Trevor Horn: ‘I had delusions the label would be a hub of creativity’
The man behind Video Killed the Radio Star on 30 years of ZTT records and why running an unsuccessful label would be easier
Thu 13 Feb 2014
“I used to think I’d quite fancy producing Bob Dylan, because I was such a big fan in 1965-66, but I don’t think Bob was a Buggles fan, so he probably wouldn’t have it,” laughs Trevor Horn, this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Contribution award from the Music Producers Guild, which has previously gone to such music industry luminaries as Chris Blackwell and Sir George Martin.
Horn produced much of the soundtrack to the 1980s, including albums by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Seal as well as sonically groundbreaking records such as Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm and Yes’s Owner of a Lonely Heart. His band The Buggles’ song Video Killed the Radio Star became pretty much synonymous with MTV, although first released nearly two years before it launched. Inspired by Kraftwerk’s Man Machine, they wanted the record to sound “machine-like”. “But we couldn’t afford a sequencer, so we played it all live, imitating one,” he recalls.
“The MTV thing was a pure fluke. Bruce (Woolley, co-writer of the song) was worried about the title—at the time there was an English New Wave band called Radio Stars and another act called Snips and the Video King—but I told him not to worry, that they’d be gone by the time the record came out. I was right,” Horn chuckles. “The video? We didn’t have a clue, really. The only thing I regret is me strutting around in that silver suit at the end of it.”
This is a milestone year for Horn, as he’s also celebrating his record label, ZTT, turning 30 years old. He says he started the label in order to own his recordings. “I also had delusions that it would be like a hub of creativity, where musicians would hang out and have a great time. It wasn’t. Then again, why would it be?”
Horn suggests it would be easier to run an unsuccessful record label. “Because if nothing sells, no one complains—and it doesn’t last for long. But a successful label with successful artists is very hard to keep together. I think it’s probably all down to what artists expect from a record label.”
It’s easy to see why he would find it troublesome to equate the joy and excitement he clearly feels when making music with the everyday practicalities and responsibilities of running a label—the dichotomy of being a producer, who, he says, provides a service for the artists, with being the record label boss, someone who occasionally has to say no.
He has deep respect for great singers and his descriptions of his favourite voices are peppered with metaphors. He says that the first time Seal sang into his ear, he got “a musical hard-on”. Dionne Warwick’s voice, one of Horn’s and Seal’s favourites, sounds “like an alto saxophone” and “the tip of an iceberg”. “You’re not seeing all of it when you hear it,” he expands. “She never threw in a load of stuff. She just sang the song—but she’d break your heart with it.”
Producing the Live Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas, one vocalist in particular caught Horn’s ear. “I was listening to all the lead singers in the country, I remember thinking: ‘Wow, that guy in the funny hat over there has got a great voice.’ I could hear it above everybody. It was Bono.”
But his favourite artists don’t all have “big” voices, he says, singling out Neil Tennant’s voice as “more like a choir boy’s”. “But he can still get to me with a song,” says Horn.
He finds working with the Pet Shop Boys a true pleasure. “They understand and appreciate my enthusiasm. And they’re funny. It’s just a nice way to spend time, because they’re so bright—and they know exactly what producers do.”
The artist he’s spent perhaps the most time with through the years, however, is Seal, whose albums he has produced for 25 years. Horn attributes this to the fact that they have a similar taste in music and harmonies as well as the same sense of humour. “That’s important if you’re going to spend months in the studio with someone, because it can be quite frustrating at certain times.
“Also, Seal’s not your normal, formula kind of songwriter,” he continues. “He doesn’t write the same old shit all the time. I can tell what’s going on in his life from what he writes.
“I’m working with him at the moment, so I don’t want to say too much [laughter], I don’t want to jinx it. We just started, but we’ve got a couple of absolutely beautiful tracks.”
Are there any artists left on his collaboration wish list? “Not really,” he says. “Because sometimes the people you want to work with are the people that you shouldn’t work with. It’s to do with material and what people need.
“Being a producer is not an easy job. You have to have a fair amount of patience. It may not appear like it to an outsider, but the producer is hired by the artist, so you can’t boss them around—you have to be sensitive to their feelings.”
Horn is not opposed to “comping” vocals—cutting and pasting from several vocal takes—or even auto-tuning the odd note here and there. “Comping just makes everyone happier,” he explains. “If you repeat a line over and over again for an hour, you start forgetting what it means.
“When we made the first Seal album, we spent two months doing Crazy—and then about two months on the whole album. Crazy wasn’t an easy record to make, because we were aiming high.”
Is it easier or harder to run a label today? It’s easier to distribute your music, but much harder to make any revenue from it, he reflects. “We’re all depending on Apple now.”
He continues: “The music industry has had so many knocks in the past decade, it’s almost been pirated out of existence. It doesn’t hurt me, but it hits the up-and-coming young people, money for A&R, the money to reinvest … I’ve always reinvested in the music business.
“It’s so hard to make people understand that they need to pay for music, because we have such a good time as musicians. Continue »
“In 20 years an artist and/or songwriter may have three or four hits, and they have to sustain them into old age. Everything’s been cut down. I was asked to play China—apparently Video Killed is really big in China, and in Russia. Really? We’ve never seen any royalties from there.”
There are no signs of Horn slowing down, however. He and Lol Creme, of 10CC fame, have just finished writing a musical about a day in the studio. And he’s still enthusiastic about the possibility of working with the next big talent.
“I’ve never subscribed to the theory that there’s a massive undiscovered talent out there. I don’t think there is. I think the great artists generally get through, somehow. They have to do it—it’s just a need. The same type of people come through in every era—people that are passionate, hungry to try new ways of doing things.”
The 2014 MPG Awards takes place Thursday 13 February, and will include a live performance by Trevor Horn’s band The Producers