Interview: Richard ‘Biff’ Stannard, the man with the X Factor

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You might not know his name, but you can’t fail to know Richard ‘Biff’ Stannard’s music. Working with The Spice Girls, Kylie, U2 and countless other bands and artists he’s arguably written and produced some of the best songs in the history of pop music.

Born in London’s east end in 1966, Stannard says he stood out from his brothers at an early age.

“It’s a bit of a Billy Elliot story really,” he says. “I grew up in a very masculine environment. My brothers were all fighters and I was literally going jazz-tap rather than boxing. When I was four I would get two bricks and a bit of wood and stand outside our terraced house tap-dancing for money.”

He left home at the age of 17 with the aim of becoming a dancer.

“I earned money doing window dressing and some other bits and pieces. I did some bad deejaying and ran around with Philip Sallon and the Mud Club crowd for a while. It was all music, music, music and clubbing all the time.”

It was while he was dating Tom Watkins, The Pet Shop Boys’ former manager, that Stannard met Tony Mortimer.

“He had these tunes on a little cassette. House of Love was one of them. Deep was another. I heard them and I was like: ‘This is brilliant, let’s play it to Tom.’ Tom loved it but wanted Tony to be part of a band. He was impressed that I’d seen the material’s potential and my career in music sort of started from that. I helped put East 17 together and House of Love was the first hit I produced. I started co-writing with them on their second album.”

East 17 went on to sell more than 20 million records, although Stannard ceased working with them after he and Watkins split up. Within a month of the break-up however, Stannard had a surprise encounter with a girl called Melanie.

He was walking down a corridor in West London’s Nomis Studios, having finished a meeting with Jason Donovan, when Mel B jumped on his back and told him he had an arse like a black man.

“She asked me what I did and I mentioned the song Steam and East 17. She said she loved it and dragged me in to meet them all. We were all best mates in 20 minutes. I went and got Matt Rowe who I’d been doing stuff with and within ten days we’d written Wannabe and 2 Become 1.”

Wannabe, of course, went to number one in 37 countries and launched the Spice Girls as a global phenomenon. The group went on to sell more than 75 million records.

Was he just in the right place at the right time?

“We were working 18-hour days, seven days a week. We wrote Wannabe quite quickly, but it took ages to get it to sound right. I remember waking up on the studio floor with this post-it from Matt saying, ‘Press play.’ We’d finally got it. So it was luck and hard work.”

Since The Spice Girls and their respective solo careers Stannard has written songs for Kylie, Will Young, Gabrielle, Five, Westlife, Ellie Goulding and Sophie Ellis Bextor to name just a few.

I ask him if he’s a frustrated pop star.

“Not at all. I don’t have that ambition to be looked at. I work with people who have that though and it fascinates me.”

What makes him such a good songwriter?

“A lot of people say my strength is being able to morph into different people. I can work with U2 and become Bono. Then I can be a girl with pigtails and be a Spice Girl. I tend to write happy songs because I’m a very happy person.”

Right now he’s happier than usual: later this year he’ll be marrying his partner Pat in a civil partnership.

“It’s kind of soppy, but meeting Pat has changed everything for me. Simon noticed it in me instantly.”

That would be Simon Cowell.

“I’ve known Simon for ages. Over the years he’s asked me to do a lot of stuff, but when he asked me to do X Factor I hadn’t worked with him for like 12 years. It was such a great opportunity. I started off doing one of the groups with Dannii. I’d help choose the songs, arrange them and record them and my role just sort of grew from there.”

During their first X Factor meeting, Cowell sensed something different about him.

“He smiled and asked me: ‘Who is he?’ I told him I’d met Pat and he said: ‘I knew it!’ He’s incredibly perceptive.”

I ask him why he took the X Factor job.

“I just thought it would be fun. It’s very hard work, but I love the idea of 20 million people watching. No matter how big a hit you have nowadays you never get an audience that big anywhere else. I’m not doing it for the money. Neither does Simon. Because of it though I’ve got to work with Matt, Rebecca and One Direction. I’m doing Matt’s album now.”

How does he answer the criticism that shows like X Factor are destroying the traditional music industry?

“Rubbish,” he says. “Shows like X Factor give a voice to the people who aren’t lucky enough to be born in London and weren’t bought a Power Mac by their parents.”

I ask him what he makes of the decline in album sales the music industry typically bemoans?

“There’s not been a decline for the big releases. Look at the Take That’s Progress: it outsold all of their previous albums. When you’ve got a good pop record it sells. Part of the decline is because nowadays kids are buying different stuff. It’s just the recent phenomena have been Harry Potter and Call of Duty, not albums.”

With a Spice Girls musical in the works, written by Jennifer Saunders, 2011 looks like being another busy year for Stannard.

Does he work too hard?

“Maybe. Pat’s very good at telling me when to stop. Otherwise I’d be working in the studio until three o’clock in the morning every night. He’s amazing.”

“A lot of the artists I’ve worked with are coming to our wedding. They’re Pat’s friends as much as mine. He’s really shy, but he’ll sit and sing Especially For You on SingStar with Kylie and not be phased by it. I’m a very lucky guy.”

Lucky? Perhaps. But very, very talented with it.