Lou Giordano is an award-winning music producer who has over 30-years’ experience working with a variety of bands, including Mission of Burma, The Lemonheads, King Missile and Sugar. He got his start in the music industry playing in bands in high school and while attending MIT in the 1980s, where he first had the opportunity to learn about the elements of the recording studio by working with a variety of local bands in a studio originally built by Amar Bose, founder of the Bose Corporation. In the ‘80s, Lou spent three years accompanying Husker Du on two world tours and worked throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s at Radiobeat Studios and Fort Apache Studios in Boston. In the mid-‘90s, Lou produced the Goo Goo Dolls’ multi-platinum album A Boy Named Goo. Most recently, he produced gold records for Taking Back Sunday and The Ataris.
Lou talked to me about how he found his way to music and shared some advice for artists about choosing the best producer for them and the elements that go into putting together a high-quality record.
Thanks for taking some time to chat, Lou. How did you get started in the music business? I know you played in bands while you were at MIT.
Yeah. I went to MIT, and I had been in bands in high school, so I just kept playing. And in college, I bumped into a couple people who got me into new things. One fellow in particular, Seth Gussow was renovating an old recording studio on campus that was used by Amar Bose when he was doing his doctoral thesis there, studying acoustics. He was working out the different techniques for what would later be his speaker company. He built a studio – a small recording room – and then there was a bunch of tube equipment that was in there. But it was all in a state of disrepair. Seth was restoring all the equipment. I didn’t really help him too much with that part of it, but I helped him with a few recording projects and really liked it. I got my feet wet with that.
Then, I started off at an 8-track studio in Kenmore Square. At the time I was more interested in the music side of it, not so much the recording. So, I was going out and discovering all these hardcore bands. The whole idea of punk rock to me was really fascinating, because I had been a big classic rock fan during the ‘70s and then got a little disinterested and felt like it wasn’t really speaking to me anymore. When this whole punk rock thing came up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s it was just really eye opening. The music was exciting, the fashion was fun.
And I made friends with a lot of the bands in Boston. Boston was a unique development environment for bands at the time, because you didn’t need to make a record. You could just go into the studio and make a tape. And then you’d make a few copies of the tape and carry it around to the three big radio stations at the time. You’d take it to those three, and then all of a sudden you were broadcasting to the entire Boston metropolitan area. And then, when you’d have a show, people would go. It was just incredible. It was this whole micro-economic development pot there.
It sounds like the process of getting your music heard was a lot simpler then. There were a lot less players, etc.
Well, you didn’t need a recording contract or any corporate approval to get your message out. As a result of that, there was a big business opportunity in recording radio tapes for bands. I went to the studio – Radiobeat – and that was what they did. It was funny, because the owner was more of an old school punk guy. So when all this new hardcore stuff like SS Decontrol and all the Taang bands were coming into the studio to record, the owner didn’t really like them very much. He didn’t want to be a part of recording some of those bands, so he taught me how to set the levels, and that’s what I ended up doing for a couple years.
A few people like Mike Dreese over at Newbury Comics decided to get into the game. He did the “Boston, Not L.A.” compilations and financed that and the whole Modern Method record label. That was kind of the beginning of that type of recording. At the beginning it was just recording. There was no production involved. It just became clear that there was a whole separate job to do. It was one thing to record the music. And it was another to sit back and say, “Not only can you record the music and make it sound good, but you can also make the music better by suggesting changes, rearranging the songs, suggesting lead guitar parts, harmony vocals, etc.” It was just really eye opening.
Some of the bands didn’t want any suggestions at all and were very protective of their content creation. But others were able to take suggestions and sing the vocal differently – play with all the little things that go into it. It was really a process of teaching yourself how to do it for everyone. And one thing led to another …
You’ve produced a string of super successful acts. And you were in a place where you had exposure to a large volume of recording. What would you advise someone to do that is interested in getting into the production side today? Is it about getting into a bigger studio and being part of as many records as you can?
At the time, I think there was an element – and there still is an element – of being in the right place at the right time. But then again, there’s also the idea that the more you do something, the better you get at it. You really learn from every single project you do, no matter how big or small it is. If you have your eyes open, you can learn something from it. I happened to be in this little college town where there was a lot of work being done. And opportunities would come up where you’d get out of the college town and go national. Then you really see what’s going on.
The one “golden ticket” – as you referred to it when we were talking the other day – with that time period was going out on the road with Husker Du. That was just an incredible experience in many ways, even just in terms of learning about how to make a financially-profitable tour. But then, just making all the connections with all the different local scenes around the country was huge. It was right after they got hooked up with SST Records. It was really interesting to see how they were running their label and getting everything going.
Getting back to your question, it’s challenging to know how to advise somebody to be a producer these days. One of the things I’ve seen over the years as the labels have downsized and we’ve felt the effects of illegal file sharing is that what was once a very lucrative career has become less lucrative in some ways. In some instances, people are paying one-tenth of what they used to pay for the same kind of content creation. I think a different model is developing now. And I think there will eventually be a way of monetizing music in a better way.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about what you think bands should be doing before starting to work with a producer. Are there specific elements they should have planned out in advance? And then, also, what should they be looking for when they are trying to find a producer that’s a good fit?
The first part of your question about what they should do is very important. And I know it sounds obvious, but I think a band needs to make a demo of a song that includes the lyrics and the music. That sounds so obvious. But I had a situation with a major label band where they wanted me to book studio time, and they didn’t have any lyrics or melodies written for their music. And I refused to do it, even though it was a big gig.
In my opinion, about 90% of people don’t write well in the studio. So, #1, have a demo of your song that includes the lyrics and melodies. You can always change things later. And now you have tools like GarageBand. The sonic palate you get with that is unbelievable. There’s no excuse for not having a good demo. Some bands have come to me with very elaborate GarageBand demos. And sometimes, it’s difficult to recapture some of the things they’ve done on there, and I end up using them straight out of GarageBand. I bought Logic Audio and trained myself how to use it – not that I would ever really use it in production, but just to extract some of the really cool stuff people were doing on their demos.
The second part of our question about choosing a producer – obviously, you want to go with their track record. If you like the way their records sound, that’s one thing. But the other thing is, I think there are different styles. There are some people who really like to get into the nuts and bolts of the song, take it apart and really be a very active presence in the content creation process. Then there are other people who just sit back and put the right people in the room, make it a party, have fun and have things get done that way.
A band doesn’t always necessarily know what’s best for them. But they usually know whether they’re going to let somebody into that inner circle and be a part of that creative process or whether they really don’t want that. I think that’s one of the big questions you have to ask as a band. And then you have to ask around. It’s pretty easy, because bands talk amongst each other. I think it’s pretty easy to find someone who’s worked with a specific producer you’re thinking of. And it’s easy to ask them what it was like, whether they enjoyed it, etc.
Sometimes there’s a little bit of tough love involved. Artists don’t necessarily want to be told that what they’re doing just isn’t cutting it. So, as a producer you have to deliver that message. And it may not resonate too well with certain egos, but it happens. It’s a difficult thing to manage as a producer.
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a producer. Not everyone can afford the A-list. And some people might be surprised at their involvement in the project. Sometimes the band ends up working more with their team.
Well, and I’ve been told that if you make a record with Rick Rubin, you meet him once or twice and spend days and days with the engineer. That’s probably not that uncommon with some of the bigger names.
I agree. And I guess they’re doing it more as an executive producer than a hands-on guy. I never really could do that, and I think the people I’ve worked with have enjoyed the contribution I’ve made to their material and their music.
You’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of bands and artists. Of the ones who made it vs. the ones who didn’t, was there a specific type of personality or a work ethic they all shared? Is success a random spattering of luck, or are there some common traits?
I think there’s a very large element of randomness to it. Some of the people who were least prepared for the studio in advance ended up having some of the most successful records. The Goo Goo Dolls is one example of that. On the record I did, they had demoed a few songs, but very few of them were finished melodically and lyrically. And that’s one of the most successful records I’ve done.
I don’t really think you can see any personality traits or work ethic that’s a recipe for success. A lot of it has more to do with somehow identifying with this elusive idea of just being able to write a musical phrase or melodic phrase that really sticks in people’s heads. It’s funny, because I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times with bands: “You wrote this great verse of a song here, and it’s building up to a chorus. And now you have a chorus that is lyrically so complicated that no one could ever possibly remember it or walk around singing it. How do you expect this song to be successful?” I think there’s an element of simplicity that has to be there.
Unfortunately, it gets carried too far, and people dumb things down a lot. I’ve always tried to work with people who want to make the music in a clever way, understanding the constraints of the medium and understanding that you have to play the game a little bit; you have to have a repeatable chorus if you want people to remember the song. But you don’t always have to structure it “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, double chorus.” There are ways to structure a song that can make it very unconventional, but still memorable.
To learn more about Lou Giordano and the work he’s done throughout his 30-year career, you can visit him on LinkedIn.