not* involved in choosing the tracks. But the tracks that we ended up choosing for the album, they sort of fit in somehow. They fit lyrically, or they had a nice groove to them. We chose them quite carefully to make sure they’d work within the album. One of them we just started experimenting on… and then we really liked it… that was ‘Nothing’s Impossible'”

Do you know what will happen to the rejected ones? Will he pursue those on a solo album, or…?

Yeah I think maybe he will, yeah. I guess it’s gonna be down to time… I don’t know how much time Dave’s gonna have for the next couple of years, you know.

Maybe it’s a bit harsh saying “rejected”…

Yeah, that’d be like saying the ones that are gonna end up as b-sides were rejected. They weren’t really rejected, it was stuff that wouldn’t necessarily fit, cause Dave’s solo record had a very sort of different vibe to a Depeche record, and quite a few of them sounded like they came from Dave’s solo project, albeit moved on… probably enhanced as well. But yeah, Dave had an awful lot of songs, and we ended up doing three of them, and Martin wrote twelve in the end, so we ended up doing sixteen tracks. Which is more than they usually do, so that’s really great.

For the last couple of records the b-sides had tended to be sort of instrumentals… but with the abundance of tracks written this time, does that mean we’ll see more vocal tracks as b-sides?

Yeah, well we’ve obviously got twelve tracks left over… sorry… four tracks left over from a twelve track album… and I know three of those are gonna be used as b-sides, and they are all full vocal tracks.

That’s good to hear!

Yeah, there’s one called “Free”, which is gonna be on “Precious”. Then there’s a track called “Newborn” and a track called “Better Days”… those are the three I think are gonna be used as b-sides. And to be honest they are all good enough to go on the album. You end up having to decide what’s gonna make the best album, and if you put too many tracks on it, I think that undermines it. Doesn’t make it a very good listen.

Can you tell us more about those b-sides?

“Free” is quite a driving, up-tempo track. I really like “Free”, it’s got some great vintage synth sounds on it… it’s a real analogue treat that one… (laughs) And uhm… that’s a really good track… “Newborn” is almost soully in it’s feel… almost a soul track, and “Better Days” is like a punk song…(laughs)


Yeah… (laughs)… it’s really full on!

Dave mentioned recently in an interview that you weren’t overly familiar with their previous work…

Yeah, I heard that! (laughs)… I’ve actually heard quite alot of Depeche Mode through the years. I definetly got the seven inch of “Everything Counts”…

Have you? Oh, first record I ever bought that one.

(laughs) First record I ever bought as well, actually. (laughs) Yeah, I’m probably a bit more familiar with their stuff than they think. And I know Flood very well, and I am big fan of his work, so I’m very familiar those [albums]. I probably lost contact with them during the mid to late 80s. But when I heard “Violator” I thought that was amazing…

Have you heard the last album?

I have heard it, yeah.

Because thats the album that alienated alot of fans in a way. It’s very clicky, and there’s not much bass to it, whereas the album you’ve done is very bass heavy. And all the reviews are raving about it.

Oh yeah? Good! But yeah I have heard that last record. I think it’s really interesting, actually. It’s very… well you’re not gonna dance to it, right? It sounds very specific, very exacting. I don’t actually mind that myself, but I can see why it’s not a fan favourite. I think it’s a much more demanding listen that one. That was actually one of the things I worried about going into the project, whether Martin had found his “pop shoes” again. That’s the thing I’ve always loved about Depeche. Because they do pop in a way alot of people can’t. They can be very intelligent. It’s extremely good, clever, intelligent pop music, which I love. And I don’t think there was much of that on the last record. But I do actually like the last record, it has alot of interesting sounds on it.

Have you encountered any of “The Black Swarm” yet?

What are they?

It’s what Martin describes the German Depeche Mode fans as… all those clad all in black, not smiling, just hanging around outside hotels.

Really (hysterical laughter), yeah, we had one or two hanging around the studio from time to time. I haven’t experienced the full force of the black swarm yet. Still got that to come, I am looking forward to that.

Previous Depeche Mode producers have spent a bit of time on the tour, is that something you will be doing?

I will definatly go to a few shows and take in the atmosphere, but I wont be appearing on stage or anything. I heard Tim Simenon DJ’d for them a few times before, but I really would love to see them in Europe, I heard its quite an experience.

How does Blur differ from Depeche Mode in the studio?

Well the main thing is that Depeche write all their songs before they come into the the studio, while Blur kinda write in the studio. That’s probably one of the biggest differences. So maybe Blur are a bit more sort of just trying out different things, because they don’t exactly know what the songs are gonna be. But Depeche are a bit more organized with their songwriting, and tend to come in with finished songs, which is great.

With Depeche Mode being renowned for being such a tight unit, usually working with same people over and over again, were they comfortable putting their trust in you from the outset?

I’m sure they weren’t but they didn’t show it at all. They may have been but they didn’t ever mention it. They were always very game to try everything out. We sort of… it’s always a bit strange when you go in the studio with a band, cause you work very closely together, so there’s always a bit of getting to know each other… it sort of feels like a first date… (laughs). But they were very good, and settled in very quickly. I think they were really up for doing the record, so they settled into it very quickly.

Were you aware that the video to “Precious” leaked onto the internet, and what are your thoughts on pirated material in general?

Yes, I heard about the leak, I am glad it was pretty much the finished version that leaked, it was just a slightly rougher mix. The music industry has got to get its head around this one, its a difficult thing when it comes to pre-release stuff, because no artist wants you to hear or see an unfinished recording, so I understand that there is a problem there, but I personally am always looking for rare or deleted stuff that I just cant find, it seems a bit rich for a record company to get upset if they dont supply the product. I dont think you ever fill up your music quota. I think if people like stuff they will buy it. I personally got interested in music by home taping music with mates, and have now bought all those records i used to tape.

Which tracks on the album were the most challenging for your perspective, as the producer?

Ooooh… blimey…

Yeah, these are the hard questions… from die hard Depeche fans, you see… got to be hard questions

Yeah! (laughs) Uhm, “Sinner In Me”… was… well it wasn’t actually that challenging to do, it was good fun to do, but we changed it an awful lot from the demo. It was very different that one. That one was kinda reggae… (laughs)… if you can imagine that! The most challenging was probably getting… let me grab my copy of the album so I know what the titles are… “A Pain That I’m Used To”, that was the one. Getting the verses of that right was really difficult. The choruses always worked very well, and the riff sections always worked very well. We had all sorts of things going on on the verse. We probably did 6 or 7 different versions of that before we settled on the final one. Not radically different versions, but… yeah…

Dave recently said in an interview that he and Fletch had a lot more to do with this record, musically, than their previous albums. Can you tell us a little bit about what their role in the studio was?

I sort of operate quite an open approach when I’m in the studio, I like everyone to chip in and come up with ideas, and encourage everybody to do that. And so I think it was as easy for them to chip in ideas, as it was for Martin, because obviously Martin knows the songs, and he got sort of a head start since he’s written all the songs. But in this case we were much more open about that, and everybody was involved, everybody was in the studio every day, really.

Well they have in the past released these publicity shots of the band in the studio, and you tend to see Dave behind a mic, Mart with a guitar and Fletch will be sort of sat there reading the paper. So alot of people have this misconception that all Fletch does is read the paper.

(laughs)… No, Fletch has plenty of input, he has lots to say about what’s going and a point to make, and it’s all valid. There was one particularly memorable moment, well there were many, but this was probably the most memorable, where Fletch played bass on “A Pain That I’m Used To”, and that was really good, cause he hadn’t played bass for a very long time, I mean like electric bass guitar, he actually sat down and played bass.

Yeah? Did he enjoy it?

He did, yeah. He loved it. He can still do it! (laughs) But… uhm… when you’re making a record, everyone who’s there all the time has an influence – especially if it’s a member of the band, they have a very big influence, and then everyone else who’s involved has an influence as well.

Speaking of that, what was the role of Rick Morris and Dave McCracken?

Rick Morris works with me all the time on every project I do, he’s my right hand man, he’s an engineer and a programmer, and so he kinda supports me in what I do, as well as being able to do stuff on his own. And the Dave was specifically brought in as a programmer, and he specifically took care of that end of things.

What are you most proud of, in relation to this record?

I don’t know, really. I am very proud of the record as a whole actually, and it’s probably that; getting a cohesive record from them, that sounds exciting. And I was really proud of the way that they were excited about doing it. I think they were anyway, maybe i was more excited than them at times. But I am very proud of them for the atmosphere in which we made the record. It was very good. It was very sort of creative. And uhm we got to experiment with lots of stuff, and everyone was really up for it. I’ve worked on records before where you end up with a couple of people sniding at things, where people aren’t happy with everything that’s going on. There was none of that going on, everybody was very enthusiastic about it, really up for it. It’s probably that… it’s the almost like the nature in which it was made. And I am also very pleased with final result as well.

Would you want to work with Depeche Mode again?

Absolutely, yeah, definatly.

Is that something that’s likely to happen?

Only they can know. I mean, it’s such a long haul to promote a record, and you know, they’ve got to get through more than, sort of a year of touring, I think so. Let’s see what happens at the end of that. I’d love to, yeah!

Well thank you very much for your time!

My pleasure…

Interview by Pete. (C) Empty World 3. Do not steal this article without giving full credit and a link!
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