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1st February 2015

Interview: Gordon Raphael

Alister Pearson talks with producer Gordon Raphael about turning down the chance to join Nirvana, producing for The Strokes, and veganism

Gordon Raphael is probably best known as the producer of The Strokes’ first two records, Is This It and Room on Fire. It is only when you search a little that you discover what a rewarding and extensive career he has had. Since a very young age Raphael has been immersed in music, whether it’s producing others’ work or being a member of his own band. He has travelled the world extensively, working with many a great artist along the way. Last year saw him work in Mexico and South America. He tells me he was frequently asked to go to music colleges and universities to lecture about his time in music. After the success of that, and a recommendation from a friend in Leeds, Raphael will embark on a brief tour of the UK in order to share more of his stories. I received the chance to interview him over the phone to discuss this and many other events in his life. I expect to have racked up an expensive phone-bill as he currently lives in Berlin, but his story telling, and relaxed and courteous attitude, made it worth it.

Although born in New York, Raphael grew up in Seattle at a time when grunge was at its peak in the city and, “anyone with long hair and a guitar could get a record deal!” I ask him what he remembers most about this time: He tells me about the time he was invited to be part of Nirvana in 1989. “I was in New York and I was told to go and see this band that had wanted me to join them on tour,” he revealed. The following day, he bumps into none other than Kurt Cobain on the street, who raised the invitation, “and I amazingly said no!” I ask him if he had any regrets about this, but without a moment’s deliberation he replies, “not one bit.”

Soon Raphael had moved across the country and was back in New York with his own small recording studio where he started recording as many artists as he could. It was during this time that he briefly worked with Ian Brown. “I got a phone call during lunch one day from a man called Ian who wanted to do some vocals with me,” he tells me. At first he was unaware it was the Ian Brown, but decided to go over in order to make a quick $25. It was only after hearing him sing that he exclaimed, “you’re Ian Brown from the Stone Roses!” to which the reply was: “My name is Ian Brown but the Stone Roses have broken up.”

I then decided to move the conversation forward to his time with The Strokes. In recent years the future of the band has been uncertain so I ask him what the band’s relationship was like at the beginning. He is full of praise and comments on them being “admirable” young people, and lauds their “communication, honesty and openness” with one another.

Raphael has recently revealed to NME that Pete Doherty had asked him to produce the first Libertines album when they were touring with The Strokes and The Vines. I ask whether these three, now indie icons, initially got along. “No” was the basic answer I got. “Albert (Hammond Jr) and Carl (Barat) perhaps came friends later on but I think for dangerous reasons [sic],” is the only affable aspect, he tells me, about the three bands touring together. He does, however, have regrets about not being able to produce The Libertines’ first record. In the most modest way he tells me he wished he could have worked with them and tightened up their sound. “They sound a little too drunk, a little too high, and I wish I could have changed that.”

Finally, we talked about the state of rock today. He is disturbed by Fat White Family although feels, “there is something there.” The uneasiness comes from the conflict between his veganism, and their continued association with decapitated pig heads. He hasn’t given up on the genre yet though. He recently purchased Julian Casablancas and The Voidz’s album, Tyranny, to add to his large collection of mostly 20th Century rock music. (The only other albums he owns from the 21st century are Up The Bracket, Is This It, Room on Fire, and 50 Cent’s The Massacre. The latter, he says, is one of the greatest production efforts he has ever listened to. Later this year, he will be working with Italy’s self-proclaimed best rock band, Ministri.

Raphael’s endeavour to work with as many artists across as many countries as possible is admirable and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. He next plans to work in Stockholm to tick another city off his increasingly long list of places he has worked. I finish by wishing him well for the future and recommending that he tries out Go Falafel when he visits Manchester at the end of the month.

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