Interview with SCOTT MATHEWS, producer/songwriter for Barbara Streisand, John Hiatt, Elvis Costello - May 29, 2006
“There’s more life and longevity in projects that I have had a fun time working on as opposed to struggling for “perfection” – none of my records are perfect, that ruins everything!”
… says Scott Mathews, producer at Hit or Myth Productions and TikiTown Studios in Mill Valley, California. He has been a professional musician since the 70s and has produced and written for Barbara Streisand, John Hiatt, Elvis Costello, John Lee Hooker and Virgin-Whore Complex, as well as being part of the band The Durocs.
He started the publishing company Hang On To Your Publishing to “piss off” the label that offered him his own imprint, but turned out to “be crooks”. Needless to say, he is a strong believer that artists should hold on to their own publishing, saying - “if you’re not independent, you’re dependent.”
Read this extraordinary interview in which Scott shares his 30 years of experience in the music industry, what advice he has for new artists, what the main thing about presenting your music is, why he has ended up working entirely with non-American artists this year, and why “atmosphere” is his main piece of studio equipment.
How did your music life commence?
I had been a rabid record collector since I was around 7 years old. My early education came from studying and learning to play and sing what I heard on records and on the radio.
When I was a teenager I moved to the Bay area and began making records. It took no time to connect with the right people. My first song ever recorded was my first platinum record. It was a great jumpstart.
John Blakeley introduced me to Ron Nagle, who was putting together a little 4-track studio. Having grown up in a cow town, I was excited to begin working in an area that had studios and people who were actually doing what I had only dreamt of. Ron turned into my songwriting and production partner. The most hilarious guy I’ve ever met.
Jack Nitzsche was the second genius that I’d worked with. I learned from him how hypocritical the industry was, and how you could have hits without selling out. I called him “The Godfather”. He never joined forces with the industry but left quite an impression on it. He was a renegade, not a company man.
Jack showed up at Barbra Streisand’s house. He’d had a few bevies, and he listens to the material that she wants to do on her record. Finally he turns off the tape and says: “Listen, if you want to record with me, this is what you record.” He puts on a ballad that Ron and I had written. She loved it! That’s how we got introduced to her, and we got along famously. I guess you could say that she built our first studio.
How did you develop into producing?
We would build blueprints of what we felt records should be. Our heroes were writers and producers from the Brill Building school meets Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson… Even though our original machine was only a 4-Track we would stack those things up to 30, 40 tracks to get all our musical ideas on there. We called it the wall of mud.
Sadly, San Fransisco is still known for the mid and late-60s and “let’s jam in e-minor for 45 minutes”. Ron and I were absolutely anti that. We did 3 minutes songs with killer intros and hooks, beginning-middle-end.
People could hear the difference between a piano demo and one that’s fully realized even if the sound quality was crap. It still had identity which is by far the most important quality. That identity brought us forward to being more producers than just writers. Our demos were not demonstrations, they were dictating policy, which is normally the producer’s role.
How did you get your first deal with The Durocs?
Jack got a production deal at Capitol Records. I went to the same guy that gave Jack his deal and said that Ron and I want one too. We came up with The Durocs, but it was understood that after we did that record we’d continue as producers and writers for Capitol. At least, that was my understanding!
In the 70’s you could get signed by a major with one guy liking what you do. Nowadays, god knows how many people get involved in a signing - for better or for worse. We were ready to make another record for Capitol and as fate would have it, our A&R guy got sacked. The new guy came in and decided we should “go jazz” and we headed for the hills…
What was your break to success in the industry?
Jack would have me play on all his recordings. One week I’m working on my first movie, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, the next I’m in the studio with Mick Jagger, then I’m making Glen Campbell hits. To say I learned a lot wouldn’t come close to it. Shortly after The Durocs came out I got a call to replace my hero Dennis Wilson in the Beach Boys which I did in the studio, but I never agreed to go on the road. I figured Brian was right – stay home and make more records.
‘Riding With The King’ with John Hiatt was a breakthrough record for me as a producer.
We recorded six songs after coming back from Europe where we played with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jack’s wife. We finished it up in a week. I took it back to L.A. and played it for David Geffen to ask if we could work together. He said: “Work together? You already have side one!”
You founded Hit or Myth Productions in 1991. One of the aims was to let the artist be the owner of the masters and stay independent?
If you’re not independent, you’re dependent.
It’s not like an us-and-them scenario, but I’ve been through a lot with majors. I identify with the music and the people making the music first, not the label or the almighty dollar. If we make great music and are sincere about that, the money will follow. It has been that way in my career and at this stage of the game, it has truly paid off.
A big thing that I always tell new artists is - don’t sell your publishing! Believing in the music tells you not to do that but those advances can be seductive. Just look how big those offices are - you can build your own building if you have hits and hold.
When did you start ‘Hang On To Your Publishing’?
I came up with that name because I was doing a production deal in 1989 with a label who had offered me my own imprint. I did my research on them and found them to be crooks so I never inked the deal. But one of their policies was that if they sign an act they get publishing. It was non-negotiable. So, since I wrote a lot with their artists I came up with that name just to piss the label off. It worked.
Do you want to take the risk on your own career and roll the dice on your own material? Or would you rather settle for taking someone’s money now, maybe making it a bit easier to get through this year? Don’t forget; the publishing never dies. It’s one of the great assets that people tend to still misunderstand.
As writers we were always asked for our publishing when someone recorded our song. Many writers would say that’s okay, especially if it’s a huge artist that’s going to sell millions. We always said no.
There are people that make a good living deciding to look the other way when somebody hires them to write with them and the artist comes in and changes one word or one note and all of a sudden the artist is now 50% writer, having done only that. I’m not one of them.
When did you start Tiki Town Studio?
Shortly after Hit or Myth Productions began I moved to Marin County. The studio that Ron and I had had that creature comfort feel of someone being in a house rather than a clinical setting like a studio, which often feels like a hospital. A place you go in and you tighten up as opposed to loosen up. I wanted to find the right house with a nice view of the bay, because I’m the one that has to go to work there every day and I wanna be inspired by my environment. So I built this amazing place that people all over the world love to move in and make their own.
Tom Luekens is the Chief Engineer. Mary Ezzell, the Mistress of A&R.
Our primary focus is to find artists who are incredibly gifted, great people (a must!), want make records of major label quality and own them. But not with the same budgets spent by majors. I figure our budgets are roughly 1/10th of what is usually spent. It’s working. Artists are now having huge success without the aid of old model record companies. That’s very exciting to be part of.
I can’t over emphasize the “great people” bit, because I believe you can have the most talented person on the planet and unless they are cool and willing to work hard it’s usually all for naught.
How do you work with an artist in the studio?
There’s more life and longevity in projects that I have had a fun time working on as opposed to struggling for “perfection” – none of my records are perfect, that ruins everything!
I love a great sense of humour in the studio. We’re locked in this place for like 8 hours every day, so I hope we’re going to be cracking up. Otherwise it can slow down to a grinding halt and inspiration will be halted as well unless we’re having fun. And if you’re having a great time doing it, it shows on the making of the record.
I usually have a good map of where we are and where we want to go. But sometimes you find out that this person’s vortex is more in this direction and then this person who you thought is the main writer is not perhaps as strong as someone else in the band. Or a player in the band is an incredible vocalist that you didn’t hear on the demo but all of a sudden they’re singing great in the studio. You make adjustments and you do it on the fly.
There’s one important ground rule; there is no bad idea. You should never sit on an idea and think I shouldn’t mention that because it’s a stupid idea and it’ll never work. It turns out that great records are made up of stupid little ideas that work great once they’re given a chance.
What’s the difference between working with a young and with an established artist?
What I would hope from a new artist is that they don’t have their defenses a mile high. They haven’t been kicked around long enough to feel like they have to live in the house of bitterness. It’s is a great opportunity for them to show the world who they are and what they can do. I hope to offer them a fair shot at a great record as well as developing a long lasting career. And there’s a certain openness to that approach that can’t be based in fear.
It’s not to say that people who have been around a long time still can’t have that. But after you’ve been around a while and things have not gone the right way, you’ve got to be a strong person to be able to hold your head up and say: ‘my definition of success is being able to make my music the way I know I should make it and aligning myself with others who believe in that too’. My job is to put together a skeleton crew of people that can be the team. And from that great things have come. New artists or old – it doesn’t matter.
It’s important to me to keep a friendship going with my artists so we enjoy each others’ company. I’m captain of the ship. I’m steering safely to harbour. But I’m not a dictator.
I’m facilitating every way I can. Some might want me because I have a track record or connections in the industry that serve them well once the record is done. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to serve the music.
What are your main pieces of equipment?
The atmosphere is No.1. We have to have a place where we all feel like music can be born in. I put that higher on the list than the greatest gear on earth. You can walk through studios that are worth 10 million dollars and you just don’t feel like performing there, they just don’t give you the sense of what you need to support the music.
Whereas if you walk into another studio that just gives you the vibe you want, a room that speaks well, a great microphone, a cool pre-amp, that will run a good signal into whatever you’re recording on.
How long does a production process take?
As long as it takes. I’m pretty quick in the studio. If we get it right away then it’s an honest great performance. If we don’t, I’m not one to go over it until people hate the part. I’d rather put it aside and then come back another time. And chances are then we will get it right away because we realize what was holding us up before. Maybe there’s a change of melody or some words that are tripping us up.
I mentioned the John Hiatt record where we did six songs in a week – finished. That was a great exercise in first thought, right thought. Moving along at a clip where you don’t hesitate for a moment. You can’t finish a whole record usually doing that. It depends on who the artist is and what their forte is.
There are some that do their best vocals as guide vocals when the band is roaring on the basic tracks. Some people have sung better in that situation, when it doesn’t feel like work. Then there’s unbridled passion, where there wasn’t any thought, there weren’t any blinders on yet.
In my studio there’s no big glass window into the control room. No one ever feels like they’re in a studio. Half the times we’re recording people don’t even know it. It’s amazing how many great performances come on the first take. They’re not working on it, they’re just letting it happen.
How are songs presented to you?
Mp3s are getting more popular. I can get to them quickly and while I’m listening to them I can write back to the artist. But I can’t take it with me. Whoever is pitching should send a hard copy as well. When I find something, I not only want to play it for other people but I want to live with it in different locations and get good ideas of it. If you’re driving around in your car listening to it it’s a different experience than sitting at your desk rubbing your temples and trying to figure out if it’s a great song or not.
What is your definition of a good song?
I just have a feeling for it rather than a formulaic approach to what makes a great song. There are musicologists that sit down and say they have to have these exact ingredients. They will tell you that if you look at all the hits in the past thirty, forty years, they all had exactly this form. But rules are broken every day.
As we speak, my favorite song at the moment is “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. The song is a verse and a chorus. There’s no bridge. There’s hardly even an intro. It’s atypical as far as form and structure, but this guy’s vibe just plain sells it.
On paper you can say this or that is the greatest song ever written, but does it knock you out? It’s a feeling, not a formula.
What advice would you have for new songwriters/producers?
Don’t take no for an answer. Realize that through the ages everybody has been passed on. There isn’t a single person you can name that hasn’t been told: no, are you kidding, this will never work.
How should they present their material?
The main thing about presenting your work is: it has to be finished. It has to be your absolute masterpiece and nothing short of that mark. You never go in thinking: this is a demo and they’ll fill in the colours on their own. Nobody can. And if they ever could, that time is now gone. We have to get finished masters before we can get people’s attention.
Even when you’ve got these finished masters and you might have offers for distribution, if you don’t own the copyrights of your songs and the recorded works, it’s going to be difficult to negotiate your way through a career. Build up these assets to where they are valuable and if at that point you want to sell, at least you’ll get something for them.
It’s important that people know the business end as much as the musical side. Everyone has to do their homework and find out what came before, and hopefully stay current.
Do you build strategies on how to approach your market?
I follow the music, not the other way around. If I have found somebody hiding under a rock that knocks me out then I will give them the introduction they deserve and try to build the team with them starting with the music.
I want to see everyone be as successful as they want to be. Not everybody is aiming for the same success as the next person. It doesn’t always mean making a fortune. It means doing what you love in your life. And that’s success right there.
I maintain a bit of a mentor role. I’m not their business manager or agent, but I have a lot of experience and I’m not shy about sharing it. Everybody I work with has the opportunity to pick my brain on whatever area of the industry they want.
At the end of the record I have to know that the artist is ready for whomever and whatever I set them up with. If I finished something and it needs to go directly to Clive Davis, we can do that. But is everybody ready for that? No. And it’s my reputation as well. I don’t pitch things that aren’t ready. That doesn’t do anybody any good.
When they leave here with their record it’s a real tough world out there, especially these days when something like 50,000 records are released every year.
How do you hook up with managers and A&Rs?
It’s just a matter of playing matchmaker. Between someone’s style of music and the type of person who might want to hear it. But for me, that can only come after the artist has proven themselves in the studio. Until then, I’ve got a thing about protecting my artists. Letting the artist be in their creative bubble without bringing in photographers, video crews, managers and A&Rs. In recording you go inside. It’s more contemplative. It’s a different energy than a stage performance.
If we need to do a playback or some kind of dog and pony show, I usually put away time on a Friday and we set up a party situation where the A&R, attorney or manager can come in and listen to things we’ve done and not put the artist on the spot to have to perform in front of them.
Managers who have been around long enough and are close enough to the artist know that it’s usually not conducive to the creative process to assert their presence during sessions. Most managers have enough respect for the producer not to be bothering them with a million and one questions during the actual recording, but not all.
What will the future for producers be like?
We can almost make the blanket statement that music is now promotion for artists. It’s true that royalties and points from sales don’t mean the same thing to producers as they once did. We’re loosing what used to be our revenue through free peer to peer services. But don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it because I want new artists to be heard. And radio being what it is you can’t bank on that anymore.
You’ve got to build a ground swell and by offering new music for free, there is a chance to build a fanbase. Why should people be expected to buy something they haven’t heard? Once our artists become successful, there is plenty of revenue to go around.
Producers are asking for merchandise nowadays. Everybody knows the real money is in the shirts. Korn just did a huge deal where they’re sharing in merchandising with their label.
If you could dramatically change some aspect in the music industry, what would you do?
I would hope that real genuine passionate music freaks would be back in the big chairs. They understand that quality comes first. They were out there trying to find geniuses that made music.
People like John Hammond and Ahmet Ertigan had big ears, intuition and a willingness to follow through that I find so lacking in the industry now. If you don’t come out with a big first record, there’s a good chance that you’ll never see a second one.
Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert were passionate music guys who understood what makes great music. They were real hands off once they believed in you. You left their office with the feeling of being empowered by them and not held back by them. Whereas nowadays labels are practically telling you the tempos and keys of each song before the songs are written.
There was a creative atmosphere back when I started out that allowed us to experiment and find what we believed was real about our music and come out with it as opposed to what we felt the label needed us to do. I realize that I’ve been able to do my best work with that freedom and support. And I’m now demanding that for our artists as well. When we do prove it, you stand a good chance to make a reasonable deal for distribution for yourself.
What styles of music would you like to gain more popularity?
Is “honest” a category? I’m making a mental note this year that everything I said yes to is from some place far away. I’m working with a band from the Ukraine and with a girl from Kenya. I’m going to Nice, France to work with a band there. I just finished projects in Australia and New Zealand. For some reason they’re more attractive to me now. Probably because they’re not as wrapped up in desperation as we are here in the States. There’s a freedom and genuine nature to it that I really respond to.
What are your future plans and dreams?
To see what we’re doing not only continue, but to blossom. And to start seeing new models spring forward, as the old model of the record industry crumbles, and define how the economics can actually work out for new artists.
We’re at this turning point where it’s easy to see where successful artists that have made their killing can go on doing that. Look at who sells out stadiums. It’s a nostalgia thing. And that’s fine. The Stones and McCartney should be looked up to as the giants that they are, but at the same time who are the new ones coming up that are going to be afforded that type of support?
It might be that there’s not enough opportunity for new music to be made, heard, and to build fanbases that can sustain them. We need to work on that as an industry if we are taking the long view. I’m not interested in the quick hit just to please the shareholders of the company during this quarter’s report.
It should be known that we are a safe haven for artists who don’t want to commit to the big machinery straight away. They want to prove it on their own and build at their own pace.
Gnarls Barkley became No.1 on the strength of downloads alone. That meant the old model isn’t anywhere in sight. And that truly is nothing short of a revolution. Nobody has ever done it. They made this record very quickly and inexpensively, and just hit it on the head. It resonates with everybody.
The success of that record was from word of mouth. It came from the people, not the hype. They don’t have the machine behind them, they just had that great song. The tide has turned. People can rally around the music. We discovered it can work. This record has turned into the poster child for how new careers can happen.
My future plans and dreams include a lot more of that independent spirit rising up, and success stories following.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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