Production Notes: OneRepublic – Waking Up
I got a call from Ryan Tedder in early January of 2009. We talked for a long time, and he asked me to come out to Denver and work on their new album. I was being hired to do various things, which I think could generally be classified as “help”. After some crazy arrangements and logistics, I was there in early February. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and the first order of business was to help Dave get the house they had rented set up for being a studio. I had never met Dave before, when the car dropped me off that first night. I found him around back in a truck unloading gear, and after some quick introductions, we were fast friends and working away. It took us over a week to find and fill the house with enough furniture to make it liveable, driving around in the cold and snow, Craigslisting and cram-shopping. After that, Joe Zook arrived, so did all the gear, and I assisted him as he set the place up as an actual studio. He and Ryan had been carefully choosing items for a couple years, and they had chosen well. The gear was great, I was super-happy to be able to use it. Ryan, as well as the others, had also been gathering some examples of the world’s best guitar amps and instruments, which Dave and I would sometimes crank up after everyone left for the night.
Within the first couple of days that I was there, we went to Ryan’s house. We climbed into his car, and he played me the demos they had of some of the songs. First up was “All The Right Moves“, and I was blown away. The second album for a popular band is always a tough one, notoriously being known as the ‘sophomore slump’, meaning: a letdown. But when I heard that tune, I said something along the lines of, “If this is how the album’s gonna be, then this is gonna be great!” I heard a bunch of other ideas they had, and Ryan and I talked for a long time about goals, direction, methods, etc. He had the fire in his eyes of wanting to make something special, and that’s always something I want to be a part of.
The first few weeks had lots of talking and lots of rocking. Band members would show up either individually or together every day from about 10am to 2am, and we’d work on new song ideas or flesh out old ones. We had many band meetings, one of which I remember well that was in the kitchen. I was trying to find ways to get everyone aware of being behind singular, unifying ideas, both musically and conceptually, and that meeting seemed to be the point where things came together. The whole band loves so many different types of music, but they can all agree on one thing for sure: they all fully appreciate the greatness of a truly ‘popular’ song. And for their own personal goal, it was agreed that challenging themselves to bring a sound to the world of popular music that would challenge the status quo was of the highest order. These guys were in a roughed-up state when they showed up. After quite a while of slugging it away in LA clubs trying to get a deal, getting a deal, making a record, getting out of a deal, getting another deal, making more of that record, putting it out, and then touring behind one of the biggest singles of all time for about two years: they were spent. So, lots of talks went on about this as well. Finding everyone’s roles in the band, and rediscovering what unique awesomeness everyone brought to the table, took lots of hours (and a handful of fights). But that’s just it: some bands just give up when they get to this point. They aren’t willing to push through the growing pains, and work towards something together that is bigger than their own smaller, personal, petty issues. These guys were willing to fight, and, well, that’s what it takes. As a fortune cookie said to me recently, “A man never fails, he just gives up trying.”
Within the first month, no less than 60 song ideas went by my ears. So when something came along like “Secrets“, it’s greatness was made even clearer by the huge background of other ideas it stood amongst. One of Ryan’s best production ideas was allowing the songs that sounded ‘popular’ to be very much that (and not try to force them to be more arty or ‘cool’), and vice versa. Everyone wanted to make a real album, a true body of work that had balance. If a song idea was something everyone loved, but it was clear that it needed to be changed (forced) way too much to be radio-friendly, then it was taken to it’s best artistic level. This is the only way to make an album something you can listen to all the way through. If every song sounds like a modern day radio hit, you’ll most likely be worn out before the first half of the album is done. And if every song is an artful indulgence, thumbing it’s nose at convention, you might be likely to fall asleep before it’s over. Balance. Also, he was clear about wanting to only use what was necessary to get the song across. Instead of putting many instruments on just because, we tried to make sure everything had a good reason to be in the song.
Everybody in the band works differently, so I had to be flexible and awake (which got tough as time went on). If you’re not recording when Ryan and Drew are playing, then you’ll miss spontaneous greatness. Eddie has a place he gets to where the part and the feel come together, and if you work any longer or shorter, you’ll miss it. And Zach and Brent are craftsmen, taking the time to look for sounds and parts that are deep, simple, and the best-feeling. This made things exciting, but, admittedly, also made me a tired human. My brain and body were worn out at the end of each week, for sure.
Some other general things: not only are the band members themselves good people, but the band is surrounded by great people. Family and friends are supportive and real. Time is spent together hanging out, having fun, and making memories. This is very important, and a big reason why they made it through some very difficult times. Sweet love and tough love, but, lots of love. It was awesome to witness, and be included in (they treated me very well). And through this they make sure that they experience life in a full way, so they have something to actually want to express artistically.
When it comes to the music itself, one big thing I observed: you have people here who have been practicing what they do for a very long time. Ryan is over ten years in to being a professional song-writer, and has been singing since he was a kid. Not to mention playing piano and guitar for almost as long. Drew has been playing guitar in rock bands forever, way longer than his young age would imply, and is an encyclopedia of great rock music. Zach is fully-trained flamenco guitarist, with an uncanny life-long ability to pick up any instrument and do reasonably well on it (as we all saw when Brent handed him a viola and said, “Hey, maybe you could play this on ‘Secrets’. Two weeks later, he could do it.) Brent has been playing music of all types for his whole life, being fully classically trained. And Eddie has been a recording and live drummer in bands for well over 15 years. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that they can do what they do well. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and have never given up. It’s a lesson for everyone. And I got to witness that first-hand. And it was awesome.
And finally, this album represents a pretty decent balance of doing what they personally want to artistically, and doing something that is good for the people listening to it. Not just indulgent. Not just trying to beat the other acts on the radio at their own game. For better or for worse, they are kind of making their own game. And in that regard, I think this album is a success. That was their goal. Is there another song that sounds like “All The Right Moves” or “Secrets” on the radio these days? Not that I know of. Or maybe there are now, but only because they are influenced by 1R.
Not everything went perfectly, for sure. Some songs took too much time, and might’ve lost their way a bit. Some things weren’t communicated to each other very well, and caused more trouble than they should have. And occasionally the big vision was sacrificed for personal pursuits (by all of us). But, these pains were felt and dealt with instead of just being ignored, and that’s why the album feels like growth for the band when you listen to it.
I loved working on this album. It was hard work, and I learned alot.
(p.s. some of my links are inside jokes from the sessions, in case the band ever reads this. also, while i was there, i was reading/finishing this book. it helped me ask them the right questions that would help keep them on the track they wanted to be on.)