Greg Wells

AN ALL-IN-ONE SONGWRITER, MUSICIAN, PRODUCER, AND MIXER
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Photos by David Black

“Jack of all trades” is often used to depict someone with many skills, but considering that the expression is usually followed by the phrase “master of none,” it certainly doesn''t suit Greg Wells. Better to go with the moniker his first manager, famed drummer Stewart Copeland, gave him: “the Swiss Army knife.”

Back when Wells was a 14-year-old kid living in Ontario, he got his parents to co-sign a loan so he could buy his first synth. A few years later he did the same to buy a Fostex 4-track cassette machine. Wells also learned to play guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. Soon he was working as a session and touring musician, joining k.d. lang''s band when he was only 23. It was lang who encouraged Wells to branch out into producing and songwriting.

Since those early days, Wells has co-written, produced, mixed, and performed on songs for Katy Perry, Adele, OneRepublic, Deftones, Celine Dion, Rufus Wainwright, and more. His instrument collection has grown to more than 20 guitars, seven basses, eight drum sets, five pianos, and numerous amplifiers. And then there''s his impressive studio setup. Although back in the day he was on Mac Plus and Atari computers running Notator and Digital Performer, he''s now using Logic for MIDI and Pro Tools for audio, and he''s amassed some rare and much-coveted hardware.

Jetlagged after a week in October writing and producing songs with some heavy hitters at Copeland''s castle in the south of France, Wells readjusted to life in Los Angeles, diving into new studio projects, tending to his 11-month-old daughter, and speaking to Electronic Musician about his life as a Swiss Army knife.

Aside from playing multiple instruments, you also do a lot of programming. How did you get into that process with Katy Perry?
There were a couple songs I did with Katy that got very deep into programming. One is on the new record called “Pearl,” and there is one on her first record called “Ur So Gay.” We actually wrote “Ur So Gay” when she''d been dropped from Columbia Records, and she had no record deal. She was like, “I have this idea. It''s kind of weird. It''s meant to be funny. I just have a verse and a chorus.” She started playing the guitar and opened with that line, “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf, jacking off while listening to Mozart,” and I just about fell out of my chair. It was the funniest song opening I''d ever heard in my life. I liked the kind of we''re-sitting-the-porch-acoustic-guitar-strumming thing, but I wanted it to be surrounded by this very sort of we''re-not-sitting-on-the-porch accompaniment. So I just started messing with drum samples, playing the whole drumbeat with a snare, hi-hat, and kick from a keyboard. It gave it this big, heavy groove to it, and then I plugged the bass guitar in and wanted to hear this Tony Levin-kind-of-growl thing that he does with Peter Gabriel. Then Katy started whistling to it, and I''m like, “That''s great! Go do that on the mic!” She did that, we tracked it up four times, and then we brought in the same horns that played on all the Michael Jackson records for Quincy Jones. We sent the song to [former Capitol Records CEO] Jason Flom, and he loved it. I think it very much helped get her signed.

I read that you get a lot of ideas from experimenting with a guitar pedal or another piece of gear. What''s one successful experiment?
We just finished mixing and mastering a record I was on for five months, the new All American Rejects album. On one song in particular, the kick drum is actually the drummer pounding his chest with his fist, and the other main percussion sound is a fire extinguisher being hit with a fork.

How did you make the fist-on-the-chest sound into a kick drum?
If you get the proximity effect on a tube mic, it adds all this low end that isn''t naturally there. That''s what I love about a really great vintage Neumann U47 mic. When you''re about an inch off of it, you get this lovely kind of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby kind of depth thing to it. I am 98 percent sure we used a U47 to mic Chris [Gaylor]''s chest, and I''m sure we added some EQ, as well. We had to mess with it a little bit, but I don''t think it took that long. I think it was just probably scooping out some 350 to 400Hz and adding a little 80Hz. And we found that the harder he hit himself, unfortunately, the better it sounded. We did like, eight takes all the way through the song, and by the end, the poor guy had a welt on his chest—this huge, red circle like the Japanese flag. The last couple takes were really hurting him, but he powered through, and we got it.

How did you make the fire extinguisher sound work?
The singer, Tyson Ritter, was like, “See that fire extinguisher in the corner of the room?” We started hitting it with a stick, and it didn''t quite sound right. So he went to the kitchen, came back with this little fork, and I just started laughing, like, “You''re kidding? A fork? We''ve actually just lost our minds now.” He''s like, “Let''s just try it.” We were at the Village Recorder Studio in West Los Angeles in the same room where Fleetwood Mac made Tusk, and I''m thinking this is really an instance where I''ve given enough rope where everyone''s going to get hung. The drummer hits the thing with the fork, and to my utter astonishment, it sounds unbelievable. I mean, who would have thought? We used it as sort of a cymbal, kind of like a Tibetan bell or a bell on a ship or a lighthouse.

Do you have a favorite signal chain for someone like Katy Perry versus one that works best for Tyson Ritter?
The mic pre is always this [Neve] 1073 that I handpicked with the help of engineer Joe Chiccarelli back in 2006. And [the signal] always hits an 1176 compressor. I have one that I really love, a silver-face blue-stripe that came from a church in St. Louis in the early ''90s. Then everything after that will change. Sometimes I''ll use two compressors. I''m a very big fan of the Shadow Hills Optograph compressor, which I''ll put after the 1176 to catch anything that the 1176 didn''t catch. It just rounds it out and makes it sound a little more mixed immediately.

On just about everybody, I use this one mic that Telefunken custom-made for me and completely knocked out of the park. It''s a vintage 47, but all the parts are new except for the vacuum tube. That thing just sounds like God. I also had another microphone made for me by the same folks that is a vintage Telefunken 251, which is kind of the Holy Grail of female vocal mics.

I was on a hunt for about three years looking for the Holy Grail Neumann U47. I called Alan Veniscofsky at Telefunken to help me find an old U47, and he said, “I know this is not what you were looking for, but I promise you, I can make you what you''re looking for, and if you don''t like it, you don''t have to buy it.” And he went to town. He sent the mic out to me, and I couldn''t believe what I was hearing. I was skeptical because it was new, but it sounded better than my favorite 47 rental. That mic is what I''m using on everything. But every once in a while, if someone''s got too full a voice or if you want something super-pretty with that lovely air on top, then we''ll use the 251.

There is no substitute for a Neumann U47 or a Telefunken 251. But having said that, there are some really fantastic, less expensive microphones that are trying to be a 47 or a 251, and they''re pretty damn close. The Microtech Gefell UMT70S kills. That was my lead vocal mic for years on every early record I produced. It doesn''t exaggerate the top end, but if you EQ it, all that really gorgeous-sounding, pristine kind of top stuff is there. And a 47 is like that, too. I couldn''t recommend it highly enough.

What tips can you give other producers to overcome problems in the studio?
Don''t overthink things. Try to keep the spirit of, we''ve got a train moving. This all feels like surfing to me: If you''re on the surfboard trying to catch a wave, if you stop and start writing in a notebook, all these waves are going to pass you by. Approaching music that way lets some kind of flow in and lets stuff happen.

Also, objectivity is destroyed the minute you hear a song more than once. I''m not sure how objective you are after seven hours of listening to a song. Certainly by the end of the day, I''ve heard the song dozens and dozens of times. For that reason, I only work an eight-hour day, and I don''t work on the weekends. It''s not because I''m lazy; I love working on music. But I have learned that whatever I do or don''t do in the studio gets so much better when I shorten my hours. When I was in my 20s, I''d be in the studio 15 hours a day, seven days a week. I think I learned a lot from doing it, but I''m not sure how great the results were of that approach.

Recording in the studio is a terribly unnatural process. It makes you self-conscious and fearful, and it makes you go to all the places you should not go to when you''re trying to be inspired musically. Headphones make you self-conscious. What''s going to make you more self-conscious than speakers pinned up against your ears with your voice really loud so you can hear every little breath, snort, and wrong note? It''s a complete recipe for the worst vocal ever. So get the singer to take one headphone off. That improves pitch and self-consciousness massively.

To me, music is truly music when it''s live. When you see people performing live, there''s an energy or vibration coming off of them. Then they react to your applause, and there''s a feedback loop that happens. To make music feel really sincere and impactful and exciting coming through speakers, you have to jump through all these hoops. You have to stand in a certain way facing the mic, do certain things sonically…. An uncompressed vocal always sounds weird and amateurish coming out of the speakers, so you have to contain, shrink, and narrow the focus to then make it big again and make it feel alive and natural.

You once said, “A song that''s okay but not amazing is always a struggle.” How do you deal with that?
I don''t really want to notice that I''m listening to a song; I want to have it wash over me. It''s just like when you''re watching an amazing movie. After 10 minutes, if the movie is really incredible, you completely forget that you''re watching a movie. You don''t want to see the actors aware of the camera. You want to trust it and go on that journey. So when something feels like a road bump in the writing of a song, if something feels incongruous, I''m really sensitive to that.

It''s so easy to come up with a bad idea. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, which is why most people can''t stand doing this for a living. Most of my career has been complete abject and utter failure. [Laughs.] I think I''ve been blessed with a degree of ability and talent, but to have that translate to where people are willing to spend money on it is a whole other thing. I have produced lots of records that I''m really proud of that didn''t sell. Luckily, I''ve also had a lot of hits, but for all of those hits, there are 10 times more examples of things I did that didn''t connect with people. For me, the best way to learn anything is to not do it well a bunch of times and then finally figure it out. I''ve learned so much by listening to other records and writing with really inspired songwriters.

Some of the best songwriters we''ve ever seen are pretty terrible musicians, but my God, they''re amazing songwriters. And I think it''s fair to say that some of the best musicians are terrible songwriters. I recognize that I really wanted to become a songwriter, but it wasn''t as natural to me as playing music for hire in other people''s bands. It can take a long time to get that awareness of what needs to happen. It just doesn''t come overnight. Some people sort of pop out with this gift, but for me, it''s really been brick by brick. I watched people around me sometimes go flying light years ahead of me career-wise, much faster than I ever did, and I would go, “What is my problem?” But if you''re crazy enough not to quit, the tortoise can sometimes win the race.

GREG WELLS SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Adele
“One and Only” (co-writer)
Katy Perry “Waking Up in Vegas” (producer)
OneRepublic “Apologize” (producer)
Celine Dion “The Reason” (co-writer)

Greg Wells Elaborates on Current Projects, Songwriting Struggles, and Inspiring Days in the Studio

What are you working on right now?
I just got back from France, from this amazing event that ASCAP put on for recording artists, songwriters, and producers. It was me and about 25 other really incredible, talented folks at a 14th century castle in the middle of the southwest of France, an hour north of Bordeaux. The castle was owned by Miles Copeland of The Police and Sting fame. Miles was actually my first manager. He used to do this event in the mid-to-later ''90s, and I went to a bunch of them. He hasn''t done any in 10 ½ years, and he resurrected it, and it''s the best event I''ve ever been to. Halfway through the week, everyone''s really tightly bonded. You have every meal together. It was very creatively inspiring. One of my favorite new artists, Ellie Goulding, was there. Amazing voice. And one of my personal favorite new producers, this kid from Montreal—Billboard—was there. His career is completely blowing up. He''s just worked with Britney Spears and Robyn.

What did you do?
Every day they set the producers up with their own dedicated rooms. It''s a 40-room castle, so there''s tons of space. One day would be one of the top writers in Nashville with this artist Ellie Goulding. The next day was me and Priscilla Renea, who wrote pretty much the entire new Rihanna record. The next day would be me and Mika, who I invited to event. I''m actually starting his third record on Monday. There were people like the guy who wrote half of Beyonce''s newest album Shea Taylor. A producer and keyboard player named Nephew was there, who was Michael''s producer and musical director for the last seven years of his life and he followed him everywhere and constantly worked on music with him. Just to be able to sit and talk with him about what it was like to work with one of the greatest artists ever, and he said that Michael was the sweetest, nicest, most considerate guy, and wanted to know what everyone in the room felt and what they wanted to work on that day rather than him walking around the room and going, “Okay, we''re going to do this today.”

Can you give me an example of a particularly inspiring day, how the collaboration ignited, and where it went?
Yeah. An interesting thing happened because pop radio for the last few years has really been this big club-banging, hands-in-the-air, the-speakers-are-going-to-blow-because-the-music''s-so-loud sound. That''s basically what every second or third song on the radio is about and sounds like. When that stuff is good, it''s great, and I love it. So I think we were trying to out-do each other, like, “Who can make the most banging-sounding party track?” And about halfway through the week, subversive Canadian that I am, I''m like, “You know, let''s go completely the opposite way. Let''s do the quietest, most acoustic-sounding track we can possibly come up with.” I was in the room with two incredibly talented people, a legendary urban songwriter named Johnta Austin. He''s written some of the biggest songs that have ever been hits on radio, for anybody. And this brand new kid named James Bay from England who is this super musical, great guitar player, fantastic, soulful singer, and great-looking kid. Very sweet, very funny, and very humble. It''s the three of them and me. So we''re all sitting in the room, and I just want to do the opposite of these clubby-sounding records. James had this little idea on acoustic guitar, and I was like, “That''s perfect. That''s it.” And we just clicked. And it was the most fun I had. Johnta took James'' original guitar idea and really fleshed it out. By the end of the day, both of those guys cut a lead vocal on the song. James doesn''t even have a record deal yet, but he really held his own, but Johnta sounded amazing singing it, too, so we ended up doing two versions of it.

Aside from playing multiple instruments, you also do a lot of programming. How did you get into that process with Katy Perry?
When I work with Katy, I just kind of run around like a monkey and just try all these things. Sometimes she''ll have a lot of ideas and really direct me. It''s almost like she''s producing me, which is my favorite thing. I think the best that I''ve ever done is when I''m playing ping-pong with the artist the whole time. It''s not just a one-way faucet from me to them. It''s reciprocal.

There were a couple songs I did with Katy that got very deep into programming. One is on the new record called “Pearl,” and there is one on first record called “Ur So Gay.” We actually wrote “Ur So Gay” when she''d been dropped from Columbia records, and she had no record deal. She was like, “I have this idea. It''s kind of weird. It''s meant to be funny. I just have a verse and a chorus.” She started playing the guitar and opened with that line, “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf, jacking off while listening to Mozart,” and I just about fell out of my chair. It was the funniest song opening I''d ever heard in my life. I liked the kind of we''re-sitting-the-porch-acoustic-guitar-strumming thing, but I wanted it to be surrounded by this very sort of we''re-not-sitting-on-the-porch accompaniment. So I just started messing with drum samples, playing the whole drumbeat with a snare, hi-hat, and kick from a keyboard. It gave it this big, heavy groove to it, and then I plugged the bass guitar in and wanted to hear this Tony-Levin-kind-of-growl thing that he does with Peter Gabriel. Then Katy started whistling to it, and I''m like, “That''s great! Go do that on the mic!” She did that, we tracked it up four times, and then we brought in the same horns that played on all the Michael Jackson records for Quincy Jones. We sent the song to [former Capitol Records CEO] Jason Flom, and he loved it. I think it very much helped get her signed.

And then on the new record, “Pearl,” it''s a very sweet, emotional, gorgeous song. It was hyper-programmed. She and I wrote it with the producer Tricky Stewart. I think it''s all synths and all beats. To really come up with something that is fully programmed and have it be really incredible, I think you have to sit on it for a long time. You gotta get away and come back to it. If you don''t do that, you end up sounding like everyone else ''cause everyone''s got the same stuff, especially with Logic now. All of these guys—RedOne, Alex Da Kid—use the stock sounds in Logic. But here are thousands and thousands of them, and they''re completely incredible.

Greg Wells Elaborates on Current Projects, Songwriting Struggles, and Inspiring Days in the Studio

You use Logic?
Yes. I used to use Notator before it was even called Logic on an Atari in 1990. And then it became Logic, and I was using it in conjunction with Digital Performer. And then I started getting into Pro Tools in the early 2000s, and Logic was so different from Pro Tools. I couldn''t wrap around both. But thanks to a brilliant guy at Apple named Clint Ward, that''s the reason I''m on Logic now. No one touches the MIDI end of things on Logic. But there''s no way that I''m every giving up Pro Tools because I''m so fast on it. It''s what I''ve been using for more than 10 years now.

I read that you get a lot of ideas from experimenting with a guitar pedal or another piece of gear. What''s one successful experiment?
We just finished mixing and mastering a record I was on for five months, the new All American Rejects album. On one song in particular, the kick drum is actually the drummer pounding his chest with his fist, and the other main percussion sound is a fire extinguisher being hit with a fork. We spent an entire day on that particular song building this really evocative rhythm track. We used a whip. We used brooms. Just anything that sounded like any kind of bit of interest, we would record trying to find a spot for it, and it was a blast.

Did you EQ the sound?
I think that one was pretty ready to go. I''m really a fan of doing as little as possible if the sound source itself is right, and a lot of that has to do with microphone placement and microphone choice. And more than anything, it has to do with the choice of what you''re recording, the actual sound source itself. A bad drum kit… you might get it to a place where it sounds charming and right for a song, but it''s never going to sound like the drums on Thriller. You need to get that part right first. Now having said that, one of my heroes, Eric Valentine, is such a fan of using abundant, completely nutty EQ to get his sounds. And obviously, he''s very concerned with mic placement as well. He''s built robots to mic his guitar amps so that they, so that to a quarter of a millimeter he can measure exactly where the phase is. And the mic stands go up and down and in and out, and they can tilt—it''s all on robotics. But he also dives way into the rabbit hole on EQ. If you look at what he''s done, it''s like watching a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil or something. It''s so over the top, but it just sounds right.

On live TV, when in-ear monitors took over, everyone was happy about it because we got to rid of those really ugly floor monitors, and the stage looked better and there was less stuff to carry around, and you could all have the same mix regardless of what town you were in or what stage you were on. But on TV, some of the best singers I''ve ever seen sang so terribly and so flat, and they were all wearing in-ear monitors. I know what was going on: They had their vocal really loud ‘cause they could really hear themselves, and they liked that kind of control, so to them, they thought they sounded great, but they weren''t hearing themselves mixed well enough with the band or any kind of harmonic support to really tell where their pitch center was. I''ve seen it happen hundreds of times with some of the most famous, fantastic singers. They sing flat with headphones on. And when you take an ear off or even an ear half off, all the sudden that problem just vanishes. The vocal with just the one in-ear in, trust me, your vocal pitch and performance is going so much better than it would be with two in-ears.

To me, music is truly music when it''s live. Music is definitely the visual. When you see people performing live, there''s an energy or vibration coming off of them. Then they react to your applause, and there''s a feedback loop that happens. To make music feel really sincere and impactful and exciting coming through speakers, I have found that you have to jump through all these hoops and do all these things that are unnatural. You have to stand in a certain way facing the mic, do certain things to that mic sonically…. An uncompressed vocal always sounds weird and amateurish coming out of the speakers, so you have to contain, shrink, and narrow the focus to then make it big again and make it feel alive and natural.

I read that when you joined k.d. lang''s band, she encouraged you to start songwriting. How did that come about?
K.d is a lovely person, I think she arguably has one of the best voices anybody''s ever heard, and she''s an incredibly good live performer, as well. I think that''s the best way to experience k.d.''s gift is to see the visual of her singing as well. It''s a whole package. She makes amazing records, too. But just seeing her live is just like, everybody regardless of sexual preference completely falls in love with her. It happens every night. It''s impossible not to. I was 23 when I got hired to be in her band, and she just made one of my favorite records that she''s ever made called Ingénue. It has that song “Constant Craving” on it. It''s a sad record, but it''s absolutely gorgeous.

Watching her sing and how she got so emotionally connected singing, how she got so lost in her performance—it was all about transforming into an almost dreamlike state, which is what''s great about seeing her live because that''s exactly where she goes. She''s just lost in the performance. And as an audience member, that''s exactly what you want to see in a performer. You don''t want to see somebody who''s self-aware. You don''t want to smell one iota of self-consciousness. You want to see somebody who is in this tempestuous, kind of almost trancelike state.

And watching the satisfaction that she would have performing her own original music, done the way she wanted it done, and the way that she was so convicted in her vision was so inspiring. She was also very sweet and kind to me, and we would joke around a lot. She became like a big sister to me. She''d say, “You know, you''re doing a really good job, and I''m happy to have you in the band, but really, you should start writing songs, and you should start making inroads to producing and doing things with other people and maybe even writing your own songs for yourself as an artist.” So after those three years that I spent on the road with her, I would go over just to hang out with her at her house in Los Angeles, and she would give me advice on things I was writing. She and I tried to write a couple things together, which we never finished. But to have the validation of her at that early, early stage in my career in America was enormous for me. When a teacher or someone you admire believes in you or tells you that you''re good at something—if you''re lucky enough to have that happen to you—it can really change your life.

You once said, “A song that''s okay but not amazing is always a struggle.” Can you give me an example of how you tried to save a song you were struggling with?
I''ve become Dr. Frankenstein before: I will love, say, the verses from a song, but I don''t like the chorus. And maybe there''s another song where the verses aren''t amazing but the hook is fantastic, and if there''s any way on Earth that the two songs can be married, I try and do it. And a lot of the time, I will suggest to whoever wrote the song that they go back and try and beat it. I''ll do my best to point out what I think isn''t quite lining up with the rest of the song.

I don''t really want to notice that I''m listening to a song; I want to have it wash over me. It''s just like when you''re watching an amazing movie. After 10 minutes, if the movie is really incredible, you completely forget that you''re watching a movie. You don''t want to see the actors aware of the camera. You want to trust it and go on that journey. So when something feels like a road bump in the writing of a song, if something feels incongruous, I''m really sensitive to that.

I''ve worked on all kinds of different music, from super-aggressive death metal to Rufus Wainwright to classical music with an orchestra to Pink. It''s a bit of a head-scratcher, but that''s the way I like it. And so I''ve learned a lot from all of those different things. The biggest thing I''ve learned is that it''s all just storytelling. So if the story''s clear and has an authoritative point of view, then you''re good to go. If it doesn''t, then the song''s not very good. The hardest thing when you write a song is when, if you get lucky, you get a couple really incredible melodies and/or lyrics. Then if everything else around it isn''t as good as those couple of nuggets, it just sort of falls apart. Everything has to be consistent to a degree. It''s all tension and release.

Did you encounter road bumps when working with Adele or Katy Perry?
Yeah, nobody''s immune to it, and I''m certainly capable of coming up with tons of terrible ideas. Everybody is. Even Norman Mailer, when he''s writing a novel, he''ll write 10 times more than actually goes in the novel.