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Interview with ANDREW SLATER, manager for Macy Gray, Fiona Apple, The Wallflowers - Sep 10, 2001

“I’d found that there were things that could go very wrong on the creative side once you had handed your artist over to a record company.”

picture Based in Los Angeles, Andrew Slater produces and manages multi-platinum acts Fiona Apple, Macy Gray and The Wallflowers (platinum in the US = 1,000,000 records). He also has his own record label in Clean Slate.

How did you get started in the music business?

Aside from a failed attempt to play the guitar, I started as a journalist. In 1979, I wrote pieces and reviews for a newspaper, and I went on to write for Rolling Stone and Billboard.

After having worked as a journalist for some time, I felt that I wanted to do something bigger, something like writing a book or a screenplay, although I soon realised I would never be a great writer.

So I got a job at Front-line Management as a creative director. They were managing Stevie Nicks and The Go-Gos at the time. An important moment was at a meeting with some people from MTV, because there I met this director called Jean Baptiste. This happened at a time when I was working with Don Henley, who was with Warner, and we ended up doing a video with Jean Baptiste. It became MTV's Music Video of the Year.

What happened after that?

I began to get really fascinated by the recording process that I had experienced with Don Henley. When I started working with Warren Zevon, he happened to be looking for a producer and I thought of some old school friends, REM. I called [guitarist] Peter Buck and asked him if he was interested and he suggested we do it together.

We made two records together as Hindu Love Gods. I started to realise that the studio was a great outlet for expression. Next I worked with The Voices, who were on MCA, and then The Wallflowers, after which I decided that it would be great to have more creative control. So I set up the label Clean Slate. I’d found that there were things that could go very wrong on the creative side once you had handed your artist over to a record company.

How do the Clean Slate label and the management company work?

At the label we control the recording process, the videos, the artwork, the marketing, and we deliver the finished product. The label goes through Sony, and we basically use their distribution network and their sales department. On Clean Slate I have Fiona Apple and Warren Zevon, and I'm looking for new artists to add to my roster.

I also manage Warren Zevon, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray and The Wallflowers. We have a very limited number of staff, and the two companies are in the same building.

How do you find new talent?

I don't spend as much time trying to find talent as I would like to. I used to listen to every tape that came in, and now I try to but it doesn't always work. Usually it's a song title or a package that makes me decide to listen to something.

When I'm on tour I sometimes end up in clubs where artists perform, but I don't generally try to find artists that way. But if someone I know tells me they saw someone great, I will of course go and see them play. But I deal with tapes mostly.

What do you look for in an artist?

Whether I believe in the artist or not – they have to be convincing. They have to make me feel something. It can be the lyrics, the melody or the attitude. I want people to write their own music, their own lyrics and at least the basic chords and melody line.

It’s really important what people have to say in their lyrics. There are great singers and bands that perform other people's lyrics, like Frank Sinatra and Procol Harum, but I prefer it when artists write their own material. I want the singer or band to use their own words and tell their own story, not someone else's.

What do you expect from an artist once you've decided to take them on, and what can they expect from you?

I don't really have any expectations or demands. Of course you want people to be committed to their work, just as you are committed, but I am not running a military operation! We just hope for the best. If someone hasn't got the highest ambitions then that's fine, I'll still work with them.

To me what's important is that they are true to themselves, that they are sincere in what they’re doing. From me they can expect dedication. I love music. I want to help the artist create, focus, find and broaden his ways.

How did you find Fiona Apple and Macy Gray, and what were the keys to their success?

I found Fiona through a demo that was sent to me, and it has been a very rewarding experience. Working with someone who is very young means working with an artist who is at a great point in their career. You can help them to create a template for their music. In Fiona’s case I tried to find out what her background was, what her voice was like. She was fascinated by hip-hop and held an affinity with classical composers. She also loved the old school singers like Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to fuse all those elements.

Macy Gray was fascinated by the sounds of early 70s soul. I wanted to make a modern soul record. I wanted to fuse Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone and Al Green together with modern sounds, but without making it sound too obvious. Success is not something you can control, you can only hope for the best.

What do you think is important for unsigned acts to know and do when approaching the music business?

I can say, send your demos and so forth and so on, but there is no real ratio between talent and success. Just be true to whatever it is you’re doing and hopefully fortune will smile on you.

When working in the studio, how does it all happen?

We track things live, I get the band members to play to the singer. Basic stuff. I find out what the song should be, select the elements that I can use. I'll try everything. I’m a maximalist, I'll put loads of things on tape, fill up the sections. And then I start peeling away what I don't need. But I think the most important thing is to always remember that the music is there to support the singer.

If you could dramatically change something about the music business, what would that be?

I did think about writing a book on the music business, but then I felt a need to protect the innocence of all those people involved. All I can say is that this planet has good and bad people on it and we have to find a way to navigate the waters.

If I could change something, I would only have people who really love music, or at least people who are committed to it, working in the business. When an artist gives you their work, it's a very precious thing. It's something that needs people looking after it in the proper way. Sometimes I find people in the business that take things for granted, and who don't look after the artist and their work properly.

How do you think the internet will affect the music business?

It’s already had a great impact, in a positive and a negative way. It's great how we can send MP3s, and upload them onto someone’s site. We just need to find a way to protect the artist’s rights.

What has been the greatest moment in your career?

Without wishing to be specific, the fact that I've contributed to something in my life. My childhood idols have recognised good work by artists that they have inspired, and that's immensely rewarding. And being able to give back what they gave to you makes it all worth it.

As a producer, there is always a great moment when you have just finished a record, and you’re driving in your car and you hear your song on the radio. That's very fulfilling. Or when you’re in a theatre, and you see people being moved by your songs.

What do you see yourself doing in the future?

Finding new artists and developing them. Being involved in music, basically, because it’s what I love.

What do you think of HitQuarters?

I had a look at the HitQuarters site and I read a couple of the interviews. I think it's very informative, and it looks great!

Interviewed by Marlene Smits

Read On ...

* Macy Gray's manager Jason Moray on meeting her at a career turning point