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Interview with Brett Hestla, producer for Framing Hanley, Transmit Now, Sore Eyes - August 16, 2010

“Well, you just hooked me, but the problem is you got me at five minutes into the song. You just don’t have that opportunity at radio.”

Having earned considerable chops and kudos playing in bands like Dark New Day, Virgos Melot and Creed, bassist and vocalist Brett Hestla is now channelling his skills and industry experiences into a career as a producer hailed for helping young bands “develop a sound and get on a path to get them farther faster.” To date he has worked with alternative rock bands Framing Hanley (Top 5 US Heatseekers), Transmit Now, Tantric (No.1 US Mainstream Rock) and last week’s Making Waves featured artist, Sore Eyes.

Hestla talks to HitQuarters about maintaining the limited attentions of ‘shuffle’ addled audiences, how he helps promising new artists connect with label deals and what kinds of bands he wants to get in touch.

You regularly post messages encouraging bands to get in touch, which is the way you hooked up with Framing Hanley. Do your projects usually come about from bands asking to work with you?
I’ve been very fortunate that the bands that I have been in have led other bands to me.
You say you want ‘fresh blood’, so is working with new, up and coming artists and helping them break through one of the primary motivations for you?
Yeah, I love working with new artists and helping bands develop a sound and get on a path to get them farther faster.
So what kind of bands are you looking to work with?
I’m just looking for bands that have an original sound and are trying to make it in the music business and not just trying to make music for themselves. There are a lot of bands that just want to record music and get it the way they want it and don’t really care about the business aspect of it. I want bands that are out there working and making a career out of it.
When a band approaches you with regards to working with them, before taking them on, what package need to be ready for you, what kind of assessments are you making and what’s involved?
I accept any kind of music - I’ve heard songs recorded on cell phones. I take it in any form and just appreciate people sending me the material. It’s cool that I get a chance to hear songs in a rough form and then to work with them and hear the songs in their final form. That’s a really cool process for me.
When do you then make a decision about whether they are a good match for you, whether you think they are ready, tight enough musically?
Usually I just listen to the material and then try to imagine what I could do with the music. Even if it’s not necessarily something that I like as a whole, I look for the good elements - like somebody with a good voice, a really catchy song or a good sound in general.
How did Sore Eyes (HQ feature) first approach you?
They’d heard about me through another band that I’ve worked with – I can’t really remember who exactly it was - and contacted me through the Internet, and we just started communications that way.
Is that also how you were first introduced to their music?
Yeah, they e-mailed me some of the tracks that they had done and they had music on their MySpace that I went and listened to.
What made you decide to work with them?
I like Shi’s voice, and I just liked the vibe of the band, and the sound they had come up with on their own. And I thought there were some things I could do to make it a little more marketable or accessible to a larger group of people.
Once yourself and the band have agreed to work together, what usually happens next?
We figure out a time schedule for when they can come down to Florida, and we get in the studio and start bashing out the songs. It’s a pretty simple arrangement.
In working with a lot of up and coming bands who perhaps don’t have everything in place yet, is your role as producer quite hands-on then, with you guiding and helping develop the band as much as simply recording them?
Yeah, sometimes bands only have a good piece of a song, or a song that’s really long and monotonous … For the most part I’m really hands on as far as I’m a musician, so I can always play an example of how I would change it or demonstrate on their instrument a different way of approaching the song they’ve written.
Do you have any influence over which songs the band records?
I usually am involved in the song choice process - like the band ask me to pick what songs they should record and what songs they should let go.
How much input do bands have in terms of what the eventual record sounds like - do they just hand the reigns over to you or are they asking for specific sounds, citing particular influences etc?
Yeah, a lot of bands have very specific ideas of who they want to sound like or how they want to come across, and sometimes I go for that and sometimes I steer them in a different direction - maybe a direction they haven’t thought of yet or something that’s a little more creative or fresh.
What did Transmit Now want you to capture with their new album?
Transmit Now is a really good band and they have a really good sound on their own. I did a little bit of writing with the band, and also helped get the songs streamlined and to be more accessible to radio and for licensing for products and stuff like that.
The bands are obviously wanting to create a record that has a potential for commercial success. What are the key production and songwriting elements that for you help define rock records that has a strong and wide-ranging appeal?
It’s all about the attention span of the public, and studies show that it’s getting shorter and shorter. We’re on an instant gratification trip with the Internet being as popular as it is, and the iPods and the shuffle being the way things are done – people will listen to one song from one band and listen to that halfway through and then shuffle through to another song.

I’m just trying to help bands remember that you’re dealing with people with a very short attention span, so if you run on too long on a certain part you may lose your listening audience. I’m trying to help keep things exciting and fresh, and make sure they’re accomplishing the song they’re trying to write in a way that wouldn’t lose people that are trying to listen to it.
As a songwriter yourself how do you actually get involved with the bands on the writing side?
If I have a idea I usually just grab a guitar or piano, or whatever is nearby, and just play and sing the idea, and the band either like it and want to develop it or maybe want to change it to make it suit their style a little more … Usually it’s just jumping in and showing them my idea and letting them make the choice of if they want to use that or not.

Sometimes just that process spurs a new idea from the band that fits their style more. So maybe what I wrote wasn’t used but just started them on the direction towards what we ended up with.
Framing Hanley said that you opened their eyes as to what they could do as songwriters. So how did you encourage them to develop their songwriting?
From the process of working with me and me going through the songs they had written, I think they used that as an example and it opened their eyes to what they were lacking as songwriters with the material that they had written themselves.

They’re a group of really smart guys and really talented writers so it didn’t take a whole lot to open their eyes. So on the songs that they’d been working on I just had to demonstrate where they were losing the listening audience, and how they could keep people interested without sacrificing the song they were trying to write.
Do you have any examples of how you helped achieve that?
With their first single, ‘Hear Me Now’, the whole song was probably about five minutes long, and the chorus with the lyrics “Now my body's on the floor and I am calling/Well I'm calling out to you” only happened right at the end of the song. So when I listened to them play the song in the studio for the first time and they got to that part, I stopped them right after and was like, “Well, you just hooked me, but the problem is you got me at five minutes into the song. You just don’t have that opportunity at radio.”

When you get your song to radio you’ve got to have that hook come in within a certain amount of time to get people to listen to the rest of the song. So I basically rearranged the song to where that part came in in short enough intervals so that it kept you wanting a little bit more of the song.
[Sore Eyes’s] Shi Eubank said that one of the reasons he wanted to work with you was that in being a strong vocalist yourself you would pay particular attention to the production of his own vocals. How do you use your vocal experience to enhance the recording?
I think having the vocal background helps me to communicate with singers on a level that they can understand instead of just trying to verbalise what I’m wanting them to do. I can show them by example.

I’m also pretty well versed in the correct breathing techniques and the proper form, and how to maximise their vocals by just watching them sing and paying attention to their physical traits - how they’re manipulating the air and managing their power source. I’m making sure they’re singing properly to give them the ability to perform a little bit better and sing a little higher or a little harder or softer. I’m also working on the pronunciation of words and the rhythmic content of the pronunciations … Just little specifics like that can really help out the process.
As with Sore Eyes, bands must have assessed you as a producer on the music you’ve created as a vocalist and musician, but are you finding now that you’re building up a reputation solely on your own production projects?
I feel like I am. I hope that that is happening [laughs]. And hopefully it’s a good reputation.
When you were with a band being produced yourself, were there any experiences - either good or bad - that informed the way you produce bands now?
I think that my production style is a collection of the good and bad. Using the examples that I’ve been influenced by with producers I’ve worked with to make the good parts. And then there has been some things I didn’t like when working with producers that I’ve instilled in myself to never do to bands.

I think I’ve used the combination of knowing what to do and what not to do and using the likes and dislikes that I’ve had to help form my production style, and that has made me the producer that I am.
Why did you first decide to move into production?
It sort of happened by accident. I had always recorded my own band, and my band Virgos Merlot. We were on Atlantic Records in 1998 through 2000 and got signed based on the demos that me and a friend of mine had done with my band, and that ended up being the record because the record label liked the production and they liked how everything sounded.

So that was my introduction, and then I just started working with the bands that my management company were working with - cutting demos and doing favours and stuff like that. I realised I had a passion for it, and after doing just a few projects I felt like I was good at communicating ideas to people without hurting feelings and without people feeling threatened or like I was trying to take over their music.

So it was more of the communications thing that made me feel like I could be a producer and do a good job for bands.
Who was that management company?
At the time my band was managed by Jeff Hanson Management Promotions. Jeff Hanson is the owner of Silent Majority Group, who is Framing Hanley’s label.
Framing Hanley credit you with helping secure their record deal with the Silent Majority label. So what is your connection with the company and Jeff?
Well, Jeff Hanson was the first guy I ever signed any sort of deal with in the music business. He managed Virgos Merlot and helped Virgos Merlot attain a record deal, and he guided me through the music business as a fledgling artist. We maintained a relationship since then and he’s always interested in hearing the bands that I’m working with and I played him the Framing Hanley stuff and he just fell in love with it.
Transmit Now are signed to Silent Majority, so did Hanson ask you to produce their first full length?
Yeah, he had seen Transmit Now live - so Transmit Now wasn’t necessarily my discovery - and he brought them to me after seeing them and I guess he thought that if they work with me we could make it better - streamline it and get it ready for the masses.
Is the marketing aspect of things considered early on in the process with developing an up and coming band?
Because I want to be a producer and it’s how I support my family, I have to consider the marketing of a band and whether they would be something that would work, because the more stuff you do that doesn’t go anywhere the less people are going to come to you [laughs] for stuff they want to go somewhere. You’re only as hot as your last project. So, I have to kind of look at things in a potential money making standpoint.
Has SMG a marketing department in-house?
I think they also use Warner Music Group and ILG for their marketing tube, but they do have an in-house marketing department.
Which artists would you like to work with?
Wow, I haven’t thought about that. I’m usually cruising the Internet and looking at bands websites and MySpace sites and stuff like that, but like a current band that anyone would know or just any band?
Established or unestablished ...
Let me put some thought into this [laughs] … There’s a few bands that are out there that I’d like to work with like a Breaking Benjamin or somebody like that, I think that’ll be a lot of fun, and then again, I’d like to work with pop and I like r&b - so there’s tons of artists out there I’d like to have a shot at.
Who were you a fan of when you were young?
I was very influenced by Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, a very big U2 fan, also a big fan of a bunch of unknown bands that people don’t really know like Wreck … Jeff Buckley was also a pretty big influence on me. I liked all kinds of metal - I was a big Pantera and White Zombie fan, and at the same time I liked bands like Massive Attack and I’m a huge Radiohead fan.
How’s the rock scene in and around Orlando, Florida doing nowadays?
I think the rock scene here is a pretty nice representation of how the rock scene is everywhere. There’s a lot of clubs here that bands can play at and there’s a lot of bands to play at the clubs.

Now it’s all a matter of opinion on if the bands are good or not, but I mean I know a lot of bands around here that do a good job and that are very entertaining and have made a nice following for themselves here. So, I guess you have to say that the scene is maybe not as rich and thriving as it was in the late 90s but still a very viable and active scene.
Any names you can mention we must keep an eye on?
I’m working with a band right now called The Supervillains, and they are reggae, ska, punk kind of band, and we’re doing a record right now that I’m pretty sure if you’re a fan of that kind of music will be your favourite record of 2010. A very good band!
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of 2010?
I’m working with another band called Project H from Houston, former members of the band goneblind that I got a deal with Roadrunner (HQ interviews with A&Rs Monte Conner and Ron Burman), and a couple of the members were with Scott Stapp’s solo project. This is a very different project than the Scott Stapp’s, this is really great rock and roll music.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman


Read On ...

* Hestla clients Sore Eyes talk about Making Waves
* Legendary Roadrunner A&R Monte Conner on his methods for signing and breaking
* Interview Roadrunner Records senior VP of A&R Ron Burman