Noise Annoys: Rocky O'Reilly on 12 years of Start Together Studios

... in which producer and Start Together Studios co-owner extraordinaire Rocky O'Reilly is quizzed about his work at the world-renowned Belfast recording facility and its imminent 12th birthday gig with Liverpool alt-rockers Queen Zee

Queen Zee headline the Start Together birthday show on Sunday night
Queen Zee headline the Start Together birthday show on Sunday night

HAPPY 12th birthday to Start Together. How are you all coping with the onset of pubescence?

There's been no sleeping in, moody tantrums and it's been our equipment rather than our voices that have been breaking. We are coping superbly otherwise. This last year feels like we've finally figured out how to have fun making music, while also generally being able to run a business.

You’ve got a great 12th birthday ‘party show’ planned at The Limelight on Sunday night with Queen Zee, Sugarwolf, Strange New Places and Problem Patterns. How did you end up recording Queen Zee and how does it feel to be hosting their Irish debut?

A friend from Brighton works with Queen Zee. He invited me to see them play in London. I had been in a two day "writing camp" for pop music there. I left the studio and made my way to Queen Zee in the worst frame of mind I think I've ever been in regarding music.

Pop writing camps are fantastic, but they are so far removed from my skills and interests. I was genuinely thinking music might not be for me, after a decade of producing.

Within one song of Queen Zee starting, I knew that everything was going to be OK. By the end of their set I had felt every emotion possible. I raved to a random audience member about how the band had saved my mind that night. He turned out to be their manager. From there, I enthused to the band and my friend helped set up the session in Belfast last July.

It was one of the most amazing and fun sessions I've got to be a part of. I want them to have the best gig in Belfast – hopefully in a room full of music-loving people.

Your responsibilities at Start Together go way beyond just recording bands. Is dealing with the ‘business’ end of things a chore compared to in-studio creativity?

There's definitely a reassurance and a sense of relaxation that comes from knowing where we're at in terms of the business. In the early days we'd get bills or letters from HMRC that were truly surprising and terrifying. Now, Monday evenings are book-keeping evenings. The finances are very simple really. We get paid, we buy more equipment.

Start Together has grown from one box of recording equipment to the current ultra-professional studio set-up. What has been the secret of your continued success and expansion, and how steep has the learning curve been along the way?

I think the secret has been never over stretching, too much at least. We started small and have carefully added items as each session has grown in size and scope. There's always got to be a good reason to expand.

It's all been a massive learning curve. At times it's been stressful, but then I remember that it's music. I feel lucky that there are now a great group of other music businesses to bounce ideas off and seek advice from. Davy at Third Bar, Charlotte and Dee at Oh Yeah, Mark at Score Draw Music, Lyndon at Champion Sound, Joe at Shine, Jimmy Devlin at No Dancing and many more amazing people are always so willing to share knowledge and experience.

I feel very lucky. I probably wouldn't still be in Belfast without them.

With your production hat on, is there such a thing as ‘the Rocky O’Reilly sound’ – and if so, what are its characteristics?

People always say how 'live' my productions are. When I started out it used to really annoy me. I'd put in all this effort and it sounded 'live'. I eventually learned that people meant that it had energy and they felt like they did when the band were playing live. I'd say that's something I'm now incredible proud of. I like big, live, energetic recordings. Whether it's fizzy indie pop or doom metal, I want it to move air!

Which Start Together projects are you currently most excited about?

Our studio manager Sophie is just completing a women in music project where we've had a group of around twenty five in over the last couple of months, learning and expanding their skills in a relaxed and comfortable environment. I'm always keen to have as many people using our facilities as possible. I've been building them up for so long.

We started when there really weren't a lot of options for recording in Belfast, when artists would go to Dublin, Glasgow or London. It's nice being part of that shift where singles, EPs and albums are now made in the musicians' own city.

We're really keen to continue offering our facilities and services to those new, exciting people as they come through and begin sharing music with the world.

Which artist or band would you most like to record at Start Together?

I named the studio after a Sleater-Kinney song, so let's get them in. Better bring in Ash, The Bronx, Jimmy Eat World, Courtney Barnett and Lizzo in. We'll make a day of it!

Finally, please provide a 12-song playlist of Start Together-related music which represents the studio’s ‘journey’ over the past 12 years.

1) Oppenheimer – Support Our Truths

The first song recorded in Start Together when we moved in summer of '07. We recorded the drums in the old service lift with the door open into the giant room. The sound of the building as it was then is forever captured!

2) ASIWYFA – Set Guitars To Kill

Again, we captured a room that is no longer there. The old second floor of the building with 50 people stomping in time and screaming. The dust rose up from the floor and set the fire alarm off. Stuart Bailie, who ran the centre thought the floor was going to collapse – but fair play to him, he let me have one more take! What this song and band went on to do has been nothing short of phenomenal.

3) Pocket Billiards – Belfast Town

A long standing Belfast punk power house with an anthem for our city. We recorded this whole album in a few days. It was full of naive excitement and a decade later I think it's stood the test of time pretty well.

4) Wonder Villains – Blonde

I loved the Wonder Villains. A weird collection of excited teenagers making indie pop music that they absolutely loved. They travelled a fair bit of the world with it too. This one song is one of the best days I've ever had in the studio. Three microphones on the drums, a sweeping analog synth and a band totally locked in together making wonderful music.

5) Slomatics – Troglorite

I'd always flirted around heavy music. Meeting Slomatics threw me in at the deep end of heavy! The lords of low end eventually convinced me to turn the sub bass down a little. I love making records with these guys. It's nice how far their music travels across the world.

6) Go Wolf – Voices

This is such an incredible song. Go Wolf sadly didn't last too long. This song is stunning.

7) Wheatus – Only You - Feat: Josh Devine & Sandy Beales

When I got the email from a mutual friend I couldn't quite believe it. Brendan from Wheatus collaborating with the drummer and bass player from the One Direction band. It's a cool song about Brendan getting attacked by an old angry punk at a London gig.

I mixed this and another Wheatus song and then mixed an album that Brendan produced for Gabrielle Sterbenz. The whole experience was so much fun and he really helped me hear music and production in a slightly different way.

8) Weary Eyes – World Won't Get Better But You Will

Another exciting and surreal email. A band from Russia loved the production and mixing I'd done on a few And So I Watch You From Afar albums. I loved the attitude and ambition of this band, and it was stunning they were influenced by something we'd made right here in Belfast. I mixed their album with a few notes over email.

9) Nada Azhari – Dreams & Expectations

This was part of a production workshop that I delivered in Morocco. The fact that I got to travel there many times to help musicians is still mind blowing. This song was such a surprise. Nada had it almost completely written. She recorded the acoustic guitar and vocals in the quietest room we could find in Marrakech, which wasn't very quiet. I arranged all the production around it while travelling home on the plane and I mixed it back in Belfast. I think it really helped people take notice of her and she's doing quite well as an artist in Morocco now. It was a fantastic feeling to be a small part of the start of that journey.

10) Brand New Friend – American Wives

I heard a demo of Brand New Friend, which I think they recorded in a cave. I immediately had to message them to tell them how amazing the song was and how I'd love to help them record an EP. We recorded and mixed five songs in four hours. It's been so exciting to see them go off and evolve, grow and expand since then. I love that band.

11) TOUTS – Sold Out

TOUTS first recorded with me while they were still in school. It's been amazing to watch them tour and blow the roof off so many venues. We recorded this live on a Sunday morning in Belfast, mixed onto analog tape and spat it out that afternoon. I'm so excited about what they're up to.

12) Queen Zee – Lucy Fur

The band that saved me last year. I recorded and mixed this last summer. I spent the entire time air drumming and shouting "hail satan!"

:: Start Together 12th Birthday Party Show with Queen Zee, Sugarwolf, Strange New Places and Problem Patterns, Sunday June 9, The Limelight 2, 7pm. Tickets £10 via Ticketmaster.ie, five per cent of ticket sales go to Belfast Trans Resource Centre. Visit Start Together online at Starttogetherstudio.com