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"A producer needs to have strong management and experienced A&R executives to keep the process moving forrward."
——Josh Abraham

KING OF KNOB HILL

An Exclusive Dialogue with Josh Abraham
By Rodel Delfin and Marc Pollack
"I’m always looking for the next great band—not waiting for someone else to hand it to me." And with that can-do attitude, producer Josh Abraham has been able to build a solid career in the rock, pop and rap fields with albums bearing his name selling more than 40million records worldwide.

A native Hollywood resident, Abraham has cultivated his relationships in the community and turned them into a career in the music industry—one that started as a player in a rock band and has taken him to the heights of the producing world. The likeable studio head rolls with label heads, A&R reps, band members, managers and writers.

Over the years, the 30-year-old wunderkind has already worked with such multi-platinum act as Korn, Limp Bizkit, Staind, Linkin Park, Michelle Branch, Orgy, Crazy Town and others. He is currently working with Branch and newcomer Ima Robot. Abraham took time out from dining on gefilte fish and smoking stogies at the Havana Room in Beverly Hills to discuss his life and art with HITS losers Rodel "Taco" Delfin and Marc "N. Time" Pollack.

How did you get your start in the business?
I realized early on that my band was horrible and that we had no chance of getting a record deal—so I was faced with a choice: the training program at Starbucks on Sunset or figuring out a way to turn my 8-track recorder into a career. Lucky for me, lots of other horrible bands like mine needed demos, and a producer career was born. One of my earliest successful demo outings was with Deadsy, who got a deal right away with Elektra, followed by my first platinum project with Orgy. Funny enough, most of the Orgy demos were done on that first 8-track.

The music industry has changed dramatically lately. From a producer’s viewpoint, where do you see the biz headed?
Let’s start with the technology aspect alone. Ten years ago, the entire concept of "recording a demo" was overwhelming and financially unattainable for most artists. Today, master-quality recordings can be achieved for a few hundred bucks—it’s truly amazing. The downside of that creative upside is that the studio business is in a fragile state. I decided very early on that the most creative and financially responsible environment for artists would be for me to take some of the risk out of the process by building my own studio. This has allowed me the freedom to make major-label projects as well as weekend demos with very little pressure. And while the legendary studios will always be in business, artist initiative has allowed for tracking and mixes to be done on a laptop. And while this is creatively liberating for artists, many label A&R execs have secretly longed for more producer involvement in the development process. It’s an interesting trade-off that’s ultimately healthy for the business.

How has the role of producers changed as the recording process has turned digital?
Digital recording allows you to work on different schedules with different artists. You could record a whole music bed and the singer doesn’t have to be in the studio at all during the recording process. The singer could take the Pro Tools session home and at his/her leisure, experiment or make changes to it without being pressed for time in a studio environment. Then back in the studio, the singer and I could go through the different vocal takes and ideas.

How important are pitch boxes for singers?
I’m just going to come right out with it: every artist hates and thinks they don’t need them and every producer swears that they can’t make record without one. The real answer is that all things are good in moderation. I don’t want to "out" any multi-platinum acts or their producers, but it has become easier and easier to actually hear the Auto Tuned vocals, and consumers will soon enough, too. Is that a bad thing? You tell me. But I must admit, it is my secret pleasure…

What’s your recording process like when you start a new project?
If you’re lucky enough, the band will give you a demo of the songs they want to record. Then I go through the demo and come up with ideas that I put in ProTools for arrangements. Then, we start pre-production, where I try different arrangements and musical ideas with the band. Then we lay down the music, starting with the drums and then the nightmare continues. With current technology, you can reduce your pre-production time because you can manipulate a great deal while recording.

Every producer has a system, and every band does, too. A new band is obviously more open to producer suggestions than ones more familiar with the process. And while I like to listen to demos, do pre-production and map things out, I might get the call tomorrow that I will be recording vocals and drums on a cruise ship in Alaska. Most will agree that a planned-out recording process generally runs smoother and is budgetarily more desireable than not.

You’ve shared writing credits with some of the bands you’ve worked with. How important is it creatively to be involved in crafting songs in addition to producing them?
In the rock world, it can be difficult to be a part of the writing process with five members in the band who all contribute to writing parts of the song. I never push my writing on a band, but I may pick up a guitar and say, "How about if we try something different?"

Some bands are severly headstrong. How difficult is it for you to get them to do something you want to do?
That’s a good question because I’m thinking of one person in particular who fits that situation. Patience is very important, and I’m a very patient person. That said, a producer needs to have strong management and experienced A&R executives to keep the process moving forward. Otherwise, it can be a losing battle.

Do you keep in mind radio when you produce and do you think about radio edits when working on a song?
Yes and yes. No one wants to produce, sign or manage a band that never sees the light of day. Those who make a habit of involving themselves with bands and records that don’t impact radio do not impact their future in today’s record business.

What are some projects that you’ve recently completed?
I just finished the third Staind record, which is my second record with them. I knocked out a track on Linkin Park’s reanimation before my two current projects. I’m now producing and mixing Ima Robot for David Wolter and Matt Serletic at Virgin and producing and mixing Michelle Branch tracks for her upcoming summer release.

Did you ever consider producing an unsigned band?
I’m always looking for the next great band—not waiting for someone else to hand it to me.

What advice would you give to a young A&R executive on their first studio project working with a producer?
I find it to be smart for A&R guys to read the room and know when it’s the right time to get involved. The A&R role is a tricky one—but knowing when to speak up is a gift that only the best possess. Two great experiences that come to mind were records I made with Tom Whalley and Jordan Schur.

How is the record-making process changing?
The best situation for me as a producer is to work with bands and executives with whom I have a longstanding working relationship. It’s always built on the same three things—trust, commonality of vision and the proof in the pudding—record sales.

What do you look for in working with engineers and mixers?
Any producer who doesn’t treat his engineer as a partner in the process is an idiot, because a a large portion of your success depends upon finding someone who knows you, your ear and has an instinct for what you would do before you would even do it. Sounds like my wife, right? Most producers started off engineering, myself included, and I learned an important lesson. I found it very difficult to engineer and produce records because you spend more time paying attention to the pinpoint sonic details rather than the actual creative process. So I rely on engineers who understand me and who would clone what I would do as if I was engineering the project.

With mixers, I usually sit down with the A&R executive and management and discuss how we want this record to sound as well as discuss mixers who have been doing some really cool shit. Lately, I’ve been using Andy Wallace. Shocking, right? He’s got a lot of experience, and he just does it right. There are many other hot mixers I’ve worked with that you know of and who happen to be hot, but you get the material back from them, and they’ve thrown you a curve ball. Wallace is solid every time I work with him.

Who have been your influences in the music business?
I’m not going to editorialize because the names should speak for themselves: Jimmy Iovine, Rick Rubin, David Foster….seeing a pattern? People who create greatness from nothing stand in a different class for me than those who simply have success. Big success comes and goes, but true greatness is permanent.

What’s a common problem you have with new acts?
With new bands, a common thing I see is that they are completely naive to the fact that being signed to a label is the eighth steps out of 10, when they are really just half of one. If I had a nickel for every track I heard in the studio from a new band that thought the track was a hit, I would be a rich man. New artists should take a deep breath step back and take a look at their surroundings. Bands, unfortunately, with the pressure of radio and sales, so disposable these days. If you don’t have it all out of the gate—the perfect single, the perfect look, the right tour, a great video, and a supercharged label staff—it can be over before they know what hit them. Half the time, they don’t realize how precious their career can be.

Do you feel you have a role as a producer working with the label in terms of helping them select singles, marketing , imaging, etc.?
Without a doubt. You must remember, historically, the best producers also worked at record companies as staff producers, so an intricate knowledge of how a record company worked was a job requirement. You can’t live in a vacuum and you sure as hell can’t work in one. This is a relationship business and every advantage you can bring to a project increases your value. I hope I know the head of promo at the label who is releasing my record or else I’m gonna get to know them. A producer might have a great studio relationship to get the band’s single into a soundtrack. Everything helps, know what I mean? It’s the intangibles that separate the best from the studio hermits. And I also believe the label can use the help in identifying who the band is and who they relate to. As a producer who spent a lot of time with the band during the record-making process, you can provide a crash course for the record company in terms of identifying who the band’s audience is and who they are.

How about working with a multi-platinum act on their second or third album?
You always have to keep focus and keep it exciting for them, because if there is no ambition from the band to succeed further, they could be in trouble. I try to let the band know that there is another level for them to aspire to or to explore areas they couldn’t hit on their last record.

What do you say to bands that want to change their direction, their style?
I think change is always good, but if it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it. It’s OK to add different elements to what you do, but don’t throw a curve ball to your listeners. At times, fans may perceive that as being a sellout or they may ask, "Why is my favorite rock band trying to write pop songs, etc.?" Balance is the key to building a career, while remaining true to your fan base.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d like to get more involved in the label side of things. I’m also intrigued by what Apple is doing, and I think it could play a major role in the future of our industry, and that certain producers could as well. That’s all I can say about that for now. [Laughs] Or maybe in five years, Pollack and I will open up the hottest bagel shop in L.A. and I’ll get out of the biz.

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