Best known for production credits on Arctic Monkeys’ Brit Award-winning album AM, M.I.A.’s Mercury Music Prize nominated Arular or his work with Roots Manuva, he is also dedicated to working with many of the region’s emerging bands.
His distinctive sound - part electronic, part heavy rock - has its roots in Orton’s own background as a drummer. Born in 1971, he grew up in Southey Green, and had his first taste for drumming after meeting his older sister’s friends, who were skinheads, punks and heavy metal fans who brought vinyl to the house and played them on the family’s turntable.
The young Ross would listen intently, and frustrated by not having his own instrument, joined a local marching band, where he developed his unique drumming style. At comprehensive school he became unruly and, frustrated by the education system, took out his teenage rage on a drumkit.
“I didn’t enjoy learning and wanted to use my hands,” he laughs. “As much as I wanted it, becoming a musician was not a career option back then.” After leaving school, he became a steel welder making boilers on a YTS scheme in Thorncliffe, “I was surrounded by Barnsley blokes who referred to me as a dee-dar.”
By night he rehearsed and when his grandfather died, he inherited just enough money to finally buy his own drumkit, which he played for hours each night in the function room of a local pub.
Cutting his teeth with Sheffield alt-rockers A.C. Temple, after touring Europe, he became friends with band member Noel Kilbride who was attending acid house raves in the area. The music Ross heard at his parties, tempted him onto the decks, and into the realms of electronic music. “I liked those minimal sounds,” he says. “I was still drumming but I bought a sampler and started to make beats.”
He was encouraged by people in Sheffield’s underground music scene to record his own music. “You could hear the connections to Detroit techno and Kraftwerk so that was exciting to me.”
Ross started to teach himself how to use samplers, tapes, sequencers, and effects in a studio belonging to Dean Honer of Sheffield group All Seeing I. Each night he would learn by trial and error, until he finally made sound from the 16-channel desk. “Nowt was precious back then,” he says. “I was just figuring stuff out.
“I miss the battle of those early days, you get older and wiser, but it’s when you’re really fighting for something that you make music that’s worthwhile.”
It wasn’t until the release of M.I.A.’s debut single Galang in 2004, recorded by Maya Arulpragasam on a futon in his bedroom with one microphone and a sampler, that he even considered himself to be a bona fide producer. An amalgamation of hip hop, electro and dancehall, 500 vinyl copies sold out immediately and skyrocketed M.I.A. to become one of the most influential artists of her generation.
In the years that followed, he travelled to the Joshua Tree in California to produce Arctic Monkeys at Rancho de la Luna. “I was the clap master on Do I Wanna Know?,” he says. “We used basic tracking and started hitting our bellies and legs to create the rhythm.” The resulting single became one of the band’s biggest tracks.
A humble and affable character, Ross is a familiar face around Sheffield, and is frequently spotted in a tracksuit, sporting his trademark casual wear. Asking him to sum up his success in music production is a difficult question, but he believes his ability to work with people lies at the root of his career. “How to handle egos is part of the job,” says Ross.
When Domino Records signed The Fall, he was their first port of call for production duties. The sessions that followed, for Your Future, Our Clutter, were recorded at Castleford’s Chairworks studio, which had only recently opened.
“The Fall were great and wrote all the music themselves. Mark E. Smith attempted to come in and record vocals. His way of doing things was not my way or anybody else’s way. He was a top bloke but could be horrible at the same time. He was in a wheelchair during the recording sessions as he had broken his hip. It was a tough one.”
Today, McCall Sound is the official Ross Orton studio. Named after the postman and hugely underrated musician, Tim McCall, who died in a tragic accident 12 years ago. Ross believes he was “one of the most awesome human beings of all time. I thought his name should be on every record I make from now on as a tribute to him.”
Located by the River Don in what was originally an old steel factory, the small complex of ex-industrial workshops houses a thriving scene of music studios and rehearsal rooms.
What was once a rudimentary space has now been transformed.
“In summer the temperature can be overwhelming, in winter it’s bloody freezing,” Ross says. “Some bands were impressed by the lack of internet, phone reception and outside toilets. Since I started McCall, the roof has been repaired and there is a modern kitchen and facilities. It’s cosy and homely these days.”
Sheffield has a rich and diverse musical heritage and Ross believes there are two sides to it. “Phil Oakey was a student. A lot of music came from the university crowd, but then you have Def Leppard. You can tell from listening to Cabaret Voltaire they are educated book-readers in the industrial heartlands.
"Pulp, they are artists with a northern aesthetic. Def Leppard were working-class blokes into rock music and singing about girls. My mum used to be a secretary in a factory and Joe Elliott was the messenger kid and did the mail. Their first single came out and she felt sorry for him so bought the record. It never got played.”
Recently, Ross has been working with Todmorden’s wunderkid Syd Minsky-Sargeant, on the next Working Men’s Club album. “We are living in a time where young bands are getting signed from a teenage bedroom recording then they are kept on the shelf for five years.”
Ross believes that Working Men’s Club are the antithesis of that, having released and recorded a wealth of new material over the past 18 months.
Despite his enviable reputation as a hit-maker, Orton remains modest about his career. “I believe being egotistical is all about the performers. They should be talking about their work. Because production is such a technical job, coming from a drumming background which is very non-egotistical, I’ve never really sought out self-promotion.”
As an unsung genre-spanning hero of Sheffield’s music scene, perhaps it’s time Ross Orton’s essential contribution was recognised beyond the Steel City.
The Ross Orton produced single, Cut Me Down by She Drew the Gun is now available on Submarine Cat Records.