From session bassist, to songwriter, to producer, Mike Elizondo has had an interesting musical path. For 11 years he co-wrote with Dr. Dre, making hits for 50 Cent, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige. His production career has encompassed Fiona Apple, Avenged Sevenfold, Switchfoot, twenty øne piløts, Rilo Kiley, Gary Clark, Jr., and Maroon 5. He even found time to work as the music director of Live from Here with Chris Thile up until its cancellation. Mike and I chatted about the recently-released album Obviously by Lake Street Dive, which he produced at his Phantom Studios in Gallatin, Tennessee.
How did you end up near Nashville?
When I first started coming to Nashville, about 11 or 12 years ago, I fell in love with it because it’s so laid back; this embedded balance with work and then having family time and living life. My wife and my kids would make these trips with me, and I would do week-long writing trips. A guy had built a studio out in Gallatin and was selling it; there were some intriguing pictures online. On one of my trips I came and checked it out. I was thinking, “Well, that studio’s pretty close to what I would imagine building.” I brought my wife out here and we checked out Gallatin. We ended up buying a house before the guy committed to selling the studio. June of 2019 was when the trucks and everything got here and unloaded. I was starting to think I was maybe going to lease a room in Nashville, but the studio worked out.
You’d had a studio at your home in L.A., right?
I did. I had a studio for a number of years that I had built. Then, for the last seven years, before we moved, I was leasing out the front room at Can-Am [Studios], Chris Lord-Alge’s place. I took what I had learned from my first studio, as well as the Can-Am space, and built a dream setup at this new studio.
What are the differences between having a space in an existing complex, like Can-Am, and in having your own personal space?
There are advantages to both. There have been times I’ve gone to work in studios that had different people working in different rooms, and there’s this cool energy that can happen. People bump into each other, “Hey, come play on this song,” or, “Come check out what we’re working on.” There are a few places like that in town, such as Sound Emporium and Blackbird. Of course, L.A. has a ton of them. But, for my own purposes, having my own studio and all the gear I’ve collected over 20-some odd years, I can have gear set up at all times; drum mics, all my guitar amps I want mic’d, and keyboards up. I work a little faster because I know what I can get out of my own gear. I can create an atmosphere. When artists or musicians step into a room, each room creates an atmosphere. I’ve always enjoyed trying to create an atmosphere that made me feel good, and hopefully made other artists and musicians feel good when they stepped into it.
When we walk into an empty studio as a freelancer, we’ve got to plug everything in!
Yeah, exactly. “Are all the channels on the console working?” I’ve had great experiences going to a studio that I’d never worked at before. If there are limitations, I work within those limitations, and that becomes part of the adventure.
It took about three months for the studio to be built. I was making records in a small room at my house on a laptop, while also using a couple of keyboards. I was thinking, “Maybe I should just go the route that everyone else is going!” But I’m grateful that I have the room and have gotten to make a lot of cool records. The Lake Street Dive record was the first record I ever made there, so I learned the room on that record. Fortunately, it worked out!
Did Lake Street Dive come about through the Live From Here broadcasts, working as the Musical Director?
To be honest, I think Live From Here helped me seal the deal. I’d been planning to make a Lake Street Dive record three albums ago. At the time I was doing a bit of A&R for Warner Records, so I became good friends [with them]. I’ve always been a huge fan of Nonesuch [Records] and everything they represent. I would bug [former label president] Bob Hurwitz, “Hey, can I get a meeting with Lake Street? I’m a huge fan of the band.” For whatever reason, the timing wouldn’t work out or they’d already committed to a producer. Doing Live From Here, with Rachael [Price] being a frequent guest singer, we got to know each other on a personal level. That show brought it to a point where she felt comfortable with me and could vouch for me. It’s a hard thing for a band to commit to a producer. My credits are a bit of a head-scratcher. There are some that maybe make sense for Lake Street Dive, and a lot that don’t if you’re just looking at credits. I don’t know if it was an audition, per se, but it worked out that we went in and cut one song, “Making Do,” in October of 2019 at a studio in town called Welcome To 1979.
Yeah, I’m friends with Chris Mara [Tape Op #104].
Yeah. Incredible spot. We went in for three days and tracked one song. The chemistry and the vibe was there. Then it was a matter of figuring out a chunk of time that we could all make the rest of the record. I had a couple of trial writing sessions before they got here. I was also working with an engineer, Lawson White, who I’d never worked with before. Coming from a situation in L.A., where I had only worked with two engineers – Adam Hawkins and Brent Arrowood – since I made the Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine record in 2005. Brent is the guy who wired and assembled my studio here in Gallatin. He knew every piece of gear that I owned and knew how I liked to work, so it was perfect. He even got the studio integrated with [Audinate] Dante [media networking technology].
You’re coming at this more as a musician, composer, and producer. Have you always had engineers to help you out?
Yeah. Before I had an engineer, it was a gradual process of Tascam to Roland – little digital studios – and then getting Pro Tools. Just picking it up as I went along. Then, many moons ago, I came across a Neve BCM10 [console] for sale. I had a BCM10, a Pro Tools rig, an [Akai] MPC3000 [sampler], and a couple of keyboards. I was still doing recording sessions for people [as a bassist], so I’d ask guys like Jim Scott [Tape Op #75] or Matt Wallace [#128] for advice. Everybody always had [Neve] 1073s or [Universal Audio] 1176s, [Teletronix] LA-2A, or whatever. I said, “I’m going to buy one of each of those and figure out what they do and how a compressor works.” I’ve always admired guys like Bill Bottrell [#59] and Eric Valentine [#45, #133], those guys who can play every instrument, write the songs, engineer, produce, and mix the record. I realized that for my brain, I definitely slide more into the musician/arranger/ songwriter type of producer. Especially once I met Adam Hawkins. He was a perfect person to grow with as we started making records together. A lot of my favorite producers also had that “right-hand man” feeling. Quincy [Jones] had Bruce [Swedien, #91] and so on. I did a lot of sessions with T Bone [Burnett, #67], and he always had Mike Piersante engineering. I naturally gravitated towards wanting to have an engineer there to handle as much of the technical end as possible.
There are times when I’m asking, “Please give me a little extra money so I can hire someone to come in and help me set up the drum mics.”
Yeah. Once the word gets out that you’re a guy who can do all of the above, then the budgets shrink and it’s like, “We’re not going to pay you double, but we want you to do the same amount of work.” There are definitely times where I was at home and I mic’d myself up. As a chuckle I’ll give myself engineer credit here and there. But I won’t go out of my way to engineer records.
For Lake Street Dive’s Obviously, did you do the mixing?
Adam Hawkins did the mixing on that. Like I said, Lawson White was the engineer. We were getting to know one another. I had a certain idea of what I wanted to get sonically, so there were a lot of references. I sent him a Spotify playlist of a bunch of records. When we started working together, there was a lot of, “Could we push this further? How far can we take this?” I like to make sure that the rough mixes are great, to set the bar. It gives the mixer a, “Here’s how I’m feeling it.” I very rarely will turn in a session to a mixer and say, “This is a mess. Make some sense of it!” I usually have it pretty well thought through, and the rough mix is at a good place. Adam Hawkins did a phenomenal job. There’s an unspoken language with him, him having engineered so many records. He’s mixed a lot of records for me over the years. I give him the freedom that, if there’s something we didn’t do that he wants to try, to go for it. The same goes for [Mike] “Spike” Stent. Spike mixes a good amount of my albums for me as well.
This new record is a bit of a shift. Previous records feel more organically performed.
I talked to them about the vision that I had, but they were equally wanting to push the boundaries of what a Lake Street Dive record was. This is their seventh record. When bands get to a certain point, they’re super open to doing something they’ve never done before. We looked for opportunities – where it made sense, based on the songs – where we could push and blur the lines. There were a couple of times I could tell, where they would walk in and it was, “Whoa, can we do this?” But there was never a, “No, I don’t want to try that.” There was always an acceptance and an openness, “Let’s see what happens.” Every time we’d wind up with something we were all very excited with, sonically or arrangement-wise.
Were you building up the beats for their songs and helping arrange them?
On some, yeah. They had let me in on the process of song selection pretty early on. They had a bunch of ideas already. Sometimes an artist comes in and goes, “Here are my 15 songs. This is my album, and I know exactly what it should be.” With Lake Street they’d say, “We’ve got five voice memos and GarageBand demos. Maybe you can help us make sense of it?” I love doing that. I love being able to listen to super raw demos. I made a wish list of those demos and what I thought might make a good record. They were into it. From there, I gave them some suggestions to try for arrangements, tempos, or maybe a key change. Then they went into a rehearsal room and played live to have a sense of it with Voice Memo off the iPhone. They came to the studio, and we had the studio set up so that they could all track live. We would occasionally go back and overdub, but for a good amount of it we kept the energy of what was there. There were a couple of times where I would program something for them to play along with; a breakbeat or some percussion. Sometimes that percussion was kept. Sometimes Mike [“McDuck” Olson] would go in and replay it. There’s one song on the record called “Anymore.” It’s a very ‘70s or ‘80s production. I had this wacky idea of wanting to borrow from the classic ‘80s Phil Collins, and Quincy and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” I was expecting, “All right, Mike. You’ve gone too far.” We ended up with this hybrid of live instruments, but with programming and a [Roland TR-]808 drum machine, and it works. We found a way to make it gel with the other songs. I was psyched that they wanted to blur the lines.
Was it hard to pull together a cohesive album?
Yes and no. One of the things I love about Lake Street is that they’ve always had this genre-lessness. They can be jazzy, folky, R&B, and rock. I took each song for what it was. There are some pretty disparate moments on the record, if you put them back to back. I’m still a fan of the sequence of an album. They are such great musicians and have such great songs that it does work. Their musicianship envelops any direction they want to go into, and they can pull it off.
Is it all upright bass on this record?
Yeah. There was one moment we played a Moog bass for a low sub. It’s all upright bass. There are some where it’s enhanced with a plug-in, but it’s all being generated from Bridget [Kearney]’s performance. There’s no electric bass on the album.
Upright bass is a tough instrument to record well, and to get to hold up in a mix.
It starts with Bridget. She’s a phenomenal musician. She’s got great intonation and great articulation. There were maybe a couple of times where I would recommend where to cut the notes off or whatnot, but she intuitively knew what was needed. We would look at what her bass line was, and what the parts were going to be, and then we’d look at the big picture. “Okay, the bass needs to fill this and cut through here,” or, “Now it’s more background supporting low end.” There are a lot of cool bass lines. Being a bass player, I wanted to feature Bridget as much as possible. She played her butt off.
Were there any specific techniques for recording the bass?
Typically, we had a couple mics. Usually it was some type of condenser near the fingerboard for the high end articulation, and then some tube mic for the body and the woodiness. We’d take a DI, for sure. Occasionally we’d run the DI through the amp. On certain songs, where I wanted to have that extra little low end, we would add some subharmonic frequencies with one of those plug-ins that gives you that octave.
You’ve gotta be careful there!
Yeah, exactly. It’s case by case.
Your whole career started out as a session bassist?
Absolutely. I was in a band [Budahat] that got signed to Atlantic. The album never came out, but I met a project coordinator. She started introducing me to producers like T Bone Burnett, Matt Wallace, and Glen Ballard and, at the same time, I started getting these phone calls to go in and play bass. A couple years into that is when I met Dr. Dre. At first, I thought Dre was just another session. I went in and treated it the same way, doing session work, but Dre then invited me to become a participant in what he was building [at Aftermath Entertainment]. Even while I was working with Dre, I was making other records. I played bass on a Ry Cooder record, Chávez Ravine, doing those sessions in early parts of the day, and then jumping in on some Dre sessions at night. I was able to keep those relationships going with T Bone, Ry, and sometimes with Glen Ballard. I loved getting to play on records and figuring out parts that worked for songs. Then Dre started to become such a great experience and opportunity that I had to see that through. But, even now, I’ll still play bass on records. Gary Clark Jr., who I’d produced for one of his records [Blak and Blu], said, “Can I come over for a day?” I ended up playing electric bass and synth bass on eight or nine songs, all in a day. It’s a lot of fun. I did a little bit of that for St. Vincent [#134] on Masseduction. But the session work, as much as I would love to do it, timing-wise sometimes it doesn’t work out. But it was definitely where I thought my career was headed, getting to play bass on peoples’ records, which I’d have been totally fine with.
Whoops, what happened? [laughter]
Yeah, I’m super grateful, no matter what.
Working at Dre’s place, what was the process? Was it show up every day and play and co-write with people?
It was an evolution. In the beginning, he had a handful of other producers who worked under him. I would go in, and they’d play a record and go, “Can you replay this bass line?” Or they’d play something on a keyboard bass, but they wanted live bass. I’d play on random beats for a bunch of people. Eventually, Dre became more hands-on and started hiring me himself to come in. It was sometimes similar to, “Can you replay this bass line?” There were times when he would have a drum beat rolling and ask if I would come up with ideas. As I would do that consistently enough, I started getting writer credits for coming up with bass lines. Dre was so cool with wanting whoever was in the room, if you had a great idea to speak up. I started bringing in my guitar and some keyboards. It was an amazing playground. I might have been the first one who brought in a computer rig that had soft synths. I had it hooked up to his [Akai] MPC, and that started us down the path of having virtual instruments in the studio. I think that’s what kept me in the room for so long. I loved bringing new things to the table, learning on the job, and integrating them in some creative way. Sometimes we would show up and write a bunch of ideas; a jam session where Dre would program drum beats. Some days it was just me. Some days there were other musicians in the room, like Mark Batson, Scott Storch, and other keyboard players. Dre would pick the tracks he thought were the best, and then he’d play those for whoever was coming in. He was the filter. Nothing got past Dre. If he didn’t like it, no one was ever hearing it. I learned so much about the business, about producing and working with artists, getting the most out of musicians in the room sonically, and arrangements. It was an incredible learning experience. Although it was hip-hop, Dre’s just a great record maker, no matter what genre. You can put him in the room with anybody, and he’s going to do something amazing. Those lessons I learned translated to any genre that I’ve been asked to work on. Those experiences are what still guide me to this day.
If samples didn’t need to get cleared or paid for, then everything would be like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. But because albums like that were going to be too expensive to license everything, it ended up shifting the way records were made.
I know, it’s very true. Dre was at the forefront of having live musicians in the room to create something new. Occasionally we would have listening days, where he’d pull out a bunch of records and we’d listen for vibes. We’d put that in a blender and see what came out. He definitely gave me a huge opportunity.
You could imagine someone in a similar boat letting you throw all your ideas in and then taking their own credit for it.
Oh, 1000 percent! That’s what a lot of guys have done, or continue to do, to this day. Yeah, once he recognized I could be an asset to what he was doing at Aftermath [Entertainment], everything was always straight-up. It was a good 11 year run where I got to make a lot of records with him. So much time has gone by, and now I’m getting to work with a lot of 20 to 25-year-olds who grew up on that music. You have bands like twenty øne piløts, who are huge hip-hop fans, which you can obviously hear in their music. There was a lot that I learned from those sessions that I can help influence and bring into an alternative band’s sound. It has come back around again. You turn on alternative radio, and so many of the beats are late-’90s to early-2000s hip-hop beats and instrumentation, filtered through a live band but with that production. It’s pretty cool.
I feel that 20 years ago, we used to work on records and it was more delineated, like, “This is an alternative record. This is a hip-hop record.” Now the sounds, the working methods, and building with loops and working in grids, it’s all morphed into each other.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve tracked songs with no click, as well as 100-percent live to grid. It depends on the song and what we’re looking to get out of it. Some way I have to have some live performance, even if the drums are super quantized. My favorite is the ebb and flow of a human heartbeat, in terms of that humanness in the record. I always have to find a place for that.
Have you been able to keep working through the pandemic? How is that process going for you?
Yeah, we got the studio up and running in January of 2020, and then we had Lake Street on the books for most of February. We wrapped up the first week of March. It was that next week when everything shut down. At that point a U.K. artist, Rory [Charles Graham], known as Rag’n’Bone Man, was already on the books. He was going to fly out with a couple members of his band. It was crazy, because we were still learning about what to do and how to be safe. He had made the trip out. The idea was that we were going to track three or four songs and then they were going to go back. I was like, “You know what? We should quarantine. I think it’s going to be safer for everybody.” They quarantined for two weeks. I have a house on the studio property. I don’t live there, but there’s a separate house. He and his two bandmates were able to quarantine at the house. I set it up so that he and his band members would have full rein of the live room, and me and my engineer would stay in the control room. We set up mic’ing stations. The pianos and drums were mic’d. I had some old Tannoy Super Gold [monitors] set up in the live room. It was like a fishbowl production, where they stayed there and had their own bathroom. We stayed in the control room, and fortunately there’s a second bathroom. It was so bizarre not having that interaction, where everyone comes in after a take and we’re high-fiving. Rory decided, because of the uncertainties of COVID, to track the whole record, but we only had six days. We ended up tracking the basics for 13 songs. Maybe 90 percent of the vocals that we tracked were what we kept from those sessions. All the drums, all the pianos, and all the bass. We did some additional guitar overdubs. It was a little bit of, “Use the studio, and then we’ll pass files back and forth until we’ve got it finished.” Little by little, as the year went on, we figured out we could do on-site testing. Having a house where artists could stay and quarantine, as well as having a studio where I could control the environment and we’re all wearing masks, I started to do more and more tracking. There were a handful of records I was able to track because I had my own studio and had a place where people could stay.
Luckily, everyone I’ve talked to found ways to keep working.
Yeah, whatever is the safest and most productive way possible.
Your father, Miguel, used to have a home studio behind your house?
Yeah, my dad had a studio. He was a great musician. It would have probably been ‘83, maybe ‘84. We had a detached garage. The house was on the front of the property and the garage was on the back of the property, and you could only access it from an alley in the backyard. He called some buddies over and they soundproofed it. He bought a 4-track reel-to-reel and a little console. He’d find talent and say, “Hey, if you come to the studio, I can record your demos and help book your gigs.” This was the heyday of Van Halen and hair metal starting to pop up. A lot of these bands would come, and he would figure out whatever their four best songs were and record them. I’d pop in every once in a while. We’d have these awesome bands hanging out in our backyard. I was 12 years old. It definitely planted the seed. For at least a good four years, or whatever while we lived there, there was just a revolving door of bands that would come in. I’d schlep along to gigs on the Sunset Strip, to all the different clubs: The Whisky [A Go Go], The Roxy, whatever. I had another friend, Justin Morell, whose father, John Morell, was a great session player. His dad also had a home studio. That was the first time I ever saw a 24-track Studer tape machine. I’d go and jam with Justin and two other musicians. We still have recordings we made on 2-inch tape. By that point, I was 14 or 15 years old. I was playing a lot of jazz and different styles. It was a normal thing to put on headphones and track to tape. Consequently, I never had to go through that phase of a musician who was used to playing live but now had to go in the studio and “the pressure’s on.” I was groomed to think, “The studio’s just a cool place to hang out and play with your friends.” That was a huge advantage, having that growing up. It made the studio more of a cool, fun place to make music.