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...