The National News: “Remixing Giles Martin”

On October 9, 1969, seven weeks and a day after The Beatles’ final recording session together at Abbey Road Studios, Giles Martin was born in London. It was John Lennon’s 29th birthday.

On July 7, 2024, The Beatles: Love, the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil show that has run for 18 years, closes permanently in Las Vegas. It will be Ringo Starr’s 84th.

“It’s quite sad. They’re knocking down the casino, and even the powers that be can’t change that,” Martin, 54, laments to The National.

“I was with Paul McCartney last week and we were talking about how long it’s been. It was the first thing I did on this journey, and it changed my life, genuinely speaking – making that show,” he continues. “And I’m very proud of it.”

The show wouldn’t have existed without Martin. In the early aughts, plans for a collaboration between the French circus and the Fab Four nearly fell apart before Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, had an idea of how to make it work.

“The whole thing was collapsing in on itself and out of pure desperation I went to Neil Aspinall, who was the head of the Beatles at the time, and I said to him, ‘I think I can create a show just by chopping up the Beatles tapes.’ He was like, ‘well, I’ll give you three months. You have until Christmas, and we’re not going to pay you.’”

Martin was undeterred. The collaboration had been George Harrison’s idea before he died in 2001, as he was friends with the circus’s founder Guy Labierte. Martin wasn’t about to let the whole thing fall apart.

“They gave me a small room at Abbey Road. I didn’t even have speakers – I just had a pair of headphones. But I kept going, and before I knew it, I’d created half the show.”

George Martin was 80 years old at the time, and not the picture of health. After weeks of work, Martin went to see him when he came home from hospital, anxious to play him the first remixes. His father hated it.

“He thought it was a bit sacrilegious,” Martin says. “But then Paul McCartney came in, and he really liked it. So, my dad changed his mind. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Given the green light, Martin spent the next three years holed up at Abbey Road, pouring through the band’s vaulted studio sessions in their entirety and listening to recordings that no one besides the Beatles themselves and Giles’ father had had access to for decades.

“No one was allowed to touch the Beatles tapes. For someone to go in and completely throw them up in the air and destroy the legacy in one go was a big deal,” Giles says with a smile.

“And it was all very secret. I was allowed to play my work for The Beatles and my dad and that’s about it. Even for the director of the show, I had to distort the sound before I played him anything. And I was sure, once everyone heard it, that they would hate it.”

The show, of course, with mixing credited to both Giles Martin and his father, became a huge hit, and its success did genuinely change Giles’s life. Suddenly, he was the ‘sound’ guy, and one of the music world’s most sought-after mixers, a skill he’d entirely learnt, he explains, by doing Love.

His newfound trade has proven useful. Over the past 18 years, Martin has produced the acclaimed deluxe editions of most of The Beatles catalogue, collaborated with a host of legendary artists including the Rolling Stones, Kate Bush and Elvis Costello, and worked on films with directors including Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, Ron Howard and Matthew Vaughn – winning himself an Emmy in the process.

It’s difficult to summarise his myriad accomplishments succinctly. It’s hard for even Martin himself to summarise what he does in a single day. He’s carved out an hour to speak over Zoom as he juggles his duties as head of sound for both Sonos and Universal Media Group, not to mention The Beatles or the new project happening in the next room that he’s just paused.

“Yeah, I’m working on a musical with Elton John, actually,” he says. “I’m in the studio now producing the drums. It’s a musical version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the film, and I’m overseeing the music as executive producer. I’m always bouncing around.”

Martin is often dismissive and self-deprecating of his own accomplishments. On some level, he seems downright surprised by his CV to this point, feeling he basically fell backwards into a thriving career in multiple industries.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for not having a clue what you’re doing,” says Martin. “I’m 54 years old, and I still feel like I’m making it up as I go along.

“I think that’s the trick. I’ve made a career having a strange foundation in things, but if everyone has the same foundation, you’d all end up doing the same thing, and it ends up being boring.”

Martin’s value, in his mind, is that he hears things differently from those with years of formal training and thus notices things that they don’t.

He points to the recent launch of the Sonos Ace, which have received nearly universal rave reviews despite being the first headphones that the speaker-focused audio equipment manufacturer has produced, as an example.

“I was really involved from the outset, but mostly I act as an annoying child in the back of the car, so to speak. I ask questions, and maybe I irritate people. But if I do that enough for a long enough period, and make the right points, we end up getting somewhere.”

He was explaining to McCartney recently how all his work is linked. Whether he’s mixing a record or making a pair of headphones, his goal is the same – make the interface disappear. When you’re listening to The Beatles, you don’t want to be conscious of the work done to restore it – you want to immerse yourself in the music. The same goes with a pair of headphones.

“You don’t want to taste the fork your meal is on. It’s just a conduit to what you love,” says Martin.

Perhaps the reason Martin is so good at all of this is that he yearns to be closer to the music than anyone else. He grew up around music because of his father – but only catching glimpses of brilliance in passing. Even now, he still spends a lot of time wondering about the genius of his dad’s Beatles years. With each new project, he immerses himself in the magic of their collaboration all over again, mentally, physically, and spiritually, still trying to understand it – still in awe that it even happened at all.

Martin says: “I asked Paul about this last week at lunch. I said, ‘did you think John was good when you met him?’

“Paul goes, ‘Yeah, he was a great singer, and he had great songs. He wasn’t a very good guitar player – I was a better guitar player when I met him, and then he became a great guitar player.’

“There was just an energy between them – a creative spark in that room, in that studio. It’s the sound of four people who just happened to meet. And so, when I do Beatles stuff, I’m just trying to capture that feeling,” Martin continues.

Being good at what he does requires a lot of confidence, something he’s struggled with at times. He feels the weight of every change, particularly when he’s alone in a room remixing an old Beatles record, knowing the version he comes up with will be the version that will be definitive potentially for generations to come.

“I have to make these decisions on what people really care about, and I have to be the one to make the decision. But I think you have to admit that you may be wrong. And that doubt can be helpful,” says Martin.

At times, he has got it completely wrong. Martin remembers when he sat down to remix the Lennon song I Am The Walrus for last year’s edition of The Beatles 1967 – 1970, known by fans as ‘The Blue Album’. He’d worked tirelessly at it, stripping away a lot of the distortion, isolating the instruments, and at first, he thought it sounded great.

“Then I listened to the original and I realised it was so much worse. The original is horrible sounding in a way that really suited the song, and mine was too clean. So I went back and redid it all.”

But while the self-doubt can sometimes give him the perspective, it can also be paralysing.

There’s one moment in particular he thinks back to. In 2016, he was working on the film Kingsman: The Golden Circle with director Matthew Vaughn, and the two of them were trying to interpolate Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy with the film’s key fight scene. It wasn’t going very well.

“My dad was on his death bed at the time, and I was under a lot of pressure. So I went to him and I said, ‘I’ve got a question for you, Dad.’ And he said, ‘what is it?’

“I said, ‘did you ever think you were bad at music?’ And he said, ‘That’s a strange question to ask me.’ I said, ‘well, no, Dad, I’m always fighting with my demons. I’m always asking myself, why am I doing this, of all people?’

“And he said, ‘no, I think you’re amazing. I think you’re better than I was.’ I said, ‘no, I’m not, Dad. But did you feel like that?’ And he closed his eyes and went, ‘no – I always thought I was brilliant.’”

It wasn’t until his father died that Martin was approached to begin remixing the Beatles albums starting with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a project he initially turned down.

“I said no. Why would you want to remix an album that doesn’t sound bad? They said they thought it could be interesting. So I agreed to do a few songs, and The Beatles liked them, so I kept going.”

Martin’s relationship with McCartney has made him a witness to a constant war with ‘good enough’.

“I mean, he’s a musical genius, obviously, but it’s more than that. I’ll work with the guy on a horn arrangement, and we’ll finish, and it will be good. And then we’ll play it and Paul will say, ‘yeah, but it just sounds like a horn arrangement. What’s different about it? How about this?’

“And it’ll be really annoying, but it will be a really good idea. It’s always a challenge, that’s how it should be. It feels like most people today are scared of being challenged.”

Martin is far from done with The Beatles catalogue. Next, there’s Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and, because of the AI techniques that he’s been using to separate individual strands of the recordings, he’s excited about the opportunity to dive back into the band’s early material in a way that was previously impossible.

“There’s a few things we have planned that I think fans are really going to like that I obviously can’t tell you about,” he teases. “Sam Mendes is making these Beatles movies. I’ve met him to discuss it a couple of times and while it hasn’t been confirmed, I’d be very surprised if I wasn’t involved.”

Martin alternates between sheepish and assertive. On one hand he knows he’s now the go-to person for everything Beatles outside of the surviving Beatles and their immediate family members, but he also isn’t comfortable with the assertion that he has the keys to their kingdom.

“I think people like the idea because I’m father’s son. I mean, we’re both very languid, posh, tall people. I think it fits, and what I’ve found in life is that people like what fits.”

Perhaps that’s because, at the end of the day, what pushes him further is knowing that their brilliance is always just out of reach. Maybe that’s why he encourages his daughter, too, to push herself out of her comfort zone.

“She’s 17, and I played her Common People by Pulp the other day for the first time, and it instantly became one of her favourite songs. She’d never heard a song that gets faster and faster before.

“I have to be careful, because I’m some middle-aged guy and what do I know, but I don’t think music is challenging enough any more. And I hate the fact that I’m a parent trying to make my kids more subversive. It should be the other way around. Before parents would turn their kids’ music off because it’s weird, now it’s because it’s boring.”

Martin feels bad about being stuck in the past, but he just can’t leave it behind. There’s still so much brilliance to uncover – and perhaps his own potential lies in finding it.

Thinking back again on his father and The Beatles, he remarks: “I aspire to be as good as they were, but I’ll never quite get there.”

{ SOURCE: The National News, William Mullally }