A look inside the intricate studio process of the U.K. band, which uses mad guitar experimentation to build meaty, infectious pop-rock songs.
The 1975 hit the world stage with a bang. Their self-titled first album debuted in 2013 at No. 1 in the U.K.—and it was near the top of the U.S. charts, too. They toured incessantly, built a huge fan base, and generated considerable buzz. The band’s ’80s-style, synth heavy, danceable grooves proved to be simply irresistible (pun intended) to the masses.
But the 1975 aren’t newbies. They formed in the early 2000s in Manchester, U.K., and the original lineup—guitarist Adam Hann, lead singer/guitarist Matthew Healy, drummer George Daniel, and bassist Ross MacDonald—has remained intact since inception. The quartet is a tight musical unit that’s worked hard to shape a unique brand of funk pop. It seems to be working. Their new album, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, is highly anticipated—their U.K. arena tour is already sold out—and they’re headlining arenas in the U.S. this spring. “We were busy on the first album,” Hann says. “We felt that on the second we wouldn’t have this insane amount of stuff to do. But if anything we have more stuff to do.”
At their core, the 1975 are a guitar band (preprogrammed synth patches notwithstanding). Their music is built around tight grooves, intricate interlocking rhythms, perfectly crafted tones, and tasteful solos. And they upped the guitar ante with their new release: From the fantastic comping on songs like “She’s American” to the studio wizardry of “Nana” to the outlandish Belew-era Bowie-esque solo on “Love Me,” I like it when you sleep is pop-guitar heaven.
Hann is the band’s primary guitarist and a serious gear geek. He tours with an array of amps, vintage guitars, and glorious pedals. But better, producer Michael Crossey indulged Hann’s geekiness in the studio. He shared his vintage gear, gave him space to explore, and spent days shaping tones and assembling perfect parts. The result is a stellar performance at a Steely Dan-level of perfection.
Hann spoke with Premier Guitar just before flying to New York for the 1975’s maiden Saturday Night Live appearance. We spoke about crafting amazing, impossible-to-duplicate sounds in the studio, the gear to get the job done, the 1975’s unusual songwriting methods, and how even a Music Man John Petrucci Signature Series guitar has its place in the arsenal of a top-selling pop band.
When did you first start playing guitar?
I was around 15 or 16. My cousin played—he came to visit and brought his guitar and a little practice amp. The next day I went to the local music shop and bought a 10-watt Marshall amp and an Epiphone SG.
Did you study or take lessons?
I had lessons for a bit, but I was obsessed so I’m mainly self-taught. I would do really monotonous things—parts I was trying to learn—to a metronome. I would play it slow and then speed it up and up until I could play it at the correct tempo. I used to spend hours sitting in my room doing things like that.
Did you ever experiment with placing the click on the backbeat or playing along with drum machines?
No. I would get tabs online and I’d just slow it down and play with this really awful sort of MIDI backing track until I could play it at full speed. I used to do really geeky stuff like “Cliffs of Dover” and that kind of thing. It was so many notes and saying so little, in a way—but I used to absolutely love it.
What was your first band?
Believe it or not, it was an early version of the 1975. Originally there were five of us. We’ve been through a few different band names, but today the same lineup minus one guy is the first band that I started with the guys over 10 years ago.
Talk about songwriting and your approach to guitar parts.
It’s evolved a little bit, but traditionally we’ve never had any chords. We sit rhythmic guitar parts on a bed of [synth] pads—the bass and the pads provide the chord movement and me and Matty play a rhythmical guitar part that interlocks with what George is doing. That’s developed as we’ve gotten older and we use more chords now—like in “Girls”—but it’s still very rhythmical. You’re still looking at an INXS 3-note chord, percussive vibe. That’s really what forms the basis of the guitar parts that we write.
Do you and Matt spend a lot of time working out different parts or does that happen organically?
What usually happens is, we have a basis of a song idea that one of the guys has created on a laptop in Logic with maybe a simple idea for a guitar part in there already. I will either take it and elaborate on it or work on a new part by myself. When I’ve done that, I’ll send it to Matty and George and say, “What do you think of this?” I’ll then take it back and go again from that. It’s like you’re working in your own little world a bit—it’s just the way it works for us having been together for so long. We do write the odd song in the traditional way. Like “Love Me,” for example, was written two years ago on tour jamming this idea out in soundcheck—that’s how we got that song. But predominantly George will sit on a laptop and create things that way, then he’ll say, “We need to put some guitars on this.” It’s a bit unconventional, but that’s what works for us.
So when you finally get together for rehearsal, a lot of your parts are already worked out.
What’s funny is, after the first album we said we should’ve gotten together more and played the songs before we recorded them. When we took the first album out on tour, we played the songs night after night and little parts evolved—naturally they get played a certain way that’s more comfortable. When we did the second album, we wanted to get together and play the songs and ideas we had so that process would happen before we started cutting it.
But the studio is an unlimited place of creativity. We weren’t going to get bogged down on the idea of, “Oh, we won’t do this because it’s impossible to do live.” We just do what we want to do—what sounds good and is right—and when it comes to playing the show we’ll work out how we’re going to do it live. We’ve got these creative guitar lines and massive layers of synths and keyboards—we didn’t get bogged down on the idea that it can’t be done. We’ll make it work. There’ll be a live version. We just want the recording of the song to be the best it can be.
Adam Hann, lead guitarist for the 1975, plays his 1962 Jag in front of his triple-amp rig, which consists of two Hiwatt Custom 50s and a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler
How are you getting that great tone on the “Love Me” solo?
We recorded the solo and then took the DI at the same time and fired bits of it back out through different pedals, amps, and delays to make this really weird sort of character for the solo. We had a lot of fun recording that. Mike Crossey, who recorded the album, said it’s probably one of the best guitar solos—not so much in terms of the playing on it—but in terms of the creativity behind the whole identity of it, that he’s ever recorded. So it was cool.
What are some of the tools you used?
So the main part goes through the Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, which gives it a weird, slightly slower attack—makes it like a wah-esque attack—with a low octave in there. It has this square wave bit on it, which gives it more of an unusual sound. Above all, we wanted it to sound not like a traditional guitar solo; it just needed to sound interesting. It then goes from that into a Klon—with no drive on it really, just to beef up the mids—and then through a Roland CE-1 chorus. It then goes straight into a really driven Audio Kitchen amp. Those are really good-sounding British handmade amps. It is a little 14-watt head with a 1x10 cabinet. It breaks up straight away as soon as you set it up.
“UGH!” has intriguing rhythm parts. How did you create those sounds?
For that, there’s a whole host of layering going on. The main analog, sort of organic, envelope sound you’re hearing is a phaser. I think it is a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase. It’s a classic phaser pedal that I don’t own—Mike Crossey has one. It’s a ludicrously expensive, sought-after phaser pedal. We did loads and loads and loads of takes with the phase on and then went through and captured all the moments where the sweep of the phase hit what we were playing perfectly. We then comped together all those moments to create that part—again, this is what I was saying about, “This is impossible to do live.” We’ll make it work—possibly with the HOG, with the expression pedal with a weird cutoff whammy sound or something like that.
Logic also has an auto filter that’s not necessarily used for guitars. But when we were tracking the demo we went straight into Logic and set up a guitar rig that had an auto filter in it—that’s in there on the recording, as well as the phaser sound.
That’s a lot of work for one rhythm track.
A lot of the recording of the guitars was like that. There is probably far more thought and intricacy that went into the recording than is obvious when you first listen to it. For example, there is another track on the album that we wanted to create this blanket of guitar sounds. We recorded the guitar part, captured the DI, and then went and cut it up and reamped each little section. Each time we did the part with a different set of pedals and effects that constantly changes throughout. You get this guitar part where from beat to beat—or even from eighth-note to eighth-note—it changes from a distorted guitar to a clean chorus guitar to a really extreme tremolo sound. That was on a song called “Nana.” When you first listen to it, you don’t imagine the actual process that happens to create that—it’s just sort of this constantly evolving guitar sound on a single part. The work that went into recording the guitar part took like two days in the studio for one seemingly incidental guitar part on the album.
What guitar did you use for “Love Me?”
There’s a funny story behind the guitar used for that song. When I was 17 or 18, my grandmother passed away, and my parents bought me a Music Man John Petrucci Signature Series guitar with her inheritance. This is when I was going through a phase of being obsessed with Dream Theater and John Petrucci and G3 and Steve Vai and all these virtuoso shredding guitar players.
We recorded the album in L.A. and when we were getting ready to leave, my manager rang and asked, “Are you taking that guitar?” I was like, “No, I’m not taking it. We won’t use it.” And he said, “No, you should take it because you never know. It’s the first expensive guitar you’ve ever owned. Take it.” Funnily enough, we ended up using that guitar on quite a lot of the album—and just for one specific sound. It has a really great out-of-phase sound. It’s got these two humbuckers in it, but the out-of-phase position has both coils split, so you get like a single-coil out-of-phase on it. That’s what got used for the main chord part on “Love Me,” for the solo in “Love Me,” and for the rhythm guitar part in “She’s American.” The reason it took us by surprise is that this album has a specific sound that we had in our heads, which is this ’80s active Strat sound—like you hear on a Madonna record. That Music Man had that kind of vibe, but a really well-balanced even sound to it. I would never have picked that guitar up and chosen it to do that, so it was a bit of a stroke of luck that we had it with us.
It’s this horrible maroon color and when it came to doing it live, the color was so bad that we ended up getting this white vinyl that we cut out and painstakingly stuck over the entire guitar. We then covered up the hardware with tape and threw a load of multicolored paint over it. Now it’s got this weird Jackson Pollock-esque look to it.
There are many of those great ’80s clean sounds on the album. Is that the main guitar you are using?
There is that, and we used an American Strat. Also Mike had a Nash, which was probably one of the best-sounding Strats I’ve ever heard—we used
that a lot. That and a Roland JC-120 or a Fender Twin was sort of the go-to. If we were in the studio and needed a clean sound for a part, that’s where we’d start and then we’d go from there.
What amps do you take on the road with you?
For a while I’ve had these Hiwatt Custom 50s, which are really good amps. They’re quite loud, which is a bit of a problem for us onstage, but they’re very transparent-sounding amps. I have two of those Hiwatts that go in stereo from my delays and reverbs. I have a JC-120 as well in mono and then the three get blended together at front of house. The Hiwatts are sitting underneath and supporting the body of the sound and then the Jazz Chorus adds a really nice sparkle on top. They seem to work really well together.
Do you use the gain from the Hiwatt for your distortion or do you use pedals?
I’m using pedals for that. I have a Klon in there—more or less most of the clean stuff will have a Klon on it just to prop it up, to make it sound a bit nicer. I know a lot of people are skeptical about Klons, but personally I think you struggle to find an overdrive that sounds that nice, especially in the low mids. Maybe I’ve got swept up in the hype, but I think it’s worth the money I paid for it. I also have a Wampler distortion, which is just really great—it’s like a Rectifier-sounding distortion.
When playing live, what are you listening to to keep your rhythm parts tight?
I’m listening mainly to the kick and snare. The benefit of playing with George for over 10 years now is that I can tell when he’s going to go off on some crazy fill. I need to just not pay attention to what he’s doing in a way—just try and stay on the beat—and we’ll meet back on the downbeat when he’s finished going around the kit. Back when I was a kid, playing to a metronome to learn stuff has benefitted me, especially on songs like “Love Me” where the rhythm guitar is so regimented. It’s about being as tight as you can possibly be—for me it helps to listen to kick and snare above anything else when we’re playing live.
It must feel good getting the new album out after so much time working on it.
We had the luxury of being able to spend four months in the studio in L.A. recording it. I feel like that’s an amount of time not many people get in the studio nowadays. We’re really quite lucky to have been able to go away for that long and really focus on each individual aspect and get it right. We’re definitely ready for everyone else to hear it.
A sonic tinkerer, Adam Hann incorporates many techniques and styles into his playing and might spend two days in the studio working on a single guitar part.
Adam Hann Essential ListeningTake a guitarist’s tour through four notable tunes and performances within the 1975’s repertoire.
Right from the opening chords, this song is an education in pop guitar—great ’80s tone and skin-tight groove. But what gives the song its particular muscle is the exceptional solo starting at 2:26. It employs an army of reamped tones, tricks, and exotic effects.
“This is a song about sex,” he says. What more do we need to say? Except check out Hann’s fantastic tones and innovative playing, especially his two-handed tapping starting at 2:36. Also check out this early iteration of his pedalboard at 1:49. It predates the RJM Mastermind MIDI switcher he now uses.
From their set on SNL, you can see a glimpse of Hann’s most recent pedalboard at 3:10. “I’m at the point now where if I have to do a show just using a regular pedalboard, I would probably struggle,” he says. “When you’re turning three pedals on and changing presets on four others, it takes you a while.” He nails the solo starting at 3:23.
Hann on a vintage Jag in front of a zillion people at Glastonbury Festival in 2014. “I have a 1962 white Jag that just sounds incredible,” he says. “The Music Man John Petrucci, the Fano JM6, and the Jag—those are the three main guitars I use at the moment.”