Interview: Henry Binns
We get to know the English producer, remixer, engineer, songwriter and musician behind ambient electronic duos Zero 7 and Equador
Producer-musician Henry Binns emerged as one half of downtempo act Zero 7, with long-term studio buddy Sam Hardaker. The pair forged a popular brand of soothing electronica starting with the Mercury Prize-nominated album Simple Things in 2001, which featured a then little-known singer called Sia Furler. They followed up successfully in 2004 with When It Falls and 2006 with The Garden, with both albums making the Top 10.
Zero 7 continued to make music and collaborate with other artists, and it was in 2013 that Henry met singer-songwriter and The Voice runner-up Bo Bruce whilst working on tracks for her debut solo album. They hit it off as a writing duo and went on to get married and, two years later, the pair began writing and recording early versions of what would become their first album as Equador.
As the duo prepared to release a brand new EP in November, we had the pleasure of chatting with Henry and Bo, between shifts of parent duty. Here’s our conversation with the experienced writer-producer…
“Oh my God, these are all huge blasts from the past! I started as a tape op back in a studio called RAK along with Sam [Hardaker] and Nigel Godrich who produced Radiohead and is almost one of that band. Me and Sam just had a little programming suite under the stairs, that Mickie [Most, founder of RAK Studios] let us muck about it in downtime. Really, Nigel, me and Sam built the studio in Swiss Cottage where we were working in from then on, and that enabled us to stop being engineers and actually work on our own, and I think The Brand New Heavies was my first, sort of, programming project – it was first paid work. So I was basically there, facilitating Jan to write those songs. I was the guy getting the sounds up and getting him happy!
“It kind of grew from there, once I knew that I could make a living out of it, me and Sam had a go at doing stuff ourselves. We started by remixing, really, and I think we got lucky with a Radiohead remix and, of course, Nigel gave us a leg-up! Giles Peterson started playing it and it took off from there. Sam and I do feel slightly like we’re imposters in the musical world – we definitely come more from a producer background.”
How did you make the leap from an engineering, programming and remixing role to creating the first Zero 7 EP?
“Well, you’ve just made me think about it for the very first time! I suppose, in those days, because we were remixers it was all about the track, so we had these huge elaborate tracks that we’d work on for so long, then these singers would come in and try to write the topline, and they didn’t really know how to fit in! It was all a bit much, so we had to strip it all back. We were thinking, ‘What would be a nice bed for someone to sing on?’ and that was the modus operandi at that time, but as things grow and as you get older, you realise you can’t just rely on that. Sure enough, now me and Sam: I write the melody and he writes the lyrics, just because we had to.
Did you always have those distinct responsibilities or has that arrangement between you changed over the years?
“No, that’s happened over the years. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but he is the least musical and is always able to maintain an objective eye on things, because he’s coming at it as a DJ, whereas I’m always in it thinking, ‘Oh G-minor-seventh, is that right?’ Although that can be tricky for a duo, that is the way it works and it’s still like that. But now Sam is a bit different in that he really is invested in the lyrics and it’s important for him to get that right, and actually it’s made the songs better, I reckon.”
So you’re still working with Sam?
“Yes, we are. We’ve got something out at the moment, so it’s all hitting at once. It’s exciting times. A company has bought the Simple Things back catalogue and is repackaging it with a load of extra bits and bobs that we’ve trawled through and found – keeping the original artwork but adapting it slightly. And we have a new single which is separate from that, but obviously off the back of it. The singer’s a mate of mine called Tito who’s going under the name of Hidden.”
Take us back to that album and Zero 7 as a band at that time. How did you meet Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Mozez?
“I mean, it’s never been an aspiration of ours to think, ‘Oh my God, I’d love da-da-da on this track,’ it’s kind of ended up being people that have fallen into our laps somehow. I can’t honestly remember how we met Mozez, but we did loads of little things together, so it was an obvious thing to say, ‘Can you try and do a track with us?’ Then, I think Sophie was the same. We’re West Londoners so she was doing a few gigs around that time and I remember we just went to a couple of gigs and thought she’s got a really nice voice, so why not give it a whirl. Sia was different though. I think we had the majority of the material done and we knew we were missing something, especially on Destiny, and she came in at the last minute and did it. We had so many singers who had a go on that track, and Sia came in and did it with very little difficulty indeed. Sia’s a bit like that, actually, she’s unique in the sense that you either got it in one take or you’ll never get it! She’ll never labour on a melody or a lyric.”
Have you kept in touch with Sia?
“I’ve popped her a couple of emails and we thought why not? We’re going to try and get something going. It would be a nice full circle, wouldn’t it? The thing about Sia now is she’s so unbelievably busy, but I’m still one of the people who will get an email back from her, eventually!”
What’s your memory of recording them on Simple Things?
“We ended up doing two tracks with [Mozez] which was fantastic – he’s got such an amazing voice, especially live. Sia’s voice was amazing, and then the antidote to it was Sophie who was very calm and folky. It just played through really well, that album. I think with a lot of singers, with the whole LP, you get kind of fatigue after a while. But with ^Simple Things, especially the instrumentals, it was one that could really play through from beginning to end, and I’m proud of that.”
How did you develop songs? Were they fully fledged before any singers came in, or did you work more as a team in the studio?
“I think, with me and Sam the songwriting as Binns/Hardaker came in in earnest when Jose Gonzales came along. We decided we were going to write songs for him, which we’d never done before. So that was kind of how that happened, and now it just happens as a matter of course. Before that, we were very much reliant on people to come in to do the elusive topline.”
Were you always writing in the studio? And is that still the case, even though you’re out in the country now.
“Yeah, I mean I’ve got studios everywhere! We’ve still got the one in Swiss Cottage which is great. We moved away from that briefly and, if I remember correctly, the music got worse so we went back! With me and Sam, the more options we’ve got the worse it gets! So nothing really much has changed in that world, hilariously, for a good 25 years!
Is there an ideal way for you to start building a song?
“I’m a piano player so it’s always going to be on either on the Rhodes or on the piano. Then I’ll try to get a little melody going over that. Or sometimes it’ll be a sample from a record (which we’ll never ever own up to, of course!) and that can kick start a whole bed of sounds. It’s rarely beat-driven, I’ve noticed. Me and Sam find that the rhythm section of a tune is actually the hardest bit.”
Thinking back to the period around the time you started working with Bo, what do you remember?
“I mean, I’m a songwriter so I get thrown in with lots of people. Bo was off The Voice and looking for people, so I guess I was one of many that she was working with at the time, but we hit it off really, really well – in so many ways! It sort of grew from there, and after we’d done the album it went Top 10, it was all good, but we just thought we needed to try and find something where we can really come together and find a mutual, musical line. It’s something we still knock heads about today; we do have very different tastes, which I think is what makes Equador quite interesting.”
In what way?
“I mean, it’s quite a textural thing that’s different from what Bo was used to. This is a different discipline for her because I think her vocals on Equador are much more textural.”
Did you have a vision for how an album is going to sound before you start, such as the texture or atmosphere you want to create?
“No I don’t, but I’ve always thought perhaps I should do. Is it fortunate for me, or unfortunate, but it does always end up sounding a certain way? There’s always a common thread through it, and for me, and Sam, and Bo, it’s always about the song – it’s always trying to get the bloody song right! Once we’ve got that, then the style and production come relatively easy. One of my favourite songs on the Equador album is called Avalon and it’s not like a big song, it is a textural thing, but it still has to work. Everything has to come together: the production, the song, the lyrics, the sound of the thing… I do have to mention Jodi Milliner, a bass player I’ve been working with for ages, who was a co-producer with me on Equador and is a big part of that sound.”
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Equador’s Tribal War EP is out now on Pegdoll Records. Find out more at equadormusic.com