Michel Sordinia talks about their time with the legendary producer, and the making of their classic “Swimming”
One night in my 20s in New York City, a friend and I were talking Joy Division and our mutual love for the cold and angular production of Martin Hannett, and he said, perhaps a bit flippantly:
“Forget about Joy Division. You gotta hear The Names. They’re so much better.”
I don’t know if he really meant it or if he was just being the provocative contrarian, but there was something to what he said. I fell in love with the burned copy of “Swimming + Singles” he gave me, and though Joy Divison may still be my favorite Factory Records (or any other kind of) band, that album, “Swimming”–and the singles that accompany it on its 2001 reissue–is probably more dear to me than any singular Joy Division recording.
Signing to Factory Records and having your hallmark record produced by Martin Hannett probably leaves any band saddled with Joy Division comparisons for life. That is after all how I found them. But after the base comparisons, you find that The Names stand on their own thanks in large part to the songwriting and melodic sensibilities of bassist and lead singer Michel Sordinia.
From the opening notes of the “Swimming + Singles” reissue, it’s clear that the band occupies a unique space–Hannett’s sparse production mixing with a rich and full sound that is alternately upbeat and poppy, or slow and heavy and dramatic. Sordinia and The Names are concerned with songwriting: hooks and choruses, bridges, the melodic interplay between instruments.
I purchased a copy of “Swimming + Singles” in earnest in advance of speaking with Sordinia last week. The single “I Wish I Could Speak Your Language” has always been one of my favorites–an epic wash of synths and underwater guitars around Sordinia’s haunting vocals. Or at least one version of it is. The collection contains two versions, one being a much more sparse production where the keys are almost entirely mute. What’s the reason for the two versions? Why is the more epic one called the ‘Pre-Hannett Mix’? These questions nagged me for years until I finally contacted the band on a whim and ended up face to face on Skype video chat with Sordinia a week later.
“In the basic Belgian character we have this great thing which is self irony. We are not taking things too seriously, especially ourselves,” Sordinia says of the band’s early days in native Belgium. In the late 70s, The Names were one of Belgium’s up and coming post-punk bands. They had self-produced their debut single “Spectators of Life” and released it through Warner. They got regular good press, but “still thought in Belgian terms,” according to Sordinia.
Their manager (Sordinia’s girlfriend and now wife, Michele Mauguit) ultimately convinced the band that their fortunes lie somewhere in the U.K. She managed to get a copy of their ‘Spectators of Life’ single into Joy Division manager and Factory Records partner Rob Gretton’s hands after a gig in Brussels, but band and manager alike worried about the record’s ultimate fate.
“Rob Gretton- he was a rather wild guy,” Sordinia chuckles. “Great great guy but excess on a daily basis. He was in sort of strange state and he had this attache case with a lot of other things in it that he put the record into. We thought the record would either be broken by the time he got back to Manchester, or he would have forgotten about it altogether. But to our surprise 6 or 7 days after that, Michelle got a call from a guy with a very strong North British accent–it was Rob Gretton. He said ‘we love you guys. Martin [Hannett] wants you. Would you agree to come in the near future and record at Stockport for Factory?’”
The band had also sent a demo to Fiction, another U.K. Label home to contemporaries (and influences) The Cure and The Passions. Sordinia remembers the moment two weeks later when he got a letter back from Chris Parry at Fiction saying: ‘Well, if you want to join us come to London and we would love to produce a single for you’. A brief period of second-guessing occurred.
“At that time, I remembered my argument was that Fiction was great and that we would probably sell more records on Fiction, but I felt much more close to Factory in terms of their politics, both artistically, and the statements they were producing. And there was Martin Hannett!’”
Sordinia first spoke to Hannett prior to recording. “I had phoned him to see if I could send him cassette recordings of the two songs we were planning on recording, but he said ‘No, I don’t want them. I’ve heard your stuff. I trust you.’” The band then met Tony Wilson to ‘sign’ their contract during a gig for A Certain Ratio in Brussels. “I said ‘Okay, so where do we sign?’ and [Tony] said ‘You don’t sign’, we have a handshake and it’s okay,’” Sordinia recalls. “And it was common back then and one of the explanations of why they sued each other like hell.”
Comprised of mostly students, the band traveled to Manchester to record a single after their final exams. Sordinia remembers a feeling of mutual respect and admiration upon finally meeting Hannett in person at the hotel. “We exchanged some ideas and plans, and he said a lot of nice things about us… It was like we had met before. We had a lot of common references. He was really nice as a human being. He was fun.” The ‘fun’ Sordinia experienced was perhaps a different experience for other band members.
“The methods used in the studio were rather peculiar. For the drummer in particular it was a real shock. Luc was there and Martin said ‘Oh no, don’t put the whole kit together, I want to record each drum separately. Snare separate. Toms come after that.’ Luc never had such an experience, so it was tough on him. The end result is of course great. You had to trust Martin on getting there.”
Sordinia himself stretched out at Hannett’s request in terms of his bass-playing. “I had my Gibson bass with me and he said to me ‘Leave that’, and he brought me his own bass. I can’t remember the brand but it was totally made out of metal and very hard to play, and I had to be stronger with my fingers to make the sound. I was not shy but I was not a great musician. I knew how to sing and write songs at a certain level, but I wouldn’t say I’m a master bass player. He said ‘No no, it’s good. With you, I will not have to go back to the studio and redo the bass like on some other songs you might know.’ He did that twice [with other bands] but I’m not free to reveal which songs it was.”
Sordinia says the atmosphere inside Strawberry Studios was open and collaborative, right up until the point of mixing, when Hannett completely took over. This dynamic played out in their first recording sessions together, for a single that would include the songs “Nightshift” and “I Wish I Could Speak Your Language”. “In the recording process, he was open to every idea, good ideas and silly ideas. “Nightshift”- a lot of what is making the sound and the song is a toy xylophone that Marc brought. When Martin saw it, he said ‘we will use this. I don’t know how, but we will use it.’ Later when we recorded the album, we experimented even more than that.”
“I remember that the final mix was brought back by cassette by Annik Honore, Ian Curtis’ ex. He died like five or six weeks before we came to Manchester to record ‘Nightshift’, but she was still going and coming to Manchester, and she brought it to us. And we listened to it all together. We were totally amazed and immensely satisfied by Nightshift. It was the B-side in the beginning and ‘I Wish’ was supposed to be the A-side. And Martin changed that, by wishing to change it, but also by the job he did on “Nightshift”- production wise it’s really amazing.”
Their open collaboration and experimentation continued as the band returned to record their album, “Swimming”. To get a specific guitar sound on the song “Light”, Hannett set up three guitar amps in a line in an isolation booth, and had the guitarist play at punishing volumes, while Hannett himself sat on his knees in front of him and literally ‘shook’ the guitar. “So people say ‘yeah, that’s an amazing sound’,” Sordinia finishes the story. “Well it was amazing to see them produce it.”
“Every ten seconds there was a new idea and he was buying our ideas very easily. That water sound- I had an idea of a water sound going throughout the album so there was no silence between tracks, so he said ‘That’s a good idea.’ In ten minutes he knew how to do it. He went to the toilet in Strawberry Studios, he put water in the sink and he took some toilet paper. The sound was recorded with two mics and (engineer) Chris [Nagle] recording back in the control room and Martin playing around with toilet paper and water.”
“He embraced every possibility of doing something strange and he knew he would eventually be able to use it in a creative way, and that’s something he had from the beginning on. The link between the idea and the concrete version of the idea being realized in sound was like that (finger snaps) with him.”
But what of Hannett’s propensity to take over in the mix? I ask Sordinia if–as is often reported with Joy Division–the band was somewhat apprehensive about the final sound Martin Hannett ascribed to them in mixing. This is the story of how the two versions of “I Wish I Could Speak Your Language” made it onto the rerelease. I’ve left Sordinia’s verbatim words intact here as his meaning will be clear.
“We were really surprised at how he handled the final mix on ‘I Wish’. The keyboards–a lot of it disappeared when Martin finished the mix. It was a great mix, but he had this tendency of emptying the sound, because he went for very bass sounds and very high-pitched sounds, and the medium has been sucked out. Christophe, the keyboard player, was disappointed–he had a lot of tracks that were left on the floor of Strawberry.”
“That’s the reason why we decided later on together with James Nice when we rereleased “Swimming + Singles” to have this bonus track that was the rough mix that was brought back from Manchester before he finished it. And as you know, it’s very different. And we still like to play that song and also some other songs, with more sound.” By ‘more sound’, Sordinia means more of the keyboards and their mid-range washiness. Sordinia claims that the opener of “Swimming”, “Discovery”, is another song where Hannett sucked out just a little too much keyboard, and with it, the power of the song to ‘go for the guts’, as Sordinia puts it.
With the rerelease of “Swimming + Singles”, The Names put their original unfinished ‘Pre-Hannett Mix’ of “I Wish I could Speak Your Language” back into circulation as a gem at the end of the album. And with it, in just a tinge of a sad way, there’s a crack in the myth and legend of Martin Hannett. To put it bluntly: the final mix, the one he slaved over and the one that bears his trademarks, just isn’t as good or as powerful as the original.
“The ‘Pre-Hannett Mix’- he got rid of it and of course it was not finished but we really liked the luxurious aspect of it, the very sensual aspect of it,” Sordinia says. “At one moment during the session he was really happy. He was a very big fan of Phil Spector. And he said ‘Guys, we have it. We are going to build our own wall of sound.’ And I feel like that mix, we have it. So we did not feel it would be a treason to Martin to release it discreetly.”
The Names released a new album in 2015, Stranger Than You (on Factory Benelux), and are currently playing shows in Europe with plans to visit the states later in 2016.