Story and Photographs by Jonathan D’Auria

First of all, congratulations for being nominated for a Grammy for producer of the year! How did you feel when you heard about it?

Actually, it was a funny how I found out. I was in New York playing bass with Sheryl Crow for some shows promoting her new record when I got a text from Adam Levine (Maroon 5) saying, “Congrats, bro, on the nomination—let’s go together.” I figured they got nominated for the record so I went to the website and saw them on there, and I texted back, saying, “Yeah, congrats to you, that’s great.” He got the idea that I was still clueless and so he texted me back. “No, dude—you’re nominated for producer of the year!” So I went back on the nominee website and sure enough, there I was.

That’s crazy. You’ve been nominated once before, right?

Yeah, for 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” but we lost to stinking Eminem for “Lose Yourself.” (laughing)

So how was it different this time?

It was unbelievable to be in such amazing company in the producer of the year category. Between Mark Ronson, Timbaland, Howard Benson, and Joe Chiccarelli, I felt privileged just to have my name on that list. And out of the thousands of records released a year and the amount of producers who make them— it was pretty amazing just to be narrowed down to that five.

What do you have your hands full with right now?

I’ve been working a lot with Justin Timberlake on the roster of his record label, Tennman Records, starting with Esmee Denters, Free Sol, and Blanca. I also just got back from New York, where I was working with Regina Spektor on her new album. Pretty much, my days go between producing and songwriting.

Aside from Regina, that sounds like a lot of new talent. You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in music, but do you take a different approach when working with an unsigned or freshly signed artist?

Unsigned artists usually come to me through people I know, or I find them through word of mouth. If it’s something I truly believe in I’ll even front the cost of the record and hope to be paid back when the band gets a deal. It’s like an investment. I’m never trying to screw anyone out of anything; I just take whatever the cost would’ve been. The band Danger Radio got signed just recently while they were tracking in my studio.

What’s the first thing you do when you step into the studio with an artist you’ve never worked with before?

We meet and get to know each other on a personal level. It’s all about trying to make deep bonds that develop into genuine trust. Then it’s all about learning how they work and how to make them as comfortable as possible while they work. It always changes, though; I learn new things about the process every day.

And what’s your best method for helping an artist with writer’s block?

The trick is to make them feel like they’re moving even if they don’t feel like they are. If you can keep their confidence up, there’s less chance for blockage to their process. Like everything, it’s all a balancing act.

Let’s talk about Dr. Dre. What’s it like working with such a legend?

I’ve never met anyone in the world like Dre. That guy works nonstop and has the best business sense and ethics about him. He obviously doesn’t have to work another day in his life, but he works like a hungry 18-year old trying to prove himself to the industry. He could have people doing all the studio work for him, but sure enough, he’s in there every day. And there’s such an excitement he brings—every morning he comes in and says, “Okay fellas, today could be the day we write Thriller.”

Is it hard working alongside someone with such an intense work ethic?

It’s great. He only wants people around who are as hungry as he is, so the energy in the room is unexplainable. A lot of times, it’s just about trying to match his level. On a good day he’d have us coming up with 12 or 13 beats, and on a bad day we’d have five or six ideas. Either way, we’re coming out on top. He has this thing where if you make four beats, he always wants you to make that fifth, even if you’re exhausted, cause that fifth beat might be the next Number One single, or the next huge wave. He has crazy instincts about those things.

Is Dre a hard man to please in the studio?

If Dre chose you, it was for a reason, so we were never really nervous. It was funny because we quickly learned his reactions to everything. He’s not such an obvious guy, so a lot of times we’d play him something and just wait to see how he’d react. A lot of times you’d just get a head nod.

How long have you been working with him?

It’s been over 10 years now, although the five-days- a-week era with Dre spanned about 10 years.

How did you start working with Dre in the first place?

I was playing in bands in L.A. and Dre was working in a studio in the valley, and he hired an engineer who was a high school friend of mine. Dre had recently decided that he needed new blood in the studio, so luckily my buddy put my name in the hat. I started getting calls from producers to play bass on different tracks, but I hadn’t met him at that point. Fortunately, after he asked who was playing bass on my tracks enough times, I graduated to getting to work with him directly.

And did you hit it off with him right away?

We clicked immediately. At the time, he had just condensed his roster of musicians down to a small core of players, so I mainly played bass, but I started taking lessons on guitar and piano so I could be more resourceful. I had some amazing teachers who quickly schooled me—my playing of those instruments was pretty rudimentary before that—and then my playing credits quickly turned into writing credits, which finally turned into production credits. Eminem’s second album was the first project I got credit on.

I know credits and money can cause drama in the studio—was Dre pretty cool about that?

Dre is straight up about everything—there are no games in his business. Everything is even, equal, and fair. Once he finds a group of guys he likes, he wants to keep them as happy as possible; he keeps business and money straight so that his team is only worried about music, not about whether or not they are getting screwed.

Have you put any work into his new album Detox?

It’s been evolving for the last five years. I’ve been working on some parts for him, but it’s really been a juggling act between that and all the projects I’ve taken on. It’s never been an exclusive thing with Dre, so whenever I thought something was worth working on away from him—which is a weird thing to say—I’d go work with Nelly Furtado or Gwen Stefani. Fiona Apple’s album was really the first project that I fully stepped away from Dre to work on. Everything I did before Dre was anything but hip-hop, but coming away from it, I’m known primarily as a hip-hop guy, which is awesome.

At what point did you feel like you had truly “arrived” in the music industry?

It’s funny because during that whole period with Dre, I never had that sense that I had arrived, because Dre’s whole work ethic was that when the hit album was blowing up, you were already buried knee-deep in the next project. You never really had time to say, “Wow, it’s amazing that that’s the Number One record.” Like when 50 Cent blew up, we were already making the Mary J Blige record. It kept all of us grounded. That’s the essence of Dre—he knows how to keep people hungry.

Now that you’ve taken on the boss role yourself, are you able to enjoy your success?

Luckily, a lot of Dre rubbed off on me, so now I’m the one looking for the next big thing. Dre was truly the greatest mentor anybody could dream of.

Speaking of success, what was it like working with Eminem?

Well, first of all, I was absolutely shocked that he was white. We all were. He walked in the studio for the first time and we were all like, “No way!”

I really can’t say enough about Em, he has a work ethic to match Dre’s and he knows exactly what he wants in everything. You get guys like Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent in a room and ideas are just bouncing off the walls. As a musician you can’t help but feed off that.

Did you expect him to blow up as much as he did?

You always know when you’re doing good work, but you can never fully tell when it’s going to be such a phenomenon. That era was kinda the perfect storm—it was the right team at the right time. To have the success of Dre and the success of Em and then to throw 50 Cent into the equation with their approval—there was no way it could’ve failed.

And what is it like working with 50 Cent?

50 was the exact same scenario as Eminem, we saw him go from nothing to blowing up. Em was given a mixtape of his stuff and loved it. He looked past the fact that 50 had been dropped from a couple labels, so Dre and Em signed him.

How did you end up writing the music for “In Da Club”?

A few months before 50 Cent came to L.A., Dre and I were having these writing days where we’d just lock ourselves in the room and come up with a ton of music at once. We had had the skeleton for the song, and one day 50 came in and took the music. After an hour he had the “it’s your birthday, it’s your birthday” line and we just looked at each other like, “This is gonna be huge! It’s over!”

Being a family man with a spotless image, is it tricky to have your name on the credits of what’s perceived as vulgar music?

I’m been a Christian for 16 or 17 years, and my family is my utmost priority. I can’t control what these artists say; I’m just in a position to utilize the blessings and talents I’ve been given. I don’t have a secret agenda and I don’t write the lyrics, so if people judge me, they probably don’t know me. As a parent, I’m pretty strict about what my daughters listen to, and I feel that it’s the parent’s job to decide what’s appropriate for their kids.

I’m sure Maroon 5 was especially vulgar—what are they like to work with?

(laughing) They’re a bunch of jerks, man. It was horrible!

How did that collaboration come about?

I had just finished the Fiona Apple record and was still working with Dre when I got a call from their manager saying that Maroon 5 wanted to contact me and asking whether he could give them my number. I said yeah, of course. So I met up with the boys and listened to their music and just hung out with them for a while to get a feel for what they’re like. When you get a call like that, you know that a bunch of other producers also got a call, so they just wanted to see who they would most easily connect with at the time.

And did you feel a connection when you met them?

Definitely. We met at the Houdini Mansion, which is owned by Rick Rubin and is where the Chili Peppers recorded Blood Sugar  Sex Magik. They played me a ton of material and we realized that we had lots of similarities musically and stylistically.

Did they hire you on the spot?

Actually, as it often goes, I didn’t hear anything for about a month, until they called to ask if I would mind working with Spike Stent (Bjork, Depeche Mode, Madonna). I flipped. That guy is legendary—he’s like the Wizard of Oz of production: You hear his name, but aren’t sure if he really exists. So it turned out that I got to work with one of my biggest producer influences on the record. Scott did more of the sonic thing, while I did more of the hands-on musical arrangement.

Did you and Stent work well together?

We met for sushi and just talked for hours. We were definitely destined to work together, and our personalities just meshed perfectly. The process went very smoothly, although it took about eight months, which is the longest I’ve ever worked on a record.

A Grammy nomination and multi-platinum album later, it must’ve been well worth it right?

Most definitely. Maroon 5 could’ve picked anyone in the world, but they chose me, and that alone was gratification enough. More important, I walked away with five close friends, which is often more rewarding than the music.

And saving my favorite for last, how did you get involved with Fiona Apple?

Oh man, this could be an interview amongst itself! I was introduced to her by Jon Brion and later got called in to play some string parts on upright bass for her 1999 album When The Pawn…, but she wasn’t even at that session. Two years later, Jon Brion referred me to produce Extraordinary Machine when he became to busy with other projects, she went for it, and we clicked. It was a funny thing going from being one of 10 string players on a few tracks to producing her next album. It was quite a two-year turnaround.

Tell us a bit about what Fiona is like.

Oh man. She is not human. She has the ability to channel such insane places, and all she has to do is tap into it. You could take any component of her ability and isolate it and she would still be a legend. I mean as a vocalist, as a songwriter, as a lyricist, as a performer, as an musician… She’s on top of all of those categories, so to have it wrapped up in one little bundle is scary.

Do you plan on working with her again in the future?

Even if she comes out of her seclusion and doesn’t work with me, I’ll be tremendously happy, as long as she creates again (laughing).

You’ve made just as big a name for yourself playing bass as you have producing. Do you ever want to leave the studio and hit the road?

I definitely like performing and being onstage. I play at Largo with Brad Mehldau and gig locally to keep that side of performing sharp, and I take short gigs with Fiona, or Sheryl. But I seriously just love being in the studio. After two weeks, I just can’t do the road life. It’s two hours of playing and 22 hours of nothing. That’s 22 hours I could be spending behind my mixing board or with my family. It would take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep me out on the road for more than two weeks.

Is it weird that your music is recognized and played everywhere, but that you aren’t recognized on the street everyday?

As musicians, we look for the camaraderie of our peers. Growing up, I used to always look at who played on records, so I guess it’s inspiring to think that others do as well. If someone comes up and recognizes me, I usually just think, “Wow, you read credits.” Otherwise, I don’t really think about it that much.

Come on— if we walked the sidewalks of Hollywood right now, every car would be blaring 50 Cent, or Gwen Stefani, or The Game, which are all your tracks. It must be amazing to be incognito about it!

OK, OK, I admit it—it’s totally cool in those circumstances. But to tell you the truth,  I’m not someone who needs to be spotted. The anonymity of it is the cool part.

What’s the best thing someone could say about your contributions to an album?

Nothing. The focus is on the artist, so I try to be as transparent as possible. I mean, someone could tell me the mix sounds great, or the drums sound amazing, but otherwise, the attention is all on the artist.

What do you feel the purpose of music is?

Music’s purpose is to unify people—to bring us together. It inspires, it celebrates, and it creates a healthy escape.

What is your ultimate goal in making music?

To sustain it. I take so much from music and the creation of others that to show even a fraction of my gratitude, I truly have to give back to it.

I know it’s a tough question, but if I put a gun to your head, what would you call your proudest accomplishment?

“In Da Club,” because I played all the instruments on it, but the Fiona Apple and Maroon 5 records also meant a ton to me. I’m just as proud about everything I’ve done. I guess I would have to say I’m proudest of whatever I worked on last.

And finally, what’s coming up in the near future for you?

Well, I’ve been jetting back and forth from New York to work with Regina Spektor, I’m recording some bass parts for B.B. King—which is awesome— and I have a son on the way. It seems like I’ll have my hands full for a while. After that, I really couldn’t tell you. Every morning, I wake up, and my phone could ring with a new possibility. That’s the excitement of what I do.                                                                                                -GX-

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