Better Together #1— Exploring Great Partnerships: Dani & Craig

The remote era: where many of us have spent the best part of a year confined to four walls, craving more interaction than Zoom can give. In a time where social media has made connecting so easy, yet many of us feeling even more disconnected, we wanted to create a series that celebrated togetherness.

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring partnerships in music. From relationships that span lifelong careers, to newfound friends of the digital age, we want to highlight stories that inspire collaboration.

Our first dream team is award-winning engineer Dani Bennett Spragg (Blanco White, Malena Zavala, The Amazons and Superego) alongside her mentor and boss, world-renowned mix engineer & producer Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, Portishead, The Horrors). I had the pleasure of having a (virtual) chat with them about their journey together so far. With only eighteen months of working together under their belt, there aren’t many “new” colleagues that can share anecdotes of Covid-19 and Mick Jagger as seamlessly as these two…

Dani Bennett Spragg (photographer credit: Phoebe Fox)
Craig Silvey (photographer credit: Rodrigo Guardiola)

shesaid.so: Talk us through how you met and began working together.

Dani: Around May 2019, I was working as the in-house engineer at a boutique studio in West-Hampstead, Hoxa HQ, and Craig came to the studio to work on a record for Baxter Dury. I had worked on Baxter’s previous record two years prior at the same studio, but knew that for this record Craig would be bringing in his own engineer and I would only be needed for the first few days to get them up and running, but Craig & I kind of barely met during that session.

Craig: We didn’t have much interaction other than Baxter had previously mentioned that there was this really great engineer, Dani, that I should be aware of. But you did build a really good connection with Max, my engineer at the time.

Dani: Even in those first few days, Max and I became quite good friends and stayed in touch. Fast forward about a month and Max mentioned that he was looking to make the leap into the freelance world after being with Craig for about three years, but was a little hesitant to give up all his work with Craig at once, so we discussed the idea of me picking up a few weeks here and there with Craig when Max had other work. Traditionally, the people that Craig usually takes on for this role are relatively early on in their career…

Craig: Not award winning engineers…

Dani: Yeah, so I guess the plan was never for me to take over from Max full time, but because of a number of unexpected changes at the time, it very quickly turned from “cover for Max every now & then” to “take over.”

Craig: I mean it also worked in the sense that you had a lot of experience as a recording engineer, I am primarily a mixer and producer, and you were looking to expand your knowledge and skills from a mixing perspective.

shesaid.so: For those of us that are not familiar, what are the roles of an engineer, producer & mix engineer, and how does this relationship generally work?

Dani: It’s quite a broad question but, in the case of Craig & I, we work in quite a traditional way. In the studio industry that has changed in a lot of ways, where a lot of roles no longer exist, we have a pretty traditional mixer/mix assistant relationship.

Craig: If we go back to The Beatles times, there would have been three or four different people in the studio at a time, all with different roles. Technology has meant a lot of people can work from home, and there are people that do my job now who do it from a laptop in the Caribbean, but I guess I’m more of a traditionalist in that sense.

If you don’t know the process of making a record, there’s essentially three stages: the recording stage; the mixing, which I guess is the equivalent of a film going to an editor; and the mastering. And the role of mixing has changed over the years. If we go back to the sixties, it was more of an afterthought, whereas now it is a continuous process. With a lot of artists now having the ability to record and produce themselves in their bedroom, now the role of a mixer can be a combination of a mixer and producer or be someone who is literally just making something sound good or someone who rearranges, adds additional production etc. In our world, as we sit in the middle of the record process, there’s a lot of logistics to think about.

Dani: A lot of my job is putting things into a “Craig” format when we get sent files from a band or producer; sorting things in a way that I know when Craig opens the session, it makes total sense to him, in a way that he’s been seeing files for, I don’t know, 20 years…

Craig: I’m not that old!

Dani: I essentially prep the material so that Craig can start his process exactly as I know he likes to. After the first few months of working with someone this consistently, you start to learn their methods, so a lot of the time I can anticipate what Craig is going to want to do with a mix and prep everything in a way that enables him to do so without having to think about it.

Craig: In my experiences with people who have done this job before, there’s always an initial period of learning how I work. But now, 18 months down the line with Dani, it’s a lot more collaborative; I’ve got someone I can come to when I’m stuck creatively and ask what she thinks is going to be the right move.

Dani: I definitely appreciate Craig’s inclusiveness. Like Craig has just mentioned, our relationship is collaborative and I don’t feel like it took long for that stuff to start happening.

Craig: When I started out, the way you learned in this industry was having knowledge passed down. One of my mentors was a top engineer in the seventies, and I learned a lot that way. It’s a creative art that I want to continue passing down, and not to be lost. Technology again has allowed a lot of people to teach themselves programs like GarageBand, and it’s really refreshing, but I do think there’s something to be said for the interaction between people. My mentor had worked with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and these big rock names and, I’d play him Public Enemy and he’s like “that’s horrible, listen to the distortion on that,” and I’m like “that’s the point.” I’m now a hybrid of Fleetwood Mac & Public Enemy — Dani will continue to add to that, and pass knowledge down and that’s how art develops.

Dani: I think I do take a certain amount of pleasure in knowing that the people that do things as we do are maybe few and far between now. Plenty more people are coming into the industry now as self-taught bedroom producers, and I guess it’s rare to be in the position that I’m in. I agree with Craig, I don’t want this way of learning, and creating, to become a lost art form.

The past year has been challenging for a lot of us, with the majority of your working relationship in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, what impact has your relationship had for you on a personal & professional level?

Dani: 11 out of 15 months has been during the pandemic and I think at the very least it will mean that this relationship and this job will have a special place in my heart. Especially as 95% of the time it’s just been us in the studio, we’ve gotten to know each other really well, even more so than I guess if it were under more normal circumstances. The only other person I’ve seen in the past year is my boyfriend. I feel really lucky because perhaps if I was still working as an in-house engineer in a commercial studio like Hoxa, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain working throughout the pandemic, let alone actually had any work to do.

shesaid.so: What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on together?

Craig: We did The Rolling Stones.

shesaid.so: That’s a big name to drop!

Dani: Yeah, it was actually the last project we worked on before the pandemic. We packed up the studio very last minute into a van and went to Paris to spend a week mixing with Mick [Jagger].

Craig: It was the first time for me that I was, not exactly star struck, but relatively intimidated by an artist. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some pretty big names, but to work with The [Rolling] Stones was like “woah.” And, I mean, it was pure chaos. Everything ridiculous you could possibly imagine happened.

Dani: Yeah, I think with a project like that, you’d imagine it to be super organised, but it was so last minute. Although I guess we should probably explain what the project was though…

Craig: We had a bunch of offcuts from their record ‘Goats Head Soup.’

Dani: There were three tracks that hadn’t made the original release of the album, but were all recorded in the same sessions, and for the reissue of the record they wanted to mix these tracks that had never been finished, so they came to Craig. We were given all the original tape transfers and scans of tape boxes and all the notes from the session.

Craig: Being able to listen to Mick & Keith chatting in the outtakes, those moments felt really special.

Dani: So many Mick Jagger ad-libs and sounds that no other human can make!

Craig: It was fun!

shesaid.so: How important do you think building relationships is in the music industry? And could you share some advice on ‘networking’ and developing valuable relationships?

Dani: I think it’s the most important thing, by a mile. All of my work has come from making an impression on someone after a brief initial encounter.

Craig: The industry is like one massive tree: this person is connected to that person; and then that person knows this band; and that band gets a major record deal. You don’t ever know where your big break is going to come from. Those encounters are perhaps accidental but, your work gets noticed because you’re doing (or you hope you’re doing) a good job. My philosophy is always put 100% into whatever you’re doing, and try your best. It’s what I love about working with Dani, as I know she shares this mentality.

Dani: I feel like the two things I always say to anyone asking for advice is take every opportunity that comes your way, and give every opportunity your all. Especially in your first few years, say yes to everything. Even if you don’t think it’s completely up your street, you never know what you’re going to learn, who you’re going to meet and what relationships you are going to build as a result.

Dani Bennett Spragg — https://www.danibennettspragg.co.uk

@dani_rbs

Craig Silveyhttps://www.craig-silvey.com

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