Interview with DAVID BOTTRILL, producer for Tool (USA No.1), Godsmack (USA No.1) - Apr 26, 2004
"One of the most important things you can do as a producer is to make the artists feel comfortable."David Bottrill is based in New York and London. He has produced the rock bands Tool (US No. 1) and Godsmack (US No. 1), as well as many other artists. At Real World Studios, he worked with world-music legends Youssou N’Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
David works with New Disease, who were featured as the HitQuarters Artist of the Month in May 2003: he produced the band’s debut single, “Like Rain”, which will be released in the US on 27 April, and he is about to record the band’s debut album for Universal.
How did you get started in the music business?
I was born in Canada and I have always been a musician, playing guitar with friends in garages and basements. I wanted a career in music and I had a great opportunity when I found a studio in my area that was owned by Daniel Lanois. I was able to get a job there in 1982 and that’s how my career began.
What experience did you gain from working with Daniel Lanois?
I learnt that one of the most important things you can do when you’re recording is to make the musicians feel comfortable and like they’re about to give the best performance of their lives. That could mean anything from setting up a great vibe in the studio to making sure that they’re well fed and that their laundry is done. Anything you can do to help them focus on giving their best performance.
How did you come to work at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios?
When Daniel went over to the UK in 1985 to work with Peter Gabriel on his album “So”, he called me halfway through it and I went over to assist the project. When we had finished, I stayed and worked for Peter and then he bought the property for Real World Studios. I helped him with ideas, a bit of the design and what I thought would be good to have in the studio.
Those years were unparalleled for me. I learnt so much in so many different areas—it was a fantastic education. I learnt how to build a studio, but I also learnt about different styles of music; we worked on music from Africa, Pakistan, India, and all kinds of world music.
Is there a difference between working with world music artists and rock bands, for example?
Fundamentally, music is music, and everybody wants to get the best they can out of their music. Stylistically, the ways of approaching parts and sounds are a bit different. There are certain rules in rock music, certain sounds that lay the foundation, whereas in world music the foundations are different. You learn how to adapt your ideas to different sounds.
What led you to work with Tool and Godsmack?
The Tool connection (click on artist names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) came partly through my work at Real World Studios, but also through the King Crimson and David Sylvian records I had produced. At the time, I hadn’t really done much heavy music, but the Tool guys had all kinds of records in their collection and my name seemed to crop up a lot. Tool wanted to stay away from being a standard rock band; they wanted a producer who had had different experiences.
They knew how to do things in the rock world, so they were able to teach me about that, and I was able to teach them about approaches to sound in different areas so that they wouldn’t sound exactly like every other band out there. Once I’d done a couple of Tool records, the rock bands took note, and that led me to Godsmack.
What was most interesting about working with these bands?
With Tool, their creativity and their refusal to accept anything less than exactly what they wanted. They’re perfectionists and also great musicians. With Godsmack, Sully Erna’s songwriting is really strong and the way he approaches classic American heavy rock is inspiring.
What is Mainstation Music?
Mainstation Music is the label I’ve set up. Basically, I’m trying to sign bands that are strong musically to work with them as a producer and as a label. Given the current situation of the majors, however, everybody is becoming very conservative, so it’s hard.
There are many really exciting, young bands and really exciting music that I don’t think is going to get an opportunity in the current scenario. I think that somebody like me, who’s had a lot of experience in different areas, might really help a lot of young bands to get a shot at it. I can help to fund them and get them going, and maybe develop them to a point where a major would take a chance on them.
Do you have a deal with Universal?
I previously had an exclusive deal with Republic/Universal. We still have a great relationship, but the deal is no longer exclusive. New Disease are signed as part of that previous, exclusive deal and though I still have a strong relationship with Universal, I am exploring new and exciting opportunities.
What types of artists are you looking for?
My only criteria is that they make good music—I’m not concerned with what style it is. I’ve always loved labels like 4AD, which was a great label that had all kinds of different things on it but everything was real, quality music.
Folk, world and rock music are all areas I want to explore. I’m in the very early stages of starting a label and it’s a really exciting time for me. The state the industry is in also means that different approaches are being tried out.
How do you find artists?
I have people looking for me both in England and the US, and I also look for things myself. I go out and see bands when I’m not producing and I get things sent to me all the time.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, right now I get about ten to twenty CDs a week. I try to listen to it as much of it as I can, especially when I’m not working on a specific project. I also have people who listen to things for me, generally my manager and my assistant in London.
I have found a couple of things through demos, but I’m really at the beginning of this and I’m working on helping young bands to develop, so it mainly involves talking a lot and then maybe getting them into the studio for a few more demo tracks.
How did you come across New Disease?
Their lawyer, Sarah Waddington, presented them to me. I’ve known Sarah for years and she’s always presenting me things. New Disease really caught my eye and I thought they were really a strong band: their musicianship is strong, they have great songs, and the vocals are powerful.
They cover a lot of areas and there are many different ways they can go stylistically. I find that being flexible that way can be really good for a band.
Did you see them live?
I’ve seen them play live a few times and they’re really powerful. Their strength lies in the power of the voice and the guitar work. The first couple of times I saw them they had a different drummer, and now they’ve got Eddie, who is fantastic as well. He and Richard on the bass are becoming a really strong rhythm section now. There’s a great top-line and a great power behind it, so it’s got all the right elements for me.
How did things progress?
I played the EP and several songs that we had worked on to Monte Lipman at Universal. He was excited by it, but Universal were concerned about the fact that they were an untried band in the US.
But as they believe in me, they signed the band to a deal and told us to get into the studio and record the first single “Like Rain”, which goes to radio 27 April in the US and has been licensed back to me to release in the UK on 17 May.
When you later recorded tracks with the band, did you add to or change their sound in any way?
I don’t think I changed their sound too much. Basically, I wanted to add more power. There were no live drums on their demos, so both Mark Thwaite from the band and I wanted to ensure that the songs had more of a live feel to them.
Did the fact that the recordings would be played to an American label and possibly released on the American market influence you and the band in any way when you worked out the band’s sound?
I wanted to give it a bit more of an American sensibility because of that fact, yes, but I also like the fact that they have lots of different influences on their music and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose that. I didn’t want to make them straight-up American mainstream. Some of those guitars hark back to the days of the Cure and I wanted to keep that.
Will you produce the album?
Yes, we have plans for later in the year.
Where will the recordings take place?
I will decide that when the time comes. I will probably mix at Soundtrack in New York, but it’s not really a tracking place in the way studios like Avatar are. I’m also setting up a little place of my own in New York, an over-dubbing studio, so there are lots of different possibilities.
What format does the band fall into?
I just think that there’s a wide appeal to this band. They’re definitely a rock band; there’s a dark element to their music and there’s a heavy element, but there’s also just a powerful songwriting element in the classic way of U2, for example. There are references to what they do and you could say that they’re a mainstream band.
Does the heavily formatted nature of the US market, especially the radio market, make it harder for new bands to break?
It does, yes. You don’t necessarily have to conform to a format, but you have to be a better salesman and convince people that what you’re doing is going to be commercially viable.
How do you think the US audience will react to New Disease?
My gut feeling is that they’re going to embrace them.
Will it matter that they are from the UK?
I don’t think so. Many UK bands have done very well in the US, historically. It’s all down to the music really. If the songs are good, people will respond to them.
What is essential if the band are to succeed in the US?
Touring is imperative; you have to build a fan base. Getting them on the radio is also important, as are videos. Basically, anything to help get the music to the people is important. Once the people hear it, it will hopefully take off from there.
You are currently putting a studio together?
I’m working on building one over here in New York at the moment. That’ll be for me and for Mainstation.
What are your most important pieces of equipment?
At the front end, which is to say the input stage, good microphones, microphone pre-amps and converters. I have the computer systems, the plug-ins, but all that stuff is just colour and texture. The real meat of the sound lies in a good front end.
What are your strengths as a producer?
To be able to create situations where things flow for the artists. You have to be able to ensure that they’re writing the best song they’re capable of—that’s the best a producer can do. I’m also a pretty good engineer, which is useful, but really it all comes down to the strength of the composition.
What makes you take on a production?
I have to feel that I can contribute something to it. It doesn’t really matter what it is stylistically.
How much do you charge for the production of an album?
It depends on the project. I take a view on each one, it might sometimes be cheaper if I believe in the act and they don’t have a budget. The industry is also in a state of flux at the moment, which affects how I set my fee.
What do unsigned artists need to learn more about if they are to have a successful career in the music business?
They need to learn creative ways of presenting themselves. Demos from bands who are uncreative in their presentation are disappointing. Nowadays, bands need to be much more aware of the fact that a band is a package, so image, photos, videos, and how they present themselves to the media are all very important.
Mark Thwaite from New Disease has all of that covered. He’s on top of the way in which the band is presented, and that makes it so much easier to work with a band. Artists have to realise that writing the songs and making sure that the music is good is the first stage. The rest is a lot of hard work that must be done if you are to get a shot at it.
What’s next in store?
A project in the US, which I’m due to start work on in mid-April; they’re an American rock band. I’m also working on trying to sign another small band, a really exciting London band. Perhaps they’re not as heavy as a rock band, and they’re more eclectic, but it’s really interesting music.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
There have been so many! The recordings of both of the albums by Tool and the Peter Gabriel album “Passion” were great moments, and so was watching Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing. Touring around the world two and a half times with Peter Gabriel on the Amnesty tour was also a highlight.
I’ve experienced so many great things that I wouldn’t want to pick just one. There have been fantastic, memorable moments that I’ll always remember on every record, but the luxury of being in this industry and being able to make a living from making music is the best thing of all.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I see myself still producing, and I’d like this label to be developing young artists and for me to be helping to make music that I love. As I’m doing now, but in a more proactive way, and this is the beginning of that.
If you could change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would convince people of the intrinsic value of music, because at the moment that seems to have been lost. Many people who are buying music or trying to get music don’t believe that music is now being seen as a loss leader, and that’s a sad thing. Many people work very hard at writing music and they should be fairly rewarded for that, although not necessarily over-rewarded.
Within the music industry, we have to find ways of convincing people that this is what is happening and of embracing the fact that the industry is changing and that the way that people perceive music is changing.
We have to make people feel that they’re not being ripped off, as they are when they get just a few good songs and lots of filler. What is most important is making sure that the quality is still there.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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