An exclusive interview with the UK EDM veteran
If you find yourself in the village of Read in Lancashire North West England, following the echoed thump of an 808—mind the plentiful sheep and cows—you’ll likely run into DJ Ian Bland at the end of the rainbow. He's been cranking out dance music professionally for over 29 years under monikers like Dream Frequency, Dancing Divaz, Quake, and currently Blandy. A true Renaissance man, he’s also run Maison Records since 2014 and is a self-professed “Uber Geek” when it comes to all things electronic music. We caught up with Blandy to discuss his creative process and how the Roland Cloud makes composing more convenient than ever.
What is your favorite opener for a record and why?
I love any record that has a distinct intro, be it chords, a riff or whatever, just something that is instantly recognizable after a few plays
Every record has a certain aesthetic, be its sonic makeup, or overall emotional tone. What are some of the first recording you heard and understood that the production was just as important as the songs themselves?
Listening to '80s music in my teens, I started to notice all the intricate production in music: the question and answer style of riffs, the arrangements. When I started to make my own music—I had the need for them to all be mixed well.
Do you have mechanisms or rituals that help facilitate your writing process?
It can vary. More often, it starts on the music front before adding any vocals. However, sometimes I’ll get a melody in my head (usually when falling asleep in bed) and have to rush to my phone to sing the idea.
Are you a perfectionist or do you consider errors opportunities?
I am a sonic perfectionist, but I do like some looseness in a track. I like some unquantized human feeling parts. So many producers I see want to robotically stiffen and tighten everything. Personally, I think it can cause things to sound too rigid and lacking in vibe.
Each recording session has its own identity via the location, material, people involved, etc. Do you have any sessions that stick out in your memory?
Having my studio based at home for much of my career, I’ve come to realize that location doesn’t matter for me. A creative mood for writing and working with the right people is much more important.
Do you believe in the healing properties of music?
100%. I think that quantum scientists are even vouching for that now!
When recording, do you prefer to track live to capture the energy of the group, or focus primarily on isolating the individual instruments and overdubs?
Both. Sometimes I’ll record live across a few minutes of track and then home in on certain sections with overdubs.
Have you ever worked with a hands-on producer who has restructured and reimagined your compositions? Was it difficult for you to compromise, or did the prospect excite you?
I’m my own producer but have collaborated with many DJs and artists over the years. Everyone has a different approach. In my early days, I’d always think, “Why are you doing it that way?” but now I love seeing how others work and learning from them.
If you picked five of your favorite songs, would you be able to identify the similarities, or would they all be wildly different?
They would all be able to stand up on their own and have unique qualities. None of them would be middle of the road, that’s for sure!
When you hear something for the first time, are you immediately drawn to the lyrics or the instrumentation? Do you believe your preference is something intrinsic?
I’m always drawn to music and chord changes first, then the lyrics, I love hearing a chord change or sound that actually gives you goosebumps and makes the hairs on your arm stand up.
Hearing a song from your past can trigger powerful emotions and nostalgia. What are your opinions about music and memory?
They are intrinsically linked. It probably stems from hearing our mother’s heartbeat in the womb; everything has a pulse and rhythm.
What was the first song or album you heard as a child that made you want to play music? Do you remember how you felt?
Replicas by Tubeway Army featuring Gary Numan. It truly sounded like nothing I had heard before and it made me fall in love with electronic music. Hearing that felt like I was listening to the future. It still sounds fresh for an album made in 1979.
You made an amazing video which focuses on Roland Cloud. Can you tell us a little about what Roland Cloud brings to your work?
Roland Cloud synths have a stunning range. I liken it to the return of a bunch of old friends!
What details are necessary when considering taking on a production client?
I ask myself whether I can improve the original or take it to a place, with remixing, that can improve the project and emphasize its strengths.
When choosing a project to jump into, do you cater to what you know to be your skillset, or do you seek to challenge yourself? Or both?
Both, though it is hard not to gravitate to your favorite styles when working solo. That’s why I love being a freelance producer! I get many clients who want different genres of music, so I’ll research that style, and what goes into making its production perfect. Knowledge is power.
How were you able to become a producer? And, is this your full-time job? If not, what else do you do to make a living?
I’ve been a professional artist and producer since 1990. I got my first break with, my now good friend and mentor, Nick Halkes at XL/Citybeat records when he signed Dream Frequency. We very nearly got signed to Madonna’s label Maverick in 1993 but it fell through at the last minute. Since then I’ve had successful hits and remixes with all of my projects. In the last 10 years I’ve also done freelance production for a ton of artists.
Has anyone or any one recording inspired you to want to become a producer?
Even after doing this for over 25 years, I look to legendary producers like Quincy Jones, Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, etc. There is still tons to learn from these guys.
If any, what are some "cheap" or "bad" production techniques to avoid? What are ones that receive too much attention or are used to great success despite their obvious flaws?
For me bad production starts with choosing bad sounds, especially in dance music. For instance, one of my pet peeves is hearing a track that is compromised by a weak sounding kick. It's something you just can’t teach people. It took me years to learn how to make a certain kickdrum or bass instrument sound good, let alone figuring out how a certain synth sound can be produced.
I usually hear cheap production from beginners using cheap PCs, cheap sound cards, and cheap plug ins. My advice is simple. It’s like cooking, if you buy good ingredients, you’re more likely to make something tasty! Lastly, producers spend far too much time looking at spectrum analyzers and not listening to what they are creating. Use your ears. It’s still all about the vibe.
What are your favorite pieces of gear?
At the moment, the new Roland TR-8S Drum machine which is so fluid for jamming. I owned an original JUNO-106 and I sent it to its grave playing raves for 25 years, so I bought the Roland JU-06 to replace it. I also love the JP-08 and a TB-03. I used to own the real TB-303, so these are my favs again.
How often does the studio itself become an instrument in your work? Do you prefer to work in or out of "the box?”
If I’m producing for a client, I rarely get the time to use my outboard gear so it’s all in the box. I save the outboard gear for my own productions usually and I just love getting hands-on.
Do you prefer "modern" recordings to "vintage" recordings and approaches to production?
I’ve embraced both and have seen all the changes since 1986. What we can do with production now is nothing short of miraculous! These days, it’s brilliant that I can dial up an SSL comp plug-in and go to an outboard synth and record mic emulations on vocals. That setup all costs under $5000. Back in the day my set up would have been 6x times that much.
Is there such a thing as too much automation in a project? What is off-limits to you as a producer and creator?
Nothing should be off-limits, but you can go so far down the production hole that you lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.
Are you, or were you ever, a traditional musician? If so, which instruments do you play?
I was self-taught and, to be honest, music lessons at school where tragically boring. The synth revolution and computer technology overhauled the concept of having to learn a single instrument or be in a band.
How does being a musician come into play with respect to your production likes, dislikes, and skillset?
I do find it hard to make minimal sounding house, as I love to hear melody in my own tracks.
What is your ideal production project? What kind of project or scenario would be your nightmare project?
My ideal project is one that has a clear direction but enough fluidity to be creative. My nightmare is working with people who know what they don’t like but can’t decide what they do like.
Which projects are you the proudest of and why?
My early projects with Dream Frequency and Dancing Divaz stand out as they are still regularly played and appreciated at old school raves 25 years later. However, I still have a burning desire to produce for the “now” and feel I have so much more music to give.
In which direction do you see the majority of music and production heading?
The depressing thing about music these days is its lack of value to most people. People will spend $20 on two nice coffees but won’t buy an album for $12 that will give them pleasure for years. I also see streaming services devaluing music considering what they pay out in royalties. There are still amazing artists making music in all genres. When I started though, it was 80% talent and 20% luck or who you knew. Now it’s completely the other way around which kind of sucks.
Tell us about your family and friends, their influence on your music, and the role they play in supporting you.
My parents have always been supportive and proud of my music—though I drove them mad making it at home. A lot of my friends have followed my career and have helped me on the road as well. Most importantly I have the most amazing wife who knows that musicians are a very self-indulgent breed. She has the patience of a saint.
Blandy offers freelance production services and tutoring on his website and is always busy in the studio producing for other artists. Reach out to him at : www.blandystudio.com.
Header Photo Monica Martini