Interview with RYAN GREENE, producer/engineer for NOFX (US gold) - Nov 17, 2004
ďArtists have to show record labels that they can actually get out there and do it on their own.ĒRyan Greene is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with a whole host of bands, mainly in the punk rock scene, including NOFX (US gold), No Use For A Name and Lagwagon. Ryan is currently living in Arizona, but is co-owner of Motor Studios in San Francisco.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?
I was a drummer in high school and my best friend was a drummer too. He was a lot better than I was and I figured that if anybody was going to make it as a drummer, it would be him; as a result, I decided to go to a recording school and become an engineer and producer. Right out of high school, at the age of seventeen, I got a job as the in-house live engineer at a club in Hollywood called the Troubadour, where I worked with four or five bands a night. That was basically the beginning of my career.
At the same time that I worked at the Troubadour, I was going to recording school and when I finished school I got a job at the MCA Music Publishing recording studio, as a tape duplicator. They happened to need an engineer one day, and the chief engineer, who used to come and listen to my live shows and liked how they sounded, bumped me up to the position of first engineer.
I got the opportunity to work with some of the best songwriters and producers in the world: Desmond Child, Diane Warren and Glenn Ballard. They were amazing teachers and they shaped my ideas on how to approach a song and why different songs require different things. After three and a half years as first engineer at MCA, I left to go to EMI as the chief engineer for eight years.
What experiences have contributed to your skills as a producer?
A key point was getting into the whole punk rock scene. I did a demo with Bad Religion, and Brett Gurewitz (band member and founder of the label Epitaph Ė Ed.) thought the final mixes sounded great. He turned me on to NOFX, who were signed to Epitaph, and the first record I did with them was ďPunk in DrublicĒ in 1994, which ended up being a huge record. That was the turning point in my career: meeting Brett and him introducing me to NOFX. Since then, the majority of the work Iíve been doing has been in the pop/punk vein.
Do you have a manager? How important is it for producers to have managers?
Yes, Frank McDonough became my manager about four years ago. For producers who are very busy, it helps them to keep in touch with the record industry. Many labels go to management companies looking for producers and if you donít have a manager whoís out there keeping your name in record labelsí ears, you may not have that much work.
Managers also take care of the business part; you donít have to worry too much about negotiating your fees and points on the record. Having a manager that takes care of the business allows the producer to stay creative.
Who are some of the artists youíve worked with?
Iíve worked with Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Megadeth, Cheap Trick, Wilson Phillips, Tonic, NOFX, Bad Religion, No Use For A Name, and many more. I have been very fortunate in that I have covered a lot of ground in my engineering and producing and Iím very diverse in what I do. I donít label myself as one type of producer. I love music and I can wear many different hats.
What are you currently working on production-wise?
Iím currently producing four songs for a band called Dishwalla, who had a big hit with ďCounting Blue CarsĒ in í96. I got the project because the managerís son, who is eighteen, knows many of my productions. Heís very much into the punk rock scene and his dad asked him who the hip new producers were and his son recommended me. The next thing you know Iím doing four songs on their new record.
Iíve also just finished a project with F5, David Ellefson from Megadethís new band. Theyíre kind of like Nickelback meets Disturbed: very heavy, but also very melodic.
What makes you take on a production?
It definitely starts with the band. If we get along well and we feel that we can make a good record, thatís always the key. Itís not always about the best songs, although it would be great if every band I worked with had big hits. The bottom line is whether the songs are good, the players are good and theyíre good people.
I work with unsigned bands, itís actually something I love to do. Itís not always about how big the band is, itís about enjoying what you doóand I love what I do. I donít care whether they have a manager or a record deal or theyíre on tour, I approach a demo the same way I approach an album.
How much influence do A&Rs and managers have on the production of a record?
The managers Iíve worked with have generally let me do what I do. Certainly, when youíre dealing with a major, the A&R person comes by to check up on the project, thatís their job.
In the punk rock world, you go in, do a record and when youíre done with it, you send it to the record company, and thatís that.
How much do you charge for a production?
It really depends on the type of record. Is it an album or a demo? How much can the band afford? I find out what their budget is and I let them know what I can do for that price. But really, this is a question that my manager should answer, I tend not to deal with that aspect of it. Iím on the creative end.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Thatís actually how I get a lot of my bands. Over the past year and a half, Iíve probably worked with over twenty different bands who didnít have record deals. Usually they send me an e-mail from my website, ryangreene.com, asking me whether Iíd like to work with them. I give them my address, they send me their material, and if I like it, I call them to see whether we can try something out.
I had a band from Dublin called Mix Twitch and they just happened to be coming to New York at the time and they were wondering, out of the blue, if I would be interested in working with them. They came to the studio and in four days we recorded four songs. They were an ďunsolicitedĒ band, and theyíre awesome.
If Iím able to help the band out at all, I will, especially if the project turns out well and I know record labels that are looking for bands. Itís all about networking and giving the good bands that are out there an opportunity.
Do you have your own studio?
I co-own Motor Studios in San Francisco with Fat Mike from NOFX and thatís where I house the majority of my gear. I also travel quite a bit and work at lots of different studios. Iíll go where a band needs me to go but I like to mix in a studio that I know.
What pieces of equipment make a difference to you?
My speakers, Tannoy 600, are most important, because you have to know that what youíre hearing is right. One of my favourite pieces of gear is the Pevey Kosmos, itís awesome for basses and guitars.
What are some of the things youíve learned about producing?
One of the key things Iíve learned is that plug-ins are overused. There are so many records that sound so similar because Pro Tools comes out with a new plug-in and everyone uses it. People are often so busy trying to find the right plug-in that they forget about working on the songs.
But I improve every day; every day is a different day in the studio and you donít know what youíre going to be up against. Every drummer hits differently, so you may have to tune the drums differently, and every guitar player plays differently, so you may need to switch to a different guitar or amp. Itís not the same set-up every day. Iím constantly trying new things with the artists Iím working with.
What are your strengths as a producer?
I like to think that Iím well-rounded in everything that I do, but people tend like my drum sounds or how I work with vocalists, which is one of my favourite things. Once you get the basic tracks done, itís all about the vocals and the melody. I love working with singers, helping him or her to write vocal melodies and changing things when necessary.
Iím very patient: Iíll work on something for hours if I feel itís necessary, it never bothers me. Iím a hard worker and it goes right back to working with really good people youíre able to have a really good time with. One of my strengths in the studio is a strong sense of what makes a good song.
After all these years, and all the people Iíve worked with and learned from, I definitely know what a good song is, what it does for the record, and when a song shouldnít be on the record. Quality is better than quantity, and you should make sure only great songs are on a record.
What makes a good producer?
Someone who is very level-headed and who knows music, not just one type of music but many different types of music. Patience is a huge factor, the studio is a very meticulous environment. Itís also important to have fun, to make sure everybody doesnít get too stressed out over the little thingsóyou always have to look at the bigger picture. Patience and knowledge of music are probably the two most important things.
What problems might arise when making a record?
To begin with, a band coming in and not knowing their songs, drummers playing songs that are too fast for their playing ability. Having their equipment set up properly, for example, not having their guitars intonated. I do spend time setting up guitars a lot for bands, but Iíd rather rather use that time for recording.
Just being well prepared is important when you go into the studio. Do you have your guitar strings? Your bass strings? Do you have all the drumheads? If a band want to sound perfect but the drummer canít play to a click tape, or the singer sings for a couple of hours and loses his voice, thatís going to be a big problem.
What qualities should an aspiring artist have?
It goes right back to the songs. If you donít have good songs, youíre not going to be able to do anything with your music, unless youíre doing it for yourself. But if you want people to go out and buy your music, all your songs, and not just one or two on the record, are going to have to be really good.
When you are just starting out as an artist, whom should you first try to network with?
When you're starting out as an artist, having yes men around you won't help. What you need is an objective opinion, and thatís where a good producer comes in. Itís also good to network with other bands, especially when it comes to touring. Being on the road is hard when youíre by yourself.
Booking agents are also very important for bands, but of course you need good material to get a booking agent.
What should unsigned acts keep in mind when approaching A&Rs?
Most unsigned bands today realise that they have one shot at approaching a record company. I suggest before you hand a label your demo, save up your money and do a demo that sounds like a record. There are lots of very talented engineers and producers out there who can help you to get something done that has quality to it and that will show people how your band sounds.
The worst thing that can happen is that you give a record label a bad-sounding demo. Then you go into a record studio with a producer/engineer and do a demo that sounds great, but when you hand your new demo to the same record label, they think, ďI remember this band, they had that really bad demo.Ē
They then throw the new demo in the trash without even hearing it and your band never gets that second chance. When youíre out there shopping for a deal, make sure that you have something that sounds good and represents the band. You have only one shot at it, so you better make it your best shot.
How ready-to-go must artists be before presenting them to labels, especially major labels?
Probably about ninety-five percent ready, and not just the songs, but their live performance as well. They have to show record labels that they can actually get out there and do it on their own, unlike Ashlee Simpson. Bands have to show they have the drive to tour and show people what they can do.
Most labels want bands that are already out there touring and most of the larger record labels want bands that have a fan base. The fan base itself doesnít have to be huge, but bands have to put in some kind of effort to secure an audience, because if the audience isnít there the record sales wonít be there either. Having a finished or almost finished album doesnít hurt as well.
Its hard to get a band signed nowadays; that why Iím trying to work with more unsigned bands. If I can make a great demo for a band and they get signed from it, that would be great.
Are you involved in helping artists get a record deal?
Absolutely, I do it all the time. Iím always willing to help the bands I work with and whose projects work out well. I never have a problem getting their songs out to different record labels; you never know which labels are going to like it on a particular day. When a band works with me and we do a demo or an album, Iím the first one to send it out to try to help out.
I worked with a band over the past year and did eight songs. I just got a call from a major label that was very interested in them, but the sad thing was when I called the band about it they had just broke up. They worked so hard to get the attention of a label and now theyíre back to nothing.
Do artists need to know about the music industry or can they leave that to their managers?
Knowledge is power and you should be very aware of what the industry is like. Nowadays there is so much information on the Internet that thereís no excuse for not having the knowledge you need.
What are the differences between working with major and independent record companies?
The biggest one is that when you work with an independent label, they put you in touch with the band or the band will call you. You wonít talk to an A&R person. You go in, you do your record and you just turn it in to the record label when itís done.
With a major youíre dealing with the A&R person during the whole process of making the record. A&R people come down to the studio, you send rough tracks back to the label so that they can see the progress youíre making, and so on. There are many more people involved when youíre making a record with a major label.
Do you think independent labels are on the rise?
Yes, there are so many independent labels out there I could easily name ten that are doing really well. Itís mainly because theyíre more grounded and they catch the up-and-coming bands that the majors have a hard time picking out. Thatís why major labels end up signing bands that are on these independents, because the independents are doing the groundwork for them.
If you could change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
Itís easy for any band to record and release a CD, which is not such a bad thing, although I also think that it floods the market with bands that donít quite have the quality or the songs that should be expected of a band thatís making records. People put their music on all these sites that are already flooded with bands and itís hard to filter through it and find the good ones. This isnít just coming from me, a lot of people I know in the business think the same. Thereís no quality control anymore and that has hurt the industry quite a bit.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
As cheesy as it may sound, I think that pretty much every day that I spend in the studio is a great moment. Certainly, one of the best moments was when Fat Mike from NOFX asked me whether I would like to start a studio with him. At that moment, I thought, ďHere is someone who likes what I do so much that he wants to go into business with me.Ē
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
I see myself doing what Iím doing now and Iím hoping to reach out to more bands who donít know me yet. I would like to get into different types of bands, bands who wouldnít normally approach me.
I have some things in the works that I feel is going to help unsigned bands get noticed. Itís something Iíve been working on for a while and I hope that by mid 2005 Iíll be able to unveil it.
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
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