Richard X Discusses Annie’s ‘A&R EP’, Working With MKS, Rachel Stevens & More: Idolator Interview
It’s been a hot minute since we last heard from Norwegian indie-pop icon Annie — nearly four years of hot minutes, in fact. Lucky for us, this summer the “Chewing Gum” ingenue is back in action. After first tempting the pop-loving masses this past spring with the aerobicized anthem “Tube Stops And Lonely Hearts,” Ms. A has reunited with beloved comrade and frequent collaborator Richard X for The A&R EP, a supremely enjoyable mini-collection of upbeat pop that will have you sweating away the waning weeks of summer on the dancefloor.
Even luckier for us, Richard X has taken time out of his production schedule (he’s currently working with A*M*E and MKS, among others) to chat about the EP, his work with Annie and just what kind of trouble two friends can get up to with an online translator.
What is the energy like when you and Annie are in the studio? Do the ideas flow rather quickly, are there all-night sessions?
RICHARD X: Yes, it all happens pretty quickly. With this EP, we had a chat a few times before we met up about what the overall concept was. I’d started some rough backing tracks, but pretty much the EP was written and recorded in a week when she flew over. I seem to spend a lot of time laughing when Annie is in the studio — like, can we get away with saying that? Or could we really have that ridiculous sound there? Or can we really have a song called “Ralph Macchio”?
Indeed, you can and do. “Ralph Macchio” is just one highlight in a set full of them, as is “Mixed Emotions.”
We tried to use an online translator to create a verse for “Mixed Emotions,” but it was uncontrollable so we spent hours laughing at that as it got stranger and stranger. You can hear the useless result of that messing about at the end of the track. If we stopped doing stuff like that we’d probably have made an album! Often Hannah Robinson will be writing as well, and I think we’re all on a similar wavelength, so it always comes naturally and ends up being something we’re usually excited about.
The ’90s seem to be rolling back in a big way, and The A&R EP plays like an unabashed love letter to the dance sounds of that decade. Were there any ’90s records that influenced it directly or indirectly?
The Telstar “Deep Heat” compilation series was in my mind for much of the EP. The way you’d have an underground Chicago house track stuck next to a pop dance cash-in. But as a youngster you’d not really have that sense of which tracks were cool and what you were supposed to like, so you just drank the whole thing in. So although there may be specific bleeps or breaks on the EP, it’s more about that idea of pop permeating through all that.
That feeling really comes through in tracks like “Invisible,” a pounding, deep-rave workout that sounds like something vintage from R&S Records, and the Italo-housey “Hold On.”
We weren’t slavishly trying to recreate a specific sound, more like use elements and ideas from a sprawling five-year period. Things like the simplicity of productions back then and also the difference in lyrical themes, that sense of optimism and possibility was appealing and was all thrown in the pot. With the ’90s revival rolling it sort of feels like the ’80s finally ended last year.
Annie — “Anthonio”
What’s coming up next for the Pleasure Masters (the independent label, on which The A&R EP was released)? A full Annie album, by chance?
Annie’s got her own plans, but you never know. Pleasure Masters is a bit sporadic to say the least. Like with this A&R EP, it’s great to be able to do exactly what you want on a record and make it happen. When working on productions for other labels, or development work for new artists, there’s often frustration at how long things take to appear, and the amount of indecision can be a bit wearing, so it’s a good counter to all that. “Anthonio” was an example of something Annie, Hannah and I had done but was caught up in label politics, so it was great to be able to go, right, let’s just put this out, stop messing about. “Let’s have a photo with Annie smoking a cigarette holding a baby” — that’s the sort of thing Island Records, for example, might not think is the best marketing plan for a release, but it feels right to do it.
Will Young — “Jealousy”
As a producer, you’ve been very selective with the projects you’ve taken on. How difficult has it been to stay committed to doing what you want to do in an industry that always demands the next smash hit?
If I’m going to be spending time listening and working on music, it’s got to be something I like, or it’s not going to work — so there’s no point for anybody. That’s been my policy from when I started. It’s common sense, but not every producer thinks like that. Pretty much everything I’ve done has come from the artist liking a previous record, remix or song I’ve made, and that’s how I’m still not on the dole. Will Young’s Echoes was a big album, and that came from him liking Steve Mason’s “Boys Outside” that I produced, for example. The last couple years there’s probably been less hit records on the radio I’ve liked than previously, and there’s no point chasing a sound if it’s not something you are into musically.
Rachel Stevens’ “Some Girls” was one of your biggest hits in the UK. What do you remember about recording this track, and is it true that you used the synthesizer once owned by the Thompson Twins?
Ha! Yes, there was the Thompson Twins’ Fairlight IIx sampler, the big old white ’80s machine with the computer monitor on top. It had apparently been on stage at Live Aid in the USA. I remember scaring Rachel slightly, as I’d come up with a supposedly great idea for the b-side, which was an extended version, but with new spoken word sections. As it was a glam-influenced track, I prepared some questions about 1970s Britain and took Rachel into a small room and began interviewing her for some soundbites. “Rachel, do you remember anything of the three-day working week? Or the 1978 winter of discontent?” I wasn’t trying to be a smart-arse, I just thought we’d get some interesting words out of the exercise. Her reaction was somewhere between bemusement and terror. A year or so later, I worked with a pre-Saturdays Frankie, who, during our session, expressed relief that I was reasonably normal — she had been worried, as her management had told her of the Rachel interview, and that I “was a bit of a weirdo.”
Rachel Stevens — “Some Girls”
Pet Shop Boys are performing their 2006 collaboration with you, “Fugitive,” on their current tour. Were there ever plans to work on more music with them?
I had to dig out the missing mutli-tracks for that track this year. They’d disappeared, so I got to go along and see them and have a quick catchup. Neil rewrote the chorus lyric as we were finishing the record, and I remember there was a lot of showbiz gossip being freely shared. It’s great that it fits in with the current LP, sound-wise, and it’s always good to see and hear the reaction from the fans. The door is always open with people like that, but I think they’ve found their ideal collaborator in Stuart Price.
Pet Shop Boys — “Fugitive”
What’s on your production slate at the moment? Are you working with any new acts?
Not sure when things are coming out, but I’ve done some writing with Say Lou Lou. I did a track with MKS and had A*M*E down to the studio recently. Most of these have been with Hannah Robinson again. I’ve also been working on some new music with Kim Ann Foxman, which is more dance-y.
“Chewing Gum” is one of the classic pop moments of the past decade. What are your thoughts about that song as you look back on it, almost a decade later? And how is working with Annie now different than it was in those early days?
This decade thing is a bit scary, as a lot of this stuff only seems like yesterday. Spoken like a true old duffer. I think “Chewing Gum” was, in my mind, an extension of Annie’s “Greatest Hit” idea: left field pop that fitted into the early naughties feel of mashing stuff up —oh god! — but was still outside the mainstream. When I listen back, it still sounds pretty good, and I think when you make records that don’t chase a hit sound as mentioned before, they stand up a lot better over time. It was the first time I met Annie, as we’d done the X-Factor LP track [“Just Friends”] remotely. When I was listening to [Annie's first album] Anniemal recently, I remembered recording the intro and just being unable to breathe with laughter as we all tried to outdo each other with the stupidest animal sounds. So things are pretty much the same there.
Annie’s The A&R EP is available now. Let us know your thoughts on it below!