I first met Greg Wells over the phone in 2004 when we were both working on a Team Sleep record, a band put together by Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno. Chino and the guys in the band at the time (Todd Wilkinson, Zach Hill, Rick Verrett, and DJ Crook) were talking about how Greg was really great to work with. Over the years I'd see Greg's name pop up on more and more records, and he went on to have a fair bit of success with artists like Katy Perry, Adele, Deftones, and Twenty One Pilots to name just a few. His discography is vast and stylistically varied. A few years ago I started bumping into Greg at trade shows and we reconnected a bit. We finally got a chance to sit down and talk at his Culver City studio. If there's one thing about Greg that is immediately apparent, it's his unbridled passion and enthusiasm for music. It's a trait that's no small part of his success.
What is it about Canada? It seems like lately we're interviewing all these people who have moved to L.A. from Canada and are making all these great records, like Shawn Everett [Tape Op #115] for example.
I'm working with a young producer right now from Norway. We were talking about Scandinavia. My wife is Swedish. We were just talking about the phenomenon of tiny countries, tinier even than Canada. Norway's population is five million, Sweden's nine. But the impact that those two countries, along with Denmark, have had on the world is kind of nuts. I remember when I moved here 26 years ago, I had a very small grant from the Canadian government to study with this guy named Clare Fischer. I had to contact the Canadian consulate in downtown L.A. as part of the government grant. They told me then, and this was 1990, that there were one million Canadians living in Los Angeles. It was already one of the biggest Canadian expat cities. I have to imagine it's significantly more now. If you look at a map of Canada, Edmonton looks like it's close to the border but it's actually quite north, so the winters are intense. I'm from the East, two hours northeast of Toronto. There are a lot of great musicians that come out of Edmonton and Montreal. The winters are just brutal there. Where I'm from, a little town called Peterborough, the snow banks were taller than my dad, who is 6' 3". I remember walking home diagonally in blizzards. I had the music bug, but I didn't have the sports bug. Then I had a hip that went south on me, when I was 11. I got a disease. My left hip is fine, but my right hip fell apart. I had to be in and out of a wheelchair for two years. At that point, it was only music. I had all this free time then and I did a lot of listening. I had this old, crappy radio that used to belong to my dad's father that you could get shortwave on. It had this little mono earpiece, and it was from like the ‘40s or ‘50s. Really antiquated. So I'd listen to the local AM station, and I really started to pay attention to the record making. I think a lot of Canadians did that. This is pre-internet and pre-cable TV. There were very few distractions. When the weather's that shitty, you have to turn inward, unless you're doing something outside. When you and I were kids, the amount of time for imagination was almost too much. I was so bored growing up; just unbelievably, crushingly bored. In retrospect, I wouldn't change that at all. At the time I wanted to be in the middle of Manhattan, watching Richard Hell or Laurie Anderson at CBGBs; the things I would get little glimpses of on television. But it was very boring, very redneck, very conservative, and very non-musical. I think a lot of Canadians who went into music have probably had similar parallel experience.
The incident when you were 11 sounds a little bit like the famous Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] situation where he was hit by a car and invented ambient music from his hospital bed. You weren't quite hospitalized though.
I was, actually. I hadn't heard about Eno though.
Was there a similar kind of epiphany moment for you when you were hospitalized, or was it part of a longer gestation?
Well, the way my children are growing up now, people are doing creative things and modeling it for them. With my two oldest kids, their mother's a musician, I'm a musician, and so they're seeing it a lot. I didn't see any of that, at all. What I'm trying to say is that I had no idea that this was even a job. There was no exposure to it. For me, it was just that I really like this. That was it. There was no penny drop of, "I should do this for a living." It's all I wanted to do. I could kind of sense that I was going to need to figure out what my job would be, but it was not on the menu that I could be creative or musical as a profession, other than maybe being a piano teacher. That's something my mom kicked around a lot, that I'd be a good piano teacher. I was composing and starting to hear music in my head. I had been playing piano for years. You can imagine the piano in front of you when you've been doing it for a long time. I would start writing things down and composing pieces, just lying in bed being so bored. When I was hospitalized in Toronto, for a while the radio selection was much better. I could check out all kinds of different music. But being in the hospital just sucks more than I can describe. I get why Eno would be like, "I'm going to make some lemonade out of this." For me, it was more of a focus on composition and the building blocks of what I would listen to musically. I became a bit more interested in the analysis of it, at that point. When I was younger I would listen to music with less analysis of the composition and structure. Ironically, this is how I try to listen to music now, where I just know that I like it, or I don't like it, and that is all that matters.
It's very limited what you could get on a radio back then, compared to what you can get on the internet now.
My oldest son just taught himself to play guitar from a website, and he's playing chords that I can't play. He just got it. The access; my god! If I could have subscribed to Mix With The Masters, even ten years ago! It does make me a little bit jealous of the younger generation. I've been working with this young Danish producer. He's working on Ableton, and I've been on Pro Tools for years. I'm not going to change, at this point. I'm 48, but I'm so envious when I see people who just keep the track going. They don't have to stop the track. They pull in other elements and change everything. The music keeps going; it's fast, and it's seamless. In Pro Tools, you have to stop every time to add one plug-in. You have to hit stop, open up the item, and then load the thing. Pro Tools is still my favorite software. I'd be screwed without it, and apparently tracking vocals in Ableton is really awful. But in terms of the music-making, it makes a lot of sense. Most of my competition are kids with a laptop who spent $200 on Logic. My first keyboard only made a few sounds, and it cost a fortune. Oh, my god. I'm such an old man now.
So you moved to L.A. to study with Clare Fischer. You were a composer first, right?
No, that came much later. You have to realize, I lived in such an ignorant bubble. I didn't know if I was good or bad at music; I had no clue. I just knew I was obsessed with it. I would borrow the bass from the high school. Or this guy at my dad's church had an early ‘70s Telecaster that he would lend to me. We had a piano, and eventually I got my own drums. I was taking piano lessons from a really good teacher, but I taught myself to play everything else. I was so excited getting to play an instrument that I said "yes" to any music opportunity that presented itself, from the local concert marching band, to punk bands, to this local symphony orchestra, to accompanying choirs, to playing in church, to crazy local amateur actors doing performance art who wanted some interesting musical accompaniment. Anything. I took on the identity of, "I am a musician." An older guitar player I knew suggested I think about songwriting, but it felt so boring to me. I don't want to sit down and write a song. I was occasionally composing things on piano that sounded like bad prog rock. I'd taken all my classical training and blended that with my improvising, in this sort of naive desire to play jazz music even though I'd never been exposed to jazz music, at that point. I just kept playing other peoples' songs. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I started trying to write something. Then I got serious about songwriting three or four years later.
So looking at your discography in reverse order, all of your early credits are as a composer. It's interesting how diverse you are, in terms of your credits.
The earliest work would be as a session musician. Once I wasn't playing on sessions so much, my first action, in terms of released music on a major label, was as a songwriter. I wasn't "producing" anything for ages. It was much easier to get in the door as a writer, and then the labels would have whoever was hot at the time produce it. I remember there were only a couple of producers who would really do a nice job, staying true to the spirit of the song. So many producers would just wreck it. That, more than anything, is what inspired me to become a record producer; to save the song.
Who were the producers you liked working with who didn't wreck things?
The first one was Steve Lipson out of London. He just made the songs so much better. He's amazing, and a real inspiration to me. He is an amazing musician who a lot of people don't talk about. We wound up working together on a Christian rock band out of Nashville in the late ‘90s called Jars of Clay. Adrian Belew produced their first [self-titled] record and had a big hit called "Flood." I met them at a writing event, really clicked with them musically, and I wrote a bunch of songs with them. They said, "We don't have a bass player or a drummer in our band. We're making a new record in Nashville, so why don't you come and be the bass player and the drummer on our record? And, by the way, we're going to record the three or four songs we've written with you." I asked who was producing it and they said, "Steve Lipson." I got nervous because I was already a big fan. So we met and we clicked. He used to fly me over to London to be in the band on projects he was producing about once a year. We're still friendly. He did that amazing Grace Jones record with Trevor Horn [Tape Op #89], Slave to the Rhythm.
He's on our list of people we want to interview.
He would be a very fun interview. He's very irreverent, very English, very bright, and very funny. He was my favorite producer. Then there was a long list of people you would have heard of who just made mincemeat out of songs. I don't know what was going on. Not that I have any kind of monopoly on what I feel like is going to connect with the marketplace, because I usually have no clue. But it was never successful when I felt the song got destroyed; it just died. That's hard when you're crafting a song. It's like watching one of your kids turn the wrong way. That more was why I wanted to try to steer the ship, and not have the song hit the rocks.
How did you end up doing all your own engineering?
I enjoy working with a great engineer when there's a budget for it. I finally look my age now, but I was cursed for most of my life looking like a very young girl. I couldn't get anybody to listen to me in the studio. These really great engineers, nice guys and all, but nobody listened to me. I get it. But because hardly anybody listened to me, I thought, "I'm going to have to learn how to do this." I had a couple of experiences with some big mixers when I was young, and I couldn't get them to do what I wanted to do. They just said, "No, I've got this." It wasn't collaborative, although I still learned a lot from it. Watching them work was really inspiring to me, and I got the bug to do it. It all started with a Fostex 4-track cassette recorder, which I still have here to remind me. That was my first studio for years: a little Alesis MicroVerb, and a Mac Plus with no internal hard drive. Terrible sounds. I had a little Roland drum machine, one compressor, and one weird copy of a [Shure SM]58 mic. I did a lot on that and just slowly, slowly, slowly built out from there. What we're sitting in right now [Greg's very well-equipped studio] is a total extension of that first studio in the second bedroom of my little rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. It's always morphing and changing. I learned a lot engineering on that little Fostex, like basic EQ and balances. Then, when I moved to L.A., I couldn't work. I had no visa to work. I was here as a student, but I didn't even have a student visa. I had a businessman's traveling visa. I had tons of free time after being really, really active. I had moved to Toronto in my late teens and was very active, continuing to say yes to everything musical. I was doing everything, from playing on beer jingles to cover bands in bars, as well as playing lots of jazz. Then I came here and everything just stopped. Some of these people in Canada were pretty acclaimed. It was really humbling and thrilling to be working with them. When I came here, no one had heard of any of them. So I really started listening to records with two things in mind: the production, which includes the sonics, like the mixes, but also the production choices, and then songs. Song structure. Songwriting. I just listened, and listened, and listened. I internalized and tried to absorb, even music that I didn't really like that much. "How does it tick?" It's like a Rubik's Cube. I listened and watched a lot of MTV. There was this amazing channel called The Box. They'd play all kinds of shit that you wouldn't see on MTV, like amazing, cool, weird underground rap music. More fringe stuff. That was another period of real study and analysis, and trying to stretch myself beyond being a musician who picks up the phone and says, "Yes, I'll come play with you."
You went from playing just about
any instrument to composing, to producing, to engineering, and you often mix your own projects as well.
Not always. I love working with mixers that I like.
But you're comfortable mixing.
Yes, if I have the time, and if it feels like something I need to mix, I love it. I find it hard, and I like that. I don't like doing projects that feel easy, which I think is why my discography is so nuts. I like working on things that I find mysterious and that I don't fully understand. Mixing is really like that for me. I don't like any of my mixes, and I get very inspired listening to other peoples' mixes. For that reason, I really like working with other mixers.
What's the balance? Do you prefer to have other people mix, or do you end up in a situation where you feel you have to mix a track because no one else is going to get it right?
If I have that feeling, then that's what I have to do. It is frustrating, especially early in my career when I had no juice as a producer or mixer. It would get farmed out to other people who had plenty of track record. Sometimes they would nail it, and other times they would fucking destroy it. It was so depressing. There's no undo button for that. When the record label was like, "But they've mixed big hit records! It has to be good!" And I would say, "It's not right." It's the same symptom I had with producers as a songwriter. Again, I felt like, "I've gotta figure this out." An interesting thing happened, which really pushed me towards mixing a lot of my work. I wanted Spike Stent to mix the first album of an artist I wound up working with a lot; a European artist named Mika. He didn't sell many records here, but sold a ton of records in Asia and Europe. He had a budget because he's sort of a flamboyant, Freddie Mercury-ish character. Spike was up for it; he loved the music and wanted to mix it. Mika and I had breakfast with Spike at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Hollywood. Spike wasn't living here yet, but he had just gotten hired to produce Maroon 5's second album [It Won't Be Soon Before Long]. He said, "I don't know how much longer this record's going to go on for. It could be another half of a year. If you can wait until I'm done, then I'll mix the record. But I don't think you'll want to." He knew we were done at that point. He said, "Greg, these rough mixes sound almost done. Why don't you just finish it?" I didn't want to. I wanted to bring someone else in because I wanted to bring in another set of ears. I didn't want the people that signed Mika beating me up about mixes, because I'm too sensitive for that. I wanted to raise the bar to an even higher place I couldn't see. Spike said, "No, no, no. I think you've got this. I'll tell you what, if you get stuck on a mix, send it to me and I'll give you some pointers." We had worked a bit together before that and were very friendly. Ironically, Spike now lives directly across the road from me. He's the coolest, most down-to-earth guy. I sent him a couple mixes in progress, and he would just say little things, like, "The snare's a little bit too dark," or, "There's a little bit too much low-end on the toms." Tiny little things, but it would really rebalance the mix; those things make a big difference. I took a long time to mix that first album, about a month. I would come in here and mix. Then I would go down the hallway to the lounge in front, sit there, and listen to it going down the hallway. It was just me, alone. I'd make notes, come back, and make the changes. Then I'd turn it up again, go down the hall, try to listen like I was somebody else, make more notes, and go make the changes. That worked, and Spike's input helped. But I wound up getting a Grammy nomination for a song off that record as a mixer and producer. Then it was like, "Oh, I'm a mixer." But it's case-specific for me. I love the process, but I hate all my own mixes. I like the chase of it, and I feel like I am getting better. I feel like my mixes aren't getting worse. I'm learning by failing, which is the best way to learn.
I like to listen to mixes in the kitchen when I'm cooking breakfast with the stereo in the other room.
As record makers what we need more than anything is objectivity. It's the first thing that you lose, like a big hole in your pocket, the minute you hear a piece of music more than once. You're not going to react the same way that someone out in the world is going to when they hear it the first time, but that's who we're making records for. We're trying to trick our very capable brains. The brain is so helpful, but the brain is also the enemy. You can learn it wrong very fast and think that it's right. Jack Joseph Puig was in the running to mix the first single from the Mika record; although we didn't finish it with him, I did get to spend some time with him. I love his whole passion for music. He told me that the biggest help for him is to make a playlist of your favorite mixes of other records that other people did. It can be all kinds of different styles. While you're mixing, flip your input to that playlist and it will punch you in the face. It's merciless. You will feel that you don't know what you're doing. Every once in a while you'll feel like, "Oh, that's kind of close." But that helped me so much. I feel like if kids did that today, their mixes would improve a thousand percent. I can immediately tell when they're not doing it. I still do it, and it always gets better. I had a weird issue with bass for years. When I heard a song a lot, I'd think there was plenty of bass, but there really wasn't nearly enough bass. Now, I put too much bass in, and I think that that's right. I like it really full, like there's a band in front of me. But then, when I go to my mix reality playlist, my perception of what the bottom-end should be is the one thing that's fucked up. I put way too much in, and I'm always surprised by how contained and not bottom-y my playlist is. I'm constantly like, "Okay, I should be pointing that way." It's crazy how you can so quickly think that your mix is right.
It's the forest for the trees.
You're staring at one thing forever. It's so hard to make records, because all we have are speakers. We don't have the visual of watching a band play. We don't have that energy exchange, that sort of reciprocal chain reaction that happens on a good gig where the audience is reacting, the performer feels that, and it comes back to the audience and the performer. When you take all that away and all you've got are these merciless speakers, who could give a shit what's in the room? That's the hardest thing for me: trying to capture the impact of watching a great live gig coming through the speakers. How many times have you seen a great performance, then that performer, or group of performers, goes into the studio and makes something that's a snooze-fest? That's what we're battling with all the time. You can't stop it. Your idea of listening while making breakfast in your kitchen, that's brilliant. You actually have other noises happening at the same time.
You've mentioned that you're kind of shy and sensitive. How do you inhabit the room with these larger-than-life personalities, like Elton John, Katy Perry, and Adele?
Well, to their credit, they're all really sweet, cool people. It's a pleasure being in the room with them. As artists, they also need something from the people they're in the studio with. The last thing they want to do is de-incentivize the musicians in the room or their collaborators. I feel that they're trying to build a thing that they can be proud of for the rest of their career. I am like a big, spastic nerve ending, but I can manage it a little bit and I've done this a long time. This is all an extension of me playing piano for singers at my dad's church when I was a little boy. I'm accompanying them. I'm an accompanist. That's the role I take. Terry Date [see interview on page 38] is a very smart guy, as well as a very talented record-maker and someone that I learned from. We were both working on a Deftones record when you and I first met. I was working with Team Sleep first.
I remember I picked up that project towards the end. I was tasked with getting the record finished in two weeks and getting something the label would sign off on, which we did and I think you ended up remixing it after that.
We did a lot of that record here. I remember Zach Hill, the drummer.
You did all the drum tracks for that? Those drums sounded great.
We did those in my tracking room [a fairly small room –ed.]. I couldn't believe what was going on. I couldn't believe the stuff he was doing. I'd go in there and watch him play. Then Chino [Moreno] said, "Maybe you should come work with my other band, the Deftones." I flew up to Sacramento and met everybody, then they invited me to get involved in the production of the record. I was like, "Wait a minute; Terry Date is your producer. You have to check with him." Terry, to his credit, said, "Hey, it's okay. Let's do this together." So we did. We tried for three and a half months. I had to leave the project because I had a second child coming and I was out of town, and they record unbelievably slow. Terry told me some really cool things at the time. He said, "Remember, this is a service industry that we're in, as facilitators in the record-making process. Don't draw attention to yourself. You've gotta make it about the artist. It's a professional situation, and we're not hanging out to be friends." It's nice to be friendly, of course, but there's potentially millions and millions of dollars at stake if the record becomes a success. Maybe the record will not make a penny, but we're talking about peoples' families being fed and the longevity of a career. You're there to help these peoples' dreams become a reality. He also said, "Let them come up with the idea first. Once they come up with the idea, you can jump on it, massage it, and reshape it if you need to. But let it come from them first." Let the artist think that it came from them first, if you're clever enough to figure that out, which I'm not! I had a real trouble with that, because unlike Terry, who's more an engineer, I'm very much a musician. I'm like a monkey, running around playing all these different instruments. I think people want me to be more collaborative, musically. Terry and I are different animals. But I find that really helpful, because before I met Terry I was drawing too much attention to myself. I was so excited to be in the studio, and probably had some unresolved issues of wanting to be the artist too. Every once in a while I'd really say the wrong thing. I was young and I just didn't know. But that helped frame how to be more helpful, and more professional, in this environment. I've taken Terry's nuggets of advice and morphed it into my own thing. I want artists to feel like they're at a three-star Michelin restaurant when they're here. I can't always pull it off, but I want them to feel the same way as if you take a date, or your partner, to a nice restaurant and you know you're going to drop a couple hundred dollars on dinner. In that situation, do you want the waiter coming over to you at the beginning of the meal and saying, "I got the weirdest phone call from my mom last week, and she laid some heavy shit on me. Can I tell you about it?" You want the opposite. It's totally narcissistic. I feel like every artist, to varying degrees, is a narcissistic sociopath.
The good ones.
The best ones are the most that way. They're having the best time in the studio when the focus is on helping them. Sometimes that takes some tough love, but it has to always be that focus. I've been to Paris a lot, and every once in a while my wife and I will splurge on a nice meal there. The rollout and presentation of the food and everything, even the choreography of the waiters, is so smooth you don't even know it's happening. Of course we want to go back there. I want people to want to come back, and I have a lot of repeat business here. Being a producer is this funny, weird thing where you're in charge, but the artist can fire you at any point in time. It's almost like you've been hired to be the captain of the yacht that they own, but you have to decide how to steer that yacht. I don't want anybody else's hands on the steering wheel. I'll say this to artists all the time, "You can fire me at any point, but I have to drive the way I feel like this should go." I can defer to the artist when they're super talented. When they know so much more than I ever will about their music, then it's the best idea in the world to keep checking in with them. When they're not talented, then it's a shit show, and no approach really works. I wind up with something I wish I hadn't done.
I'm getting the sense, listening to you, that it seems like your approach has been informed largely because, as a player, you've been on the other side of the glass, so to speak.
For years. I remember what worked for me as a studio musician, and I remember what didn't work for me. In the ‘90s there were lots of live sessions here in town; there was still a studio scene. I'd be in the room with musicians I'd been reading about since I was a teenager, because those were the local session guys, like Lee Sklar and Jeff Porcaro on bass and drums. Whenever we had it in a couple of takes and we were done, nobody ever talked about the song being great. That was never mentioned by anybody, including the producers. When it was a day where 10 or 12 hours later we were still on the same song, I can tell now that the problem was in the writing. It wasn't bad musicians. But everything else would get blamed. We had the wrong coffee, the wrong console, the wrong producer, the wrong cabling, the wrong studio, Mercury's in fuck-you grade, or whatever. But I swear it was the writing. That was a big lesson that I took from my days as a studio musician, where I felt like, "I wish I could be more in control here and actually say, ‘Can you re-write this a bit?'" It was very informative, working with other producers. My experience as a musician is almost bizarrely extensive. I'm terrible at everything else in life. I cannot figure out the tip in a restaurant. I never know what day of the week it is. I don't know what my bank balance is. I really don't even know what I'm doing the next day. I just don't think that way. But music I have a real focus on, and I think about it a lot. I've had so many failures that have taught me so many things.
I love that last Creeper Lagoon record you worked on, Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday.
I love them so much. That was their last major label record. We did a song I'll never forget, called "Wrecking Ball." I was thinking about "Wrecking Ball" this morning. I remember the first time I heard their singer, Ian Sefchick, start singing takes on that. They made it really clear to me, and the label said this too, "Greg, we know you're a songwriter, and this is one of your first productions, but the band doesn't want you coming in as a songwriter." I'm not that kind of producer anyway; I never elbow my way in. I remember the chorus of "Wrecking Ball." It starts on an E-major and goes to C#-minor and then A-major and then slides down to the F#-minor and back to the A. The way they originally wrote it was that chord progression repeated. E-major, C#-minor to the F#-minor to the A. The second time it repeated I said, "Why don't you flip the first two chords instead?" That's all I said. And they said, "We like that. We'll try that." Then I heard him sing. It was at that moment, after I'd made my terrible solo record a few years before that, when I saw Ian and heard him sing, I thought, "Oh, fuck. That's what a singer should sound like." His voice was just so unique and his lyrics were so good. I realized, "Oh, my god; yes. That's why I'm producing, and that's why I'm not the artist, because I can't do that at all. If I can do anything, I can help him realize his vision and the band's vision." His bandmate, Sharky [Laguana], is also crazy talented.
I've seen those guys live quite a few times; such a good band. That song is a standout track on that record, and the whole album is really great.
It wound up becoming the single, which I didn't know was going to happen. Jerry Harrison produced most of the record. He's a lovely guy, and he did a great job on the record. I was brought in at the end of the day – to help them do a couple more songs – and that song showed up. I don't know why they hadn't recorded it before, but most of the record was done when I got to work on "Wrecking Ball," as well as a couple other songs.
Did you interact with Jerry much?
Not on that record. We interacted with some other artists later. He was really sweet to me. I hadn't really produced anything, and he was very established at that point. Creeper Lagoon was a great band. Ian hated being in the spotlight, and now he's a mastering engineer at Capitol Studios. I've had that experience so many times. Even people whose music I didn't like necessarily, but when I got to work with them, I couldn't believe how high the bar actually was. I always liked Pink's music a lot. The first time I worked with her, I knew she was a good singer; but I never thought that she was one of the best singers ever until I heard her stand there and sing. Everybody in the room was thinking, "What's going on?" It's crazy how good you have to be just to show up on the radar, to be where people can say, "Yeah, I like that song." I remind myself that all the shitty songs that are on radio, the fact that they have made it onto radio, by whatever means – whether payola or however – that there are thousands of shittier versions of that song that aren't on the radio. They still hit a certain level. Even the worst crap that I despise, I still recognize that it's probably the better to best version of that song.
Your discography's pretty vast stylistically. We've got Lindsay Lohan, Timbaland, Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, and Katy Perry.
Yeah, those young Nickelodeon Disney channel kids who ended up getting record deals. They did a lot of that in the early 2000s. It's painful to look at my discography and see those there. When I look at my friend, Paul Epworth, there's nothing but the coolest shit possible. There's not one "whoops."
I didn't throw that out there to point a finger!
Oh, no; it's an internal battle of mine.
Those are big records that a lot of people heard, and a lot of people like. My discography's mostly weird stuff that no one's ever heard.
I don't mind things being a success. Music in a vacuum isn't music. It's gotta be shared. I'll go months sometimes without income because I say "no" more than "yes" at this point. When I work on something I don't feel inspired by, I suck. It's like trying to kiss somebody you're not attracted to. I used to say "yes" to things that I didn't necessarily feel a call or a pull towards, but now I only work on things I really love. I have to; I'm an awful liar. I feel this enormous urge to be really forthcoming about how I feel about things, especially music. In retrospect, I wish I had found a different way to pay the rent rather than work on music I didn't have that gut feeling about, because I wasn't good at it. I was good enough to get the job and not get fired, but I was still coming from this sort of naive place where I was just thrilled to be asked to produce something. I've always been fascinated by pop culture, even though I really despise most of it. Even as a teenager I'd read the liner credits of a Sheena Easton record that I hated but still wanted to know who was making the album, where they did it, and what their choices were. I asked Paul Epworth, "How's your discography so immaculately cool?" He said, "It's my wife. She won't let me work on anything unless it's something she could really love. She's been a real buffer for me." I didn't have that. I didn't grow up knowing much of anything. It was Mika's first record [Life in Cartoon Motion] that did it. Just he and I sitting in this room for six months. After it became quite a success for him, I thought, "This is what I have to do now. This is the change I have to make." I was told to quit his record after two songs, by some very talented, smart people who were managing me at the time. They said, "He's too weird. Get out. Do two songs. You're on the record, that's fine. Then get out." I was like, "No!" I wound up eventually firing that management team, and they made a ridiculous amount of commission from the money that came in from that record. But regardless of whatever remuneration showed up, I'm creatively proud of that record. I know that's a record I'll be able to play until I'm dead that I'm not embarrassed by. That's a nice feeling. There's a lot of early work I'd be embarrassed to show people, including some of the names you unfortunately just read out. But they're all nice people.
I'm sorry! It just seemed interesting to work backwards.
I think it helped define me being able to say "no" more effectively.
So that was the record that was sort of an epiphany for you?
Oh, my god; yes. We made that record in 2006, and it didn't come out until a year later in the summer of 2007. Joe Chiccarelli [Tape Op #14] engineered that record, so I very, very fortunately got to spend half a year, every day of the week, with Joe, watching him and pummeling him with questions. "How are you getting that vocal sound? How are you getting that snare sound? Why are you taking four hours to get a drum sound? Why are you taking four hours to get a vocal sound? Why is this taking so long?" At first, in my ignorance, I thought maybe he was a bit nuts. Then I started hearing the results and I realized that Joe has this uncanny ability to get drum sounds before the song's even recorded. When he puts the faders up in the mix stage, they still sound exactly like you want the drums to sound. How often do we get good drum sounds, but don't know what you're going to need the drums to do at the end of the day when the track is done? I don't know how he does it. It doesn't sound overly weird or tweaked. But when you put it up, with a full, finished track with the vocals and everything, it's like you hardly have to do anything to the drums. I learned so much from Joe. He's very generous with his information. That was amazing.