From The Replacements to Maroon 5: A Conversation with Matt Wallace
Whether you're into the scuzzy sounds of Faith No More or the clean tones of O.A.R., Matt Wallace has probably made some of your favorite rock records. We spoke for an hour about his career.
I thought I was losing my mind. A few months ago, I was reading something about the band Faith No More and noticed many of their albums were produced by a guy named Matt Wallace. I didn’t think much of it. But soon after, I was looking something up about Maroon 5’s debut album, Song About Jane. It was also produced by a guy named Matt Wallace. It couldn’t be the same guy, right? Faith No More and Maroon 5 are diametrically opposed in my mind. I was wrong. It was the same guy.
Matt Wallace has produced and mixed some of the most famous rock records of the last few decades. To quote him, his work covers “everything between the beautiful and the brutal”. Matt and I spoke for about an hour last week. He told me how growing up outside the US influenced his skills as a producer, how he ran up thousands in credit card debt building a studio in his parents’ garage, how he got fired by O.A.R. twice before producing their hit “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)”, and so much more.
A Conversation with Matt Wallace
In a 2004 interview, you said a producer is “an overseer of the creative aspects of making a record and the financial aspects”. Do you think that's still an accurate description of a producer’s job almost 20 years later?
It is. It's an interesting place to be in when you're working on a record because you're there as a creative person. If there was no such thing as limitations, like budgets, you could do all kinds of things. You could record the Viennese choir. You could add an orchestra. You could do whatever you want. But for better or worse, there are budgetary limitations.
I'm obviously going to help the group choose the songs to work on and make the arrangements, but ultimately when a label says this is how much money you have to make a record, my job is to figure out where we're gonna allocate that money. We have to pay for the studio. We have to pay for engineers, producers, transportation, lodging, food, equipment, and so on.
I think a lot of people think of a producer in the film terms. In films, the producer is the person that gets the money together. The analog in music for the producer is like the director, someone who says, “Cut. That's not happening. Let's do it again. Let's move our location. Let's try another approach.”
In the last 20 years, how have budgets and costs changed? I know technically you can record a song in your bedroom now.
It's changed a lot. If you interview someone who worked in the 1970s, money flowed like a river. People would move into a nice big studio at $1,500 to $1,800 a day and stay there for three months. That hasn’t been the case for a long time.
It's hard to say which came first, the labels wanting to spend less making records or the fact that you can make a recording in your bedroom. I think recording in a bedroom is more difficult with the band because you've got live drums and live guitars. It can be done, though. There are great programmed drum sounds and guitar amp modeling software now.
What's interesting for me is that both Faith No More’s The Real Thing and Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane - two of my lowest budget records - were also my most successful. Those cost about $70,000 each. That was at a time when people were spending $250,000 to $300,000 to make a record.
Let’s stick with Songs About Jane for a minute. I came across an interview in Tape Op where you said that since that record was so low budget that they gave you some extra points on “This Love” because they couldn’t pay you up front. What that means is that you make your money on the backend from the royalties the recording generates. What are your thoughts on how producers and mixers get paid?
When I started, producers got paid a fee upfront, and then we got like 3% of the retail sale of the record. The band would get anywhere between 15% to 20%. The label got the rest. To be clear, my 3% would come out of the band’s cut.
At the time, I was offered $25,000 to produce and mix Songs About Jane, which was very cheap. At that point, I could make $2,500 to $3,500 just to mix a single song. At the same time, a band called Days of the New offered to pay me $50,000 upfront just to produce their record. But I really believed in Maroon 5, so I took the project.
They were an unknown band on an unknown label with an unknown manager, but I really liked their songs. It was a long shot, but I thought it could be a huge record. You’ve got to remember that at the time there was a lot of nü-metal on the radio. Many of my peers were like, “Why are you working with this band?” I just thought they were great. All those guys played their instruments. Adam Levine was a great singer and a wicked guitar player. They were musician’s musicians.
It's interesting you point out being drawn to their songs. I've heard you say at the end of the day the songs are all that matter. Do you still believe that?
I find that sometimes technology and the volume of instruments can make you feel like you've got a great song when you actually don’t. Let's say I’m with Maroon 5 in a room with a drum kit and everyone playing guitar. Just the sheer volume of a great drum groove and guitars can sway you into thinking something is a great song.
I spend 30% of production with acoustic guitars. That way you can really hear the song, and you can speak over it while you're playing, maybe suggest chord changes or a bridge. If you have a band playing, it’s too loud to speak. You're basically just listening to the sound rather than the song.
Great songs are songs you can play on an acoustic guitar around a campfire. If you can play it at a campfire by itself without all the production, and it's still great, then you can build from there. I've heard of plenty of records that sound incredible, but there's really nothing there. There's nothing emotionally compelling. I think most listeners will agree that a poorly recorded song that's well written will beat out an impeccably recorded song that's just mediocre.
You have worked with bands that I would say broadly fall with the rock spectrum, but you’ve really gone across that entire spectrum. The Replacements, Faith No More, Andy Grammer, Michael Franti, 3 Doors Down, and so many more. Do you find that notion of the song being the most important thing remains true independent of which genre or artists you are working with?
Yeah, I think so. I think it's been proven time and time again. I think that you can take a rock song and break it down on an acoustic guitar. If it's a great song, it's going to still sound great.
Here's the bottom line. Songs are only vehicles to convey emotions. If you could take a wire from your brain and connect it to me and a bunch of other people and perfectly transmit your feelings that would be great. But we can't do that. That's why people sculpt. That's why they dance. That's why they write poetry. That's why they write songs. That's why they perform. The best songs are simultaneously singularly about one person in one situation, but in the best circumstances, they are also exceptionally universal.
I want to go back to the beginning of your life. I believe you grew up internationally. Do you think any of that worldliness has affected how you think about songs and production?
I was born in Oklahoma, and my parents were very poor. We lived in an assortment of trailer parks. That's all my parents could afford. We moved from Tulsa to Denver and then to California. My dad became a pilot later in life, so we eventually moved overseas. In my early years, I was in Japan. Then we were in the Middle East for quite a bit. Then back to Japan.
So, I went to a Japanese kindergarten. Then I did some schooling in the Middle East where I was the only white kid. I learned what it's like to be the outsider in a situation. I also learned how to connect with people and just say, “Look, we're all pretty much the same even though we've got different skin and life experiences.”
I'm sure navigating people from different backgrounds is helpful when you're a producer trying to coordinate the personalities of a band.
Yes, absolutely. Each band is basically a little country. There's one guy that claims to be the leader. There's a couple of people that want to be the leader. And then there's one who's really quiet, who might be the leader. Everyone's got their strengths and their weaknesses. You're basically marshaling a group of people to operate at their highest capabilities and trying to dissolve any friction.
Another thing I read about your youth is that you were pretty handy. You describe building plate reverbs, flangers, and noise reduction units. Eventually, you got some basic recording gear. You wanted to record yourself, but friends asked you to record them. Is that the genesis of your production career?
It actually goes back to Japan. When I was 13, I took two GI Joe walkie talkies and made a wireless guitar. At that time, there were no wireless guitars. I also made a really remedial synthesizer. Then when I moved to the United States I built a steel plate reverb. I also built a flanger. I mostly built stuff that I couldn't afford.
I then constructed a studio in my parents’ garage. At first, I didn't even know how to plug the gear in, but I learned as I went. I put all this together for my own record, but yes, as you mentioned, once my friends found out, I started recording them. That record I started in 1981 never happened. I guess it wasn't supposed to.
All that gear you were working with was analog gear. Everything now is digital. Do you think you would have been able to get as in touch with building gear if you grew up in the digital world as opposed to the analog world? Do you think there were any pros to being able to really tinker with your hands rather than sitting at a computer trying to build something?
The plus for today's kids is with the push of a button, you can get all kinds of sounds. The downside is that everyone can get that same sound. The nice thing about building gear is that even if it sounds crappy, it also sounds unique.
When I first built a studio in Oakland, I could not afford a plate reverb or even a digital gated reverb. I actually would run while the drummer was playing, take the output of the microphone on the snare drum, and send it to a bathroom that was very ambient. I would then put a speaker on the floor, put a snare drum on top of it, and then mic that up. So, I ended up getting kind of a gated reverb sound in this crazy way.
There's something nice about learning that stuff. Now, all digital plate reverb plugins are great. All the flangers are great. All the gated reverbs are great. I guess you could argue that nowadays instead of spending time finding sounds, you can get those very instantaneously, and then you can start working on new music.
I heard that when you worked on Faith No More’s The Real Thing, you quadruple compressed the lead vocal. You noted that this was not technically correct, but it felt right. Given that you also have technical savviness, how can you compartmentalize that part of you and just go with what sounds right?
What you record is more important than how you record it. The gear truly doesn't matter. The fact that I did have a good foundation in technical aspects of how to build stuff goes to the background in my mind while I’m recording. I try to work intuitively. I just start turning the knobs and see what sounds good.
10 years ago, if I was gonna build a mixing console, I would have no indicators on the EQ. There'd be no indicator about how much you were boosting or cutting. The way I feel is you should turn the knobs until it sounds good. If someone says, “Oh my god, you're boosting like 10dB at 4k. You can’t do that,” then I might say, “Sure. But I like how it sounds.”
Great records are not perfect records. Great records are ones where you can feel the band. You can smell their essence. Sometimes there's something a little bit too loud or a little too quiet. But it works.
Is that what happened on The Real Thing?
Yes. I ran Mike Patton's vocal through a dbx 166 on one channel at two to one. I then went through the other channel at ten to one. So, the first part was a compressor, and the second part was a limiter. Then during mixing, I used that same piece of gear to compress again, and then I added bus compression. Was that technically correct? Absolutely not. When I finished The Real Thing, I didn't think it sounded good. Listening on my home stereo, I was actually so disappointed that I called my mom and asked her how to get into real estate.
The good news is that on radio and MTV it sounded ridiculously good. So, all the wrong things I did for my home stereo made it jump out of other speakers. Also, it moved people. It had momentum and vibe and energy and guts.
I know you started working with Faith No More before they were famous, but the thing I can't piece together about your career is how in 1988 you ended up producing The Replacements before you were even 30. How does something like that happen?