Mark “Spike” Stent does not work for a living. Mixing and producing major record releases in his LA-based studio is, as he describes it, “getting paid to do my greatest hobby with my friends.” It sounds nice, like something we all want to say about our jobs. But unlike Spike, our friends don’t happen to be people like Bjork, Massive Attack and Gwen Stefani.
For those of us that look behind the scenes of our favorite albums, Spike may already be familiar. That is to say, we take the time to slide the booklet out of the CD case, or carefully examine the edge of a record sleeve to read the fine print. Whether or not you squint your eyes at the details, if you have been a fan of any major rock, pop, R&B or even hip-hop release over the last three decades, you have most likely been witness to the sound-engineering genius of Spike Stent. And, if you look at the album credits, you will find his name over and over again on everything from Bjork’s Homogenic to Frank Ocean’s recent premiere LP: Channel Orange.
Born in England, Spike (though back then he still went by Mark) started out at Surrey’s world-famous Jacobs Studio the way most people that work in the music industry do; mowing lawns and doing odd-jobs (while learning the technique he would later become a pioneer in). When UK-based reggae group Steel Pulse began recording their 1984 release, Earth Crisis, Spike would be called into action by fate. The primary engineer working on the album at the time received news that his father had died, and Spike was asked to “knock out” some rough mixes while he was away. Days later, the bands manager called his boss to inform him that the group wanted the then 17-year-old Spike to mix the remainder of the album.
A few years later he would officially become “Spike” while working as an engineer under John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) on an album for the English gothic-rock band The Mission. Unable to remember his name, the band referred to him as Spike because of his hairstyle. Since then, he has given his signature three-dimensional sound to some of the most famous artists of our time. Spike’s expertise crosses all musical genres. And his portfolio upholds his reputation as one of the most versatile producer/engineers of all time.
When I finally locked down a phone interview with the man himself, I assumed I would be calling in the middle of a sound-engineer’s hectic schedule. I prepared myself for a brief conversation with generic answers. The scheduling of the interview itself had me wondering -it was scheduled for 9:30 AM sharp on a Tuesday- He probably has important deadlines; he did after all work on the latest No Doubt album, and is in the studio with Moby pretty regularly. But no, we were scheduled around his son’s dentist appointment with whom Spike was sitting at home on a weekday.
How long have you lived in Los Angeles?
I’ve been coming here for many years for work and, well, its quite funny. We came with my four children and my wife on Holiday for six weeks, and that was five years ago!
Has working in LA offered you more insight into the various styles you work with?
I think its changed things slightly. I think I always did a lot of work from here anyway. But, actually living here and breathing here, you kind of understand the sound of American records a lot more. I especially understand the urban hip-hop world more. Actually being here and listening to the radio you sort of embrace it I guess.
You are often referred to as a pioneer in how records are produced.
I can’t know if I pioneered anything. You keep doing it until it starts clicking and you understand things. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I wasn’t even 16 when I started and I’ve been doing this for 30 some-odd years. You kind of learn how to do things and how not to do things and sometimes its through experimenting. Not a day goes by where I don’t learn something from what I do.
As someone who works with other artists to perfect their sound, how do you see your own artistic expression coming across through mixing?
I work on lots of genres of music and lots of different types of music. It keeps me fresh that way so I like to sort of bring in elements of those sounds that I’ve found. I mean I like things to sound very 3D and deep, and powerful and emotional. If I achieve that I’m in their music. Hopefully I don’t put my imprint on their music too much because its their music not mine you know what I mean? All I do is make it sound how it should sound.
You worked with Frank Ocean on Channel Orange. What was it like working with an R&B artist from a new generation?
Firstly, Frank is an amazing artist and should be an inspiration for his generation. Its fantastic what he’s doing and that record is brilliant. I think he’s got a lot to say and people are listening. He does something different in the urban world that isn’t so straightforward. What he’s actually saying in his lyrics is incredible and very moving. It’s Real.
Tom Dumont from No Doubt described you as sort of a filter, like you were almost directing the band to get a better sound out of them. Is directing normal part of what you do?
We experimented a lot. I like experimenting as much as time allow us too. I think it’s important that you try and do something unique and different. But obviously, the main thing is no losing sight of what the song is about because you can really disappear up your own ass very quickly. You need to have a vision.
How did you come to work with No Doubt on their latest album Push and Shove?
I Mixed the 'Rock Steady' album and worked on Gwen's solo albums, so had a strong relationship with Gwen and the band. Adrian approached me at first, about producing the new album and it was an easy yes. Even though I don't often jump into the production seat, I was excited about the prospect of getting No Doubt back into the studio together. The important element for them was to stay true to the No Doubt sound, while incorporating their love of the 80's with contemporary production techniques.
They haven’t produced a record for quite some time, what was it like getting back in the studio with them?
It's been a long and amazing journey, which I have loved, and there have been so many amazing moments. One that stands out was when we first started working on the record at Tony's (Kanal) house. I remember we had just finished recording some guitars with Tom on, 'One more summer', when Gwen walked in to listen and totally freaked out when the chorus hit! It gave us such a rush of energy and excitement, I knew we were on to something!
How would you describe your relationships with the various talents you work with have developed over the years?
I am lucky enough to have been in a position for many years to only work with artists, where I am excited about their music. I have a particular fondness for the artists I have worked with over many years and many albums, such as Bjork, Massive Attack, Madonna, Gwen, among others. It's important for me to become someone they trust and can rely on.