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 seeing how the entire world now is like, “I want to work with that guy.” He brings out the joy of creation in you.
What led to you starting your solo career at what seemed to be the peak of The Belle Brigade?
We were working so hard on the road, and all eggs had to be in this one basket. I think that both of us, without any bad blood at all, were like, “I want to diversify!” Even though it was what we both wanted, I hadn’t started anything yet. There were a couple of weeks where I was like, “Fuck! I spent years putting everything into this, and now it’s over. I’m happy, but also I don’t know what to do.” Then I had a little epiphany. I had been writing these piano songs. The original idea was to make a record of short, 2-minute piano pieces. I had gotten an upright piano with a felt mute. I went and played maybe six or seven songs for Tony Berg, who I had met through working at his house, as well as family connections. He gives very sage advice. I didn’t even go there thinking he would have time to produce it, or that we would work together. At the end of the day he said, “Let’s do this, right?” I was totally surprised. I think he was doing an Andrew Bird record at the time, so we had to wait a little bit; but it gave me time to write six or seven more [songs]. On all the Belle Brigade sessions, I was so young and felt it was a whirlwind. Meeting Tony, and working on my solo record, I felt it started to come into focus a little bit. It was really pivotal for me. Then Tony introduced me to so many people, and got me starting to produce.
Did you and Tony co-produce that record?
No. I mean, it was very collaborative. Tony was being so good to me; he was letting us do it on spec because I had no deal. [His wife] Cary was cooking me dinner every night. I was just an artist who had an opinion, but it was produced by Tony. He helped me with a lot of decisions.
A lot of those songs on that record are sung and played at the same time. I remember the first couple of days, he was saying, “Slow it down. Don’t explore with your voice. Sing the song.” He would focus me in. I think I have a tendency to want to color everything in. He helped me be more defined and have a more specific palette. Also, sonically, he taught/retaught me how to be more inviting and to lean in a little bit. I learned so much in that process. Then he started bringing me in as a player on sessions, which then led to co-producing records with him.
Like co-producing the Phoebe Bridgers record, Stranger in the Alps?
Yeah. We had finished my record, found a home for it, and then Tony would bring me in. During the Slowmotionary record, I was starting to discover all my gadgets, like my [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 and my [Critter & Guitari] Kaleidoloop. There were little hints of those on the record, as well as reversing shit.
The backwards sounds are so cool. I steal that all the time now.
Those are sounds that have been around forever, but I was thinking, “Oh, that’s a cool thing for me to incorporate into what I do.” I’m not somebody who can come in on a session and play like Larry Goldings [pianist]. I don’t have those kind of chops. But Tony would bring me in on sessions because he was into where I would go with ideas.
That’s surprising to hear. Your piano arrangements sound really deep and complex. Were those very thought-out beforehand?
Yeah. There’s a Leonard Cohen interview where he says, “I have one chop.” I feel that way. I can do my thing, but if you take me out of my comfort zone I need a second. Now I feel a lot more comfortable coming in on anything, but back then I was really nervous. By Tony bringing me in as a player, I learned how to adapt and learn a song quickly. It improved my retention and knowledge. As that continued, he was working on some demos with Phoebe for the record they were making. Tony said, “Come in! Check out this artist; she’s awesome. She’s 19 and writing these lyrics.” I think Phoebe heard a record Tony had made and was into what he was doing. Tony brought me in and we spent two or three days with me as a player. It gelled in a way where the workflow started moving faster. I insisted on using all of these new toys that I had found. That started bringing a little bit more of a collage element to the record that was maybe a bit more straight-ahead, band-oriented. Being asked to be a part of that was a huge thing for me. Not only did she deliver incredible songs, but she worked her ass off. We all made a great record together.
What roles do you and Tony play as co-producers? You obviously bring something to the table that he finds valuable.
Yeah. Now that I’ve been mentored by him, I’ve assumed a little bit of a Tony voice in my head. For me, that’s usually to strip away and find the center of the song. I feel more and more proficient at adding guitars, keyboards, and arranging and building a track. “Do whatever you want; throw a ton of paint at it.” And then he’ll say, “Okay. You stumbled on an idea. Let’s focus more on that.” Those were the really early times where I knew how to catch a vibe, but I didn’t know how to solidify a thought. Tony was really instrumental in that way. It’s pure collaboration.
I’ve heard that you use Pro Tools almost like an instrument. You record a ton of playlists and then comp and create a wild performance. Is that true?
Yeah. I’m a comping fiend. I get made fun of a lot for that over there [at Sound City]. I love going through 30 playlists of nonsense. I love the four milliseconds that I find. Those define everything for me. It originally came from the early session playing where I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, “I’m going to play and then come back and fix it.” Now it’s, “I’m going to get out all these different ideas, and then I’m going to see what a collage of them would look like.” Sometimes I’ll do seven passes and then comp that before moving on. A lot of times, with the sampling that I do, it’ll be different. The Mellotron has all these sound effects. And the iPad has unbelievable granular synthesis, like touchscreen playable apps. There’s also the Kaleidoloop and the OP-1. All these amazing, different versions of sampling. I don’t know if I should say this, but I’ll smoke a joint and spend seven hours putting randomness down and muting it all. Then I come in the next day and start sifting through it.
Write drunk, edit sober.
Do you ever get into Elastic Audio for manipulating the sounds you’ve already recorded?
Definitely, but I’m only recently now getting knowledgeable about Elastic Audio. It’s so cool! I would say I’m just trying to get a good signal when recording at home. When I’m working with Will [Maclellan] or Joseph [Lorge] at Sound City, I have a lot of trust in them. If they want to chase a sound going in, I’ll be there with them, 100 percent. Both are extremely talented guys. Let’s say I’m working on a project here at my place; I’m not getting extraordinary sounds going in, but I then spend a lot of time in the box manipulating them and then printing them. That’s how I intended to record it, but I don’t necessarily have the outboard tools to do that, nor the space or the room. For me, it’s that idea of recording it and then committing it, like it was always meant to sound that way.
Let’s talk about your recent record, En Garde, because it’s bonkers.
It is! It’s not even a record.
What would you call it?
It’s a collage.
You explored production ideas more heavily on En Garde than on Slowmotionary. Was this intentional?
Yeah. The Slowmotionary short piano pieces have a density to them that allows them to be short. That was the initial idea. This new record didn’t have an initial idea. I had a bunch of material, and I wanted to get in the studio and make it. I had started producing a little bit more, and I loved it. I prefer it to being the guy who has to go out, and perform, and tour. I thought it would be an important time for me to do almost a “production reel,” as well as to try being diverse with the production. I wanted learn a bunch of new shit in hopes that it creeps into the projects that I work on for other people – to come in with tools that I’ve already woodshedded.
Who are you listening to now that you find unique and inspiring?
Imagine making your solo record and next door; Blake’s doing whatever the fuck he’s doing. That’s a way to either quit music (no, of course not!) or raise your bar. I would go in there and hear him, and whoever he was working with. It was inspiring and it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. That was really fun to make that record there and have the community that Blake and Tony have. That’s how I met Matt Chamberlain [Tape Op #125], who played all over the record.
You had Matt playing drums?
Yes. I had a lot of drummers come in. I’m playing a little bit of drums on the record, but the first two or three months on the record, no other musicians came in. It was just me. I hit a wall where I needed some fresh players to open me up. I got stuck. I had Abe Rounds, my sister Barbara Gruska, Matt Chamberlain, and my friend Sam Skloff. My friend Jake Sherman came in – an incredible keyboardist. The keyboard feels like my main instrument, but I also wanted people to come and open up my voicings and reharmonize in a way that I can’t. Jake and Larry Goldings came in, and I was saying, “I’m not going to tell you what to do. Take three or four passes to find your bearings, because I guarantee you that those are the ones I’m going to gravitate towards.” It’s about getting musicians who I love how they think, and then the art of the choice afterwards and making sure that I serve their voice. I think that most of those people, when they hear the comp, they say, “Sweet! I did that!” But also, “I didn’t realize that I did that!” I like a lot of the mistakes – they don’t sound like mistakes. Sometimes people are playing and they go for something that’s not what I was going for, but it sounds really cool. Nobody knows that when they’re listening back.
That’s what you would never get if it was totally rehearsed and under your belt. You might not make that move.
Exactly. I also love working on songs where it is deeply thought out and arranged. There’s this nebulous quality that happens when it’s all coming from a place of the unknown and accidental. It creates this foggy, cloudy orbit. Otherwise it can be too structured. But that was how I was feeling on this record. Now I would love to make a solo record where it’s very structured again.
What was Tony’s role on the new record then?
Co-producer. Tony had a ton of input and ideas, but a lot of it came down to him helping me with perspective, which is huge. When I’m making my own music, my perspective’s fucked up. When you’re working with somebody else, you can react and be inspired. When you hear your own thing, it’s like hearing your own speaking voice. It’s terrible. So he would help me with that a lot. I think that an enormous role of a producer is that emotional guidance. Of course, he would help me solidify parts and all that. On this record it was a little bit of him letting me spread my wings, and then also coming in at the end of the process and being extremely helpful by scraping away. I think there were times when I got so attached. When we were doing stems and sending them to Tchad [Blake, Tape Op #133, #16] to mix, Will and I were going through and we were cracking up because there would be these tracks that would have one clip of the tiniest, inaudible sound. But then we’d mute it and go, “It does something!” That’s how some of the tracks ended up being. It’s silly.
I have to ask about how the song
“Event Horizon” was made, because that’s one of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard.
Every voice in the arrangement is written for the piano. The idea of it is that I had this A tempo piano piece, and Tony and I were thinking, “What if we did make it into a groove?” In my head, the song is in 1/1. Then, after we then mapped it out with the click – this bar is 5/4, this bar is 3/4 – I played with no accent. After that, Barb came in and I made a little chart for her, running through those time signature changes. On the first record, almost nothing was to a grid. Those comps were insanely hard but really fun, because I was lining up transients. The feel is so different. So, “Event Horizon” started out as a piano piece. I was really into the [Isao] Tomita albums at that time. He was this Japanese artist in the ‘70s and ‘80s who was taking classical pieces and arranging them all with Moog and Arp synths. His version of “Clair de Lune” is very famous because it’s this cool synth version. He was on tape, doing this with monophonic synths, one voice at a time. What I loved about that was the control that you could get over each voice in a harmony.
Right, and the timbre.
The timbre! With “Event Horizon,” we started diving pretty deep into learning each voice of that piano piece and playing it on different instruments. The bass part of that piano part is a [Roland] Juno [synth], and then the fifth above that is probably a guitar.
That’s why it sounds like an instrument you’ve never heard before, because it’s not an instrument.
It’s not. It’s ten sounds taking over the ideas within a part. Then they can all be panned spatially to different places and have different effects. It was an experiment in control over harmony.
What’s going on with the high end in that song?
There’s not a ton of high end on the whole record. I’m very earth-toned. Tchad is very earth toned.
But there’s almost like an intended…
Murkiness? It’s on purpose! My favorite plug-in is Lossy, by Goodhertz. There’s a lot of that on my record, and there’s a lot of it on the upcoming Phoebe record that I did. I’m a [Avid] Lo-Fi, [D-Fi] Recti-Fi, [Goodhertz] Lossy [plug-in] junkie. I like when shit gets pummeled by the weird, alternative bit-crushing. I think there are probably lots of those kinds of effects on that song.
Was that something you asked Tchad to do, or was a lot of that committed?
Most of that was committed. A lot of the effects were very similar to what they are [in the mix], but then Tchad made them incredibly 3-D. Tchad does crazy shit and finds buried sounds. He’s a genius. But I spent time on a lot of the effects. I had never done anything like that before, and I absolutely loved my sister’s drum performance on that song. We were searching for 30 minutes on what to do. It started out as this really mellow jazz thing, but she’s an incredible soloist too. I told her to treat her groove as if it’s a fucking solo. That led to her doing this fill out of the first chorus that’s completely bizarre and amazing. That’s what I love about my sister’s playing. When she does that, she crosses bar lines and meters in a really melodic way.
But she always seems to stick the landing.
Yeah. She’s a total gold medal gymnast. My family’s nuts.
Your dad, Jay Gruska, is a film and television composer, and your grandfather is film composer John Williams. Is anyone else in your family also a musician?
So many. My uncle, Mark [T. Williams], is an incredible drummer. My uncle Joe [Williams] is a singer who’s in Toto. He’s been singing live with them now for the past five years. My grandpa John’s dad [Johnny Williams] was a drummer for [composer/bandleader] Raymond Scott. He was also a drummer for studios in L.A., playing on movies and radio recordings. Raymond’s music was licensed for cartoons, like Looney Tunes; zany arrangements with fun, surreal compositions. He was also an electronic music pioneer. My mom’s [Jenny Williams Gruska] mom was an actress [Barbara Ruick]. My mom’s side is old-school Hollywood. My grandma did all the female screams in [Alfred Hitchcock’s] The Birds, which I think is the coolest credit of all time! She was also a very talented singer and dancer. My aunt [Michele Gruska] is a singer and a vocal coach. So it’s both sides of my family, and it runs pretty deep.
I can hear your classical influences, but at the same time I think of you as a pop producer. Were there records that defined the sounds and type of production you wanted to take?
Definitely. Before I made Slowmotionary I was listening to a lot of classical music, almost exclusively. I was listening to a lot of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. I love the French impressionist harmony. Before this record, I listened to a lot of hip-hop and experimental modern shit. So, I think that’s a good frame of reference for the way that each of those records sounded.
You pull out the romantic chords.
Yeah. I love the way that they use diminished and half-diminished chords, as well as minor-sixth chords. Not the six minor, but a minor chord with a sixth. And the way they invert all those chords. I’m not that skilled or knowledgeable about it, but I definitely gathered what I could. It becomes this weird mishmash of pop and classical. On the new record, there’re a lot of sounds flying around, and I got a lot of that from listening to Kendrick [Lamar] records and being inspired by the production, arranging, and mixing.
Do you have any interest in producing hip-hop records?
Absolutely. I’ve even started to do some sessions. Nothing has come out yet, but I’m so interested in doing that and inserting some of that classical element into those kinds of tracks. All that shit is super deep, but making it even more genre-bending, like a French impressionist classical piano part with a [Roland TR-]808. I can be wilder with the music, because I don’t have to weave through it melodically as much. I’m very inspired by that and how weird I could get is super exciting. I hope some sick rapper reads this interview!
Anything interesting in the works that you can talk about?
I’m working on the Manchester Orchestra record, which I’m really excited about. We’re in the infancy stages of making that record. I’m co-producing with them and Catherine Marks [Tape Op #102], who they’ve worked with in the past. I also scored a documentary, Raise Hell, last year that was really fun. It’s about Molly Ivins, who’s this great journalist. I’ve been doing a lot of co-writing. There’s work in the pipeline, but it takes forever to come out.
What advice would you give to someone that plays, records, and produces their own music to think outside of the box and inspire fresh production ideas?
I think going purely textural for a minute and putting in some surface noise. Go outside, sample your neighborhood, put it in, re-pitch it, put panning and tremolo on it, and do some sound design. I think that is an inexplicable vibe. Once you have that then it sparks something. It’s a spark to then keep putting arrangement elements in. I use an iOS app called Samplr all the time. I’m constantly grabbing samples, and with the granular touchscreen I can turn them into something completely different and not even tonal. That’s always a trick for me, when I get stuck. It’s about finding a tool that does something magical that’s not musical or tonal. It’s an energy.
Filling the dark matter that can be so clinical between clips.
That’s exactly it. Filling up the part of the track that you actually don’t realize exists, and putting it at -25 dB. You feel something different. It’s like tricking yourself. All that ends up being really powerful to the listener. You have to be careful. I’m learning how to make it not be too nebulous, and how not to fill up all the dark matter, because the space is actually the most important part.