Rodaidh McDonald has an amazing job. As manager of XL Recordings’ in-house studio, he has worked alongside a cast of musicians, including Bobby Womack, Adele, The Horrors, Gil Scott-Heron and Vampire Weekend. He helped a fledgling The xx fly the coop with their phenomenal debut, and last year saw him co-produce acclaimed records by Savages, Daughter and King Krule, who he brought into the XL fold in his capacity as an A&R man. This month, McDonald hooked up with Jamie xx and John Talabot for a DJ set at Primavera Festival in Barcelona. Tracking him down to a hotel bar the day after this rare public outing (“I have no experience DJing, I just put my head down and concentrate really hard,” he says of the experience), we spoke to the producer for an insight into his work at the UK indie powerhouse, The xx’s new album and just what the hell is going on with Jai Paul.
How did you get into the music industry?
Rodaidh McDonald: I was studying in Edinburgh, and I moved to London after I graduated. I started putting on parties and DJing. I rented a studio where I started bringing people in and producing music. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.
Did you have formal qualifications in production or sound engineering, then?
Rodaidh McDonald: I did sound design – that was my masters. And I went to art school before that.
What bands did you produce when you started out?
Rodaidh McDonald: I guess I just did a lot of stuff, I remember Richard (Russell, XL founder) had heard that I had a studio and brought me in for a chat about running the studio at XL which was in the building next door (to their offices in Notting Hill).
That all sounds very fast. What had Richard heard, exactly?
Rodaidh McDonald: I honestly don’t remember. The studio is something he’s very passionate about. It had been a parking space before that, like a garage, so he’d had it soundproofed... It had existed there as a sort of free for all. He talked very passionately about how without a studio he felt a label was just a marketing company. There’s a whole creative energy that runs through the office having that studio there, making records and putting them out there. And in that meeting, I kind of thought, ‘This is going really well,’ and then Richard said, ‘Well you know you should do A&R as well, that should be another part of your job, you should be bringing things in.’ I had no idea what A&Ring was at the time! I had no aspirations in that direction. But it’s a big part of my job now, like, King Krule I brought in, for example.
Did it feel like being chucked in at the deep end at all?
Rodaidh McDonald: No not at all, the first thing that we did was The xx record, apart from a few sessions here and there. So we really hit the ground running.
You said of The xx’s first record that 'if we'd known it was going to have this impact and if those expectations were put on us when we were recording, it would've ended up sounding completely different, and then it might not have been the album that everyone likes.' What did you mean by that? Do you think the temptation would’ve been to ‘punch up’ the sound a bit more, not have it so sparse?
Rodaidh McDonald: I think there’s some truth in that. It’s a record that we had a very clear vision of how it was gonna sound with. The demos were very sparse and minimal, and I guess you’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘Well that’s a great start, with some great ideas but let’s flesh this out a bit’, but when that happened (with previous producers) it got away from the magic of it. I met the band with the idea of making these demos the template for the whole sound. I’m right in the middle of working on their third record now, and it’s a completely different concept, just trying everything, trying to find new ways of working, new sounds...
"I did something with Jai Paul last week... whether he wants to put it out or not, I don’t know"
How’s work on the new xx record going? Are you recording in London?
Rodaidh McDonald: We’re doing it in Texas and Iceland, and maybe France. So that’s kind of starting in the middle of July, I’ve already spent a bit of time with them in Texas. There are songs which have come out of our experiences in New York and Texas that would never have come out in London; the colours and the ideas and the moods on some of these songs are just not things you would write in London. It’s about opening things up a bit more. They are a London band, but they’re also a band that’s spent a lot of time in different countries. So we’re trying to push that further with the Iceland trip, which is happening in July.
You mentioned when we met that you’d had a busy past few weeks, what have you been up to?
Rodaidh McDonald: Apart from the xx album, I’m producing the Sampha record, which we’ve just started, we’ve got ten brand new songs there which I’m incredibly excited to be working on. And I’m working with this girl called Denai Moore — when I heard her demos I cleared my diary, so I’m in the middle of that just now.
You also co-produced King Krule’s album, which had quite a loose, low-key feel that suited it quite nicely. It didn’t feel like an attempt to go after a ‘definitive’ debut, if you see what I mean?
Rodaidh McDonald: That record was... (Archy Marshall and I) had been recording (for a while), but I guess Archy was a little bit hesitant about the idea of making an album. And so we came up with the concept of structuring an album based on some of his older songs, kind of writing a story around those songs. Around the time I met him his management had bought him a laptop so he could work on his ideas, and that really opened up a whole new world for him, he could start working on beats and develop a sound away from his guitar and vocals. A lot of the song sketches he’d play me, it was very different from the other things in the sense that you couldn’t sit down and play them on guitar. It would be, like, a beatless track with maybe a verse or a hook or something, and it would be a case of sitting down with Archy and saying ‘well maybe that hook goes there, and maybe that section can be repeated,’ so you’d move things around and then get him to write another verse. 'Easy Easy' on the other hand, I saw a video of him playing that at the end of a set in Poland, I loved it and asked him about it and he said he didn’t want to record it for the album.
Wasn’t 'Easy Easy' an older song of his?
Rodaidh McDonald: Yeah it was one of the first things he did, it’s much more straightforward than a lot of the stuff on the record. But he really didn’t want to do it, and then one day in the studio I said, ‘Look, just for fun, let’s just record it,' and he did it, and I just made sure that I made it sound really good so that when he came in and I pressed play he would love it. And he did! Another reason he came round to it was we played a bunch of songs to Frank Ocean and he really liked that song.
Jai Paul is a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? Have you worked much with that guy?
Rodaidh McDonald: I did something with him last week, some vocal production on a new song. We finished it, whether he wants to put it out or not I don’t know. It’s just a very long process for him I guess, he’s been working on (his album) for years. One of the things that I sort of identified was that he might benefit from some help using vocals. But his music sounds so good, he doesn’t need any help, I think he’s perfect.
Do you feel like you have a recognisable style as a producer?
Rodaidh McDonald: I definitely feel there is a style and consistency, but it’s really in the details rather than in, like, a drum sound that I use. It’s more the way that I arrange music and the way things are balanced. I like loud vocals, I don’t like things to sound too far away, I don’t like things to be too cluttered. I really don’t know, it’s more of an intuitive thing.