I first met Justin Meldal-Johnsen via our mutual friend, Lyle Workman, at a NAMM show. He was a Tape Op reader and seemed like a cool dude. He's also got a big 'fro, so when I saw him on a TV show, playing bass with Beck, I recognized him right away. Well, Mr. Meldal-Johnsen has done much more than play bass with Beck. He's also been Mr. Hansen's musical director, a role he's also filled for Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gnarls Barkley. More recently, he's moved into production. So, when I was in L.A. on a recent surf trip and the opportunity came up to interview him about making records, I enthusiastically jumped at the chance.
And, as I suspected, I had a great time chatting with Justin at Sunset Sound's Studio 3 while he was there producing a new Paramore album.
Do you do all your own engineering, or do you also work with an engineer?
It's both. When we're tracking drums, I work with a few different guys. They're usually a lot savvier at the traditionalist aspects; phase-aligning microphones, gain structure, and laying everything out on the console. That's generally where I feel I need the most help, realizing the sound that I have in mind. But every time I start a project, I find myself reaching over them and grabbing knobs. It seems to happen more often, where I'm becoming more self-assured and realizing that it's not like alchemy. I can do it. Then when drum tracking is over, I can do it all from that point on. I'm pretty adept at getting good vocal and guitar sounds, as well as editing. It's just that an engineer helps me do it faster. It also depends on the budget of a project. If it's a 10 thousand-dollar record, I can't hire an engineer. Maybe I can get a buddy to come in and help me do two days of drums; but if it's a modest budget then I've got to keep things mostly in my own hands. I just think it's more of a confidence thing. I've spent so much time sitting with engineers and gradually tweaking stuff more and more. The confidence is growing, and I'm finding it very easy to assert myself more when it comes to saying, "No, let's swap that snare mic." Before, I would be less inclined to say that, or to know what was creating that non- optimum effect. Now I actually have a clue. A year ago, I wasn't really that guy, even though I'm okay with gear and stuff. Now I'm getting my hands on it.
So when you're at your own studio, you're doing all your own engineering as well?
It depends on if I need someone there. If I'm running a session and handling a song and stuff like that, sometimes I just need someone to come in and run the computer. We move fast, especially if it's Paramore, Neon Trees, or Tegan and Sara, something with a budget where there are time constraints and they're putting out the single in two weeks. If something's going on like that, then I'll have someone help me for sure. Then I can concentrate on the song and performance.
When you're not in a hurry, do you do more of your own engineering?
Yeah, I do. I like the idea that I don't have to translate ideas. But sometimes it's cool to have an extra body there to be a foil for you, and to have that kind of interaction. Carlos de la Garza, who I'm using on this project right now, is a perfect guy for that. We collaborate on sounds; it's really fun to have another set of ears sometimes, especially on the basic tracking level.
Do you mix your projects?
I'm not a mixer. I don't like my mixes. I just don't... I feel that what I need to do is also break through a new threshold of fear about the shitty sounds I've gotten before, and figure out a way to get better mixes. My confidence is growing slowly but surely. The problem is, as a producer I'd only produced records sporadically. I'd do one record a year. I'm afraid of mixing, but as time goes on I get less afraid of it. I think that as a musician, or as someone who's been in bands and has always been on the other side of the glass, there have been occasions where I've been made to feel like it's a black art. Over the years, I've had it instilled in me in certain circumstances that it's sort of like a domain that "you shall not knoweth."
It seems like it's gotten that way.
But now I'm in the hot seat. I can make choices now that I can feel better about. When I'm having someone mix a record for me, as a producer, I'm always putting my hands on all the shit and making suggestions with every damn nuance anyway. I might as well start getting my feet wet with it and get more confidence in order to trust myself and my instincts.
This is a bit of a tangent, but as a producer couldn't you track it so that it was easy for you to mix?
I'm a user of the current form [computer recording], but I came up with 16- and 24-tracks, so I abuse it like anyone does. I load up sessions with 160 tracks of information, and I need to distill it down. That's a modern failing. I'm very aware of it; I always start a new project with the ambition of scaling down the track counts and making choices earlier on. I think I'll get there someday, and every record seems to improve upon that. The last one I finished was with Tegan and Sara [Heartthrob], and the stuff we did on that I felt was much more like a "commit now or forever hold your peace" style. It was great. I feel like mixing it was a lot less like a sorting process and more like an art process.
I think people also get to that point where they've dug in so much and created this huge soundscape. You can lose perspective at that point when you're the producer. Then it's hard to mix it, no matter what.
It is. I totally do that! I love having other people involved. At this moment — and I may not ever feel any different — I feel that collaborations are to my benefit. They're not always financially viable within budgets, but I do them when I can because it helps my learning process. My skill set lies mostly in the realm of performance, aesthetic choices, taste, song structure, arrangement, shape, arc, and emotional resonance — things like that. I also have skills in programming and playing stuff, because I play guitar, bass, keyboards, and whatever. Those are my strengths. If I need to come up with someone who has actual skills rather than me just pussyfooting around, then so be it. But, again, it's budget- dependent. I'm totally fine with that, though. I don't feel like I need to have my hand on every facet.
You also worked as a music director for years. Do you find that those two jobs are very similar?
Oh man, I've been waiting for somebody to ask me that, frankly. They're so similar. Producing a live show and producing a record share so many similarities. You're trying to get an ensemble to have a finished picture. For live shows, the conduits to get there can be different; but I parlay a lot of the skills that I have, like sound design or programming, from one job to the other. The other part of it is the nuances of human interaction and getting people to be comfortable. As a music director, part of what I do is coach performances. As a producer you learn the nuances of getting to the root of what somebody's after, figure out ways to go through the barriers that they come across in a live or studio performance, and get them to the other side. For instance, when I helped to music direct Charlotte Gainsbourg, I was also a sort of performance coach as well, because she had never toured before. We were in France for weeks putting her show together for the band. I found that for her, it was a level of dismantling this whole process of rehearsal, practice and getting a show together down to the bare elements. I had to question her as to, "What are you after?" and "What do you want the audience to experience?" — those kinds of things. I think that making a record is very similar. You've got to have these overarching themes that you philosophize about before you push 'record;' and they've got to inform every choice that you make thereafter. Those are the things that I find dovetail pretty strongly between the music director hat and the producer hat. I think it's been kind of cool to have those in the experience bag.
For a long time, you've worked (and still work) as a studio musician. How much of your work as a producer is informed by that empathy and understanding of being a musician on the other side of the glass?
Ninety percent of it. It's very, very strong for me. I've spent so much time with some great producer/ engineers, such as the brilliant Joe Chiccarelli. Watching guys like him do their thing is the learning — that's the college. Over the past five, six, seven years — as I started dabbling in the idea of producing other artists — I've found myself gradually soaking up their tactics: from the nuts-and-bolts logistical parts of how they run their day, to how they work with their second engineer, to their microphone placement or whatever. I feel like I should have paid them for being in school! That's not false modesty. Seriously, I've spent so many years in this studio [Sunset Sound] with Joe Chiccarelli as his bass player on multitudes of projects, where I basically watched him do his thing. I catalog all this stuff as experience that I can use for my own benefit, and it's been awesome. That stuff's really valuable. Plus, I know when I've felt good as a musician behind the glass, and also when I've felt bad. I made a list of don'ts that became the mantra of my process, because I've been in some pretty fucked up situations in recording environments before. I've seen how some people run their sessions, and it's just big old red lights flashing in my face. A lot of people have to go through the pain of blowing it with artists before they know that stuff; but I've gotten to see it in practice for two decades plus, to my benefit.
The M83 album [Hurry Up, We're Dreaming] sounds like you really chased that job down.
Obviously more from an artistic, rather than business, point of view.
Yeah, big time.
How important is it to not always go just where the money is, but to work on projects that you really want to do, and then hope that the money follows?
You kind of just answered your question by the question! Here's the deal. I'm a 42-year-old man; I've had a lot of experience as a musician, as well as being a session and touring musician. It has a glass ceiling, in some respects. You know, at a certain point, that you want to rise up from that. It's not only a glass ceiling in the sense of the experience and the latitude that you have as a creative person, but also the finances of it. I began to aspire to more, and one of the things I aspired to more of is money. I'd like to actually make some bread for once. The irony is that as a producer I've made less money so far than as a musician. It has not flipped the other way yet. Nothing I've done thus far is something I can honestly say has been like some lifestyle-changer, per se. But I know that if I do it, and if I do it well, then the magnitude of the projects involved increases, and the quality is more focused. Right now I don't take everything that comes my way. I have had some latitude, since M83 mainly, to meet with various people and take what I want. It's been cool. I'm not being overwhelmed with projects, but I'm there have been a couple times when I've been able to make a choice. I've chosen the one that I simply thought would be more fun. I have spent so many years in the studio, and honestly all I give a shit about anymore is, "Does the music sound cool, and can we have fun making it?" It's such a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason. I believe in that. I want to have a good time doing it, and I want the music to be cool sounding as well as have a bit of a signature; although I'm not really that concerned at this point with me having a legacy or anything like that. I think, in certain ways, I haven't really defined my producing style firmly yet. I guess that's because I'm only a dozen records deep. I seem to be sort of a chameleon, the same way that I am as a bass player. I can play with Nine Inch Nails and I can play with the Dixie Chicks, and both of them will call me back. It means that I've basically made the choice in my life that I want to do some varied stuff. I don't want to have to be too limited, or be a niche producer; just like I don't have to be a niche bass player. With that, I think it's more about distilling an artistic intention from the perspective of a team, and getting the result that the artist wants. It might be less so than getting the result that I want, until that day comes when I have much more of a fierce producer signature/identity. I don't really feel like I'm that guy at this point. M83 is highly stylized, and M83 as a band comes with that; but I put my own stamp on that because it doesn't sound like any other M83 records. I co-wrote and co-produced 23 songs on that [album]. It's mine just as much as it is the band's. But that's one of those projects that comes around once in a million years, where you're invested from the ground floor. It becomes such a labor of love that it overwhelms your whole life, and you will do anything to see it completed.
I think the fact that you sought that one out is probably one of the reasons that you got so deep in it and that it did well.
That's the irony, isn't it?
I feel like, in a way, producers are almost replacing A&R people because A&R is so bad now.
Yeah, they are. But as I get to meet more people in the business who I didn't know before, and certain calls are coming in to my management from people who I haven't met, I find myself kind of surprised at meeting some old-school A&R people, song men, and Lenny Waronker types.
Older guys? Younger guys?
My age, and a little bit older perhaps. They're guys that have been around enough. Those people seem to still have gigs, they still give a shit, and they still need that single; but they also still need to make cool records. I was surprised, and a little bit blown away, by the A&R teams behind Tegan and Sara, Neon Trees, and Paramore. I've been blessed with a clear mandate every time. Their need is very clear as far as certain single-type parameters. They're involving me in the first place because they do want to make a cool sounding record. They don't want to make something that's homogenized, pureed and Beat Detective-d. I don't know how to do that, actually! I'm not that kind of a factory, so that's to my benefit. I'm quite self-aware; when you have a hot record, you get calls. Two years from now, if I don't have a hot record, I'm not going to get calls. I've seen that from the other side of the glass forever, and I'm not naïve about it. So, for me, I feel very at ease and comfortable in my own skin making records with cool people who I like. I feel that if they're cool people who I like and if I actually believe in all the songs, then honestly the rest will follow, to a degree. There are a lot of cogs in the machine that can get in the way of that. But if you turn in a record that feels right, what else are you going to do? Who knows? You just wait. That's my philosophy.
How do you keep passionate about what you're doing?
Variation really helps. Distance really helps, in that it's good to go out with Beck and do some shows and then come back and produce. Tegan and Sara are very different from Paramore, which is in turn very different from the next record I'm about to take. That makes me stoked. If I were doing all nu metal bands, butt rock or whatever, all day long... can you imagine? The same guitar sounds, the same vocal stylings, the same types of drums, and so on. That would be super-tiresome, and really boring. But how do you stay passionate? You stay passionate because people are always showing you something new. Don't take a record that sucks, when you know it's going to suck. Payday or not, if you have any hint it's going to suck, you're making a huge mistake — in the future, with the band, with yourself, with your integrity; everything goes out the window. I've seen it so many times, to an embarrassing extent. It's murder.
It's the kiss of death when you get to the point where you need the money and you just start taking gigs.
Yeah. I'm not saying that hasn't happened to people I really respect, or that someday that might not happen to me. Maybe I'm going to have a down period where I'm going to take projects just for the finances. It depends on where I'm at and the circumstances of it. I can't deny that it's possible, or that by some matter of principle I'd rather be a bum on the street. I don't know. But at the moment, when I have the choice, I'm going to use the power of choice. Otherwise it's like, "Why?"