The Pete Schwier Interview
Having started out at the legendary RAK Studios as a tape op/house engineer, before going freelance as a music producer / mixing engineer, Pete Schwier had already worked on hit albums for Paul McCartney and Wings, Elton John, Dire Straits and Duran Duran (to name only a few) when EMI approached him to co-produce Kim's first solo album Kim Appleby. Here Pete reflects on supporting Kim's self-confessed "mission" to finish and present the songs that she and Mel had written together, and he shares his memories of a project which he recalls as “light hearted”, “fun”, and without any “heavy moments”, despite the harrowing circumstances that surrounded its journey from conception to fruition.
Hi Pete. Thanks for chatting with us. Looking over your career, the list of high-profile music acts you have worked (and continue to work) with is staggering. How did you break into the world of studio recording?
It was a bit of a fluke really, though I was always interested in music. I put my first band together with my sister and brother when I was about 7 years old, and I studied classical music, up to A-Level, and played the clarinet, guitar and bass at school… but I grew up in Dorset, on a farm in the middle of nowhere (laughs). I had no idea about recording studios, but a close family friend happened to own Advision Recording Studios, in London, where lots of very famous bands worked; They had recorded David Bowie and T-Rex, and the War of the Worlds album had been recorded there… Anyway, when I was about 17, I went along and as soon as I walked in, I just fell in love with it and knew that this was what I wanted to do. Obviously, it would have been a bit too close to home, working with someone who was like family, so I wrote lots of letters to various studios, and I got a job as the first assistant tape op/house engineer at RAK, Mickey Most’s studio, which was a brand-new studio at the time. So that’s how it happened. The first album I did was with Paul McCartney, which was a bit weird as I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, yet I was there as the assistant (laughs).
And you really haven’t looked back since, have you?
No (laughs). I’ve been really blessed. I’ve got a studio at home in Dorset and I’ve got another place in Wiltshire, with a friend of mine who I work with a lot, and since lockdown, I’ve been in there pretty much non-stop, mixing. We’ve just finished a new Dexy’s album - The Feminine Divine - which is coming out this year [23/07/23]. I’ve also been doing The Montreux Years, with all the various French jazz people, a Pavarotti album, and an album for this other classical singer from New Zealand, who’s fantastic; a guy called Moses Mackay. So, yeah. I’m just happy to be keeping busy really. I’ve been really lucky.
After starting out at RAK, you launched your very successful freelance career by working on Duran Duran’s brilliant Seven and the Ragged Tiger album, before joining Trevor Horn’s in house production team at SARM - which was where you met your fellow Kim Appleby album co-producer George De Angeles, right?
That's right. I knew the studio manager at SARM, and she had rung me and asked if I wanted to do a Frankie Goes to Hollywood remix for Trevor. I’d actually worked with Trevor before, back at RAK; I’d worked on Buggles' Video Killed The Radio Star, which he wrote, and I’d engineered a Yes album, he was the singer on, called Drama, so I said, ‘yeah, that’ll be great’. I think this was in 1984... anyway, Trevor loved what I did with the remix, and so I ended up becoming one of his full-time mixing engineers, and was with him right through the late 80s. George was part of Trevor’s team, so that’s where I met George. We did tracks with Pet Shop Boys, Rod Stewart, Propaganda – quite a few artists. Then, eventually, my manager at SARM left to start her own company The Producers; a lady called Annie Holloway, and myself and George went with her and formed our own production team. I think George needed me, or someone like me, as much as I needed him, because he was very talented, musically, but he hadn’t produced anything before, whereas I had. I was a well-known mixing and recording engineer, and I’d co-produced with Ricky Wilde, and Brian May, and various other artists, and other producers. So, we were a good team, and it all worked really well. George was the programmer / keyboard player and I was the recording/mixing engineer part of the Production team - and Kim Appleby was the first album we did together.
It’s a great album! What were your aims with that particular project?
Ah, thanks. I’m still really proud of my work on that album. We were originally approached by Clive Black [EMI A&R] to make a pop record - that was the intention - so our priority was purely to make a good pop record for Kim, and I was really focused on supporting her vision and nurturing her belief in herself. I really wanted to give her success as a solo artist, and it was important to me to make sure that she had something to be proud of – and, of course, to then get the album into the charts.
Making a ‘pop record’ and having chart success was obviously important but finishing those songs and presenting them to the world meant so much more to Kim. Did that influence how you approached the album production?
It did, yes. I do remember that George and I talked about that a lot. I was always aware how difficult the process must have been for Kim, and I had that at the back of my mind throughout the project. Looking back, I think Kim was incredibly brave, because it [losing Mel] was all still so very recent. We were always very sensitive about that situation and we tried to support her as much as we could. We wrapped her up in cotton wool and tried to really look after her… but she was amazing. She was very driven. She definitely knew where she wanted to go with that album and pushed through it to get what she wanted.
Having always sung with Mel, to now be recording in the studio, on her own, must have felt strange for Kim.
Yes. I could tell she had some concern about it, but we started pre-production at George’s basement studio, at his house, so I think that probably made it a bit less stressful for her. There was far less pressure there than if we were in proper studio, as such. When Kim was singing, it was just a question of being supportive and understanding - and she was great!
Kim’s belief in how the album should be, and her confidence to steer the album’s production may surprise people, given she was so new to the production side of things.
Well, I don’t know how it worked when she was with PWL but, with us, Kim was very involved. She had definite ideas about the demos she brought us; which one’s were good and which one’s weren’t good, and she was there with us in the studio when we were working on the demos, and when we were in the recording process. Kim was new to it all, but she was very committed to the project, and she was really driven. She was a very strong lady. That was the most striking thing. She knew that she was going to be successful. How and whatever she needed to do to get there, she was going to do it. We discussed everything between the 3 of us and it worked well.
Were the album tracks pretty complete when you heard them in their original demo form?
No. The demos Kim and Craig [Logan] came with were quite simple, as they had been done at home, but you could hear the songs were definitely there, and I knew that we were starting from a good place. I mean, when I first heard Don’t Worry, it didn’t have a middle 8, or anything. It just had the verse and chorus, so we all contributed to that one; George came up with the music and I remember helping Kim with the lyrics. I remember suggesting to her, ‘how about saying, you know, you’ve lost him now and forever. How do you feel about it?’ And that provoked the lyrics that she came up with. It all came together really quickly.
Despite being an emotive project, we hear the sessions were a lot of fun. Can you share any fun recollections from the sessions?
That’s right. We had a lot of fun moments. Looking back, there were never really any heavy moments. The mood was always really good. In fact, I don’t think any day went by where we didn’t have a bit of a laugh about something or other. There was a lot of general goofing around and I remember it being quite light hearted and a lot of fun. There was one time… I’m laughing now, just thinking about it. The piano solo on Don’t Worry was played live by George, it wasn’t programmed… anyway, George’s mother was over from Greece; we were all in the studio, and George decided we should re-record the piano solo. I got it in the first take, but I think we did about ten takes, as I could see by George’s face that he just wanted to play in front of his mum. He was having such good fun, and his mum was getting so excited. It was so nice. (laughs).
You mentioned starting the album’s pre-production in George's home studio. How long did you spend there before moving on to Metropolis Studios to record the final masters?
It must have been around two or three months, which was great as it meant that we were able to experiment on the sound and make sure that all the songs were in good shape before we moved to Metropolis. We really wanted to be confident that the album was ready before going into the main studio, and it was important to us that Kim was happy and didn't feel any time pressure. Being at George's also let us all get to know each other quite well. We used to start about 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. Kim would do the guide vocals upstairs in the sitting room, while we were downstairs programming the tracks, and then we would all have dinner together every night. It was very laid back. George’s basement really did the job (laughs)!
Were there any songs that you particularly enjoyed working on?
It’s tough for me to pick out a favourite track but, from a mixing point of view, Don't Worry is definitely up there. I spent a long time on it because I had an idea in my head of how the song should be, but I wasn’t achieving it. I think I must have spent two or three days mixing it, which in those days was quite a long time on a mix. In fact, I remember later on, I was mixing in Metropolis, Studio B, and Kim came in and listened to my mix, and she said, ‘oh my God, oh my God!’, then turned around and said to me, ‘Now I understand what you do to a mix, Pete'. (laughs).
What was it that you felt you weren’t getting right with Don't Worry?
Initially, I knew that the drums and the bass weren’t working. I wanted them to be really driving, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t coming out of the speakers how I was hearing it in my head. I was really happy with it in the end though. In fact, I remember listening to Don’t Worry on the radio, driving down the A3, or somewhere, when it came out, and thinking how great it sounded. What was really nice was that quite a few people commented to me at the time on how good my mixes sounded on radio. I’d also done a lot of Pet Shop Boys stuff at that point as well, so that was quite nice from an ego point of view, I suppose (laughs).
Speaking of mixing and production, you mentioned the piano solo on Don’t Worry was played live, rather than being programmed. Was it always the plan to use real instruments on the album?
Yes. From the very start of the project, it was agreed that we would use as many real instruments as we could. That was more my thing than George’s… I wanted the album to sound as real as possible, because, for me, real instruments tend to last the test of time… far longer than synthetic sounds. If you listen back to the brass section on Don’t Worry, it is basically programmed synthesizers from George, but I suggested we add live horns on top, so that we had the real sound. We actually went to my old studio RAK, and I got Kick Horns, who are a horn section ensemble that I’d used a lot in the past, in to do the session. They played on quite a few tracks, and on Don’t Worry in particular. And all the guitars on the album were played by Bill Liesegang, who is a very old friend of ours. He would come in and play, even although we might have had the guitars already programmed. I think, we just thought that using real instruments would sound a bit more special and more expensive, and myself and George really strived to make something different for Kim, rather than replicating the synthesised sound of the Mel & Kim tracks. We wanted the album to sound as classy as it could, and still be pop. That was the idea behind it really, and we just had fun trying different approaches until we felt each song was working.
Did the move to record the final masters at Metropolis bring any unexpected challenges?
Not really. As I said, we had the songs, so it was more about the arrangements and the programming, and what sounds we were gonna use that we spent the time on. On the album, all the drum sounds were sounds I’d made up over my years with Trevor Horn, Pet Shop Boys, and various other people. George was really good at programming work and stuff; he was brilliant, and the tracks all came together relatively easily. That said, some of the tracks were a little more challenging than others. For instance, with Downtown Clown, I remember that George and I couldn't work out the best way to start the track off. Eventually, we tried the fade-in and it seemed to work musically, especially with the bass line going round. I think it may well have been George’s idea, because he was quite good at all that sort of stuff. The fade in just seemed more unusual and we thought it was cool.
You mentioned Don’t Worry is a personal favourite of yours. Any others?
I’ll Be There. But, until you told me, I never knew that it hadn’t been released as a single. That’s a shame, because that’s one of my favourite tracks. I love that song. In fact, I’m singing on that (laughs). At the very end, you can vaguely hear this mumbling and murmuring going on in the backing vocals. That’s me! I mentioned earlier how we had a good laugh in the studio, and that was one moment I remember. We had the session singers Mae McKenna and Miriam Stockley doing the backing vocals and it all sounded great, but George decided that the track needed to have a bloke singing along, so he got me to go and do it. God knows why. I can’t sing. I’m terrible (laughs). George would say, ‘just do it again, mate, just do it again’. And I would sing it out of tune once more (laughs). We did have a real laugh. Luckily for me, I mixed the track, so I hid it in background, so you can’t really hear me.
The Kim Appleby album was incredibly well received and successful. Did you do any other work with Kim and George?
After we finished the album, we did one other track together – Breakaway. I don’t want to go into it too much, but there was an issue with George which was out of my control, but meant that things weren’t the same when we got together to do it. Everything was different, and it was not the same vibe, so Tony Swain ended up finishing off the production.
That’s such a shame!
Yes. It was really sad, because the project was really successful. Kim was number 2 for weeks on end with Don’t Worry, but it’s just one of those things. EMI were keen to make a deal for us to do another album, which I would have totally been up for, but it wasn’t to be. Had things been different then I’m sure we would have done another album that would have been, hopefully, as successful, but that’s how it went, unfortunately.
Did you continue your production team with George?
No. Myself and George also parted ways, for other reasons, and we didn’t really work together again, which is quite sad as we made a good team. George hasn’t been in the industry now for over 25 years, so I haven’t spoken to him for a long time, which is also quite sad. But I recently read the interview you did with him and I was a bit shocked (laughs). It was almost like I wasn’t there [when we were producing the album], and I feel he was completely wrong about many things he said, but that is the trouble with these things. Sometimes the truth gets distorted. For me, I only have good memories of that time.
Finally, Pete, Don’t Worry has an undeniably enduring quality which has seen it become a timeless classic. Why do you think that the track has stood the test of time and is still loved by so many people?
I think, it’s a perfect pop song; the format of it all, and I think one of the reasons why it’s still loved now is that it still sounds quite modern, even although it was thirty years ago. I tried really hard to make the sound contemporary, so I like to think that some of the song’s longevity is down to me working on the sounds and the mixes... and even my kids still like it, so that’s nice. (Laughs) I’ve got two daughters who are 25 and 20, and they still love that song. My 25-year-old loves her music; she has quite a wide range of musical tastes, and she says to me, ‘That’s a real banger, dad’. (Laughs). That’s good enough for me!