Producing Coldplay: An Interview with Markus Dravs

Music producer Markus Dravs has worked with many notable musical artists on several significant albums, among them: Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Brian Eno’s Nerve Net and Bjork’s Homogenic. Recently, he worked with Coldplay on their highly anticipated album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008).

Producer Markus Dravs.

Coldplay are one of the world’s most popular rock bands. Since coming together in 1998, they’ve sold 35 million albums. Their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002), was selected by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

For Viva la Vida, their fourth studio album, Coldplay looked to make a purposeful break with their past and a meaningful change in their sound — arguably one of the most recognised musical styles in the world. “We’re still obsessed with making songs that can be sung to the rafters,” says Coldplay front man Chris Martin on the band’s website. “We just wanted to present them differently.” As part of the difference-making team, Dravs was asked by the band to co-produce alongside Brian Eno and Rik Simpson.

In the spirit of express experimentation, Viva was recorded in various locations selected for their unique sonic qualities. We recently spoke with Dravs about his work, the album, and his choice of Logic Pro and Apogee Symphony as his go-to tools for producing, recording (in studio and on location) and mixing.

How did you first get involved with Viva la Vida?

MD: I had just returned from Canada, after working with Arcade Fire on Neon Bible, suitcases still packed, when Chris Martin called me and told me he had a conversation with Win Butler, who suggested, He’ll kick you into shape.” (Poetic for, “He will do his utmost in helping you to develop your artistic horizon.”)

After the initial discussions, did you, the band or Brian Eno have any particular preconceptions?

MD: We all agreed very early on the most important aspect in making this record should be the actual playing and performing. Songs should be developed in the room by the band playing and exploring various angles.

How would that affect the setting-up of a band?

MD: To be honest, we didn’t really concern ourselves too much with the technical side, and approached it more from the point of view: does everybody feel comfortable in their space? Is there good visual contact between the musicians? Is the environment inspiring? And great, great credit to the amazing Rik Simpson for working transparently around us.

Tell us about your production collaboration with Brian Eno; it’s been quite a few albums now. How do you guys keep from stepping on each other’s toes?

MD: We do enjoy a very open and direct approach to communication. So there is no real stepping on each other’s toes. We don’t necessarily agree on everything, and when we don’t, we normally continue working on a direction or idea till we’re both happy with it — which is a great way of raising the bar.

What was Rik Simpson’s role? Did he use Logic?

MD: Rik was (and continues to be) the engine room of the project, as well as a fantastic sounding board (which earned him a well deserved co-production credit). He’s constantly considering what the next step may be and preparing for it (together with his assistant Andy Ruggs), so we never missed recording an idea or spur-of-the-moment performance. The whole recording aspect felt quite effortless (thanks to Rik). It’s an incredible luxury, when you’re just free to play and get on with it, wherever you feel like it. And, yes, he does use Logic — Rik and I spoke about which software to use very early on and we decided Logic would serve our needs best.

Why Logic?

MD: Various reasons really. First, it’s important to me to be able to keep working on a project, whatever the surroundings or hardware available. Many times I would take a session and continue working on it while travelling somewhere. Second, I enjoy (as was the case on Viva La Vida) having a few smaller satellite stations set up so band members can experiment with ideas and bring them to the table while other things may be going on elsewhere. Finally, because I also enjoy working on different styles of music quite a bit, I try to introduce programmed aspects into band productions and acoustic instruments into a more electronic environment: Logic gives me the best of both worlds.

How did you divide your time between pre-production and actual recording?

MD: I don’t think we ever really separated our time in terms of pre-production, recording time and so forth. We focused more on our day-to-day rhythm. It was Brian actually who was (rightly so) adamant about consciously structuring our day and taking regular breaks. Starting the day with just playing for an hour — nothing that was considered for the album (although some of these ideas became part of the record). He’d try to continuously shake people’s comfort zone by asking them to play a different instrument, or take a different role.

It’s reported that you moved around during production.

MD: Yes, we changed locations a few times, ending up in churches, monasteries and even a recording studio at some point.

Was it a nightmare moving all the gear around?

MD: Not really. We took a Logic rig with some Apogee converters and a few of Rik Simpson’s bits of choice mics and outboard, and, as if by magic….

You mentioned churches. Why churches?

MD: I guess the building budgets for studios have been outdone a bit by the wealth of the Catholic Church (certainly in the past). They definitely knew how to design acoustic spaces back in the day (6th century onwards). I guess that’s why some of my favourite studios are converted churches. And it works the other way as well, given the number of times producers pray in studios.

Did you have any concerns about doing this?

MD: The main concern would be not to annoy the priest, or break anything while abseiling a couple of mics from the choir balcony.

Did recording Coldplay on location bring out something that wouldn’t have happened in the studio?

MD: I certainly think it added to the whole approach when trying to think outside the box, both for the band and the producers.

How long have you been working on Logic?

MD: A good 10 years now, after getting properly into it when working on Post and Homogenic by Bjork. It’s amazing to see how much the software has developed over the years, and now with Logic 8 and all its thrills, I really don’t need to reach for any other software.

What were some of the unique rewards and challenges of working with Coldplay?

MD: Coldplay are an extremely hard-working band. Despite their success over the years, they push themselves and want to be pushed as much as possible to continue to develop without getting trapped in a comfort zone. I find it very flattering for a band to ask me to kick their butts, and although we certainly had our “creative discussions” during the project, it was always clear that it’s to pursue the common goal, which is making a great record, even if it means banging our heads together and not taking the easy route or agreeing for the sake of it.