Interview with FERNANDO GARIBAY, producer and musical director for Lady Gaga - Aug 27, 2012
“Normally you go into the studio and say we need x amount of up-tempo songs, with a few ballads here and there to balance it out, but with Lady Gaga it was more about the vision.”
Producer, songwriter and musical director for Lady Gaga, Fernando Garibay talks exclusively to HitQuarters about the challenges of creating an album with the pop megastar while on a major world tour, how his breakthrough came out of making techno tracks in his teenage bedroom, and also offers detailed insight into how his cutting edge productions are crafted.
You began your music career producing techno music, is that right?
Yes, I started making techno tracks in my bedroom when I was 15/16. I would record at home on a 4-track or in the school studio – just whatever equipment I could get hold of I would use. I made beats and submitted them to labels. Techno was big in LA at the time and there were a few local independent dance labels that were putting out vinyl and CDs, largely for record pools and DJs. A lot of my older friends were DJs – I would look at the vinyls and CDs, get the names of the labels, get the mailing list and just send them tracks on CD. Eventually I got some responses and that's how I got my foot in the door – just hustling basically.
How did skills and experience develop once you’d attracted the interest of local record labels?
The labels had their own studios so I was able to use them and make the records the way I wanted to make them. I was working under different names for different producers. Sometimes I’d do all the tracks and not get full credit for it. That's not very inspiring. I would be writing the songs, working with singers, writing lyrics, taking vocal bites and building the track around the artists.
We would make the records, press them and then play them at clubs, warehouse raves and stuff like that. I was taken along to DJ with them. I was underage, so it wasn't really legal [laughs].
So was that when you started getting involved in DJing?
I saw my friends DJing when I was growing up and I played around with turntables a bit but my passion was really in making the music and hoping the DJs would one day play it.
Did you have a manager or someone that was helping you at the time?
No, I grew up in hardcore urban LA and had no idea what the music industry was really about. I didn't know I needed a manager or an attorney – This was all new to me. I started on my own.
How did you then establish yourself as a producer under your own name and leave the independent label circle?
When I got more successful I started meeting different people. I was always networking and eventually I got introduced to Giorgio Moroder. The music community is pretty small in LA and his wife had heard my name through mutual friends in the producer circuit. He brought me in to work with this artist that he was developing for a soundtrack and kind of gave me carte blanche to work in his studios. He became a mentor of mine and being a huge fan of Scarface, Top Gun and other brilliant soundtracks, this was like a dream for me. I worked with him for about eight months to a year and we became really good friends.
It was through him that I met [entertainment lawyer] Peter Lopez whom I stayed with for the next few years.
How did you make the switch over to the mainstream pop market?
I skipped high school and got a music scholarship to USC. I focused on composition – I wanted to write for orchestras and do pop arrangements. At that time, David Foster was writing these really complex arrangements for artists like Celine Dion and I was like, ‘I really want to do that!’ I wanted to learn to use all the tools in pop music.
As I developed as an artist I really got into pop format songwriting – learning the craft, and writing big songs, not just club circuit songs.
For the first three years producing I was making zero money. All these independent labels were broke themselves and so they would never pay. But for me the main thing was learning as much as I could about making music, even down to aspects like how to wire the studio.
How did the first major projects come along, such as remixing Enrique Iglesias?
Peter Lopez put me in touch with Interscope. Peter was a very well known and respected person in the entertainment industry and a good friend of Jimmy Iovine. He told him, "I got this young up-and-coming guy that is doing really well in the club and dance music scene, you should use him over there." So they gave me a few remixes on spec immediately.
As I was learning how to write songs, I was getting these 2-inch tapes from David Foster and other big producers at the time and I had to make my own stems of the vocals. I’d get two 24-track 2-inch tapes of Boyz II Men's vocals, for example, and I’d have to read the track names and figure out what was going on with the vocals. That's how I learned what vocal production was really about – you hear how it was all recorded and what their intentions were. It’s stuff like that they can't really teach you.
It was through remixing Quincy Jones material for the Austin Powers soundtrack that I really got into remixing and learning how records are made by remixing. Nowadays you just get a vocal file and you just remix it. But back then I had to encrypt these files and that taught me a lot about production.
I had a lot of success doing remixes for Interscope and the calibre of artists started getting bigger and bigger. It was during that time that I met Enrique Iglesias through his manager (Fernando Giaccardi). By then he was already a big celebrity in the Latin community but wanted to cross over to the English language market and so was looking to get into American pop music. He asked me to remix one of his records to try to get American label interest. I think it was ‘Nunca Te Olvidaré’, which was a Spanish song that I mixed into more Top 40 dance format. From what I heard from Jimmy and everyone at Interscope is that we helped facilitate his move to Interscope.
As time went by I got more involved with Jimmy and later met Martin Kierszenbaum (HQ interview), who has been a big influence on my career, as well as Neil Jacobson (HQ interview) and the whole team. I just kept going to the label until I eventually became an in-house producer. That was about seven or eight years ago.
Was there a certain song or something that made them take you on?
After a few years of remixing I found out that I was not only reworking the songs but kind of improving them. So I thought I should really take the time to try to master the craft of songwriting. It took about a year and a half – I just wrote and wrote, writing with different writers from the songwriting scene and the publishing houses. I met with everybody and just kept writing.
I built up a catalogue of about twenty songs and did have an idea of making an album myself to put them out and tell a story. Peter Lopez and I started shopping these songs. The first person who was interested was Craig Kallman, head of Atlantic records, and then later Clive Davis (J Records) became interested as well. I was already making records for Interscope and these guys wanted to sign me exclusively. Then Jimmy came in and offered me a deal that I couldn't refuse. He signed everything – he signed me as a producer, artist and as an A&R.
Were any of the twenty songs ever released?
Yeah, a few of the songs were released. Whitney Houston’s ‘Nothin’ But Love’ was one of them.
So at that time you were considering becoming an artist?
I was but not as a performing artist. I just wanted to be able to release my own music but featuring different artists, like what's going on right now with a lot of different DJs. But instead I went into producing for different artists. I felt I could learn more from that than from developing my own music. It's not easy writing pop songs. You really have to know what you're doing. You have to understand what's going on in the community, culture and the life of the artist you're working with.
Now I’ve reached a point where I can put out records under my own name as an artist, with the music I always wanted to release. Those are my next plans.
How did you become the music director for Lady Gaga?
Jimmy [Iovine] would always send me writers. After two years signed with Interscope, Jimmy calls me and says, “I got this artist, she’s amazing and a great writer. Maybe you could write something with her for Pussycat Dolls or whoever.” The same night Lady Gaga came into my studio in one her usual lingerie Gaga outfits and was like, “I want to show you my new video.” She’d just finished her first album with RedOne (HQ interview). We talked about what kind of songs we love, and played around with some melodies on the piano. And then it was like, “I got a hook for that!” So we ended up writing two songs. One ended up with Britney Spears (‘Quicksand’) and the other one she's still holding on to. I think she wants to use it for something special. We just hit it off right away.
When the second album came, Fame Monster, she flew me out to London and asked me to write a song with her. That was ‘Dance In The Dark’, the opening song for the Monster Ball show. When she started creating the third album she flew me out right away. We both had the same vision and so she asked me to oversee the album by making me music director.
What did your role as music director involve?
It was a great, unique situation. It was the first time I had been able to focus on an album as a whole rather than just doing a couple of songs. I was also fortunate in having an artist that had a vision and knew exactly what she wanted.
My job was to turn in this record for Interscope while keeping her vision intact. That role included everything – anyway I could make this record happen I was involved. I wanted to make sure this project was the best it could be. It didn't matter how big the task was I would execute it.
Did you sit down and discuss the vision for the record before you started work?
Yes, we had numerous discussions on the goal, the vision and the inspirations for the songs and the album as a whole. Equal rights, gay rights, immigration – all these concepts were specifically discussed prior to starting the songs. Normally you go into the studio and say we need x amount of up-tempo songs, with a few ballads here and there to balance it out, but with her it was more about the vision.
How did you collaborate with her in the songwriting process?
She kept writing as we went along. And because she was writing so much material my role became a combination of making the music happen and putting the songs together.
There were times when I started with the track, like with ‘Marry The Night’. That was inspired by one of the Monster Ball shows – I wanted to create another concert opener for her. Other times she’d just call me up with a vocal melody. Whatever was needed I was there to collaborate. The hard part was keeping up with her – she had so many ideas.
On each song we worked so hard getting it to the point at which she could hear it in her head. For each song it took about fifty versions. She would say, "Can I hear the song in a more 80s or New Wave style. Let's try a bit more of a rock version." Sometimes we would pick and choose pieces from what worked and what didn’t, which made it almost sound like a new genre. For the most part though we maintained a certain style and didn’t try to combine too many different genres.
Other producers were involved in creating some of the tracks, so how did you communicate with them?
If she asked me to replace a certain sound or wanted a whole new drum track for a song I didn’t produce, for example, then I would communicate that idea to the producer. But I tried not to get too involved in their productions as they have their own specialties. The best thing to do is to give them the room to do what they do.
You said you were on the road with her making the album – what set up did you use?
We had portable studios. We had one in the bus. We had a laptop setup to go in a hotel room so we could cut a vocal here and there. And the third set up was backstage so we could work there before the show. She's constantly working, not just for the album, but as a singer, too. She was also a producer on every song on the album – she was very involved.
She had a show practically everyday and had tons of press as well and so we had to get in whenever we could. You have to deal with constant interruptions – press, wardrobe and make-up people coming in and out. She was very disciplined. I had to block everything out no matter how crazy the external environment was. The whole team was great, Dave Russell is an excellent engineer and DJ White Shadow joined us for the majority of the tour to help program. RedOne came along as well.
Were there are a lot of ideas that didn't get finished?
It's really amazing how our team works. Because she is so spontaneous and does so many things off-the-cuff, everybody, from her dancers to her band, had to be able to adapt to her. She is an incredible performer. Almost every show is different. You almost have to predict her movements even when they are unpredictable. And that's how I was making this album – you have to roll with the punches.
Sometimes she is not happy with something even if it sounds great. She might hear something that we don't hear and you have to anticipate that. Learning when she’d finished a song became relatively easy because of how excited she would be when talking about it. The majority of the ideas she came up with were fully fleshed out.
How much input and pressure was there from the A&R and record label side in the whole process?
Very little actually. They kept a healthy distance. Everyone knows that she knows what she's doing, so there's a complete trust on both sides. The label was excited to fly out here to the studio to hear some of the music and I was excited to it. I think we showed everyone so well what we were doing, where we were at and when she was going to be ready.
In the recording process is your strength more in the production or on the songwriting side?
I became a master of all trades while I was making the record because I never wanted to rely on anybody. I wanted to do everything myself. It was a great chance for me to use all the skills I'd learned up to that point and apply them towards one project. It's like I’d been training for something like this forever. It's obviously easier if I can express my own vision because there is no other influence. With Lady Gaga I had to embrace her vision, become one with that idea and then express it.
When it comes to songwriting I prefer to collaborate with other songwriters. As a producer you have to collaborate otherwise it becomes too much of you and your focus is too much on the track as opposed to the lyric, for example. I like to have an outside input when it comes to songwriting.
How do you prepare yourself for co-writing session? Do you prepare sounds in advance to have a palette of things to play with?
I spend a week creating sounds, building drum sounds, making a few loops – it's like an athlete working out. If you go into a situation with a co-writer, you want to make sure you bring everything to the table. And when you're creating something you don't want something technical to slow it down.
Before I went on tour I would just have everything loaded up so I could sit with the writer, talk about ideas and play something off-the-cuff. Very rarely would I have whole tracks ready, because I think the tracks would have come from a different inspiration. I prefer playing something on the spot.
Do you start writing on a basic instruments like a guitar or piano or do you go straight into production?
For the most part I sit with an artist and talk about ideas. I work best with visuals. So once an artist describes the vision for a song or a feeling I would start playing a few melodies on the keyboard or a synth. From there we get inspired and it will not stop till we get the song done.
When it comes to drums do you work with a lot of loops?
It might be that I’d fall in love with a loop and then not be able to use it because of copyright infringement, so I decided very early in my career to create my own drum sounds. I tend to start with something that gets me excited and that can be a vocal bite or a certain sound. A great example for that is Dance In The Dark, at the beginning that's me testing the mic.
I resample and edit my original drum sounds. I like to create a bit of chaos on my drums. I have banks with sounds in Kontakt and I add some reverb and distortion to make the drums a bit messy and a bit more exciting. Think of when you walk into a dance club and you hear a techno song that sounds loud and really exciting – that's what I want to create, that inspires me.
Nowadays it seems as if every possible sound is available, so how do you not spend hours browsing through thousands of snaredrum sounds?
I think the way to avoid that is to prep. My prep involves collecting drum sounds. It's like ammunition – if you want to fire you have to load up your guns. I collect pretty much every software synth out there, find my sounds and make them my own sounds by putting effects on them.
You have to offer something to the artist you work with! You don't want to hear other people’s sounds. Sound design for me is creating an identity.
How much do you use software synths and how much do you use actual hardware gear?
Before I went on this tour I used to love using all my analogue keyboards – Prophet, Jupiter 8, Moog, and then Akai samplers for my drum sounds. I used these keyboards for everything. The problem is you cannot take all this equipment on tour. So I really adapted to using software synths but I apply the same mentality when I use them. I run things through a compressor and make the sounds more interesting. When I first got into software synths I thought they were too clean. That got better with the randomness. I had to make everything portable and compatible with the different computer setups, backstage and on the bus.
What I can do with software synth is as interesting to me as what I can do with an analogue synth.
What sequencer and audio program do you use?
I use Digital Performer and Ableton. Digital Performer is great to use for arrangement. It's not really commonly used for pop music, it’s built more for film scores. I use it to see the grand picture of the song, especially if you have to do a lot of revisions. I use Ableton for drum, bassline and lead programming and for vocal editing. It's really DJ and dance friendly. Ableton has this thing called Max for Life. You have all these users creating their own effects and synth. There is a community of programmers that create cool little plug-ins. It's like trading cards for music production.
What controller do you prefer?
I have a microKORG for working in a hotel room or on the road. I can carry that in my bag. When I'm in the studio for the most part I use an 88 Key Keyboard with a few knobs that I can assign to my synth and control them live. In my studio I have my SSL desk, with analogue gear all patched in, and my Pro Tools is hardwired. With Lady Gaga it was the first time I was working on a portable setup. I had to learn how to work portable because we were travelling all the time. I stripped it down so in the end I just had my laptop and a good interface.
How do you keep up with new synthesizers and new gear coming out? You can spend the whole day just going through new things that come out ...
Yes, it can take up a lot of your time [laughs]. I can see myself hiring someone to do that for me but then at the same I just love it so much – I'm so curious to see what's going on.
I'm always on my laptop going through every blog and Google alert. Just as I’m always looking for songs for my DJ set, I’m always on the look out for plug-ins, new synth sounds and new patches. Making music in this generation you really need to be all in.
I try to keep everything organised. I always update my sample banks in Kontakt. I take a week out of my production time to just spend time building my library. There may be a top 10 of soft synths I always use. This week I'm getting into Massive. I want to build some new sounds.
If it comes to songwriting I always think if you limit yourself with an instrument or a certain set of sounds you come up with better ideas...
That's a great perception but I think of it more like, the more you focus on a certain sound. For example, if you are into using Massive and Simpler in Ableton and you want to just focus on that. It's great to focus on one instrument because then you know what it can do but I don't want to limit myself to anything. I get bored very easily so that makes me want to have everything. I want to hear everything, I want to see everything. Then I narrow it down. I tend to like to have more colours to play with. But in the end if you are good in making music you are going to make great music, no matter what.
How do you keep up with what sound or style is being played in the clubs at the moment?
If I wasn't DJing I would still be on blogs – Hype Machine, Beatport … all the pop music blogs – and following links endlessly. But because I'm DJing I'm always looking at what is going to work in my set anyway. You check out what the DJs are playing and what you like. What you see now is how DJs are making pop music and becoming producers. It's a little easier now to see what the next trend is going to be because it's basically what the DJs are playing.
How much is your production influenced by your DJing and how much by your classic songwriting skills?
There are no rules in dance music anymore. For example, I hear super complex R&B 70s soul arrangements in house music. In Ableton you pretty much just set the key and then there is a plug-in that makes the string arrangement for you. But if I need to write a classic flamenco guitar arrangement, I can do that too. It's pretty much all just tools that you can use to be creative.
You have your own label imprint called Paradise/Interscope. What sort of music are you releasing on your label?
We have a couple of artists we are developing right now. In the meantime I'm putting out my own records through my label. I will be putting out an EP featuring different artists. Music from my DJ sets. For me it's back to square one, the music that I always loved.
Is it genre specific?
No, I wouldn't say so. It's just great music. I'm not looking to sign a singer or solo artist. I don't want to give it away yet but I'm looking more for an artistic project, something more conceptual.
Your managers are the A&R people of the artists you work with – how does that constellation work?
It's pretty unique and it can only work because of the relationship I have with everybody. I feel Jimmy has been my mentor and my friend and Martin Kierzenbaum has been incredible. Jimmy brought me in and then signed Martin. We decided to work together and became great friends. Then Jimmy brought in Neil Jacobson and he has been my day-to-day. It's an amazing team. Everything is kept separate, they always make sure things are running right. I'm doing my thing and they have been extremely supportive to whatever I do.
Are you free in deciding what projects you're doing?
I've been given executive status, but if they have a project that they’d like me to work on then I'm there. But if I say I need time to focus on my music they are really supportive. I have this relationship with Gaga as well – if she needs me I'm there.
What are you working on in the moment?
Right now it's time to reinvent myself. Create something I'm excited about. So I'm rebuilding my sounds, visions and ideas. You owe it to every artist to be unique.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Garibay's manager Neil Jacobson on discovering and developing LMFAO
* Lady Gaga's breakthough producer RedOne on his rise to the top