Bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s résumé reads like the ultimate session player’s dream. His recording chops have graced the work of Beck, Air, NIN, Emmylou Harris, The Mars Volta, Macy Gray, Garbage, Goldfrapp, Black Eyed Peas, Pink, Kid Rock, and dozens of other artists. But unsatisfied with his gun-for-hire existence, Meldal-Johnsen recently infiltrated the studio as a stealth producer. He’s been part of major productions for years, and his big ears have finally extended to a place behind the glass. And he’s already racking up successes. Meldal-Johnsen produced M83’s 2011 electronic opus Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and Neon Trees’ pop rock chart topper, Picture Show. Meldal-Johnsen is currently producing energetic folk sisters Tegan and Sara, as well as pop-punk playthings Paramore.
Unlike the cash-and-carry, meat-and-potatoes logic required of the session musician, Meldal-Johnsen takes a decidedly cerebral approach to his role as producer. Whether that means creating mad wall collages with M83 or getting all touchy-feely and emotional with Neon Trees, Meldal-Johnsen seeks new ways to inspire musicians to experiment, creating music that he, the band, and the record label can be proud of, and that will bring commercial success.
Most know you as a bassist, not as a producer.
My transition to producer has been under the radar for years because until the M83 record, I hadn’t done work that a large body of people would recognize. After that [project], I got calls from interested labels and managers. I’ve produced three records that are less than a year old now. Before that, I produced maybe eight indie records, including Ken Andrews of Failure, Division Day, Grace Woodroofe (with Ben Harper), and Holly Palmer. I’ve always exercised those muscles.
When did you begin exercising those muscles?
I’ve always tried to figure out songs and texture and space and arrangements. I’ve spent so much time on the other side of the glass that I couldn’t help but be entranced by the process of how to get a record going from start to finish. I’ve always had this peripheral interest in how to help an artist feel like they are being heard. I don’t know if that is an ephemeral concept.
Being a producer is an ephemeral concept. Does it take a certain kind of personality to produce, and what elements are required?
I have always been a good listener and foil for artists, from Beck to Trent Reznor to Air to other people I’ve played with. In that role, you gain trust. And within that trust, you’re plugged into the nuances of someone’s creative process. You hear and you see things that others don’t see. You begin to understand their aspirations. I’ve always tried to figure out how to help people get the most distilled version of themselves. That sounds high and mighty, but that’s honestly where it’s at when I first meet someone. “How can we get to the core of this for them? What were the failings for them in the past?”
How do you get to that core?
A lot of shooting the sh*t and gaining trust. And in doing that, the more willing they become to experiment. For a good producer, it’s creating a utopian world where the artist feels they can regain some of the freedom that they may have lost in the past. When I do that early on, I feel like I’ve got a fast track to finding out the dos and the don’ts.
That sounds political.
It’s not about another producer, it’s finding out where the artist’s records ended up versus where he or she was trying to get. There’s many variables in the process. If it involves where someone was last with a producer, fine, but making a record is a two-way street. You can’t always fault a producer. There are all kinds of cogs in the works that make an album not go where it’s supposed to go. And there’s lots of inter-relationship stuff that might not have anything to do with the producer’s skill. It may have everything to do with the A&R guy harping on the producer or distractions the artist had with management, ulterior motives of band members, or drama. I try to cut through all of that. I want artists to feel like they’re getting something a bit more fully realized. Artists are not going to be willing to experiment in the studio unless they feel like they’re acknowledged.
Don’t your credits command respect?
No. I have a lot of caché as a musician, but as a producer, people feel they are giving me a chance. For instance, I was able to make Paramore feel comfortable by doing one song first as a trial run. Producers with a lot of experience don’t do that. But I still feel young at this, like I have to prove myself. I have no problem with being scrutinized. With a band like Paramore who has sold millions of records, that is fine.
What was your approach with M83?
With M83, it’s like, how close can you get to the sun without being burned? They’re always trying to push the boundaries of how bold, how epic, how grand, how bright, or how cinematic a song or an album can get without becoming ludicrously overblown. One can only go so far with layering and orchestrations and spiraling ascending melodies until it becomes trite. So with this album, it was all about how to push things to the edge of that feeling of jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon and flying.
How do you make that idea tangible?
Anthony [Gonzalez] and I began with discussions about regaining one’s youth and that surprise of the world and the ambition of being young. Then we sat in a room full of synthesizers trying to out-inspire each other. We created jams and put up rhythms and played to them and co-created upon them.
You played a lot of instruments on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
We both did. As the creature started to emerge, we felt that we had to do a lot of it with our own hands; otherwise, it would be compromised. I am not a guitar player, but I play the lion’s share of guitar on the record. There were a bunch of bad-ass musicians that I brought in, but only for very specific things. Otherwise Anthony and I went as far as we could to play it all. The album became very personal. It was a quest for us to figure out a way to put in audio form the moments when you feel most liberated as a child or when you feel most inspired by the world or the most touched by something ephemeral or spiritual. It was like trying to merge reality with the conceptual.
How did you put those thoughts into action?
We discussed old music, but after a while it was nothing more than us keeping that ethos in mind and continuing to create. One day we got huge poster boards and made two dozen of them and put them on this very high wall in the studio. We wrote the manifesto of each song and what it meant to us on the poster boards. We’d cut things out of newspapers or books and put those on the boards. Or tack photographs or poems or bits of culture and anything inspirational to the boards. Every song would have this collage.
That had a literal impact on the music?
We did it at a juncture where we were slowing down. As we added to the poster boards, they became the bibliography for the rest of the album. That kept us making music from a non-mechanical and more instinctive place. Sometimes Anthony would write out in the desert. We had the luxury of time to do that. We needed those moments, because without them you don’t get a fresh look. We spent a year making the M83 record.
You go the nth degree to get the artist to exercise their imagination.
I was inspired by records like [U2’s] The Unforgettable Fire, which was informed by the actual location of the recording. I am also inspired by records made at Compass Point, such as Roxy Music’s Flesh and Blood and Avalon, all the Grace Jones albums, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, so many albums. Those records had great success getting people to disassociate from daily life. Or 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” or London Calling or Wire’s 154; they all had a ruthless separation from expectation and pressure.
What was your process with Neon Trees?
It was different, because the stakes were higher. They’ve always regarded themselves as a band that has big ideas. They have a history that goes well beyond what anyone has heard, and they know a lot of cultural reference points that help them articulate what they want. We had a two-month window to indulge ourselves in using the studio as an instrument. It is a pop and alternative-rock album, but it’s certainly a far cry from what the normal expectation of an alternative pop band would have on their record.
You also engineered the album.
On everything I do, I am always engineering. I use engineers to do two things: to help me get drum sounds, and when at my studio, to help me run the computer. I am very clear on what I want from a sound or from an engineering approach.
What did Neon Trees want, and how did you enable that?
Their last album was more of a collection of single songs. It sounds very cohesive, but it doesn’t have the drama and dips and valleys that they were looking for. They saw me as someone who could find a way to be referential to their favorite records of the ’80s but to make it feel modern. I made sure to consult every band member and get them feeling like they owned it a bit more.
What was the approach for Paramore?
They had proven themselves time and time again. They don’t need to be a pop-punk band anymore. They can do their own ideas.
This sounds like something you might have told them.
And also something they told me. They are great writers and creators and they have savvy reference points in the studio. The label needs to have confidence that they aren’t necessarily making Kid A, or even something more out on a limb. I love pop songs and simplicity.
You mean Kid A as something out of left field?
In a sense, yes. All I’m really trying to say is that we’re not trying to deliberately lose their natural commerciality. I am here to articulate their vision for a step of growth. I’m not afraid to put a guitar through a modular synth, for instance. I want the album to sound very visceral and a little bit less locked down and computerized—more 1981 than 2012, with a nod to 2016. Humans playing textural sounds that can still be heavy and fast, but also shaded.
How do you advise aspiring producers to develop that knack of listening to the artist? And being the middleman between the artist and the label?
You can’t put frosting on it: You’re the middleman. You don’t do this and expect to be some juggernaut of selfish isolation. And you can’t just assume that you’re walking into circumstances that will go smoothly. You have to always be on your toes. And the way you do that the best is by listening instead of talking.
Listening to the artist or the label?
Both, by all means. It’s a very fluid situation, and things are ever changing. You can’t rely on being belligerent or bloody minded. You have to find balance at every turn. You don’t have to cave to everybody but you have to be confident in your ideas. There’s a tripod there: your own confidence with your vision, then the label’s vision, and then the artist’s vision. And there’s a lot of foundational stuff that young producers have to be on top of. Like how to get great takes out of people without relying on Beat Detective or cutting them up. How to maintain a fresh sound. You do that by keeping it old school and keeping alive the romance of live recording and recording off the cuff. On every record, I use rough or demo vocals and guitars. Your job as a producer is to pluck things out of the ether that have life.
And you find that on the scratch takes?
I always find good stuff on a scratch take. If it’s not working, you have to stop and check the last moment where it was working. That might be before you told them you were doing vocal takes for real. You have to make sure they are on that front edge of enthusiasm. Then when you get it, you stop. You have to learn that right amount. I learned that by watching all the producers who recorded me. You have to understand people, and their thresholds and interest levels and stamina levels. It’s important to meet or apprentice with or read about people who have made classic records. Because believe me, they know something that you don’t.