When The Subways frontman and songwriter, Billy Lunn, took the decision to produce the band’s fourth album, 2015’s The Subways, he did so with an enviable wealth of experience at his disposal and a trio of invaluable contacts at his fingertips. The power pop three-piece’s preceding records – Young For Eternity (2005), All Or Nothing (2008) and Money And Celebrity (2011) – were produced by a line-up of esteemed studio icons, in the form of Ian Broudie, Butch Vig and Stephen Street, respectively. For an ambitious, knowledge-thirsty talent like Lunn, each of these records provided fertile ground from which to absorb the vast and varied expertise of his production mentors.
“The fourth album was a total labour of love,” Lunn says as he warmly welcomes Headliner into his Hertfordshire studio. “I remember holding the vinyl for the first time. We were doing a live session at XFM in London and our manager decided to film us unwrapping the vinyl and I just burst into tears. I wrote and recorded everything on the album, and I was so overjoyed at finishing it.” Upon commencing work on the band’s fourth album as singer, songwriter, guitarist and now producer, Lunn soon discovered that the biggest learning curve he faced was that of differentiating his role as producer from his other duties as The Subways’ creative engine. “The one major thing I learned was knowing when to stop,” he says. “As a songwriter it’s very easy to keep feeding ideas into a song and developing it and working on phrasing, even as you’re recording. Usually, the producer will facilitate that process, because they can say ‘go with that, but we’ll also try the first idea and see what works best’. But I didn’t have the capacity to make a decision until that point. I’d always be the one coming up with ideas and being unable to let them go. As a safety measure for myself, I would step away from the mixing stage and have nothing to do with it. I remember sitting in the studio with Ian as he was mixing Young For Eternity and getting so worked up and stressed at listening to what would be the final version of the accumulated process of writing something, touring it in all its incarnations and then it being recorded and solidified. “So, when it came to All Or Nothing and mixing, I said to Butch [Vig] ‘this is nothing to do with you or your mixing skills, but I’m not going to be here, and I’d really like someone who wasn’t involved in the project to do it. When it came to the third album, I’d become more OK with the mixing process. I was the only one in the studio when Stephen Street was producing it and I was able to compartmentalise my ears and leave it up to Stephen. So, being the one doing the mixing and finalising everything, wasn’t an immediate thing that came to be. I went through a horrible couple of months of being unable to let these songs go. The songs would be ready to mix, I would work on a mix and end up getting really depressed and question my ability. That was a huge learning process, in that I had to learn not to be so hard on myself and that this should be an enjoyable process. If you get into a mindset of ‘I loving doing this’ then you come out with some great material, because you free yourself of a huge barrier.”
Crucial to Lunn’s development as a self-producing artist was the break he took between making album four and the upcoming fifth record. While many students are inclined to take a gap year before or after embarking on a university course, Lunn opted to take three gap years in which to attend Cambridge. Studying English Literature, his return to education offered a welcome rest from the rigours of the music industry and provided a chance to reset psychologically. “The process of this new album was about not living by the constraints I’d set for the first four albums,” he says. “It was to do with coming of age and reaching a point in life where I’m really content. We’ve lived in this whirlwind for 15 years, so writing this album was me just being and finding myself. And being content with that. That contributed to quite easily the best songs we’ve ever written, by far. I was able to step outside of this version of myself that I didn’t need to be anymore.” In setting the sonic blueprint for the upcoming fifth Subways record, Lunn reconnected with All Or Nothing producer Vig and his engineer Billy Bush, after recalling that his vocal chain during those sessions was identical to a certain Kurt Cobain’s during the making of their legendary 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind. Lunn picks up the story. “I took part in one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties, where you press play on the album and the band goes on Twitter and talks through the process. We did that for Young For Eternity and we were asked back on for All Or Nothing. Because it sounds so particular, I asked a few questions. I’m always messaging Billy Bush asking for advice, but I contacted Butch and said ‘I remember at one point you told me I had the same vocal chain as Kurt Cobain, I’ve forgotten what it is, can you let me know?’” So what precisely was the chain in question? “The mic was the Neumann U67, the pre and EQ was Neve 1073, and the compressor was the Urei 1176, and Billy said there’s also a TLA100. And he gave me the settings. I was like, I cannot believe we recorded this in 2007 and he remembered all that! So, I used the 1073 for my vocals - I had a 500 Series 1073 and it was one of my favourite things to use. And I also had an 88RLB in my 500 series rack. When I get into my new studio space I’m going to rebuild my setup but I’d like it to centre around the Neve 1073. I contacted Neve and said there’s a pandemic, I have cancelled gigs, no money, but I want to get some clients in and I need to finish our fifth album. Luckily, they had some units that were ex-demo, which were a 1073SPX and 8803 dual/stereo EQ unit. What I’m essentially doing from now on is getting as many 1073 units as I can possibly get. I’ve made an order for an 8801 channel strip. That’s essentially my future, going out and touring so I can rebuild this rack!” In June of this year, the band offered a taster of what’s to come in the form of raucous, politically charged punk rock banger Fight, while the sneak previews Headliner was given during our time with Lunn offered a glimpse of new, synth-driven pop aesthetic the likes of which the band has never previously revealed. At time of writing, a release date for the fifth Subways record is yet to be confirmed. But whenever it lands, based on what we’ve heard so far, it’ll certainly have been worth the wait.