Mitchell Froom :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

It sounds like a cliché because it is, but it’s also true: you can’t throw a rock in the 80s, 90s and 2000s without hitting a pretty substantial album that Mitchell Froom had a hand in producing. Either by himself, with former production partcher Tchad Blake, or more recent co-production work with David Boucher, Froom’s work has collected a wide breadth of artists from his earliest work with the Del Fuegos and Crowded House, to his long-standing relationship with Randy Newman.

But Froom is also a musician in his own right, and earlier this year he released an album and an EP, both projects designed to help revisit and develop his sense of the studio. The Monkeytree EP features a handful of compositions put together with David Boucher, and the Ether full-length took Froom on a working tour of his synthesizers, exploring a past sense of the future. “There’s a layer of plastic over it,” Froom says, describing the alternate-timeline vision of what lay ahead.

Aquarium Drunkard spoke with Froom over the phone about the two new releases, that aforementioned layer of plastic, the benefits of recording these albums in relation to his production work, and a discussion scanning some of the more well known and less talked about bits of his production and recording work.

Mitchell Froom :: Witch Hunt

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve just released two new works. Ether, the full-length, is a record that you said you wanted to sound futuristic but in a 1960s way. There’s a kind of hopefulness to that kind of ‘dated futurism,’ for lack of a better term.

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, it’s like 60s sci-fi. When synthesizers first came to people’s attention, it was kind of futuristic sounding. It was hopeful. That’s a good term for it – I’d never thought of it like that. To me it was psychedelic. Surreal psychedelic. I’ve always been attracted to that kind of mind-bending feeling.

AD: I was wondering, is there a kind of equivalent sound to that today? What does the ‘future’ sound like in 2019? There’s still this idea Ether  sounding like the future, but instead of it being the future, it’s like the future in an alternate timeline instead.

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, and part of it – and this may sound pretentious – there were a number of reasons I did it. I wanted to get back into my synthesizers and see what I could do with them nowadays with all that I’ve learned. But I liked this idea of trying to do stuff that would traditionally be very emotional if done with acoustic instruments, but with this it’s more mind music. There’s a layer of plastic over it. And it’s more how life feels – with all the technology, the distractions, checking your phone and all that pulling you further and further from emotions and it has this kind of surreal feeling to it. So that was some of the inspiration. I just like the idea of that. I don’t know if I got there. It’s just something that made me feel like it might be worth pursuing.

Future music now – that might be a very deep question. I don’t see people really talking about how amazing the future is going to be right now. It’s certainly not this hopeful idea like the 60s where technology is going to solve everything. Like The Jetsons. [laughs] So there’s not that kind of romance in the idea of technology and what it can do because it’s doing so many negative things. So I don’t know. We have a music of our time, but it’s so diffuse that you can get almost anything you want. It’s like every artist has some sort of cult following. There are some things you can identify – like the influence of hip-hop on pop music – and some new things about it. But the last movement we had really was Nirvana, and then there were a million bands that tried to sound like that. And some got successful because labels supported it and movements that reached the masses. But I don’t know if that’s possible right now.

AD: Non-organic sounding music has become more the norm in pop music – certainly more than guitars and things.

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, that’s something you don’t hear a lot now – the sound of people playing together to create a mood. Some people do. D’Angelo can do it. Just put musicians in the room and really work on the feeling. And it has a serious mood to it. But in general that’s not what’s happening. It is what it is. And for me the odd thing was, getting more back to synthesizers – they sound like acoustic instruments compared to the plug-ins everyone is using. It’s a strange feeling. What was considered cold in the past is approaching acoustic sounding instruments more with the way everything sounds now.

AD: The other record you put out is an EP called Monkeytree with your production partner David Boucher. You mentioned that you were interested in playing around with synthesizers and influenced by “DJ culture projects.” Can you expand a bit on what you meant by that?

Mitchell Froom: Well, before I did my album, David and I kind of ran out of time, so I decided to put out what we had. It was based on a lot of remix stuff that I heard that I thought was pretty boring. And whenever I do anything on my own, I’m trying to push the envelope of things so I can learn things to bring to other people’s records. I’m a creature of the studio, so it interests me. If I do something on my own, I try to push it as far as possible while being musical at the same time.

I’d gotten these strange tapes of these 70s sessions that were designed for a weird keyboard called an Optigan. So I had all these people from the 70s playing all these grooves and parts, and I cut that up and we just started working and seeing how far we could push it in that way. So we thought of things – we’re in the short-attention span era, so let’s just make it wild. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than we thought. [laughs] But they are what they are. Both of these records are more that than anything else. They aren’t designed to be like ‘oh, I want to go see the gig of someone playing that stuff.’ It’s all studio stuff.

AD: You’ve managed to do a project like this about once a decade going back to the 1980s. When you’re between these projects, are you still creating, or does it mostly get funneled into the work you’re doing with other people?

Mitchell Froom: I write music and I write music with people and sometimes I’ll even write a whole track. I’ve always done that. It’s not my main interest. My main interest is being in the studio and putting arrangements together. I really like working with artists and trying to figure out how best to back them up. How can I create a sound with them that is unique to them, that really supports their song. That’s really interesting to me. Much more so than being a solo artist or anything like that. I release these things when songs build up, or I have an idea that I want to pursue that would be too much to bring to an artist. For example, I worked on the new Rufus Wainwright record and he heard some of Ether and he said, ‘oh, why don’t you use one of these arrangements on this song?’ So everything kind of seasons everything else. It keeps it lively. It’s more like, I work on music almost every single day and I try to get good at it. And however that goes, it doesn’t really matter.

AD: When you are working with other people, are you the type of producer who tries to get a sense of what they want and try to work with that, or is there a ‘Mitchell Froom’ sensibility that either you can work with people or you can’t?

Mitchell Froom: The bottom line for me is: is it possible that this person is someone’s favorite artist? And that can be 10 people or 10 million. And if that’s true, what is it about them that is the great thing, and how can I enhance that? It’s really interesting. I’m sure I have references. At this point, I’ve worked on music for decades and I think I have a much better understanding of music. I really look at it like their voice and their music is their clothes. And how do I dress them in a really cool way that suits them? You know, I don’t put leather pants on this old guy. But how do you do it in a way that is lively and sounds like it’s not trying to sound super modern, but is still up to date. It’s kind of endlessly interesting. In a business sense, it’s not what people are after these days. But I still work and it’s still really interesting to try and do that. It’s not about me at all.

AD: You’ve done a lot of work with Randy Newman going all the way back to the late 90s. Bad Love was the first album you worked on him with, yes?

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, I worked on that with [former production partner] Tchad Blake.

AD: The one I’m interested in, just because of my exposure to it recently since I have a four-year-old daughter, is the soundtrack to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. I feel like it’s an extremely underrated Disney movie for starters. I knew when it came out that Randy Newman had written music for it, but I didn’t actually see it until I had a kid. You can hear it almost from moment one. His sonic stamp is all over that film. His music has always had one foot planted in the musical time period in which that movie is set. So I was curious when you worked on the film, did you have to change how you had worked with him previously since it was more targeted, or did the work change in any way?

Mitchell Froom: That’s a great example of my job. Disney was really interested in the New Orleans of that time period in general. However, the singers wouldn’t be people who studied music of that time period. You wouldn’t want to make it sound really like that time period because it’s a Disney movie. So what we would do is we would try to cut tracks as authentically as possible, knowing we weren’t going to make the sound real raw at the end of the day. But the intention of the grooves and – we were careful what type of drum kits we used, everything was era specific – it was just knowing at the end it would be kind of a glossy version of it for two reasons: one, it’s this cartoon movie and has to work in a bigger theater and appeal to those people and two, those singers couldn’t stand up to the super authentic version. Dr. John was in there, and he could, but he wasn’t in the movie, he was just on the one song. So it’s trying to figure out how to go into something like that, get the flavor of it, but still have it be acceptable. You’re not ruining it, it’s just presenting it in the way they want. It’s a work-for-hire thing. It’s how [Newman] looks at all of these movies that he does. It’s work-for-hire and he works very hard to try and make it as great as he can. I like that movie. I thought it was good and some of the music was really pretty great.

AD: Another movie you worked on, though this was playing and not production, was you played on the soundtrack for The Commitments.

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, that was an hour or two in the afternoon one day.

AD: I feel like that would be approaching ‘how do I make myself sound like a bunch of amateur Irish people trying to play American soul music?’

Mitchell Froom: That’s right. It was just bar band soul music. The only thing that was awkward about the situation was that it was clear that the room was not feeling like that was what they were doing. They thought they were really trying to play some soul music. So I just played along. A friend of mine was engineering and asked if I’d come play on it. So I always say yes. Sure, I’ll play those songs. One take, just do it. I didn’t play well, I just played like I was in a bar band. I don’t remember one note that I played, but I don’t remember being overly taken by it.

AD: Another person you’ve done a lot of work with is Richard Thompson. One of my favorite albums of his that I don’t think gets talked about enough is Mirror Blue. When I listen to that album, it sounds very of its time in a certain way – very 1993. But also very ahead of its time. Do you have any specific memories about that album?

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, that was landing right when Tchad Blake and I had come on all these new techniques and ways of doing things, and were feeling very free of how we were approaching things. We were getting further and further away from a record should be a representation of what something sounds like live. It was more like, well, that’s kind of boring, isn’t it? You’re better off seeing something live. So let’s push it and have fun with it. Again, trying to stay musical. But it was a really fun record to work on. But it was not met with tremendous enthusiasm, that I remember. [laughs]

AD: Which is unfortunate, because I think it’s held up really well.

Mitchell Froom: Yeah, but Richard Thompson – in the folk community, he’s revered. They don’t even like him playing electric guitar. And that record, they were horrified by it. The primary argument was that he’s not the kind of artist that pushing technology a bit around doesn’t suit him. That he’s best suited in the most natural setting. And that may be correct. I’m not disagreeing. But he’s the kind of artist who’s going to make 25 or 30 records in his life. So why should they all be the same? He enjoyed the exploration of doing it. So what’s wrong with it? We all liked it. [laughs] I think some critics particularly took me down pretty hard for that one, but whatever.

AD: One of the earliest groups you did multiple projects with was the Del Fuegos. How did you meet them and how did you get started working with them?

Mitchell Froom: I wasn’t known at all. I worked on this film score for this art movie, and it was done all on an 8 track. And it was in general be-bop synthesizer. But Bob Biggs at Slash liked it and he wanted to put it out as a record. That came out, and nothing happened with it of course. But he had this band called the Del Fuegos, and everyone liked them, but no one really seemed to know how to record them. They really couldn’t play very well at all. They were very young. So he came to me and he said, ‘look, if you can make an 8-track tape of these guys, then I’ll give you the go-ahead to do the record.’ So I went and met them and it was like giving music lessons. I had to teach the drummer what a groove was. They were this drunken, out of control rock band. It was really rudimentary. It was like, let’s get this to feel like something, and we made a little 8 track, and we got the budget and made the first record. The second record, I brought in another guitar player to help out, and that record got the attention of Warner Brothers, and now people were wondering how I made those things happen. All of a sudden I was seen as someone who was capable of doing things, and that lead to [my work with] Crowded House. So the Del Fuegos and I helped each other out in getting started. I’m still friends with them to this day.

AD: You mentioned Crowded House and you worked on their first three albums and some reunion albums. You’ve also done work with Neil and Tim Finn on their various albums. That became an ongoing relationship. When you’ve worked with someone for that long a period of time, does it feel more like returning to a collective project?

Mitchell Froom: It’s always been my favorite thing, if I get to work with an artist more than once. Because it’s like now, how do we take this thing we did and move it forward to another place. How do we keep this lively, rather than someone coming in with the burden of having someone else. You can really dig in and I think you do your best work if you can work with someone more than once. Certainly with Randy Newman, I understand the job more and I’m much more helpful to him, as opposed to when we first started and I didn’t understand the nature of what he was doing and how best to help out. But that’s my job is where am I needed? With most artists I’m most needed in harmonics and arrangement stuff. But with Randy, he doesn’t need me for any of that stuff. Turns out with him I’m most needed in the groove department. That’s where I can be most helpful, figuring out the groove of the arrangement, the basic feeling, who to get to play this the best. And also how to work with him to get the best out of him in how he sings and plays. You just learn more and more how to get there. So, that part is great. In a similar way, sometimes with some artists you feel like you’ve hit the end and it’s time for a break. There’s been occasion where we didn’t have to talk about it, but it was clear this was the last one. We’ve explored this and maybe it’d be good for you to find someone else to bring some new energy. words / j neas

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