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From skate rat super-producer: Ariel Rechtshaid on mining pop gold from Usher and Sky Ferreira

If Ariel Rechtshaid’s name seems familiar to you, it’s not because you’ve bought a record with his face on the cover.

But if you’ve turned on the radio in the past two years, you can’t have missed the handiwork of the 34-year-old pegged as the ‘indie super producer’, whether it’s the lockstep rhythms of sisterly trio HAIM, the electro slow jam of Usher’s Grammy-winning ‘Climax’ or the brash, bittersweet swagger of Sky Ferreira’s ‘You’re Not The One’. In just a few years, Rechtshaid’s omnivorous sensibility and rule-free approach to collaboration has seen him rack up a string of eclectic credits stretching from the indiesphere (Cass McCombs, Vampire Weekend, Glasser) to the upper echelons of the pop mainstream (Charli XCX, Justin Bieber).

A Los Angeles skate rat raised on a diet of The Germs and West Coast hip-hop, Rechtshaid’s first taste of the industry was as a guitarist and singer for teen ska-punkers The Hippos, who released three albums around the turn of the millennium. When they disbanded in 2001, Rechtshaid found he was more than happy to swap the stage for the studio and hone his craft behind the boards (“I never really needed to be the centre of attention,” he insists), working with Definitive Jux rapper Murs and bands like We Are Scientists, and later his friend Diplo, with whom he’s shared producer credits on several tracks.

In 2007, Plain White T’s Billboard-topping emo-pop ditty ‘Hey There Delilah’ gave Rechtshaid a leg-up into the producer big league, while the success of ‘Climax’ last year made him one of the most in-demand names in the industry. But as more doors open, the former punk frontman says he’s determined to pick and choose his projects with care, not wanting to succumb to the industry’s “one night stand” collaboration format. “I’m not gonna do anything that I don’t feel passionate about,” he says. “I couldn’t possibly find the motivation.”

After producing two of the year’s biggest albums, HAIM’s Days Are Gone and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, Rechtshaid is winding down for the holidays as he speaks to FACT over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. Personable and highly talkative, the producer lifts the lid on working with Usher and Sky Ferreira, recording Miley Cyrus in his garage and collaborating with the “eccentric” Justin Bieber.

You’ve worked with a big variety of artists across a lot of different genres and styles, so what do you think your production work has in common?

It’s about finding what’s unique about the artist, the strengths of their band and the abilities of the musicians. My quest has always been to make music that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard – I’m really anti-retro. It’s not so much about a specific signature sound as taking what it is the artist is already doing and enhancing it, helping make it sound fresh, like nothing you’ve ever heard – even if it draws from influences or occasionally taps into derivative stuff where it sounds like something we love.

So whether it’s HAIM or Usher or whoever, I like to pinpoint and exploit the thing that they do and no one else does as well, you know? Like with Usher, it’s his vocal range and ability to sing real r’n’b, as opposed to his dance pop stuff, which I also love but everybody’s doing it. I thought it was more interesting to dig into his r’n’b side, which was less of a radio thing at that point.

With HAIM it was the way they lock rhythmically as a trio, as sisters – them all being drummers at heart and their father being a drummer. They already have a grip on writing good hooks and stuff like that, so I thought that the way they work as a rhythm section was really unique and I wanted to expose that as much as possible. With Vampire Weekend it was a whole other challenge. The goal at that point was, well, you’ve made two records that were a natural progression and that both worked – what’s the point of making a third? I mean, I was sensing it from them – try and find a reason to make the third record. So we turned it upside down and it still sounds like them, but it’s less of the African guitar and that sort of thing, more of a progression into like, American gospel, which was a natural progression from their influences.

How did you collaborate with Usher on ‘Climax’? Was it all done over the internet, as so many collaborations now are, or was it the result of a proper studio session?

It was really intense – I went to the studio in New York to vibe it out and see if there was something we could do, and I was walking in as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were walking out. It gave me a heart attack, I couldn’t have been in a more foreign environment. Any time I started to do something that sounded like something current that we knew, or something by Usher that we knew, he’d stop me in my tracks, so I really quickly realised that if he wanted something that sounded Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, he’d have Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis do it, you know what I mean! He was looking for something completely new and different, which is why I was there.

We just had that keyboard melody looping, and when we heard him freestyle that first line a cappella – it was more like gibberish but just hearing the range and the mood, it was like yes, that’s it, that’s the thing that no one else can do. No one else hits those notes right now. I mean, people can do it, but fewer people than can do a four-on-the-floor uptempo dance track, you know?

“I was always attracted to music influenced by unlikely things, especially that era when dub and punk combined”

That sounds like a very organic collaborative process.

It really was, we were in a room and it just happened over the course of a day. Then we met up in Atlanta to continue working and our friend Nico Muhly, who is an off-the-wall avant-garde composer in New York, came and helped with some arrangements on it.

Which is so bizarre – to have that group of people making a Grammy-winning hit r’n’b song.

I know, I mean that’s just the story of my life – the most unlikely collaborations. But to some degree it all makes sense. I grew up listening to punk rock like the The Germs and The Clash, and playing in punk rock bands influenced by that really raw, aggressive, but also melodic music. The Clash were really inspirational to me when I was young and I kind of discovered reggae backwards through their cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’, which was produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who I then dug into. That introduced me to Bob Marley and the early Wailers stuff, which led me to The Skatalites and I got into all kinds of music ‘cos of that. The point being that I was always attracted to music that was influenced by unlikely things, especially that era of music when dub and punk combined, like PiL and John Lydon.

On top of that, I was a skater in L.A. and there was a big hip-hop culture. A lot of kids I went to high school with were rappers and some of the first recordings I did were rap records, when I was working more with the sampler and programmer than I was with the guitar or bass. I guess by the time I was in my early 20s I was just comfortable in either world.

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How did you start working with Sky Ferreira? Is it true that the album only took a couple of weeks to record?

It changed pretty drastically in the last three weeks and came out very suddenly, but it was developing over the course of about a year and a half. I was in a frozen yoghurt shop in L.A. and a song came on that sounded kind of like modern pop music but had this kind of Italo-disco vibe to it, so I Shazam-ed it and it was Sky Ferreira’s song ‘One’, which apparently no one liked.

Anyway, I heard something in it that I liked, and at some point I looked her up on Facebook and I hit ‘Like’. I could be exaggerating, but I feel like it was almost instantly I got a message back from her saying she loved the Cass McCombs record I made, which is another completely different, off-the-beaten-path type record. And she was like, “I’m in L.A., you wanna get together and write?”

So she came by and we kinda stared at each other for hours, I talked about ‘One’ and she was like, “Oh my god, I hate that.” We started listening to some Italo-pop stuff and somehow made a lefthand turn into krautrock territory. She seemed to gravitate to that and she had this deadpan punk vibe to her anyway, so we started working on little nuggets of ideas.

She’d already been working on a record with [producer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind composer] Jon Brion and it was a completely different idea, a singer-songwriter thing. Before we knew it there was half of a record that she and him had done and half of a record she and I had done, but not really finished. One of the songs was one we did with Dev [Hynes], ‘Everything is Embarrassing’. That song got out there and it lit up, and she had to put together an EP real quickly ‘cos the record was hot.

I kind of dipped out ‘cos I was working with Vampire Weekend and HAIM and that was really all I had time for, then a series of things delayed it being released and all of a sudden she had a realisation that it should be more of a uniform sound, and she dropped the singer-songwriter stuff. We quickly scrambled and got the remaining five songs done and then the record just came.

It was right down to the wire and was essentially all just rough mixes, not the proper polished mix that you normally do for a major label record, so it’s totally distorted and rough around the edges, an almost punk record. There are drum fills that never even made it to the final mixes, there’s a lot of stuff that just accidentally happened.

Whatever happened obviously benefited the record – it feels like a band came up with the sound together, it’s very cohesive. So many pop albums consist of 10 songs by different writers and producers that don’t sound like each other.

Yeah, which I’m completely against. I’ve got used to the fact that’s the modern way that records are made. A&R people and artists have come to expect that that’s how it’s done, and [the Sky Ferreira record] was no exception until the very, very end.

So she had a pretty strong vision for doing it her way?

Definitely. And I have to say the label didn’t really fight us, they were more – as they usually are – concerned with timelines than anything. They were pushing to put it out and she had the wherewithal to hold back, then the stars aligned and all the songs which were written with her in mind just ended up on the record, it was a beautiful thing.

Are you happy working on whatever you’re hired for, or are there jobs you would say no to? You’ve worked with Diplo a lot and he’s said that he takes whatever he’s offered, but it doesn’t seem like you work in that way?

No, I don’t. Diplo’s projects in general are more in and out, and it is that way with a lot of beatmaker type producers. With my stuff it’s much more of an involved process. There’s the occasional one night stand, but I do these album projects and they take up way more time, so naturally if I’m being offered more than three things a year I have to pick and choose. I’m definitely not gonna do anything that I don’t feel passionate about, I couldn’t possibly find the motivation.

“The only thing you can trace with all these projects is a willingness to experiment and fall flat on your face”

Is there an element of wanting to challenge yourself with your projects? I mean, you’ve worked with Justin Bieber, who’s pretty different to Cass McCombs, say.

Yeah, and that is exactly how you’d imagine – I got asked if I wanted to work with Justin Bieber and I scratched my head and was like, uh, of course I do, of course I wanna see what that’s about. Who wouldn’t? It’s weird because I always wonder if I’ll have a line to draw, but every time these funny things come up they seem just far out enough but also really in line with what I’m into. I mean, he’s a weird dude, Justin Bieber, he’s an eccentric.

As well as Usher, and definitely Snoop – all these things that are not in my normal wheelhouse but they’re new and challenging, something weird and far out, I love those kinds of situations. I love having Miley Cyrus come over to my house in Echo Park and record a vocal in my garage for a Snoop record, it’s just the weirdest thing. And she turned out to be really cool anyway. As usual you’d be surprised. Rarely is there a dull moment where I’m just making some average music that just works right now for the radio.

I suppose if you were to team up with a band who just wanted to sound like Vampire Weekend it wouldn’t be as challenging as working with someone like Justin Bieber where you have to think, what do I do with this?

That’s exactly it. I mean, after ‘Climax’ was done, I had a list of 20 people who were trying to do ‘Climax’, and I was like, well, you can’t do ‘Climax’ – that happened because of who was in the room, it wasn’t a preconceived idea, it wasn’t calculated. I think the only thing you can trace with all these projects is an approach, a willingness to experiment and fall flat on your face if you fail, but also make something pretty far out if you don’t. That’s all I can guarantee anyone I’m working with – it’s not gonna be a lazy effort.

You were in a band, The Hippos, who were pretty successful – you toured and made three albums. Do you ever find that being in the studio gives you ideas for music that you want to make yourself? Are there times when you don’t want to give away things that you’re working on?

Not really. I enjoy being on stage and playing loud music, so every now and then I love having the opportunity to jump on stage with people, but I never really needed to be the centre of attention. When I’m working year-round in the studio, the creative output is like a thousand times more than when I was touring. Travelling and playing is obviously good fun but it definitely gets old, and there’s 10 hours a day where you’re not doing anything, you know? There’s no way to be as creative as I am right now.

What’s going on in your studio now and who will you be collaborating with next?

I’m winding down for the year. I did a record with a girl in England named Rae Morris who is a singer-songwriter, completely different from anything I’ve ever done actually. She has a really beautiful voice and simple, evocative songs that I liked because they were honest.

Otherwise it’s been a lot of what you’d expect, just collaborating with the same cast of characters, still working with HAIM and Vampire Weekend. I’ve been writing again with Amber Coffman from the Dirty Projectors, she’s working on her solo effort. And I met with that girl FKA twigs and the personalities meshed really well. I don’t know if it’ll happen for this record, we’ll see how the schedules go, but we just hooked up for a day and started some really cool stuff. But it’s not enough time, I don’t usually do that.

That seems to be the standard way of working in the music industry now.

It is, and it works sometimes. But it doesn’t work all the time, and what’s becoming more and more rare is the other way. I think that the success of the HAIM record, the Vampire Weekend record and even the Sky Ferreira record is indicative that the other way of making music is important too.

It’s an interesting thing, having that sort of icon like Rihanna who’s on tour, doing her thing and doing collaborations with fashion or whatever, and then the music is just a component of a much larger, like a multidimensional performer thing. It’s not like a singer-songwriter or a rock band, or a rapper for that matter – that stuff takes time to develop in the studio. But every project has its own specific needs, and if people feel compelled to work with me then we find out what they are.

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