One local musician once summed up the contributions of his band's producer this way: "He smoked a lot of pot, yelled at his girlfriend, and hit record when we told him to." Once, during the recording of Reverend Horton Heat's Liquor in the Front at a Dallas studio, Al Jourgensen spent an entire evening "producing" a whole bunch of heroin right into his arm; it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "in session." And there are countless tales of musicians arguing with producers over how a song should sound, as though the hired help knows better than the artist the sound of the musician's own beating heart. No wonder most singer-songwriters are quick to say their producers do more harm than good, if they do anything at all. Better to rely on your own instincts than those of someone who can't hear what is still stuck inside your head; better to keep your art out of the shaky hands of a man trying to score.
To the great listening public, the producer is a meaningless appendage, a name listed in the small-type credits, easily ignored. They're behind-the-scenes anonymous, no more or less important than the art director or caterer. Yet sometimes, on that rare grand occasion when producer and artist form a two-hearts-beating-as-one bond, there is a legacy that lives beyond the paycheck; there does indeed exist a small number of producers who shaped popular music and sculpted popular culture.
Among their ranks are such men as Joel Dorn, behind the boards for so many of the classic jazz albums recorded in the 1950s; Phil Spector, who built the Wall of Sound brick by opulent brick; George Martin, the fifth Beatle; Brian Wilson, who used layer upon layer of beautiful madness to drown out the voices in his head; or Dr. Dre, whose mellow gangsta Jeep beats turned a lifestyle into a sound. There's Lindsey Buckingham, whose egotism translated into aural perfection; Daniel Lanois and Flood, who make ambience tangible; Butch Vig (Nevermind) or Fred Maher (Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend), who transform today's rumbles into future reverberations; and the Bomb Squad, whose siren-screams signified Public Enemy's sonic-boom revolution.
But for every hero, there are a dozen villains, producers whose vision is all tunnel, who turn every performer they work with into cardboard cutouts that look the same from a distance or close-up. The Dust Brothers were heroes-of-the-moment with the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay!, but they've become greedy whores, selling out for empty Howard Stern and Hanson bucks. Don Was and Jeff Lynne are among those most guilty of hanging offenses, turning each album they work on into egocentric re-creations of their own behind-the-board failures; their footprints are evident on everything they do, whether it's Was' work with Bonnie Raitt or the Rolling Stones, or Lynne's with the Traveling Wilburys or Randy Newman, and they crush everything they step on, burying the artist beneath so much sheen and tinsel. Who needs to hear Lynne's whining guitar one more time, or Was' faux-roots twang? No one.
So where does Mitchell Froom, a man whose sound is more recognizable than your own face in your own mirror, stand? At the front of the line, actually, one of the last of the good guys--the man who turned Suzanne Vega into a techno-folkie, who twisted Los Lobos' roots-rock into a tangled knot of chaos and beauty, who gave Richard Thompson's music the same dry deadpan humor as his lyrics. Froom has worked with a list of artists that make rock critics wet and record companies balk, from Maria McKee to Jimmy Scott to American Music Club to Elvis Costello.
He has worked with Young Turks on their way up (Cibo Matto, Ron Sexsmith, Tracy Bonham) and tried to rescue veterans as they stumble toward their bland demise (Paul McCartney, Bonnie Raitt). Froom has worked with Pop Stars (Sheryl Crow) and cult heroes (Peter Case). He says he has never taken a gig "for the money," which is why his resume reads like one of those Rolling Stone decade-end Top 100 lists: Among those records he has produced in the past 10 years are Los Lobos' Kiko, the Latin Playboy's self-titled debut, Cibo Matto's Viva! La Woman, Crowded House's Woodface, Jimmy Scott's Dream, American Music Club's Mercury, Thompson's Rumor and Sigh and Daring Adventures (among others), and Vega's 99.9iF.
His sound is immediately recognizable but never intrusive: the trash-can percussion and distorted guitars that drive Los Lobos' recent work, the looped drums and industrial keyboards that augment Vega's reverbed vocals, the chamberlain and echo harp behind Thompson's wide-open electric-acoustic folk-rock. He's the ultimate hybrid artist, a former porn-film composer who still thinks of albums as soundtracks that invite the listener to fill in the blanks and ride the wave till the very end. The Latin Playboys album alone--featuring Lobos David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, Froom cohort Tchad Blake, and Froom--is a brilliant amalgam of Middle Eastern and East L.A. influences, a pastiche of tape loops and fucking-around sounds (spoons on slide guitars, for instance) that add up to one of the decade's most unrecognized masterpieces. It doesn't make a lick of sense when taken apart, but as a whole, it's an acid trip without the baggage.
"Latin Playboys has a very strong atmosphere," Froom says from a Los Angeles recording studio, where he's currently finishing the forthcoming Lobos record. "It certainly doesn't play the game in any way. At the bottom of whatever you try to do usually is to make a record that sounds like it doesn't acknowledge anything--it just wants to have a good time with itself. It's not of any time or place, there's nobody coming in saying anything about anything, there's no nod to modern tastes or whatever. But that one I thought was particularly great. David is one of the people I hold in highest regards; it's really his music. And Louie is a great lyricist, and between the two of them, it's very potent. I get a lot of credit for stuff I didn't do."
It's appropriate, then, that Froom's first album as the name-in-big-type performer, the brand-new Dopamine, begins with a David Hidalgo collaboration. "Tastes Good" smells like a Playboys holdover, though it's not. Like everything else on Dopamine--which is a scant 31 minutes in length, its brevity a very noble gesture in these days of CD wastefulness--the track recalls everything Froom has touched ever since he scored Cafe Flesh in 1982. Dopamine, which features performances by the likes of Vega (Froom's wife), Sexsmith, Crow, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, the Attractions' Pete Thomas, and AMC's Mark Eitzel, contains the sound of a man obsessed with the studio, who uses the walls as instruments.
"The reason I like to produce records is partially the same reason I like to do this kind of record--because I like the studio," Froom says. "That's what this record is about. It's not about recreating something live on stage; it's about the fantasy of creating music in the studio. Doing a solo record is something I've always wanted to do, because I have a lot of music that I write, and I don't have an outlet for it. It took about three years to get this done. I was getting free days at the end of projects and going in on weekends to cut a track, [but] it's not just recording songs in a simple way. It's all about the mystery of studio sound."
The Northern California native--raised on a diet of Rubber Soul, pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, The Genius of Ray Charles, and Sketches of Spain--began solving that mystery in 1985. His first production gig was for the Del Fuegos' Boston, Mass., a record that sounds like a collection of Budweiser ad jingles, which it would soon enough become; for a while there, Froom was Middle American rock's favorite producer, also hooking up with the BoDeans for a while. (Indeed, in a Village Voice review of Richard Thompson's 1986 Daring Adventures, Robert Christgau referred to Froom as a "nuevo roots hack.")
He ventured into slick pop by hooking up with Crowded House in 1986, producing three out of four records; the records sounded good enough, it was just the songs that got in the way, at least till 1991. His first success, perhaps his biggest, as a producer is hardly his proudest moment--Los Lobos' title song to the 1987 biopic La Bamba; indeed, even now, 11 years later, he distances himself from the song that made Los Lobos famous and wealthy, if not particularly pleased. "It sort of did more damage than good," Froom recalls of the track that, for years, defined the band as a novelty act best suited for channeling the ghost of dead one-hit wonders; appropriately, it, too, is the band's sole Top 10 hit.
Even Froom admits now he didn't hit his stride till the early 1990s, on Los Lobos' '92 album Kiko; that record is an adventurous travelogue to the border and beyond, the East L.A. band's version of Music from Big Pink. Froom has produced every Lobos record since then, including 1996's majestic, chaotic Colossal Head, the forthcoming Dose from the Playboys, and the next Lobos record, which is still being shopped to record labels. (The band begged off of Warner Bros. Records, unhappy with the way the label mishandled Colossal Head.)
"I think they're my favorite band," Froom says. "They are the coolest band in America. I first met them as a musician, and after 'La Bamba,' we hardly spoke for years after that. No one was angry at each other, but I don't think it was a shining moment in their career. So I was really happy when I worked on one song on [1990's] Neighborhood called 'Angel Dance,' and I think that was the first indication that maybe we could work together in a way that would be adventurous."
But his most daring adventure came with Vega's 99.9iF: After three albums of wistful, thoughtful folk-rock, Vega had seen her spotlight begin to dim; "Luka" was her triumph and her downfall wrapped in one, her Thoughtful Folkie moment in the sun. She had begun working on a fourth record and had recorded demos alone and with a band, when Froom was mentioned as one of the possible producers, among many. She sent him a collection of songs, and he was drawn toward the ones featuring just her on acoustic guitar; he says now he thought the tracks featuring the band were too "straight," too "conservative."
As he does with any performer he agrees to work with, Froom sat down with Vega and asked her what she liked to listen to; it turned out that she was not a huge fan of acoustic folk music, and that her previous records were more often than not the result of other producers trying to lead her down the path of least resistance. She was a woman, she strummed her guitar in New York coffee shops--of course she's a folkie.
"I think other producers at the time said, 'Those demos sound great, I'll just add a few touches here and there,'" Froom says. "And I was saying, 'I think you should not work with those people, and this is why, and this is where I think you should go.' It seemed to me that there were a lot of clues that weren't picked up on. It was a pretty traditional reaction to her music, and other people weren't necessarily listening to the words or getting to the bottom of the rhythm of the melodies. It all came from her. All the ideas came from what she was doing. Imean, I didn't start playing weird music and she just sang to it.
"She came in with this song 'Blood Makes Noise,' and in 10 minutes, we had a thing going on. But certainly, the words were very evocative, and it would have been stupid to make a straight rock song with it. So as she talked about different types of records she listened to, I started to understand more and more and get a better idea what to do, and a lot of things resulted." What came of it was a hypnotic record and, shortly thereafter, a married couple with child.
There have been some notable busts on Froom's dance card: Paul McCartney's 1989 Flowers in the Dirt, for which he produced four songs, was a tepid comeback at best, a sad reminder at worst; the Pretenders' 1990 Packed was indeed packed with awful songs; and the two Costello albums Froom produced, 1991's Mighty Like a Rose and '94's Brutal Youth, are among the former Declan MacManus' most lifeless, cynical offerings.
But Froom will not disparage, at least on the record, any of the artists with whom he's worked; at best, he will admit his ambivalence about the Costello albums and some of his work with Crowded House--if not most everything he did in the 1980s. But he is quick to point out that today's failure might well sound a hell of a lot better tomorrow, when the mood changes, the weather changes...something changes that makes you appreciate or understand something you once couldn't tolerate.
"A person's definition of a good song always mystifies me," he says. "I don't look at songs in terms of, like, is the bridge great or does the chorus lift? I just look at it and say, 'Does it have a cool vibe about it, or are you happy to hear it?' Sometimes a rock song can be written in five minutes and be fantastic. On the other hand, if the stuff sounds like pale versions of what a person has done before, then you're in trouble. You don't want to work with someone just because you admire them.
"I mean, I just realized I really like the American Music Club record [Mercury] that we made. But I don't usually go back. You just want to move forward. The hard thing about working in the studio is that if you're in the wrong mood, almost any music sounds terrible. I've put on some of my favorite records and had to take them right off because they sound so bad, and later, I'll put them on, and they'll sound great. So imagine sitting in the studio listening to the same song all day, the range of emotions you go through. It can be rough.