Producer Profile: Flood

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.

Single-name monikers are usually reserved for larger-than-life personalities. British producer Flood however, keeps a low, almost anonymous profile. It’s his work that gets all the hype.

Since his first noteworthy assignment as assistant engineer on New Order’s debut album over 30 years ago, Flood’s resume has read like a who’s who of modern popular music. From his early years with influential post-punk acts such as Cabaret Voltaire and Psychic TV, to his work with dark and brooding artists like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, and Nine Inch Nails, to his huge commercial successes with Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, and U2, the man with no name has somehow managed to become a household one – if you live in a house full of musicians, at least.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Producer Mark Ellis, better known as Flood

For a man who reveals so little about himself personally, it’s fitting that there should some debate surrounding the origin of Flood’s professional pseudonym. The name “Flood” was first bestowed on Mark Ellis in his late teens, when he was a runner for London’s Morgan Studios. Depending on who you ask, it was in reference to either A) his constant brewing of tea for the studio’s staff and clients B) his constant spilling of said tea, or C) his relentless work ethic. (His counterpart, another runner with an opposite disposition, was said to have been nicknamed “Drought”).

Whatever the impetus, the name stuck, and its origin is less important than what it signifies today. First is that aforementioned work ethic, which allowed Flood to quickly work his way up through the studio’s apprentice system and land engineering and producing gigs for labels like Some Bizarre and Mute Records while still in his early 20s.

Another implication of the name is Flood’s fluidity, both in his choices of projects, and his approach. It’s impossible to draw a straight line between the music Nick Cave, Erasure, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sigur Ros, but Flood has managed to transition seamlessly, creating an unexpected lineage between them, and pushing each of them forward to new and dizzying heights.

PRODUCTION STYLE

The role of the producer is to carry the band, not to overtake it.

In typical close-to-the-vest style, Flood doesn’t like to talk about himself as having a particular ‘sound’ or production style, and isn’t exactly fond of other people talking about it either, as this 1994 interview with Future Music UK states: “I dislike the fact that people know what I do, in the same way you hear a Trevor Horn (Buggles, Art of Noise) production and you know it.” Instead, Flood sees each production as a unique and collaborative effort between himself and the artist, with neither party giving orders or taking them. A fan of Brian Eno’s production , Flood has a similar approach for reading and reacting in the studio, yet his strategies are a little less oblique, and little more direct. Again, from the Future Music UK interview: “Quite often you’re relying on your own personal judgment, your own likes and dislikes. You hear something and go, ‘Okay, that spurs me on to [a] thing, well, I’ll try this.’ Quite often you go in and it doesn’t work out, so you have to try plan B. But you have to [go] on instinct.

In an interview for Guitar Center, Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan confirms that while Flood’s role as a producer isn’t easily definable, it is no less essential to the final product: “Flood is very masterful with the sonics, but where he really shines is he’s a great idea person. And I don’t mean like he tells you, ‘Oh, put this chorus here.’ It’s more like he can see an ambiance of the song that you don’t necessarily see and he would really fight with us – not a negative fight, just he would really kind of push us to say there’s another vibe here that you can get to.

A ‘Flood sound’ may be hard to define, but there does seem to be an underlying pattern in his career: He tends to work with artists in transition, who are eager to be forced out of their comfort zones. In some cases, this means infusing synthesizers and sequencers into an organic arrangement as on PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or in other cases stripping arrangements down, like on Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith & Devotion.

Although no luddite, Flood maintains an analog attitude to recording, or what he calls a “tactile approach”: Hardware like modular synthesizers are preferable to software instruments, pedals are preferable to plug-ins, knobs and faders are meant to be twisted and pushed with fingers rather than a mouse, and he believes in committing to sounds before recording, rather than “fixing them in the mix”.

OPEN GATES: THE 90s AND BEYOND

To be quite honest, I have a really really low boredom threshold.

In 1987, Flood had to decide between mixing U2’s The Joshua Tree and producing Erasure’s The Circus. He chose the latter, and would go on to call it both the the most difficult decision he had ever had to make, and a defining moment in his career. “…I decided if I remained as an engineer, that’s all I was ever going to be.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that as the 80s were ending, Flood’s string of mainstream successes were just beginning. First came his work with Trent Reznor on Pretty Hate Machine at the end of 1989. In 1990, Depeche Mode released Violator, their first collaboration with Flood and still their most successful album to date.

Flood continued his relationship with U2, mixing and engineering Achtung Baby in 1991, before being promoted to co-producer alongside Brian Eno on 1993’s Zooropa and finally acting as the sole producer (and keyboard player) on 1997’s Pop. In the interim, he again produced Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails (1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion and 1994’s The Downward Spiral respectively), PJ Harvey (1995’s To Bring You My Love), and (along with Billy Corgan and collaborator Alan Moulder) Smashing Pumpkins’ immensely successful 1995 album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

In the 2000s he produced additional albums for Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey (including 2011’s award-winning Let England Shake), won a Grammy for his work with U2 (2006’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), released a slew of remixes, and continues to be in demand among artists who want to stop making the same music they are already known for. “To be quite honest, I have a really really low boredom threshold,” Flood says casually in his Sonic State interview, “…that’s why I could go from Depeche Mode to U2 to Nine Inch Nails to Polly Harvey to Nick Cave…” With each new project, the goal is two-fold: to create a comfortable and open collaboration with the artist, and to challenge everyone involved to do it in a fresh, forward-thinking way. In other words: to be fluid, yet in some ways overwhelming. Kind of like… ah, nevermind.

5 ESSENTIAL FLOOD PRODUCTIONS

Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)

Depeche Mode were already dark, moody, and well-acquainted with electronics before Flood got to them. And yet, from the first undulating bass sequence of album opener “World in My Eyes”, it’s clear that Violator is unlike any Depeche Mode album before it. It’s smoother, darker, deeper, and sexier than prior efforts, reflecting a change in the group’s traditional methodology. Principle songwriter Martin Gore created more sparsely arranged demos than ever before, and gave Alan Wilder and Flood carte blanche to manipulate them into what would eventually be a final product. More nuanced and less overt in its delivery, Violator is Depeche Mode’s graduation from ‘synthpop’ to ‘dance noir’.

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)

While Pretty Hate Machine seems to have been everyone’s favorite NIN album at one point or another, The Downward Spiral has always been the most interesting sonically. Filled with obscure textures and beats that sound as if massive factory machines were throwing them up, The Downward Spiral excels in its jarring, yet logical, shifts in dynamics and in feel. The stereotyped industrial pop of “Ruiner” breaks down into an unexpected lo-fi garage band rehearsal (complete with a burning guitar solo), the ever-expanding march-groove of “Eraser” rises to its crescendo before collapsing into a piano-and-hand-percussion-driven chorus, and the Eno-inspired ambient piece “A Warm Place” sits delicately among the album’s cacophony. The Downward Spiral is the perfect soundtrack to any post-apocalyptic movie and Flood’s production is the perfect foil for Reznor’s portrait of depravity and deterioration.

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Polly Jean Harvey’s first collaboration with Flood is a textbook example of his ability to facilitate a transformation in an artist’s career. Harvey’s first two albums, 1992’s Dry and the Steve Albini–produced Rid of Me in 1993 showed Harvey as the rocking young frontwoman of an aggressive and gritty power trio. On To Bring You My Love, on the other hand, she applied metaphorical (and literal) makeup, transforming herself into a tragic, glamorous crooner, singing torch songs about the darker side of love. Organs, synths, acoustic guitars, and Harvey’s voice take center stage, while the album’s few driving rhythmic tracks are carried by sequencers. Again, Flood brings out a side of the artist that was obviously there in hindsight, but mostly hidden from the audience until it was forced out into the light.

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

While most of the examples on this list are of Flood pushing an artist into uncharted territory, Mellon Collie provides the counterbalance. In it, Smashing Pumpkins are a band with their classic sound still largely intact, but tweaked and polished to a new level. Again in his Guitar Center interview, Corgan explains the affect Flood had on the song “By Starlight” and the band at large:

It sounded like a sort of a sad song from the ’70s. And he really pushed us to make it darker and prettier; more atmospheric and more kind of Depeche Mode and nighttime-ish. And when I look back now I really appreciate it. The song was the same. He didn’t change anything about the song. He really pushed us to a higher level with the way that we thought about our music, and I think if you look at the changes in our music since Mellon Collie, he had a profound effect on the way that we think about music.

U2 – Pop (1997)

Only to a band like U2 could a platinum album that hit #1 in 35 countries be considered a “disappointment”. But when you are the biggest band in the world, fan expectations can be even bigger. Perhaps listeners and critics couldn’t handle the idea of a band that had made its name releasing earnest, anthemic rock music making an unabashedly un-earnest record.

The driving electro-dance rhythms of opener “Discotheque” and “Mofo” showcase a harder edge to the band while songs like “Staring at the Sun” and “If God Will Send His Angels” say ‘Hey! We’re still earnest, we’re just using some trippy beats and electronics.’ Pop may not be U2’s most memorable album, but it’s still a showcase of what Flood does best: pushing a band to be something new, but still themselves.

Blake Madden is a musician who plays in the band Hotels and writes cinematic music. He is the author of a novel, The List Maker, and is an associate editor for Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, March 2012, Most Popular, Producer Profiles. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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