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MITCHELL FROOM

Hey, Mr Producer
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Email interview with Neil and Pete

MitchellFroom


"The process is meaningless to me, only the results count."
 

MITCHELL FROOM: verybusyman. His production credit seals CD booklets like a guarantee of quality and ingenuity; everyone from Ron Sexsmith to Cibo Matto have reaped the benefits. How did he find time to make his own record (Dopamine, 1998)? More mysterious is how he found time to discuss some thoughts we had about his work. Don't question it: just enjoy this rare insight. For the record, his verybusy nature means we couldn't get far beyond discussion of his most recent work so please excuse what seems like an uncharacteristic tell us about your new album' approach. We’ll have to leave questions such as 'how did producing a record by Mrs Froom differ from producing one by Ms Vega?' or 'compare and contrast the experiences of working with Jimmy Scott and Mark Eitzel for another time.

HEARSAY: We read that Dopamine was recorded over a three-year period. Did you end up with the record you'd envisaged making at the start? If not, how did it change?
MITCHELL FROOM
: In many ways, Dopamine ended up pretty much as it was originally intended. I wanted to create a modern-day arranger's record which was thoroughly composed and played without the assistance of samples. All strings and horns were charted for and even any loops that we used were created. I was also keen to exploit some of the techniques that Tchad Blake and I have been developing for several years so that this rather traditional approach wouldn't sound dated. Having said that, I really had no idea how the record would sound or hold together as a whole. We tend to work very quickly and spontaneously; trying to follow the music in any direction it seems to suggest. Even though the compositions themselves didn't change, in many cases they ended up sounding quite differently from how I had imagined.

Did the different vocalists suggest themselves during the composition?
In many cases I had specific songwriters in mind when I wrote and put this music together — Mark Eitzel, Suzanne Vega, Miho Hatori, for example. Even though they had surpassed my expectations, I definitely had thought of them for the tracks on which they appear. There were some surprisingly great results that came about —primarily due to scheduling conflicts! I originally sent the track of Ron Sexsmith's Overcast to Neil Finn and Sheryl Crow's Monkey Mind to Elvis Costello.

Moreso than any other producer, it seems to us you have an instantly recognisable style — it's often clear we're listening to 'a Mitchell Froom Production' without having to consult the sleevenotes. How would you describe your style and role as a producer? It's often unclear how far a producer's responsibilites extend... Is your role as much arranger as producer?
I've been lucky enough to work with singer-songwriters that have very distinctive styles in vocal quality, lyrically and/or as musicians. My main ambition is to highlight their eccentricities while helping to provide a musical backdrop that is both compelling and non-distracting. Sometimes this requires an active 'arranger-like' role and other times it requires knowing where to leave well enough alone. If an artist's strengths lie in arranging skills, like say with Cibo Matto, my role would be musically more passive than it would be with a more traditional singer-songwriter like, say, Ron Sexsmith or Suzanne Vega.

Although I recognise that Tchad and I may bring some similar aesthetics to records we work on, I would hope that, for example, Los Lobos, Ron Sexsmith and Crowded House recordings sound quite different from each other. If they're similar in that the production and sound is focused, the music non-generic and well-arranged and they seem to have a singular point of view, then I would take your statement as a great compliment. If, on the other hand, I have a 'sound' that various artists are indiscriminately plugged into then I as a producer become yet another example of why the quality and personality of recordings has steadily degenerated since the 60s.

What we were driving at was more the way your productions often display a phenomenal attention to detail and precision in the placement of sound. Is the process as important as the result? Do you try to attain a definitive version of a song or do you think songs can support potentially endless tinkering and reinvention?
That's an interesting question. I see the primary goal of a producer [as being] to record what could hopefully become the definitive version of a song. The process is meaningless to me, only the results count. That often requires an absolute understanding of the way the groove needs to correspond with the rhythm of the vocal melody, the intention of the words and a unique musical approach that somehow appears to be quite simple and unforced. In some cases, the harmony needs to be looked at closely so that each chord has a maximum emotional impact and the song itself moves gracefully forward without dead spots or sounding as if it's rushing from place to place. The playing (if there is any) and sound need to come together in a way that is undeniably compelling. Sometimes you just luck into it and sometimes it requires a lot of forethought. In my experience, it almost never comes about through 'endless tinkering'! Too much original intention and spontaneity is lost in the process.

All of these considerations address the thing that most bothers me when I hear remixes. So-called 'specialists' are brought in who often may even have no basic concept of how the rhythm of a melody and track need to relate to each other. Then, any trademark sounds or hooks that help to define the songs' originality tend to be replaced with the most boring, generic textures. The result is, with rare exception, you get an uncomfortably transplanted vocal performance over utterly disposable music. If you've gotten even close to a definitive recording, why subject the listener to a second-rate, unconsidered version? I'm sure there are some talented remixers out there (particularly those operating solely within the dance world) but I often wonder if most of them are just scam artists, or if they truly could be so musically inept.

Sheryl Crow said recently that Tomorrow Never Dies was written in 15 minutes! How did you approach writing a Bond theme? Was it a limitation or a challenge to dabble in pastiche? Did you try to bring anything new to the much cherished tradition of Bond themes or would that have been a contradiction in terms?
Working with Sheryl on Tomorrow Never Dies was a great experience. I've always loved the early James Bond themes — Thunderball, You Only Live Twice — and just jumped at the opportunity. I tend naturally to gravitate towards an intimate setting in a recording, usually some version of a combo, so this was a rare chance to do something that required an over the top treatment. We did write the song very quickly. Sheryl brought in a lot of melodic and harmonic ideas that fell within a kind of jazzy, groovy feel. As soon as we changed it to a 6/8 'Town Without Pity' rhythm, a lot of altered chords and sections quickly started to suggest themselves. For the musical bridge, we just couldn't resist using a version of that classic Bond minor seventh on the dominant movement to the major one chord. Other than that, the overall concept was to make a 'big' record in terms of orchestration yet with a very raw centre; as if a small combo was playing in front of an orchestra. I don't know if this brought anything new to the genre — I just hope we made a good record.

 
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