James Ellis Ford – Interview – Depeche Mode

James Ellis Ford: “If I am really lucky I get a bit in the zone where time disappears”

James Ellis Ford (Copyright: 2023 Pip Bourdillon)

Working as Simian Mobile Disco, James Ellis Ford, along with his longtime collaborator Jas Shaw, produced some of the most significant club hits of the mid-noughties. Think „We are your Friends“ and „I believe“. After a few years of heavy worldwide touring as a live act and DJ, Ford has drawn away from the nightlife and concentrated on production work for artists like Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, Klaxons and Foals. In 2017 Ford worked with Depeche Mode on their „Spirit“ album. „Memento Mori“ is his second collaboration with them.

I catch up with James in his cosy home attic studio in London. And even though he is in the middle of another big name project (very much under NDA), he is super relaxed and keeps talking for over an hour.

James, do you remember your first encounter with the music of Depeche Mode?

James Ellis Ford: Not really. They always been sort of in the background. I grew up in a fairly musical house in terms of my parents playing music all of the time. I remember my mum played a lot of Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Yazoo and Alison Moyet and that kind of stuff. Depeche Mode were almost kind of part of the establishment, so when I was a teenager I almost kind of rebelled against that kind of stuff.

Me, I personally got to know Depeche Mode through an older nephew very early in their band history, I even saw them as a super young boy on their second ever German tour. Back then Depeche Mode had the connotation of being ‘underground’, they were definitive not mainstream, only the „freaks“ in school listened to them. They got successful with „People Are People“ and that kind of stuff.

Yeah, right. I suppose I know them from the more mainstream „my mum was in that kind of thing“.

My parents were not very much into music, I mean they had all Beatles records, but they did not really listen to them at all. 

I have this musical relationship with my parents. I still talk to my Dad a lot about… he was quite a big prog rocker and stuff, he knows a lot more about new bands than I do.

Since 2005 you worked besides your own music with a big roster of artists on their music, from Test Icicles over Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons to Florence and the Machine, Foals and Mumford & Sons to name just a few – and then in 2017 the first time with Depeche Mode on „Spirit“. Do you know which of your back catalogue works attracted them to work with you?

I honestly don’t know. I think possibly it is because I had made techno stuff and whatever with Simian Mobile Disco, but I also have rock stuff in my back catalogue. Obviously Dave in his ideal world would be in Neil Young’s band, you know what I mean? Loose and jammy. Martin is very much in the techno world really. I suppose I am one of the few producers that straddle both things. But I don’t know, I never really asked them what it was.

Did you do some test sessions before agreeing to work together?

It is different. With some people I do a test session, mostly with new bands. But with them, they were at that point of all living on different parts of the world, so we had a few zoom calls I suppose. We just got straight into it on the „Spirit“ album. Strange. So no test session. We said: „Yes, let’s do it“.

What are the timelines like on a record with Depeche Mode? You have unlimited time and no pressure … or more likely „this is scheduled for four weeks and then we need some first results“?

I tend to like to work as quickly as the project will allow. Because I think that way you keep the momentum and often when you have too much time you go over it and retrace your steps and I don’t think it is helpful a lot of the time. Especially with the technology as it is – you can quite easily overcook it, overwork it too much.
They are used to recording in the 80s when everything took ages and ages – so they were really surprised by how quickly I worked. They had like three or four months planned and we ended up doing it in two. But same goes for „Spirit“, we had like months long planned – and I was like „we don’t need that amount of time!“

For „Spirit“ or for both?

For both. We worked for about two months.

Is everybody the whole time in the studio or do you sometimes just work with one of them? Or even alone?

„Spirit“ was very, very different than the one we just have done. „Spirit“ was like much more difficult and less enjoyable as a process. It was my first time working with them and they had this big system they had made the previous records on, it was like ten or fifteen people in the studio really. Kinda crazy. It was like me, the engineer, the three of the band, management was around quite a lot, the studio assistant was around quite a lot, there was a programmer, Dave brought his engineer, there were just so many people. And honestly, the vibe was really bad. It wasn’t a fun record to make, you know. The tensions between the band were really high at that point. It was a really difficult record to make. There was lots of like passive aggressive animosity – and then it got to the point where they nearly split up.

Martin was ready to leave. I actually brought up this meeting between Martin and Dave and all that stuff. It got really intense. We were in this kind of different studios and were moving gear around.
So this time basically it was the pole opposite. Because Andy Fletcher passed away about three weeks before we were supposed to start. So I was imagining the album cancelled.
I would have imagined so too.

But they said, I think they were still and probably still are in some form of shock and grief and basically wanted to carry on – which I was quite surprised by.
So the process became much much smaller, it was basically just Martin, Dave and me and Marta – and no one else around. Instead of being in this big studio, we spent the whole time in Martin’s studio in his house. Which is a beautiful place, it got all the synths anyone can ever want, you know, too many.

This is Los Angeles?

In Santa Barbara, a place called Montecito. It is this really mellow, quite kind of chilled place. It was very relaxed. And honestly because in the light of Andy dying, the vibe was very different, very sort of tender, Martin and Dave got on amazingly, they became like long lost brothers. You know, there was a lot like, we work and then we would have nice long lunches with stories and reminiscing, talking about Andy and things hat had been up too, it was a really beautiful experience.

So in a way the dying of their friend pressed the reset button to a lot of stupid arguing.

Exactly. They said:, „Don’t stress the small stuff“. When you are sort of faced with your own mortality and the mortality of a close friend, it gives you a perspective and makes you really not worry about things you maybe thought are important before.

So before that they were pretty much like in an old relationship where you start arguing about everything and it makes no sense at all – and you just feel like, why do we go into that direction, just for the sake of the debate?

Exactly. Honestly, the process this time was one of the nicest I ever had. It was very open and relaxed and quite easy.
Weirdly, I didn’t think after „Spirit“ …  „Spirit“ was very difficult and kinda bumpy, there were lots of arguments. In the end even me and Martin … I kinda felt I have to say to him as directly as I could … I think me and Martin came to blows over … maybe the track listing, leaving one of his tracks off, or maybe some of the lyrics on one of the tracks, I can’t remember exactly. We had this kind of big argument at the end of the process and I was like: „Ah, that’s it, I probably will not work with them again“. So I was really surprised when they asked me the second time, honestly.
I am really glad I went in the second time around, because I have a much better memory of that whole situation than I did after the first one.

Sometimes it needs some air after the recording process to understand what you achieved together. Working together is such an intense thing, especially when you don’t know each other before. You jump from a non-relationship into a close relationship.

Exactly. As a producer you sometimes have to earn that trust. It takes a while. And Depeche Mode have made so many records in so many different ways. I suppose it takes a while to build these kind of relationships. We definitely worked much much better this time around. Also having Marta who engineered and mixed it was also quite an interesting experience. I asked her to do it, because I’m a fan what she has done in the past.

Who is that?

Marta Salogni. We were really thrown into this new relationship as well. Because it was just the four of us. Because we were away for this period of time, it was quite intense. We got on great as well. I think you can feel it in the record, it feels a bit more playful and adventurous maybe than the last one. I also think the songs are better this time around as well.

From 15 people down to 4 people in the studio you pretty much describe what was wrong before, it must have felt like in one of this comedy movies.

It was really a weird experience, it was strange.

James, what was Andy’s role in the band? I always felt like he was more the diplomatic person combining Martin and Dave – but 15 people in the room sounds more likely he was also lost in the set up.

My memory of Andy is, he was kind of very social. Both Martin and Dave are teetotal, they had their kind of drug and alcohol issues in the past, they don’t socialise as much, they come out for dinner sometimes, but they won’t go to the bar very often. So Andy would sort of be the guy holding court every night. We would all go and meet him in the hotel bar and then he takes us out for dinner. He was very much the social connector. Obviously between Martin and Dave as well, I always thought he was the glue between them, because they are quite seemingly different people, but after this last experience, I think, in a strange way he did mediate between them but in a strange way he kept them apart a bit as well. Not intentionally probably. I think often it felt like Fletch was Martin’s mouthpiece a little bit, cause Martin is often very conflict-averse. I think Dave found this quite frustrating, you know, Andy and Martin have had this very close relationship since school, maybe Dave felt a bit outside of this, so often the animosity between was between Fletch and Dave – and actually without Fletch being there, there was no barrier between them and they were actually having to talk to each other for probably the first time in years and it was probably not as bad as both thought it would be. They actually realised they could talk directly to each other.

It is interesting how systems established – and then you don’t think about them anymore. It takes a big event to realise: „What the fuck are we doing here?“
James, coming from the last records, the „New Depeche Mode paradigm“ for an album these days is like 3/4 of the songs are by Martin Gore and 1/4 by Dave Gahan – in opposite to the earlier band times when Martin wrote all the songs. From my personal interview history with them, I know that they talk very open about this process as strategic negotiations (backed by their managements) rather than artistic decisions. In general: how do you navigate this as a producer?

I think that was the point on the „Spirit“ record. The biggest point of argument was about how many songs each of them would get on and bla-bla-bla – Martin has a history of doing most of the writing, but Dave wanted to do much more. I am not sure exactly if it is a hard and fast rule but from what I got it tended to be like eight songs from Martin and then four songs from Dave. But this time was quite different. For the first time the co-wrote on some of them, before we even got into the studio they were sending tunes between each other. Maybe Martin send Dave an instrumental – and he wrote something on it and send it back, which doesn’t happened in a long time.
I don’t know it seemed much more about the music this time then let’s say the contractional obligation. It felt much easier this time.
There was a period when we had like 20 tracks and we had to get them down to the album – that’s always in any process a little bit fraught, especially when it’s different people’s songs. But Daniel Miller came in the studio around that time too. Obviously he has this relationship with them from the beginning. So it was great to have him in the studio. He really… we sorta talked through the different options for the album and the length of the album. We ended up doing this secret ballot of everybody’s favourite tracks and that kind of thing. It actually went really smoothly. We did this kind of secret voting thing between the five of us – and Daniel was kinda casting vote.

How similar were the results?

It was actually fine. Like the majority of the record, like 9 or 10 tracks everybody agreed on. And then there were in the end only like 3 or 4 tracks we had to decide on with this secret ballot thing. Compared to last time it went remarkably smooth.

How did you solve things with „Spirit“?

It just got into real arguments and kind of people threaten to leave the band. (laughs)

Which is a good sign that you really care about what you are doing.

Yeah, I suppose. I think the perspective shift what happened during this record was in a lot of ways very healthy. Last time they were so invested in these things, but I am not sure how much… they were probably too much down the rabbit hole if you know what I mean.

How did you experience the reactions to „Spirit“ by both fans and critics. I mean, they have so many dedicated fans, I guess there was a lot of feedback coming in, right? Are you in general a person reading all the reviews to the music you worked on? Is the opinion of critics and fans important for you?

Honestly, no at this point. I’ve made so many albums now. When I first started I used to really care and read the reviews and all of that stuff. But now I have been through the process so many times. I have seen how… reviews are such a weird thing, I have seen albums reviewed great and not doing very well and just disappear. And the other way around, you get a shitty review and think it is a disaster – but then actually the album has this life on its own and becomes this sort of thing, the album the people love. It is really hard to predict what happens to an album once it is out there. Obviously everybody has opinions.
I know when an album goes out how I feel about it, if I did a good job, or this once could have been better. Sometimes you ready the reviews to almost kind of punish yourself. It doesn’t help in the long run.
Especially with twitter, now you can go on and read anybody’s opinion if you want to – type in the name of the record, or type in your own name and find a whole list of people criticising you and a whole list of people saying you are brilliant. I don’t understand anymore what it means.
It is a classic thing, the people around you whose opinion you trust and respect, getting feedback from those people is worth much more than anything else really. Sometimes you have to do the doom calling thing, you know.
At this point I don’t go out and read the reviews.

James, now a difficult question, I guess at least: How much of you is in the final songs?

The way that I produce is quite hands-on. You know, I play a lot of stuff, I do a lot of the programming, the performances.
Depending on the record, for some I do less of that stuff and it is more sonic stuff, or sometime it is more the Rick Rubin kind of producing style, of standing in the back of the room and controlling the way people are feeling and kinda steer the process.
Sometimes I am actually writing everything, playing everything, mixing everything. I definitely feel I put a lot into it.
With Martin’s demos on this one: he is a great producer in his own right. We used a lot of this original songs, the templates of the songs were already quite strong. So within the record there are always the songs you kind of get out of the way of – as it’s already so good. And then there are songs that need a lot of input to turn them around and make whatever it is to make them fit. It is about recognising this on a moment to moment basis and trying to do what is needed to make every song work.

By the way: do you get songwriter credits for (some of) the songs?

It depends. I tend to not push too hard for that kind of stuff. I often write parts… maybe if I change all the chords and change all the structure of a song and contribute to the lyrics or something, maybe I ask for it – but I tend to do not say „I played this bass line, can I get some credits for that.“ Because it is just part of the process.

I always liked that Steve Albini was saying generally „no“ to this as it is kinda the job call.

Much to my management’s dislike I do not really like to chase for credits – I hate to have a conversation like „hey I did this…“
Maybe if you say it in the beginning, „we gonna write this album together and make 50/50“, alright, but I am not chasing some publishing. Because I think it makes me feel like I’m trying to get something in it, like I change this chord so I ‘get some publishing’. It sets up a weird dynamic, and I don’t like to do that.

„Yeah, wait a second, James just voted for all the songs he has some rights on.“

Yeah, exactly. I have done some of this kind of LA writing kind of stuff. There are like 3 or 4 people in the room trying to write one song, it just never really works. Unless you go, we gonna split it equally with everyone in the room. Otherwise people would say „I think…“ – „No, you just sayin’ cause you are trying to get your flag in the ground. It doesn’t work.

Also: you have producer points, so you benefit from your work but you do not have to get too dirty.

Yeah. Also I’d rather have a good relationship with people and then we can work again in the future than getting into these weird arguments about publishing stuff and whatever.

You mentioned you started working on the album right after the death of Andy Fletcher – as the new album is called „Memento Mori“ I guess this is referring to his unexpected and tragic death on the 26th of May 2022. Does this also mean they started writing new songs coming from this?

Well, the really weird thing about it. I had all the demos – and there is a song called „Angels“ and a song called „Ghosts“ –, and the album was already called „Memento Mori“ before Andy died. It was really strange, really weird. It reminded me a bit when Nick Cave’s son died and he had the album about Lazarus and rising again and all this sort of stuff and everybody assumed he wrote it after his son died, but he wrote it before. It is this weird thing that something is in the ether. I don’t know, it wasn’t written about Andy, but people will think it was.

Both Nick Cave and Depeche Mode always produce music that reflects about love, life and death somehow. But yeah, as weird as it sounds, we humans sometimes feel things before they happen.

Exactly, something is in the ether.

James, are you working on the live shows for the upcoming world tour with Depeche Mode?

Honestly, no. I often get asked with projects, even to play live with them. I try to stay out of it. It is quite an involved process. I am sure they take some of the stems we produced and used. Often bands have MD (music directors) and its their job to produce the live show. I stay out of it.

You must have seen some of the shows of the „Spirit“ tour, right? Can you describe the feeling of listening to Depeche Mode playing songs live you worked on with them? Are you sometimes surprised what they do with „your songs“?

It is always interesting, it is always quite an odd thing. I remember seeing the Arctic Monkeys and remembering playing that guitar line or writing that little hook line or changing that moment – and then it happens on a big scale. It is always a nice but strange moment, and an odd feeling.

What is your favourite Depeche Mode song?

I think if I have to pick one it is probably „Everything counts“. I remember my mum playing that one, it has this nostalgic feeling for me. And I remember thinking the lyrics are weird – that’s a strange thing to sing about. Martin always has these slightly interesting chord sequences that sort of don’t go where you expect them to. Without really realising it this was my introduction to them.

Funny you chose this one. As a young German boy not understanding everything right – or anything – I heard: „Everything counts half a pound“. A very early socialistic idea of mine: cool, everything should costs the same, how challenging for world economics.

You’re also about to release your solo album „The Hum“ in May on Warp records. When did you find time to work on this? With your schedule it must have been hard to find slots at all?

I got a whole hard drive with sketches and ideas, so I was gradually thinking „I make something“. I had a bit of extra time, so I started to do a few weeks here and there. The main thing is: I have my studio in my house, I can sneak up for an evening.
The main reason as well is, I am not doing so much stuff with Jas anymore. I always balanced producing with Simian Mobile Disco as my own project. As Jas got ill (his SMD partner Jas Shaw was diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a rare condition that affects organ and tissue functions), so over the lock down I could not get together with him as he had to isolate himself. So I just had much more extra time.

I love the melancholic textures on the „The Hum“, bringing together influences of Westcoast folk-pop and of course electronic music with also Kraut-rocky and sometimes even prog moments; the album is not afraid of free jamming passages like in „The Yip“ with its beautiful oriental vibes. It feels a bit as an experienced elder music statesman producing a record with the free and fearless mindset of a teenage boy, one who’s just started to fall in love with the magic of music. You know what I mean?

Honestly, on my hard drive I got a whole chunk of kind of drone-y stuff, and a whole chunk of song-y stuff, and weird soundtrack-y Morricone-y stuff, David Axelrod stuff. In a way I just ended up picking some bits, some of each stuff – but I could have made an album just with one genre. Maybe mixing it up was good.
As it started to develop I got my management to block out a period of time so I could actually concentrate on finishing it. Even though I make a lot of projects, I find it quite difficult to change gear sometimes. You get very much in the aesthetic of a particular album you are working on. There is a certain type of drum sound, or set of rules that you make yourself. And then you change projects and there is a total different set of rules, let’s say electronic and acoustic. Sometimes doing your own thing in between is quite confusing. So to actually finish it I needed to take a month away or something.

You finished it in pandemic times?

I started it before, but the pandemic gave me free space to finish it probably.

I like the poetic album title: „The Hum“, in German „Das Summen“ – which to me is a deeply idiosyncratic personal moment of being all the way lost in music. Are you someone who can easily get lost in music even though you are a professional musician these days?

Honestly, this is something I search for every day. If I am really lucky I get a bit in the zone where time disappears and I am in the moment doing the thing whatever it is, learning the part, playing a thing. Even in the evening I am having my time, going upstairs and playing with my tape machine while my wife is watching a crime drama thing – I rather just make some kinda strange involving loops that maybe no one ever will hear. it is just meditative. It is almost like a computer game, it is my form of entertainment. Sometimes it is recorded, sometimes not, you know, I am not doing for my job, I am doing it for my entertainment.

Here comes a double question, kinda connected: did you need to have a certain age to produce a record like this? And how important is it still to be able to jump in the let’s call it teenager mode?

I definitely don’t feel I could have make this album before now. Even though I know I am pretty good at what I do, I don’t have a lot of confidence as an artist, if you know what I mean, I kinda did it on purpose to challenge myself. To actually write lyrics and sing them seems … still seems like a crazy thing to me.
I have done a lot of things, I’ve achieved quite a lot and made lots of different kinds of music, but make something personal, take you out there and make you vulnerable in that way felt like something I kinda needed to do. I opened the flood gates for it now – but I don’t know if I could have done it as a teenager.

I still have a clear memory of being 14 and being in my Dad’s basement with this synth (shows me the synth standing behind him) – a maxi Korg, I bought it from a friend for about 50 pound quid – a drum machine and a 4-track-recorder and was trying to recreate Herbie Hancock’s „Head Hunters“. I just remember the joy – I wanted to do this forever. I remember this feeling – and literally me being up here is the same person and the same feeling. Somehow I got to this point. Somehow I created a space for myself to keep doing it.

Some goes for me as a writer, I am still writing sometimes reviews for pretty much no money cause it is so much fun to do.

Exactly. You can get so swept up in the business side of things and what you should be doing, you know, it is always a risky thing to make your hobby you sort of profession. Because you could kill the joy. Making my own record was a good exercise in try to rejoin with that stuff.

And it refreshes you for your other work projects.

It kinda gave me a few things that I hadn’t realised. A lot of the times I am giving people advice – again, being vulnerable or doing one of those things leaning into certain parts of them they normally would run away from. Those little tips. So then to actually follow my own advice is really difficult. I put myself on the other side of the metaphorical glass. It helped me as a producer to realise what I ask from other people.

I’m a big fan of good song titles. And you have some really good ones here, like Squeaky Wheel (in German: „Quietschendes Rad“), or The Yip’s (in German: „plötzliche unwillkürliche, ruckartige Muskelzuckungen“). How important are those and what’s your general approach to lyrics?

I’ve actually worked with quite a lot of people where lyrics are important, like Alex Turner. I am definitely aware of lyrics, people like Alex ask me „how is this? how is that?“, so I think about it. But then this is still a different thing to write your own lyrics. What do I want to say?
In the process of making my own thing, I started to look in different places, write down little phrases, started to think of little things. I got into it. I enjoyed it. I woke up in the morning and remember a little thing I didn’t thing of for some time.
I’ve made so much music, really, but to focus on this bit that I often just left to other people, was a nice challenge. Difficult… but I want to do more.

One of the songs on the album is entitled „I Never Wanted Anything“ – it that a personal description? Are you an artist that does not take himself too serious, one that is more likely just going with the flow of life in opposite to being strategic and try too hard to get things set up?

It probably is. I am quite basic. My wife is an extreme planner. She will look very far ahead and think about all the possibilities. In a way she enables me. I live very much in the moment, I find it quite hard to think a few hours ahead, or a week… a year. I just kind of bumble through life a lot and enjoy the moment. That’s why I am still able to play with my four track tape machine (laughs). It works out quite well for me obviously.
I don’t have many more ambitions at that point in my life anymore.
I am fairly confident with the situation. It is about being surprised, and grateful and trying to acknowledge it.
One of the main things I’ve learned through producing, I think planning ahead actually doesn’t help. Going into a recording situation you have to have something to aim for – otherwise it never works out – but then something else happens, and it keeps changing… The most important thing is you have to be able to change and be flexible, otherwise you limit yourself too much.

You gonna tour for the album with a band outfit. What can we expect from that shows? Who will be on stage with you?

They are friends of mine. I work with a string quartet that I worked with quite a lot in the past.I play drums myself and have a loop station.
There is a great bass player, an improviser, a jazzy guy. And a close friend on the guitar. And Rich the keyboarder, also an excellent violin player. And Emba plays saxophone and also bass violin.

Also I saw you will share a bill with Depeche Mode for the Primavera Sound festivals this summer (and maybe other occasions too). Any chance we gonna see you on their stage at one point? Or them on yours?

Well, it didn’t cross my mind yet, I will watch them from the side.
The Arctic Monkeys are also headlining Glastobury, where I will also perform – so I am trying to convince Alex Turner to play the tambourine for me.

Does the producer James Ellis Ford have a ritual with finished albums? Do you listen to them alone in your flat with a glass of whisky? Or do you listen to them with a friend?

I often kinda put it on in the background at a party, or if we have friends over – to see if anyone notices it, if anyone picks it up: „Oh, what is this“ Sometimes ambient testing like this is good. Sometimes at the end of a big album process you have a listening party with the band and management and go out for dinner.
Me personally, I often like to go for a run or a walk when it is finished.
When it is immediately finished i kinda need a break, because I’ve heard it so many times – a year later I come back to it and see it a bit more clearly from a distance.

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