I met Alex Fenton the first time we did a Trampoline show at the Wee Red Bar. Since then he has become the main reason why bands who play Trampoline go away happy after a show. Laid back, friendly and super helpful wouldn’t even begin to come close to summing Alex up. Mitchell Museum were one of the few bands I’ve ever heard thank a sound engineer for his work, not only for their set but for the way he worked the whole day at the Trampoline all day event in December. And they were right. Without Alex Trampoline would fall apart. Having him work means I never have to worry about how a show will sound. It will always sound brilliant and my mind is firmly at rest. What people might not know is that he runs his own business Fentek Audio which caters for all types of work. He is also one half of Indie/Electro outfit Flying With Penguins and has recently been working on solo material as well. He’s kindly taken time from his hectic schedule to answer some questions for The Steinberg Principle. Enjoy.
TSP: In your opinion, what makes a good sound engineer?
AF: Attention to detail, commitment, patience and an ability to be bossy when needed. Obviously having a well tuned pair of lugs is pretty high on the list. Also, you have to be able to think on your feet and problem solve efficiently and quickly. I would say that engineers shouldn’t always do what is ‘supposed’ to be done. You can easily do something by the book and it might not turn out well. If you use your ears then you’re more likely to get a good result. There’s a legendary quote from music producer Joe Meek – “If it sounds right, it is right”.
TSP: In terms of dealing with bands have you encountered any particularly sticky situations? You don’t have to name names of course (cause The Kays would be namechecked too many times!) just experiences which have benefited you as an engineer and your approach to dealing with artists which can often be tricky.
AF: Every sound engineer encounters tricky situations. In terms of artists being awkward there’s always a few who are difficult or too big for their boots. I’m quite an accommodating and non-confrontational person so when someone kicks up a fuss, I’ve not always dealt with it well. It’s something I’ve got better at though. There is, however, a point when a band goes too far. I remember one particularly crap promoter who phoned me from the pub to say the drummer was turning up in a taxi but didn’t have enough cash. He asked if I would fork out for it and he’d give me the money back. That’s not in the job description – I should have just said no but if I did the gig may not have happened. I ended up paying the taxi driver and I did get the cash back. But I reckon being accommodating makes me a better engineer than someone who won’t bend a little cause it’s too much of a hassle. At the end of the day, our job is to make the music sound as good as it possibly can. And that also means getting the best performance out of the artist. That can’t be done if you piss them off cause you couldn’t be bothered putting out that extra microphone.
TSP: You’ve been involved in a wide range of projects in terms of live engineering. Can you give us a brief run down of some of the shows you’ve worked at? Are there any that particularly stick in the mind as being great experiences?
AF: One of the first big gigs I did was an early Frightened Rabbit gig several years ago in Teviot which was pretty cool. A couple of Woodenbox shows stand out. I went to Connect festival with them a couple of years ago which was great, and their single launch back in the summer at King Tut’s was a wicked gig. It was totally packed and the crowd were so enthusiastic that it massively heightened my enjoyment. Obviously I always enjoy Trampoline shows at the Wee Red cause the bands are always great. Another great job was being the chief engineer at the GRV for the fringe the year it first opened. Everything was so hectic but getting to work on the fly with people like Reggie Watts, Amanda Palmer, Tim Minchin and The Magnets was great.
TSP: Your business Fentek Audio has been up and running for over a year now. Can you explain a little as to what services you offer?
AF: Yeah sure. As well as sound engineering, I specialise in location recording, music production and mastering. My recording setup is mobile so I can record absolutely anywhere. Recording on location adds variety to the recording process and can often benefit the material. I also record in the Wee Red Bar which is great because there’s plenty of space, it’s got a good atmosphere and is easily customisable. I record quite a lot of live gigs and I’ve also done a fair bit of mixing audio for film too.
TSP: What projects have you got on at the moment and/or lined up for the future?
AF: Well there’s an album I’m mixing for some band called the Kays something… I forget! Seriously though, it’s a project I’m very much enjoying and I genuinely like the music. I’m just finishing off an EP for a new Edinburgh band called Shooting Stansfield who are a really good melodic indie band. Coming up in the near future I’m recording a live album in a church for modern blues artist Man Gone Missing, and I’ve got another single in the pipeline for Ewan Butler. He’s a great singer songwriter from Bathgate who I worked with a few months ago and he’s come back for more.
TSP: Live sound engineering or recording records, which gives you a bigger buzz?
AF: It’s got to be recording. Sound engineering can be great but it can also be extremely dull. And it’s easier for me to get involved creatively with recording as I always try and take a more producer kind of role. It’s such a great feeling when you strike up a great working relationship with a band and you’re on the same wavelength firing ideas back and forth. And the feeling when you lay down the last bit of audio, or stick the final mastered CD in a hi-fi. When I did the White Heath EP, we met up once it was finished and we sat together and listened to the whole thing in silence. They were so chuffed with it – the feeling was just great.
TSP: Many people may not be aware that you are also in a band called Flying With Penguins and are currently working on solo material was well. What’s happening on these fronts in 2010?
AF: Well the Flying With Penguins stuff has taken a bit of a back seat for a while due to work stuff but we have some cracking new material that we’re really pleased with so it will inevitably be released as an EP or album at some point. We intended it as an album and have written it in order which is quite a challenge. We’re up to track 8 I think but not totally decided on how it will end up. The solo stuff is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I always used to play gigs on my own, just acoustic guitar, and after all the influences I’ve encountered from work and music over the last few years I wanted to see what I would come up with now. There’s some new songs and some resurrected older material. I’m also in the middle of doing a series of remixes for local artists. Already done one of a Molly Wagger tune and hopefully got some for esperi, Randan Discotheque and Jonnie Common in the pipeline. Hopefully they’ll all let me loose with their files!
TSP: We’ve discussed in the past how important it is to you that you’re not just known for being a sound engineer. Difficult question but do you take more pleasure in working on the music of others or in producing your own?
AF: That is a tricky question but I think actually, they are much of the same to me. As long as I am being creative, I’m happy. Probably the best feeling though, which all song-writers will relate to, is the feeling from writing music. The buzz and emotional boost you feel when you’ve written a song. It’s like exorcising a demon.
TSP: You’ve obviously worked at the Wee Red Bar for quite a long time now being exposed to a wide range of music coming out of Scotland and further a field. Do you have any particular favourites or bands you would recommend that people check out?
AF: For me, White Heath are one of the most exciting bands on the horizon. They seem to strike the perfect balance between being experimental and accessible. Plus they are bloody nice guys and give really energetic live performances. I’d also like to join the fan club for Conquering Animal Sound. There’s a big buzz about these guys and once you see them live it’s quite obvious why. Local bands I’m a fan of include Woodenbox With a Fistful of Fivers, Over The Wall, Come On Gang!, Jonnie Common, We See Lights and Araya to name a few. Also, The Last Battle seem to have come out of nowhere recently and I really like their tunes. There’s a couple of random bands from further afield that I’d recommend. 6 Day Riot are a very good alternative folk band from London and BigHands BigHeart are a pop electronic act that I really enjoyed.
TSP: What, in your opinion, makes the Wee Red Bar special as a music venue?
AF: I think it’s the character of the place which makes it special. Once you’ve been, you remember it. The staff are friendly, the drink is cheap and it’s got a great sound system which is obviously vital for a music venue. It’s flexible too with both gig and club nights working equally well. But it’s best trait is probably it’s worst too. It can be hard to find and it is a bit off the beaten track which reduces the chance of passing trade, but that means that when people do get there, they feel like they’ve discovered something special. I’ve never heard anyone say they hate the venue but maybe that’s cause they wouldn’t say it to my face!
TSP: Finally, what are you most looking forward to in 2010?
AF: Well I’m getting married so I suppose that’s the biggest thing for me. Not really music related though. I’m just looking forward to getting on the gigging scene more, and keeping on expanding the recording side of my work. So if anyone reading this is up for some recordings with character, you know where to come!