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Interview with MARK WILLIAMS, A&R at Interscope Records for Gwen Stefani, Queens of the Stone Age - Apr 16, 2006

ďGwen Stefani didnít start from scratch. She was a known personality. People were eager to hear what she had to do. But the music had to be interesting, innovative and a reflection of who she was."

picture Ö says Interscope's Mark Williams, the No.1 A&R on the World Top 100 A&R Chart 2005. California based Williams is the first non-New Yorker ever to top the yearly A&R chart. He is credited for Gwen Stefaniís album ďLove, Angel, Music, BabyĒ, the biggest selling debut album in 2005, and Queens Of The Stone Age. His roster also includes Beck, The Hives, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and M.I.A.

Read about what he expects from new artists, what artists should look for in an A&R and why it is important to record when an artist is at the creative peak of their writing cycle.

He also talks about the challenges and development processes of the albums by Gwen Stefani and Queens Of The Stone Age.

What was your path to becoming the No.1 A&R in the world?

I started in 1979 in college radio out in Atlanta, Georgia, working as an intern for A&M Records. I moved out to Los Angeles in 1983 to take a fulltime job at A&M working with the new and developing acts from the label. In 1986 I went to Virgin Records. In 1996 I left Virgin to do a label that went through Geffen Records called Outpost. And Iíve been at Interscope Records since 2001.

Iím fortunate to work at a place where thereís a wide depth of roster with a lot of variety Ė Gwen Stefani, No Doubt, Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Marilyn Manson etc. My skills allow me to be able to work with a variety of different types of artists and types of music.

How do you go about your work?

I approach A&R by helping artists make records and trying to figure out what is needed in each particular case. There are different needs and strengths and weaknesses to each particular project, depending on the artist. I try to help figure out what the strengths are and what the needs are and fill them in appropriately. Whether itís making the right producer match or making suggestions or encouraging how the songwriting is going.

We have a wide variety of artists at Interscope Records. I work with more varieties than most people do. I donít just do hip hop. I tend more towards the Alternative and rock/pop side of things. But I also work with groups like Jurassic 5, who are musically different from Queens of the Stone Age or The Hives or Gwen Stefani. Itís the variety here that I enjoy working with. Different types of music reflect my tastes, which tend to be very varied.

If youíre interested in a new artist, how do you start out with them?

The first thing that attracts me to an artist is simply the songwriting and the sound that goes with it. Do I feel they are doing something different and unique thatís setting them up to be their own special leader in whatever kind of music theyíre doing? Is the songwriting and presentation strong enough that it just takes over everything else?

I look for artists who are different, because I think they stand the best chance of creating their own unique careers. If somebody is doing something different from other people, then I think theyíre the sort of person who will stand the test of time and tend to stand out.

Artists who are doing something unique or special and who stand out tend to be the ones who are going to have a longer and more successful career over time. If they stand out to me then they are also going to stand out to the general public as well in a way where it cuts through some of the other music and artists already are out there.

There is so much glitter these days that competes for peopleís attention. Not just music, but every form of entertainment. And itís a double-edged sword. In one sense, there are more tools than ever to reach people. At the same time, thereís a lot more stuff that has to cut through to compete for attention.

The artists who ultimately win are the ones who are doing something really special. I donít think you can calculate something to be truly different. It has to be true to itself.

Someone who truly is who they are, who isnít trying to be something that theyíre not. Or theyíre not trying to do something that they think you will like. Itís really about who they are. They have no choice but to create the music the way they create it. Those are the ones that I like to work with.

What is generally discussed in the first meetings?

I like to know their background. What made them interested in becoming a musician, a songwriter/artist. What influences and drives them. Iím interested to know how passionate they are about what they do. All artists are as different as people are. They all have different backgrounds, interests and things that drive them. It comes easier for some, and others they have to work a little harder at it.

It doesnít mean that the people that work harder at it arenít any less successful than those to whom it comes easier. Itís just a different process. I like to see what goes into to it, and what motivates them, because it helps me assess what it would be like to work with them and how far they would be able to go with their career.

How do you help an artist to realise their vision?

If itís a self-contained rock band then it tends to be more just letting them write and find their natural curve before they go in and make a record. A lot of musicians go through cycles of how theyíre writing and where theyíre at musically. I try to encourage them when theyíre ready to record, when they come to that creative peak of that particular curve.

It might be suggesting a producer or a mixer that helps complement the project and bring it to fruition. Gwen Stefani uses producers who also write music. Because she writes the lyrics and melodies, itís about paring her up with someone that is going to bring out that side of her musically.

What input do you have on the productions?

If itís something where they feel my presence is helpful and where I can lend an objective ear, then Iíll come in from time to time and help move things along and give my input. With an artist like Beck, he just tells me what heís up to before he goes in, and then I hear music towards the end of the project. With Gwen Stefani I was in the studio quite a bit.

With Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme will typically play me the songs before they start recording. He doesnít really do demos. Heíll play them to me live, which is great because I get my own Queens of the Stone Age unplugged concert.

Then about midway through recording Iíll come in and get a feel of how things are going and make a few comments and suggestions. And towards the end of the project during mixing, Iíll check in as well.

What artists are you currently working with?

The Hives are back writing for their new album.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have just finished completion of their second record for us and itís coming out at the end of the month. Iíve been working with them in the set up phase of that project.

We are currently working with Gwen Stefani to get a follow-up record for her. Potentially as early as this fall. We had a lot of songs that were recorded from the last record, and she had done a bit of recording since then. We have enough music for another record.

M.I.A. is back in the studio. I work with her from the US side of things. Sheís writing her follow-up record.

How did you find these artists initially?

The only ones where I was involved on the signing side of it were The Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and M.I.A.

M.I.A. came to my attention through a lot of the press that she had generated from her release in the UK and Europe. XL Recordings, the label who had initially signed her, reached out to us that they were open to a deal. We started negotiations that way.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs came to me through Debbie Southwood-Smith, who A&R-ed for me in New York. I saw them in Austin, Texas at the South by Southwest Music Convention several years ago. I was blown away by their performance and told Debbie we needed to move forward on that.

The Hives had been making some noise with their previous releases. When it became known that they were available we jumped on that, because I think they are a fantastic great rock band.

Why donít you accept unsolicited material?

Thereís not enough time. There might be some good stuff out there, but a lot of the great things rise to the top by people doing the work themselves at first. And then it hopefully comes to our attention.

Most of my time is spent working with an artist on an album, helping them make their records, set up the records in terms of marketing and to the rest of the company. I have a couple of people who do more full-time scouting work and who bring stuff to my attention as well, and I rely on that a lot more.

How should new aspiring artists present themselves?

If youíre a pop act and youíre able to create your own music, whether itís more club-based or if itís more straightforward, the Internet is a wonderful tool these days that has really come to fruition, particularly with sites like Myspace, where you can start to create your own site and awareness.

If youíre a rock band then itís simply touring, playing in and around your hometown, and creating noise. And if you got something thatís working youíll know pretty soon because youíll see people coming to your shows. You make your own CDs, you can sell them that way and you can put them up on your website. You start to create a following. Pretty soon people will start to write about you. And it starts to evolve from there.

The main thing is to work on your music and make your sound as unique as you can. Write great songs and start to try to create your own little universe within what youíre doing, whatever type of music it is.

How should today's musicians think outside the box of the traditional approaches?

They should look within and be inspired by what inspires them as opposed to what they think might work, or what they think someone might want to hear, or what they see people doing around them. Do your own work. If you have that special talent then youíll find it.

What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to approach the biz and build a long-term career?

Build a foundation of fans that are going to follow you and be with you whatever musical style and approaches that you take. Either by performances or creating an interactive website where they can get to know more about what you do, your style and visual sense. Just try to connect with people as much as you can on a regular basis in terms of making them feel like youíre inspiring them and speaking to them through your music.

How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?

I have worked with artists in the past that havenít had a lot going on. At the same time, I work with a lot of artists that have a lot of momentum happening. In this day and age itís more attractive to major labels once the artists have something going on themselves.

Either thereís some press been written about them, theyíre attracting people to their shows or theyíve got a song that is getting some play somewhere. Thereís not a number I can put on it. Itís not like you have to sell this or you have to sell that. Itís more about the awareness thatís happening.

What were the challenges you faced when launching an album with Gwen Stefani?

The challenges with Gwen Stefani were simply that nothing is given in this day and age. No matter what youíve done in the past, it doesnít mean youíre going to be successful next time. You still have to make music that is creative and good thatís going to reach people every time. Itís like a new test.

Gwen Stefani didnít start from scratch. She was a known personality. People were eager to hear what she had to do. But the music had to be interesting, innovative and a reflection of who she was. Gwen has a lot of variety in terms of her musical style and tastes. The challenge was making a record that reflected all of that. It was very much her.

At the same time, it would be something that was cohesive and reach people. Of course she was the common thread through all the songs, no matter what producer team she worked with. Whether it was the Neptunes, Dallas Austin or Nellee Hooper, she brought that sense of style and sound that kept it all together. We just had to make sure we made a record that was going to be as strong as it possibly could be and be representative of who she was.

What were the crucial factors that made her album such a success?

Her songwriting and the team she worked with. Through and through, itís just a great album, from start to finish. They are just great songs. ďHollaback GirlĒ is a classic song. We ended up going six singles over here, and in todayís climate, thatís really great.

How did the team work together?

It started with her and Linda Perry (HQ interview) writing songs together. Those songs felt like they would benefit from being recorded with Nellee Hooper, who worked on a couple of tracks on the ĎRock Steadyí album with No Doubt.

Then she wanted to explore more of a sort of urban side. I put her together with Dallas Austin where she wrote songs with him, then the Neptunes. She was always inspired by what OutKast was doing. We reached out for Andre 3000.

What course of direction will her new album be taking?

Itís a continuation of what she did with ĎLove, Angel, Music, Babyí. Some of the songs were written around the same time. There have been a few since, most notably with The Neptunes. Itíll be a continuation of what inspires her again.

What are the most important marketing tools for you when breaking new acts?

I like to see a little of everything. I like to have a press base writing about things. That could be print as well as Internet. If itís a rock band, some touring and shows going on. Ultimately, radio is still a key ingredient to reaching most people out there. I like to have radio not just out as a vacuum, but with a lot of other things going on around it.

Whatís your view on the radio situation in the US?

Itís definitely evolving and changing. Pop radio by the nature of what it is has the benefit of choosing the best and most popular songs of whatever the variety of styles there are. More straightforward formatted radio like hip-hop and modern rock stations are more at the mercy of the music thatís been created.

They always have this struggle between being at the forefront of something and at the same time playing music that people want to hear, to keep the audience tuned in. They both seem to be struggling a bit in the last few years in trying to find that balance between new things and keeping it interesting and playing stuff that people want to hear.

How much does it typically cost to record an album and then market and promote it?

It depends on whatís needed, whether itís a single producer and a band that writes all of their own songs, or itís multi-producers and artists needing to bring in outside musicians and writers. Weíve recorded records as cheaply as $30,000 in the last few years, and the other extreme of that.

How do you view the current music business climate?

It is hard to break through with new acts, but Iím going to be optimistic and say that people are still interested in music and are still being very creative. And as a business we need to figure out how best to make a business out of this to reach people that like music. People who focus on that and are smarter than me will figure that out, I hope. I try not to get too caught up with that. I just try to focus on finding and working with good new acts and making great records.

If you could turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, how would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?

The people I potentially would be working with would have to understand completely and get where Iím coming from in terms of the type of music Iím making. Will they help me reach the audience I want to reach? Do they have some sort of track record of commitment to developing things and staying with things even if theyíre not immediately successful?

What style of music would you like too see gain more popularity?

I come from a rock background. I keep waving the rock flag. I like to see it get back more as a cultural force. If you look back in the history of music itís always cyclical. There are kids right now somewhere out there who will bring rock music back as a global force. Like the Arctic Monkeys have done in the UK, for example. Thereíll be more and more bands like that coming along who will hopefully see more of a shift towards where rock music is important to kids again, as it was when I was a kid.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

I feel very fortunate that I was around R.E.M. when I was just starting out. And watching how they handled their career and how they believed in what they were doing - I try to always apply that and that same mindset to artists that Iíve worked with over the years.

I was fortunate to work with the Smashing Pumpkins at the time when there was a great shift in rock music in the early 90s. And I feel very fortunate now to work with Gwen Stefani, No Doubt, Beck, Marilyn Manson, Queens of the Stone Age and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I can look back and think of various periods where Iíve been fortunate and lucky to be around and work with some really talented, great and inspiring people, and that in turn inspires me to do what I do.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Read On ...

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* XL Recordings bigwig Richard Russell on the secret of M.I.A's success
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