Features, Interviews

The Vast Notion of “Authenticity” In Pop Music: A Conversation With Michael Beinhorn

courtesy of Michael Beinhorn

courtesy of Michael Beinhorn

Meet Michael Beinhorn, the man behind some of your favorite records! In 1987, he produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, followed by Mother’s Milk in 1989. He has also produced The Buck Pets’ Mercurotones (1990), Violent Femmes’ Why Do Birds Sing? (1991), Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union (1992), Soundgarden’s Superunknown (1994), Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzmosis (1995) and Social Distortion’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash (1996). In 1999, he received a Grammy nomination for Producer of The Year for his work on Hole’s Celebrity Skin and Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals. He has since worked with bands like Korn, Lovedrug, The Verve Pipe, The Blizzards and Mew. Michael has written about his creative process in Unlocking Creativity: A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art (Hal Leonard, 2015). He founded the fantastic blog How To Save Popular Music in 2010.

Here, I talk to Michael about his brilliant work in the studio and the vast notion of “authenticity” in pop music.

Gauraa Shekhar: Growing up in the 2000s, pop music has always been kind of ephemeral to me. Yet, even eighteen years after its release, Celebrity Skin is so relevant, even to someone like me who didn’t hear it when it came out in ‘98. Not just lyrically or melodically, but sonically.  You’ve crafted a pop album with longevity. How do you give pop music shelf-life?

Michael Beinhorn: Honestly, it’s really, really simple. When you take a piece of coal and let it sit in the grounds with massive amounts of pressure for millions of years, it turns into a diamond. If you take something that’s really amazing like raw talent and all the things that can help talent mature into greatness, you’re going to inevitably wind up with something phenomenal. The trick is being patient. It’s not so much about having a plan because, you know, the plans unfold over time. It’s about having a vision for where it starts. Like, perceiving what the potential would look like. Also recognizing over time the actual image of that vision, the working parts that are going to shift, and you just have to be prepared to roll with the punches so to speak.

[With Celebrity Skin] there was an immense amount of effort…at least consciously on my part. I guess I did discuss it with the other people in the band–trying to infuse the record with as much raw, emotional power as absolutely possible. [The little things that make a song moving] are things that, to me, stay with the listener for their entire lives. The things that jar you emotionally.

GS: One of my favorite things that you’ve said is that you “don’t record bands” you “work with artists.” Do you ever find that there are more than one artists in a band? Do you find conflicting visions to be a frequent problem?

MB: Well, the thing is that I have to start with my own vision since I can’t really pretend to know what’s in someone else’s heart. We can have discussions and I like to get a lot of insight as far as what the artist I’m working with is seeking, what they’re driven towards. Who you are and what you want are occasionally irreconcilable things. Along the way, the vision really becomes personal. It’s something that I can’t really sort of describe…it’s just like images and stuff, really. There are images–I hope this doesn’t sound too completely nuts–it’s just kind of a sensory thing like something you just can see–things just line up. Having an image of how things are supposed to sound or feel kind of directs just me, I don’t know how anyone else works with this sort of thing. I think about how I’m going to work with the artist, what sort of technology is, what would be optimal in this instance and that somehow tends to gel with how the artist I’m working with, how their process is. I see this when the process is unfolding, so to speak. It becomes a sort of organic extrapolation.

GS: What is the first thing your ears search for when you hear a song?

MB: There has to be an emotional component. You know, I’m also cursed with having some degree of knowledge of how records are made so there’s that as well. That infiltrates a little bit but the emotional component is the very first thing that connects with me. And, I think, if that’s not there, or if there isn’t something that can transmit a very full, rich, palpable mood, or some kind of visceral response in me, I’m pretty much lost at that point. I can negotiate a little bit further with it, you know, look for even the potential of an emotional development inside of it…like the germ of an emotional development that could be broken out of it in some way. But if none of those components are there, then there’s really nothing for me. In that way, I don’t really consider myself any different than anyone else who listens to music at all. The only thing that the song is, is a conveyance method. It’s the only thing that it is, which is why if it’s not there, a piece of music–even if it can be incredibly successful–has very, very limited lasting value at all. In fact, it renders it utterly temporal.

[When recording] I try to use myself as a sounding board for that. I feel if something has impacted on me emotionally, there is a reasonably good chance that it’s going to do the same in someone else. If I get an emotional response to something that I’m working on, or if I’m able to tailor what I’m working through to get that emotional response happening in myself, I’m thoroughly sure the listener will feel it too.

GS: Do you think it’s unhealthy to make a developing artist sound like another band? Do they stand to lose their identity somewhere along the way?

MB: I think it’s incredibly unhealthy. I think it perpetuates a mindset that runs completely contrary to art as an expressive tool for an individual.

GS: You mentioned that the fan’s conception of what is “authentic” about an artist and an artist’s conception of what’s “authentic” tend to conflict. To the fan, “authenticity” often means sounding like the older records whereas to artists, it can mean exploring new territory.

MB: [Laughs] I get so sick and tired of these fucking arbitrary definitions of “credibility.” You know, people have been using the same bullshit rhetoric for decades: “this isn’t rock’n’roll enough.” People were shit talking every band in the ‘70s because they weren’t as “authentic” as Iggy. C’mon! Iggy’s great, his songs are great. Zeppelin’s great. It was all great in its own way. It’s not, like if you create a narrow pathway, wherein you can only use what falls within that pathway to actually define the goodness or the validity or the “authenticity” of the music you listen to, without considering what the music is actually doing for you, you’re not paying attention! It’s as simple as that, you know. When people say things like that, I just laugh because it’s like, c’mon, is it good or isn’t it good? Did it make you feel something or did it not? That’s the single defining aspect of music: did it make you feel something? If it did, you obviously care for it. It means something to you. Maybe you even like it a little bit. If not, move on!

People love to say, “I just love their older records but, you know, when they become famous and started making money, they lost me!” Okay, all you’re really saying is: “you felt a closer kinship because they were struggling and miserable, kind of like the way you’d like to see yourself.” You know, give me a break! If someone does something really well, and they do well by it and it’s touched people, let them have that! Just let them have it! It shouldn’t have to be a great big discussion or debate. There are so many people who can do really good pop music–ABBA’s one of my favorite bands and they’re like the poppiest group on the face of the earth, they sold millions and millions of records, they were rich beyond their wildest fantasies. I know plenty of hipster type people who absolutely love them. So what, they get grandfathered into all of this? Because they were doing it in the ‘70s? Or it’s hip to like them? Give me a break! Either something moves you emotionally or it doesn’t move you at all. For me, there’s only two ways to, like, appreciate music and those are the two criteria. Beyond that, I don’t care. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff on the radio that has absolutely no resonance to me whatsoever but I’m very sure that it’s going to be a very successful song. Do I care about it? No! Will I buy it? No! Will I ever want to hear it again? Absolutely not! You know, that’s the end of it.

GS: You’ve recorded a couple of “pop” albums by rock bands. Do you ever feel vilified by the rock critic community who crack you up to be the corporate label demon, even though you’re a visionary creative yourself? How do you deal with that?

MB: [Laughs] I haven’t really had a record reviewed like that for a while and I think initially when I heard those reviews, it kind of stung a little bit and then after a while I was like, what am I doing caring about what these people think? It’s not like they were there, it’s not like they were participants or saw what it was like to make these records. So fine, let them say what they want. At the end of the day, I and the people I worked with know how things went down. Really, that’s all that matters. The other thing is, which more than counterbalances any kind of criticism I may have received on that end is having people come up to me fifteen, twenty, thirty years after I’ve done a record and go “Holy shit, your record saved my life!” or “ Oh my god your record changed my life” and when you have enough people say something like that, you’re more than willing to give up any sad or bitter feelings you might have towards some critic who is basically trying to make a buck and find words to fill out a story about a record you did. So, like, who cares?

GS: Do you ever find yourself in the studio with a formerly great musician who isn’t great anymore?

MB: I’ve found myself back at the studio with people who, I guess, are so incredibly distracted that they couldn’t focus. That they had it if only they were trying to access it again. But the impetus that accesses it had been shrunk or circumvented by other things that they prioritized more highly. Unfortunately, in a situation like that it’s impossible to really do anything about it. To sit down and say “you really gotta focus” [laughs] it doesn’t make them focus. It just makes them go “Oh, ok, sure, oh wait, that’s my phone!” “Oh wait I have to post something!” “Oh, wait, look at that bird! Wow!”

It’s just something that you have to deal with, when you’re in it, and figure out what kind of smoke and mirrors you’re going to have to create as a producer, as someone who’s responsible  for keeping this whole thing together in order for making it cohesive and gel. I mean I have been in recording studios with people who I think may have really enjoyed the process at one point but at the point that I joined up with them to work, they actually hated it! And that’s a really interesting situation to be in where someone is actually a fairly distinctive performer but they detest being inside the recording studio and to try and fabricate something out of that requires, well, an immense amount of effort on the part of other people who are outside of that person.

GS: You’ve likened contemporary pop music to a “cultural Hamburger-Helper.” If future historians were looking back at the scheme of pop/rock music today, which artist do you think they’d most like identify as key?

MB: Me? Today? I have no–I can’t even venture a guess. I have spent unfortunately sent more time that I probably should’ve wondering when people look back at this era, culturally and musically, what are they going to think about the horrible choices that were made? It’s really interesting to kind of think about it, I mean, how are people going to –if you look at the average shelf life of a really successful record, of something that’s like a hit–a hit song is going to last maximum now about six months, at the most. Because they don’t have the longevity, the ingredients that are required to pull a person in and make them want to kind of touch base with that music over and over again. If you kind of apply a similar equation to how people are going to look back at this music in 50 years, I would say that the response would be astounding. All that I know is that I’m amazed that there are people who are, like, half my age and even younger who are listening to music that I liked in the 1960s and 1970s. It is mind boggling to me and it is actually appalling that people should be listening to The Beatles or Led Zeppelin right now. Their culture should be creating things that have such powerful, emotional resonance in their own lives and relate to them specifically in this time period. They should be looking at all that music as “old folks music” because that’s exactly what it is! That’s something that is really disturbing to me and also kind of informs me that we’re not doing enough to make music, to make recordings that are compelling enough to this generation right now. I feel like it’s a tremendous disservice to them. They’re missing that emotional component that connects with them. Part of it is because of that methodology of how records are created now. That there just isn’t any concern given to the uniqueness of the artist making the recordings. People at the record labels don’t think of all of this shit. They think about what sounds like a hit and in the process they look for all this simulacra. They don’t look through the surface to see actually what’s connecting with people.

GS: You once wrote, “A real record producer incorporates a diversity of skills into his work; arrangement, orchestration, artist development, song writing, musician, sound engineering, programming, cheerleading, psychology (amongst many others).” How does a producer usually play into the artist’s psychology in the studio?

MB: I shouldn’t have said real record producer because that’s kind of unfair. There are plenty of people who do the job differently, and I can respect that. As far as psychology, it’s really important but I think a lot of people mistake this as understanding the psychology as a means of coercion, a way to find out what people think to get into their heads to steer them in the direction I want them to go in. I find over time that it’s more important to be sensitive to how people are feeling and to connect with that so there can be a consistent middle ground that’s arrived at and is beneficial to everyone. If there are points where there’s a disagreement about something, that can be dealt with directly, on a level where results are mutually satisfying. But oftentimes, there are situations where really really difficult decisions have to be made such as, on that Celebrity Skin record, the firing of a band member off the recording. It’s not psychology at that point–you really have to be prepared to speak to truth of the matter, just to kind of address what’s really going on instead of trying to hide from the reality. To me, that’s far more important than having some kind of understanding of the psychology. To have the guts to be able to go up to someone you’re working with, knowing that you’re providing them with news that’s very very unpleasant, that they don’t want to hear, and being very honest and direct with them while trying to be as delicate as possible.

GS: Do you usually go about approaching the band member and then breaking it to the band? Or does it happen sort of like an intervention?

MB: In some cases, a musician can be performing on their record and they could’ve gone through a phase of pre-production which involves a tremendous amount of rehearsing. Sometimes they’ll pass, sometimes I’ll look at them and think this person isn’t going to make it in the recording. Once in the studio, [I’ll] either have my suspicions [as a producer] confirmed or there’s a surprise that comes up out of nowhere. I just have to be prepared to sort of turn on a dime and work with the situation. Sometimes this is where the psychology comes into play because you can tell pretty fast if addressing someone directly about what they’re doing or not doing is going to work or how it’s going to work. Or how it’s not going to work. For example, certain people, if you approach them heavy handedly, believe it or not, about the poor job that they’re doing, they will respond in a very positive way. In many ways, the opposite is true with approaching someone very delicately. In some cases, you have to back away entirely and be supportive without directly addressing what the real problem is in the real time. In some cases, there’s really no addressing it at all, it has to be dealt with the rest of the people on the recording. On one recording I did, the entire dialogue was between me and the musician. No one else on the project ever knew what was going on but I actually had to tell the person at one point that if he wasn’t prepared to come to the table and perform the way he was needed to that he’d be replaced the next day. That’s really a gamble but it’s also kind of like a very honest expression of what’s happening. And what’s amazing to me in that instance is, I came in the next day and I heard the guy play like I’d never heard anyone play before. I’m not gonna pat myself on the back, I’m just gonna say he really rose to the occasion and did some amazing, amazing performing.

GS: Has a label’s agenda/crusade against a particular band ever had an impact on your judgement as a producer? If they have decided that they want to get rid of them, do you work less hard? Or just abandon the project? Are you professionally allowed to do a good job in that case?

MB: The Chili Peppers weren’t going to be dropped. The record label hated them so much that they didn’t want to let them go. They just wanted to destroy the band at the label so they wouldn’t give them the freedom. Basically it would be an act of god to make this band successful under EMI records. I didn’t come into the picture with that knowledge, I acquired it as the project went on, and it had absolutely no effect on my work on that project. Part of it was because I was a sort of up and coming producer at that point and had a lot to prove, but most important of all was that I connected with these guys. I had a very strong rapport with them, I loved them as people. I wanted to be involved in their project. I really saw what this project could develop into although I had no idea that it was going to go as far as it would for them. I felt like we were on a crusade together. There was no way that I could abandon that. The concept didn’t  even exist in my vocabulary. In another situation, I wouldn’t get involved with an artist if I knew that there was even a slight chance that I could become less enthusiastic over the course of working with them. It would be a disservice to both myself and them.

GS: Lastly, is there any song/ album you’re listening to currently that you’d like to share with our readers?

MB: Well, I just got a really lousy turntable for the first time in the last 20 years or something and I’ve got a collection of vinyl records that I only started playing after I got the turntable. This is like a piece of crap, this turntable, and already I don’t want to listen to CDs anymore. It just has that thing, that visceral kind of, like, soulful quality that I miss in listening to music. When I’m home, I listen to a lot of classical music. Actually a lot of my classical records are still in boxes but I really love Arturo Toscanini’s rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.


Michael Beinhorn lives in Los Angeles. You can read How To Save Popular Music here. You can find him on Twitter here and buy Unlocking Creativity here.

May 15, 2016

About Author

Gauraa Shekhar Gauraa is a freelance writer who divides her time between New York, Jakarta and Mumbai. She founded The Sympathizer because she was sick of having editors reprimand her for ending sentences with prepositions and charging songs guilty of being "as contagious as cholera in a sewer pipe." She is currently working on her first book.

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