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Crate Minds: An Interview With Frank Merritt (The Carvery)

An institution for independent artists and globe-trotting stadium fillers alike, Frank’s Carvery is held in the highest regard amongst a cross-section of musicians. From dubplate cutting, engineering, label running to mastering Grammy-nominated records, Frank kindly took time out earlier this month to lift the lid on all things Carvery.

Talk us through where mastering & cutting started for you and what led to The Carvery’s inception.

I started The Carvery in late 2003 with my friend George Thompson (Black Merlin). We were DJ partners and were looking for some way of getting extra cash. When we started the company all DJs played vinyl, control disc computer software didn’t exist and CDJs were still pretty basic. They still had there flap that you had to close and the silly jog wheel, nothing like the high-end computers we know today. If you were a producer, beat-maker or simply wanted to make an edit to play out, you would need to either cut an acetate (which lasted you 20/30 plays) or release a record. Simply put, George and I saw a gap in the market. We found this guy in South-West Germany who had designed a cutting lathe that could cut into the plastic with a 1000 play lifespan. George and I jumped at the chance. I flew off to Germany to buy the lathe with plans to return and make our fortune. I returned with the lathe in 100 pieces and we found a studio in Hackney Wick, which I suspect has been demolished by now. We cobbled together the lathe from the worst instruction manual in history and tried to cut a record. The first thing that happened was that I broke one of the £130 diamond styli.

Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise was that cutting records is really quite tricky, particularly if cutting into plastic, which is really hard and unforgiving. A year or so later (and endless diamonds and a few tears) we had just about got the hang of things when Serato arrived on the scene. Boom! There went our market! Suddenly our client base shrunk by 70%. The company couldn’t support the two of us, George went off to become the prolific producer he is now and I battened down the hatches to work out where to go from there. I managed to find a bunch of rare Reggae and Soul collectors. A lot of the audio they gave me was from rough beat-up records so I set about learning how to restore and remaster. Restoration is a skill, a little like Photoshop. The more you do it the better you get. I wouldn’t call it an ‘art’ as such as it isn’t creative. A lot of restoration is really bad, the skill is in knowing how much noise to reduce before it’s too late. Around the same time, I found a solid market in the DMC competitions. Scratch DJs would make up their routines in Serato but they had to play vinyl in the competition.

One year we cut 90% of the scratch plates for the DMC finalists. Serato eventually took that over too but for a while we had that sewn up. By this time I had cut several thousand sides and restored a lot of old records, so had a pretty good understanding of the medium. When the DMC eventually dried up for us I was left with the collectors as my sole source of Carvery income. Unable to make a profit I borrowed some money and bought my Neumann VMS70. The rest, as they say, is history.

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From your first home in London Fields, how has the business and operations developed to your new HQ in Leyton?

Our first home was in Hackney Wick. We used to have to jump over puddles of green chemical effluent from the printers to get into the studio. After that, we moved to Hackney where we lived for 12 years. Now we’re in Leyton. I took on a warehouse and completely transformed it. We put in two studios, a central workplace and space for us to grow. My new mastering room is wonderful. It’s sonically incredible. Listening to music there is my happy place.

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You’ve stood head and shoulders above others for well over a decade now, what makes you stand apart from the rest?

I don’t know how I feel about that, there are lots of really great vinyl mastering engineers, I still feel I have a lot to learn. That’s the great thing with mastering records, you learn something new with every cut. Over the years I’ve worked as a DJ, promoter, still photographer, production coordinator, clapper loader & focus puller on feature films, documentary researcher, personal assistant and most importantly a chef. I was fascinated by all things analogue when I was a kid. I started DJing on belt-driven decks when I was 16. I used to process my own super-8 film in my bedroom. I worked for the BBC for quite a while where I got taught a good technical base and work ethic. I trained as a chef when I left school which taught me something I still use daily. Cooking is all about balance, same with mastering. You use the same creative tools. I like to think that I season other peoples music (that sounds really pretentious written down but hey ho!) To me a splash of lemon is like a 10khz airlift on an EQ, it excites the senses and makes you want more. The reduction is a bit like compression, it condenses the flavours. Plating up the dish is delivering the final master for approval. You have to be ready to submit it for criticism. Above all, my skill is empathy and the fact I’m not afraid of failure. All my previous jobs taught me about how to put myself into someone else’s shoes and respect their wishes but teach them, gently when they’re wrong.

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Having seen market fluctuations first hand, how healthy is London’s scene/industry since you started?

It’s funny, people are putting out a lot of records, the market is strong, however, it feels to me that the scenes have shrunk and splintered over recent years. Fifteen years ago the subculture boundaries were more defined, now they are pretty blurred. No bad thing, just an observation. Maybe things are getting less tribal. Maybe the younger generation doesn’t feel the need to belong as much? When I was a kid you definitely had to show your colours, so to speak. The London Jazz scene seems to happily accept Jazz Funk and Acid Jazz into its fold, alongside Trad and Hard Bop. Historically those styles would have had daggers drawn. I like that; a lot of the musicians playing Jazz now grew up with Garage and Drum & Bass and that shows. In the same vein, Dubstep, Grime and Drill seem to be constantly evolving, to my ears, it’s getting closer to Punk and house than its original dub influence, which I guess also make historic sense.

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Since kicking things off did you envision where you and The Carvery would be now?

Nah. Honestly I wish I could say it was all planned out. The truth is I was too stubborn to fail and eventually got good at doing what I do now. Last year I was nominated for a Grammy and this year one of the albums I mastered has been nominated for a Latin Grammy. Honestly, I pinch myself every day.

Do you have a holy grail record on your Wantlist at the moment?!

I’ve got lots of records, most of the older stuff I buy is Reggae, African & Caribbean. Holy Grail wise, I think if I could get a mint copy of Roy Panton ‘Endless Memory’ it would make me very, very happy indeed. Sadly they normally sell for around £2,000, so my only option would be to stumble across one in a Jamaican yard. Maybe next trip.

How does Sofrito fit into the mix? Please elaborate to its beginnings and runnings…

Sofrito really helped a lot. I really have a great deal to be thankful of in that respect. It created a market for me as well as teaching me how good and bad restoration could be. I met Hugo around twelve/thirteen years ago. He came in to cut a dub, it was a crazy Cuban Psych Salsa track by Irakere called ‘Bacalao Con Pan’ on the other side The Mebusas, ‘Mr Bulldog’, both really rare. He was cutting one for himself, one for Miles at Soundway, where he worked, and one for Quantic. Since that day we have been a tight unit. I have mastered almost every Soundway and Quantic release for the last ten years and we are all very close. Hugo and I started the Sofrito label in 2009 and the next year Lewis joined the team, bringing a visual style to the team that has been as invaluable as the music itself. We are known for throwing warehouse parties. Concept wise, we wanted to recreate the raves that we went to as kids but with heavy African and Latin records. It was a simple concept that worked really well. Now it’s pretty hard to find the spaces, all the ones we have done in the past have been turned into flats, as is the London way…

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What’s next for yourself and The Carvery, and what can we expect for the future?

I’ve been commissioning and curating a lot lately, working with lots of people in Mexico, New York and Jamaica. That’s all I’ll say about it at this stage but expect some really interesting things over the next few months. I’m starting a new company, called Melody Manufacturing. It’s an extension of The Carvery. We want to help people manufacture the best product to complement our mastering. We have a great dedicated team working for us so that is pretty exciting!

A huge thank you to Frank for taking the time out to chat with us, please explore all things Carvery, and do go and check some of his choice cuts here!


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