Producer on Fire

By
Mark Small

What was the path that led you from Berklee to L.A.?

I left Berklee in 1999, worked for a while in New York, and then got to L.A. in 2005. A track I did for [rapper] The Game was my first placement in 2004. My first tour with Kanye came after his Graduation album came out then I started working with him in the studio.

Kanye West showed a lot of confidence in you by making you his music director.

Yes. When we played live, he would stop the music and I would improvise on the piano as he would rap. I learned from being a jazz accompanist to really listen. We had this creative, spontaneous dynamic going on. In the studio, we did that when writing songs. We had a musical bond and could create together. As a rapper, he is very musical in the way he listens. He’s learned so much music from all the sampling he’s done. His appreciation for music and his tastes are really good. He taught me a lot about being an artist. Kanye is very good at making albums. After working on his albums, I tried to apply those ideas to the Fun. album.

I saw playing piano with Kanye kind of like playing jazz even though he’s not a jazz musician. Applying things in a different way can make the music interesting. Kanye is the ultimate artist and brings his vision to life in interesting ways. He never chooses the easy way out. When we’d work on a melody and I’d say, “Hey, this note could go there.” He’d say, “Everyone knows that note could go there. What’s a different note that we could use to make it special?” He’s never satisfied with the obvious. He wants the artistic choices, not just the ones that will work technically.

You’ve said that you got a strong work ethic from your father. Can you elaborate?

He was born in India and is a medical doctor and the mayor of our town—the longest-serving mayor in New Mexico history. From him I learned about staying organized and on task. You need to make a little progress every day. You don’t have to do something overnight, but if you work at it every day, you reach goals. It’s really very simple. Some people at Berklee would practice for eight hours a day, for three days, and then couldn’t keep up that pace. It’s better to practice one hour every day religiously and get the most out of that hour. You will get better. My dad knows that progress can’t stop; you have to keep going. He taught me to finish a job and do it right.

Did things start getting busy for you in 2009, after Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” won a Grammy?

Actually I became really busy when I was working with Kanye. The Alicia Keys song “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” was my first big song that I placed and produced on my own. I also did other things for her The Element of Freedom album. That was one of the first productions I did that Kanye said he thought was good.

How did you end up producing Some Nights for Fun.?

They asked me about five times to get together. Finally I said OK. They ended up singing the chorus to “We Are Young” and I said, “We need to record this tomorrow!” They completely sold me. I had been working on urban music, rap and r&b. I love all types of music and had done some pop records but nothing that was rock-oriented and theatrical like [what] Fun. was doing.

When you started the Fun. album, weren’t you in the middle of another project?

I was working on an album with another artist at the time. But Fun. had the DNA of the songs when we started, and I could take it from there. They didn’t play me the demos of their songs; they just sang them for me with piano and guitar. It was perfect. To that, I added a click track and then was able to add whatever I wanted.

That part went fast, but when you get to where the song is 90 percent done, the last 10 percent involved in perfecting the song becomes exponentially harder. Sometimes it can take a month to figure out what to do after not thinking about the music for a while. But it can become a house of cards at that point. If you add or take something away, the whole thing can fall apart. You’re thinking, “If I add this, I can’t have that, and it really needs that.” It can be a nightmare—but the kind of nightmare you live for. Sometimes others will barely notice the things you are obsessing over. In the end, it’s the attention you pay to all of the details that makes something special. It is not an accident that the songs on the album are special, because we put a lot of work into them.

I’m amazed at the range of things you did in the production. How long did it take to complete the record from writing to mixing?

Nate [Ruess, Fun.’s lead singer] and I finished “We Are Young” together, and he had written five more songs. I tracked those, and then we wrote a few more songs along the way. From that point to when the album was mastered was about a year.

Did you work on it steadily throughout the year?

We did it in stages. After we got the first five songs down the band came out here [to Los Angeles] and we worked together on more songs for a couple of weeks. We kind of had the songs written and they knew what they wanted those songs to be. I had total freedom to do what I wanted with them. They wanted to have the album done by the next month before their Coachella [festival] gig. We did the first bit pretty quickly, but as it was coming together, I was insistent that we not rush things. I don’t think you should ever rush. Sometimes you need to have a sense of urgency, but you don’t want go through things too fast. Having a sense of urgency means you stay up later and get up earlier to have the time to do the things that will take hours. After we had the first part done, I wanted to make sure every element was properly executed. That included the strings and orchestral parts, figuring out whether we needed a couple more songs, and then mixing it properly. So we had three or four stages where we worked on the album for a few weeks at a time and then I worked on it in between.

When you worked on it alone were you adding tracks or mixing?

Both. Sometimes I’d feel that the mix needed another instrument. That sense came from my arranging background at Berklee. In a lot of my work, I feel the instrumentation makes the mix. You want to able to hear everything. Some of the tracks were pretty dense so I needed to make sure every instrument was heard clearly and the sound wasn’t a blob. That was a big challenge. I wanted people to hear what we had been really excited about hearing.

The track  “Some Nights Intro” is reminiscent of Queen but also sounds a little like a cabaret song with the high female voice weaving in and out and the applause at the end. How did that evolve?

Nate wrote that whole song in his head. He wanted an operatic part in there, but he didn’t know exactly how it would go. We used a voice sample in there at first and later replaced it with a girl singing. He also wanted it to give a nod to [cabaret singer] Bobby Short. Nate had a very clear vision of what he wanted the songs on the album to be. It was my job to realize that. The more we worked together, the more things he pulled out of me that were beyond his natural instincts. He encouraged me to add my ideas and execute.

Even though a lot of the songs were pretty complete, you were still given songwriter credits.

Yeah. I’d add a part or something. In hip-hop the producer is the musician. He gets credit for the music and the rapper gets credit for the lyrics. That’s the tradition I come from. In the rock tradition, the band has the songs and the producer helps to make the record. Maybe the producer will help write a song or two and get some publishing. With Fun., we met in the middle.

Generally it’s words and melody in publishing. But if you use the drumbeat to Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” they get publishing [royalties]. If you use the drumbeat from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” Billy gets publishing. I used that beat for “Girl on Fire” with Alicia Keyes. But even though we changed the rhythm a little and made our own drum sounds, Billy still got paid. There is a precedent for drums and other distinctive musical parts being part of the publishing of a song. So with Fun., we defined what the publishing [rights] involved.

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