Sound On Sound Magazine, 1994

by | Apr 1, 1994

 Chris Rea and engineer Stuart Epps talk to MARK CUNNINGHAM about the making of Espresso Logic, life at The Mill studios and their approach to recording Rea’s work.

The huge posters of Grand Prix scenes and model racing car ornaments displayed around the control room of Studio 2 at The Mill are a dead giveaway as to who is currently resident at this legendary rural Berkshire retreat. It was here that confirmed motor-racing fanatic Chris Rea recorded his first two albums — Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? and Deltics — in the late ’70s, with engineer Stuart Epps and producer (and former Mill owner) Gus Dudgeon.

Some 14 years later, Rea has not only returned to The Mill, booking Studio 2 for a whole year up to April of this year, but has also renewed his working relationship with Stuart Epps. The first publicly-heard fruit from Rea’s ongoing project is the latest album, Espresso Logic. He is now midway through recording a largely orchestral-type soundtrack for a film he is scripting about the Ferrari.

Workaholic Rea’s block booking of The Mill has given him so much space to record as and when he wishes that there was already another album’s worth of material completed before the November ’93 release of Espresso Logic. “I was planning to hand over another album to the record company before Christmas ’93, but Espresso Logic would probably still have been in the charts” he says.


Surprisingly, Rea had no initial plans to release Espresso Logic until his label, East West, saw pound signs after hearing a few completed tracks, as he told me: “It was never going to be an album. We finished the European tour in April last year, and we were told by the record company, ‘Banana Skin has been very successful, thank you very much, we don’t need to see you again for two years.’ But I didn’t like the idea of that at all, you know. It’s like being made redundant. So I started working on writing a film and during the course of that I was writing songs to go with it, because it’s something I do. It was only decided in July or August by East West, on hearing some of the tracks, that they’d put it out in the autumn. We already had over 30 complete 4- or 5-minute pieces, but they didn’t originally have a purpose. It wasn’t like I was getting up in the morning worrying that I hadn’t yet written a certain type of song for the album. So we had what we call the Eurovision Song Contest and awarded points for each number. That’s how we whittled them down to 10 tracks.”

Rea’s occasionally sweet, frequently burning slide guitar dominates throughout, but Espresso Logic is also notable for the return to Rea’s music of Davy Spillane’s evocative Uillean pipes, which played a major part on Rea’s 1987 album, Dancing With Strangers. Stuart Epps gave the engineer’s perspective of working with these classic sounds: “I was wary because I hadn’t recorded Uillean pipes before, but it was quite simple. I just rigged up a U87 about 6-8 inches above his head. It was recorded very quickly — and what a sound! Chris suggested I have everything ready for Davy so that all he had to do was walk in, play and be recorded. He told me that Davy would give it his all within the first couple of takes, so I had to be on my toes to capture that performance. He moves around quite a bit when he’s playing, so in a recording situation you hear some interesting, almost 3D, phasing.

“Chris would normally use his battered pink Strat (which he affectionately calls Pinky) for all the electric slide work. On some of the tracks, Chris simply DI’d into the desk via his effects pedal board, which mainly consists of Boss effects. For the slide sound he generally uses a little distortion and a small amount of delay. Alternatively, we have used two amplifier setups and miked them.”


Sure enough, lurking behind the control room door is the Rea gear — a Fender Pro Reverb combo and a rather old, beaten-up Fender Band Master head and cabinet. “We close-mic each cabinet with a Neumann U87 and also use two B&K ambience mics, about six feet overhead and away from them, to capture a little room ambience,” says Epps. “I’ve found that the DI sound of Chris’ slide isn’t a lot different to the miked-up version. We try to avoid drowning the guitars and other instruments in effects — it’s not to Chris’ taste at all. We rely solely on the limited use of the old faithful Quantec and an EMT echo plate — and that also goes for the drums.”


What were the early sessions like?

“What Chris normally did was to build up a track on his own, using the Linn, then a vocal and some guitars and keyboards, which were normally the Yamaha grand piano, Roland piano and Proteus [for strings]. For most of the tracks, we recorded several versions with different tempos or keys before he was happy. Then the band [Max Middleton, keyboards; Robert Ahwai, rhythm guitar; Martin Ditcham, drums; Sylvan Marc, bass] was brought in, either here at The Mill or at Outside Studios.”

Most of the vocals were recorded at The Mill. The only lead vocal done at Outside was on ‘Red’.

“That track was recorded more or less completely live, with Chris’ simultaneous live vocal,” says Epps. “On many occasions, after the basic drum and guitar tracks were recorded, Chris would say ‘Right, I’m just gonna bung down a vocal’. Nine times out of 10, that would remain the master vocal.

“We were very pleased with the vocal sound as well. Chris likes simplicity and refrains from using harmonisers, choosing to manually double-track vocals where necessary, and using only a Lexicon 480 and Roland Dimension D chorus. Chris always uses the same mic — a Neumann U47 — but he absolutely hates using a pop shield. He always says that he can’t bear the idea of singing through ladies’ underwear! Psychologically, I think it helps the performer if he can actually see the mic, but it can make the engineer’s job a little difficult.”


Shortly after ‘Julia’ was chosen as the trailer single to Espresso Logic, it was quickly realised that there were no new recordings available for the B-side or CD bonus tracks. As Rea insists on indefinitely shelving most tracks which never make it on to an album, there was no option but to record something very quickly. Rea’s story about the making of ‘Jordan 191’ is a testimony to his no-fuss impulsive streak:

“‘Jordan 191’ happened literally as a result of a phone call at about 3.10pm one day. I was asked ‘Have you done the B-side yet?’ ‘Er, no I haven’t!’ ‘Oh shit! 3.45pm is the deadline ’cause it’s being printed at the factory tomorrow.’ So I ask how long it’ll take to get the biker over, and he says that the biker’s on his way already. He’ll be here at 3.45! So ‘Jordan 191’ was literally created and recorded within 15 minutes. I said ‘For God’s sake Martin, grab a hold of those drums and give me something.’ I just picked up my guitar and went for it.”

“That was a quick session!” laughs Epps. “Chris tends to put things down fairly quickly anyway — he doesn’t hang around. He doesn’t spend weeks and weeks poring over each note and vocal inflection. It’s all about what he’s feeling at that precise time. On this occasion, though, he just worked even quicker and we had all the machines ready for a quick take, mixing as we went along.

Stuart Epps: “Good records are not necessarily about spot-on timing, state-of-the-art technology and all the rest. Those elements are not responsible for creating a mood.”

“Chris’ B-sides have a very interesting bareness and honesty about them which a lot of people like,” says Epps. “They remind me of the demos that he used to play to me when we were working on his early albums. He used to record every instrument himself, including real drums, and they were great. When we’d go to record the master versions, they would obviously benefit from the better technology, arrangements and the best musicians around. But what they wouldn’t have was the atmosphere of Chris’ original demos. You can say that about a great many artists, I suppose, but it was more acute with Chris. I agree with him that good records are not necessarily about spot-on timing, state-of-the-art technology and all the rest. Those elements are not responsible for creating a mood. It’s in the delivery. Tempo fluctuations, for instance, can often add to the atmosphere. It’s the old school way of thinking, but for me it works. Personally, I think it was a good few years before Chris was able to prove to people what he was capable of as a recording artist and when he was ultimately given free rein to do what he wanted, it was good!”


One of the most interesting, or at least commercial, results from the recent Mill sessions has to be the Rea-penned ‘If I Were You’, a vocal collaboration with Elton John which appears on the rocket man’s Duets collection. It appears that Stuart Epps triggered the eventual format of this new album when he suggested to Elton’s management that Chris Rea might be an interesting vocal partner. Epps explains: “Being close to Elton and his manager, I was aware of the original plan for Elton to simply compile all his existing duet recordings for an album, such as the Kiki Dee and George Michael hits. There was some talk of him recording a couple of new songs and I mentioned that I’d been working with Chris and he might be up for it. His manager said ‘Why not ask Chris to write something?’. The day after I told Chris about all this, he came in with this great song and recorded an absolutely brilliant demo. Elton was knocked out and he came over to The Mill to record the track with Chris. I think that, because of the wonderful result, Elton was inspired to seek out other artists and it became an all-new album. Chris and I also worked on Elton’s only solo track, the misleadingly-titled ‘Duets For One’.”


The mixing didn’t always go as planned, as Epps reveals: “Something very strange happened at Outside. We’d done a mix and played it back the next day, and it started off OK, then began to speed up very gradually. Obviously, when the mix was happening, something must have slowed down the 2-track machine. If that had been the master mix and the only version, we would have been completely screwed. Fortunately, it had all been logged on to the computer and it was easy to recall. We never did find out how it happened.”

Over the years at The Mill, Epps has witnessed some outrageous examples of studio life, as befits the personae of many of the musical giants he has worked with. “There were some strange happenings during the period when Jimmy Page owned the studio.” [Page bought The Mill from Gus Dudgeon around 1979 and quickly turned it into a lucrative commercial business.] “I remember working with Paul Rodgers here. In the middle of one night, while we were asleep, Paul was woken by the sound of drums coming from Studio 2. He got up and investigated but there was no one there. Paul wasn’t the only person to experience this weirdness. Black crows were also seen flying, kamikaze-style, into windows, and I actually saw the remains of one bird all over the outside of Studio 2’s window one morning. Horrible! I suppose that may have had something to do with Jimmy’s reported dabblings in the occult. Nothing like that ever happened again after he sold up. Things are very pleasant these days and it’s an absolute pleasure to work here.”



The inspiration behind the album title originates from an afternoon spent in an Italian espresso bar, watching politicians on TV. “It was interesting to listen to their comments,” says Rea. “Because they had nothing in common with the dialogue of the folk in the bar. It had never looked to me as far apart as it did that day. Somebody had mentioned people’s logic and I just used poetic licence and said, well it’s espresso logic.”

Rea’s cinematic imagination almost got him carried away with an aborted album introduction. “We originally had a beginning that had a telephone conversation between computer experts, trying to fathom why all their computers had jammed. The only thing they had in common was their insides all smelled of coffee and someone had noticed the coffee was coming from within the computers. No one had actually spilled anything. But it all got a bit long winded and was almost becoming a film script. Then somebody heard the track without dialogue and said the slide guitar, piano, pipes and the Italian bit sounded so nice on its own, why not just leave it? The intro became too much for people to get a hold of. I tested it out on a couple of people I knew and it was about 14 or 15 plays before they understood the intertwining ideas. Bloody typical!”



Espresso Logic was recorded on 48-track analogue without Dolby (most unusual these days) and mixed down to half-inch tape with Dolby SR at Outside Studios. Amazingly, much of the equipment Rea is currently employing for his Mill project is identical to that used back in 1977, when he first came to the Mill to record Benny Santini and the international hit, ‘Fool (If You Think It’s Over)’.

Both Rea and Epps are perfectly happy with the results achieved with the old Studio 2 MCI desk. Epps says: “We’re even using the same 24-track tape machines. What’s interesting is that, for Chris’ music, his voice and the sounds he likes to get, this desk is ideally suited and is actually better to work with than SSL or the latest Neve console. There are obvious benefits in working with computerised desks, especially at the mixing stage. Chris likes to mix himself and he does like the automation that’s available either at Outside or the main studio here at The Mill. But this setup is ideal for recording. I think it’s important not to let technology rule you — just use what you need and no more.”



Epps’ musical career began in 1967 as a 15-year old office junior at Dick James Music. He quickly moved up the industry ladder to become Chief Engineer at DJM Studios, then later toured the USA with Elton John as personal assistant. Epps was involved from the start when Elton’s producer, Gus Dudgeon, built The Mill on the banks of the Thames, near Maidenhead. It was not long before Dudgeon asked Epps to become Chief Engineer, Studio Manager and Producer. “It was an incredibly exciting time. There was a lot of interest in Quad around that time and the studio was originally going to be a remix suite for Quad with an overdub booth. Back then, Studio 2 wasn’t even thought of — it was still the garage,” says Epps.

“Chris Rea’s second album, Deltics, was the first album I engineered completely on my own and I suppose my engineering career really took off from there.”

Some of Epps’ most noteworthy customers include Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Mick Fleetwood, George Michael, Bill Wyman, Cliff Richard, and the aforementioned Elton John.Published in SOS April 1994.