A RARE CHAT WITH CAMERON MCVEY
Cameron McVey is a true unsung hero of music and popular culture; A man of notoriety, loved and feared in equal measure across the industry, A collaborator, Producer & artist in his own right, who brought to life the likes of Massive Attack, Sugar Babes, Neneh Cherry, All Saints, Mabel to name a small few.
THE BEGINNING OF A LEGACY
Killa Kela: You’ve had a life of many lives and worked with such high-level acts ranging from Massive Attack to Sugababes, to All Saints and of course Neneh cherry. Let’s go back to the beginning How did it all start for you?
Cameron McVey: I’ve done a lot of things over the years. I was a fashion designer. I used to direct MTV before MTV Europe existed. I was a photographer, I worked for Vogue. I did a lot of mentoring. I used to be an athlete when I was younger. I took the concentration and dedication I learned from that and used it throughout my life. I literally went through the yellow pages found a guy he gave me a job in photography and that’s how it all started.
Killa Kela: You’ve clearly done your ten thousand hours. You’ve got a keen eye. Where do you think you’re creativity and skill set come from?
Cameron McVey: I grew up with a blind mother. I was always describing stuff to her and that’s where I learned to tell stories and write lyrics.
My mum always use to say big fish small pond, small fish big pond, dig your own pond. I was a pond digger and my whole family in pond diggers. If you’re a big fish in a small pond you’re going to be a bully. If you’re small fish in big pond you’re going to get bullied. If you dig your own pond you make your own rules.
My dad died when I was really young and I had to start fending for the family. I figured out very early on that you really should do what you want to do. You might only get a couple of years to run at it so it’s important to go and do the things that you want to do. Learn, get involved, do the research, study. Be Radar from M.A.S.H., he always had everything before he was asked for it. Be the best you can be even if it’s a menial task like sweeping up.
It’s important to get stuff done and do research. Ask questions. There is also the other side of that which I learned maybe too late in life is learn to turn off, learn to shut down, learn to meditate, learn to have a space of nothing because otherwise you’re gonna go pop.
Killa Kela: Over the years you’ve been surrounded street culture from back in the day to now and dealing with the clientele such as Judy Blame, Mark Lebon, Buffalo Movement, Dave Baby, Scarlet Cannon, these sorts of 80s fashion icons, and even some of the early street artist and graffiti writers such as Goldie. How did that influence you?
Cameron McVey: I think it’s really important to be surrounded by great people. Learn from them and just let them be really great. Empower them. You don’t really even have to say anything, you’re just there for each other. If you know enough about the medium to know how great they are then you afford them the ability to be themselves. Its inspiring and every once and a while you get to contribute something to what they are doing.
Killa Kela: i’d like you to go back if you can back to New Romantic era, the two-tone era. The 80s was kind of doing its thing merging and you were on the cresp of all that activity west end soho you were on the front line. The music and fashion, Explain what that was like?
Cameron McVey: It was all based around clubs. Everyone was so different. A lot of us were really into Reggae music because of Ray Petri. The music at that time was heading towards being more melting pot hence, the Reggae influence behind culture club for instance, the funk behind Spandau ballet, the Reggae and Ska music behind Madness. It was all just a melting pot. My fashion style was buffalo. Ray Petri he basically started male fashion in the kind of macho sense. Prior to him fashion was a little just whack and a little traditional and Ray just came in and changed it all. A lot of current fashion is still based on his genius.
Killa Kela: Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance that’s a lot later on but that’s where it derived from wasn’t it? It was very much a statement, and way of life.
Cameron McVey: Ray recognized that Neneh was was a powerful human and and had an amazing aura and an amazing look. Ray took a few of us to prepare in a series of shows and fashion exploitations in Tokyo and that’s when Neneh’s thing started to gel. All her previous training as a human became suddenly interesting to the fashion community. Buffalo stance then came out and we just we just use Neneh to front it basically.
In fact, Buffalo Stance is actually a b-side to a boy band record that I did with Jamie Morgan for a laugh. We were Morgan-McVey and we did this tune called “Looking Good Diving” but we did we needed a b-side. I just thought well let’s put a Neneh on there. Nelly Hooper came up with the concept . Tim Simenon from Bomb the Bass went in and reproduced it made it into a single. The lyrics were kind of me and Jamie doing our pop thing. It was just another one of those things where we dug our own pond.
By that time, Neneh and i started seeing each other and then she got pregnant. We had a record coming out the record company needed an album and thought we would have to wait until after the baby. Neneh was like what the fuck? why can’t I go on Top of the Pops pregnant and it became so iconic. But, we still didn’t have any money we had baliffs coming around even after we had our first hit. Ray was dying of aids. In between singles one and singles two Neneh had the baby and the baby from being in the belly was in the video.
Killa Kela: Let’s get into the Massive Attack era. Again, it was all very cottage industry.
Cameron McVey: Yeah we made “Blue lines” in the house that managed to buy with Neneh’s first publishing advance. We couldn’t afford to work anywhere because we’d spend all our money for the deposit so we did it at home. Neneh was starting to get successful, Mushroom was coming up to mind the decks. 3D was helping us write raps. We start making some music. We got all these people in that would help us make the record.
Killa Kela: Respect integrity and longevity those seem to be your main values as a creative and as a producer, would that be correct?
Cameron McVey: The definition of a great producer for me is like a person who is adept at recognizing greatness and also is adept at being part of a team and is humble enough to recognize that that they know nothing and they’re not really in control. I think in the studio when you’re producing a vocalist you’ve got to know how to to do what’s necessary. When you’re working with singers you’ve got to be able to be confident enough that if you go out and prod someone in the abdomen it’s not offensive it’s it’s an aid and you’re teaching people how to breathe and just have to relax and find themselves. You’ve got to be able to put them in a place of confidence rather than just bursting in their bubbles
When you don’t know anything your best option is to ask can you help me and then be good enough and respectful enough to listen and ask again if you don’t understand or get on and prove that you do understand. You have to understand the basic concept of something. Everybody works at a different speed, but I’ve found over the years the better people you’re working with the more honest you are with them the more kind they are to be able to help you. I think really good people tend to get quite a lot of their skills and power from mentoring other people. Successful people can go two routes they can either help other people or they can become egotistical.
Killa Kela: You are a really big fan of demos aren’t you?
Cameron McVey: Demos are so important. As a producers, I find dicta phones are really essential because you want to capture that first moments.
When we did “Blue lines” we’d work for ages trying to recreate tracks to make it sound more technically correct. But, what I did was I would wait for everyone to go home, take the demo and copy it. People think that that’s technically like really well done. You’re not supposed to do what I did but that’s what make that record sound so crusty was the fact I was just copying chunks of it off the demo.
Killa Kela: As a producer you have a very interesting way of working, talk to me about that.
Cameron McVey: Nelly Hooper actually said to me one day you know whenever were going to make a record every time you just basically looks like you’ve never done it before. He’s exactly right, whenever I go in the studio it’s like why are we here what are we doing? what do i do? everything is different.
I’ve also got this rule. I don’t let people leave the studio telling me that they’re going to do the second verse tomorrow. No, you do the verse now because, we’re going to forget why we were here. The energy will be gone. People will argue with me like oh no it’s fine, I’ve run out of time. And I’ll just say no, i’m sorry but you’re not leaving, not even to for a piss.