Stephen Shannon: Strands and delivers
Stephen Shannon is a one-man tour de force in the music world - but, the producer explains to Ed Power, if he did not do his own projects, he'd go nuts
In a dimly lit room at the bottom of a nondescript suburban garden, the best-connected man in Irish alternative music is laughing coyly. "Oh, I've had some terrible fallings-out," says producer and composer Stephen Shannon. "But I can't tell you who with. Ha."
Swivelling in his chair, he lights a cigarette. "It might be where somebody is maybe too egotistical ... too opinionated in what they think they should sound like. More often that not, I've ended it, saying, 'Listen, it might be better if you work on this with someone else -- we're not seeing eye to eye'. There have been personality clashes as well. Anyone in an office will know there are people you meet who you don't like -- and who you end up having to work with eventually."
Who could he be referring to? It's difficult to narrow it down, as the affable Dubliner has recorded with, by our estimation, half the musicians in the capital. He recently oversaw one-woman synth-pop outfit Babybeef's excellent debut; in a few weeks, he'll be cutting a record with former Afro Celt Sound System leader Iarla Ó Lionáird. Other credits include Adrian Crowley's Long Distance Swimmer, as well as LPs by Crayonsmith, Groom, Carly Blackman and Damien Rice cellist Vyvienne Long. Is there anybody with whom he has not collaborated?
"Occasionally, there are people I'll say no to," he says. "I have to be a fan of the music. That's the bottom line. If I don't like it, there's no point in me working on it. I'll usually try to soften it by saying I'm busy. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings and I don't want to be egotistical. A few people I've turned down have gone on to have a degree of commercial success, so it's not as if they aren't doing anything right. It's simply that I'm not a good match for them."
It's a gloomy Saturday afternoon and Shannon, shortly to release his first solo LP under the Strands moniker, is bunkered down in the west Dublin recording studio he built a few years ago. The facility, which cost him more than ?60,000 to assemble, is a riot of quirky details. In the control room, miniature Japanese robots sit alongside a bust of C3PO and a purple ukulele. In the recording space proper is a vintage 70s keyboard and a vocal booth straight from the Starship Enterprise's transporter deck. Shannon's son Iarla and terrier Fred drift in and out, contributing to an atmosphere of slightly chaotic domesticity.
"If I was only recording bands and didn't have my own projects, I'd go nuts," says Shannon. "The burn-out rate in what I do is incredible. Anybody I knew doing it five, six years years ago ... they've all quit. They've all gone and done something else. The life of a studio engineer consists of going into the studio at 10am and leaving when you can no longer stand up ... at three, four, five in the morning.
"I did that for a few years and realised if I wanted to keep going and do the thing I loved so much, I had to start calling the shots. I'm starting at 9, 10am and I'm finishing at 7pm, no matter what. It doesn't matter if you're in the middle of the biggest take of your life ... I'm walking into my family."
A lovely, lissom piece of electro-pop, the Strands record took Shannon about six months to make. By his standards, it was virtually dashed off -- the last album he recorded with his group Halfset was a four-year slog, although, with the LP coming close to winning the Choice Music Prize, he considers it worth the effort. Unlike Halfset, the new project is 100 per cent his own work. This, he explains, was part of its appeal.
"From working on a soundtrack [his most recent was collaborating with Neil Jordan on the Colin Farrell mermaid fable Ondine] to doing an album, it has always been about throwing it out to the crowd," he says. "It is based on feedback. And sometimes that leads to compromises. That was frustrating for me. I wanted to start something at the beginning and see it all the way through without any feedback from anyone. It's an unusual way for me to work and I'm very proud of the result."
In his 30s, Shannon has been around a while and thinks Irish music is healthier than ever before. He is particularly excited about the Popical Island collective -- a loose affiliation of twee indie-pop bands -- and by newcomers such as Adebisi Shank and Thread Pulls. Still, he is under no illusions that there's quite a way to go before Dublin has a vibrant scene to rival similar-sized cities elsewhere in the world.
"I still find a lot of Dublin bands are very bitchy about each other," he sighs. "I suppose they are competitive in a way. I've lived in other places and you don't see that. You see people supporting each other."
Shannon likes to think of himself as a pretty mellow character and it's true that not a lot riles him. That said, he is passionately opposed to the vogue for bands -- usually successful outfits with big live followings -- posting their albums gratis on the internet. Piracy is here to stay he says -- but that's no reason for musicians to devalue their work.
"There are bands doing it now like Radiohead," he says. "Just because people aren't willing to pay for music doesn't mean you should give it away for nothing. It loses some of its value if you are saying, 'Here is my album, I hope you like it -- everyone download it and take it'. I think a lot less people will download it if they think they will get it for nothing. People are stealing music. Okay, they don't think of it as stealing. The point is, they kind of cherish it a bit more if they pay for it. If I never sold a record, I still wouldn't give it away for free."
Ask Shannon about his favourite collaborators and he reels off a stream of names in a heartbeat, including Carly Blackman -- "she has an incredibly voice; she's very confident"; and Vyvienne Long -- "she is the best arranger I've met in my whole life; she's amazing" -- but of all the projects he's worked on, you sense the one he's proudest of is Adrian Crowley's 2007 album Long Distance Swimmer.
"We invited all and sundry -- all the musicians we respected. It was like, 'Come out, stay here, eat, play music'. At any given time, there were five or six people around. It was an amazing experience. You could tell something special was going on."
Strands' self-titled debut album is released next Friday. The band play Crawdaddy, Dublin, the same night