There could be a book about Bear Creek, your parents, and all that's happened.
Yeah. We keep adding chapters every week! My folks are in Mexico now. We were partners in a studio there for a while too. They're doing well. My wife, Maja, helps with the day-to-day operations, and even my son, Kai, helps with the yard work. That’s a three-generation studio! But it is a big story; you're right. I think it's a pretty consistent story.
You're one of the few people I know who grew up with a studio right next to your home.
When I grew up, I would play with a reel-to-reel tape machine with sound-on-sound, using one of my dad's synths. I'd do all sorts of weird stuff when I was six.
Were you watching sessions or helping in any way?
Oh, yeah; I was the coffee guy. I would come in and clean up. I remember that I assisted on a session with Eric Clapton when I was 7. He didn't have an amp with him, so he was like, "Hey, can I borrow your amp?" I had a Fender Champ with the pull treble knob. I was like, "Sure!" It was a guitar solo on "Dancing on the Ceiling" by Lionel Richie. But I was around. I got to meet Heart, and I was always kind of running in and out of the studio. When I was 13 or 14, I wasn't antisocial, but I had a small circle of friends. I found that if you played music, you started to meet a lot of different kinds of people. In junior high school and early high school I was in bands. I got kicked out of public school, and I got put in private school for the last year. All of a sudden, I met all these guys with the polo shirts. My only friend was on the football team, a kid that I went to grade school with. I cut all ties with music. I thought it was boring. My parents did it. I wanted to wear a suit. I got my hair cut short. I wanted to do everything I could to not be a hippie musician. I didn't want to be a part of it. I went to WSU Business School, and I studied international business, and joined a fraternity. I didn't play in any bands. I listened to music, but I was like a "normal" person. Not "obsessed." I went through that for two years. My dad came to visit WSU for dads' weekend, and he's like, "What are you doing here? There's a bunch of people drinking beer, and you're not getting good grades in your economic classes." I moved out of the fraternity house, and then my dad called me up and said, "Ryan, I really don't think this school is appropriate for you. We'd like to give you the opportunity to go to another school abroad for six months so that you can think about everything."
I went to school in London, and I studied advertising. Again, it's like, "I don't care about these Gatorade drinks we're supposed to market, or these candy bars." That shifted to sound for film and Foley work, because I somewhat already knew how to do that. I finished the program in London, and then I went to Evergreen [State College] and studied music production under Peter Randlette [head of electronic media]. Then I interned at Bear Creek.
Wait, you interned at your own parents' studio?
Yeah, I went with three guys. Don Farwell, who runs Earwig Studio in Seattle, was one. We helped build the big room at Bear Creek. My first real assisting session was the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape. Dave [Grohl] even gave me engineering credit and became a good friend of mine in the early stages of the Foo Fighters. They were at the studio for a long time, and Gil Norton was producing it. Then I assisted Terry Date [Tape Op #123] with Team Sleep – Chino Moreno from Deftones side project – and that was my first Pro Tools record [Team Sleep]. Terry was like, "You better like this, because there's no reason to be doing this unless you love it, and you can't be doing anything else." Then The Black Heart Procession records, which I did shortly after that, [1, 2, Three] were kind of a phenomena. The Blonde Redhead records [Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, Misery Is a Butterfly] are still the coolest things I think I've ever done.
Were those with Guy Picciotto [Fugazi, Tape Op #12]?
Yeah, Guy and I worked on them. That song "For the Damaged Coda" is one of the biggest memes of all time. That was from 22 years ago. We're talking about hundreds of billions of streams of that song on little TikTok and YouTube videos. It was on Rick and Morty. One of my son's friends was over, and he started playing it on my piano. I said, "What are you playing?" He looked at me and goes, "It's Blonde Redhead, 'For the Damaged Coda'." I thought, "How in the world does an 11-year-old know this song?" He said, "Oh, it's from the meme. It's Rick and Morty's bad vibes song."
Wow. That's bizarre. With a band like The Lumineers, were you bankrolling any of the studio time, or working in an A&R capacity?
Not necessarily, but they told me what their budget was, and it wasn't what I was used to. I wanted to help them. They wrote me this really nice letter at the end of the sessions saying, "You believed in us before we believed in ourselves." That meant a lot to me. Having a song that starts off in one category and then branches off into Triple A [adult album alternative] and pop radio is fun. After that it kind of spawned the Avicii movement with house music; like Aloe Blacc and that scene. Two or three weeks later we had Avicii doing a track that sounded similar to The Lumineers. Then I was in Hawaii, and there was a Tiki version playing on the radio. It's so fun. A similar trajectory happened again with Vance Joy. He had "Riptide" done already, but they needed to have an album [Dream Your Life Away] that had multiple singles. Here's this guy with a ukulele; he's got a pretty voice and he writes these quirky songs. He's a folk musician, but that one he ended up opening for Taylor Swift. I loved his songs. I wanted to serve the songs. I wanted to take my interpretation of what that story is, and work with the artist in trying to build a world where that song lives. I love songs that are a world that you go into. It's three minutes long, and then you're out of it.
That really is production. Often you're going a lot further than the artist even envisioned.
Yeah, I like that. The Beatles are definitely my favorite band. Every time I hear them, it sounds different, depending on where I sit in the room. I can change the mix by sitting on one side. I don't mix records like that, but I really appreciate it, and their sense of pop sensibility with keeping integrity and timelessness. I don't think I actively try and do that, but it's such an influence on me. When I grew up, The Cure was my favorite band. I love them. I was thinking about it, and that's acoustically-driven pop music too. Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths, and Love and Rockets. Acoustically-driven pop music. That's the same thing that I'm doing right now. Left-of-center acoustic-driven pop music. All of a sudden, you'll see your influences. Then the Brandi Carlile record [The Firewatcher's Daughter] happened, and that got another Grammy nomination. That was the first record she ever did without a label. She got signed after that to ATO [Records]. It was beautiful, the making of the album. No demos. We went in in a month and tracked it. She had gone through T Bone Burnett [Tape Op #67] and Rick Rubin. They made awesome records, but they didn't do what this one did. It was like every song's different. It's not an Americana record or a country record, where it sounds like they got the same players and tracked all the songs in one day. When I worked with her, we wanted to have every song be its own universe. Usually when I do a record, there are two or three songs that share a vibe. I always think of the "thread." If you make an eclectic album, the thread is the artist, the singer, often the songwriter (but not always), and then the producer. The real thread is the artist and the producer in an “out there” album. So, Brandi's album was cool. I felt great about that when it got nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album. We didn't win, but it's a big honor to be shouted out. Especially after seeing Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett do it and not get a nomination.
There you go.
I still think of myself as the kid who doesn't really know what I'm doing. Every day I go into the studio, and I'm still kind of nervous. "Is this going to be the day that I don't deliver?"
I sometimes think someone going to expect some skill of me that I don't have.
Yeah. Or that well that I drop the bucket into every day, I reel it up, and what happens if there's nothing in there? I used to stress out about that. Then COVID hit, and I was stressed out about other things.
Yeah, just staying alive!
Totally. Trying to figure out what's going to happen with my business. What would I do? We tried to figure out a way to go in and make records in a difficult time. Allen Stone and I did an album that was called APART. I was in one room, and he was in the other room the whole time.
You were "apart."
You'll notice he played everything.
At Bear Creek he could come in from outside into the live room.
Yeah. We did that. There's a kitchen in the studio, and it has its own living quarters in the big part of the barn with its own bathroom. Sometimes we would stay out there for three weeks. Over that amount of time, "You're not sick. I'm not sick. We haven't been anywhere." There was some real freedom that we felt. Shortly after that, there was an artist named Prateek Kuhad who's on Elektra [Records]. He's from India. By then we had testing, so we were able to jump right into it. It was, again, just the two of us. Prateek flew from Delhi, and he came right at the beginning of that terrible wave where they ran out of oxygen and everything. He showed up, and he was like, "I love all the albums you make. You can feel the space. You can feel the rooms. You can feel the transistors and the tubes and all that. But I don't want to make an acoustic album." I was like, "Wow, you flew all the way here from India, and you want to make an electronic album with me? That's awesome!" Before I did The Lumineers, I wasn't really a folk producer. I was indie rock.
We shared a lot of the same clients in that era.
Yeah. We both worked with Stephen Malkmus [on Pig Lib] and The Black Heart Procession, and I'd done Blonde Redhead, The Afghan Whigs, and all that dirty rock. It was fun. Sometimes I miss doing those kinds of albums, but every once in a while they still come around. When Prateek came out, I was like, "Okay, sequencers, arpeggios, analog synths, but still real drums." Trying to bring those two worlds together. The album [The Way That Lovers Do] was successful because of all of that. It's funny when you're 49 years old, and all of a sudden you're doing something new. It's inspiring. Shortly after that, Zach Bryan came in, which is country. I'd never even done a country thing, ever. I approached the singles ["Something in the Orange" and "From Austin"] more like some of the work that I did that was indie rock. He has an accent, because he's from Oklahoma, but besides that he's a singer-songwriter. He doesn't sing about trucks much; he sings a lot about addiction and heartache. Zach's project was really fun. I didn't produce the album; I produced the two lead singles on it. He had come out of making all of these raw recordings himself, so I think he wanted the album to be even more raw than what I do. The label told him, "You've got to put these songs out. These are big songs." I tried to make it spacey and weird, like a lot of the stuff that I do, with big moments. I think both of the songs started on country radio, and "Something in the Orange" is doing amazing. It's going viral on TikTok in Europe. It got nominated for an award in London. Country music going to Europe? That's not a thing! Not that I had a ton to do with it, but Zach's going to be able to make records as long as he wants to. He's a great songwriter.
That's great to see in an environment where we're constantly told that the music business is dead, and everyone should give up.
Yeah, totally. That's been my mode of operation since I was 20, when I first started interning. Sometimes when I'm in it, and I know that it's happening, I'm like, "Well, this was fun. Too bad it's going to stop when I'm done with this one and I'll have to get a job." I keep telling myself that it hasn't been like that for 30 years, so it's probably not going to get like that now. I also love the fact that it seems producers can keep going. It's not like we age out of the program.
I mentioned to someone the other day that I'm recording people half my age.
I've always been interested in songwriting sessions, but I'd never done them. A friend of mine, Jonny Shipes, runs Cinematic Music Group, which is mostly hip-hop. He signed this kid, when he was 13, named Prentiss. Prentiss had done a bunch of great music. He made it at home and made some videos. He started getting shout-outs from a bunch of big pop artists out there. Then Jonny called him. I had been doing A&R with Jonny for about a year and a half, trying to broaden his label from being hip-hop to Americana and rock. Jonny was like, "I want you to write with this kid. I think you guys would kill it." I talked to my manager, and I said, "I haven't written a song since I was 25!" I don't even play anymore, because I'm too busy in the studio comping vocals. I did one writing session with Mike Posner about ten years ago, but that's it. Prentiss comes in, and I'm hanging out with a 15-year-old kid. He's inspired and I'm inspired. We went in with no plans and no songs, and in three days we wrote, produced, and mixed two songs that are being released. It was the fastest turnaround of anything I've ever been a part of. I got to help write the lyrics, chords, and produce it. Once it's released, you get paid, which is nice because I wasn't even expecting to be paid. I wanted to do this as something fun and different. Then, after that, a series of songwriters started coming to me, because it got out there that I was doing it. Mikey Ferrari, who's on Neon Gold Records, was just about to get signed to Atlantic. He came out for five days and we wrote seven songs. Not produced out. An artist from the Netherlands, Blanks – who's a big YouTuber with two or three million followers – came out and spent three days with me, and we wrote five songs. I'm always there to serve the songwriter. The song and the songwriter; they've always been this mysterious force to me. "How can you write these great stories?" Then, in the past month and a half, I found myself as that person.
Do you think that was a reservoir you were building up? We sit there and watch people record, but think, "I'm supposed to stay out of that department."
Yeah, totally. I always tend to do arrangements. I help with bridges, because the bridge is usually not there, and they're my favorite part of the song. Then helping a little bit with lyrics and melody. I write almost all the string parts that I have on the songs. That kind of work. Not usually a “start from nowhere and make something.” The guys that I assisted, like Gil Norton, Terry Date, Ron Nevison, and Joe Chiccarelli [Tape Op #14], it's more about the production, the sounds, and the impact; all those elements I was talking about earlier. I have to admit that I got to the point where comping vocals for two hours, plus editing drums and 35 takes of vocals, as well as zooming in on verses to make sure they're just right… it started to get a little bit tedious for me. Bear Creek has an amazing engineer, Taylor Carroll, who works with a lot of people and is a great producer in his own right. He started doing all the editing for me, and I found myself sitting on the couch hanging out, looking at my phone, and being like, "Is this what I do now? I sit on the couch and look at my phone?"
It feels weird.
Prentiss got signed to Geffen, so that's a big deal for a 15-year-old to get into. Not only that, but my peers are also getting younger and younger. Hanging out with 15-year-olds making music? There's so much inspiration in that. I get in there and have to find a common thread with the artist in order to collaborate. I'm tending to find that I have more in common. My whole life, everybody was older than me, and all of a sudden it shifts and I'm older than everybody, in most cases now. The sessions with Blanks, Mikey Ferrari, and the writing session with Prentiss; it's the most fun I've had in a long time making music, and I think it's some of the best work I've done in a long time too. I would love to do it more. I finally got callouses on my fingers again. I know the chord names. I was one of those people, a lot of us were in the indie rock days, in the '90s, where I didn't want to know how music worked, because I wanted to feel it. I didn't want to know theory. I wanted to be able to be involved in the energy of that weird thing that was music.
I came through the same way in the '80s. I was in a band for eight years, and we never called parts a verse or a chorus!
Pall [Jenkins, Tape Op #71] from The Black Heart Procession, back when he was in Three Mile Pilot, Steve Fisk [#3] produced them [Another Desert, Another Sea]. Steve was a big influence on me. I got to assist Steve Fisk. He's very inventive and cool. He could take pop music and make it weird, cool, and successful. At one point, Pall said something about the middle eight. I was 22. I was like, "What's a middle eight?" He said, "That's the part of the song that's different from the rest of the song. The middle eight's the bridge. Where the story shifts from one perspective to another perspective, or there's resolution."
Something happens, yeah.
I was like, "Wow, that's really cool." It's almost like in the old Shakespeare plays, where there's a soliloquy, and the actor turns to the audience and says something, and then goes back into the story. In the songwriting tradition, that's probably one of the oldest elements of keeping the listener active. Listen to The Beatles; they do that a lot.
We should be drawing from everything.
Totally. I recently started getting into listening to music that's modern. Then I had a big wave where I was totally into exploring new music from the past year. For a long time, I hadn't, because I'm in the studio for six days a week. I don't want to be influenced by anybody who's making something cool right now, because that's already a year old. You can try to do that, but…
You're going to be behind the curve, no matter what.
Totally. I try and listen to old music, like Robert Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday's early work. But I'm starting to be able to listen to electronic music and foreign language pop. I don't work with many artists from Seattle. I'm not even on staff anymore. I am a partial owner of Bear Creek, but I have my own LLC corporation that all my producer work goes through. It's really easy, if you have some money, to buy and fix gear nonstop. I've got kids and a house. I know if it was all in the Bear Creek pool, it would just disappear.
Yeah, I know the feeling! You have to make your own living.
The studio is still partially owned by my family; it's not mine totally.
People probably have a different perception. They always do.
When I'm working with major label artists, the manager often asks, "Hey, where do you want to record?" They don't even know that I have Bear Creek Studio! We're pretty competitive with L.A. studios. I have an interesting relationship with Bear Creek, because not only do I work there most of the time, but it's also my vacation home. When we're not working, the whole family goes there, and it's really the only time that I walk around and I have the chance to think, "Man, this place is cool." When I'm working, I don't really see that. I'll go with my kids, see the treehouse, chill out, and listen to music. It's like, "Why don't I do this more often?"
My first visit out there was for a Recording Academy event, sitting around the fire pit and drinking beers. There is the little creek. I love the property there.
Thank you for that. That's part of it. We're really there for other people. It's a nice place to hang out with my family, but it's way too big for a vacation home. It would be hard to keep the power on. It's built for people who want to come in and make magic. Almost everything that happens at Bear Creek is mine or Taylor's project. We get one or two awesome sessions a year with other producers, but it's pretty rare. I use it all the time. Especially for the songwriting sessions. Most of the bands stay at the studio. We've got a producer's cabin that is nice, like a little hotel room. We've got the treehouse too that can sleep eight people comfortably.
I always forget that there are accommodations in the studio building.
Yeah, upstairs in the loft. Most people stay there. Zach Bryan stayed there, and his band had the treehouse too. There's a lot of space. And people use the hot tub a lot.
What do you have coming up?
I'm doing a project in Amsterdam in January, with Wintershome from Zermatt, Switzerland, which will be entertaining.
What places are in Amsterdam these days?
There's a great studio that I work at called Schenk. Jan Schenk's got a Trident 80 [console]. I've done multiple projects there. It's right on a canal, so it's got a beautiful view. It's got a little kitchen. It's a city studio, so it's smaller. He's been there for 20 years. It started off as a squat; a bunch of artists were squatting this whole building. It's also real rock 'n' roll. It reminds me of the old Avast! [Recording Co., Tape Op #18] more than anything else. Jan's place is definitely a real, working studio. It's affordable. It's got tons of great gear. I go to Amsterdam probably twice a year. I've done a few projects with Dutch artists. My wife is from Poland, so I've been trying to do more records in Poland as well. Eventually I'll probably be in Europe, if it's up to me, at least half the time. About six years ago I was doing a lot of work in London at Abbey Road, as well as Konk Studios, which is Ray Davies' studio. I was also working out of Assault & Battery Studio, which is Flood's [along with Alan Moulder]. I love traveling and making records, which is funny because I told you about the international business that I studied. It's almost like that's what I do, right?
What a nice callback!
Yeah. Except I don't have to wear a suit now! [laughter]