Interview with CUTFATHER & JOE, producers for Five, Mark Morrison, B*Witched - Feb 26, 2001
"We get a lot of demos, and out of 100, there might be one smash hit, three that show promise, and 96 that are not really very interesting at all."
Cutfather & Joe are responsible for producing some seminal hit records, including Mark Morrison’s acclaimed ‘Return of the Mack’. They have also produced Westlife, Five, Billie Piper, B*Witched, LFO, Cleopatra and more. Together they run Milkk Records, a joint venture with Warner Brothers, Germany.
How did you both get started in the music business, and how did you become producers?
I think the way we started was coming at it from a DJ angle. Since we’re from Copenhagen and it’s a small community, it was inevitable that we’d run into each other. I think the entire Danish DJ community was comprised of 20 people. One thing led to another, from being DJs at nightclubs and radio stations to doing four-track mixes and drum programming. And from there, it kind of evolved into full-blown music production.
What was your first break?
Cutfather: The break for me came when I won a mixing competition in 1986. I became the Danish champion and went on to compete in the world finals. In 1989, I came second in the World DJ Mixing Championship.
How did you get to work with Mark Morrison?
C+J: We knew the A&R at the record label he was signed to, who asked us to do remixes of some songs. And ‘Return of the Mack’ came along and we ended up stripping down some of the music, and then later producing new music for his album, although we never met him.
After ‘Return of the Mack’ we received many remix opportunities from new people because everybody is always chasing a hit. Since then we’ve done a lot of productions for UK artists including No.1 songs for B*Witched, Billie ( Piper ), and Peter André.
So you take on many different types of productions?
C+J: Every time we’re presented with an offer to do something, we choose whether to proceed by mutual evaluation. We should be allowed to do music the way we think it should be done. If they say, ‘What about some Scottish folk music?’ then we tell them they’ve come to the wrong people. But most people who come to us know what we do and trust us completely. That’s another thing with record companies and artists. They come to trust your judgement on what the final sound should be like, after you’ve been successful. So basically we’ve always been able to do what we’ve wanted to do.
What kind of music were you making when you were DJing earlier on in your career?
C+J: The same, although maybe we’ve become more commercial, because we’ve had commercial success. It’s been a logical step. If you look back at producers like Rodney Jerkins and Teddy Riley, you will see that they moved from a rap background to a pop style and sensibility in their productions. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like Rap anymore, I just aspire to make different styles of music. I find it interesting and challenging to create a fully-fledged pop song, as opposed to a drum loop and some rap lyrics.
Can you briefly explain how Milkk Records functions?
Cutfather: Joe and I own the label together with our managers in London, and it’s run as a joint venture with Warner Brothers in Germany. We get our own roster so we can sign whoever we want to sign, which is basically whatever the budget allows us to. So we signed a couple of acts like these two girls from Manchester called Sweet Female Attitude, a rapper from LA called DaRok, and Loreta. We have creative control, together with the artist, and we come up with the concepts and whatever we think they should be. Then Warner Brothers takes over the promotion and video production.
How did you ink the deal with Warner Brothers?
C+J: Actually it was a guy from the Danish office called Jacob, whom we’ve been friends with for a long time. He worked here in Copenhagen, and at some point he said, "Why don’t we do a little label kind of thing?" We started talking it over and we agreed that we wanted to reach outside of Denmark and into Central Europe, so we went ahead and contacted the German division of WEA.
What do you do if Warner Brothers aren’t interested in your act?
C+J: We take it somewhere else.
In what aspects does your management help you?
C+J: The management takes care of the artists. They take care of things like booking flights and making sure everything runs smoothly, so that we can run the studio and don’t have to be as busy with the administration.
Do they find work for you?
C+J: They find a lot of work for us. Right now we’re doing this group called A1 who have just had two No. 1 singles in the UK. The management go around town seeing what’s going on and getting us gigs, so that we don’t have to travel too much to meet up with people.
So what are you currently working on?
C+J: We are supposed to be doing the next single for A1 this week (Dec. 2000). We’re also getting ready to record a couple of things for Clive Davis, who used to run Arista Records in America and has since set up a new label called J Records. We’re doing some production for some of his groups.
What makes you take on a new production?
C+J: It all depends. We might like the artist and the way they look, or we might just feel that a song has hit potential. In some cases we know the artists, or we know people at a label who bring an act to us with some music and ask us to marry the two. Sometimes we have written songs ourselves and a label will say that they want us to produce it for Mr X or Miss Y. It varies from project to project.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
C+J: Absolutely. All the time. We hear new ideas and if we think the artists have talent then we arrange to meet up with them and see what happens. We get a lot of demos, and out of 100, there might be one smash hit, three that show promise, and 96 that are not really very interesting at all.
What characteristics do you think it is important for a producer to have?
C+J: There are several things that you need to have and we’re learning all the time. First of all you need to have a style or trademark.
What’s yours if you were to describe it?
C+J: I can’t. I do think we have a distinct style although I can’t nail it down in words. Being a good businessman is almost more important than being a good producer. This is a very, very business-driven industry. A lot depends on how well you can negotiate, and how confident you come across in meetings. But once you’re in the door you have to deliver, which is where the people skills come in. You have to be technically inclined because you have to know what you’re doing to make a song sound good, but you have to be people inclined because you have to be able to get good vocals out of someone who is trying their best in a vocal booth, you have to be able to encourage them. You have to know if something isn’t working and what to do to make it work.
How do you handle situations like trying to work with someone in a vocal booth?
C+J: Honesty. I think everybody, although they’re performing their art, respects honesty. I think if you are honest in a sober and objective kind of way then it is always appreciated. The way to get things going is to persuade someone to do something, and, once they realise that this is better than what they were doing before, then the confidence between you starts to build. I also think it’s important to listen to the artist if they have something to say, and then ask yourself if theirs is a better idea than your own, and then follow it to see if it is.
Looking back on when you started producing, what do you consider you’ve improved on?
C+J: Everything. I think we’ve learned to be more focused on what we’re doing and on what something should be.
Joe: My strengths are programming and the technical aspects of recording.
Cutfather: Mine are more communicating and networking.
How long does a production usually take and how much is spent on recording, mixing, adjusting sounds, making new sounds?
C+J: It’s really different from recording to recording. I can give you two examples. A big artist came over and it resulted in a song being written, produced and recorded in three hours. After the mixing was done, the total time spent on the song was 20 hours. That was a very, very quick production. We also did a song with Gary Barlow a long time ago. He came over and we spent a day and a half preparing the track and doing the vocals. A week after that, we got a backing singer in and recorded backing vocals. Then we sent the whole thing off to a string arranger, who took two to three weeks to write the string arrangements for the song. We travelled to Stockholm to record the strings and then back home to mix it. The whole song took two months altogether.
When working in the studio, how does it happen, do you play instruments, handle the synthesizer/sampler equipment, engineer, do vocal coaching, mixing?
C+J: We do everything. The fewer people you need to talk to, the easier it is to get things moving. We continually converse to find out if we’re going in the right direction.
What have been your latest discoveries in the studio that have made your sound and productions improve?
C+J: We recently got a really large Pro-Tools system. We don’t know how we functioned without it before.
What advice would you give an aspiring producer who wants to get involved in the music business?
C+J: Be patient.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
C+J: Mark Morrison’s ‘Return Of The Mack’, ‘When The Lights Go Out’ by Five and ‘Be Alone No More’ by Another Level. Those are a few good ones.
Do you think you will still be producing in 5-10 years’ time?
C+J: I think so. I wake up wanting to go to the studio. The driving force in our careers is ambition and we are equally ambitious.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
C+J: I wouldn’t change anything. It’s kind of a game, and it’s an interesting game to learn how to play.
Interview by James Burke
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* We caught up with Cutfather in 2009 to talk about his new US focus