news category created 18 September 2012 written by Mick Glossop
It’s the bushy grey beard that makes it hard to put an age on Ethan Johns. Or rather, it’s the fact that a symbol of wisdom earned from decades of experience, hugs a face that looks like it never left its thirties.
Appropriately, while much of the conversation we throw at the MPG’s 2012 Producer Of The Year is met with middle-distance stares contemplating a long career, the awe and enthusiasm that Johns shows for artists he has worked with exposes a wide-eyed, youthful joy.
Like the music he helps create, there’s a timelessness to Ethan Johns – one that comes from a lack of pretence. It’s a philosophy that seems to cement everything he does. As we talk about the art of production and the music industry at large, the lauded producer always circles a central goal: to make the most honest records possible…
How would you describe your sound?
I think there’s a really strong element of humanity running through my records. I don’t overly process or overly edit things. I like unadulterated performances, I like to hear the human and the soul behind the performance.
That’s why I like to record live, primarily. I never put vocals on after. All of the records that I’ve done that you would know have been sung live with the band because, to get an appropriate performance out of the music, you have to have it inspired by that vocal. You can’t put the vocal on last because you’re denying the musicians the ability to react to the vocal performance. It just makes sense to me.
The standard way of making records now is to do a bit of pre-production, get tempo maps and then go in and spend two weeks cutting the drums or whatever. Then, once the drummer’s bit is done, he’s got nothing to do for the rest of the record.
Then the bass player will do his thing and he’s gone. It’s a very divisive way of working, I find. It’s not a collaborative process. If you put everyone in a room together, it gives you a much better perspective on when an arrangement is right and when it’s not. The only way to really make those decisions is to hear it and to play it together.
What about location? Do you have a favourite studio?
I don’t really. I image records in different ways before I make them. When we made [Ryan Adams’ debut album] Heartbreaker, I’d never set foot in Woodland [Studios in Nashville]. It was a distant studio that Ryan found and it was just perfect.
Every studio is going to lend itself to different records. There are certain records that I just don’t want to work on in a studio so we’ll go to a location. I’ve made records in hotels, in rehearsal rooms, houses… I made a record in a squash court once.
There are certain records where you go to Abbey Road Studio 2 because that’s the sound for that record. Sunset Sound Studio 3 in Los Angeles is another one of my favourites, or what used to be Cello. Good studios are still crucial, I think, and it’s a shame that a lot of them are closing now because the options are becoming smaller and smaller.
Was the squash court a sonic choice?
Actually no. I made part of a record with Counting Crows many years ago and they had rented a house up on Mulholland Avenue and built this studio in a squash court.
Every record has its own set of requirements and it’s got as much to do with the atmosphere of a place as it does the sound. The sound is obviously crucial but you have to also take into account where it is and the kind of person the artist is; where they’re at, whether or not they need structure.
If you feel it would benefit the artist to be on a tight schedule, in a professional studio, on the clock then you go to British Grove or somewhere like that. But if you want an environment where the artist doesn’t necessarily know they’re recording, I might go to somewhere like Real World, which has a completely unique atmosphere and just feels like a beautiful room.
I remember when we did the first Tom Jones record [2010’s Praise &?Blame] we worked up a routine for the first tune and he didn’t even know we were recording. He thought we were just rehearsing. We had set up a controller at one end of the room and he hadn’t even noticed. He was thrilled when he realised and I said, “Yeah don’t even think about it, let’s just keep going the way we’re going.”
There seem to be a lot of great records that are made in that way: very quickly and naturally…
Definitely. I don’t know what it is about those records that remain, over time, the more interesting ones for me. Maybe it’s because they’re a little bit more mysterious.
Heartbreaker was five or 10 days, or something. [Ray LaMontagne’s] Trouble was 10 days. There was no preparation for Hearbreaker and a five day preparation period for Trouble.
You just didn’t have time to stop and think or second-guess what you were doing. The stars aligned and obviously the artists were in top form on both of those records.
Those records are still quite mysterious to me because they’re the most pure form of artistic expression – there’s nothing in the way, you’re just doing it rather than deliberating over takes. You have such a limited window that you can’t overthink it. It’s very interesting to see what happens in the studio when you’re under those kind of circumstances.
Who’s the best artist you’ve worked with?
I can tell you this: I’ve never made a record with someone that I didn’t want to work with.
Even in the early days? Were you never in situations which weren’t quite what you wanted?
What afforded you that luxury?
It makes sense on a few different levels to me. Anyone in the arts who doesn’t stay true to themselves to further their career ends up having a very short career. That’s one thing; the other is that I’m not that kind of record maker. If I’m not inspired I’m going to do bad work and I don’t want to do bad work.
In my twenties, I turned down extremely well-paid gigs. I wouldn’t say regularly but, from about 26 to around 30, I turned down at least four or five gigs that would have made me a lot of money. But it never seemed to add up to me.
I think it’s because I respect music way more than I respect money – that’s really what it comes down to. We all want to be appreciated and remunerated for our efforts but, at the same time, if you’re not careful about those choices, it’s very difficult to come back if you sell your principles.
I don’t have any regrets about any of the things I turned down at all.
That’s a great thing to be able to say…
It really is because I genuinely believe that, when you’re looking at the end of life, your bank balance isn’t going to mean shit. What you stood for is going to really count. That’s what’s going to make your exit a smooth one. I think it will be easier to let go at that stage knowing that you stayed true to your principles.
How do you think technology, which allows people to make decent sounding records in their bedroom these days, affects the current stock of big name producers?
It’s a very difficult question to answer because different artists, given their circumstances, are going to produce different kinds of records at home. Elliot Smith’s home recordings, I think are just remarkable. Paul McCartney, on his own with an 8-track machine, yielded pretty fabulous results in a barn somewhere. So it really does depend on the artist and how you’re using the equipment you have.
Before, it was a four-track cassette player in a bedroom and it was songwriters who weren’t worried about the sound. Maybe you’d have a bit of echo but that was about it really. They didn’t know how to edit and they didn’t know about compression or anything like that. It wasn’t their place to know about that.
But now you’re working with guys and girls who are coming at record making from a much broader perspective and are wanting to have a lot more input over areas of the job that at one time were solely the domain of the producer, engineer and the mixer.
I’ve noticed a significant change in not only artists’ but record companies’ attitudes. I think professional record makers were a lot freer to do their job before computerised technology arrived. You couldn’t make changes unless there was something significantly wrong with the record.
Now, with recall being the way that it is, you’re looking at people making ergonomic decisions about how they work based on the demands of executives, which doesn’t quite add up to me.
I’m talking in generalities because that issue is not the case across the board, but it is a change that I’ve noticed with technology. It’s a different process for me. I think I was really lucky to have been left alone for the amount of time that I was and to the degree that I was.
How important do you think record labels are going to be in 10 years time? With the likes of PledgeMusic, Kickstarter and digital channels in mind, you have the means to do it yourself these days…
You have and you haven’t. You’re always going to need a collection of services, I think. I love the idea of music reaching people on its own terms and I think all of the things you’ve just mentioned have facilitated people who don’t want to engage the industry on a certain level. It’s making doing that a little bit easier and if you’ve got the right people in place you can do extraordinary things.
But I do think that labels are always going to be important because I think there are lots of different kinds of music being made, and I think there will always be an appetite for different kinds of music. Majors are going to continue to do what they do and indies are going to continue to do what they do.
It’s not so much about the companies, it’s about the people that work in them more than anything else. That’s changing all the time.
(interview by by Tom Pakinkis for Music Week, Thursday, Sep 6th 2012)