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Ariel Rechtshaid/Nick Kastner Ariel Rechtshaid

The Band Leader

How a recovering L.A. ska-punk named Ariel Rechtshaid became a Grammy-nominated producer for Vampire Weekend, Haim, and Usher

The first time record producer Ariel Rechtshaid encountered a loquat tree was in his parents’ backyard. The species — a shrublike evergreen that in the right conditions bears a yellowish fruit — came to California from Hawaii, maybe, and was originally from China, or perhaps Japan, but in any case became popular enough by the start of the 20th century that the California botanist Luther Burbank wrote half a book about it called The Apricot and the Loquat: An Opportunity for the Experimenter, in which he referred to the trees almost exclusively as “Japanese plums.”

This was Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. After what scans as a fairly standard adolescence for a music producer (Mom’s classical concerts, Dad’s rock records, pop radio and underground magazines like the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal), Rechtshaid joined a ska-punk band called the Hippos. This was the first of several moments he realized he didn’t really want to be a musician. “I remember standing on the other side of the glass [from the producer], thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound right.'” He quit, made some beats in his parents’ garage, and eventually ended up in a warehouse space in downtown L.A., where the windows of his old Volvo station wagon were broken so many times that he started leaving them open at night.1

Downtown, Rechtshaid’s daydreams turned inland. Altadena, Pasadena, Glendale, and Monterey Park: “All these weird little areas outside the center,” he calls them. “You didn’t know what they were, so you’d just go.” In foreign places, the familiar tends to pop out, like something carved in bas-relief. “Loquat trees,” Rechtshaid says conspiratorially.2 “They were all over Alhambra and Boyle Heights.”

One afternoon, Rechtshaid and a friend headed east, “driving from loquat tree to loquat tree, wondering how we’d ever be able to afford to live in L.A. as we got older.” Eventually they came to a hill, which they circled until they found a narrow road leading up it, and at the crest of the road a set of iron gates, and next to the gates a hand-painted sign that said Phil Spector’s Pyrenees Castle. “And I was like, whoa,” he says, as if it were an answer to a question he hadn’t even known to ask.

For the first 20 minutes of our conversation, Rechtshaid and I don’t talk about his music or anyone else’s, but about Los Angeles, the city he has lived in his whole life. We talk about the narrow staircase connecting Descanso Drive and Vendome Street in Silver Lake, where Laurel and Hardy struggled to carry an upright piano in the 1932 movie The Music Box. We talk about the animation studio on the corner of Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard, where Walt Disney lent his own human voice to Mickey Mouse in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie,” and about the Mount Lowe Railway, which used to carry rich vacationers from the city up to hillside hotels in the San Gabriels. “Some random mountain!” Rechtshaid says. “With a chalet at the top! In L.A.!”

Vampire Weekend In the past two years, Rechtshaid has produced or coproduced albums by Vampire Weekend, Sky Ferreira, Haim, Charli XCX, Solange Knowles, and Major Lazer. He has written or cowritten songs for Usher, Justin Bieber, Ellie Goulding, and No Doubt. At one point, he went to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell’s estate in Jamaica to work on Reincarnated, the album on which Snoop Dogg tried reggae.

Some of these projects were for major labels; some were for independents. Some — like the Vampire Weekend and Snoop Lion albums, both of which he coproduced — were for artists with high profiles and established reputations; others — like the Sky Ferreira and Haim albums — were for artists who had spent a few years kicking around the outskirts of the mainstream without being let in. All of them could loosely be described as “pop music,” a term Rechtshaid takes to mean almost anything with a steady beat and vocals, whether it’s the Clash or Rihanna or La Düsseldorf, a German band from the 1970s ordinarily relegated to the province of nerds.3

You wouldn’t necessarily know Rechtshaid, who is 34, was a busy person by the way he carries himself. He is tall and thin and has the big, sleepy eyes of a hearth dog. He listens patiently and responds with what I take to be a Southern Californian’s need to make every statement a positive one, offering an “Exactly!” when he agrees with me and a constructive demurral when he doesn’t. “Whoa,” “weird,” and “random” are words he manages to use in thoughtful conversation. When we meet, he is wearing a black leather jacket with wide lapels and a denim shirt buttoned to the hollow of his neck, where a thin gold chain hangs — the getup of a comic-book greaser. His hair is a marvel: buzzed on the sides, longer on top, curly and slick, like a small garden of telephone cables.

He insists he doesn’t have a signature sound, at least not the way a producer like Pharrell does. This seems true. He can’t be parodied or dialed in. You can’t listen to the albums he’s worked on — or at least I can’t — and point to some timbral quality in the bass or the drums the way you would point to a birthmark.4

But in the absence of a signature sound are habits and tendencies. With a few exceptions — including Cass McCombs’s 2009 album Catacombs, the first Rechtshaid coproduction I’d heard — Rechtshaid isn’t someone who makes naturalistic recordings designed to capture the power and grace of a good live band in the studio. Most of what he does happens behind a computer screen, where he can shift pitch, cut and paste, tweak, filter, and transform an instrument as familiar as the human voice into a sound a person could never make.

At the most extreme, a Rechtshaid production starts with four or five people playing instruments in a room but ends up as hundreds of unrelated bits of sound bolted together at a desk. Some of these sounds are sleek and modern; some are rusty and organic. Some — as is the way in our era of sandblasted jeans and all things mechanically “distressed” — get their patina from effects processors and VST plug-ins and the like. This is all standard for rap and pop, but less so for bands like Vampire Weekend, who still represent old-fashioned values like good musicianship, album-length statements, and whatever else listeners look for in Bruce Springsteen or Adele.5

When it comes to the studio, Rechtshaid is irreverent by habit and prefers to do the wrong thing whenever possible. Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij remembers walking into a session where Rechtshaid had raised the level of the kick drum on a song called “Everlasting Arms” 12 decibels. (“One decibel, that’s noticeable. Twelve decibels, that’s really noticeable,” Batmanglij clarifies.) Naturally, it transformed the song. “There was this hiss sucking back and forth in conjunction with the kick,” Batmanglij says. “It was amazing.”6 After a few hours, Rechtshaid and front man Ezra Koenig had toned it down. “I was unhappy about that,” Batmanglij says. “So when it was my turn to open the session, the first thing I did was bring up the kick drum 12 dB.”

Batmanglij is essentially Vampire Weekend’s Jimmy Page: someone people praise as a capable right hand while forgetting he’s also the band’s central nervous system, cowriter of every song they’ve recorded, and producer — or, in the case of Modern Vampires, coproducer — of every album they’ve released. The way he talks about the Modern Vampires sessions makes them sound like a series of small-scale dares. “I wanted to preserve Ariel’s initial impulse to go totally crazy as a producer,” he says, “because there were times he had preserved mine.” After trying — and failing — to re-create what they liked about the demo vocals for “Step” (recorded on a laptop by Batmanglij and Koenig at Batmanglij’s apartment in Brooklyn), they realized they could just cut and paste the demo into the final mix: a lo-fi move in an otherwise hi-fi situation. “You can still hear the train passing overhead,” Batmanglij says. And then there’s “Diane Young,” a steroidal rockabilly song for which Batmanglij and Rechtshaid used an effect called formant shifting to stretch out the tone of Koenig’s vocal track as if it were a piece of taffy. (Other than nostalgia for human limitation, there’s no good reason for someone to try to imitate Elvis when a computer can do it for them, and better.) “It made us uncomfortable,” Rechtshaid says. “Just uncomfortable enough to say, ‘We’ll probably keep this.'”7

Sky Ferreira In a story he has now told often enough to have finessed it into a little performance, Ariel Rechtshaid is standing in a Pinkberry in L.A.’s Little Tokyo when he hears a song — “a pop song,” he calls it, “but with this Italo thing to it,” a reference to the late-’70s and early-’80s variant of disco that replaced rhythm sections with drum machines and violins with the unflinching blip of synthesizers. It had a certain something, something unquantifiable. He Shazam’ed it. The song, “One,” was by a singer-songwriter named Sky Ferreira. A few clicks of the “Like” button later, Rechtshaid and Ferreira were “standing in a room, staring at each other.” She was a fan of Cass McCombs’s Catacombs. He was down for whatever.

Ferreira’s sad story in brief: a following on MySpace, a major-label contract before she was 18, a series of aborted sessions with a series of high-dollar producers and collaborators, some music released but not much. Each time she surfaced, she seemed to be someone else. At 21, she has spent most of her young life being told she’s not good enough by men twice her age.

When Rechtshaid met her, she had been working with Jon Brion, a composer who has scored movies like Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Brion’s music tends to be dreamy and naturalistic; Rechtshaid’s is, with a few exceptions, not. “It was almost singer-songwriter-y,” he says of the tracks Ferreira had been working on — a term that conjures quietude and gentleness, something a little Joni Mitchell. “But she was, like, 19, and living in New York. She had this punk edge to her that just wasn’t coming across.”

At this point I’m reminded that record producers are in some ways like movie directors: shamanistic figures whose job it is to try to summon the essence of a performer to capture it on tape or camera. (Batmanglij tells me something similar in our conversation when he says a good producer draws out the “superhuman qualities” of an artist.) After a handful of slash-and-burn-type sessions and at least a couple firm nudges from Capitol Records to hurry up and deliver, Ferreira broke with Brion and finished what would become her debut album, Night Time, My Time, with Rechtshaid.

Older Ferreira singles — even the cold ones — have a bunnylike freshness to them, something you might expect to help sell moisturizer or lip pencils. Something healthy. Night Time does not. Frustrated by trying to play a role she no longer felt capable of, Ferreira combusted. Most of Night Time sounds like a depressed mall rat fronting a band of robots badly in need of repair. Its songs are blunt, its textures grotty, its overall mood tapping into a history of teenage music — from “Leader of the Pack” to My Bloody Valentine — that treats beauty and violence as fatally intertwined.

Given time and space, I could unfurl for you the whole private reel this music conjures in my head: neon cities split by earthquakes, spraying sparks into a dark sky; knives crusted with sugar; burnished chrome and a lot of blood. A friend of mine who works in drama therapy says young people are the most powerful people in the world, capable of extreme emotions in measures adults have long lost the capacity for. Society pays them back by strapping a muzzle on and sending them to high school. This is the world of Night Time: a tantrum more seismic than the person throwing it thinks they’re even capable of.

“I take a lot of pride in people who like the Sky stuff,” Rechtshaid says. “I was much more integral in that process. Vampire Weekend were probably going to make a record one way or the other, but with a debut artist” — or in this case, an artist who hadn’t yet made a full-length record — “it’s different.”

Alana Haim Haim’s Days Are Gone — the third album in what I think of as Rechtshaid’s 2013 Triple Crown — was a slightly different situation. A trio of long-haired, deadpan sisters from the Valley, they played their first shows before the youngest of them (Alana, 21, Sagittarius) could drive, and have spent no small part of their young lives trying to make it.8

Days has earned Haim exactly zero comparisons to contemporary bands but plenty to Fleetwood Mac, Destiny’s Child, Michael Jackson, and any number of other artists who controlled the radio between the years of 1975 and 1995. It is a Frankenstein, seemingly derivative but somehow untraceable to any one source. Like all good pop art, its implications are heady but the actual experience of it is snappy and casual. Part of this can be attributed to Rechtshaid, but most of it falls to the songs themselves, which several young women on the Internet have proved to be durable and insanely catchy with nothing more than a YouTube account and a guitar.

A practiced live band by the time they got into the studio, Haim, in Rechtshaid’s words, “were very particular about what they wanted to hear but had little experience getting it.” While they now tour and record with a drummer named Dash Hutton, there was a point when the sisters all played some kind of live percussion or another, standing around floor toms like witches around stone cauldrons — a tough, elemental backbone for some of Days‘ more luxurious atmospheres. “I was really into their rhythmic choices,” Rechtshaid says, remembering the way “Falling” was transformed by his acquisition of an old Linn synth drum (ubiquitous in the 1980s and probably best known as “that knocking sound at the beginning of ‘When Doves Cry'”). “I was drawn to it because it was good. It’s not because I made it good.”9

At the heart of Rechtshaid’s productions is a question of time. Every record he’s worked on seems to exist in some suspended dreamland where the past sloshes into the present in a way that makes distinctions between the two seem irrelevant. That doesn’t interest him, of course. “We have the technology,” he says. “We have the reference points, we have the Internet. Nothing is a mystery. We can dig up cool records until the cows come home.” His ambition is to do something people have never heard before, something “groundbreaking.” What he actually does is weirder, more interesting, and more suited to a moment when most new things just seem like combinations of old ones: He takes you back to a place you think you’ve been and makes you feel like you’ve never seen it before.

At some point we talk about Electric Light Orchestra, a ’70s band that blended sock-hop rock and roll with 19th-century classical music and whatever they imagined spaceships might sound like if spaceships were designed to make music instead of explore outer space. In short, they were a band that captured the spirit of their time by ignoring their time entirely. From here, Rechtshaid is off. OutKast — amazing. The Chronic 2001 — amazing. “Twenty years later,” he says, “and they still sound like the future.”

Look at time this way and it suddenly starts to feel less like a straight line and more like a layer cake: each moment a little taste of everything at once, nothing coming before or after. You can’t call ’80s reverb “’80s reverb” if it’s still being used in 2013. The Disney animation studio where they made “Steamboat Willie” is now a Gelson’s Supermarket with a little historical marker outside, and the Echo Mountain House — one of the hotels serviced by the Mount Lowe Railway — is a concrete basin where candy wrappers twist in the breeze, young ruins of a still-young city. Drive up Grand View Drive in Alhambra and you can still see Phil Spector’s house peeking over a stone wall with a sign outside the gates that says Pyrenees Castle under some blots of paint where someone has made a sad attempt to cover up Spector’s name.10 And the loquat trees, with their thin, waxy leaves, continue to grow whether we know where they came from or not.

As I drive away from the Pyrenees Castle, serendipity: a cover of ELO’s “Telephone Line” by Grupo Yndio coming through on Spanish-language radio. In the absence of Jeff Lynne’s production, it sounds cheap, too buoyant, too reliant on the notes and not enough on the sound. Something essential is lost. Turning up the volume while the last of the day’s light bleeds over a distant hillside crammed with buildings, empathy hits: They have tried to make love by following an instruction manual.

After Rechtshaid and I meet, he’s off to New York to see Haim play on Saturday Night Live. The next week, Sky Ferreira plays Letterman. (Early next year, she’ll tour with Miley Cyrus, “strategic hot mess” to her more earnest and resonant one.) Rechtshaid seems to like the idea of conventional success but not enough to change anything about what he’s already doing. “Of course these conversations come up at the end of a record. I’m not being reckless about it. But it isn’t an overarching inspiration.” On the subject of artists who have reduced their art to formula, he says, “Hats off,” and flatly. “It’s like a cheeseburger: It tastes fucking good every time, but I’m sitting here trying to cook something new. Sometimes you nail it; sometimes it tastes like shit.” He sits on the thought for a second, then shakes his head. “That’s not a very good analogy,” he says, but seems happy to have made it anyway.11

It wasn’t that long ago, all things considered, that Rechtshaid was playing bass in an indie-rock band called Foreign Born with a high school friend named Lewis Pesacov and one of Pesacov’s college friends, Matt Popieluch.12 The band put out two albums, one in 2007 called On the Wing Now and another in 2009 called Person to Person. On passing glance they can sound boilerplate and a little bit unremarkable. But on closer listen, they’re unexpectedly thoughtful albums, Person especially. Aside from the familiar core of bass, drums, and guitar, each song has a restless and very particular arrangement. Strings, clarinets, cowbells, and synthesizers come and go as needed. There’s something punched-up and ambitious about it, the sound of a band unwilling to just play you their little song and go home.

Rechtshaid had joined on after visiting Pesacov and Popieluch in San Francisco. “We had been working on some recordings with a different lineup,” Popieluch says. (“They were shitty,” he adds without equivocation.) “I was still pretty unprofessional in pretty much every way,” Popieluch says. “I didn’t own a tuning pedal or anything — I just didn’t even know about that stuff.” To him, Ariel — a guy with a couple of credits to his name — seemed like a real mover. “He was kind of like a sage,” Popieluch says, then pauses, then laughs.

The albums were produced collaboratively. “Ariel was at the computer a lot, and so was Lewis. Whatever job we needed done, they’d do it.” Popieluch, who had previously played in a series of loose, permissive indie bands around San Francisco, remembers Rechtshaid always being comparatively pop-minded. “I wasn’t thinking about structure or sculpting,” Popieluch says. “Things would just come out and I would accept them as they were.” He pointed me to songs, to moments, to places here and there in the band’s brief catalogue where Pesacov and Rechtshaid shaped some idea he might’ve had into a refrain, a structure. “I never knew I wanted to be a producer and never said I wanted to be a producer,” Rechtshaid remembers. “It’s just what ended up happening.”

At the end of our conversation, we get to something like the beginning: a story about Catacombs, the Cass McCombs album. It is patient, spectral, and quietly romantic music, unlike anything Rechtshaid had done before or anything he has done since. “I had liked Dropping the Writ and I liked PREfection,” he says, referring to two earlier McCombs albums, “but they were hidden under these gobs of reverb. Typically that’s my shit, but” — he shrugs — “it just wasn’t working for him.”

At the time Rechtshaid was living in what he calls “a flophouse for people whose lives had become accidentally committed to music” with Popieluch and some other guys. Popieluch and McCombs were sitting on the couch one afternoon when Rechtshaid passed through on the way to doing some errands. A conversation or two later, they decided to make a record.

“You know how you hear about people renting mansions in Malibu and going to record?” he asks. “Well, we couldn’t afford Malibu.” Instead they got an old Spanish Colonial place in Glassell Park and set up in the living room. Of the budget, $700 went to buying a used motorcycle that people took turns learning to ride in the driveway.

On something like a dare, McCombs abandoned the near-limitless space of a digital recording setup for a small reel-to-reel tape player. Like most old things, it was very charming but didn’t really work. Driving it up to a repair shop off the 5 freeway became a kind of ritual. Somewhere along the way the two men discovered Pacoima, a neighborhood in the Valley where Ritchie Valens — of “Donna” and “La Bamba” fame — had grown up.

It was a lonely place and a little desolate. Valens’s myth haunted them: the young fame, the fear of flying, the Douglas DC-7B that collided with an Air Force plane over his junior high school, littering heavy metal and injured bodies across the playground, and the crash that killed him less than two years later, after a coin toss spared him from a long bus ride. For reasons Rechtshaid does not and probably cannot explain without ruining some essential mystery of how our most shapeless and obscure experiences are transubstantiated into three-minute songs we can play and replay at will, he and McCombs spent a lot of time hanging out at the junior high.

“We were these older guys just standing around being creepy,” Rechtshaid remembers. “But it made sense at the time.”

Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Arizona, and writes for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. This is his first story for Grantland.

Filed Under: Vampire Weekend, Bieber, Celebrities, Justin Bieber, Music, Snoop Lion