Maroon 5 | Out of the Comfort Zone
Maroon 5 (L-R): Matt Flynn, James Valentine, Mickey Madden, Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael
“L.A. is my home town and one of my favorite places in the entire universe,” says Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine. “However, it is very distracting.” So in addition to the appeal of working with producing legend Mutt Lange, recording at Lange''s Swiss studio seemed like a good way for the band to get down to the business of recording, free of the distractions that they''d face at home.
“What took us—what''s going to be, I guess, coming up on a year—would probably have taken 10 years if we had tried to do it [in L.A.],” Levine says. “It was nice getting out of our own element, getting into a space that maybe wasn''t as comfortable—wasn''t our comfort zone. But it was new and different and adventurous and exciting. I think that kind of contributed to the energy of the record.”
Hands All Over, the album to which Levine refers, is Maroon 5''s third studio effort, which will be released on Sept. 21. (The first single, “Misery,” came out in July.) The band''s instantly recognizable sound—which mixes rock with elements of R&B, funk, and pop—shines through on every track, as do Lange''s consummate production skills. The album was mixed back in L.A. by Lange''s longtime collaborator, Mike Shipley, with Lange participating remotely.
I had a chance to separately talk with Levine and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael about recording with Lange, their songwriting process, and the demo studio in an L.A. garage where much of the songwriting and preproduction took place prior to the Swiss excursion. Their interviews appear here consecutively, starting with Levine''s. I also talked to Noah Passovoy, who engineered the demo sessions (see the sidebar “Demos in the Box”).
How did you guys decide on using Mutt Lange as your producer? Was it a band decision or a label decision?
We decide. We are the ultimate source [laughs]. Just kidding. It was one of those things where he''s kind of a reclusive, enigmatic dude. He wanted to work with us, so he said, “Hey, let''s do this,” and he kind of came around. He wanted to meet with us and he wanted to talk to us; he solicited our attention.
It was really kind of a great thing. We were really excited about the opportunity because we were just curious about what it would be like to work with the guy.
How did Lange affect the sound of the band on this album?
I think there''s no doubt that it sounds bigger. The way he makes records sound, they''re always larger than life. It''s just very clean and very basic. I think that''s what''s always been our idea of sound—and the sound that we put out there—making it clean and simple and no-frills, or not too many frills.
The drums on the album sound huge, as do the guitars; everything really.
Yeah, I love when drums and vocals lead the way. It feels much more rhythmic that way and much easier to understand. I don''t like when there''s too much going on.
Was the material all written when you left for Switzerland?
It was tricky because it was never really finished, the songwriting was never really done. We went to Switzerland to do this, basically to execute, when we knew we had enough material parts-wise to piece together [an album]. I think that was when we pulled the trigger and decided we had enough stuff. Nothing was really worked out or organized; it was just kind of demo''d. We had a lot of material going into the experience. I think that''s the best thing, when you make sure you have a surplus of ideas to work with. You don''t want to get there, and say, “Okay, here we go.” I hate putting this big moment on it, like, “Okay, now it''s time to write and produce a record.” It''s much better when you kind of futz around with ideas and have a lot in the bank.
Sure, and then when you start recording you can see what''s working.
Yeah. “This part works here.” “This part, miraculously enough, works perfectly with this part.” Because when you''re a songwriter, all your parts, in some weird way, could work together if you changed the tempo and adjusted things a little bit. You develop a style and a rhythm to what you do, so I think the way that we all do it best is to take it as a puzzle. It sometimes comes in a more pure, simple, straightforward way, where a song just happens, but I think that''s more rare. If you were to go on that philosophy, I think it would take a lot longer to make a record because those moments don''t happen every day.
L-R: Levine, Valentine, and Carmichael in Lange''s well-equipped Swiss studio
What is your process for songwriting? Do you just get hit with an inspiration and go record it onto a little portable recorder or your computer?
For me, it''s weird. It happens in the shower, or I''ll be humming a tune. It rarely ever happens when I''m sitting playing guitar. That''s not how I get the juices flowing. I think my favorite part about music is that it''s so unselfconscious. I think the best songs that are written are completely free in how they were conceived. You can really tell when something''s been haggled over to the point where you''re changing the melody 100 times. Melody is just what comes out of you naturally. It seems like it''s obvious when something''s more contrived melodically and it''s more formulaic, and it''s someone looking at it scientifically as opposed to just having fun with it and humming a tune, which is a very natural thing. That''s what I like it to be—or at the very least, that''s what I like it to come off as, even if it''s not [laughs].
So you demo''d a lot before going to Switzerland?
Yeah, we demo''d a lot of material. A lot. And that was a huge part of the process. We set up a little home studio and recorded and wrote a lot of stuff. It''s best to always have too many ideas.
What was your demo studio gear like?
It was very unsophisticated. I like to demo in the most remedial way possible. For me, expensive, amazing studios with walls upon walls of gear—that''s for when you''re really ready to work, not when you''re brainstorming. We just use an
[Avid] Pro Tools HD rig, an older rig that''s actually James [Valentine''s], our guitar player''s. The limitations of something like that, to me, are good when you''re demoing because you shouldn''t even be thinking when you''re demoing. You shouldn''t be worrying about the performance of something, and you should be able to just use stupid plug-ins, and have it be, “Oh, here''s a drum beat.” “Okay, cool, this is a good idea for this song,” and just play all the way through it.
And maybe something starts off with an MPC, and then I''ll go play the drums along to it to thicken up the sound, and then we''ll Beat Detective that. Just simply for the sake of getting the idea done. And then, obviously, when the band goes in and re-creates all of this, they go and do real takes. The demo process is not about feel and it''s not about sonic quality; it''s really more about ideas, so I like everything to be at my fingertips as opposed to doing [multiple] takes of things. Everything''s a first take; you never really fix anything. Things are off-key; things are crappy. There''s no thought involved at all. I think the gear needs to reflect that attitude [laughs].
How much did Mutt get involved in culling the material and helping develop it?
Mutt was really involved. Every day, basically, he would be critiquing or helping push us to get through a certain thing that wasn''t right. He''s a producer first and foremost, but he''s obviously more than accomplished in songwriting, too. That''s part of what he does and part of what he offers. With our band, though, I think we have our way of working, songwriting-wise, that he really respected and trusted. So he was a producer for us, and he wasn''t writing as much as he was guiding. He''d say, “Oh well, this needs to be this way. Give me something like this here,” and I would do it. That relationship was a very valuable one because I''ve never had a relationship where a guy was coming at it from a songwriting point of view. Which was cool because I trusted everything he had to say. The best thing to do is to try to—I mean it never happens—but try to check your ego, where you just don''t worry about yours versus his.
Otherwise, it could be problematic.
That''s always the hardest thing to
balance in the studio. You''ve got five guys, five different opinions, plus a producer, and that battle, and that wrestling match—which will inevitably take place—is kind of what makes for either a great record or a crappy record [laughs].
How did you guys record it?
Mutt''s central thesis behind making records is, “It''s got to be the best it can possibly be.” If it''s not good enough, make it better. Make it better always. It was like a blank canvas. It''s such a beautiful thing, though. Technology''s sort of a double-edged sword because you''ve got all these things and all these capabilities you never had before, and they''re all hundreds of times faster than ever before so you can run into the trap of going too far, and it can drive you crazy. But the good thing is, you can really exhaust every possible idea. And then once you''ve done so, and you''ve thrown everything onto the canvas and tried everything and just beaten yourself to death over a certain part or a certain song, then you go back and you refine it by taking the best things and tweaking those and focusing on the bread and butter of what it is. I love that about Pro Tools. I embrace that fully. There are benefits, obviously, and downfalls to this kind of new technology. But it''s really fascinating and really fun. Yes, it can be misused, but I think we used it properly.
Did you guys all record together for that band energy or was it more layered?
I think sometimes it''s just layer upon layer; sometimes it''s us playing together. The most important thing is that it''s not formulaic, and you''re not going and doing the same thing every time. Sometimes we go in and cut something just three of us or four of us or two of us. Maybe it''d just be Jesse [Carmichael] and James, and then I''d go in and write a vocal. It was all very unformulaic, which I like. I like when every song has a different energy.
Hands All Over is Maroon 5''s third studio album since the band debuted in 2002.
What did you think when Mutt Lange approached you guys?
I thought it was an honor. I thought it was a cool idea; I thought it sounded fun.
Adam termed this album as “bigger-sounding.” Is that how you''d put it too?
Yeah, I would say bigger, and I would say cleaner, and I would say thicker.
Was that due to just the way Mutt records stuff or how he mixes?
He has such sensitive ears that I think he literally can almost see the spectrum of frequencies and knows exactly how much low end is needed on this instrument and on this one so that when it''s all combined together, the result is pretty thick and filled-in. I think he and [Mike] Shipley have really mastered that art of EQ''ing things so that nothing steps on anything else and everything sort of fits together. And you listen to some sounds on their own, and you''re like, “That''s the worst-sounding thing I''ve ever heard,” but then you listen to it with all of the low end next to it, and suddenly it works.
What''s his studio in Switzerland like?
He''s got a Pro Tools setup and a Logic setup, and they work with each other, which is pretty cool.
Why does he have both, do you know?
Well, Logic gives us a lot of versatility in terms of MIDI, which I think is superior to Pro Tools, working in Logic with MIDI. But I still think Pro Tools has the edge in terms of editing. So [they were] running in Logic on a separate computer, all synched up but sort of run into
Pro Tools as if it were an instrument.
Did you play a lot of keyboard parts that were MIDI-based initially and then you got the sounds later?
We did that sometimes. It was interesting because we put this record together first in L.A. with demos that we made in our home studio, and then we worked off of those tracks and replaced certain things or added certain things.
So you kept some of those tracks?
We did, yeah, so it''s interesting.
Talk about the L.A. demo studio.
We built it at a rental house ... that Adam [Levine] had taken up when he was doing some remodeling on his own house. It had a perfect space in the garage for a studio, so we had one built within that space so that we weren''t even touching the walls of the existing structure; we just built a little box in there.
Did you have the drum kit miked up and everything?
We definitely had to do some scratch drum takes, but the sounds weren''t that amazing in this little box of a studio. The main things that the demo process provided for us, though, was the right tempos for the songs because we were really working on that.
Because it''s easy to get a tempo wrong in the studio sometimes if you don''t have it figured out in advance, right?
True. But we would re-assess everything, even when we were in Switzerland, and there were some things that we changed just 1bpm in one direction or the other, and I think it really made a difference.
When you''re on tour, do you guys bring laptops along and write in your hotel rooms, or is it pretty much just when you''re off the road?
We work on the road as well. [But] there''s a certain type of energy conservation that you need to do on the road, where you have to pour your energy into the shows. And when you get into songwriting mode, you have to be open to the idea that maybe you won''t go to sleep tonight when you''re working on this idea because you don''t want to let it go. We can''t totally do that on the road because we have to almost be like athletes; we stay healthy.
How do you get your inspiration for writing your progressions and stuff? Does it just come to you?
Absolutely. I mean, there''s an endless amount of combinations of chords and melodies and rhythms. I find it really helpful to just not think about anything and work quickly on your instrument.
So you''ll typically be sitting at the keyboard and an idea will come, and you''ll say, “That''s it.”
There''s a certain feeling when you hear something. You get a certain spark and you know there''s something cool here; something that''s going to turn into something that will be good for this band and good for our fans. It''s really kind of strange. I mean, it''s always been that way—even from before we had a fan base.
You''ve definitely defined a certain kind of sound in your songs over the first couple albums. Is there a feeling like you have to be consistent with that when you write new songs?
It just happens naturally. Luckily, our whole emphasis when we were writing songs was to have it feel really authentic and spontaneous, and not calculated at all. So when that happens, and something just comes out of us in a pure way, it ends up sounding like us. And that''s how we''ve always done it [laughs].
DEMOS IN THE BOX
Engineer Noah Passovoy has worked with Maroon 5 since the band was recording its last album, It Won''t Be Soon Before Long, back in 2006. Although he wasn''t involved with the tracking at Mutt Lange''s Swiss studio for Hands All Over (Lange uses his own engineer), Passovoy engineered all the songwriting and demo sessions in the garage-based studio of Levine''s rented L.A. house.
The band constructed the studio for these sessions and tore it down afterward. “[They] just kind of threw up four walls, soundproofed it so that anyone could be making noise in there at all hours and not annoy the neighbors [laughs],” Passovoy says.
The studio was built into two spaces in the three-car garage. “The biggest problem was the ceilings because we couldn''t build past the beams of the garage. So you had maybe 7-foot ceilings [laughs]. It was really kind of a box.
“We set up as much gear in there as possible and they just started writing,” Passovoy continues. “That was about six months prior to them going to Switzerland. It was really just a daily [thing]—people going into the studio, whoever had an idea, and just getting it down.”
Though small, the studio wasn''t Spartan gear-wise. “We set up a drum kit, guitar amps, bass amp with DI, keyboards, an MPC, a vocal booth, and then a Pro Tools rig and a Logic rig,” Passovoy recalls. “We crammed, physically, as many things as possible into the room.”
Given the small dimensions, the space wasn''t going to yield top-notch acoustics. “It was obviously a very tight sound,” Passovoy says. “There wasn''t a lot of room on it. But [it was fine] to get the idea across. The way they like to demo is to really build up an entire song—drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals, whatever other odds and ends on top of that—so having a drum kit was sort of a necessity.”
Some of the tracks from the demos did make it onto the final songs.
“Basically, everything ended up in Pro Tools at some point,” Passovoy explains. “Jesse and James work a lot in Logic, so their demos would start in Logic and then at some point we''d move over to Pro Tools to finish off the demo. And then all of those Pro Tools sessions went to Switzerland, and at that point, Mutt started taking them apart and working with the band on arrangements and changing some things around and everything. But a lot of parts that we recorded—I don''t think any of the drums ended up on the record—but a lot of other things [did]. A lot of guitars, there''s vocals, a lot of keys.”
Mike Levine, no relation to Adam, is
EM''s editor and senior media producer.