On Election Day, I was on my way to the West Village to cast my vote when I stopped by the studio where Guided By Voices was recording their upcoming release, Isolation Drills (due to release April 3rd/TVT Records). After our last interview, Bob Pollard had become a pal and so I’d wanted to drop off a gift for him (I had missed his pizza and unlimited beer-fest on his real birthday – on Halloween, fittingly enough.) When I gave it to him he was happy and sweet, as always, when someone popped out of the recording area and plopped himself on the couch with an air of boyish intensity. Bob and I talked for a minute – actually I was badgering him for not voting – when he introduced me to the guy on the couch as a segue out of his cornered situation. He introduced him as Rob, “our producer”. I guess I was taken aback, since most producers I’ve met have a George Martin-esque affectation (self important with the cork in too tight), or on the other spectrum, a kind of sleazy casting-couch demeanor. Rob Schnapf on first impression is a guy you want to get a beer with. No airs, no bull, and a keen listener. I had heard about him mostly in connection with Tom Rothrock, whom he’d collaborated with for a decade on producing the likes of Beck, Foo Fighters, Moby, Richard Thompson, Mary Lou Lord, Elliott Smith and Wool, to name a few.
Rob with Elliott Smith
They were revered as the Duo that had the golden touch. Tom and he were working at the Record Plant as janitors. The hierarchy was you came in as a janitor (“they called it that to keep it as humiliating as possible”). Whenever the upstairs studio, called the Micro Plant, was free, the manager let them use the equipment and soon they found themselves dragging bands up there regularly. The demos they were recording were soon put to vinyl. “If you put it on a 7″ that’s a record. It’s not a demo.” They’re credited as having discovered Beck. “Beck was a 12′.” They were about the music, and the people who worked with them knew that. “With Rob and Tom, any sense of commerce pretty much stops at the studio door,” says Luke Wood, an A&R executive at DreamWorks Records. “They look at it from the point of view of the musician writing songs, not the record company guy eating at the Ivy.”
The artists feel the same way. Richard Thompson said it best, “They’re very musical kind of producers. For me, the final product is kind of a transparent record in the sense it seems like my record without any filters. There doesn’t seem to be anything between the music and the intention, which is high praise. It’s a very straight-ahead production, it’s just live recording, ‘bang.'” That is high praise indeed, with today’s mass-market music at such a high, dulling our senses, it seems a gem to find producers who can let the artist be an artist.
Rob says of working with Thompson, “It was two hours of just talking. It was easy and natural. People talking. It was weird because he was one of my guitar heroes. 15 years ago, when I was the aspiring musician, he was one of those guys, the golden chalice. It was a really great experience.”
Elliott says of working with Rothrock and Schanpf, “I’ve been thinking of them as sort of my band. It’s the best metaphor I can think of. We are like-minded in terms of approaching each song as a separate thing and not trying to make things more cohesive than they really need to be.”
Rob with Tom Rothrock
As I was leaving to cast my all-important vote, I asked Rob if he’d like to do an interview. He didn’t hesitate and said, “Sure.” That made my day and off I went. A few days later I found myself at GBV’s “listening” party, which consisted of a dozen people to rock out to the completed album, Isolation Drills. It was there that I found out that Rob was going back home to Los Angeles the following day. Who could blame him? He missed his little boy. We arranged a phoner and I talked to him a few weeks later.
On producing, Rob is not one to “browbeat” artists into his vision. He claims you have an intimate relationship with them, understanding what they’re trying to go for and he doesn’t impose himself on their vision. Because of this understanding, they’re able to put the “train back on the track when it falls off.” It’s “subtle guiding and fence building… focusing. Trust and having that kind of relationship.”
One artist that has really gotten to trust Schnapf is modern day balladeer, Elliott Smith. They’ve worked on three records to date and they’re in talks for a follow-up to Figure 8. “If you work with somebody who’s really good, it makes you look good,” says Schnapf. Figure 8 is winner of Privy’s BEST ALBUM OF 2000, and my personal pick. So, needless to say, I’m waiting with bated breath for a new Smith album to daydream to.
Elliott was nominated for an Oscar for Miss Misery, off the Good Will Hunting soundtrack when they were in the middle of recording XO. “It shocked everybody. It became a distraction in the middle of making a record. All of a sudden you have all this international press. You know, the Oscars are big! Everybody was like ‘Elliott who?’”
When we talked in New York, I asked Rob how he could have made such a brilliant album that was so long. I mean, just try to find a mediocre song on Figure 8. It’s impossible. This is how he explains it, “The whole thing is collaborative. Elliott will come up with a sequence and you go I like it up to here but this part seems like we got stalled or something. You offer an opinion if you have one. If you don’t have one, you don’t offer one. What was really hard with the sequence was when we tried to keep it more succinct it would get un-weighted, you know. It took all those songs to complete the big picture. You didn’t get a bunch of little pictures.” Not a fan of long records, he just wants it to say what it’s got to say and then move on. He was, however, the one to suggest they make it as long as it has to be. He figures they can always subtract later on.
Rob is clearly organized. He thinks before he speaks, so the interview is full of pauses, but again, his perfectionist vision comes through. For him, I think it’s a natural process, whether it’s giving an interview or making a record. The “organic” process is important to him. “When you have a really good song, you get the vibe. The good taste. It just happens automatically.”
On working with Beck, he said it was a lot of fun. Mellow Gold was “completely made not for the music industry. It was made just for fun. Most of that stuff was done before anyone knew who he was. Completely in the vacuum.”
Schnapf was a fan of Guided by Voices long before producing them. He’d “bought tickets” and owned “the t-shirts”. I was pretty shocked by this, I guess, thinking that GBV was more obscure than they really are. Asked what it was like working with Bob, Rob gets serious. “Bob was really cool. I think he trusted me, because it was sort of like, I told him what I wanted to do. He was down with that approach already. We were working on the same page.”
One of my fondest GBV moments will always be at that “listening” party, when I glanced over during the track Chasing Heather Crazy blasting from the right, low-and-behold, there was Rob rocking out! I mean mouthing the lyrics, eyes closed, head bobbing, totally getting into to the sound of the song he produced. One would think he’d have been sick of it. Not Schnapf. It was, once again, like he was one of the band. “I like to rock. I play guitar. I like to turn it up and rock.”
The greatest thing about Isolation Drills is that it brings back that good old GBV vibe. Do the Collapse, produced by Ric Ocasek, felt over-produced with the Cars influenced keyboard loops that didn’t feel right intertwined with Bob’s bombast and Doug’s biting guitar licks. Teenage FBI sounds very pop but live it rocks like anything off Alien Lanes. What Rob managed to do with Isolation Drills was to give GBV their much-needed production value without losing the raw feel of the band. That couldn’t have been easy to do. They also brought in Tobin Sprout and Elliott Smith to play keyboards on the track, How’s My Drinking. Actually, Rob tells me that Smith plays on three tracks. “To me, even when I saw them from their lo-fi stuff, I always felt they were a rock band. I just wanted to make a big loud rock record.”
He goes on to praise Bob’s talents, discounting my claims that he’s such a simple, nice guy, albeit a genius (I’ve told this to Bob to his face), but he says Pollard knows exactly what he’s doing. As far as Bob’s talents, he continues, “Not to demean the music part, a lot of people can come up with melodic music. The hard part is good words. That’s what separates the good from the mediocre. And Bob’s got really good words.”
He can’t answer who his favorite band to work with was, since he’s been so selective, he finds it always so “rewarding.” On the other side of the pendulum, at home he’s been listening to Rachmaninov. I guess that was interesting coming from a man who just produced Bob Pollard. “All good music is good for a reason. It strikes some primal chord in you. It doesn’t have to be primal music to strike that primal chord. That’s what makes all good music good.”
The internet seems entertaining to Schnapf. He’s learned a lot through surfing, following his hobbies and keeping in touch with people. It’s a form of communicating to him. “I’m in touch with people I would never ever call,” he laughs. I’m glad I’m one of them. On the Napster debacle he says, “The thing that bothered me… I like records. I like albums. I like the album from top to bottom. This promotes not records but songs. There’s nothing wrong with trading music, I think that’s cool, but, that’s the other side of it. You don’t get the breadth of an artist that way. Taking things out of context.”
The interview took an interesting turn at this point. That’s the thing about Rob Schanpf. You think he’s this really quiet, professional, all about the business, then he unfolds like some kind of crazy flower. It’s a tight little ball at first, very organized and perfect, then it unfolds slowly into this crazy, super-scented huge flower that’s almost alien. That’s Rob. He’s not at all what you think he is and the first impression that Rob makes is not necessarily the one with the most impact.
I won’t get into the conversation, but Rob is a lot more than producing records. A lot more than music and rock stars. He’s in love with his son. He’s into some really interesting stuff. And what was really cool was that he asked questions too. A lot of questions. Again, observing and taking in. You get the feeling that he’s probably a very valuable friend to a lot of people. It’s funny. He probably learned more about me than I did about him that day. And what it left me with was, what a great listener he is. And that’s what makes a producer great. Listening.