Exclusive Interview with Multi-Platinum Producer, John Kurzweg

Soundwerkz speaks with multi-platinum Producer John Kurzweg. .

ROB: Hi John…I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.

JOHN: Hi Rob

ROB: Where did you first hear about Puddle of Mudd ?

JOHN: Flawless contacted my manager, Matthew Freeman. I was in L.A. mixing DoubleDrive and Matthew handed me three cds by different bands. I called him before Control was even over. At that point I hadn't heard enough to know whether I should commit to the project, but I told him "this is really cool…tell me about it". Mathew said "they are in town you can go see them if you want" and then he made a call. Danny Wimmer (Flawless/A&R) said come see them. They showcased for me in a rehearsal studio. Danny Wimmer and I were the only ones in the audience and they did great, which is a hard thing to do.

ROB: What is it about Puddle of Mudd that made you want to work with them?

JOHN: The songs. I got a demo disc and Control [the first POM single - ed.] was the first song on it. That was really the thing -- I loved Wes's voice and I liked the songs. Those are the two main things I look for when people are sending me stuff. Do I like the songs, and do I like the singer's voice? Does the singer's voice sell me on the song?

ROB: Was the demo well produced ?

JOHN: It was pretty good for a rough demo. For as quickly as it was probably mixed, it sounded good. It sounded pretty big. It was raw. You could tell the guy had a cool voice and cool ideas right from the beginning. It didn't have all the little finesse things that we put in it; it was much more a "here's the song" type of thing but right away you got the vocal, the basic elements and general arrangement.

ROB: Did the band track the album primarily "live" in the studio or was the album built track by track ?

JOHN: With Puddle of Mudd, we tracked the drums "live" with the entire band and then re-tracked most of the bass and guitars afterwards. I was talking to another successful producer and I asked how much stuff he keeps from the basic tracking. He said that he has rarely been in a situation where the bass or guitar parts are not better after redoing it [after the drums are done]. But that's not always the case. On the Eagle Eye Cherry stuff, I ended up using all the "live" bass and the two main guitars. We did a lot of pre-production and they were also a band that had been playing together a while. You do whatever works. If the "live" stuff is great, then hey -- keep it!

ROB: Where was the P.O.M project recorded and mixed ?

JOHN: Most of the drums and basic tracking were done at NRG in L.A. The bulk of the record and the overdubs were done at Third Stone in LA. Andy Wallace mixed it at Sound Tracks in New York.

ROB: How was it working with Fred Durst?

JOHN: We really only worked together at the very end. He would come in and listen to rough mixes and make suggestions. Sometimes we would try further arrangement changes, because we could experiment in Pro Tools. Most of it was at the very end of the project so I only worked with him maybe two or three days. He's very creative and very intuitive.

ROB: There is a considerable buzz on the band and the album. There has been quite a bit of talk and comparison of Wes Scantlin with Kurt Cobain in the industry. Any thoughts on those comparisons?

JOHN: I think Wes has his own thing. Given time and listening, people will see that there's a decent amount of distance between their voices. Wes's voice is a little bit more "America Down Home". There are certainly similarities. I mentioned in an interview for MTV News that I was drawn to the voice because it was reminiscent of Cobain. I thought of it as a positive thing, a compliment, because I haven't heard anybody doing that kind of writing and singing. The influence is there. I think with time a good artist falls into his or her own voice. The more you do it, the more you are discovering yourself. Sometimes I think I'm watching - and hopefully, helping -- the artist discover him or herself.

ROB: As a Producer, do you rely primarily on your management for potential artists or do your sources vary?

JOHN: Varied sources. A lot comes from my manager. Sometimes I can get two or three cd's a day just from him. I get stuff sent directly from bands, from friends, labels send me stuff direct, radio guys send me stuff, managers. It's very much all over the place.

ROB: I think some people don't realize that producers, like artists, have managers, because often these managers are unknown outside of close-knit industry circles. How does an up and coming producer attract a manager of this sort?

JOHN: I think it's hard for up and coming producers to get associated with a manager. When Creed had gone gold, I sent out letters and called all the managers. There were probably about eight different companies that I knew of that handled "name" producers. Not one of them wanted to talk to me, because they had their rosters filled. They didn't need any new producers. Matthew at Lippman [Entertainment] was the only one that kept calling me back. He liked the record and he wanted to work with me. So based on my experience, I would say it's hard to get a manger. I think producers have to manage themselves until they get a big break.

ROB: Can you tell us a bit about what goes on in pre-production? Did you and the band hit it off in pre-production or was there a certain proving time to build trust ?

JOHN: I think there is a proving time for the producer. Usually a band doesn't have to prove anything to me - I've already heard their potential in the demos. The band comes in with all kinds of ideas and I'm going to work with their ideas. The hard part as a producer is persuading a band to trying the song the way you are hearing it, like "what if we shorten that bridge" …"what if this part here was three times instead of four"…and so forth. Bands can be very attached to their ideas; the song is their baby. I've noticed that bands who have made records and are a little more seasoned, like Eagle Eye Cherry, expect the producer to get very involved and want me to work with them on the songs. Eagle Eye wanted to get right down to business and start trying ideas to make the songs as strong as possible.

I think new bands often don't understand the distinction between a producer and an engineer. A band might think of a producer as a guy who just makes it all sound great, like an engineer. Many producers are really good engineers, and great sounds are part of a producer's overall job. But the producer also has a responsibility to make sure that the arrangements are tight and the songs as strong as possible. When a song is exactly as it should be, I'll just leave it alone or maybe make small changes. A lot of bands are used to playing the songs live and aren't thinking about the subtleties that can make it interesting to get it from one section of the song to another. The producer brings an independent ear to the arrangement process. A good producer can really enhance a record if the band is open and willing to work.

With any band, it might take a while to develop trust. It was an ongoing process with Puddle of Mudd, but by the last month of the project we had built some pretty solid trust. They were new to the recording process, and initially some of my ideas were alien to the band. That's normal to a degree. The key is to get everybody open to trying ideas that will enhance or improve the songs. A suggestion that I make on an arrangement might spark someone else in the band to think of a new idea. That's how the whole thing should work. It's not about the producer being a dictator or "the" genius. It's always a collaborative process.

ROB: Some producers are known for having a specific sound, which they then apply to each artist they produce. Do you think you have a signature sound, or do you adapt the sound of an album to the specific artist?

JOHN: I like to think of myself as adaptable. I've worked with and I like so many types of music. I hope I am not imprinting a John Kurzweg sound. In listening to the stuff I have done in the past ten or so years, I have noticed an organic quality that is similar throughout. Even with stuff that I have produced that is more electronic based, I still hear an organic quality to it.

ROB: What's the toughest part of dealing with an emerging band recording their first "real" album? Is it easier to work with a more established band that understands a producer's role?

JOHN: It really evens out probably to about the same amount of difficulty. A new band that hasn't recorded before, or done a record, usually doesn't have quite the studio chops yet and doesn't understand exactly how the process goes, so it can be really alien to them. The good part of it is, a young band can often come to the process with a pretty open mind about how things could happen.

It can be difficult as a producer to persuade bands to try ideas that might improve the songs. For example, I might hear a shorter bridge, or I might think the song will be more appealing to listeners if the band repeats part of the chorus. When suggestions like that come from an outside guy, it's really hard on a band. They can be very attached to things the way they are.

I've noticed that musicians who are a little more seasoned and have made records, like Eagle Eye Cherry, expect and even want me to work with them on the songs. Eagle Eye wanted to get right down to business and start trying ideas to make the songs as strong as possible.

ROB: You started out as a musician, got into engineering recordings, and then agreed to record Creed only if you were able to produce the album. Why were you so insistent on producing them as well as recording them? Does your multi-faceted background help you as a producer?

JOHN: I hope that I can answer this without making it three chapters long. I have been producing all along, beginning with the first project I ever worked on for a band. I was producing myself well before then. I can remember the first thing I ever did - a band called Apopka Vineyard -- on my eight track back in '88 or '89. With the exception of the few times I was hired as an engineer for another producer, I always produced the projects I worked on. I was always putting in my two cents about what I thought about the guitar solo, what I thought about the harmony vocal and whether it took too long to get to the chorus …things like that. Some bands listened and some didn't. With exception of the few times when I was hired to engineer by another producer, I don't know that I've ever simply engineered a record.

I started to insist on the "producer" role because I went through this period from '91 to '95 where some of the bands I worked with didn't give me credit, even though I had produced their records. Often I had no control of what these people did with their tapes after they left. It was expensive to put out a CD back then. Sometimes they released cassettes and wouldn't credit me anywhere. These local and regional bands would call me as if I were running a studio, wanting me to book them in open time like a studio would. I told them "I don't do that… send me your tape, I'll listen to it, and if I decide to work with you, then we talk". Some bands were offended by that.

When Creed came to me, I wanted to be clear up front so that there were no questions it when it came time to do whatever. Nobody was thinking in terms of an international release at the time - I just didn't want another CD coming out without my name on it. I didn't really start to think about getting producer credit until my other engineer/producer friends yelled at me. They would call me and say "hey, we just got a cd from a band that used to record over here… we know you produced this, so why isn't your name on it?" So the insistence on getting "producer" credit started as me trying to get a little smarter about the whole business side of things.

ROB: Any thoughts of ever returning to the opposite side of the glass as a musician and doing another album? Do you have time to write or record ?

JOHN: All the time. I'm kind of having to ride my fifteen minutes right now because I'm actually still starting my career in a way, but I would really love to take some time off and just work on my own stuff. Part of what's holding me back is the fact that no one will pay me to do that right now, and part of it is the fear that my phone would stop ringing if I pulled out of producing for too long. I would literally be taking six months with no income coming in. [but] I have been really thinking about this stuff lately.

I recently just purchased a nice sampling keyboard so that I could start writing again. I want to buy a really nice acoustic guitar. I want to get my equipment set up so I can quickly just walk in anywhere that I've got it, hook it up, and go, even if it meant just having a four track and a good acoustic guitar (which I don't have!). I would like to get back into that.

ROB: Has the success of Creed's Human Clay album created unfair levels of expectation concerning the success of subsequent bands? Is there now a pressure for commercial success you didn't feel with Creed?

JOHN: I wouldn't put it on Creed necessarily. I would just say the moment you are working with an artist that's on a major label, or a major independent, and the label is spending money - there is pressure!

While I feel those pressures, and I'm sure the bands do as well, what is great is once we start working, all that matters to me is whether something is interesting, if we are feeling it, and if it's sounding cool. I thank God when I actually get to work, and all that industry stuff flies out the window. It can all come back at dinner or later in the day, but fortunately when somebody's singing or playing guitar, at least for me, it's kind of nice. In a way it takes me out of that frame of mind and it's all about what's going on in that moment.

Even Creed -- when they are working, recording, playing and singing they are not thinking about that stuff. When they are writing, they are not thinking about that stuff. When you write something really good you don't know where it comes from, anyway. It's certainly not coming from a place that says "I need to sell five million copies" -- those songs usually get thrown away! What's sad is when I hear industry people talk, it often deteriorates down to units sold.

There's a good A&R friend of mine, who I think really has a great ear. We were talking about this issue recently and I was telling him that I like a strong, cohesive album where every song is great -- the type of album that makes you love to listen to it from beginning to end. He told me that those are his favorite records too, but you know what he said? His label would rather have a bad record with one smash hit than a cohesive great record with no smash hit on it. I've even worked on a few projects where we've turned in a very strong record and the label didn't release it. You need that smash hit.

A friend of mine said to me fifteen years ago "it's the music business, not the music charity". A lot of good music gets made, then falls through the cracks of the business. But that's not to say that music that sells is bad music. I think that some of the music being offered up by the industry today is really good stuff. Some musicians think the world is upside down - they think the music that's selling today is bad music, while all the good music is languishing somewhere, ignored by the record industry. I don't always agree with that thinking, because there's plenty of great music that has broken through and sold really well. Thank God for the U2's of the world and lot of other great artists. I think time may prove that Creed is one of those great bands.

ROB: As you have become more successful, you've been able to upgrade your equipment. Do you still use analog and tube gear to retain certain sonic warmth?

JOHN: I am really particular about what I use to record with. Back in '92 or '93 I got my hands on my first couple of API and NEVE preamps, even though it almost killed me to buy them at the time. It was just about every penny I could scrape together. When I compared those pre's to economy mixer preamps, I couldn't go back… but I had to! It was terrible. The economy pre's never sounded right to me again. Even on the first creed record I had to go the economy route on the tom-toms and high hats because I didn't have enough pre-amps to record everything with class A stuff. Once you have a few good pre's, it is really hard to tolerate recording a guitar overdub or a vocal overdub with just any preamp.

Now I have Neve 1066's and API Mic Preamps and Eq's that I absolutely love. I use those all the time. They are not tube technology, but they are almost more important than tubes. It's important to have great preamps and EQs like that. I will also run stuff through tubes, especially if I'm using Pro-tools.

ROB: What has been the biggest impact of your success with Creed?

JOHN: Looking back on the whole experience, from meeting with them, to doing the album, and all that followed, one thing I can say I learned is it's good to walk into a situation and not assume that you know everything, or have preconceived ideas about things. I think Creed was really open to possibilities, and I think it helped them. Some of the bands I have worked with have been stuck in jaded, know-it-all-thinking. They had too many negative, preconceived ideas. That kind of thinking holds you back creatively, it holds you back in your human relationships, and it limits the possibilities that are available to you. It's so important to be open to possibility. Creed's success has really had an impact on my thinking in that regard. I mean, five years ago I was making records in my house. Who would have thought we'd be where we are today?

On a day-to-day level, Creed's success has blasted me off into this realm of big label projects. It's been awesome. But I have to say, I wasn't really prepared for the business aspects of all of it! I didn't know you had to deal with all this craziness and the record company and radio stuff. Even the musicians and the management can get pretty crazy at this level. When they get wacky, I get stuck in all the craziness myself! I'm sure there are moments when the musicians think I'm being difficult. When you are just recording out of your house and there's no label involved, things are really very simple. There is no fear. In the music industry, there is a lot of fear. Fear is the great destroyer. I have had to grow up and confront a lot of this inside myself.

ROB: With Creed…they do their records usually in private homes in secluded locations. Do you find it more comfortable to work in a major studio situation or in a private setting?

JOHN: The pressure part of it is a lot better in a [private] house. Studio time is generally $200 an hour so when you're trying out ideas, or stuck creatively, the cost factor can compound the situation and increase the frustration level. I am pretty patient but I know a band can get freaked out by the fact that it's costing so much money. When you are in this famous studio where all these big records were made, you feel like the spotlight is on you and you have to perform. From that perspective, there is less pressure in private house.

On the other hand, I love working in studios because I can walk in and the gear is top notch, and it's all working. Studios have tech staff and assistant engineers who know the room. If something goes down it's fixed within the hour. Personally, it's a lot more stressful and more work for me to record in a house, but it's easier on the band.

ROB: On the production side, for those aspiring engineers out there, did you guys go direct to the tape ? Did you use Pro-Tools or a console to mix ?

JOHN: Every project I've done is different. Creed's Human Clay was tracked straight to hard disc. It never hit tape. It was mixed on an SSL9000. With Puddle of Mudd all of the drums went to tape and then everything after the drums went right into Pro-Tools. We wanted to get that tape sound on the drums. I think Andy mixed on an SSL G+. As of yet, I haven't done any major releases that were mixed in Pro Tools. I did recently mix a song for Jewel in Pro Tools that I thought sounded as good as what I've done on SSL's. If I can put my two cents in on it, personally, I think if you've recorded the stuff beefy enough, you've done a good job, and you are careful about what you do to it in Pro Tools, I think a Pro Tools mix can sound as good as any SSL mix. I don't think any of the SSL consoles actually add any wonderful character to anything. I think if you really want to add an amazing character to the record then you have to mix through a vintage NEVE or a really good API console. Then you are doing something to the sound that can't be done yet in Pro Tools. I would like to do more Pro Tools mixing because I think the sound quality is pretty good now.

ROB: There has been a recent influx of 5.1 surround rooms … do you think you would enjoy or do you want get into any 5.1 surround mixes ?

JOHN: I am going to take my time moving into that. So far the only thing I've done in 5.1 is "What If" and "This is the end" for Creed. I am not in any hurry to go there [5.1 surround mixes]. A lot of my job is to make all these parts fit into two speakers. In a way, I'm still into the challenge of stereo. It's always a challenge to get it to work right in stereo.

ROB: What are your thoughts on what makes a good song ?

JOHN: What makes music affect human beings is a very mysterious thing. Why do certain melodies and certain words affect us the way they do? We could sit here and come up with a computer program to analyze hit songs, but at the end of the day we don't know what it is. At some level there has to be an emotional connection. I use the word "essence". I remember my wife and I were having an argument about what made some bands real and some bands not real and I was saying some bands have no "essence". I could hear the band's brain but I don't hear their soul. She said "give me an example of something that has essence" and at that moment one of the ballads from Radio Head's album [the Bends] came on MTV. I had never heard the song before, and it was like magic that the song came on at that moment. I wasn't even sure who the band was at a time. I said, "THAT has essence -- that's what I'm talking about! "

What is essence? I would guess it has to come from a place of real human joy or pain or suffering. It can't come from the brain. If it comes from the brain, it's not going to connect. It can't just be the analytical. Usually there is some type of imagery; something in the lyric is evocative.

I also think that repetition is important. Many bands put too many melodies and chord changes in their songs. They mistake complexity for good songwriting, when in fact a single idea is more powerful and beautiful than a mash of ideas. I sometimes think that musicians react negatively to repetition because they are afraid of what other musicians will think if a song simply repeats the same two chords in the verse, or whatever. But repetition is a beautiful, powerful thing -- you can see it everywhere in life and nature.

ROB: I imagine that you tire of hearing rock music all of the time…what are some of the other types of artists, bands, that you are into on a personal level…when you are at home?

JOHN: It changes. I tend to wander around the store and buy whatever strikes my interest or curiosity. Two artists that I like a lot are Robert Rich and Gabriel Roth, sort of meditative--world music-dance type artists, mainly instrumental stuff. Another artist I've been listening to is Ben Harper -- I'm crazy about him. I often pull his records out.

Of commercial mainstream stuff that's out right now, I think the strongest record that I've heard in a long time is the new Train Record, produced by Brendan O'brien. From beginning to end, everything is where it should be. It's a great record.

ROB: Would you ever consider doing a blues record or something outside of rock ?

JOHN: Totally. I would love to do a blues record with the right artist. Also, I would love to work with an artist that wanted to an acoustic type of thing. I'm totally comfortable working in the instrumental jazz/fusion realm. It's rare that I've done anything musically that didn't interest me. I like so much different stuff. New Artist Advice

ROB: If you could give one piece of advice to a quality unsigned band with no manager, no lawyer, no contacts, and a solid rough demo, what would it be?

JOHN: Pray! [laughter]. No, really… whatever your spiritual notions may be -- because no matter how hard you try, there is so much stuff that you'll never be able to control. Life is crazy enough without trying to have a music career, and it's only going to get crazier with a music career. It's an insane business.

Other than that, I would say you've got to be heard. You can't sit at home and wonder why the world doesn't discover you. You don't necessarily have to go on the road. I spent years doing that and it didn't benefit me nearly as much as cutting really good demos and getting them out to the record labels. I do see a lot of people get lost at home trying to produce their stuff instead of working on the lyric, song, and emotional content. You have to make the decision whether you want to be an artist or a producer. What I hear people do a lot of times is write songs that are just ok and then start producing the demo themselves rather than making sure the song is great or writing another song.

ROB: Thanks again for the chance to talk with you. Congratulations on the success and I wish you the best for the future!!!

JOHN: Thanks Rob …… I enjoy talking with you.

ROB: Goodbye

JOHN: Bye Rob

VISIT JOHNKURZWEG.COM for more interviews, photos and music.

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