“As MD, it’s my role to prepare the sound and the band for all occasions: festivals, TV, Headline shows or Promo / acoustic sets.” Ben Christophers, Music Director for Bat For Lashes
What Exactly Does A Music Director Do?
Making an album is a different animal than touring and they both require very different skills. So how does the sound of an album translate to the stage? Ben Christophers, a multi-instrumentalist of critical acclaim and the MD for Bat For Lashes, talks about the role of the music director.
Hi Ben, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. And I need to apologize upfront. I’ve heard the term “Music Director” my whole life but when it comes down to it, I’m not sure that I really understand the job. What exactly does an MD do?
It’s a little like being a producer with some crowd control skills.
I find the band and look at how it can work live, I have preproduction time which involves recreating the album from the stems and bit by bit replace or mutilate sounds and beats that may need work so they have the depth needed for live performance — on record, it’s a very different environment so I have to make sure it gels and has the right energy.
Once we’re in rehearsals, I start mixing and editing and directing the band. Then it’s about who does what and what to take out or leave in.
There’s a lot of midi action and electronica with Bat For Lashes which needs to be set up and there are total acoustic moments within the set with instruments like zithers, Marxophones and Harmoniums. I do most of the arrangements and add any thing I feel will enhance a part or bring out a chorus more etc… We want to create a balance also so all albums work together so it’s important to keep the visual side and the sonics of all the albums in the back of your mind when all this is going on.
Damn, that’s a lot more than I expected. So how do you get to be the MD on a tour?
By default. I didn’t really know there was such a role but we were recording the album and rehearsing for a load of festivals at the same time. Natasha was working day and night on everything including the promo and videos / photo sessions — a kind-of-convoluted way of doing things but someone needed to deal with the live-side so I went into preproduction while Natasha sent me new files for the songs and I pieced it all together. The idea was that I would find the band and rehearse them and she would join us after a few weeks. It turned out to be a geat way of doing things for us, we have worked together for a long time and have a similar musical school of thought and influence.
Got it. So in general, who hires you? Is there a particular type of interview to go through?
No interview. I think every situation would be different, with me I was in the right place right time and all that.
Actually, does every tour have an MD?
Not really. Bands tend to have it covered between themselves; it helps to have a voice or someone who is pushing things along.
So bear with me. I just really want to get my head around this. When you tour for your own records, are you the MD on your own tours or is it easier/better to spread out that responsibility? To get a second ear if you will…
A second ear is vital. I have to have that with my own records and live. I like to have someone in the band who can perhaps be the leader when I’m not there but if you choose your musicians well, you’re halfway there.
Because I would think that the singer/ songwriter usually would be the de-facto MD. How do you and Natasha split the responsibilities? As a touring artist yourself, I’m sure that you bring a lot of experience into the role.
Natasha has the overall say — if she hates something I’ve done, that’s it. We change it.
And actually the responsibility isn’t shared, our roles happen at different times. As MD, it’s my role to prepare the sound and the band for all occasions: festivals, TV, Headline shows or Promo / acoustic sets.
Got it. Obviously, it turns out to be a lot more work than just being one of the musicians, right ?
It is a lot of work. The biggest challenge is live TV. You have to remember that most people will be listening through their computer or TV speakers which these days are better than 20 years ago but still need consideration. Plus, there’s editing so that we don’t run over and that is harder than it sounds when you have a great intro and mid 8 — shaving things off songs is quite painful.
Then there’s the consideration of festivals which is the test for everyone. I really want to hear the subs shaking the ground when they should and the delicate sounds to be clear. We have a great sound man — ‘Head’ — who plays a huge role. No amount of work that is done by the band or me is worth anything without Head’s skills! It’s vital to Natasha’s overall sound that her vocals are clear and above everything — whatever the music is doing.
Do you get taken care of a bit more? Is there more upside in it for you ?
Haha, I don’t think so but then if you’re with a good bunch of people and everyone is treated well it makes a big difference.
Do you enjoy it?
I enjoy the beginning phase very much where we make the plans and do the preparation. I have my studio at home and I get the best of both worlds then. When the rehearsals start, it’s much tougher but great to hear it come together. Then the touring is the big test. I have loved and hated every phase at times but only because I want it to be right.
Got it. So what’s a typical tour day look like for you?
We travel at night when we’re sleeping. Usually we arrive at the venue around lunch time. Once all the gear is out and on stage, a few of us spend an hour or so tuning; we use a Marxophone, Zither and an Autoharp. I use analogue synths also, which need to be tuned and setup, then we sound check, then there’s a break, and then we go on stage around 9.30pm.
Is this a role that you’d like to continue with ?
Only for as long as I enjoy it. I learn so much every time I go out on tour. I still have a child-like approach and get as excited now as I did when I started. So as long as I have a healthy balance of feeling humble and fearful about what I do, I will keep dong it.
And what’s next for you? What’s the rest of the year look like?
I am writing a new solo album which I’m really excited about and also I have been co-writing with a few artists who I like at my studio in London.
Bat for Lashes have more live dates this year; we are going to Russia and Turkey and doing some festivals in Europe, then we’re supporting Depeche Mode in August and September in the States which we can’t wait for. That will pretty much wrap up this year.
And with that, thank you for sharing your expertise and insights.
Ben Christophers is a multi-instrumentalist born in the UK. He has released several solo albums to high acclaim. Lola de Musica VPRO in Holland filmed a documentary on his music and life, he has co written and duetted with French Icon ‘Francoise Hardy’ and featured on many albums, the latest being ‘Cold Specks’ who have made a name with their unique “doom soul” sound.
Ben has worked with Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) since the first album Fur and Gold, they have supported Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Coldplay and appeared on many TV and Radio shows .. Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman, KCRW. Later with Jools.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears