The production of today’s singer/songwriter projects is going through a major renaissance, and Ethan Gruska is at the forefront of these new sounds. At only 30 years old, he has already put out two albums with his sister as The Belle Brigade, two solo records (Slowmotionary and En Garde), co-produced two Phoebe Bridgers records with Tony Berg [Tape Op #121], and written songs for John Legend, Madison Cunningham, and more. His collaborations with producers Tony Berg, Blake Mills [#115], and Shawn Everett [#115] have created a genre of its own. Surrounded by boutique synths, pedals, and noisemaking boxes, I sat down with Ethan to learn more about how this fresh production style is crafted.
I first heard of you when you were in the band, The Belle Brigade, with your sister Barbara [Gruska]. The production and songwriting were amazing. Then I realized all these common threads between you, Blake, and Shawn. Can you talk about the influence you all had on each other, at that stage?
I was 18 when Barb and I started doing the band. She invited me in. She said, “Alright, your songs are getting good enough. Let’s be a band.” She was playing in Jenny Lewis’s band at the time, on a tour, which I did merch for, actually. I was terrible at it. But she was playing with some people, including Blake. When we made our first record, she had him come in. I knew of him and was a total super fan. Then Blake introduced us to Shawn and Tony [Berg], very slowly. Blake is definitely a central figure in that early part, and still is. We made our first record, [The Belle Brigade] where he played guitar. Matthew Wilder produced the first one – great guy; super talented dude. Blake came in and did three days where we said, “We just want to watch you play!” He was doing the craziest shit, and we were all obsessed. Then we comped through it.
Did his playing influence where the record went?
Hugely. We were on a path, and then Blake came in. The analogy that me and my sister give is that everybody has their palette of paints, and Blake is like the color wheel in Photoshop. It was our first experience of watching him do that. Because he was only in there for a couple of days, he probably didn’t feel he was a big part of it, but he was. He launched us into a new place to run with. The second album [Just Because] was produced by us and Shawn Everett.
Where did you record both of those records?
For the first Belle Brigade record, we did the first two weeks at Capitol Studios doing basic tracks. It fucked me up, because it wasn’t reality-based. We got so lucky that we got a record deal when we were young, before we even had anything out. Now, I would have never done it that way. You’ve gotta find out who you are first! We took all the basics to Matthew Wilder’s place, which was out in Malibu at the time. We would drive out to Malibu every day. His house was gorgeous; a beautiful view of the ocean, and we would work there all day.
Took a little pressure off of watching the clock at Capitol?
Definitely. We felt like family at the time. He really took us in, in a great way. That was a crazy experience.
Then Michael Brauer [Tape Op #131] mixed it?
Yeah. It was so not DIY. So I had to relearn the DIY thing. But it all feeds into each other.
I take it that experience was pretty different from the second record, working with Shawn?
Totally, yes. Shawn is a force of his own. With Shawn, I feel I really learned how to have fun. I mean, I was having fun before, but he insists that it has to be fun. I have to be inspired and feel like I’m searching or experimenting.
No. It’s not like we’ve got to come up with a part. I remember, on the second day we were over there, he said, “Okay, we’re going to record these long loops and put one on each fader. They’re all going to be totally psycho different, and then we’re going to play the board.”
That makes so much sense, when you hear the record. I remember hearing it and thinking, “How did these guys make this?”
It’s Shawn! He’d have a way of getting our ideas down, but with a completely different process that felt totally new to everybody. We made that entire record at Tony’s old studio, Zeitgeist. That was a beautiful experience. We were on and off all the time, because we were touring a little bit, and also Shawn was in the middle of tons of work. I’m so happy...