Recently Producer Rob Graves worked with band RED on their latest album titled Until We Have Faces and the album debuted at #2 on Billboard's Top 200. I decided to talk with him about life as a producer.
HI ROB, THANKS FOR TALKING WITH ME.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
YOU HAVE A LOT OF REALLY GOOD THINGS GOING ON.
Yeah, it's been a busy few weeks with the release of the Red album that just came out.
I WANTED TO DO A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY AND THEN WE WILL TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE GOING ON CURRENTLY. HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER? WERE YOU A MUSICIAN FIRST?
I studied at Berklee College of Music earlier. Some time went by and I came to Nashville. Nobody really starts as a producer, there is always some other path into it. It was the ultimate goal. I was a songwriter and a programmer for the first couple years. When I moved to Nashville, I was doing sessions and working with other established producers. Eventually some artists started realizing that I was doing all of the track work for these other producers, so they thought “Why don’t we just hire him to produce the track?” It takes an artist realizing that to hire you as a producer. Once you’re in the door and you’ve actually produced on a couple records, then they start handing you full on records. Some guys are A&R guys and they end up becoming producers. There is always some weird back door into production. You have to start somewhere else and eventually get there.
FOR THOSE WHO MAY NOT KNOW WHAT A PRODUCER DOES; FILL US IN ON THE VARIOUS TASKS OR DUTIES YOU PERFORM FOR AN ARTIST.
Some guys are really hands on and some guys are more back seat drivers. I’m definitely a hands on guy. I guess it can be compared to what a director of a film does. It’s similar to that, but with a record. We are working with an artist who is going to take their whole career into consideration. We are thinking of what the artist has already done and what they want to do. We try to make a record that reflects that for the artist. That can involve any number of things. For me, it usually involves writing. Metal producers write. I’m a writer, so almost always I write with the artist I’m producing. You have to think about what makes this record unique from all of the hundreds of records releasing in any given six month period. We try to give it the overall sound with the instrumentation and how much programming there is going to be. Is it going to be a guitar heavy album? Is there going to be a lot of strings? Things like that where we make the overall sonic decisions, the big picture stuff. Often times we are involved in picking which songs will actually be recorded usually in conjunction with the label. We see it through to the next process. Some producers mix their own stuff, but I don’t normally do that. I do it sometimes, but I like to have another third party involved. Sometimes they see and hear things that I don’t, so I like to have other guys do my mixing and see that process through. It can be way more hands on, which I tend to be. I play a lot of the instruments that can go on any record I produce. I do a lot of the programming and editing myself. I like it done a certain way and it’s hard for me to relinquish that part. I wish I could actually, because I could get way more done if I could hire other people. I tend to just do my own stuff. There have been only a few people that I trust to do stuff for me.
HOW MANY INSTRUMENTS DO YOU PLAY?
I don’t know, I play a lot.
DO YOU PLAY ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY?
I play piano, drums a little bit and a lot of different string instruments, like mandolin and bouzouki, which is kind of like a giant mandolin. Very early in my career I was working for a producer, before I was producing anything. I was doing session work for him. One day I was doing acoustic guitars for him and he said “When you come in next week, I think I want to put down a bouzouki track.” I was like “Okay, cool.” I had never even heard of a bouzouki before. I went home that night, looked it up, figured out what it was, bought one and learned how to play it within a week. I already played mandolin, so it was the same and it wasn’t hard to play. I showed up, did the session and he liked everything. I told him after that I had no idea what this thing was. I assumed it was some sort of string instrument like a guitar. I can just sort of pick up things and play them, I’ve always been that way. I play bagpipes. The first time I picked them up I played “Amazing Grace.” My very first instrument was saxophone. At some point I played every instrument there was in the band. Once you learn one, they are all pretty similar. I’ve played almost everything. Proficiently, that is a different question. Proficiently, I’ve played guitar, bass and piano. They are the three that I can really actually play. I can fake my way through everything else if I need to.
A PRODUCER KEEPS REALLY LONG HOURS, SO DO YOU HAVE YOUR OWN STUDIO?
Yes, once I started getting busier and getting a lot more work it was pretty evident that I needed my own place. From very early on, I rented a little room in a different studio and I outgrew that pretty quick. I got lucky; I found a great business condo that was being built. I bought one of the units and built it from the ground up to be a studio. I wanted it to be separate from my house. Five years ago before they built this place, it was kind of a trend that everybody was working out of their house. Even the big producers were working out of their house. It became the norm. I will see what the trend is and then I will deliberately do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. I didn’t like to work in other people’s houses that much. There is just a different air of professionalism to me when you have your own place. It was important for me to have my own place.
WHAT GENRES DO YOU PRODUCE?
I go across the board. I grew up as a guitar player primarily and I listened to metal. What made me pick up a guitar was Ozzy Osbourne's record Tribute, the live record. I heard Randy Rhoades play. I was a drummer at that time and I dropped drums almost overnight and got a guitar. I would listen to metal stuff all the time, like Metallica. The Master of Puppets era, when that all came out. I was a total metal head, so that was my background. When I started producing, the first stuff I ever did was really, really pop stuff. This was back when Jessica Simpson and all those girls were really popular. That was the music that was happening, the really programmed stuff. It was the easiest work to get and as a programmer I tended to do a lot of that stuff. I got known early on for doing pop stuff and I kind of became known for doing female pop. I realized that the labels will definitely label you for the last thing that you did. I wanted to get back into the rock area. That was instrumental in discovering and working with the band RED. I knew I could do heavy because that’s where my roots were, but I also knew that all of the labels that were hiring me thought of me as a pop guy. They didn’t want to hand me a rock band based on my pop work. I knew I had to do it myself if it was going to happen. RED was a band that didn’t have a record deal and I knew one of the guys. He used to be an intern for me, then he formed a band and it happened to be RED. He called one day and asked me to check out his new band and I signed them to my production company. I spent almost two years developing them, writing with them and we recorded four or five songs. They couldn't be demos; they have to be fully produced. I went all out, spent a lot of money and really did them right, so that when the labels heard them they would know that I know how to do rock music. I got them a record deal and from that point on I became a rock guy. I recently did a pop record this past May and then recorded the RED album. I've developed a happy medium where I can co-exist. I get calls for both and I want to be able to work in both areas. The diversity of being able to do different styles is something that really appeals to me. A lot of the pop artists love the fact that I do rock. You can’t really fake rock. You can be a rock producer and go do pop music and be able to pull it back. If you are a straight up pop guy, you can't go do a rock record. You can't travel that direction. A lot of the pop artists that I've worked with really like the intensity that I naturally bring to a production with a guitar or vocals. Likewise in rock, I like to bring the melodic elements that you find in pop music that are a lot of times absent in rock. I try to bring something to each genre when I do it.
WITH YOUR PRODUCTION COMPANY, ARE YOU STILL SIGNING BANDS OR WAS RED THE ONLY BAND YOU ARE GOING TO DO?
A lot of time and energy went into RED. I expected it to be successful, but those kinds of deals you see all the time and they never work. I didn’t want to say “I’m going to do this all the time now and have all these huge bands.” I was really careful about doing it again. I did do it recently again with a band called Waverly. I am just about done with them and ready to go get them a deal. It was very similar with what I did with RED. We spent a couple years writing, demoing stuff, finding their sound and doing pretty full productions. We are just starting to shop them, so I have done it one other time. I don’t know if it is going to work or not, but I think it will. They have a pretty big following. They have a record that I produced a while ago. There was some internal stuff that happened at the label where the A & R guy got fired and a lot of the times what happens is their acts get dropped. That’s what happened to them. They were in a really weird time. The first record had run its course already and they hadn’t started a new one so they were the right band to let go. I still believed in them, I felt they were very talented.
WHO WILL YOU BE WORKING WITH NEXT?
Currently I'm working with Brian "Head" Welch from Korn on his solo record.
WHEN DO YOU ANTICIPATE THAT RECORD COMING OUT?
I don’t know exactly, probably fall. We started it last year and then he went on tour for quite a while. We are picking it back up right now. I’ll be working with Maylene and the Sons of Disaster also. I am co-producing with another guy named Brian Virtue. He is known for some really cool stuff. I enjoy working with him. We worked together on All That Remains and we have the same manager.
SOME OF THE SONGS YOU HAVE WORKED ON HAVE BEEN IN MOVIES AND TV. WHICH ONES?
One of the songs by RED called “Pieces” is in the trailer for ‘The Blind Side.’ It was pretty cool to see. The first time I saw it in the theatre I was like “Whoa!” Kerrie Roberts’ recorded a song called “Unstoppable” that was the American Idol promo last year on Fox. My new publisher EMI is awesome. I just did a trailer for a new video game called Crysis 2. They wanted a Nine Inch Nails version of New York, New York. That is how it was described to me. I took a shot at it, it ended up landing and it was used in the trailer. It’s cool because it has been received very well by the fans of the game, so much so that they have been bugging Electronic Arts about it to see if the song can get on ITunes. I’ve been working with my publisher and they are trying to do that. They’ve never actually done it before. It’s kind of weird to have a song for a video game that ends up as a single on ITunes. Speaking of movies, I really want to get into that area. I have some great contacts. I’m actually hired to score a couple films this year. They are smaller films that are more independent, but that’s what I’m starting with. I really want to do that, it's a pretty big part of where I see myself going in the future, scoring films.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BANDS THAT WOULD HELP THEM TO PREPARE TO ENTER THE STUDIO?
The bands that I’ve seen make it, the bands that I want to work with and the bands that I’ve seen labels want to sign are bands that first of all go out and make it happen on their own. They are bands that are really hard working and their identity is “the band,” not a side-project. They go out, get their own gigs and just play whenever and wherever they can. Way too many bands think that they can find a producer or a label and it’s all downhill from there. It’s really not; it’s when everything actually starts. That’s when you have to start working harder. I’ve seen so many bands that I have started working with that have put the breaks on everything else they are doing. They don’t play gigs anymore thinking I’m going to get them a record deal and it doesn’t work that way. It would be nice if it did, but a label is only going to sign a band when they see that they are hard working and are committed to it. Don’t expect it to be handed to you, you still have to go out there and bust your ass.
IT DOESN’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT EITHER.
No it doesn’t and it is hard to get a following. It’s easier now than it used to be with everything online. A label doesn’t expect you to have a huge following. They know that you can only do what you can do, but they do expect you to be trying and very hard working. Focus on who you are as a band. That can change as you get signed and you start making your record. Different elements come out, especially for brand new artists on their first record. Personally as a producer, I hate dealing with an artist or band when they have no idea what their sound is going to be and they expect me to give them their sound. Recently a pop artist that I worked with said she had a record deal and the gamut of sound that we were considering for her was everything from really poppy all the way to riffy, heavier stuff. Basically she had no idea what her sound was and what she wanted to do. A lot of artists that I know of are kind of like that. They think “I can sing, now I just need somebody to tell me what to sing.” That is part of what I do as a producer, but we work best with artists who know who they are. We can take that and take it to the next level. It’s hard for me when the artist doesn’t know he or she is. I’m like “Come back when you figure that out.” Know who you are and have a vision of where you are going with it. Don’t expect a label or producer to hand that vision to you. I have seen it an incredible amount of times.
WHERE CAN BANDS REACH YOU IF THEY ARE INTERESTED IN RECORDING WITH YOU?
I would say probably my Facebook page. It is a page where I accept more music related things. People can contact me there. I never want to discourage bands from sending me stuff. I have time to work with maybe one unsigned band a year right now and that is pretty much it. There is a lot of great music out there and one thing I always tell bands is to be persistent. That is 90% of it right there. I think Lady Gaga got dropped from several labels that she was on before she finally landed her current deal that worked out. She needed someone who knew how to market her. I would tell bands to be persistent.
THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE INTERVIEW. IT WAS A LOT OF FUN TALKING WITH YOU.
Yeah, likewise, thanks for taking the time to do this.