Interview with RAMI YACOUB, producer and songwriter for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Westlife - Aug 10, 2009
“As a producer, there’s nothing better than breaking a new artist. You see how Red [One] blew up with [Lady] Gaga or with me when I did Britney. Jumping on the eleventh album of Céline Dion is not nearly as exciting”
Following on from interviews with RedOne (Lady Gaga) and Andreas Carlsson, we continue our look at Swedish producers that have helped shape modern pop with an exclusive interview with Rami Yacoub.
Like Carlsson, Rami is another graduate of the legendary production house Cheiron, where he quickly established his worldwide pop presence by co-producing ‘…Baby One More Time’, Britney Spears’ (US & UK No.1) phenomenal breakthrough hit. He has since gone on to produce numerous hits for major artists like Céline Dion (US & UK No.1), Backstreet Boys (US & UK No.1), Pink (US & UK No.1) and Westlife (UK, Sweden & Norway No.1), often in partnership with Mr Pop himself, Max Martin.
Rami talks to HitQuarters about how Cheiron has informed his philosophy of collaboration being a major force in both pop songwriting and production, and how he is on the look out for new artists to break for his new LA.-based production house.
You were in the studio last night until 6 in the morning. Are you more productive working into the early hours?
I think most producers are more creative working that way. I don’t think anybody working with music wakes up at 7 [laughs].
What was it you were working on?
Right now, I’m working with the Backstreet Boys. I believe it’s coming along great, but you never know until it’s final.
They’ve been going at it for a long time, so you need to try to catch that same old essence and not make it too different. It’s always easier to work with new projects than those that have been around for a long time, because they need to adjust to whatever the music is for that era. If you work on a new project then people don’t have any expectations, so that’s always more fun.
As you play a lot of the music on your productions, did your own background in songwriting and production begin in a band?
I started playing bass in a band when I was 14 years old, and I wrote the songs. So I started at a very young age writing lyrics and melodies. And then I think it was a normal evolution for a guy to then buy a sampler, a little mixing board, synthesizers – I started doing remixes when I was 18.
Was Lutricia McNeal and hits ‘Ain't That Just The Way’ and ‘Stranded’, which you created with EZ Productions, your real career break?
Europe-wide, Lutricia McNeal was my break. She was our first artist. We were four guys working on new productions, and we did remixes for one year and then we were approached us to do Lutricia’s solo album. We put her on the map.
And she helped put you on the map, because it wasn’t long after that that you joined Cheiron.
Yes, I didn’t have time to get the breakthrough myself because when Lutricia blew up I started working with Max [Martin] , and became part of the Cheiron team.
What was it that attracted Max Martin into wanting to form a partnership with you in 1998, and how did that come about?
By that time Denniz [PoP] was sick and couldn’t and didn’t want to work as much, and so Max was looking for a new guy to work with. As Stockholm is a very small town - everybody knows everybody - he knew about our production team and me, because we had Lutricia out at the time, and we also had a mutual friend, who introduced us.
And so I went there and played them some stuff. Not as an audition, but to see if there was anything I could do on the projects they didn’t want to do. I knew they had so many projects.
Was that mutual friend also in the music business?
Yes, that friend is actually a very successful producer right now. It’s RedOne (read the HitQuarters interview with RedOne here).
At that time what was your impression of Cheiron – was it already a strong influence?
Of course - everybody knew about Cheiron. It was the little magic place, the bubble where everything happened. And particularly if you lived in Sweden or were Swedish, it was a Mecca for music. So it was a pretty big influence for us because they had such great success before I came in.
What were the relationships like between the songwriters of Cheiron – was it competitive?
No, no, no. Well there’s always good competitiveness, but no, it was like a big family - very much collaborative. We had two different rooms, and I worked with Max mostly, and some with Kristian [Lundin] (read the HitQuarters interview with Kristian here) and Andreas [Carlsson] (read the our interview with Andreas here). We just had fun - we didn’t ever think, “Oh, you wrote that much on that song or that song.”
Do you keep in contact – follow what they’re doing?
Yeah. I bump into them when I eat lunch - it’s a small city. But I talk with almost everybody from the old Cheiron. I think we have a strong connection.
What is it about Sweden that creates such great pop music?
I don’t know, maybe it’s the dark nights, then the bad weather that makes people want to stay in and work. It’s nothing in the water though [laughs].
It’s the same question if you ask me, “Why are we so good at hockey?” We have a lot of great hockey players and lot of great producers. I think people sit in the studio and work a lot, just the great hockey players played a lot when they were kids.
There’s no shortcuts to becoming a great producer. It’s always great to have talent, but you got to stay focused and be on it all of the time.
Your first collaboration with Martin, and first worldwide breakthrough was Britney Spears’ mega hit ‘…Baby One More Time’ – do you remember what the production session was like?
We had a simple demo and then you need to make a production on it - that’s how we always start. I think we produced it in maybe four days. It’s so hard to go through how you produce a song because the song inspires you to do the production, it’s not the other way around.
What did you bring to that collaboration?
If you’re going to work with somebody they need to fill the spots you can’t fill yourself. The good thing with me and Max was that I was more of the hook guy – I’d make hooks and beats and play the bass - and Max was more the keyboard guy, the harmony guy.
If I work with somebody I want to work with somebody that knows stuff that I can’t do, or is better than me in a certain area. Because if you have two people working and they’re great both at beats and nothing else, you’re not going to get shit out of it.
What is Martin like to work with?
He’s amazing - my mentor is Martin. But overall it’s Denniz that’s been everybody’s mentor - he taught us everything, he’s the one who we’re holding really high.
Interestingly it seems many of the songwriters/producers that came out of Cheiron had backgrounds in rock music - do you think this has had an impact on the modern pop sound in any way?
I think it has. If I look at Cheiron, Kristian was in a Euro-Techno band, but with the rest of us - my band was a rock band, Max was a singer in a rock band, Andreas used to listen to KISS all day long.
On saying that, the old rock from the 80s and early 90s, like Scorpions or White Lion or whatever, is pretty much pop. It’s not like we listened to death metal. I think rock formed our base and essence from the beginning, and that’s also why we’re able to do rock music right now.
What are your other influences?
I listened to rock, but I never stuck to one sound. I don’t say I love hip-hop or R&B and that’s the only thing I listen to because as a producer you have to be an all-eater, you have to love everything. As long as it is a great song, it doesn’t matter. Everything I listen to affects what I do in the studio - I just don’t think about it.
Are there any aspects of productions and sounds that you have helped introduce into the mainstream?
I never thought of, “I’m gonna take this snare and this sound is gonna be big, and we’re gonna use this snare for ten other songs.”
When we were at Cheiron, we’d dress the songs into whatever production we felt like, and it happened to become the Cheiron sound. It’s nothing we thought about, but you end up with a formula. Little by little you have a red thread running through all of the songs, because you’re using the same samples or same sounds in certain songs.
Besides bass what other instruments do you play for your productions?
I play the piano, keyboard, bass and guitar. Although I can’t actually say I’m a pianist, I can make full songs and productions. It’s the creativity in how you use your tools that counts.
How were you involved with Pink’s ‘U + Ur Hand’ single?
I wasn’t part of the song’s production, but its writing. Me, Max and Dr. Luke did parts of the song before it was even considered for Pink, and then I was automatically part of the song because I helped write the song.
Can you explain how a song is written by multiple writers – is it passed from one person to the next?
Basically, you have to connect with the people you write with. You sit in a room and you just start flipping ideas like, “What do you think about this?” “Hmm, I don’t like it.” And then, “Well, what about this?” And, “Oh, that’s really good. That’s better!”
You can’t have an ego if you’re going to write like that. It’s teamwork. Ultimately, you want this song to be as amazing as possible because obviously then you sell.
So collaborative writing is so popular in pop music because it often creates a more well rounded, better standard of song?
Everybody is good at different things - some are good at lyrics, some at melodies, and some at hooks. So it’s the combination of completing each other that’s really good.
What advice would you have for aspiring songwriters/producers to make it on a professional level?
While it’s even harder now with the music industry as it is, at the same time it’s also easier because now if you buy an Apple laptop, you can do songs on GarageBand. When I started to do music you had to buy equipment that was really expensive.
However, as I said, there are no shortcuts. They have to stick at it, and not let go of whatever dream they have. You’ve just got to stay out there in the studio and work hard. Talent is always good to have, but if you’re a hard worker, it’ll come to you.
After Cheiron closed its doors in 2001, you, Max Martin and Tom Talomaa opened up Maratone Studios, and the hits kept on coming. Do you still work for Maratone or have you moved on again?
I split from Maratone about a year and a half ago. I’d been there for ten years. I went total with Max, and just felt that I needed to go my own way.
I’d hit a wall and didn’t want to work, and so I took over a year off to think about what I wanted to do. I just felt that I needed a fresh start, and so I’m now starting my own camp. I spend most of my time in L.A. right now, because I have a house there. I’m going to have my base in Sweden but spend most of my time in L.A.
I think the most important thing in working in a studio is to have fun. At Cheiron you were eight kids just working and it was fun. So I want to go back to that - find six to eight people to work in the same studio, because I think music wise you’re always stronger the more you are.
What’s your studio in Los Angeles called?
It’s called Kinglet Studios.
How do you decide on the projects you work on now, and how are you approached?
I choose them. I’m very picky, which is a luxury. When it gets to a point where you’ve made enough money, you don’t have to do stuff that kills your creativity.
I get approached by managers or labels or even artists themselves, especially in L.A., because in there you bump into artists at every restaurant. It’s an easier working environment for a music producer in L.A.
You mentioned earlier how you were originally connected to Max Martin via the producer RedOne - how did you first meet Red?
How the hell did I meet Red?! I can’t remember the exact moment I met him but it was ten or eleven years ago and I took him in and we started working together, and became like brothers. He worked with us in the studio for a year.
At that time he was a singer in a rock band too [laughs] - everybody is in a rock band - and he was writing songs, and we started writing together when I was producing. He wanted to learn how to produce - I can’t say I really taught him how to produce, but I got him interested enough to want to start to producing.
After that I started working at Cheiron and they only needed one guy, a producer. So we split and he flew to New York after a while. And then we just stayed in touch. And we both live in L.A. now, so we’re really connected back again. He’s going really well – he’s top 5 - and I’m so happy for him.
It must be very satisfying when someone you worked with early in their career becomes successful?
It’s amazing - I love it. He’s like a brother to me, so it feels like I’m having the hit songs. There’s nothing better than friends having success.
What’s your impression of Lady Gaga?
She’s amazing - a true artist. It’s like when Madonna came out - she’s cocky, has real confidence, has her own style, she doesn’t follow people, she’s a leader. If Gaga wasn’t the personality or the trendsetter she is, it wouldn’t be as big.
What’s in store for Rami in the near future?
I’m going to finish the Backstreet Boys, which is almost done now. I’m going to jump into this new project - a girl group that’s not been signed yet. A rocky girl group, but as poppy as the Pussycat Dolls - so Pussycat Dolls meets Pink, basically.
Most of all I’m getting my camp together. It’s probably going to take a year just to going to find people, good people. And then I would like to find my own artists. It’s funny how I come across a lot of artists on MySpace or that come up to me, and they’re really great, even better than some of the artists the label presents to me.
So I’m just thinking why wouldn’t I do that and then go to the label and get a bigger cut of it. They have much more freedom that way too. As a producer, there’s nothing better than breaking a new artist. You see how Red blew up with Gaga or with me when I did Britney. Jumping on the eleventh album of Céline Dion is not nearly as exciting - nobody really cares.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with esteemed music promoter Amanda Beel.
Read On ...
* Special feature on Sweden's ongoing influence behind the scenes of pop
* Interview with RedOne, producer for Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson's final recordings
* Interview with songwriter and fellow Cheiron graduate Andreas Carlsson
* Producer/songwriter Per Magnusson talks Cheiron, Swedish pop and Leona Lewis