Exclusive: Welsh musician and Mercury Prize-winning mix engineer David Wrench reflects on his obsessional past in career spanning interview
Cai Trefor
20:20 3rd June 2019

Last month, Gigwise was in Wrexham taking in the sights and sounds of the FOCUS Wales festival. One of the top gigs was audiobooks on Saturday night (18 May) – the synth pop project of David Wrench and Evangeline Ling.

Earlier that day, Gigwise interviewed Wrench in front of an audience. Conversationally, there's an emphasis on his past working in Wales, partly because of this interviewer’s own childhood spent in North Wales, and a retrospective curiosity for a scene that was understated yet truly alternative and stands the test of time. Despite the small area where everyone pretty much knows everyone, this interview would be our first ever meeting with Wrench. And given his work has been a constant presence – some the greatest albums of the last 30 years have been to do with Wrench – it was an honour to meet him. Bear In Heaven, Caribou, Euros Childs, Race Horses, and The Charlatans, are just a few of our favourites he’s either mixed or produced.

The interview, which we’d recommend a set of headphones or speakers for to listen to some of the Youtube gems we’ve embedded along the way, traces Wrench’s rise through the ranks in the music industry. From playing piano in the Greek restaurant in Bangor, North Wales for tips, to mixing the likes David Byrne’s American Utopia and some of the other most creative acts on the planet – it’s a truly indepth profile. So from Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham, to you now, here’s David Wrench in conversation with Gigwise:

Gigwise: Hi David, I'd like to start by turning the clock back. Your journey began in Ysgol Caergybi when you were 17 and I read your physics teacher put out your first single?

David Wrench: I was lucky to have two amazing teachers. Firstly, it was in Bodedern school [Anglesey]. There was a teacher there called Charlie Goodall, who had been in various Welsh bands. And he had a small recording studio. He set up a tiny little system in the school with quite a primitive drum machine and a little synth and I spent every break time in there. Then I had to move school because my music teacher told me there was no way I had a career in music, she wouldn't even teach it to me at a-level. So then I moved to Holyhead school where they were quite happy to have me. And that's where Gorwel Owen - who is an amazing producer whose produced so many records for Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals; and he was putting out records of his own at that time that were getting played on John Peel [was teaching]. He was so encouraging. And he set up another little studio in that school where I spent all my time.

GW: You had a stint with Nid Madagascar, which, as you say, is the first Welsh language Acid House record?

DW: I don't think that's true. Yeah, it was my school band. At the time in Wales there was the TV program Fideo 9 and they paid you to make a video. You’d go on there and you could use your fees to fund releasing a 12" record with the amount of money they paid. This is what people used to do: you'd go on the program, make a video, and bring out a 12".

At the time we put out the 12", it was the time of Manchester and the explosion of that sort of music. We put it out and Peel played it. We did gigs in Wales. It was quite a sustainable scene that was happening and there was some amazing, amazing bands: There was Ffa Coffi Pawb [Gruff Rhys' first band] who were stunning; there was Y Cyrff who were brilliant and half of which ended up being Catatonia; and there was Tŷ Gwydr. It was quite a lively scene.

Watch: Y Cyrff 'Pethau Achlysurol', recorded for Fideo 9.

GW: And then you went to University?

DW: Yes. I went to University and I sort of dropped out of it for a while. I didn't really do much. I listened to a lot of records and I enjoyed myself a lot.

GW: Where did you go?

DW: I went to Reading, but I got thrown out after a year.

GW: OK. So Ankst Records came along. A lot of your mates were releasing through that time? Gorky’s, for example.

DW: That was a bit later on. I moved back to Wales and Gorky's had started doing some stuff. I was busking or playing piano in a Greek restaurant every Saturday just to get tips. Emyr [Glyn Williams] from Anskt came in and said asked if I wanted to do something so I went and did some demos with Gorwel [Owen] and him and then I released the record [Blow Winds Blow (1997)].

GW: Had they been knocking at your door for a while because you had early success with being played on John Peel and stuff?

DW: That wasn't success [laughs].

GW: Did you send him your record?

DW: Yeah, I kept in touch with Emyr and whenever I did stuff I would send it. And I started writing with Zoë Skoulding [on the track 'Black Roses'] and I was playing with Alan Holmes who was in Fflaps and Ectogram [Holmes produced and played violin on David Wrench’s album Blow Wind Blow].

GW: Alan, from Cob Records? [Cob Bangor, an independent record shop which has ceased trading]

DW: He used to work in Cob. He always seemed to have a finger in anything that was really alternative that was going on.

GW: Did you share of love of bands like Captain Beefheart?

DW: Yeah. He used to make his compilation tapes for me, which was weird, and really inspiring.

About Ectogram: Discover them here 

GW: So you worked with them, and also Julian Cope?

DW: That came a bit later. I put out a little single on this label called Ochre Records and I was involved with – there was an artist on their label called Paul Simpson, who used to be in Teardrop Explodes at the very beginning, and then he had his band The Wild Swans. He also had a project called Skyray where I stood in for someone. Julian came along and we started chatting and got on and I ended up playing with him; recording a record with him, and years later I was in his band. 

Listen: Brain Donor - 'Love, Peace & Fuck'  

GW: Which record did you do first?

DW: He had a band at the time called Brain Donor, which was his heavy metal trio. And they turned up with double neck guitars. They were all in full KISS face paint style costume all session. This was in Bryn Derwen.

GW: Which is of course where you recorded your debut studio album [1997]. Was that around the sort of time you started working at Bryn Derwen [as an engineer]?

DW: Yeah. I recorded that album in Bryn Derwen and when I was there I met Laurie [Gane] and we got on well. Well, he recalls it differently to me: I remember it me asking him once or twice; he remembers it me pestering him every week to please come in.

GW [speaking to audience]: For those of you who don't know, Bryn Derwen is a recording studio in Mynydd Llandygai, near Bethesda. It's a serene were place, a huge property where a lot of bands would have residential recording sessions.

DW: Actually, when I started it wasn't really residential; it was much smaller than it eventually became. So when I stated working there, he said ‘why don’t you come and do some wiring’ and then I got thrown in on the first session. And I didn't really know what I was doing, but I read. I knew I needed access to a studio because I wanted studio time but couldn't afford it. I thought the way to do it was to be an engineer and use the downtime in the studio. So that was the only reason I got into production. I learnt on the job, sort of blagged it, but then it turned out I could do it.

GW: Laurie Gane who owned the studio, of course, was in The Yardbirds and has an amazing history in music.

DW: He does have an amazing history, especially in blues music. He was a lecturer at the RCA for years.

GW: There are people making music in North Wales and trying to find a recording studio, but it’s not everyone who gets the chance to stumble into a situation like that and be given the time and trust to develop.

DW: It was a huge stroke of luck for that to happen. Then it was a matter of just really going for it. I worked insane hours. I was working with maybe two days off a month and I'd be working 14 - 16 hours a day for years. It was nonstop obsessional. I was just determined that my work was going to be as good as anything else out there. And I didn't really have a life in that period. It was total focus. It was exhausting and tiring. It toughened me up quite a lot. I would obsessionally compare what I was doing to the biggest records out there and be like ‘why isn’t this sounding as good as that?’ And I don't believe it's down to equipment. I believe it's about your ears and your judgement. It was pretty tough but worth it in the end.

GW: I've spoken with someone who's been in a recording with you recently – a fan of Y Niwl – and he commented on your recording of Y Niwl. And he spoke of your emphasis on getting a good take and not comping. Your approach to recording is very patient apparently.

DW: I do like actual takes. Especially with a band. It depends on the music, but with a band like that you want a performance. They had a sound as a band when I heard them live and so I wanted capture that and do a few takes. And I mixed it live so there was no going back or changing anything. We did the whole album in two days. Mixed, done

Listen: Surf rock band Y Niwl - 'Undegpump'

GW: That sort of Black Sabbath way?

DW: I think it works. You have to be a really tight, good band. They did it a couple of times and Race Horses as well but it’s not often you get to do it.

GW: Meilyr Jones’ Race Horses were real stand out on the indie scene. What was it like being in Bryn Derwen with them?

DW: I remember Meilyr and the band coming in the studio when he was 15 [Wrench recorded Race Horses when they were named Radio Luxembourg and produced their 2005 album Diwrnod Efor Anifeiliaid] and in the days where I worked with all sorts of young bands coming in, you could tell within the first minute if the band were going to go on and do anything. Just the way they walk. The way they were. Their attitude. You could just tell. Some people go on and do this as their career and some people it may be the only session they do. Or it will be a very short-lived thing. I just knew when they came in these are the people who are going to be around for a while. Meilyr had presence and a charisma. It was just obvious. And he’s still doing it.

Watch: Race Horses in the video to 'Cake'

GW: I'd like to turn the clock back a bit because we don't have much time. I met Will Sergeant [Of Echo and The Bunnymen] in Estonia and he told me he played with you with The Serpents, who I didn't know about prior to him mentioning the name.

DW: Well, that was put together by Paul Simpson and he amassed about 30 - 35 people. We got invites through the post with weird stuff, magical symbols.

GW: Did you get a goat’s liver?

DW: I made that up. There was all this magic mushroom wine around and we did sessions that were improvised. Everyone was feeling quite inspired by the Krautrock book Julian Cope had written [Krautrocksampler (1995)]. It emerged as something committable that was improvised, it was exploratory, and that was quite psychedelic. That was done over a few sessions. Will Sergeant was involved. Gruff Rhys turned up for a bit. Various people. There were so many people.

GW [Speaking to the audience]: For those of you who haven’t heard it, the album is The Serpents - You Have Just Been Poisoned By and is an incredible work, released in 1999.

DW: That was one of the first things I was engineer on too. It was chaos.

GW: So you were doing that at that hyperactive time of getting your skills up to scratch?

DW: Yeah.

Listen: Gruff Rhys plays bass on this The Serpents track:

GW: In 2005, you were writing ‘apocaplyptic pop’, which harked back to your early '90s sound.

DW: I haven't got great a memory of this period. Yes I did an album of electronic pop music in the mid noughties.

GW: There was a lot of depressing news at the time with Bush and Blair, was it a reaction to that?

DW: Sort of. I always liked electronic pop music. I just wrote about was in my mind at the time.

GW: It is quite an expressive record a lot of the lyricism, you’ve spoken recently about Ginsberg’s poem Howl influencing a lot of people’s music, was there ever any poet that inspired you?

DW: Writing has always been instinctive thing and not something I overthink. It's quite fast. Even now with audiobooks it’s fast. We usually start and finish a track in an afternoon and it's done. It suits me. Some people are really sensitive and take the time. I get bored quite easily.

GW: FKA Twigs, by comparison, is someone I imagine who takes time.

DW: I think she takes a long time refining it. But then again, I think her creative process is very fast. I think she writes very quickly and produces very quickly. She is an amazing programmer. She uses a Tempest and various other synths very quickly. And then there’s a lot of chaos to sort through that comes with that afterwards. Same with Caribou he's very fast makes a lot of stuff and then hones it down.

GW: You’ve been quoted in an interview saying you tend to go with people who self-produce – and in saying you work with people others would consider difficult to work with. Can you explain what you mean by that?

DW: Yeah. Well, it's quite often when I’m about to work with an artist and someone will say ‘oh, I’ve heard they're really difficult to work with. And then I work with them and it's not at all difficult. They just have opinions. And I think a lot of people – many producers and engineers – find working with artists who have strong opinions difficult. But I actually really like it – it's cool. We'll explore those opinions and work together to make something. It's not a battle.

I also like people who try and do something different. And that can be hard. The artists that I work with, most of them will really push it and take it all apart if need be. 

GW: David Byrne pitched to you right?

DW: I was lying in bed with pneumonia and I got an email from David Byrne. And I thought I must have subscribed to a mailing list. But it wasn't, it was him. He was like, ‘hi my name is David, I've made some music with my friend Brian [Eno] would you be interested in mixing it!? I was like, ‘yeah’.

GW: What was your emotional reaction? Nervousness?

DW: Yeah! I was terrified! But often these bigger projects will come in very quick. So I got the files and when straight to it. It was the same for the track with Frank Ocean I did. I was at a party when that came in and had a text saying, ‘hi, I'm Frank Ocean. Can you mix a track for me?'  I went into the studio and did it and the record literally came out the next day. It was that fast!

Listen: David Byrne - American Utopia as mixed by David Wrench

GW: Excuse me if I’m way off here. I was speaking with a producer friend about schools of thought in production and he spoke of you as someone who is quite the opposite to Phil Spector and The Wall of Sound; he says you are pioneer of more detailed sound. Is that right?

DW: I've got this thing synesthesia so I see sound as visuals and it's almost. I fiddle with it until it makes a clear picture in my head and that's often bring all the details out and moving them to places where it's not clashing. I like being able to listen really deep into a track even if it's quite dense. So you can listen and it feels dense; or you can pinpoint everything. I quite like being able to do both those things.

GW: Let's rewind the clock slightly as we only have a few more questions. Can you tell us about how Julian Cope became your producer?

DW: He invited me down to have a jam and we did. Two days in he said, ‘so this solo album of yours is going alright.’ He already sorted out a label for it. He'd been telling me for a while I need to do less production and more playing. He's an amazing person with this incredible drive and is very inspiring.

GW: I admire him as an author, too. I loved hearing him doing a book reading at a festival recently. [Speaking to audience] The album is Spades & Hoes & Ploughs [David Wrench’s third studio album].

DW: I took old protest songs and elongated them. I was into black metal and folk music at the time. It's dark, slow, elongated, harsh protest songs.

GW: I'd like to finish speaking about audiobooks. It all started when you met a Goldsmiths student?

DW: We met at a party through a mutual friend of ours. She said 'you've got to meet!' And I thought nothing of it because whenever anyone tells me that I never usually get on with them. But then with this person I actually did. We just laughed a lot. Then I got a text from her the next day asking if she could come to the studio and hang out. I was just wiring it in but I agreed. I was busy and just gave her some headphones and showed her how to use a modular synth. After a bit, I had a listen in and thought ‘this sounds good!’ And I just joined in and we recorded it with a vocal and that was the track ‘Gothenburg’, which came out last year. Then, the next morning, she sent me a message saying she was on her way in and she turned up in her pajamas and we recorded another track. She just kept turning up and we kept making tracks really quickly. It was like, 'this is a project’. So I played it to Jeff from Heavenly and he said he'd put it out. And that was it really.

I didn't know if it was going to be any good live but then as soon we played the first gig it was like: 'Oh! She is amazing live! A real presence.

Listen: audiobooks' first track ever: 'Gothenburg'

GW: She doesn't necessarily come from a band background. She’s a writer, an artist. Not trying loads of different bands trying to be a front person.

No. Totally natural. She gets compared to Mark E Smith a lot and Björk. It's an otherworldly, detached energy.
..... Indeed, his enthusiasm for his bandmate Evangeline Ling is totally justified. Together, they’ve created one of the most exciting bands around at the moment and are a real gem in Wrench’s already staggering legacy in music.

In terms of future projects, the interview finishes up speaking about the fact he mostly only produces one artist at a time at the moment because he’s mostly mixing or doing audiobooks. A nosey last question about what he has coming up as a producer and he stays tight-lipped. He tells us he’s excited about the forthcoming electronic-based Marika Hackman record that he produced and that he’s very proud of it. The single out already sounds strong. But then so does everything Wrench seems to put his hands to at the moment. From the Greek in Bangor via Anskt Records, to the Mercury Prize winning mix engineer (four albums he worked on got nominations one year) he is today, Wrench has certainly achieved his goal of making music that is up there with the very best that’s ever been recorded – and all the whilst sticking to his guns and working with music he likes. Retracing this legendary musician turned engineer's footsteps is unquestionably a rewarding, infinitely inspiring avenue.

Photo: Press