Music is My Life: Episode 019

Trevor Horn on Music Production, Buggles, Yes, and Bass Lessons

Musician and producer (and Berklee Online student) Trevor Horn is pictured, smiling, while relaxing in a chair.

Not only is Trevor Horn one of the singers and songwriters behind the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but he is also known for his work with Yes, and the iconic records he produced, including work by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, Seal, Belle & Sebastian, John Legend, and way too many others to mention. Trevor Horn is also a student! We spoke as he was just wrapping up in Berklee Online’s R&B Bass course.

Trevor Horn: Well, the fact is that everybody could do with bass lessons and what I … I’m sorry about the drilling outside … But what I found was that I was doing a lot of shows in the summer and then playing on the odd track that I was working on and I wasn’t doing much bass playing, so every summer I would have to kind of get my hands hard again and get myself into a place where I could play without thinking too much. And this summer when I finished, I thought, “Screw it. I’m going to do something about this. I’m going to find a way of playing all the time.” A friend of mine did a Berklee arranging course and I use him all the time, he’s a brilliant arranger, so I thought, “I’ll do the bass course.”

Great. So how has it been? Has it indeed kept you limber?
Yeah, it’s actually … You see the thing is even though I used to sight-read for bass all the time. That’s what I was good at. I was completely self-taught. No one ever taught me anything, so to actually … although my father was a double bass player. He showed me the basics, but everything else, I worked out for myself. It was great to have … I really like the way Danny Morris plays the bass guitar, and it was funny because deciding to do the course coincided with an offer. I’m very friendly with a lot of the guys that were in Dire Straits, and they were doing a tour of Brazil in January this year, and just out of the blue, one of them said to me, “Why don’t you come and play bass?” which I did, and it was a two-and-a-quarter-hour show. So, it was a long show, and I found that the fact that I was doing the course was a really, really good thing, you know?

I’d imagine you were the only person in that particular class who was doing the bass line to every Dire Straits song professionally, at any given night.
Yes, it’s funny isn’t it? … because they’ve all played it so many times, I didn’t expect them to play it so many times just for me. You know? So I learnt it like it was a gig, you know, like I was gonna be able to get up there on bass straight away with them, which I did up to a point. I did mostly everything right, I got most of it. I found the course really helpful because … and in fact I’m running late with my homework for this week because one of the parts is so difficult to play because it’s so fast, I’ve been trying to do it for a day and a half. I’ve nearly got it but I’m sure I’m gonna get it this lunch time.

That’s good, what’s the part?
”I Was Made to Love Her,” [by Stevie Wonder].

Oh yeah [that is a difficult bass line]!
It’s just really fast. I’m trying to … well, the thing is I don’t wanna play with a pick.

… You mentioned your dad being a double bass player and was that a huge reason for you wanting to pick up the instrument?
Yes, because it was there. The double bass, but it wasn’t because … when I was in my teens I was much more interested in guitar because you got more girls when you played lead guitar. [And I used to just play the bass to dep for my dad and earn money. Then as time went on I realized because the bass guitar was a new instrument, virtually nobody could read through it. I mean the old double bass players could but the problem was the parts were changing so rapidly, I mean can you imagine playing “I Want You Back” [by the Jackson 5] or “Sir Duke” [by Stevie Wonder] on a double bass?

Right, right that’s a lot of notes to cram in there a huge amount of space.
So suddenly a lot of the old double bass players … they wanted somebody young who could read and play with a pick, and I could do that, so that’s what I started to do, you know like anybody else, trying to earn a living. And that’s what I did until I was 30.

You mentioned the double bass players having difficulty with newer parts, did your dad ever express that to you or did he take to the electric bass guitar pretty quickly or? …
Well, my dad took the electric bass really quickly. He said “This is brilliant, it’s gonna sort the bluffers out from the people who actually know what they’re playing.” When my father played double bass, he would occasionally come across other double bass players who were playing it like it was a skiffle bass, you know?

Literally, making a thump and not really giving a damn about what note they played.

That’s why obviously why they’re called the Fender Precision bass the Fender Precision , because the bass had frets, you know?

Right, right, that’s great.
And my dad was really pleased with that he said, “Now you either play the right note or the wrong note, there’s nothing in between.”

And so he liked it. Hang on I’m gonna go inside because [the construction noise] is just too much of a pain in the ass.

This should be better now. I’ll close the door. Can you still hear me alright?

I can it’s a bit echo-y.
Hang on, how about this? Is that better?

Terrific, that’s good.
Anyway, when I was eight they gave us all recorders—you know recorders?—and a book and said that we had to learn the first two exercises, and it was the first time that I had ever done anything like that, and I learnt the first two exercises and I obviously remember when I went in on the Monday I was the only person that could do it. And I thought “Oh, maybe I’m good at this.” Pretty soon I used to play the recorder for the hymns, you know? I used to read the hymns and play them behind piano player.

That’s kind of where I learned to read music, and so when I picked up the double bass when I was 11, 12, I figured out the notes … can’t figure out the recorder you know?

I guess I’m interested in knowing a little bit about the relationship with your dad and the way that music may or may not have played a factor when you started to show serious interest … was he excited about that?
Well, the thing was I never used to see my father in the evenings mostly because he was working. He’d work days as a dairy engineer, come in and have dinner and go straight out and do a gig, like five nights a week. Then from when I was about 11, I had the room at the back of the house with a piano in it, and I used to go in there every evening, and I had my dad’s four-string guitar, and I learnt how to play the guitar from looking at books … and also figuring out the triads, you know?

My dad told me about triads— minor and major triads—and I worked them out the way they were on the bass and on the guitar and that’s what I used to sort of do every evening for a couple of years. And then I started to do deps with my dad on the double bass. If he couldn’t make the first set … when I about 12 or 13 I would go and do the first set for him.

Oh wow.
The rest of the band went crazy about it, but you know, we’re talking about stuff like the old foxtrot quick step thing where bass would play, “Boom, sh, boom, sh, boom sh,” for the first sort of 32 bars, and then it would move up the key and the bass would just started going, “Boom, boom, boom, boom.” That sort of arrangements.

Loads of that stuff and I always remember “Let’s Twist Again,” playing that as well: “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” So, but really at the time I was much more interested in the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, you know?

Is that what you did when you had your own band that you played the electric guitar in?
Yeah, we were called The Outer Limits, and we played mainly the Kinks and anything that was really easy.

Yeah, I remember … with not many chords.

And at what point of this whole discovery did you realize that you could get a career for yourself going?
Well, when I left school because I’d spent all my time playing around with music, I’d neglected all my studies I got lousy results to go back to college. But at this point I was doing a Bob Dylan imitation act as well where I would … a folk act, you know, with a harmonica around my neck. I was doing that two nights a week as well as playing the odd gig on the bass.

I suppose when I got to about 17-and-a-half, after a sort of succession of day jobs I was working five nights a week in semi pro band playing stuff from the top 40 and dance music all that shit, the usual stuff. I suddenly thought … I realized all this working during the day is a bit of a joke, really, because the only thing I’m interested in is music and I’m never gonna be any good at this stuff. And I woke my parents up at four o’clock in the morning to tell them that I decided no matter the risks I’m was gonna have a career in music.

And how did they react?!
They were horrified.

Well, I imagine your timing could have been a little bit better.
My father said, “you’re just not good enough, you’re not good enough to be professional.” And he was right.

He had the wherewithal at four a.m. to say that?
Yes …

And he said, “You know it’s a hard life. You’ve got no idea what you’re getting into.” And I said, “Well, I don’t care because I know it’s the only thing that I think I can succeed in and the only thing I’m interested in.” So they begged me to get one more job and I got a job as a progress chaser in a plastic bag factory.

But I only lasted three months. And then I got sacked. It wasn’t my fault, but they had to get rid of somebody. I always remember they gave me two weeks money, and I walked out I was so happy, I was so happy. I said, “That’s it, I’m never going into that world again!” And my parents were horrified and I said, “I’m gonna get the Melody Maker tomorrow and I’ll find a professional job.” And my dad was like, “It’s never gonna happen.” And then just out of the blue, the following day, the day after I got sacked, one of the two local professional band leaders showed up at my door and said, “I want you to play in my band. I want you to start in a month’s time.”

Well then!
I was gobsmacked. I said, “but you never heard me play.” I had met him because it turned out this band leader lived in the village right next door to a guy that I was working with in the rubber company that I worked at. And it is very complicated.
He mentioned me to this band leader, and so I’d gone to see the band leader, I met him and he said, “Come and see my band for one set, I want you to listen to ‘Everlasting Love” and tell me if you can play it.” I knew the song perfectly because it was a very difficult bass part, it went, “Do, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, bud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud, dud.” It was very fast, and you could only really play it with a pick. I think it was [Led Zeppelin bassist] John Paul Jones [playing bass on the version by The Love Affair].

Right, is that the same one that … “Open up your arms” …
Yeah, “Open up your eyes, don’t you …” Anyway, I watched his band for a set and I saw how his … his bass player was an old double bass player and he couldn’t get anywhere near the part. Then afterwards the bandleader said to me, “Can you play that part?” And I said, “Yup, I can do it.” So he said, “Well, if I need you I’ll call you.” And that had been nearly a year before, and suddenly a day after I get fired he turns up. He says, “I want you to play in the band, sign this contract, start in a month, £25 a week.” I’d been earning £10 a week for a 40-hour week.

And this was suddenly £25 a week for five nights. And luckily I said to him, “If I sign up in a month’s time, do you mind if I go in and work my way through the pad.” We used to call it the pad then because a band like that would have a pad with 300 parts in it, you know what I mean?

Right, right.
Over the next month I spent five or six hours a day and I worked my way through the whole pad. Looking for anything that was difficult I learnt it, you know what I mean? And I started with them a month later and I never really looked back. I think I was 18 and then I … production was something I was always fascinated by.

I think, before we move onto production, I need to know why four a.m. Had you been up at a gig playing and then you came home or?
I’d been doing a gig and then I’d driven a girl home, I always back at four o’clock in the morning.

Were they mad at you for waking them up too?
My parent were very tolerant in some ways. And if I get an idea in my head I can be quite impetuous. I don’t really do it now. I’m sorted out now.

So they must have been thrilled by that £25 a week then?

No, not really. I moved out and they were worried for me. Quite rightly! But that’s what I did, and then I ended up in London when I was 21. Playing with a band in London, who used to do a lot of broadcasts with the BBC.
It was back at a time when the BBC would re-record a lot of the songs that were in the top 20, you know what I mean?

And it was just because they couldn’t afford to pay the royalties for the actual performer, or …?
No, they only had so much needle time, they were only allowed to play so many records.

‘Wow. That is crazy.
They only had so much needle time and they needed other stuff that wasn’t needle time stuff. So it meant that we would go in, in an afternoon in a studio, record six songs, you know. Everything, you know. Doing playing live, then overdub the vocal go in between two chord progressions. That’s the way the BBC did it.

But it was good for musicians because it gave you … and it got me really interested in … I mean if I was really interested in studios before and I was trying to write songs, you know but bass was how I earned a living.

Right. And then—sorry I did interrupt you—you were going on to talk about production and how that all started. I was always trying to write songs but I kind of stopped when I was about 20 because I got nowhere, whereas most people get nowhere. I went through a brief period of local fame where I was on the radio and Radio Leister singing self-written songs, there’s just me and an acoustic guitar, but yeah, I was only a big fish in a tiny pool, you know.
Then once I got to London I met al kinds of people. And I was always interested in recording. And I think by the time I was 25 I was playing in the best band. Well the best paid job in London was a guy called Ray McVay and his band of the day.

And it was broadcast sessions, TV, and gigs. But you know back in 1975 I was earning $200 a week, it’s a fortune. Well, I bought a load of recording equipment. And I only managed to stick a year with Ray McVay because I just couldn’t handle it. You know the hours on the bus, there was just no … I had no life. No life! And I went up Midlands in England and I built a recording studio with another guy. It took us six months to build and I was working seven nights a week at a nightclub, playing bass, you know. And after I built the studio in Leicester I realized I’m stupid … you know we weren’t getting any business so we advertised. We made … “We’ll fix up your song and make a demo of it.” I did this for a few people, and one of them won a songwriting competition with the song I fixed up.

And a guy who’d been in the business a lot longer than me said to me, “You know, what you’re doing is called record production.” I had no idea! And I said, “Really?” And I said, “That’s what I want to do!” He says, “You know if you become a record producer you can’t be a bass player as well.” He said, “Because the record could be the most important thing and if you’re not the best bass player for it, you have to hire the best bass player.” And that always stuck with me. But you know the guy said this to me when I was 25. It always stuck with me, so I would always try and get better musicians than me to play on records.

But you end up playing on quite a few of them don’t you?
Yeah, because sometimes it’s more about the sound then what you play.

And getting the right sounds and just playing the most boring part. I think making records taught me that about the bass. Sort of between when I was 25 and 30 I produced loads of tracks for people and I played on lots of tracks … all my friends used to hire me because I could always come up with a more interesting bass line than they already had.
I did a lot of that, then suddenly I thought, “This is crazy, I’m fixing up everybody’s songs, I should start writing songs again,” so I started writing songs again and within a year of starting to write songs again I’d written “Video Killed the Radio Star” with Bruce Woolley. That’s what really turned it around for me because then …

Yeah as soon as you wrote that, did you know that, that was something?
I didn’t know. I thought it was good at the time, and then afterwards when I thought about it I thought that’s the closest thing to a hit I’ve ever …

‘Yeah. Its funny too because the idea of that was so ahead of its time, I mean MTV didn’t even exist but I guess how did you know that was gonna happen?
Because I was reading JG Ballard.

Because you were what?
I was hanging out with Bruce Woolley during the day, a guy called Bruce, a really good guitar player, singer, beautiful singer and a good writer. I always liked his voice. And we were reading JG Ballard and we were envisaging a record with a huge computer in the basement where they were designing records. And they were making the whole record, and the video with it on the computer. So that was what was in our heads, you know.

It’s so funny though how it came to be so much more emblematic of an era, and I’m guessing that was something you can never dream of.
No, you just … it always makes me laugh when people claim credit. “I’m clever because I thought of that.” “Video Killed the Radio Star” just popped in my head whole as a line, as though somebody whispered it in my ear.

Bruce said, “You can’t say that!” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because you’ve mentioned the name of two groups, VideoKids and The Radio Stars.”

Oh wow.
Absolutely. I said, “Oh for … They’ll be long gone before this comes out.”

Yeah, I’ve never even heard of either of those groups.
The verses of “Video Killed the Radio Star” are pure JG Ballard. Not taken verbatim, but they’re about sort of future world.

Right, right. The funny thing to me when I think about “Video Killed the Radio Star” … and this is strictly on a personal level … I mean, this anecdote. I get that song in my head every single day, but it’s only after another Trevor Horn song is in my head. Because there’s this one portion of my commute where the foot traffic is so congested that I think of a scene from the video of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which you co-wrote with Yes. Then I think about how when videos first came out, critics were complaining that the visuals would prevent people from creating their own private imagery or whatever. And because of that [thought], “Video Killed the Radio Star” is [suddenly] in my head, and it’s interesting to think back on those early days of video and how that was a really big concern: that people wouldn’t be able to dissociate the prescribed imagery from the actual video to use their own imaginations.

I know, that’s a funny thing because I wonder how many of the songs we liked in the ‘60s … how they would have been affected by having … I mean the Beatles did start making videos, but I don’t think of videos with those sorts.

Right, right you don’t think of that scene … oh actually I don’t know when I hear “Help!” I kinda think of the skiing scene a little bit.
I think of summer holidays by the seaside.

Yeah, that’s a more pure memory probably.

But so, from there I always think it was interesting that you had such a huge new wave hit, and then you went on to join Yes, which doesn’t seem like an intuitive fit …
From the moment I first heard “Starship Trooper,” I loved Yes. How could you not if you were a bass player? I mean Chris Squire kind of took it to a whole level that I never thought you could go to. And because he played with a pick and he had this amazing bright sound that had loads of weight to it as well. I’d never heard anything like that, so I all the way through the ‘70s I was a dedicated Yes fan. Because also, you know, I have a sort of high light voice that has no soul in it whatsoever. So I could never sing like anybody, you know like records and like I always got the sort of terrible songs to sing when I was in bands because I could sing a bit, so they’d give me like [the Jimmy Osmond song] “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.” And things like that. And also on covers because we used to do lots of cover sessions two or three times I’d get the Bryan Ferry songs you know.
And because they said “Get Trevor to do it, he can sing out of tune.” [laughs, and then affects a Bryan Ferry voice] “Come on, come on, let’s stick together.” I used to a really good impersonation of Bryan Ferry.

[laughs] You still can! it’s good. That’s good.
Oh thank you. So that’s how I … The Buggles suddenly have the same manager as Yes, and I got to meet Chris Squire and I was a bit of a hustler, I played him a song that Geoffrey [Downes, Horn’s Buggles bandmate] and I had written, “Fly From Here.” And he said the fateful words “Hey, you sound a bit like Jon Anderson.” So that’s how I got suckered into it. I had no idea Jon Anderson had fallen out with them. I had no idea what was going on. I thought they were just gonna do mine and Geoffrey’s song. But what we didn’t know that Rick [Wakeman, Yes keyboardist] and Jon had left the band, the band had sort of split up. So that’s how I ended up with them. It was for two tours. Tour over America and one album.
But you know what … to sing that high for two hours wore me out. So I didn’t really wanna be a rockstar, it didn’t appeal to me at the time, and I knew they were going to get Jon back at some point. And my late wife said to me, “I think you should forget being an artist for a while, you should be a producer because if you be a producer, you’ll be the best producer in the world.” And you know she was being … talking me up a bit. It’s funny that people say things like that to you, it really has gonna have an effect you. But she was right, because I’d spent five years making everybody’s demos and by this point I knew the studio, back to front, you know.

Right. It’s true, it’s funny how somebody else can help you realize your vision like that. Because they know you from a different perspective.
Yeah, that’s why I think it’s good to have bass lessons. Because it’s someone outside of you. Even though some of these things I’ve done on the bass course are quite easy, easy to look at, but you play them all the way through and have them sound right and then submit them to a teacher. I was about to play then til my finger ends were sore. Over and over again. Even though I can play them well, just to get a good take that I’m prepared to send to Danny, do you know what I mean?

So just that discipline is a really good thing, it’s the same thing with record producers, sometimes people think, “We don’t need a record producer, because we know what we want, we know what we wanna do.” Yeah, but you know you’re a group of people, a record producer is outside of you! And you should be aloof and not play any favorites. That input from outside is so vital sometimes.

Right. And how was your transition into being Yes’ producer, and when Jon came back to the fold, it seems like, did you ever have a conversation with any of the members saying “Well, you know he’s coming back and I …”
No I was the one that said Jon should come back.

Oh yeah?
Yeah, because we were halfway through the album, and I thought that we needed him back and we needed a frontman back.

It wasn’t gonna be me. I don’t think it would have been Trevor Rabin [Yes guitarist], certainly wasn’t Chris [Squire, Yes bassist], it had to be Jon. And so I had to go and see him, then of course I had to record it.

When I took on Yes, I was at that point in time the most successful producer of the world.

You played the ego card! [Were you] like, “I’ve done [huge hits for] Frankie Goes To Hollywood, I’ve done Malcolm McLaren.”
I hadn’t done Frankie Goes To Hollywood at that point …

Oh you hadn’t even done it? What were the ones that were …
ABC, and Malcolm McLaren, and Art of Noise!

Where I had big mainstream success with ABC. Really big sort of alternative success with The Art of Noise and Malcolm McLaren was all over the dance charts. So I was happening! Everybody thought I was crazy to [produce] Yes, just the same way they said that I was crazy to join them you know.

So, how was it to go back to them? I think was great because I’d been in the band with the guys so I could work with them in a way that I couldn’t work with other people. I mean there was one point where they didn’t want to do “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” They played it so many times and I kept saying, “it’s not right, it’s gotta be simpler.”

But in the end Chris said “I don’t think this songs right for us.” And because I’d been in the band I was able to kind of get crazy with him. I got on the floor and crawled around the floor, shouting, saying, “You can’t do this to me, I’m the most successful producer in the world and you’re gonna bring me down now because you won’t do this song! Please! I beg you, let me program the drums on this song, please, please”. And I kept going on about it “Please, just let me program the drums, and we’ll start from there rather than you all playing it!” you know? But they’d never done that before, they’d never played to a track. And they’d never tried it the other way round. And I think if I hadn’t been in the band I wouldn’t have been able to get them to do it.

And of course Chris came along when I programmed the drums and so did Alan [White, Yes drummer] and they got quite fascinated. We did it on an MPC and that sort of led onto other things.

That’s great.
So, it was good that I had been in the band.

When you look at your life’s journey in music and all of the different stations you’ve held: producer, bass player, bandleader even for a time, what is it that makes you most satisfied?
You know, I think you get the most instant pleasure from being a bandleader. I’ve got a great band and they’re all young, some of them are absolutely brilliant players. And when you see a bunch of young people and it’s a nine-piece band, you know, two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums, samples, and two singers, you know. I think you get the most instant satisfaction watching young people play music they’re really enjoying and coming out of themselves and learning what it’s like to entertain an audience and play something in front of them, you know with 15,000 people. That’s the most instant gratification.

Records are … you’ve gotta like the song, or they’ve got to be paying you a lot of money, one of the two. It’s hard work. Being a bass player is just playing the bass is also a very satisfying thing. You know, when I was just playing the bass in January in Brazil, I really enjoyed it because I was playing with a great drummer a guy called Steve Ferrone, he’s the best guy I’ve played with, the only guy I’ve played with that’s as good as Ash Soan who’s the guy in my band.

Well it sounds like you need to have all of these facets in your life; a little bit of production, a little bit of bass playing, a little bit of leading a band, and have you always had continuing music education in your life, or is this the first time you’ve come back to it in a while?
This is the first time I’ve gone back to it.

And it makes me think … well because I haven’t needed to, you know, the reading thing, I kinda stopped. People don’t read on my sessions, you’re making a record.

People aren’t reading, unless it’s string players and the horn players and they done it in an hour. What I found over the years is being able to read is to be in really good stead in terms of like, for instance if you’re producing a singer, and they’re singing … I had to a load of pre-records for [the soundtrack of] Mona Lisa Smile. And they were all known songs from 1949. Being able to get the top line and everything because I could read, I could show the person what the tune actually is there.

Yeah that started me reading again, really. That was the first time I actually had to look at it. I’ve had a few times over the years, as you know smart-ass musicians have tried to catch me out and I have fooled them.

That’s great. One last question: what is the production, the piece of produced music that you’ve had a hand in that you’re most proud of after all these years?
I would have probably said the four albums that I did with Seal. I produced the first four Seal albums. I still enjoy listening to that second album sometimes you know. The songs are so interesting. The only guy that could do a song in 7/8, and make it seem like it was nothing, you know.

What was it about your chemistry with him that really clicked?
We both liked the same records. We both were Dionne Warwick fans, we both liked Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Seal’s the best one-note bass player I ever came across. Seal plays bass like an African drum. It’s amazing I can’t do it.

That’s funny because he actually expressed some interest in taking a course with us, it was Learn to DJ with Traktor was the course. But I wonder how he’d do in some of the bass courses that you’ve been taking.
Yeah, it’s a funny thing, I’m gonna see him today, I’m gonna tell him he should do it because …

Yeah. Do it.
He’d love, this week’s bass parts! They’re cool you know.

As a point of reference, one of the things we discuss is the video for the Yes song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which he also co-wrote. Here’s the video. It killed the radio star.