Multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, vocalist and studio-owner Mick Wilson takes time out from the current 10cc tour to talk gear and music with DV magazine in the first of our regular Sunday Spotlight features.
DV: How did you get into music?
MW: I got a half-size nylon strung acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was five and took it to a family party where a boyfriend of an older cousin played a couple of current pop tunes on it. It was when I looked at the faces of the small crowd sitting on the stairs, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I still have the guitar.
DV: What was your first professional gig/band?
MW: My brother got a guitar shortly after that and I switched to the bass. We were asked to play at a party for someone and did a couple of half hour sets of chart numbers with some mates. They sent the hat round and we got a couple of quid each – we were hooked and went on to play for the next five or so years at social clubs and private parties. We were then discovered by a friend of Alan Blakely who was the guitarist of the Tremeloes , who was looking for a teen pop band to produce. My first studio session was at RG Jones studios in Wimbledon when I was 12 and we even recorded at Abbey Road Studio 2 the following year………I went straight from school in my uniform! As the band Flame, we released a few singles and did some big support tours and TV, but never quite cracked it – although it was enough to make my mind up on how I wanted to earn a living from then on.
DV: How did your association with 10cc come about?
MW: I met Graham Gouldman through a mutual friend of Rick Fenn, who joined 10cc in 1977 after Kevin and Lol left the band. Graham was asked to do a series of acoustic gigs playing the songs he wrote in the 60s for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and The Yardbirds etc., plus some from the 10cc catalogue. I was there just to play some percussion and add some backing vocals, as he sang everything thing himself. We did a few more gigs and after being asked to put some more 10cc material into the set, I took over some lead vocal duties. Because I have a strong falsetto range, we were able to put in some of the 10cc numbers that Lol Creme sang, like Rubber Bullets and Donna. It wasn’t any big game plan on Graham’s part to go out as 10cc again, but it kind of grew organically into the line up and set that it is today.
DV: You also play with two former members of Gentle Giant. Is that an ongoing project?
MW: It is, but due to everyone’s commitments, we don’t do as many gigs as we’d like. The band is called Three Friends, after one of their albums and there were initially three original members, but sadly Kerry Minnear, who was the main composer of the material, left due to political issues with the Shulman brothers. I’m not sure what went on, but it’s a shame he’s not there. We played in Japan shortly before Christmas and we’re doing a festival in Portugal at the end of April. When drummer Malcolm Mortimore initially called me about the gig, he said that it was “challenging” – quite an understatement! I have been lucky to work with a lot of great artists, but nothing has generated so much interest from fellow musicians than this project. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of them that I have found out to be closet Gentle Giant fans…….and although I will not be naming names, they know who they are!
DV: Do you perform as a solo artist?
MW: Not live at the moment, but it is my intention to do so, following the release of the solo album. A nice support slot on a tour would be great, as long as it made sense by supporting the right kind of artist.
DV: Are you a naturally collaborative songwriter or do you prefer to work alone?
MW: I have a studio at home and, if I’m not writing with anyone in particular, I’ll get in there and start throwing a few ideas about. There’s always something that comes out of it though, whether it’s a chorus idea, a groove, or a riff. These go either into the memory bank or on a digital stereo recorder that I carry with me. There’s no particular formula, but I prefer to work with someone else, as that’s when the spark happens – someone hits a chord and takes you where you weren’t expecting – I like that. Plus you get immediate feedback on ideas whether they work or not. I particularly like working with writers that work in a different way to me – there’s always more to learn.
DV: Who are your song writing influences?
MW: You’d have to start with Lennon and McCartney as they had such a huge influence on most of what we are hearing even today. Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze and Andy Partridge from XTC for the pop side of things and of course, Brian Wilson for his harmony and arrangements. I like Gregg Alexander (The New Radicals), Ron Sexmith and a lot of the modern Country stuff from the likes of Lady Antebellum, Train and Rascal Flatts. I know they’re quite formulaic, but there’s no fat on those songs – every section is there to take you where you want to go. I don’t like waiting around too long for the meat of a song – for me, it’s all about “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”!
DV: Are there any artists that you haven’t already worked with that you would like to write for?
MV: I love the way k.d.lang puts a song over, so definitely her. To get Don Henley to sing one of my songs would be something special as well – I’m a massive Eagles fan. There’s a great songwriter called Eg White, who did the Laura Pritchard album – I’d like to work with him on a project and Paul Carrack.
DV: What are your top five favourite songs?
MW: Day Tripper – Beatles
Wouldn’t It Be Nice – The Beach Boys
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Woman In Chains – Tears For Fears
Love Will Keep Us Alive – The Eagles
At my funeral, I’d like ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ by Stevie Wonder – that would give me one last opportunity NOT to listen to it!
DV: If there is such a thing as a golden era of pop music, when was it for you?
MW: My formative years were the mid 70’s and onward, so that would have been all the glam rock stuff from Mud, Sweet, Roxy Music and Slade, with a bit of the American Soul that was around at that time from Sly Stone and people like that – so I have a definite soft spot for that period. In all honesty though, I think I was born about 15 years too late as I like all the stuff from the early 60’s and would have loved to have been in a band at that time – playing all the Rock’n’Roll tunes that were coming over from the US. I think that was also the start of bands believing that they could write their own material and not have to shop around the publishing houses for songs, so it must have been a very exciting time.
DV: From listening to your songs, I would guess that you’re a songwriter that crafts a melody and arrangement with guitar/keyboard before you switch on your computer. How true is that?
MW: 100% correct – and thanks for picking up on that! Every song on the album started either on an acoustic guitar or sitting at the piano. Nearly all the songs written with Graham were from writing sessions sitting opposite each other with two acoustic guitars – most of the time, not even in the studio. In fact four of the tunes were written in hotel rooms on a tour of Scandinavia late last year. When you write like that, you have to use chord progressions and melody changes to take you from one section to another. If you want to create a lift in mood or dynamics, then that has to be done at the writing stage. That way, when you come to record the track, you don’t need heaps of production values to create any excitement and movement in a track – it’s all built in to the song.
Obviously, certain rules apply, like adding backing vocals to a chorus to make a point that this is the title or the meaning of the song etc., but if the song works on two guitars, it makes producing the finished track so much easier. We’d record the song into the recorder and live with it for a few days, tinkering here and there with a lyric or chord. If it still stood up after that, it went on the album. The actual recording process for the album was no more than three or four days per track.
DV: How did your new solo So The Story Goes album evolve?
MW: I had a couple of songs that I was working on that were in quite an advanced state and asked if Graham would take a look at them for me. He liked the ideas, but we re-worked them quite extensively and they ended up in much better shape than they were initially. We got a very positive response from some people whose opinions we value, which made us try some new material written from scratch. We played them to some industry people and a former A&R man for Graham and Andrew Gold’s band, Wax, said that if we could get an album’s worth of material together, he would be more than happy to get behind it. That coincided with me finishing building my new studio at home, so we spent the last five or six months of last year writing and finishing the album off.
DV: Did you play/programme all the instruments/virtual instruments yourself?
MW: Graham played the majority of the guitars and bass. During writing, we’d both end up playing things in certain ways which became part of the arrangement. Nothing was precious – if one person’s vibe was better, they put it down. I played bass on one track as I had changed the arrangement and Graham wasn’t available, so it stayed. I programmed all the drums on the album except the opening track which had a classic Rock ‘n’ Roll feel. During tracking we put up some originals by Eddie Cochrane, The Everlys and Cliff and the Shadows to give us something to aim for. I played ‘Move It’ and looked at Graham and said “that’s the vibe”.
Through Graham, I contacted Brian Bennett from the Shadows and sent him an mp3 of the track. He emailed back saying that there was one thing very wrong with the track……HE wasn’t on it! Phil Thornalley (Producer for Pixie Lott/Natalie Imbruglia) kindly gave us a day in his studio and we got Brian to put down the drum track. I remember going home on the tube clutching a 16gig memory stick in my hand with all the WAV files on it! I ended up playing all the keyboards on the album except a couple of tracks where I got Mal Maddock, a pal of mine (and quiet genius), to put some piano and a bit of organ down. Rick Fenn from 10cc played some solo stuff on a couple of tunes and the things like mandolin and 12-string acoustic were a mixture of both of us. I really wanted the album to sound like a band, so to that end, I made a point of using just a small range of core sounds like one or two real piano sounds, a Wurlitzer or Rhodes sound, an organ and some string pads. I used a Mellotron on one or two tracks, but that’s it. All the other sounds were guitars through effects.
DV: How many instruments do you play?
MW: In the studio and live I play drums, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitar, bass and percussion. I OWN a sax, but only play it to keep the cats out of the garden!
DV: Can you give us a run down on your live rig?
MW: The 10cc gig is a busy one for me, as I play percussion, keys, electric and acoustic guitar – very much the odd-job man! I have two positions on the stage, one out front where I play most of the guitars and one behind the percussion rig. On the guitar side of things, I use a Blade California Climax, or the new Dayton Deluxe through a Mad Professor Little Green Wonder overdrive pedal which runs into a Hughes & Kettner Switchblade 50 on the clean channel, but I only use the effects in that as I only need around three or four different sounds. My acoustic is made by Gary Levinson. I’ve know Gary and Christian at Blade for some time and when I heard that he was bringing out some acoustics, I suggested that Graham Gouldman and I should go over to the factory to try some out. We spent a whole day playing around twenty or so guitars and, suffice to say, we now use three of them live and in the studio.
At the percussion rig, I also play keyboards, so I have a drum rack with everything I need hanging off that. I have a Yamaha CP30 weighted keyboard and a Roland SPD15 Handsonic, with cowbells, timbales and hand percussion by Pearl and all cymbals are Sabian. I also use in-ear monitoring, which once you spend some time with – you can’t do without! I’m very fortunate in that I have had the same monitor guy for the last five years and he knows exactly what I want and have the luxury of a full stereo mix. The major upside for me is that I get the same mix, wherever I am on the stage, plus it makes the FOH guy’s job a hell of a lot easier, by keeping the on-stage level down.
DV: Are you a guitar/amp/gear collector/junky?
MW: Not really – maybe if I had the money I would buy a couple of particular pieces that I hankered after as a kid. Being a working musician and owning a studio, everything has to earn its keep! That said, I would never sell any of the guitars, however infrequent they were used, but studio equipment has got to prove itself to stay there.
DV: How extensive is your studio and can you give us a rundown of what you use?
MW: I think, like most musicians, my studio setup is now much smaller than it was in the late 80s and early nineties, due to being able to do so much inside the computer. At one time I had a full Mac/Pro Tools rig for audio alongside a PC running Cubase for all the MIDI and about 24 rack units of keyboard modules and another two racks of outboard gear! It’s quite a simple affair now with the heart being Steinberg Cubase 5 (at the moment) running on a DV Synergy Alpha AW100 Dual-Core.
I spoke to the guys at my local music store and told them what I wanted to do CPU-wise and that was the best option. I could have gone for something bigger, but they said it would be overkill as I don’t run too many VST synths with large libraries. To get sound in and out, I have a Focusrite Saffire 56 which has a couple of the Liquid pre amps in it. It’s surprisingly versatile, as they really have an effect at source and saves a lot of EQ and compression later on. Another great bit of kit that I can’t speak highly enough of, is the Universal Audio UAD card. I have quite a lot of the plug-ins on that and all of the EQ and compression on the vocals, bass and drums on my album were from that – in fact on anything that is at the front of the mix, or I consider to be important. I do max it out quite often, but once I have a sound I want, I print that and disable the original track and put it in an ‘unused’ folder on the arrange page of Cubase so it’s always there if I need to change anything. I always keep some space on the UAD’s CPU for the Dreamverb plate reverb. I have two instances of that, one long and one short, which really gels all the instruments together and gives the impression of everyone being in the same space.
I have a Focusrite Liquid Mix as well, which is used for EQ and compression on keyboards and other parts. I still have a few choice pieces of outboard such as a Malcolm Toft ATC-2 EQ/compressor and a few TL Audio valve compressors/voice channels. I get to these via an old Soundscape D/A converter that I’ve had for a while. It only has 20bit converters on it, but sounds great. That goes in and out of the Saffire via the optical connectors.
I’ve had the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10s for as long as I can remember, although I committed a cardinal sin when I came to mix the album! I had been looking at getting some new monitors for a while and tried out some Focal CMS65 that I borrowed from a mate at the UK distributors. I was hooked from the minute I put them up. They had exactly the same honest midrange that the Yamaha’s have, but with and extended bottom end and a sweeter top. I found that all the previous mixes transferred over to the Focals perfectly, but now I could hear what was going on at the bass end. I now use those permanently.
DV: Do you have a favourite vocal microphone?
MW: I used an AKG 414 exclusively for the vocals and it’s my go-to mic. As a professional singer, I’ve had the privilege of singing through microphones of all shapes and sizes – both cheap and expensive – but have found that the 414 has a little high-end lift that suits my voice. It’s quite old and I think it’s one of the EB models which had a particular capsule in it. As we worked at a relatively fast pace on the album, I used it for all the acoustic guitars as well – it has a great reputation for this job anyway. In fact I had two separate channels on the Saffire set up for either vocal or acoustic and just plugged into the one we needed in the live room – no other preamps, just straight into the computer. For any interested parties, I used the mic on a ‘figure of 8’ pattern on the acoustic guitars to capture some of the air moving in the room – you have to experiment with position, as you want more guitar than room, but it works well if your room has a nice sound in the first place.
DV: Do you record guitars live or use a POD/Guitar Rig/Amplitube set up?
MW: A real treat for me was being able to go to the Graham Gouldman guitar library for this album! It gave me the opportunity to audition several guitars for the part and choose the one that suited best, rather than spending ages with EQ and effects to get the sound that I wanted. It was literally a case of “y’know, an electric 12-string would sound great on this”, and then Graham would turn up the next day with his ’60’s Fender XII with hockey stick headstock! He had his 1961 Vox AC30 refurbished that now has pride of place in the live room. All the guitars went through that via an old Shure Unidyne B mic that I’ve had since the 70s (kind of a cheap SM57), but it works a treat and can take quite a lot of volume. The amp has one volume knob for each channel (normal/brilliant/vibrato) and one tone control! So, for a driven sound, we just cranked it up until we got what we wanted. All effects were done in monitoring, so that we could change them at a later date – I would say that 95% of all the guitars effects were from Guitar Rig. We did do some stuff using pedals and, in case we would never get the sound back, we just recorded them like that.
Ironically, most of the time you say you’ll just use this delay or that spring reverb for now, but as you go through the tracking process, it becomes part of the sound and it never gets changed! Maybe just the level of it, to bring it closer or further away in the mix, but that’s all. Other guitars on the album included a 1963 Fender Strat, a Gibson ES175 and a Custom Blade RH4 that I have. For my guitar parts, I used that straight into Guitar Rig – mostly the Fender Deluxe/Twin and Vox emulations. This worked well, as on most tracks we had the vintage guy (AC30) one side and the modern guy (Guitar Rig) on the other to give the impression of two separate guitar players to create the band feel. Basses were also just as varied, with GG’s original Rickenbacker, a ‘62 Fender Jazz, a Musicman and my Deusenberg Star Bass – all straight into the Saffire.
DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you bear to part with?
MW: If there was a fire, then it would be my ’73 Fender Precision Bass that my Dad bought for me when I was a kid. I still have the receipt, the case and the tag……..
If we’re talking about what I couldn’t live without when working, I’d have to say Steinberg Cubase. It’s been the one constant for me throughout all its incarnations. I started on Pro 24 on an Atari 1040ST and have remained on the PC platform ever since. Their secret weapon for me is the Drum edit page. I couldn’t do without that. Being able to move all the individual drums lanes and have access to any MIDI output and channel from within the one edit page and keep it on one track is genius. It means that I can have the kick from EZ Drummer, the snare from Abbey Road drums and overheads from somewhere else and even save that as a template.
I got a version of Logic when I bought the ProTools/ Mac rig, but it was the version with the Environment page for VSTs/ plug ins etc, so that kind of put me off. I think we’re at the stage now where all the DAWs are neck and neck feature-wise, so it’s just a case of using the one that feels more intuitive for your way of working. I’m at a point with Cubase now, where I can work fast enough for it never to get in the way of the creative process. People talk of one DAW sounding better than another, but as long as you’re ready to record when the magic happens and you can get it to sound like you want, that’s good enough for me!
Thanks to Mick Wilson. Here he is with 10cc.