Rollo Armstrong: Defender of the faith

Rollo Armstrong, a prolific producer and the creative heart of Faithless, won't perform in public - unlike his sister, Dido. Instead, he tells Adam Howorth, he prefers to remain the man behind the scenes
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When it comes to clandestine, knob-twiddling, multi-platinum-selling, Svengali producers, Rollo Armstrong has to be one of the sanest. Where Brian Wilson composed the Beach Boys' "teenage symphonies to God" in a sandpit, Phil Spector had the Ramones play the opening chord of Rock'n'roll High School for eight hours, and Joe Meek encouraged an error-free performance from Hendrix's drummer Mitch Mitchell with a gun pressed to his temple, Armstrong – credited on records simply as "Rollo" – is a more laid-back, if equally media-shy, cat. In fact, when the going gets tough – Rollo goes shopping.

"I'm a relatively impatient person," he says. "If I think something sounds alright then I'm just, 'That's fine.' But working with my sister – she's a very, very fussy person. So I'm like, 'Well, I'm going shopping for a couple of hours, you sort out your vocals how you want them'."

His sister is Dido, who had the biggest-selling album in the world last year with the Rollo-produced No Angel. "It's mad watching my sister's life because it absolutely changes how you have to behave," he says. "She's been buying a house and she has to consider things like security. We went to New York and she had to find a minder, but I could just wander around. So I think it's a win-win situation."

But besides working with his sister, 35-year-old Rollo is the producer and songwriting linchpin behind Faithless, Europe's biggest-selling dance act, whose current album Outrospective has just gone platinum over here". He also runs Cheeky Records – home to Faithless – and a hugely successful independent record label that Rollo and his former business partner Mel Medalie sold to BMG a year ago for an undisclosed mint. He also refuses to perform in public, is rarely photographed and avoids interviews. In other words, he has his pop-star cake and eats it too.

At his studio and label headquarters in north London, Rollo runs a relaxed ship. Long-time friends fill both work and musical vacancies, while their leader's genial nature adds to the air of a family environment. Rollo talks in meandering but coherent sentences that are punctuated for effect with hoots of laughter. Asked about how his reclusive "Brian Wilson" role in Faithless came about, he roars with laughter at the comparison. "Through luck really – I don't play any instruments at all. I did the sound for the first tour, but really there were many better people who could do the sound, and so it just became obvious. When it came to interviews I wanted Maxi [Jazz, rapper] and Blissy [keyboardist and DJ Sister Bliss] to be out front – they were going out on tour and doing the videos, so it was obvious I shouldn't be doing interviews and photos – I should just stay behind the scenes.

"And it's a really nice life in the sense that I have prestige where I need it," he continues. "If I need to get money to do this kind of record and that kind of record, or if I need to book a restaurant, there's generally someone who knows who I am. And Maxi loves being on stage and Blissy loves DJ-ing, so we all have a very clear role. I do think fundamentally I'm a producer, but I happen to be a producer born in the dance era when the producers themselves became stars." His credentials as one of the country's top producers are borne out by a CV that includes work with New Order, Robbie Williams and R Kelly.

Rollo's musical odyssey began in 1991, after graduating from York University with a degree in philosophy. "I went to live in Australia, India and Thailand for two-and-a-half years," he says. "I got a record deal in Australia that gave me the taste – I didn't start until late." Cheeky bared its face for the first time when Medalie, the owner of Champion Records, approached Rollo with a proposition. "Why don't you set up your own label, I'll fund it, you do the music and we'll split everything 50-50," remembers Rollo. "And I thought, this sounds too good to be true. It worked really well for two years – we just put out one-off records. And then we started Faithless, and that was the first album we did on the label."

Since 1995, Faithless have released three albums and a succession of classic house singles, including the appropriately-titled "God is a DJ", selling more than 10 million records. As with many bands that last the distance, the Faithless road to the top was peppered with potholes, and it took them to Europe before they found acceptance at home. "When we put the first album out it sold 4,000 copies in about six months," Rollo says, "and the plugger said, 'Just to keep it going, do a gig at the Jazz Café'." At the time, Germany and Norway were just starting to pick up on the single "Insomnia" and, as Rollo remembers: "They said, 'Can you come and do a gig in Germany?' So from one gig at the Jazz Café we ended up touring for four months and it was the most fantastic time. It was a bunch of friends on this tour bus and you just couldn't believe your luck going from country to country."

Luck played a vital part in Faithless story, Rollo says. "We've always had some kind of break," he admits. "With Faithless, 'Insomnia' broke in Europe, and then with my sister the Eminem thing allowed people to come to her and hear her album." Rollo says of Eminem: "I think he's a genius. I know there are problems there but I listen to My Fair Lady and listen to Eminem and the lyrics are as acute. I'm definitely on the 'Eminem is a genius' side of the fence rather than 'Eminem is nasty and homophobic'."

Had big brother got his way, though, the world might not have heard of Dido. "I was always reasonably disparaging of her having a singing career because she had a really good job as a literary agent," Rollo says. "It might have been brotherly competition, but I like to think it was more like protecting her!" After lending her vocals to the first Faithless album, Reverence, Dido was approached by Clive Davis of Arista Records. "I went with my sister to the Dorchester, where he was staying," says Rollo, "and he had this massive suite and she had to sing a cappella and he loved it." As a result Dido signed to Arista for North America, "and then she signed to Cheeky for the rest of the world. And I said, OK then!" he guffaws.

Despite a tendency to leave Dido to her own devices when recording her vocals, Rollo says: "She can trust me to paint the canvas with a few broad strokes – the same with Bliss." What Bliss will not trust Rollo with is brokering deals for her. Charged with licensing her solo record to Go! Beat, he had a showdown with the label's boss Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, who now manages Rollo. "He wanted to give me 20 grand and I wanted 30 grand, so we tossed a coin on it and he won! I went back to Sister Bliss and she said, 'Why didn't you get more?' and I said I lost it on the toss of a coin, and she never let me handle her business again after that."

Rollo's diary for 2002 is full with new projects, including a two-month stint in Ibiza where he's taking the entire office to work on new Faithless material. The motivation, of course, is the music. "Music was my first love and it'll be my last," he says, coming over all Barry Manilow. "I like music that moves me," he adds. "And I love what I do."

The single 'One Step Too Far', featuring Dido, is out now. Faithless play Brixton Academy, London SW4, tonight