Flood & PJ Harvey: Make England Shake

AT gets inside the head of iconic engineer/producer Flood to find out what it took to make PJ Harvey’s latest album a unique piece of art.


3 June 2011

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Flood’s first credit on a major release album – assistant engineer on New Order’s Movement, which makes it a good occasion to put his working methods under the microscope. The legendary producer has been called “one of the most successful and prolific producers of his generation,” and “enigmatic yet ubiquitous,” and this much is in evidence purely from looking at a list of just some of the acts he’s worked with: U2, Nick Cave, Erasure, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, The Charlatans, Smashing Pumpkins, Sinéad O’Connor, The Killers, Goldfrapp, Editors, and many others.

Flood has worked with a strikingly wide variety of genres and instruments, including New Wave, synthpop, postpunk, guitar rock, Britpop, synth-rock, blues, avant-garde, country, folk, and so on. The Briton is known for innovating and pushing artists in new directions and many of the albums he’s produced have been career-defining stylistic innovations for the acts involved.

Flood’s march through the studio and music industries began in 1978, when he was taken on as a runner at Battery Studios in London. Born Mark Ellis, he received the nickname Flood after the floods of tea he served during one particular late-night session. He continued his apprenticeship at Marcus Studios and then Trident Studios, before turning freelance as an engineer/producer in 1985. His involvement with U2 began soon afterwards, in 1987, when he engineered The Joshua Tree. He graduated to co-producing U2 on Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997).

Flood made his acquaintance with PJ Harvey in 1995, co-producing To Bring You My Love, her third album and international breakthrough. Since then Flood has co-produced three more for Harvey: Is This Desire? (1998), White Chalk (2006) and most recently Let England Shake, the startling album that’s the focus of this article. The story of its making illustrates much about what makes Flood a great producer.


Let England Shake is PJ Harvey’s meditation on the dark underbelly of the English nation: it’s penchant for death and destruction, particularly as exemplified in WW1. Harvey’s lyrics are stark, arresting, uncompromising – the music, by contrast, is melodic and graceful, almost upbeat, and rich in textures, with instruments like autoharp, trombone, xylophone, sax, zither, violin, and bass harmonica supplementing the more traditional electric guitars, drums, and keyboards.

All of this is framed in an unusual sound image. Whereas most rock-influenced music these days is obsessed with loudness, detailed definition, and enhanced low and high-end, Let England Shake has none of these qualities. Instead, the low and high end are muted (there’s hardly any bass guitar) and the sound image has a distant quality.


Let England Shake has received widespread praise from critics around the world, and has enjoyed the highest chart positions of any of her albums, reaching the top 10 in at least a dozen nations (No. 6 in Australia). 

All in all it appears Harvey, Flood, and the other participants in the making of Let England Shake have surpassed themselves. 

The English producer endured one and a half hours of intense questioning on the phone about the album’s development and was eager to paint as full an image of the recordings and production decisions as was possible. Speaking from his 140dB management office in London, Flood related: “Polly had actually done the demos for this album two years ago, but everything was put on hold while she and John Parish recorded their collaborative duo album, A Woman A Man Walked By [2009], which I mixed. I talked a lot with Polly about what eventually became Let England Shake, and she said that she wanted it to be just her, John, Mick Harvey and myself, and that she wanted to record it in an environment that she’d never used before.”

John Parish and Australian Mick Harvey are long-standing collaborators of Harvey, and both are multi-instrumentalists and producers – the former has also worked with Goldfrapp, Eels and Tracy Chapman, the latter is the founding member of The Bad Seeds with Nick Cave. While PJ Harvey had an instant vision of her core team, it took a little while before she hit on the perfect location for the recordings, which turned out to be, of course, in England.

“She went to Berlin and I think somewhere else as well, but nothing seemed to strike her, perhaps because all places she looked at were studios, even if fairly unconventional ones. Then one day she phoned me up and said that she’d found a church in Dorset [southwest England, near the small town of Bridport] that’s also an art centre, and that it had an absolutely amazing feel. She asked me to come down, and when I walked in I immediately thought, ‘this is perfect’.

“After that it was a matter of planning how we were going to do it. I enlisted the services of my good friend and engineer Rob Kirwan, and together we compiled a small studio that was easy to pack up and rebuild again around the weddings and funerals that were also booked in at that time. Rob and I arrived a couple of days before everyone else for the sessions, which took place over five weeks during April and May 2010. We set up a ProControl console and ProTools HD3 rig at the altar end of the church, right where the choir would sit, and put all the machinery in the vestry. We then picked four recording areas and put up as many microphones as we possibly could. Polly’s recording area ended up on stage, there was a drum area off to one side, a keyboard area, and a little bit further back down the church another area for drums, percussion and guitars. Then we started recording.”


PJ Harvey’s first instrument is guitar, but she has gone on to play a whole range of instruments, and she tends to apply them on her self-recorded and self-played four-track demos, which she uses as blueprints for her albums. In interviews – for example a lengthy piece in the Bridport News local newspaper – Harvey has explained that she had deliberately kept the demos for Let England Shake very simple, “mostly with one or two instruments with a voice,” to allow for input from Flood and the other musicians and a fairly improvisational approach to arranging and recording the songs. She remarked that the sessions were “very spontaneous, and that kept it very exciting so it was a wonderful atmosphere in which to work. It was very fast, very exciting because each new song was bursting up. Everybody felt they had freedom to contribute and bring their own ideas and we were all firing off of each other.”

This was seconded by Flood, who recalled, “Polly’s demos tend to be very good sketchpads of her songs, but the major difference between working on this album and previous albums with her was that it was the first time Polly was completely open to any new ideas. That’s not to say that she wasn’t open in the past, but she used to adhere to her demos very strongly, to the degree that it became a little bit of a joke between us, as in: ‘oh the demo!’ This time she’d say, ‘no no no, I don’t want the demo’. Ironically, there were a couple of situations where John, Mick, and I actually preferred the demo, which of course resulted in fits of laughter from everybody. The other major thing we discussed about the album was that with the lyrics being so strong and powerful, it would be easy to create a sort of bombastic, gothic and very ‘down’ record. Polly didn’t want that. So we all made a strong effort to ensure the music was bright and alive.”


Flood mixed Let England Shake at Assault & Battery 1, a studio normally used by the legendary Alan Moulder. Flood and Moulder co-own Assault & Battery 1 and 2, with Flood more regularly using 2. The latter studio is called “the UK’s greatest tracking studio,” on the Miloco website (miloco.co.uk), and it sports a large 11x7m live room with an astonishing amount of keyboards, guitars, guitar amps and guitar pedals. However, with its large Neve VR60 and ProTools HD3 the studio can also be used for other purposes. Gorgeous as A&B 2 appears, the question is inevitable: in this day and age of tracking facilities closing everywhere and the only studios remaining being mixing suites and the one or two big studios that each country appear to have, why open a tracking facility? 

Flood: “Alan and I have been friends for God knows how many years and we always felt we didn’t want to open up our own studio. Then the downstairs room – A&B1 – came up for lease at a time when Alan was getting frustrated going around all sorts of places to mix and having to recalibrate his system every time. So we decided to go for it. Some time later studio 2 upstairs became available, and I had already come to the conclusion that the space I had at the time was costing me lots of money for what essentially had become a room to hold my equipment in. So I decided to move all my gear to A&B2. We tried to make sure that it’s not just a space with good quality mics and mic amps, but that it would also have a lot of instruments. Essentially we want it to be a place primarily for musicians, which seems to be against the grain of what many big studios are about.

“But the days of recording big albums in big studios are numbered, because the budgets aren’t there anymore. The things people cut back on are 1: producers, and 2: studios, because they cost money. So this year we’re looking at alternatives in terms of using the room. We’ve done a live concert here and recorded that, in order to see whether we get a better performance and recording, and we’re also trying to get unsigned bands to record here very cheaply in downtime and weekends, which is a great way to train people. We definitely don’t want the room to end up being some kind of big white elephant.”


Like PJ Harvey in the local Bridport newspaper exclusive, Flood described sessions that were remarkably easy-going and inspired, with little of the blood, sweat and tears that are the hallmark of the English ‘underbelly’ mentality and that often find their way into tortuous studio experiences as well. It meant that Flood’s role in this particular project was often reminiscent of his earliest position – making tea – and being a benign presence in the background. He remarked, “My role as a producer varies a lot depending on the project. If I’m working with a young band, I may be very directive. Some people need a lot of guiding, some people need motivating, some people just need a second opinion, but some people don’t need any of that. That’s one of my strengths I think – being adaptable to the situation. I’m most interested in keeping the emotions of a session on track, so that the music is a reflection of that, rather than just a technical exercise that anybody can do. Most definitely a lot of what I do is about people management, and to get people in the best possible creative space, where they feel safe enough to also make mistakes, and therewith try out new ideas. Sometimes this means creating a nice cosy atmosphere, sometimes it can be good if the atmosphere is a bit more moody and confrontational. Through all that, I feel –
I hope – that most of the music I work on has something extra.

“But there was no people management required with Polly’s album. That was one of the most amazing things about this record. It was more like four or five friends coming together, sitting down and being so relaxed in each other’s company that it was inspirational, rather than too comfortable. There were no ego-clashes; it was really just good fun. We worked on everything as a complete collective. Polly would be driving things a lot of the time, but as I said, she was very open to trying things in different ways. One of my roles was to keep track of the time: we had to record 15 songs in five five-day weeks, and make sure that we got everything done. But mostly this was often just a matter of sitting down and having a cup of tea and a relaxed chat about what we were going to do that day.”


“Many of the arrangement ideas came from John and Mick and everybody brought a large collection of instruments along, because all of us wanted to hear different things on the record that you normally wouldn’t hear. Polly was very much into the idea of brass from the beginning, even though there was no brass on her demos, and John brought down xylophones because he thought they might add an interesting texture. A lot of the times we’d record basic tracks with either John or Mick playing drums, Polly singing and playing autoharp or sometimes guitar. Whoever was left generally played a keyboard or additional guitar in support. Many of the vocals we recorded with these backing tracks ended up as the master vocal. Polly played the autoharp on most songs, which was simultaneously miked and run through a lot of her effects pedals – so it didn’t necessarily sound like an autoharp on every song. Jean-Marc [Butty] also came in for the third week to play drums, and for a few days right at the end for some backing vocal overdubs.

“Many arrangements stayed close to the demo, mainly because the songs were so well written the moment we started padding them out it took away from the song. In general we were taking things out so that there was more of a sense of atmosphere and of the personality of the place where we recorded. There was only a bass on a couple of songs, which definitely contributed to the shape of the record. Sometimes a bass can make an arrangement sound too rocky and too weighed down, but this was one of many decisions that was never consciously taken. It was simply a matter of every time we tried a bass, or maybe bass pedals, or the bass notes of the organ in the church, there was a feeling that it rooted things down too much and often that didn’t feel right. Normally you’d have lively conversations about this, but instead it was more like, ‘oh yeah, it’s like that, so let’s try something different’.”


Moving on to the subject of the gear with which Let England Shake was recorded, Flood elaborated: “the equipment was set up by a company called Tickle Music Hire, which is one of the last hire companies left in the UK. I talked with Rob about what we needed, and eventually we decided we wanted 24 inputs, maybe a little more, and that we were never going to need massive amounts of outboard. Having said that we did have requests for specific microphones and mic pres: Neve 1073s, 1086s, Focusrites, and so on – all the usual suspects.

“We found very quickly that the acoustics of the church were really good. You obviously worry about a space being very dead sounding, or metallic, or too ambient which generally means you can’t get any definition. But it seemed that pretty much every microphone that we put up didn’t need any EQ-ing. The space was so powerful that the exact nature of the mics and mic pres we were using was less important, though obviously we did spend some time finding the best pairings of mics with preamps.

“The drums were miked very sparingly, with only a few close mics and the overheads picking up the ambience. Initially we started tracking with a lot of ambient mics, but after a while we used only close mics because the ambient positions were tending to swamp the music. We eventually backed these off a little to give it a bit of air, and provide ambience that wasn’t out of control. Polly brought along her grandfather’s military bass drum and snare, which both had a peculiar sound that led us to testing ribbons, dynamics and condensers on the kit. We ended up using quite a few ribbon mics actually. I’ve sort of fallen back in love with them again recently.”

Flood is notoriously camera shy – this is as close to a portrait of him as we could get.


“On Polly’s voice we used a Shure Beta 58 and a Sigma Sontronics ribbon and a very old Neumann Gefell M7 capsule on the CMV563. Polly sang through all three, and we made a choice as to which one fitted each song. The feed from the 58 was split, with one signal going directly to us and the other going through three or four footpedals. The best example of that is the song Written On The Forehead, which has a vocal sound that’s generated entirely from the footpedal feed. In fact, many of the lead vocals on the album went through the pedal effects chain. Sometimes I would supplement that with the Sigma, because it had good warmth, body, and top end. The autoharp was recorded with an AKG 451 and also a 58 or a 57. It had a contact microphone that went through an amplifier and in fact most of the autoharp sound you hear on the album is from the amplifier.

“Particularly when Polly was also playing autoharp, recording her voice was quite tricky, because she moves around quite a lot while playing and that often made the decision for us as to what vocal mic to use – the 58 was the most directional, so we used that less. But I never worry about bleed. If the instrument is going to be on the final backing track and it’s integral to the performance of the voice, or vice versa, then just record them together. Obviously, if you’re going to record something as a guide, then yes, you have to be more careful about them.”


“Did I place the guitar amps in another space to avoid bleed? [deep sigh]… They are all such high quality players that it was easy to redo a backing track. If that was the case, it was usually done because of a mood.

“Polly’s amplifier on stage was pointing away a little bit, and her mics would point away a little from the drums. The keyboards and guitars were sort of in front of her, but also off to one side, facing some of the amplifiers in the corners. Whatever you do in that situation, you’re going to get a natural blur in the room.

“Years ago I did a mix for Trent Reznor, who was involved in the Natural Born Killers movie. I was working on his version of Rock ‘n Roll Nigger – the Patti Smith track – and I spent two days beating my head against the wall doing everything I could to try to get rid of spill – gating, etc – but it just didn’t feel right. Then I realised that spill is something that binds everything together. So I just stopped trying to control it, and EQ’d and compressed things in a moderate way. When you’re recording with that mentality and you know that most of what you’re recording is going to stay and people aren’t going to make loads of mistakes, then spill actually works to your advantage. It doesn’t work for everything, and I know that spill drives some people potty, but I find that if you put your faders up in a straight line, everything sort of joins together.”


Flood has declared in the previous century that he’s “a bit of a diehard analogue fan,” and said things like: “analogue isn’t accurate, but it is musical,” and “there’s also a psychological reason why I prefer recording on analogue. You want a point of focus. Digital recording is way too fluid.”

Today he admits that he “still is ultimately a diehard analogue fan. I have realised over the years that I like the sound of analogue, particularly that cumulative sound when you combine 24 to 40 tracks. Over the last 10 years I’ve spent a lot of time recording basic tracks and some overdubs to analogue tape, and then transferring everything to ProTools before adding more overdubs where necessary. That’s my ideal way of working, which I would have liked to adopt with Polly’s album. But the big problem these days is that you can’t get a workable, serviceable tape machine that will be reliable in an environment that goes hot and cold all the time – a good tape technician would have had to come all the way from London, which would have taken five hours. So there are practical obstacles to using analogue tape. Also, many people who say they are analogue diehards forget the hours of one’s life wasted trying to get tape machines to sync up!

“Conversely, we had a problem with digital sync during the recordings and we just phoned somebody up who said: ‘download this bit of software.’ Even if the main ProTools rig had packed up, we’d still have gotten away with continuing on a laptop. Recording digitally is do-able just about everywhere these days. Having said all that, we used ProTools mainly as a tape recorder during the sessions. Psychologically, when you’re recording to tape you conduct a session in a different way. There were a couple of times when we did a few edits to try out arrangements, using it to its advantage, but that was it. Digital has come of age though. If you’re working with a rock band and you’ve recorded it to analogue tape and you get all the analogue compression you like, and then you transfer it to 24/96, it sounds pretty much the same. All of the characteristics of tape are transferred to digital.

“On the other hand, the moment you do lots of editing and are using a lot of plug-ins, working at 96k is a bit like working with two analogue 24-tracks – the computer is constantly crashing, and so on. So I now generally work at 48k. The A/D and D/A processors are a lot better these days, and also, you get to know digital inside out and learn to work with it, in the same way as you used to able to differentiate between two different brands of tape or tape machines. Even still, a lot of digital turns into some kind of big grey mush these days. I could sit here and spend 10 hours ranting about that. It’s like you have all the best speakers and amps and instruments and mixers and in the end everything comes out of a very small amp with a 57 on it. Whatever plug-ins and soft synths you use, particularly when you’re working with core audio, everything has a sound to it. Individually things may sound great, but when you put them together there’s this weird grey haze that affects everything. It takes time to peel that off. And then people smash things to oblivion with limiters, which doesn’t allow humans to grow into the sound. It’s like the most amazing shop front ever, but when you go into the store you realise everything is blown out of all proportion and the store is actually full of rubbish.”

We ended up using quite a few ribbon mics actually. I’ve sort of fallen back in love with them again recently.

Minimal Mics: Jean-Marc Butty takes the bit between his teeth during the session.


As was already noted above, Let England Shake doesn’t have the in-your-face shop front, full of neon lights and primary colours. On the contrary, the slightly faraway, emerging-from-the-mist and pastel-coloured sound image seems to partially obscure the music, meaning it needs repeated listening to fully reveal its power. Flood went into detail about his mix of the album, which was done in Assault & Battery, the London studio he co-owns with Alan Moulder (Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine, Them Crooked Vultures), and explained how Let England Shake’s unique sound image came into being.

“I think the sound of the album is most of all an accurate reflection of the sound of the church – it almost created itself. As I said, we recorded everything flat and when it came to mixing, to be quite honest, it was just a matter of enhancing what was there. I mixed in Assault & Battery studio 1, which is Alan’s mix room, on his 72-channel G+ SSL 4000, which is the most fantastic-sounding SSL I have ever worked on. I personally don’t like mixing in the box, because I feel that you often end up with a slightly compressed, closed-down sound. If you’re sitting in front of a large SSL desk, at least you’re getting things out into the fresh air.

“The mixes for Polly were a question of getting things out of the box, laying them out over the desk, and getting the balances to the same place as they were with the rough mixes, and then trying to better that. Sometimes I’d try different things, but often it was like, ‘no, that’s starting to make the track feel different from the rough mixes,’ which were just the perfect blueprints for most songs. A lot of time I was simply trying to improve what was already there, but particularly with the backing vocals there was work to be done to make them blend. Most of the reverbs came from the church, but I did use a few outboard reverbs as well, particularly on Polly’s vocals. Because of the strong lyrics and our desire to not make the music confrontational in any shape or form, I mixed most of her vocals in a pop way, using a few slightly different reverbs, and wideners and certain types of slapback and delays and things like that. I also wanted to make sure the mixes would have the same feel on all kinds of speakers, so there was a lot of listening to computer speakers and bouncing down to MP3 and seeing how that sounded, and listening soft and loud. I was treating it like a pop mix.”


“A few songs took more work. Written on the Forehead for instance was quite difficult to mix, in terms of recreating the feeling that Polly’s demo had. Only towards the end of the process did I feel I really achieved what that song needed. The issues were to do with choice of instruments and when they came in. There were also several issues with things like the backing vocals, and when to bring in and take out the loop. With the title track it was a question of making sure it had a raw feel without going for a lo-fi sound. John and I disagreed about In The Dark Places for pretty much the entire making of the record, which became a bit of a running joke! We tried that song two or three different ways, but what you hear on the record is the version I preferred!

“I mixed back into ProTools, using the Lavry AD122-96 Mastering A/D Converter, which is an amazing sounding unit. I also mixed to one of our Ampex ATR 100 two-track recorders, and sent the two mixes off to John and Mick without saying which was which. Generally the tape version sounded better, but there were a couple of songs where we used the ProTools mixdown.


At the end of our long conversation Flood and I got into a conversation about the relevance of albums in the early 21st century:

“Nowadays it’s all about a quick hit, the shopfront window side is so important, and listeners will, at best, go to iTunes and listen to a couple of things and buy just a few things. It’s not today’s generation’s fault that they can’t listen to a whole album, they just haven’t grown up with albums. This is one of the things I’m most proud of with Polly’s album. Even in this day and age, everyone is talking about an album. As an artistic piece of music, it’s not trying to be commercial, but it’s also not trying to be confrontational and artistic for its own sake. It is art, it is a full album, and it’s really listenable.”


Flood: “I’m mostly looking towards outboard when mixing, but there are half a dozen plug-ins that I tend to use all the time, like the Sony Oxford EQ, and I really like EchoFarm, and SoundToys and also the BombFactory stuff. Sometimes I monitor a sound with the BF1176, and I’ll then later replace it with a real 1176, but sometimes that isn’t necessary. In any case, to sit in a room where you can make these choices is really helpful. On the other hand, it can take a long time for people to work out that you don’t have to use every option. This is particularly relevant these days with people having loads of plug-ins in their computer. I have happily sat there and used every plug-in that was available, but if you have something that sounds great, why change it? You don’t always need to throw the kitchen sink at things. Sometimes you hear that people have not trusted their own instincts, and had something that sounded great, but felt obliged to use plug-ins just because they were there.”

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