Where do you start with a man who has already packed a fair chunk of music history into an ongoing career? Should we pour over his early engineering for The Clash or XTC, his key role in the major global chart-topping adventures of Boy George’s Culture Club, or the stories behind his relocation to the States to man the desk recording none other than the Beach Boys? Such a CV could cause a writer to wilt at the prospect of such an interview.
Thankfully, it’s much easier than feared when I meet Steve Levine, as we relax into a conversation about Ron and Russ Mael, who made up the duo Sparks. “I was interviewing Sparks and as a fan I’d done my research, but straightaway Ron Mael and I got talking about a particular synth sound. Immediately the tech camaraderie turned it into a lovely conversation,” remembers Steve, as we chat over a cuppa in the Baltic Triangle. It’s this inner tech geek trait that engineers and producers tend to share that is key to the skills he has developed over an almost forty-year career. Remarkably, it is producing and engineering that still drives Steve: it’s pushing buttons that still pushes his buttons, so to speak; the rest is just part of a fruitful past. Although a past that has been rewarded with a Brit and a Grammy can’t be overlooked, it’s the future he has his sights on.
We could get lost in tales of punk and New Romanticism, as well as bonafide ones of music legends, but there is more to come – and this is the intriguing aspect to the Steve Levine story, as he begins a new chapter in his life. Steve is relocating to Liverpool to open up a new studio next door to Unit 51 in the burgeoning Baltic Triangle. Regularly making the trek from London to Liverpool to tutor over recent years, he developed an affinity with the region and he speaks about this relationship with great enthusiasm. It is this relationship that has led him to becoming one of the judges at this year’s Liverpool Music Awards. A role he relishes. With over thirty years’ experience, he is an appropriate judge. “I have been recording my whole life. I left school at 17 on the Friday. On the Monday I was working as a tape op at CBS studios.”
This is where he cut his teeth: watching American producers in the seventies making their way around a studio. Adding this appetite for learning to his already technically schooled background, he found himself more than comfortable with the emergence of synthesizers and new technological developments that were transforming how songs were built in the studio, “You look at the end of glam rock – there was an absolute shift in music. Not only changes with the type of bands but a massive change in technologies, automated mixing, synthesizers. It was such an exciting time.”
Steve’s own style developed into less of a lab coat approach to engineering than a collaborative and involved level of producing. He was tech savvy in an age of revolutionary studio developments. Programming a Lindrum, for example, suddenly became a niche piece of knowledge in an era where acoustic drums were beginning to be mixed with pre-programmed samples. This was one of the many parts that made up Culture Club’s sound and one that he pinpointed as a way forward for them. From the success of Culture Club came the opportunity to produce The Beach Boys. “Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys was really good at encouraging me. He took me to California where I saw American studios, American equipment and an American way of doing things. The engineer was very much involved in production.”
When considering the autonomy that Brian Wilson and the rest of the band have had over production before and since, to produce The Beach Boys is a CV addition to behold. If you ever get the chance to hear Steve’s The Producers series for BBC 6Music – a must for the hardcore producer as well as the layperson – do not pass it up. It is clearly a project he enjoys, as he encourages listeners to “Play me the song you like then tell me what you like about it. Is it the tempo or is it panning or is it the signature guitar sound?” This is where Steve’s skills come into their own, as he can unravel the inner workings of a song’s production. In the age of easy-to-go-to plug-ins and recording programs, a band or artist may get lost along the way – and often do. Steve can achieve his desired results quicker than most, with the knowledge he has gained over such an extensive career and it is this level of understanding that continues to prove an ongoing asset in his work, something the bands he produces benefit from invaluably.
The quality of equipment with which he is kitting out his new studio is of expected awesomeness, and too long to list, but needless to say it is peppered with classic hardware as well as digital essentials. But it is the ambience of the space on which Steve is placing paramount importance: “Great performances come with good atmosphere in the studio. There is no point in having a good sound on the snare drum if the vibe isn’t there to get a good performance.”
“People get hung-up on devices and kit sometimes and what you should and should not use, but whatever it takes to get the right end results is key to it all.” In an era where engineering knowledge across many parts of industry in general is being lost, possibly forever, Steve Levine’s insight should be treasured and learned from in the audio field. He will prove a welcome addition to our city’s musical landscape, and what better prize for one of the bands at the Liverpool Music Awards than to go into his new studio and absorb some of his acumen first hand. I’ll certainly be popping in to pick up a tip or two. If it’s good enough for The Beach Boys…