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THE HARRY TAPES: A CONVERSATION WITH JEFF BHASKER

Interview by Simon Glickman

Harry Styles’ #1-charting Columbia solo bow has earned plenty of acclaim from listeners and critics of all stripes. The project was overseen by Grammy-winning producer/writer/musician Jeff Bhasker, whose prior work includes projects with The Rolling Stones, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, P!nk, fun., Nate Ruess and One Republic, not to mention the Mark Ronson mega-smash “Uptown Funk!” (the latter earning him a Record of the Year statuette and providing just a partial basis for his 2016 Producer of the Year trophy). Here, Bhasker discusses how he and his gifted team approached Styles’ concept, assembled his essential band and crafted the hit album, among other subjects. Though he probably wished he could bring our own Simon Glickman down in the mix.
 

Jamaican a record: Mitch, Harry, Ryan and Jeff 

How did things start out with you and Harry?
When I met Harry to work on the project, I didn't have many notions about what to do with him. When he told me what he wanted to do, I said, “OK, wow—you wanna have an actual rock band.” After meeting him, I experienced what a special vibe he has—he’s a rare breed, a truly cool, magnetic personality. But I didn’t really know anything about him musically. So it was really just us getting lucky on so many levels, one of which was that he was so talented and interesting and had all of this built-up creative need after being in One Direction, where it was more about being a performer.

Do you have a sense of what he was listening to that inspired him to put a rock band together?
Well, I’ll tell you a funny story: I said, “Do you have anything you want to play me?” Because usually people have some demos. And he said, “Yeah. I’ve got some references.” At some point the lines of communication got crossed and I thought he was playing me his demos. I thought, “This is phenomenal; I don’t know if I can top this. These demos are incredible! But it sounds a little like The White Stripes. Maybe you wanna tone it down.” I don’t know the White Stripes inside and out, but I knew enough to be thinking, this is just like them. Well it was The White Stripes, and I realized, “Oh, he’s playing me references.”

The way it came out, everyone's saying, “Oh it’s David Bowie, it’s like ’70s classic rock.” But it was more about him wanting to have that cool band. I thought, he can sing his ass off; he’s a phenomenal performer. If this is what he wants to do, this’ll be really, really special.

What was involved in building that band?
I had just had a baby. Harry’s 23, I’m 43. He needs to start a cool indie band, and I’m a new father. You need your buddies who go into the garage with you every day after school and jam and figure it out.

I have two producers who work under me, both of whom I signed over the last couple of years. One, Alex Salibian, produced the last Young the Giant album; another, Tyler Johnson, whom I signed, did Cam’s album. I discovered Cam through him and we signed her; he was the first producer I signed. They’re coming into their own as real producers. I played Harry some things they’d done and said, “Look, you need someone to go into the trenches with you, which I can’t do right now. I will oversee it and get in there, and I’ll get the project going with these guys.” He agreed to take us up on it.

I told my guys, “Look, we need to find him a guitar player and a drummer. I want you to get in there and make a band. We’re not gonna make tracks and produce this like we usually do.”

You had to make music in a room.
Yeah. So they talked to a couple of guitar players and one of them didn’t show up. The new engineer, Ryan Nasci, who engineered the whole album, said, “I could call up my roommate, Mitch—I don’t think he’s doing anything.” They have a band together. So Mitch comes down, and the second he plugged in his guitar and started playing, Harry’s eyes just lit up and he was, like, “This is the guy.”

Mind you, Mitch is an amazing guitar player, raised on jazz. He’s totally self-taught and he’s playing these riffs, just murdering it. He says, “Why not bring some drums on this?” Harry says, “Oh you play drums too?” And Mitch says, “Well, I’m a drummer”. His favorite drummer is [jazz great] Max Roach. He’s a savant. He had just moved to L.A. from Ohio; he’d never been in a recording studio before. He’d never heard of Harry Styles. He was a dishwasher in a pizza shop.

You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Mitch is a real music lover who just wants to listen to Harry Nilsson and Plastic Ono Band all day—he’s like a hipster who doesn’t know what a hipster is. He’s the sweetest, gentlest guy on earth. He and Harry just hit it off. I got so incredibly lucky—I miraculously threw in Tyler, who I found first as a producer, who then found Alex as a replacement. Because Tyler was my assistant and then I signed him as a producer. So then he had to find Alex, who then became my assistant, and then I signed him as a producer. Alex found Ryan, and Ryan’s roommate was Mitch. And Ryan and Mitch had spent countless hours sitting around their apartment recording for their band.

So we had not only an instant band for Harry, but an instant band that knew how to record. I read your article about the album and talking about that airy sound, and how it sounds like a rock & roll album. That’s all Ryan—and not just Ryan, but Ryan knowing how to record Mitch and the ease that they had.

For a minute I thought, hmmm, my production tends to sound different—I come from a whole other world. I come from jazz and then I work with Kanye West and I have a bit more modern sound. But after the first week, I said to myself, “I just love the way this sounds. It sounds like rock, but it’s modern-sounding and hi-fi and it doesn’t necessarily sound like anything else.” So from that point on I decided, I’m not gonna mess with this. Ryan’s got it.

"For a minute I thought, 'Hmmm, my production tends to sound different—I come from a whole other world...' But after the first week I said to myself, 'I just love the way this sounds.'" 

Rather a departure for you, then?
Yes, it was very much a different process for me. This was the first time I got to really utilize my team and take more of an overview/mentor position. A lot of it was just letting them go wild, and then I’d come in and offer suggestions: “This is good—let’s take the best things you got of every song and chop out all the rubbish things and go from there.” After our first week, they did 10 or so songs, and at first I listened to them and my response was, “This is not necessarily the pop hit #1 smash Harry song out of the gate,” where a lot of my pop brain kicked in. Then, after I listened to them for a while, I was just, like, “But I love this—I wanna listen to this.” I grew up in New Mexico listening to classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. It brought me back to cranking 95.5 in the car. I thought, this is so new, so important, to be able to make an album like this.

The other thing that happened with me not being there at first was that Harry got to lead the room. He didn’t have to sit there and constantly feel like he’s got to defer to me. Harry was the boss. And they all just bonded so hard and it just became the dream scenario, and everyone contributed in such a fantastic way. And Alex continued on and plays guitar and keyboard and is the music director in the band, and Mitch is of course playing in the band. So it was a perfect extension to just have this live thing of them being a band and that’s really how we went about it.

And that’s when they went to Jamaica?
Jamaica was where we wanted to continue doing the album. Where I was like, damn, this is really fun and cool—exactly what making music should feel like and be about. I wanted it to be something that Harry really felt was his baby, making his creative mark. With me, if it comes from the artist, that’s the best thing. If it’s real, people are going to know it’s real. The band is playing their fifth gig or something right now! In three months, they’re gonna be right up there with any of those indie-rock bands that Harry played me—they’ll be loose and dangerous and it’ll be a whole new ballgame.

I’m hopeful that we’re gonna do many more albums—this is just the beginning. But I thought it was really important to set the tone of, “We’re gonna do exactly what’s in your heart, Harry.”

He trusted you, but at the same time he wasn’t interested in the Jeff Bhasker "brand"—it was more about the space that you can create, as well as the team that you’ve cultivated, and you laid all this groundwork in advance.
Absolutely. And it was the first time we got to do it like that, which was so cool and so much fun. And it got me to the place of, “I wanna be making music.” And what a luxury to have Mitch and Ryan, where they could come up with an idea and it could just be tracked and sound like a record instantly. And that’s how “Sign of the Times” happened. Harry was playing it on the piano and we fleshed it out a little bit. Then he jumped on the mic, I played piano and we cut that whole record in three hours.

That’s particularly impressive given what a sprawling song it is.
And it sounded exactly like that: an instant classic-sounding record from conception to completion.

What really sealed the deal is when I came that first week. I had come to check in with them and see what they had been working on. And they played me “Meet Me in the Hallway.” It had a Pink Floyd-ish psychedelic feel, and it was so beautiful, the detail on the acoustic guitars and the parts and his voice and that Omnichord and everything. That’s when I was sold that this was going to be something special. That’s my favorite track on the album. I always want to have a moment when you have something that sounds like nothing else. Especially today.

It's hard to imagine a major label today saying, “Let’s put this global pop superstar with some cool rock kids who have never even recorded before and let him make a classic-rock singer-songwriter album.”
It’s true. Rob Stringer is such an amazing record executive; he was so supportive of all the music and just amazing to work with. Not to mention [manager] Jeff Azoff, who supported us from day one and did an amazing job of believing in our vision without being intrusive.

I understand that Rob didn’t even ask you to do a radio edit of “Sign of the Times.”
Exactly. I thought I was dreaming. His whole approach toward Harry has been so great. I really enjoyed working with him on this whole album.

It’s a beautiful record—it’ll be fascinating to see what he does next.
Thank you, and hopefully we’ll get to do many more. This first chapter is so under the microscope; it’s a bit of a mindfuck for everyone. And it might take a while. I think his fans have bought into it, and I think for the people who were not fans before there’s a lot of buzz. But it hasn’t 100% sunk in yet.

"This first chapter is so under
the microscope; it’s a bit
of a mindfuck for everyone."

He’s such a big star, and he took such a big risk. All credit to him for being so brave and never backing away from what he wanted to do, from essentially saying, "If it becomes huge, great—but even if it doesn’t, I really have to be true to myself." A producer could not ask for more from an artist, especially in this day and age.

What are you on to next?
I’m signing Angelique Kidjo to my label. She just did a performance of all the Talking HeadsRemain in Light album with David Byrne and I’m producing her album and we’re covering Remain in Light. And we have a lot of special guests like Tony Allen, Abe Laboriel Jr. and Pino Palladino. It’s an amazing album. And were doing Cam’s new album, which is phenomenal. I have a really great rock artist named Rafferty and we had a massive sync with this song “Apple Pie.” I’m working on Lykke Li’s new album, which is really special. I have a lot of projects going on. 

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