Roll up your sleeves, make a mess, get dirty, get fired, get re-hired, tear it down, and build it all back up again. Then make it better than it was before. That could be a synopsis of a typical day in the life of Matt Wallace. He turned his nerdy love of electronics and music into a long and storied career that includes being a studio owner, songwriter, and producer/engineer, as well as working with iconic bands like The Replacements to helping groups like Faith No More and Maroon 5 craft their multi-platinum breakthrough hits. I caught up with Matt at his Studio Deluxe in the Sound City complex in Van Nuys, California.
How did you start the studio, Dangerous Rhythm in Oakland, with Kevin Army in the '80s?
I'll go back a little further. When I was 13, living overseas, I was the nerdy dude. Later I was in bands. We were playing a lot of Deep Purple, early Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Black Sabbath. I was really into that, but I was also into pop radio. I was always the nerdy guy who decided, "We should record our music." We moved to the States and I had a 4-track, so I conned my parents into allowing me space in the garage for a couple of years. Later, I sold all my instruments, and I got into debt with Mastercard. I had an 8-track studio; a Tascam 80-8, 1/2-inch deck, and a [Tascam] M-35 [mixer], which had eight channels. I ended up building a flanger, a spring reverb, and a couple of plate reverbs.
What sparked that interest in electronics?
When I was seven or eight, I was in Cub Scouts. One of those merit badges was that you had to learn how to wire a lamp. My dad, who was always a handy dude, was like, "Here's how you do it!" In retrospect, that was the moment that opened my mind to, "Well, if I can do that with electricity, then I can do that with electronics." I ended up developing a "noise reduction" for my cassette deck; a couple of capacitors that knocked down the high end. I built a remedial synthesizer that sounded terrible. When I got to the States, I ended up with a couple of cassette decks and a Peavey mono mixer. I recorded my band playing on cassette, then we'd play it through this mono mixer and sing onto another cassette deck. I walked this fine line between the technical aspects of making music and also being a player and a performer. I was always living in this weird sphere of influences and interests.
How did you come together with Kevin Army?
I was recording bands out of my parent's garage in Moraga, in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. He came by because he was looking for a place to record. I never ended up recording him, but we stayed in touch. When I moved and built my own studio in Oakland, he wanted to learn how to record, so I ended up teaching him what I knew and we started working together. It got to a point where he was so comfortable that I could have him engineer things, and/or I would go work somewhere else. When I was starting to get into 16- and 24-track - and he would run the studio. He started recording bands that I didn't have time for, became the second-in-command, and ultimately ended up buying the studio from me and running it for a number of years after I'd moved on.
What was the set up over there?
It was the same damn Tascam 80-8. I ended up buying a 16-channel Carvin board, but the EQ was really focused. You couldn't really mess with it, whereas my Tascam had parametric EQ. I could do a lot more with it. I didn't have any money to buy the new digital reverbs, so I ended up setting up a very acoustically dead room with all this padding to the right of the control room. I knew I was going to do vocals in there. I built this weird device where I could stick a Marshall cabinet in it and close it, but it went for another eight feet of fiberglass batt, so the guitar had a place to push the sound. I built a drum room that had some plywood in it. My entryway was very open and ambient, so I put mics out there. I also had a bathroom under the stairwell, and I painted it with all this enamel to make it really live. I used to send sound there while mixing. One day I had this idea, "I'll put a snare drum in there!" I put a speaker there, flipped a snare drum upside down, and duct taped it on there with a microphone. I had this bathroom in lieu of gated snare reverb. While mixing, and sometimes during tracking, I'd send the snare out there, bring it back, and compress and gate it. I became good at using my acoustic spaces to achieve what it was I wanted, because I didn't have digital reverb. I had a spring reverb, which didn't work for drums. I was on 8-track, so I had to record the drums to one or two tracks. I was mixing, EQing, compressing, and printing reverb while we were tracking. I learned to pre-mix a lot because I was working on an 8-track.
How did you make that transition from working on these projects that were 8-track to bigger bands and bigger projects?
That's a good question. If I were king of the universe everyone would make records on 8-track to start. It made me focus my idea of what I wanted [the track] to sound like in the future. With the advent of 16- then 24- and 48-track, and then digital, I think what's happened is that people ultimately postpone decisions. I'm mixing, and people send me this song with 150 tracks. It's got four tracks for the guitar mics. It makes mixing go a lot longer. Whereas when I mix off 8-track, it's like, "Okay, there's the drums. I can EQ it. Here's the guitar and voice; I can add reverb." Going to those bigger studios gave me the ability to spread things out a little more. But I still believe - and I've said this in other interviews - the zenith of making rock records was 24-track. I think if you can't make it on 24-track, then you don't have a song, or you don't have a band, or you don't have a performance. I got to the point where we'd record a song and it's like, "Okay, we're done!" Somebody's like, "I've got this guitar part." We'd either fit it in between the background vocal tracks, or, "What is it we can erase to put that guitar track on?" It made us start thinking about, "Should we add reverb to that tambourine so we can put this guitar on? Should we bounce something down and make some more tracks?" We had to be more focused and astute, as well as have a bit of experience and knowledge to make records. You go back to The Beatles, and they did it on 4-track. They had to know when they did that bounce, they were going to lose some high end or dynamics. It was such an education, and it was so important for me to get to a place where I could really serve bands best. Even with my 8-track at my parent's garage, I got to a point where I was engineering and helping bands. They'd ask, "Hey, what do you think of this song? What should we do?" I'd say, "Try this." Eventually I said, "This doesn't really benefit me, but if you want me to come to your rehearsal I can help you guys out before you come to my studio. We'll talk about your arrangements and everything. Then, when you come to the studio, you'll be better prepared, and you'll ultimately get more bang for your buck." I was charging $12 or $14 an hour, and for a lot of bands, that was a lot of money. It didn't help me make any more money, but it helped us have a better end result. That was a big shift to becoming a producer. Honestly, I didn't even know what a producer was. I knew I was an engineer. There was a book called Producing Hit Records by Dennis Lambert. It had a little flexi disc you could play. "Here's the bass guitar. Here's the guitar by itself." It was like, "Oh, okay. The producer is like a director in a movie." From engineer to producer was a much bigger leap than from 8- to 16- to 24-track. It was about how to serve the band as best as I possibly could. I never got into it for the money - I never thought I could earn a living doing this. But then I got to that place, and it was like, "How can I make this really good?" I started to get into the mindset of the bands. Instead of being a technical capturer, I became more of a painter of what they were trying to do. I tried to get into the nuances and the reasons [behind] why they were doing what they were doing. It wasn't about "how to get a guitar sound." It was like, "Maybe you want a really weird guitar sound." I learned to be a cheerleader, and to actively go to places that bands wanted to go. That was a big moment for me to realize, "I'm not here to win awards or be liked. I'm here to get in the guts of what they're doing." Then I'd go with them 100 percent of the way. I might argue at first. "Dude, that's weird. You want to sing your vocal through a guitar amp? We're going to commit to it." But once they'd go for it, I was all in, even if it wasn't the aesthetic I like. I had to get to the place where I was like, "I'm not here for me. I'm here 100 percent for the band. My name's going to be on it, but what is it that's going to make you guys go, 'Fuck yeah' when you walk out?" I'm sure you've experienced it, where guys are like, "We need more green, like the sound of an ocean through a tambourine." Being open to that dialogue, instead of being the lab coat technician guy; being more of the complicit partner in crime. Those are big moments for me, as a producer. Serving the band; their name is big on the cover. Wherever they want to go, we have to be open to going there.
What do you think qualified you to be able to have a valid opinion about the music?
Well, first of all I was playing in all different kinds of bands. I was playing drums in one band, bass in another, and guitar in another. I'm a remedial musician, at best, but I played enough and created. The original studio I built in my parent's garage was for my own record. Then I had all these friends who were saying, "Oh, I've got this band. Can we record?" I got sidetracked and started helping other people realize their vision. I was going to school to be an English teacher, and I finally graduated. But, meanwhile, I was also becoming more involved in music. Because I could play chords, I'd be able to say, "What if you did this chord here, or played this part like that?" I learned to offer up suggestions without ego that they could use or not. I'd use this phrase, "Hey, I could totally be high on crack, but I think if you tried this part here, it'd be cool." I'd plant the seed of something quietly. "It might be cool if we try a weird Nashville strum here through a Leslie cabinet." I'd let it sit. Two or three days later the guitar player would say, "Dude, what if we do this Leslie guitar thing?"
I learned to not say, "Well, that was my idea a couple days ago!" Then you're an asshole if you want credit for it. That's really the trick, if you're an involved producer.
The way a sound was committed influences the next step.
We do build on what's come before us. If you have a weird guitar sound, it's going to make you think differently about what you're going to add. This is really, really essential. It's important to commit to sounds. I do that often times with doubling guitars. People will have this really good guitar sound, and they'll want to double it. Do it with a different guitar, or a different amp. Invariably, one's going to sound a little brighter, and one's going to sound a little duller. They'll want to make the duller one brighter, and I'll have to say, "No! Just trust me." Then someone comes up with a new guitar part. Where are we going to put it? We're going to put it on top of the dull guitar part. The dull guitar part is reinforcing the other side, so that it gives it a bigger stereo feel. Now we can put that melodic part on top. This is so important about making records. When you hear a cool, fucked-up drum or guitar sound that informs the rest of the record.
When there are 100 tracks, where do you put sounds in a limited amount of space? The tracks can go on forever, but where are they going to fit? The sonic spectrum is limited.
One thing I try to tell people is the fewer tracks that you have, the bigger everything can sound. If you have drums, bass, and two guitars, it's huge. I'm a huge fan of wide-panned guitars. I like them to sound different, and I like to hear the personality. I'm a big, big fan of tracking live, and I've done a lot of records live with monitor wedges. I want to rewind a bit to The Beatles. Why does Paul McCartney's bass sound so big? Listen to a track. Ringo's drums have a ton of low end bass all over the drum kit. When you listen to the bass mic, it's pretty tight; but there's this wide, roomy bleed that makes the bass sound huge. It's hard to do in modern music, because people don't abide by it.
Let's talk a little bit about some of the records you've done. I know you produced The Replacements' Don't Tell a Soul after your neighbor across the way, Tony Berg [Tape Op #121], was let go.
I moved to L.A. in '88, and I was working at Slash Records as a staff producer and A&R guy. I was a fan of The Replacements. Slash was connected to Warner Bros. so I was in touch with them. They'd heard some of the Faith No More [records I did], but Faith No More hadn't broken through yet. I knew The Replacements were making a record, so I kept bugging people there. I learned an important lesson. I stayed in touch with Steven Baker, one of the main people, and Roberta Petersen who was the main A&R person. I said, "Hey, I want to produce The Replacements." They replied, "Oh, Tony Berg is going to do it." Later on, I said, "Oh, hey; I heard Tony's not doing it." Then they told me, "Oh, now Scott Litt [#81] is doing it." I kept saying, "I really want to work with this band." I had no track record, really. Someone in A&R called me up, and said, "Scott's not doing it." I had an in! I spoke with Steven Baker, and told him I was interested. He said, "Okay, let's get you in touch with Paul [Westerberg] and go from there." We talked and talked. I think because I had no real credentials, other than the New Monkees [a Monkees television show/album reboot], that it appealed to them in a way because it was such a left turn. They asked if I liked to drink a bit, and I said, "I don't drink at all." I got that gig on a phone call, but it was really about being persistent over the course of two months, every couple of weeks calling people at Warner Bros. That's how I got the gig.
Did you start over after Scott and Tony were off the gig?
Yeah, we made our own mess. Tony did some work, and I had those recordings. I really got into them. I had notes on these songs and everything; I wanted the gig so badly. We started from scratch and recorded everything brand new.
How were The Replacements to work with?
It was horrific! I think it was a make-or-break thing. They had been around the block, and people were hoping and expecting they'd break on through. They had a new guitar player, Slim Dunlap. I think he was the bulldog of the band and had to prove himself. I was a nerdy 28 year old guy. I wasn't hip or cool, but I was definitely genuine and authentic. I came in, guns a blazing. First of all, Slim and Paul came in and we worked on a track together called "They're Blind," with a drum machine. Once they started working with me, they called in Tommy [Stinson], the bass player, and Chris [Mars], the drummer. Then we went to the Musso & Frank Grill, and Michael Hill, the A&R guy, was there, and we were all having dinner. Later we were walking back down Hollywood Boulevard, and Tommy says, "You know what I think of you?" Then he spits right in front of my feet. All right, okay; got that! Throughout the recording process - and I'm not going to exaggerate - he threatened to beat me up a number of times. "You fuck with our guitars, I'm going to kick your ass." We're at Cherokee Studios, and every day these guys would say, "You've got to drink with us." Bev's [John Beverly Jones, engineer] like, "I don't drink while I'm working," and I don't drink [at all]. They finally said, "Okay, we're going to go out drinking." I said, "What's the point?" They said, "When you drink, you let your guard down and say what you really think about each other." Okay, fine. So Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night, we'd go to the Rainbow Room, and everyone decided to start drinking. I'm a teetotaler, so I'm trying to be cool, nursing half of my drink. Tommy sits next to me and takes a big black Magic Marker, puts it on my right knee, goes right up over my pants, up over my favorite shirt, and down. I'm like, "Oh, okay." Slim pulls a chair up to me, faces me, and grabs my head. We're forehead to forehead, and he says, "You don't know shit. I could kick your fucking ass." I'm not a fighter, and I have a really high threshold, but I finally said, "Fuck you, man." Honestly, at that point I didn't give a fuck anymore. Every day I'd go home to my girlfriend and say, "I'm gonna quit this thing." The next day Slim forgot he'd said all that to me. He'd drank too much. He came in and was a little bit nicer. At that point I was like, "Fuck this." We were supposed to start at noon, and Bev Jones walked in at 4 o'clock. I could tell by his face something was up. He says, "I'm out!" I ended up engineering and producing this wagon train going to hell in a handbasket. We had Mike Bosley, who was a friend of theirs from way back, as the assistant engineer. Tommy splintered a [Gibson] Thunderbird bass guitar. He didn't just break it - he splintered it. Paul was lighting bills on fire. These guys didn't drive, so I'd pick them up in my little '82 Honda Accord at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and they'd be doing blow and drinking. One day we were up all night because Tom Waits came in. I was driving them back to the Roosevelt, and I used to do these handbrake turns in my car. I'd scream up to the red light and then pull on the handbrake with all these guys in the car. They're like, "What the fuck are you doing?" I was like, "Fuck you guys," I was so pissed off. After two weeks of these shenanigans I decided that I was going to make the record. Even if everyone in the band died, I was going to make that record. I got to a place where I was pretty much fine with everything; but every day I'd go home to my girlfriend and say, "I'm done with this. I'm quitting this. I'm really done with it." But I decided I was going to make the record. Yes, I was threatened if I touched their guitars. Paul would do a guitar part and I'd say, "That sounds great. Let's take it back a little bit and tune it." He'd say, "Oh, I forgot the chords." I'd reply, "Really?" They'd leave for the evening, and Slim would say, "If you touch our guitars, I'll kick your fucking ass."
Touch their guitars, like mess with them?
If I put them in time, or whatever. Literally, he threatened to beat me up numerous times. So yeah, I did a little bit in L.A., but once we got to Paisley Park I had a little bit of time. They were at home, so they'd go home with their wives, or girlfriends, or whatever. I had this Publison Infernal Machine, a French digital delay/reverb. I'd go bar by bar. People would complain the drums were lagging, but Chris was on it. Those guys were leaning so far forward. I'd take Tommy's bass and mute everything else. I'd take his bass on one track through the Publison into another track, and I'd go bar by bar. "Okay, he's 30 ms ahead, 40 ms ahead, but the bass is fine." I'd take the guitars and play them all back. That's what we did before we had access to computers. I'd put things in time. I worked a full day with them; I would go do that at night as well, and then come back and work again. They'd always ask, "Did you fuck with our guitars?"
It sounds like they wouldn't have remembered, regardless.
They didn't. We were at Capitol Studios, and then we came back to Cherokee and regrouped. They didn't want people to hear any outtakes. We were compiling the master reels and they'd ask Bosley, "Hey, what can we do with these outtakes?" "You can run them through a bulk eraser!" Because they wanted to be thorough, they put each one up on a 24-track deck to listen. On tracks 12 and 13, you could hear a little bit of music, because with 2-inch tape, you put it on the bulk eraser, flipped it over, and bulk erased, but you could still hear a hint of the middle tracks. It's like, "I guess you could put it on a tape machine and run them through." They were doing that. They were grabbing reels from all over the place. I literally had to physically sit on top of the master reels that we had because they were erasing everything in sight. They actually erased an outtake of a song called "We Know the Night" that was stunning. We have a 2-track copy of it somewhere, but it was a song that we had tried multiple times. Those were the kinds of things I had to deal with. I had to fight.
Wow; amazing. Obviously, Paul liked you enough to call you again!
Yeah, he did, which was a shock. I learned a big lesson; I learned how to work with him. I actually went out to Minneapolis before they did the next record, All Shook Down, and said, "Hey, I'd love to work with you guys." I gave Chris a drum machine, Paul a reverb unit - for demos - and told them I'd like to work with them on the next record. I made the mistake of telling Paul, "Now that I know how to work with you guys, I think we can make a good record." I think that was like, "Oh, no." He did the record with Scott Litt, but he ended up calling me for [his first solo album] 14 Songs. I didn't expect it. It was pretty good.
You were with Faith No More from the very beginning. The Real Thing was when Mike [Patton, Tape Op #53] joined the band, but by Angel Dust they were a more fully-formed group.
The genesis of Faith No More was a band called Sharp Young Men. It was what ultimately became Faith No Man [later changed to Faith No More. -ed]. That was with Mike Bordin on drums, Bill Gould on bass, Mike Morris on guitar, and Wade Worthington on keyboards. There was a point in time where they transitioned. Wade left and Roddy [Bottum] joined. I was actually at that gig where they played half with Wade, and then he walked off and handed the torch to Roddy. Eventually they didn't like working with Mike Morris, the guitar player/singer, so they parted ways and became a trio. Of all the bands I worked with, that is the band I have the closest, deepest, longest relationship with, because we really grew up together. I was with them as they morphed into Faith No More. I did sound for their live show. I was with them when they became a four-piece, before Chuck [Mosely] joined. Then I was with them when they were a four-piece before Mike joined, all the way up through Angel Dust. I was learning as they were learning. We did the first record, We Care a Lot, in six days; recorded and mixed. The band and I slept and recorded in the same room. After that, Chuck was out of the band, and they were looking for a singer. I think Jim Martin [guitar] may have gotten the music to Mike first - he was tuned into Mr. Bungle before I was. A lot has become clear after the fact; Mike Patton was slightly ambivalent about being in the band. His heart was in Mr. Bungle, but he saw an opportunity to be in another band that was further along. I think he decided to join forces on a lark. In some ways, he was never fully committed to Faith No More, but I will say that when he was with us, he was all in. He wrote all those melodies and all those lyrics for The Real Thing in a two-week period. The music was done. Whenever Patton would ask, "Could we extend this part, or change these chords?" they were like, "No, that's it." Patton had to superimpose everything on an existing framework. I give him a lot of credit to be able to pull that off. Those lyrics on that record are fantastic. Those melodies are ridiculous for a guy who was 19 years old. He and I used to argue. Whenever he sang, he had that really nasal, adenoidal, adolescent vibe, but when I wasn't recording he'd get into this full-throated, beautiful tone, where he's singing this R&B stuff. It's like, "Oh, my god. Let's put that on the record!" He'd reply, "No, I don't want to do it." I used to argue, because he has this beautiful, rich voice.
It's incredible. Almost operatic.
He's amazing. I think he was doing two things. One, he put on a bit of a persona that distanced him away so that it wasn't Patton on Faith No More, but a facet of Mike Patton; a persona. It made it so that when he did music with Mr. Bungle, he could have his own voice. But two, along with that, he had a persona that really appealed to the audience, because it had that snotty vibe that was a response to being in a band he wasn't fully committed to, or the response to me being a producer dude. It was a thing that really connected with the audience. It was the right sound, and the right attitude. He was absolutely, 100 percent correct. That's what drew people to that. Even the way he was bending notes. He didn't land on the notes. When he was by himself, he could. His pitch is so good. He was kind of floating through it. He was absolutely right.
That morphed on the next record. Things changed.
Yes. On Angel Dust, Mike Patton became a part of Faith No More. He was fully invested. His name, his aesthetic, and his heart and guts were in that record. He was there while we were rehearsing the songs. He could say, "I don't like that song. Let's not do it." Or, "Could we change this part here?" For "Malpractice" he came up with those ideas. Because he was part of the band, he could show his real self. Also, as Faith No More became successful they wanted to distance themselves away from the idea that they were a funk-metal band. I wanted to distance myself away from that sound as well, because when I was present mastering The Real Thing, I almost quit producing. The record sounded really bad; it was thin and overtly compressed, which I did. It was my fault. I drove back in my little Datsun, and it sounded so thin in the car. I put it on my home stereo, and it still sounded so thin and compressed. I called my mom and asked how to get into real estate, because I didn't know what I was doing. It sounded so bad. I felt really bad about what I did for quite a while. Fast forward to MTV and the radio. When that song came on MTV, it crushed. It was perfect. The focused thing I did accidentally, but it sounded huge on the radio. Angel Dust is really a response to that record. Much, much more low end. I compressed a little bit of vocal and drums, maybe a dB or two. I recorded and mixed with minimal compression. The compression on that record was all done in mastering. I presented a very un-compressed, non high-end thing, knowing that when I went to John Golden [Tape Op #121] - who mastered our other records - that I could say, "I want everything squeezed together." That's how he got that sound. It was a completely different thing. But you're right, in a way, that was a band fully together. In a weird way, Patton was an outlier on The Real Thing, and Jim Martin was more of an outlier on Angel Dust. Patton, Roddy, and the band were all focused, but Jim Martin was really not present the way that we wanted, expected, and needed him to be. We really needed Jim's guitar. Otherwise the guys could tip to material that was too pop, melodic, or light. He brought in the weight. From the album We Care A Lot to Introduce Yourself to The Real Thing, we all relied on Jim Martin to come in with the [Gibson] Flying V and the Marshall half stack with the weight that would tip it so it didn't get too cute or too light. We needed that, but he wasn't available. It was really, really, really difficult.
A lot of samples were used on that record. Had you done a record like that before?
Everything up through The Real Thing, Roddy had an [Oberheim] OB-Xa or an OB-8 [synthesizer]. At the start of Angel Dust he had an [E-mu] Emax. After The Real Thing did really well, I ended up buying five DAT recorders and I gave them to the band as a gift. They took them on tour wherever they went and recorded. I think that opened their minds to the idea of different sounds. Certainly for Roddy; he now had a keyboard that could play samples back. He ultimately sampled pieces of music, drums, and all kinds of sounds. He's the guy who brought that into the band. He was the vanguard of that, by virtue of the fact that he was into more programmed dance music by that time. Also, his worldly travels; there were samples and sounds from South America. That really informed what they were trying to bring to their audience, whether it was lyrically or sonically.
Another huge record you did was Maroon 5, with their debut, Songs About Jane.
Yes, it was. It's getting close to 14 or 15 million sales worldwide now. I heard those demos, and they were really good at writing verse chorus, verse chorus, and then just noodling around to the outro. They were really good songs. They were previously a band called Kara's Flowers - more of an alternative rock band. They made a record for Warner Bros., but disbanded. A couple of guys went to college. They got really enamored with Lauryn Hill and Outkast - more urban. I got these demos, and they were really good.
You were more known for Faith No More and such. How did you end up getting those demos?
That's a good question. My manager got those demos, and it's possible, at the time, that those demos were intended for another person on his roster. I'm sure they gave the demos out to a number of people, because Nile Rodgers was one of the producers on board for that. Nile would have done a really good job on that record. What I heard was that when he found out the budget was $65,000 - because it was on an indie label - he said, "I can't make a record for $65,000."
You could today!
But at that time most records were a minimum of $150,000 to $200,000. I was kind of chosen by default, but I was also really tenacious. I listened to their demos and had extensive notes, like I always do. I was able to say, "Okay, this is what I think is good. This is what I think you need to work on." They had a song called "Sunday Morning" that was the most promising track for me, at the time. This is before they wrote "This Love" and "Harder to Breathe." A lot of my peers thought they were a Jamiroquai rip-off. At the time, there was a lot of new-metal on the radio; Maroon 5 was an outlier. They were the band I took the biggest risk on. They were on an unknown label called Octone, with an unknown manager at the time. I was actually offered to work with Days of the New on their second record. They were offering me $50,000 to produce it. I was like, "I can make more money doing Days of the New." But these Maroon 5 songs were so good. If nobody blew it, we had a shot. I went to see them play live at The Whisky a Go Go and it was a guitar wankfest. Every song had solo after solo. Adam [Levine]'s a wicked guitar player. They're not a pop band; they're a guitar band. He's a very instinctive, intuitive guitar player. I told my manager, Frank [McDonough], "I can't do this! These guys are a bunch of guitar wankers." Later I saw them play the Viper Room, and it sounded really cool. We got together, and I said, "I think if you guys can write some bridges, we're going to have a great record here." I think I got the gig by default. I'd done work with Sheryl Crow, so I had some other pop sessions, but nothing like Maroon 5. I got to the rehearsal and told them they had to write bridges. They asked, "Why?" I replied, "If you do, you'll have a classic record, and also, people might cover your songs. Your choruses are great, but when you get to chorus two, you guys plateau. What if we actually rose above that so people go, 'Oh my god, how could this get any better?'" That was the big push I did with them. In two weeks of preproduction, they wrote those bridges. I tracked them all with monitor wedges on that record. Off the floor, I had great performances, because the drummer was in the big room and the guys were all in their guitar booths. No headphones. I told them, "I want you to walk in and play like you're playing live." I had amazing recordings. As we got into overdubs, Adam and Jesse [Carmichael] were into the urban thing. I ended up taking these drum tracks and chopping out the ambience, making them really tight. A friend of mine, John O'Brien, did loops with them. We were basically making a Justin Timberlake record before Justin Timberlake. At the time 750 megabytes of RAM cost $750. We didn't have any budget! We erased all that. I committed to those sounds and erased the live off-the-floor drums, and guitars, and all that. We took a big left turn and made an urban record with all these loops. We couldn't afford the $750 to pay for another hard drive to save it. We did it, and got into mixing. I mixed this first song called "Tangled." I played it for James Diener - the head of Octone - and he was like, "Nope! You've got five white dudes with guitars, and they are not going on an urban tour. It's not going to happen." I re-recorded seven tracks of drums while mixing at Can-Am [Recorders]. I basically saved my own ass in the mixing process of that record. It cost me another two and a half weeks of work, and I didn't get paid any extra money. As a father and a husband, I was like, "Oh my god, this is killing me!" As a producer, I had to get it right. I couldn't walk away, and I couldn't bellyache. All through that time, James Valentine, the guitar player, was like, "We need this to be a rock record. We need more rock guitars." I leaned that way, but I was trying to follow Adam and Jesse's vision. I was trying to accomplish that within the confines of a rock band. Those drums are cut live in the big room at Can-Am. I had this way of approaching it where I put the drums in a booth and they were all padded with blankets; very tight-mic'd. I had the sliding door open a bit, and then added ambient mics. That's how I like to capture drums. Get really tight, and then be able to open it up when I want it. That's what I did for that sound, but that's paying for your commitment.
It worked out.
Yeah, it really worked out. I took less money and they gave me an extra point, because they didn't have a lot of money to put into it. It was my biggest career long-shot I've ever taken. It didn't sound like anything on the radio, at the time. In a year and a half they finally upstreamed to BMG, Clive Davis wrote the check, and "This Love" became an international hit. I still get royalties from Maroon 5! That fucking record is still helping me pay the rent and keep the lights on because we did it right. But at the time, I was taking a 50 percent pay cut.
You bring up an interesting point about navigating the internal politics of the band as a producer, as well as how important it is to make people feel like they made a contribution. You have to make it work and satisfy the boss.
You're absolutely right. To me that is the crux of the whole job. You're between two rocks. You've got a band who wants to do their creative thing and express themselves. "This is our artistic thing; our statement." You've got a label who's like, "That's great, but we want to make some money, and the more money we invest in you, the more control we have over how it's going to turn out." My wife thinks I go to work and boss people around. I'm between a label that's funding it, and a band that wants to go off and make a left turn. As a producer, I will always side with the band. We'll have fights and argue, but after a couple of times I'll be like, "Is that what you guys want? If it's what you want, I'll back it 100 percent. It's not what I want to do, but it's your record." That's my job. I feel like the label's got a lot of power. They have all the lawyers, and they're this multinational company. I try to provide a unified front for the band and say, "This is what we're going to do." I'll push really hard, and it gets me into trouble. That's a big part of being a producer. The label's going to push what they want. They'll pull you aside and say, "Listen, the way so-and-so's singing on that song, you've got to fix that." I'm in the trenches with the band, like, "Fuck those guys. We're doing it this way!" My gut with Maroon 5 is that I loved what we did initially, and I thought it was the right thing to do, but I also wanted to go with the artists and follow their path. One of the biggest lessons for me is that I can start at Point A and believe I want to go to Point B, but sometimes I do have to go to points B, C, D, E, F, G, and sometimes come back to Point B and realize it's the right thing. We've got to go there. We've got to follow the muse. I had already worked so hard on that record, and we were already pushing to the finish line. They wanted to mix and get it going. That's when I thought, "Okay, now the actual work begins." At nights I'd go to sleep thinking, "Fuck, I don't know how in the hell we're going to get out of this. The songs are in pieces. The album's in pieces." I have to go on momentum and believe in my gut. The next day we'd move forward a couple more steps. That's production. I feel that way every night before I start a project; I have no idea if I'm going to serve this band, or artist, as good as they need. I'm going to bring everything I can to it, but I don't know if I'm going to pull it out. They put their trust and faith in me. For me, I might do a few records a year as a producer. If one of them doesn't work, it's fine. But for them, this is it. I have to do it right and bring everything I can to it.
After you've done it long enough, you can put an X on the calendar, usually about the midway point, where someone's going to lose their mind. "Everything's a disaster. Nothing's working. What are we doing?" It really used to bother me, but now I look forward to it. If it's that safe, up to a point, and everybody's that comfortable, I'm not doing my job in terms of pushing people out of their comfort zone.
I think you're more comfortable with that part than I am. I spent a good decade of staying within my comfort zone. We always stayed on budget. I wasn't the best producer at that time; I could have done more. Subsequently, I'm much more open to push and get there. But I don't know if I look forward to those moments. I know they're essential, and we have to push to get through it. You're right; sometimes it's about the music, and sometimes it's not. It's about perceptions, or peoples' feelings are hurt. "Why's so-and-so playing guitar and not the guitar player?" "Well, he has this weird thing he did on the demo that's honestly wrong, but it's the right thing." I do that all the time. I don't want any credit, and I don't care who plays it. Put your name on it. Great.
People become less precious as they get older and have more experience, but that first record is their record.
Back to Angel Dust, that was really the sound of a band being torn apart. They got to the point where they had to coalesce, but at the time Jim was pulling away. Roddy had an issue with substances, and was also coming out as a gay person. That record had one of the highest levels of daily strife, stress, fatigue, and challenges. Jim would come in and play guitar parts and the band would come in say, "What in the hell is he doing?" He'd do these noodly, melodic things and the band wanted him to bring in weight. There was such a schism with that band. At the end of that record I said, "You guys need a new guitar player, a new producer, or both." I quit producing for two months after that record. A lot of that project was carried by sheer momentum, as well as Patton stepping up and nailing vocals, and melodies, and being super prepared and hyper-focused.
Interesting. Some of the best records have that behind-the-scenes chaos.
Honestly, I think the best records have to have that. You have to be at the point where you're all in, and you have to go for the jugular. I did plenty of pleasant and nice records. There were a lot of times where I wasn't comfortable saying, "No, that's not good enough. We've got to do something different." It's not because I want to fight about it. It's because we've got to get to the guts of this record. I did this O.A.R. record [All Sides] that had a song called "Shattered (Turn the Car Around)." It was their biggest record. I was basically fired a couple of times [during that project]. I was ready to do it, and I wanted to work with them. I tracked a demo of this one song, and it was away from what they do; a little bit edgier. Like between O.A.R. and Sublime-like. The A&R guy was like, "Nope," and that was it. I thought, "I guess I'm not doing the record." Then, two days later, I get a call and it's, "You're on." I called and said, "You know, I really want to work with you guys, but I don't think you have the song you really need. I hate being the guy saying, 'I don't think you have the song.' It's a dick move, but I don't think you have it." The manager was like, "Okay, you're fired. You're out. Goodbye." Then, three or four weeks later, they wrote "Shattered" and some other songs. That's the same band where I had a song completely in pieces on the floor for three days. It was a song called "This Town," where I said, "If we do it right, it's going to be anthemic live. I think sports people are going to want to use it." Because I got a 10 percent co-write on it, for a year after I would get requests, "Can we use it for ESPN? Can we use it for college basketball?" That was one of the few times where I said, "I know exactly where this song can fit. We've got to get there." They said, "Dude, the original version's fine. We've got this demo. It's totally cool." I kept saying, "It's not there yet." I remember going home and thinking, "Fuck."
That was never a consideration, back in classic record production. Now you're thinking, "How are they going to make money with this song?" The traditional outlets have been minimized.
You're absolutely right. What I try to tell bands, and this is my general aesthetic, I say, "Listen, there are going to be a couple of songs I might push pretty hard." It might be a single, a leadoff track, or whatever. I'm going to push pretty hard for that, and I'm going to tell them straight up, "We're going to do that." But I also expect we'll have a couple of songs that are going to be weirdo, odd arrangements and left turns that we'll have to do in order to balance that. When we work on those songs, we are gonna go on their meandering, cool, crazy, fucked-up journeys. That's important, because I want this band to be balanced. I don't want people to think they're just a pop band. "No, you guys are also artsy-craftsy. You want to do this jammy bit. Great. Let's jam out. Let's have a couple of songs that are seven minutes. Fine." That way I feel the band is at least heard for who they are. We'll put our toes in the pop area, or have an ESPN track, but we're still going to do our thing. Let's make a record that's creative and artistic, but we also need some songs that can push it through. After they had "Shattered," O.A.R. were able to play Madison Square Garden, because they had toured for so long. They were a jam band/hippy band/college band, but they also had a song that fucking connected with people. That's the job - to try and help them make a career out of it.