Interview with Music Producer Scott Mathews
by Eric Mendelsohn
The people Scott Mathews has worked with reads like a who's who of music legends, but the name Scott Mathews may not be familiar to you. He started off as a session drummer in San Francisco, had international success with his partner Ron Nagle in a band called The Durocs, and at the age of 21 had one of his songs covered by Barbara Streisand. He's worked with Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, Neil Young, Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and many, many more. His songs have sold millions for a wide range of artists, he's been involved with numerous Grammy winning projects, and turned down an offer to join the Beach Boys when they were still filling stadiums with all three Wilson brothers. He also works with some of the hottest up and coming bands around.
His studio, TikiTown, located just outside of San Francisco, is a converted house filled with a vast array of music memorabilia, vintage instruments, gold records, and many photos of Mathews with people he has worked with. He is very much a family man, living just up the road from his studio with his wife, two children, and several animals, including a 15 year old pig named Elvis. He values his friendships more than anything he's accomplished in his over 25 years of making hit records with music legends, and his passion for music is as strong now as it has ever been.
How is it that over the course of your career, you've continually worked with so many artists you admire?
I love it so much. These moments occur, they still occur where you are in the studio with somebody that's incredible, you've grown up idolizing their music, and sort of idolizing them because they are that person. But the studio is the great equalizer because you find yourself in a room with them and you are aware that this is that person and that's exciting but really what it comes down to is do you have an idea that can make this song go anywhere? I hope my work speaks to my admiration by being able take them further. If you trip on it too much then I suppose you just become another fan as opposed to a helpful collaborator.
I relate to them, get along with them, and I bust their chops, make good music with them. Maybe there's some sort of sense of, I don't know, it's not entitlement, because you're in awe of some of these people, I always am, but at the same time I do believe there's an equal value. If I'm here to do what I'm supposed to be doing, and they are too, let's cut the crap and go to work.
As far as why and how I've been able to pull it off all these years and have worked with so many of my heroes? I've asked myself that question too. I don't know, it's something that others have explained to me that people get that I get them, like dogs sniffing each others asses, “oh, okay, you're that” (laughs). I don't know, it's weird, because you don't know people very long in this industry. Often times you meet up with people very briefly and then decide “hey let's make a record.” Often times I don't even meet the people first. I hear their records, then emails and phone calls, then I fly out to Australia to make a record with them and meet them for the first time. So in a sense it's a combination of a lot of things. Your track record speaks for you in ways you kind of don't have to. And then when you meet up, hopefully there is a certain chemistry that takes it all the way. Because I honestly believe in that more than someone's track record or discography. I think that the right young guy that comes along having not really produced anything of merit can meet up with the right artist and make the perfect record for that person, rather than some intimidating producer that has a laundry list of household names he's worked with that can come in and be the absolute wrong guy.
To what factor would you attribute your continued success with so many different artists?
My love for the music. I know how cliché that sounds but believe me, it's not to please some guy that works for a record company this week and is selling shoes the next week. Understanding what is genuine and ushering out all that is bogus. Communication and a huge amount of trust. But also performance. I have to prove myself everyday and I expect the same from my artists. Obviously creativity is a huge thing, but maybe overrated in a sense that other things aren't taken into account, such as personality and do I feel like making music around this person? Am I doing my best because this person is involved?
So I hope that I can be in that category where I bring out the best in the artist that I'm working with. And I want the studio to provide that too. That's why my studio doesn't have a sort of laboratory feel to it, it's hopefully a very warm environment where people often forget they're under the microscope, which they are, but there's not a big window in the studio so they can't really see what we're doing. “Ahh, let's just run it down, just warm-up your voice” and of course we're recording and they don't know it. So they give me all their good stuff before they know we're recording! And I'll tell them later, after we've suffered through a horrible, stressful event where they're flipping out because they have to sing well, and they're upset that they couldn't get it, I'll say “come on in I want you to hear something,” and they'll come in and I'll play them a take from early on and they're just nailing it! Usually when an artist is comfortable with something, you are going to get the real stuff. I try to get to the music as much as possible which is sometimes just setting the stage in a simple way which almost makes them forget about the fact that we're recording. Those are some of the tricks of the trade that are valuable.
When I was 17, it was a very good year. Ron Nagle introduced me to the legendary Jack Nitzche and wow, talk about opening doors! I found myself doing work with absolute giants. All of a sudden every project had a household name attached to it. Ron and I have always affectionately referred to our pal Jack as the godfather. Without his guidance, friendship and genius/insanity, I have no idea if I'd have the grip I have both musically and philosophically.
You can underscore talent, but it's all these other things, your personality, who you are, that people don't often think about. Why were the Beatles able to keep the talents of those guys together? I mean it was just an incredible contribution that George Martin made to the balance of that band. He wasn't a rocker, he was an older guy that produced comedy records, he was classical, he was stately, and they were rough and tumble straight from the streets of Liverpool and Hamburg, amphetamines and pints. Very different worlds, and yet he understood and had the patience to expand their vision into these realized records that seemingly become more fresh every time you listen to them. Incredible.
How does your role as producer change with the different artists you work with?
Sometimes I'm completely in charge of every aspect of every single part of the record, and other times I just want to disappear and let the creative spirit steer itself because it's going so well. And I pray for more sessions like that! I'm a big believer that when a song is written, the honest and most true rendition of that song is probably the first recording that you get. You can get to places that first time that are hard to get to with any number of subsequent attempts. And not to say that sometimes you might get better later on, but it's fresh, it's all new and all creative as opposed to put on display and questioned with what can we possibly do to make this thing work?
As a teenager, I started in the studios primarily as a session guy. I was writing, I was producing, but what was paying the rent were these sessions, and more than a fair share of them were hideous jingles. But it was San Francisco I chose to live in, not L.A., so I guess I had to pay the price somehow! I can laugh now but they were hard sessions to sit through at the time, even though I was actually learning a lot. We're selling chicken, now we're selling gasoline, now it's The Gap. So obviously I wasn't emotionally vested in the sessions, my heart didn't go into the making of the music, but in some ways nothing was more important than those early sessions. They inadvertently taught me how to make records, to come up with ideas, and they paid me to do music, which was the whole idea. I mostly remember what not to do from many of those producers and in the final analysis, that's more important than learning what to do. It was crazy, a chicken commercial one day, and being in the studio with Mick Jagger the next day, was kind of similar. Except I got paid more to make a McFeather commercial than I did to work with McJagger! (laughs) I was buying a house with these foul, fowl jingles.
What do you look for in an artist you decide to produce?
I want songs that move me, and a compelling voice that goes with it. There's this intangible sort of quality in people that's not exactly in the manual on how to produce records or be a great musician. It doesn't say, ‘personal hygiene,' (laughs) you know, these things are important. I've worked with great engineers that don't bathe, so I get another engineer. I've got to be in a room with these guys for months. So there are a lot of little things that get amplified in the studio.
My heroes, what separates them from other great music people are things like humor and other sensibilities that you pick up on that are equally as important. Let's take for example Hal Blaine. Hal Blaine is a great drummer, no doubt about it, but he is also one of the greatest guys to be around. He's funny, he's nurturing of music, he's patient, he's understanding of the creative process to where you're very, very comfortable around him. And along the way, that journey with this person is so rewarding, you want that guy around. That's why Hal Blaine is the most recorded musician in history. Plus, he's a drummer and he prefers a lyric sheet as opposed to a chord chart. My kind of musician - intuitive!
Of all the things you have done, what work are you most proud of?
The truth is, the highs and the lows of coming up and going down and whatever the ride has been, have all been incredible situations that are really hard to trade for anything else, because even when it's down you're learning a lot from that down that maybe will give you more insight into what to be grateful for when things are up. There are so many lessons in all that. I hate to be so ‘Marin' about it but it's really true. There are so many memorable occasions that are always going to be very important to me.
But then there are certain people that I can't help but feel completely blessed to have been in contact with. Some of these people are very well known, others are not. Ron Nagle is somebody that I feel like if I hadn't met early in my life things would not have unfolded the way they did for me and I'll forever be grateful to him for being my best friend and my best collaborator and introducing me to a lot of people. My career expanded immensely through my contact with Ron Nagle. He is and will always be sort of my mentor. I love and respect him in ways I can't even explain right here. He knows it though, so I don't have to!
It's really cool, especially if you ask me now, to be able to bring up Brian Wilson because he's very much alive and we've stayed friends off and on (depending on who his doctor is!) all these years. I got to see him in his sort of ‘triumphant' return with Smile with my other pal Van Dyke Parks, who called this morning to thank me for coming to the show and driving him home when he got too bombed! Guys like Brian and Carl Wilson turned into people that I ended up making music with and sort of turned the corner, idolizing them in just a musical context, then becoming, especially with Carl, sort of best friends. I never had a closer, better friend than Carl Wilson, and I miss him every day of my life. And Brian, I'm not as close with but when we see each other it all comes back, being in the studio together and we used to have a lot of fun.
He's a really funny guy, Brian, and the band wasn't a great place for him to show that side of himself. I think it became a more stressful place for him to go, I think that's why he stayed in bed! And then after awhile, I think like the actor on Broadway that plays a role for so many years, kind of turns into that person. I don't think he was necessarily that damaged. And I used to know how to break through that and make him laugh. He clearly doesn't laugh as much as he did before. I was able to see that a couple weeks ago when we were together, it was a wonderful, warm and meaningful time, albeit brief. We are getting together again in a couple of weeks.
Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson, and the Beach Boys as an entity were an important contribution to me musically as a kid. I sort of wanted to be in a band and make music because of Brian Wilson's music, and I also wanted to do what Brian did, which was not participate so much on stage as write the songs and produce the songs. I always thought that was the coolest thing, to be able to be the music of the band, but not necessarily have to bring it to Toledo, Ohio, which is a fine, fine town, but I'd rather be in the studio making the next record. You know, like the Beatles did, they said we're not performing anymore because the studio is our place to be. Then they broke up! I think it was personal hygiene.
Working with heroes is one of those pinch me feelings. I know we had a lot of good moments in the studio and some of them escaped into record form and others I've got privately on tapes and probably I'm the only one who will ever hear this stuff, but to go through that stuff with people that you think highly of not only musically but as people, those are really where the highlights are, and when you develop lifelong friendships out of it, those are things that mean much more than the conquest of working with your hero sort of thing. Bragger's rights of that pales compared to knowing this is an important person in your life.
For example with Elvis Costello, we're friends who trust each other's musical opinion. And yet it's crazy to have Burt Bacharach running arranging ideas by me! But Elvis introduced me to him as some kind of great arranger! I think what it comes down to is, for me anyway, I tend to think about the people I've been able to maintain meaningful friendships with, even many years after the fact. You know, we made a record, or we made several records, and that meant a lot obviously, but then to be able to be close to each other, to ring up on birthdays and holidays and see each other whenever possible, that really means a lot to me, and sort of feeds the creative side as well. It's the friendships that mean the most. They're just people too. I think it's just really cool when the Stones come through town, I get a call from the Keith Richards party. It's like there are two camps, in all these bands there are always two camps, in that band there's Mick's camp and there's Keith's camp and you do not cross the lines. You're in one or you're in the other, and for a long time I was in Mick's and then when I got to work with Keith, I got transferred or traded over to the other side, (laughs) I went over to the dark side.
I did a record with Elvis Costello that was a grouping of strange outside people like Jerry Garcia and Elvis Presley's band, so you had a bit of both The King and the other Elvis, that's one of those once in a lifetime records. That was really fun to help coordinate and see get out there. And that's a live record, so talk about first impression, right impression, you only get one shot. It's kind of odd to mention one of my favorite records that I was involved with was a live record, but it does speak to spontaneity. I feed and thrive off of spontaneity in the studio, that's really what I excel at. It's surprising how more immediate things that come to some people fairly quickly are those timeless things that are right for now and they're right for long term. Bob Dylan will tell you that about his songs, “oh, I wrote that one in ten minutes.” Some of his greatest work that he admits he could never get back to, were kind of stream of consciousness, “I'll figure out what this song means later, but for now it goes like this” and that's how it was recorded. It's not for everybody but I really love working with artists that are open-minded and free-spirited enough to appreciate the value in that and to at least give you a shot before it's over thought. I'm a one take guy. I love one takes. I love the mistakes that you go back to and listen to and there's some charm there. You know, you can fix it, it's simple to fix and you might even do that, but quite often those are the moments I look forward to. You can make things too perfect, and then you might as well be making jingles.
With the state of the music industry as it is and all the changes, where do you see things going?
We have this antiquated system of distribution and promotion that was always unfair toward the artist, at least monetarily, and I'm all in favor of this switch that can be more fair for the artist. But where it's going to end up is anybody's guess right now. It's still being defined and every day there's another wrinkle that's ironed out. And radio is so tight, radio is almost non-existent, except for one out of thousands of artists. You see the cards are stacked against you so my initial feeling is that it's a hard sell right now to say that's cool, but we've got to go through it to turn it around. You've seen this before where you get so consolidated, that it's similar now to monopolies. This company is now what used to be these three huge entities that were all major labels, they're now this huge major label, and there's about two of them left, maybe three. It takes the desire out of most people coming up if they're not already established, to find ways that are reasonable for their work to get out. So there's a million and one directions that can go, but what I hope in the end happens begins to give us more as creative people in the music industry.
I disagree with some of these things that are said on these music panels where we're all supposed to be up there as these know-it-alls, “this is the format, this is how you have to write your songs, this is how to pitch your song, you have to do this and this” and I'm not one of those guys. I believe that each and every individual approach is valid because that's what makes all the genuine artists. I don't want to mislead people to think that's how it always works. Talking one-on-one to some of these people at these conferences can be very rewarding because then I get a chance to really know who they are and what they want to do, where I feel like I can really help. You can't just get up there and say “this is how it really works.” It might, and it might have worked for the person saying it, but it might not for the next person. It's just not black and white.
Out of my discontent for finishing a record that I have high hopes for, and it's not just the record it's the artist, and I really believe in them and we hit the mark on the record and all systems are go when they leave the studio. You know, we're all thrilled we made the record that we wanted and then all the hoops they have to jump through after the studio, it's not a comfortable situation for me anymore to just make them sink or swim on their own. Or to just wish them the best and just kind of know that the cards are so stacked against them. So what can I do to change that? I can bring in people that I really believe can help work the other side of that. Now we are talking about artists that aren't signed to a label yet, which is developing artists more, which is what I want to do and find new ways to get them out there. It's challenging. It's no small feat. But it's only if I find artists that I would die for. And sometimes at the end of a record you really know if that's the case. You can't make these deals or offers before you record, just like anybody else does, you can't sign someone to a record label until you go in and prove it, and that's what we're in the business of doing, of proving that, that they are that great and that special and then help them put together a real game plan to proceed as recording artists. Too many good things come our way, then not always seeing the light of day.
But then conversely, sometimes I work with artists that are so driven and motivated on their own to see it through. That's where I've seen number one records come from, where no one has ever heard of these people before, this is their first record but the artist is such a follow-through person. And it takes their life to be able to be set up that way where they maybe made some money doing something else and now they're taking that money to promote the record and I've seen complete and total success from that. Especially in Europe, it just comes down to if you can get a list of all the program directors and DJ's and service them all with a call and you send them something and follow-up, it could be your own label or a small label, if the work speaks for itself, that it is genuinely great, there are people that will listen to that stuff. Payola doesn't run every end of the industry. There is something to be said for quality.
My mantra now is if you're not independent, you're dependant. I'm pulling in all these people that are used to the huge expense accounts and living large on this endless payroll, going into the rather scary world of getting up in the morning and whatever you do, you do for yourself. No one's paying your way anymore. It's kind of daunting I think to come out of that world if you've been in it for 20 years and been very successful, to jump into this working for your self frame of mind. But I'm a big cheerleader for it because the benefits and freedom it allows you is just incredible. But the other side of it is you don't have that record company to rely on through thin times. So you live and die by the sword. Or the chord! (laughs)
What about satellite radio?
I'm nuts about it! I was called by the San Francisco Chronicle to come up with my top ten list for the year and one of the items was something along the line of what's the newest breakthrough of the year? To me it's satellite radio, and also web casts, along the line of Little Steven's Underground Garage which I love! He has to be the coolest DJ I've ever heard. He knows everything about the records, everything that went into making them and can talk about it in an engaging way and then play all this stuff that you want to hear. Some that you are familiar with and some that is brand new. I'm crazy about satellite radio. I hope I'm right to say that the future of radio is in satellite, because it will just blast open the flood gates to all these genres that we can't hear.
What's next for you?
Oh, not much, you know, world domination - one record at a time! No, honestly, the reason I am so stoked to be in the game after doing this so long is I know I'm hitting my stride. On a strengths and weakness level, I realize what I am best at is what our industry needs most. I find, develop, produce and nurture the most deserving artists that cross my path. Think about the term 'music industry' - 'music' comes before 'industry'. Maybe some record companies have long forgotten that, but I haven't, so I set up my company to serve that purpose. I realize that may sound rather simple, but as a producer, it's easy to get sidetracked into deals that might be financially attractive but musically, and personally, off track. I can't fake it in the studio so I have to choose my projects very carefully. My bullshit detector is on 11! When I find a genuine artist that deserves a shot, I feel it's my duty to dig deep and follow through with a product that allows the rest of the world in on it. That is rewarding on every level and what gets me out of bed in the morning. I can't wait to find what music is waiting around the corner...
Eric Mendelsohn is a freelance writer from San Francisco and can be contacted at email@example.com