Youth: The Fireman Interview

Influential producer Youth talks about working with Paul McCartney on his experimental side project, The Fireman.

“It says everything about Paul and his courage that he’s willing to go off the cliff like that… I mean, The Fireman started off as a fun, artistic process, but I don’t know many artists who are willing to move from their moniker like that. Sgt.Peppers was a bit like that, I think The Beatles got a bit stuck after Rubber Soul and Peppers gave them the chance to play a bit differently to The Beatles.”

 There was that fated call, that call that novels and films inevitably start with. How did this particular call come about? “It came about after an interview I did with Q magazine” Youth explains. “I talked about sample culture, the future of pop or something, saying it went back all the way to the Beatles. My manager called me and told me that Paul McCartney wanted to talk to me. Paul called, he’d read the interview, thought it was great and asked if I’d mind remixing in his studio. Of course I didn’t mind!”

Would anyone? Youth duly turned up at McCartney’s studio in the early months of 1993. They drew from a well of Off The Ground samples for inspiration “He wanted me to do a remix, and I asked him, why don’t I sample from all the tracks and he could overdub on them? He liked the idea, he recorded on the double bass he had upstairs, and I took bits and pieces with varying edits. That’s how I worked with The Orb, I’d take various edits and put them together as a track. So, I was going to put two songs with the varying loops and edits when I get a call from Paul’s manager. His manager told me that he wanted to release an album. I told him I was going to put two or three tracks together from the material, he said fine, but Paul really likes it as it is and he’d like to release it as an album, and would I like to be a part of it? I mean, yes!” Dutifully, The Fireman were born.

“We recorded the first two Fireman albums at Celtic Festivals, such as the Equinox, which Paul was very much in favour of, he’d had stones in Mull, very important to him, and of course he has a strong Irish heritage. I don’t, but I have Welsh and Scottish and I was in Cork recently – amazing heritage of music Cork and the whole island has.”

Superficially, Youth and McCartney may not have been an obvious mix at first glance. The Beatles were the visual beacon of love and harmony, prime pop perfected and pioneered through a series of unsurpassable albums and singles, all produced with that glorious of production sheen. Killing Joke, on the other hand, signalled musical and visual anarchy, a collective of quasi-metal industrial rock makers whose 1980 debut album was based on a series of savage and excitingly violent sounds (of which Youth’s aggressive lead bass playing was a central part of). But a short rundown through a list of shared interests would show just how compatible these two men were.

“We recorded the first two Fireman albums at Celtic Festivals, such as the Equinox, which Paul was very much in favour of, he’d had stones in Mull, very important to him, and of course he has a strong Irish heritage. I don’t, but I have Welsh and Scottish and I was in Cork recently – amazing heritage of music Cork and the whole island has.”

Amongst McCartney’s carefully considered albums constructed for popular audiences, he has also ventured into the musical outré with some spectacular results. Although he was best known as Wings’ frontman for most of the seventies, the ten years between 1970-1980 saw the ex-Beatle record the low fi acoustic indie McCartney (1970), the esoteric synth sampled McCartney II (1980), release the politically charged Give Ireland Back To The Irish (1972), produce the cabalistic and psychedelic McGear (1974) and arrange an instrumental cover version of Ram (1971) under the pseudonym of Percy “Thrills” Thrillington (1977). Still, an ambient techno McCartney project was a departure even by those standards.

“It says everything about Paul and his courage that he’s willing to go off the cliff like that” Youth enthuses. “I mean, The Fireman started off as a fun, artistic process, but I don’t know many artists who are willing to move from their moniker like that. Sgt.Peppers was a bit like that, I think The Beatles got a bit stuck after Rubber Soul and Peppers gave them the chance to play a bit differently to The Beatles. Incredible music, Penny Lane, I am The Walrus!”

“We recorded the album when Linda was going through the final stages of her cancer. She was very involved with the project again. It was very sad when she died. When I listen to the album now, it sounds like a requiem for her, it’s very beautiful.”

Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (1993) proved to be very much a family affair. “Linda had a photography exhibition in Bristol, just as I was doing the final mixes with the engineer. Paul called and asked if they could hang out, so they flew in by helicopter. The whole family was there and I think Paul and Linda stayed up all night until morning. When I started the work, Paul would joke “I think it’s great, but I don’t know if Linda will like it” as if Linda was the boss. But of course when I met Linda, she was fantastic, a real mother-hippie, very involved, playing percussion, fantastic person.”

Just as Linda brought a lot of joie de vivre to the first Fireman album, her ill health and impending death also brought a potent shadow to the excellent follow-up Rushes (1998). Watercolour Guitars prettily paints ambient sounds of passing boat rides and Palo Verde rides with the sounds of horse gallops, a favourite pastime for the McCartney’s. Youth notes the background. “We recorded the album when Linda was going through the final stages of her cancer. She was very involved with the project again. It was very sad when she died. When I listen to the album now, it sounds like a requiem for her, it’s very beautiful.”

“when it came to the lyrics, we’d do an approach like Allen Ginsberg, I’d give him twenty minutes to look through some poetry books as I’d finish recording drums. He’d take some lines and we’d record. We would go into the studio with nothing, spend four-six hours working. And it was very gratifying when Rolling Stone called it some of his best song-craft of the last twenty years!”

Listeners would have to wait a decade for the next Fireman project, during which time McCartney maintained a success as a stadium attraction and Youth continued to work as a famed producer, briefly reuniting with McCartney on the Liverpool Sound Collage (though this was credited as a McCartney record). In 2008, the pair released their third Fireman offering Electric Arguments – this time with a twist.

“Everyone knew The Fireman was Paul and me by then, there was no point in keeping it a secret” Youth says. “As for Paul singing [the previous two albums were instrumental], we approached him writing songs as we did the other albums. We recorded the backing tracks as instrumentals, and then when it came to the lyrics, we’d do an approach like Allen Ginsberg, I’d give him twenty minutes to look through some poetry books as I’d finish recording drums. He’d take some lines and we’d record. We would go into the studio with nothing, spend four-six hours working. And it was very gratifying when Rolling Stone called it some of his best song-craft of the last twenty years!”

“I’ve taken myself more seriously as a producer since McCartney and Floyd, to think about the artistry of a producer. These guys are the best, and can have the best whenever they want, so you must be inspired to bring something new every day. You have to bring respect to these artists, but also transparency and direction.”

Youth received the 2016 Music Producers Guild (MPG) Awards for Outstanding Contribution to UK Music. He’s kept busy in recent years, co-producing the Pink Floyd swansong The Endless River (2014) and The Jesus and Mary Chain comeback record Damage and Joy (2017).

“I’ve been very privileged. The list you’ve just mentioned- Pink Floyd, McCartney, The Mary Chain- it doesn’t get much better than that! I really enjoyed working with The Jesus and Mary Chain, working on the dynamics of the two brothers, who are still trying to find their place after all the friction. As for Floyd, The Endless River is one of the few albums I still listen to. It was a privilege working with Phil Manzera and Andy Jackson, directing David Gilmour over the last recordings and sketches Rick Wright played on, bringing them full circle in the high criteria of Floyd’s music. I’ve taken myself more seriously as a producer since McCartney and Floyd, to think about the artistry of a producer. These guys are the best, and can have the best whenever they want, so you must be inspired to bring something new every day. You have to bring respect to these artists, but also transparency and direction. I’ve worked with Roger Eno recently, he previously played on David Gilmour’s solo album, and I worked on Nik Turner’s album, sort of Blade Runneresque music, which comes out in July. I’m looking forward to the Nick Mason shows and I would love to do an album with David and Roger Waters, which I don’t think is impossible, but probably unlikely!”

And what about a fourth Fireman album?” I wouldn’t hesitate to work with Paul again, the Fireman albums tend to be every ten years and the last one was in 2008. That said, Paul is a very busy man, doing three hour gigs, every song a classic. Amazing his stamina. We discussed doing Fireman shows in the past and I think the technology has nearly caught up that we nearly could do one, running, looping the guitars and voices. It would be a fantastic show!”


Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.

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