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Billy Lunn
Billy Lunn
Billy Lunn
Billy Lunn

Billy Lunn

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Billy Lunn
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The Subways

Billy Lunn is a founder member and the frontman of UK rock band The Subways. The band are currently at work on new material and have a tour planned in 2021 to mark the anniversary of their hit 2005 debut ‘Young For Eternity’. The guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer also works with his wife, Rowena Alice, on the recording of her ‘Riot Diet Show’ for Boogaloo Radio. He relies on his Aston Spirit mic for both projects. In our exclusive interview Billy opens up about his musical beginnings, his battle against addictions and how conquering them helped inform his uniquely philosophical approach to the creative process…

The Subways
Billy uses
Spirit
Halo
Love, passion and pain

“It was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, that made me realise music was more than just a series of sounds through time and that it tapped into something a bit deeper. Since that point, music has been not just a soundtrack to my life but a defining point. I didn’t realise then what love might be, apart from friendship or unconditional family love, but I swear that song made me want to fall in love with somebody.

 

Since then I’ve been obsessed what music can do. I must have been about 9 (because I ended up getting my first girlfriend at about 10!). Then I fell in love with Blur and Oasis and eventually AC/DC, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Blondie and David Bowie. But ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ just resonated with me and now, every time I play it, I have to tell the people around me to be quiet because I need to experience it all over again.

 

For me Motown and R&B has its truth in the margins of society. Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were writing songs that went global. There were white people who were oppressing people of colour, especially in the mid to late 60s, and as people of colour started coming forward and demanding equal rights, people were willing to listen to the stories they were producing in their recording studios, but they weren’t willing to give them that place in society they deserved. R&B has appeal to society beyond its own demographic. Those really intense 2-3 minute songs about devoted feelings of love, passion and pain, have at their core a real social allegory.”

A ratty acoustic guitar

“After falling in love with music, I heard Supersonic by Oasis - the drum kit and the guitar strap scratching and then the arpeggio - I thought “Oh my god, this is both incredibly emotive and sonically powerful”. The attack that goes on in those first 14/15 seconds was just a real punch in the face and that was to do with Owen Morris’s mixing; the brick wall effect of pushing everything into the red. Then Liam Gallagher sang ‘I need to be myself, I can’t be no one else’ and all of a sudden I couldn’t just appreciate music anymore, I had to be part of it, contribute to it. I told my mum I had to learn to play the guitar and learn to sing.

 

The next thing I knew, dad came home with an acoustic guitar. My nan’s lodger fled without paying her the rent but he left a ratty acoustic guitar with 3 strings on it. I have a hazy memory of my dad strumming on the stairs, he knew a few chords. He was talented but he never learnt to read or write until he was 23 and had no qualifications. He had a natural affinity for picking things up but then he’d stop - he didn’t believe he was worthy of doing it because he didn’t have an education.

 

Nan gave him the guitar, he cleaned it up, strung it for me, showed me where the E major chord was and told me go away learn hto play. I did, I taught myself, and this was way before the internet. I would be watching Noel Gallagher on telly playing G and I’d think ‘Ah, I can learn that - great I’ve got 2 chords now!’ I started writing my own material. I remember playing my dad an idea and he said “That’s not a song.” It broke my heart but it also inspired me to go away and actually learn what is it that makes a song. I researched about structure and listened to all different kinds of music.”

Chaos

“If there was something I wanted to learn, I was emotionally invested in it. Music is something inherently emotive, it means something to us is because it evokes memories and creates a series of moods in us, through polyphonic emissions from the speakers and sound waves and all that kind of stuff, but there’s a way that it does it. There’s a narrative to it, like one sentence that follows another and becomes a paragraph, then eventually becomes a story, and there’s an art to that. We have these really abstract ways of expressing ourselves with a paint brush, a pen, on a computer or with a guitar, but it’s the purpose before that act of expression that gives it meaning.

 

It’s like this meeting of the full knowledge of all the things that have gone before. That moment of creation; a scale that you may have learnt when you were 14 or your first kiss or the break=up that pushed you into a depressive period, and that moment in the present, where all potential is open before you. It’s chaos, an abyss, and you have to pluck something out of it. That’s what is so brilliant about the art of song writing. It’s the confluence of all the stuff that I know and that I’ve played before. I’m feeling more comfortable about moving through the writing process when I don’t know what’s going to happen next. At the same time, that’s informed by the confidence of having all those years’ experience before me, all those years on tour, in rehearsal and recording studios, and all those years just chatting through music with [Subways] Josh and Charlotte. That’s what’s given me the confidence. For the first four records I didn’t quite trust myself and so I was very systematic about everything.”

 

Mythical creatures

“There’s always this feeling of reaching for love, or unrequited love, that permeates any song writing process. I wrote a song on our third record, Money and Celebrity, called ‘Popdeath’ which was inspired by the media storm that came out of Amy Winehouse dying. I looked at it with an ironic eye as if to say; “Oh wow, the media is all of a sudden really concerned about what was happening in Amy Winehouse’s life” when at the same time they were setting her up as this mythical creature and saying “She’s perishing, she’s falling apart”, but not really doing anything about it in terms of helping her. That happened with Kurt Cobain and to an extent with Pete Doherty too. Even in songs like that there’s still a little bit of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in there. I’m always working to a template harking back to that nostalgia.

 

I think as we move into these more modern times, and especially as we’re in this [Covid] crisis, it’s like a post-modern era where we are regurgitating things that have gone before -but we’ve kind of always done that. There’s this post romantic idea that we should be always seeking originality but I’m of the philosophy that no such thing exists. We are constantly moving through time, regurgitating what’s gone before but funnelling it through an arbitrary prism that makes it new, simply because it’s by someone it’s not been regurgitated by before.”

Death drive

“It’s probably inherited from my dad, but I’ve always had imposter syndrome. When we were first signed, my two best mates from Essex - we grew up together, fell in love with music and girls together - they were working in a box factory in Harlow whilst I was getting signed and touring the world and I felt inordinately guilty about that. I couldn’t quite come to terms with them doing a ‘real job’ while I was off gallivanting, living the dream. I’ve felt like I’ve stumbled through doors to places I didn’t deserve to be and I think in order to subdue that guilt I’ve intoxicated and numbed myself so that I can operate in society. I’m socially awkward as well and that’s why I gabber on all the time. I will not shut up at all, it’s such a problem with me!

 

I’m definitely a depressive, I’ve definitely got autistic traits. My brother Josh, the drummer in the band, has been diagnosed as Asperger’s. I’ve gone through therapy and I’ve attempted diagnosis but no one has been able to say I’ve got ADHD, or bi-polar or borderline personality disorder, they just tell me I’m a mash of all of those things because I’ll fit maybe 3 of the 7 - but all I know is that I’m not quite right.

 

Alcohol and drug dependency was a way for me to find routine, a means to get through life without feeling too bad about anything, but only because it makes you not care anymore. It reached a point where I was seeking destruction, looking for the abyss, the death drive was in full force with me.”

The excitement of the unknown

“When I got sober and I suddenly had to confront all the reasons why I indulged that death drive, I realised that actually all the things that I thought were bad about me were actually potentially really good qualities. Like wanting to sit and reason about meaning, about process, and to ask the awkward questions about myself, about everyone else and things like art. I convinced myself that my interest in art, the esoteric aspects of philosophy or modes of expression, are not bad, they’re not pretentious, they’re just my interests, that’s just what drives me. I just have to find the correct ways of indulging that inclination.

 

After I came to terms with all the things that drove me to become an addict, I found that I had it within me to be able to create and express and pursue the unknown, in tandem with wanting to be able to understand why I’m doing it. The two things don’t have to exclude themselves.

 

I think I’ve reached a point where knowing about how something works doesn’t mean it detracts from the excitement of the unknown, the potential is infinite. Because you know about recording methods, about what it takes to write a song, or structure a song, from all these channels into a stereo recording, that doesn’t mean that the stuff that that precedes it isn’t still this cornucopia of the inexpressible. The universe is full of mystery, human existence is full of mystery, so being able to try and experience that through the medium of music is an ever-changing, ever-progressing, ever-more beautiful way to try and understand it.”

Industrial coldness

“I was thinking about analogue recording the other day because I’ve been looking a lot at Steve Albini videos and going on his electric audio forum. You can hear the crispy richness of an analogue recording because it’s being pushed in a way you can’t really push a digital recording, it warms the sound a little bit and it resonates in this weird, beautiful way. I think a lot of it has to do with economy; the reason I’m digital and not analogue is to do with saving time and money.

 

I video or record everything I do on the iphone my wife got for me. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever owned. It’s always attached to my desk so if I’ve pulled out my JD800 and there’s a little note sequence that I know I would forget, I don’t need to stop playing to notate it. It’s changed everything!

 

At the moment I’m using analogue synths and repurposing the sounds that may have appeared in the mid 80s but within a modern rock context, so you still get the sparkle, mystique and industrial coldness that you might have got from those synth records, but within a context of a rock ballad. At the same time it’s running through a 500 series module that itself is based on a Neve console; it might not have the primary richness that, say, running through a channel strip on a Neve desk in the 60s might have had, but it’s still got a richness simply because of the chain of old and new in confluence. Like with Mark Ronson [Back to Black co-producer] there was this ringing classical ‘oldness’, this echo of the past derived from Amy Winehouse’s love of soul music. The chord sequences, the elongated articulations, the shape of sound that would come from her chest and her throat, and with the brass sections that in any other context might have been really cheesy; because they’re mixed up in tandem with her vocals and really modern sounding drums, it stood for itself and had something new about it.”

Damage control

“For guitar, I usually run a Redbox DI into one channel. I have a condenser mic, the Aston Spirit, which I’ve been using on my cab and then I have a cardioid, and another condenser mic set back about 3ft from the cab and that’s my guitar set-up. I’ve got the Spirit right up close to the cab and I’ll run that through an ART Pro MPA II & VLA II which is a nice preamp compressor chain. I’d only really ever demoed before I recorded our fourth album. I was in the throes of alcoholism then. I wrote half the album whilst I was at the very worst point and the other half just as I was beginning my recovery so I was just piling everything together as best as I possibly could and bouncing down to a stereo channel. It sounds really punk and it’s great, but I listen back to it and there’s no real depth to the sounds. For this album I’ve wanted to pick out the finer points of a performance whereas on the fourth album it would really be ‘just pile on the distortion’. Now there’s some clarity there - you can hear the note.

 

Now I’m confident enough in my knowledge of structure, pitch, lyric writing and orchestration I’d be able to create an ensemble piece and indulge in some free-form activity in the song writing process. If it works, amazing, if it doesn’t it’s not a big deal.

 

On the fourth album (The Subways), I was just trying to do damage control and now because I’ve got the Spirit on the cab going through a preamp and a compressor, there are qualities I would have hidden before, I am unafraid to expose sounds like the guitar ‘doinggg’ - I will keep that in the mix.”

Punch in the face

“The Spirit is so versatile and for Charlotte’s vocal it sounds like it’s containing her voice and grounding it; giving it this firm foundation. I’ve always found it really hard to find a place for her vocals in the mix, but now with the Spirit I feel like I can apportion it a place in the speaker. Her backing vocals on this album are monumentally beautiful, her voice is so beautiful and elevating the songs way beyond what I thought them capable of.

 

My vocals have always felt far too ‘punch in the face’. I’ve always been so uncomfortable with the fact that I can’t quite provide a ceiling for the powerful, gritty parts of my vocals and I’ve never really even been able to provide a foundation point for the softer, more languid parts but I think the Spirit has made it transparent for me so it’s not unwieldy, it’s not too driven and it’s not too powerful and not too unpalatable. At the same time. when I pull back, it’s almost like I’m talking through it, that’s how it feels. I run Charlottes’ vocals through a Universal Audio preamp and I run myself through the Neve 88RLB because I want to be able to colour and distinguish each vocal in the mix. It’s been lovely absolutely lovely. The Spirit is probably my favourite thing in the studio and it also looks beautiful, I’ve always got it out because it looks so beautiful, it’s always on show.

 

I actually have an Aston microphone set up right now because my wife and I have been using it to record her Riot Diet Show. She plays 2 hours of new music every week featuring new releases by women in music. Ro’s voice works really well with the Spirit so I’ve been using that for her voice on the podcasts as well as for Charlotte’s vocals and for my guitar cabs for the new album. So, we’re not just using it for the new album, it’s multi-purpose for me at the moment in the studio.”

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