Mitchell Froom has been making art out of pop music for the better part of four decades, producing legendary artists like Randy Newman, Crowded House and Paul McCartney. This week he steps out as a solo artist himself with the release of two new albums; Ether and Monkeytree. Having worked with him on a record of my own back in 2014, I caught-up with the legendary producer to talk about his latest musical explorations.
You’re known the world over for your production work with storied artists, but you’ve only released a few albums as a leader. What was the impetus to make another record on your own now?
Well, I don’t sing or write lyrics, and I’m certainly known more as an arranger than a virtuoso musician, so very different things have to motivate me. I guess it starts when I feel the need to explore something in-depth musically that’s a bit outside of the box. That, of course, can lead to new ideas on the production side of things. It’s like looking at it more as a life in music than as a producer, musician or solo artist.
After a long hiatus (your last solo album released in 2005), this week you are releasing two new projects as a a leader - an EP and a full-length album. How are they similar, and how are they projects unto themselves?
With Ether, I had the idea of going back to my analog synths and some other keyboards I’ve been using a lot to create kind of surreal arrangements of some pieces I’d written. Then, after I found my way a bit, it extended to some songs I’d worked on with other artists, who were nice enough to let me use their vocal performances and let me provide the backing. I was really interested in seeing how much emotion I could pull out of these artificial sounds, so it was a very slow process. Often it was recorded as single lines that were each given their own treatment with volume rides, EQ, etc. I think it sounds more like a strange theater organ than anything else. Moneytree is an EP I put together with my recording partner, the engineer/producer David Boucher, and a few musician friends of mine. Musically, it’s the polar opposite from Ether. It came out of a desire to see how far we could push the cut-up samples threshold while still staying musical. I had just acquired the actual 70’s sessions used for the Optigan keyboard, so there was a lot to explore. So it’s designed to be super “short attention span” and explosive. I guess the only way they are really similar is that they both are very much interested in exploring the possibilities of the recording studio.
As a producer of other people’s music, you're known as someone who makes decisive decisions in the studio. Is it hard to do the same when you’re producing yourself?
Well, it’s a lot easier when there are more people in the room! I've always believed in the importance of trusting in the moment that the music really sounds great to all involved. No matter what, there are times that doubts will come up, so that moment is crucial so that you don’t overly torture yourself. So, yes, Ether was a lot harder on me than Monkeytree.
Can you talk about some of the things from your keyboard collection that you used on your new projects?
Monkeytree has some of the strangest ones because many of them are acoustic, and I had David around to record them. The opening track starts with a Dolceola. It’s a turn of the century instrument that most famously was used on some old recordings of Washington Phillips. I have no idea how he played them the way he did. Some things he did seem literally impossible. It’s a very small instrument, so of course we tried to make it sound as big and confrontational as possible. There’s also a handmade, button calliope instrument in the mix that I found years ago in an antique music store. I also used a strange little piano called a Schill, and a lot of the usual suspects here and there like a Wulitzer electric piano, the Hammond B3, the Vox Continental Baroque organ, a Hohner Clavinet, an Orchestron and some I’ve forgotten!
Ether operates more in the synth world. I used the Roland Jupiter-8 that I bought new in 1981, a Moog Minimoog, the Teenage Engineering OP-1, and the Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano. I didn’t use my Chamberlains because I needed greater control and a more extensive library, so I used the M-Tron stuff, particularly the Streetly tapes, which are great. It’s quite a different experience using them as opposed to the real thing, but I tried to treat them as if they were a completely different instrument, and I think they’re valid in their own right depending on what you’re doing.
You also have a number of guest vocalists on Ether. What did they contribute to the album?
All of the artists that appear are people I’ve worked with over the past few years. In most cases, I had already recorded the songs they had written, and asked if I could reinvent them with a different backing. Sometimes it required some reharmonization, but mostly it was a matter of orchestrating them. I’ve worked quite a bit with Kat Edmonson and Pete Molinari who are both truly great. But one of the few nice things for me about the state of the music business is that it’s given me the chance to work with a lot of artists from different countries. BG is a legendary Russian artist who’s one of the most impressive men I’ve ever worked with. Jacqueline Govaert is an incredible singer/songwriter from Holland who I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few albums with. Mirco Mariani is a great Italian artist with a deep love for the world of Mellotrons and exotic keyboards. He invited me to play a series of concerts with him in perhaps one of the strangest bands ever. We had a Theremin player who triggered samples, an Ondes Martenot, glass harmonica, jazz trumpet, two guitars, and I played Mellotrons and organs. It was wild, but somehow remained musical. He recorded the shows, and I used the vocal from the show on my record. So even though the world is tough on singer songwriters and people who work with them right now, it can have its benefits!
What kinds of modern synths and plugins/technology did you use in the making of this new music?
A lot of my work these days involves developing arrangements on the computer, so I use quite a bit of technology in that context. I find that, in order to keep the quality high with smaller budgets, trying to figure out as much as possible upfront can really focus the sessions. Sometimes we have a great band for a particular project, but time is limited, so I try to develop arrangement blueprints that can help things along. I make sure to always work with great musicians, because I want the sketches I come up with to be interpreted, not copied. Then you hopefully get the best of both worlds - a record with focus and spontaneity. I use Pro Tools 12, with a lot of the usual suspects. Trillian Bass, M-Tron, Abbey Road drums. Sometimes also things like strings, horns, drum machines, and a lot of plug-in delays and compression.
How has record making changed since you made a name for yourself in the 1980s?
It’s changed dramatically, but some things are the same. A great song is still a great song. The same goes for quality performances, arrangements and engineering. So all of those elements still need to come together however you choose to put a record together. Of course, in the 80s and 90s, it was still based primarily on getting a band together in the studio and working things out. There was much more collaboration involved at it’s inception because we were allowed whatever studio time we needed for the most part. There were very few home studios, so musicians would be in more situations to hang out and hear what other artists were up to. I’d often go down the hall and play on someone's record. Things are more isolated now, and technology adds both new possibilities and new complications. Should you fix a tuning or timing inconsistency because you can? Is it actually better or does it just make you feel safer in the moment? Now that most things are perfectly in time and in tune, does it mean that it’s a good thing for the feeling of the music you’re working on? These are not small questions, and there are many more.
Your old Crowded House compatriot Neil Finn is fronting the new touring version of Fleetwood Mac. The sentiment of his song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” seems to have come true!
Well, I don’t think it was ever in question with Neil. He’s a seriously dedicated and talented musician who brings his entire focus to everything he works on. I remember he once told me about the importance of bringing your full attention to even the smallest overdub. Play it with intention! It’s never even close to being over with that guy!
What’s next for you?
I just finished what I think is truly a great album with Rufus Wainwright. It looks like it’s coming out next year. I think he's one of the most accomplished singer/songwriters we have, and he has a multitude of talents. His songs, singing, and vocal arrangements are spectacular, and he brings deep focus to every aspect of the recordings. It was a long and detailed process, but, for me, worth every minute of time spent. I’m also working on a really cool album with the lead singer of a great Belgian rock band called Triggerfinger. His name is Ruben Block, and this is his first solo album. I produced the band’s last album, which tried to reinvent some of the basic rock conventions. We just opened things up a bit. Ruben had some really interesting ideas, like recording with two distorted basses and drums, but no guitars. So we’re trying to take things a bit further away from the band format with this, and trying to see if we can present the excitement of rock music in a compelling way.
How can aspiring artists get in touch with you to hire you to produce them?
I think it’s pretty simple. I’m not on it much, but I’ve even been contacted occasionally through Facebook. Usually someone knows someone who knows how to get a hold of me!