Gordon Raphael has spent four decades working with musicians, performers and songwriters to create genre-defining sounds. His work with The Strokes, Regina Spektor and The Libertines has made him one of the world’s most sought-after music producers.
Raphael produced The Strokes’ debut EP The Modern Age, as well as their first two albums Is This It and Room on Fire, from his basement studio in NYC, has performed in his own bands and shared the stage with the likes of The Psychedelic Furs. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.
My father, Dr Larry Halpern, made his professional life in science and medicine and his passion was jazz music. He really wanted me to be a scientist, a professor, make a good living and to play music on the side. He was worried that I would flip the priorities.
When I was seven, he took me to a pharmaceutical company’s open house day to see a chicken who could supposedly read. From then on, I had to learn all about science as it sounded cool. At 16, he asked me if I wanted to help the research assistants in his scientific laboratory at the University of Washington. He said it would look good on my college applications and so I went to work for him.
Colleagues wore white lab coats and I was excited to be around these freaky, intelligent, hippyish type graduate students. My dad was the boss and was like a rock star, where they were there to learn from him. He was well liked, smart, hip and, as he was an only child, he always wanted to be the centre of attention. I was paid $50 a week and I saw some of the best parts of my dad in that environment.
He was also one of the government’s trusted researchers on marijuana and other street drugs. If the police had a question they would go to him for advice. Dad was at the cutting edge of science and at the time he was also trying to find a cure for epilepsy. He had a computer as tall as a refrigerator in the lab and this was rare for the early 1970s.
At a little desk in the corner was also a fancy electric typewriter. I loved creative writing and when I wasn’t needed I would start to write stories. There was a girl at my High School who I liked and so I wrote a letter on a roll of toilet paper which I fed through the typewriter. Many years later she presented it to me.
I was there for two summers before going to university in Seattle. But my passion was turning increasingly towards music over a science career and I quit after two weeks. Let’s just say it was like World War IV when my father found out.
The war only ended about two decades later; I was in such a popular group in Seattle called Sky Cries Mary – the first band to stage a live concert on the internet – that his medical students came in wearing my band’s T-shirt. Dad was like ‘That’s my son’ and admitted then that I was doing okay.
When I became a music producer, my recording set up, with wires everywhere, felt exactly like dad’s laboratory. Having piles of the most interesting and powerful technology really rubbed off me and I have been recreating his place of work ever since.
Just like he was the centre of attention, when I am in my bands I am the leader. I write the songs and help everyone play the parts. My dad also did it in a very enjoyable way and didn’t belittle or criticise people in his work. I took that into my music and production.
He was certainly his own boss. He applied for government grants and he was at the forefront of new discoveries. I am always looking for the same and being a producer and engineer is a scientific job - there is always mathematics and theories behind the music.
I don’t think about science too much now but I use these intellectual techniques every day when I am working. When I collaborated with The Strokes, I was trying to find out what they were looking for. I told them to listen when I ran the music through a two preamp and put settings on it. Their first reaction was for me to dial it back and be less aggressive and so we refined it for their first personal taste.
There was definitely a lot of invention going on with the This Is It album. There were a lot of strange sounds you wouldn’t hear on a rock and roll record from that time period, with the drum machines and distinctive electronic sounds. It was just them playing their instruments while I was weaving science and magic in the background.
The World Is Going To Love This: Up From The Basement With Strokes by Gordon Raphael will be published by Wordville Press in 2022