Guy Robin - better-known to the public as Brit-nominated, platinum-selling pop producer Jonas Blue - has just got back from a trip to China. A few minutes before we arrive at his house in a very rural part of Essex, he walks through his front door, chucks his bag on a chair and tries to work out what the time is.
Having spent the best part of a week travelling, playing to audiences of 50,000-plus, kipping in vans and answering questions, he’s beginning to wonder if it’s a good idea to launch into a detailed tech interview. It’s not hard to hear the exhaustion when we ask him about the China dates and the electronic music scene in East Asia.
“There’s not really a scene,” he explains, shoulders sagging. “If a song’s popular and they’ve heard your song playing on the radio, they’ll come see you play. It’s really nice and open. People aren’t into this ‘sound’, or this ‘sound’. They just like music. And they sing every word back at you!”
The 29-year-old Essex boy – born and bred – seemed to appear from nowhere back in 2015. His reworking of Tracy Chapman’s 80s hit, Fast Car, would become a huge international hit and gave him instant access to the same pop-dance audience that has turned Calvin Harris into a multi-millionaire.
Canny lad that he is, Robin took the decision not to rush straight into things. The following year, Perfect Strangers was another biggie, then Mama in 2017 and Rise in 2018 - the latter perfectly capturing the euphoric madness of the UK’s summer heatwave. In spite of a couple of almost-flop singles in between, there was no doubt that Robin had made his mark.
Like Calvin Harris and Robin’s all-time production hero, Max Martin - Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift et al - Robin is content to let someone else be the ‘star’. Jack & Jack provided vocals for Rise and his recent single, Polaroid, featured Liam Payne from some band called One Direction. Both are included on the recently released debut album, Blue.
Of course, some contemporaries have cocked a snook at his mainstream success and unashamedly poppy tunes, but Robin doesn’t seem too worried.
“What is pop music? It’s not a genre. It’s just the music that is popular at a given point in time. In the 60s, it was the Beatles. These days, it’s my music. People like it… what’s wrong with that?”
Did you grow up in a pop music household?
“Not at all. Like a lot of people in Essex, my parents were into soul and funk. [Alongside the 70s/80s Northern Soul scene in places like Wigan and Stoke, there was a seriously strong soul/jazz/funk presence in Essex and the South East.] Yes, it was chart music, but there always had to be a groove. Instead of the Beatles and the Stones, my mum and dad were listening to Michael Jackson, Barry White. All the Philly stuff, Gamble and Huff.”
And young Guy was digging the groove?
“I just seemed to ‘get it’. I loved the sound and the feel; that fluid bassline, the slick harmonies. I was probably a bit too young to fully understand the concept of soul, but the music definitely touched me inside. It became my thing.”
I read somewhere that the first instrument you learned to play was the flute…
“Yeah, I’m not quite sure how that happened. It was the first thing that my parents got hold of, and I suddenly found myself going to school with it in my bag. I stuck with that till I was 11, but, one night, I was watching telly and there was this programme, Club Reps, set in Ibiza. I remember seeing guys like Carl Cox and David Morales standing in front of all these flashing lights. Hundreds of people were going mad on the dancefloor.
“For the first time, at that time, I was able to join together all these ideas in my head. This was ‘dance’ music.
“The next day, I got my dad to take me down to Tottenham Court Road in the West End. That was where all the hi-fi and DJ shops were. We came back with a set of Numark CDMIX 1s and a small PA system. Foolishly, I promised my dad that I’d pay him back by DJing at school parties and friends’ birthdays. I spent the next year DJing every day, played a couple of parties a week and paid him back every penny!
“But then, I suddenly got bored…”
Bored of music?
“Bored of playing other people’s music. I know it sounds weird for a 12-year-old to say that he wants to start writing songs, but that’s what happened. And there was an even stranger set of circumstances that kicked it off. My favourite breakfast cereal at the time was Coco Pops, and they had a special offer where you could get the eJay software package.
“It was super-simple, but I loaded it onto my 1998 Packard Bell computer and started writing songs. There was no MIDI input or anything like that - just pre-recorded blocks of music - but that was how I learned the art of arranging a song. How to build those bits of music into something that would keep people interested for six minutes.
“I started at 12 and I’m 29 now, so I suppose I can say that I’ve been producing and writing music for 17 years.”
Was there a point where it really started to get serious?
“I’m tempted to say that I always took it seriously. At that age, you’re like a sponge, you’re desperate to soak up anything and everything. I was already a computer geek, really, so I started looking around at other platforms, all the free software that was out there. Borrowing money off my parents when I needed to buy something.
“Over the years, I can honestly say that I’ve got stuck into every DAW on the market. For me, trying a new DAW was like buying a new computer game. I wanted to get to every level… learn every shortcut. I wanted to know it inside out. It was a challenge. I wanted to beat it.
“For some reason, though, I kept coming back to Logic, and that’s where I’ve more or less stayed. I do use Ableton for a few bits and I am thinking of digging out FL Studio again, but Logic is where I do most of my work.”
Presumably, the relative affordability of DAWs means that it’s possible to chop and change… to find out the best bit of each platform. Back in the days when you had to take out a second mortgage to get Pro Tools and buy a new computer if you wanted to change your setup, you tended to stick with what you had.
“And that chance to experiment can only be a good thing. DAWs are like instruments, and being able to work with different instruments means that there’s more chance to be creative.”
How come you stayed with Logic for so long, then?
“I get on with the GUI. I know that sounds like a trivial thing, but there’s something about it that makes me feel comfortable. And they’ve developed it… kept it growing. You’ve got the Apple integration. Plus, it suits my way of writing. I don’t use the piano roll at all - I play everything in live from a keyboard. Even when I’m travelling - which is when I do most of my writing - I have a little portable keyboard.”
So you play everything in with keys to keep the live feel?
“The main reason is that I don’t like writing with the mouse. When I’m just clicking dots on the screen, I don’t seem to be able to get an idea out of my head and into the computer. Things seem to flow much better if I play them in.
“I do the same with beats, too. Kick-kick-snare on the keyboard. I might tidy up any percussion or background loops, but all the main kicks and snares are left fairly loose.”
You say you do most of your writing while you’re travelling, and we can see why, seeing as the builders are just putting the finishing touches to your new studio. [The builders were still there, but it was obvious that this was going to be one hell of a studio!] Some people go for the kitchen extension, but it looks like you’ve gone for the Abbey Road conservatory!
“Essentially, it will be a three-room setup. The main control room is based around the SSL AWS desk, with some very big PMC monitors. Then there’s a live room, big enough to record a band if I need to. Yamaha grand piano, Gretsch drum kit, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet D6, some quality mics, proper vocal booth.
“In between the two, there’s a full-spec DJ booth. When I’m working on a new song, I can fly it straight over to the DJ booth and test it out in a ‘club’ setting. What does it feel like in the middle of a mix? Is there enough bottom end? Is it too busy? Sonically, I like to know that a song is doing what it needs to do. And upstairs, above the control room, will be the synth room.”
A room full of synths? Real synths?
“Exactly. For about ten years, now, I’ve been collecting classic analogue synths. Yamaha CS-80, ARP 2600, one of the first Memorymoogs, a very rare Rev 2 Prophet-5 with the SSM filter chips. All MIDI’d up and ready to go. I can send anything from the computer straight to any of the synths and record it back into the computer. No messing.”
But you’ve been in the box since you were 12 years old…
“I know. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s that soul and funk thing again. Maybe I’m an old soul in a 29-year-old body. Physically touching a synth… it seems to make a difference.”
CS-80s and Prophets don’t come cheap!
“Tell me about it. The Yamaha set me back about 15 grand!”
That must have taken quite a lot of YouTube streams!
“It was a loan that I’m still paying back. It was worth it, though.”
You’re not anti-soft synth?
“God, no! There are some amazing soft synths out there and I’ve got a ton of them stacked on the computer. We are now at a point where you can’t hear the difference. Well, you can’t in the music I make. Once you’ve got a synth surrounded by other synths and drums and s**t, no one will know the difference.
“The u-he Prophets sound amazing, and Diva is on almost every song. Nexus, Sylenth1, the Vengeance plugins and Spire. I’ve been using Nexus for ages, but it’s having a real resurgence at the moment. You’ve got a lot of hip-hop producers getting right down into the innards of the presets and creating some amazing sounds. I’m using them for house tunes, which makes the music sound nicely twisted… and different.
“Personally, that’s one of the most important things when it comes to choosing a new synth these days. We’ve gone through the whole era of big bottom ends, crazy effects and louder than everybody else. What I really want is a synth that will give me something that nobody else has got.”
And that can often be some odd-looking 15-quid piece of kit you’ve never heard of.
“I love that - when you find a synth that sparks your creativity. The sound might not be the best quality and you might not even use them in the finished song, but the presets don’t sound like anything else. That instantly fills your head with ideas.”
You’ve worked with a bunch of different vocalists on the new album - everybody from Liam Payne and Nina Nesbitt to Raye and JP Cooper. Do you like to be in the room when a vocal’s being recorded or does the packed schedule and occasional China trip make that physically impossible?
“My vocal ‘technique’ has gone through a series of changes over the years. In the early days, latency was a huge problem. Not so bad if you’re just working on your own, but if you’re bringing a vocalist in for the day, it hardly makes you look like a professional producer.
“Once I’d got myself a decent computer and started to get seriously into recording vocals, I went completely the other way and did the whole micro-managing bit. I wanted to be there in the studio, making sure that everything was perfect. But I soon realised that the vocal I was ending up with was often worse than the first guide vocal that we’d done that morning. All my instructions and interfering had crushed the personality… the performance. The bits that make a vocal work.
“These days, I tend to send off a good quality demo with a good quality guide vocal and let the vocalist do their thing. What I’m looking for is that energy and vibe. Doesn’t matter if it’s technically perfect because that can all be fixed inside the computer.
“Let’s take Mama, which was one of my biggest hits. Millions of streams, charted all over the place. The vocal for that was recorded on a cheap USB mic in the back of a tour bus because that was all William Singe had available at that particular time.
“If you solo the vocal track, there’s even a bizarre 400Hz hum in the background. God knows where it came from.
“Has anyone noticed? Did it stop the song being a hit? Of course not!”
There’s probably a lesson in there, somewhere, of course…
“Yeah… stop being so f**king anal!”
Jonas Blue’s debut album, Blue, is out now