Shabby Road Svengali – Interview with Record Producer Roger Greenawalt
Thirteen candles in a dim converted warehouse.
Two old pianos. A vintage organ. Countless guitars, bass guitars, and ukuleles (one signed by Warren Buffet) hang from the walls. A drum kit.
A giant desk/Mac/mixer/speakers arrangement in the middle of the room looks like an electronic shrine. Directly opposite sits a slouchy couch.
Near the door, a bookshelf sags under the weight of non-fiction. In another corner: a white bed—strangely pure-looking.
There aren’t many windows. At night, the space resonates with a sort of gothic undertone; by day, it’s less foreboding, but its occupant is no less eccentric. Although he does go out, home is where he spends most of his time.
“I’ve realized in the last three years that there’s only being in your favorite place doing your favorite thing,” says Roger Greenawalt. “That’s what someone would do with a billion dollars. It’s all you can ever do. And, if you are there, as much as you can. And that’s it. And then you just repeat, do it every day.”
Accordingly, Greenawalt lives, eats, sleeps, works, fucks at Shabby Road Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He hosts salons with artists and billionaires (allegedly). Surrounds himself with beautiful women, whose music he also happens to be producing. His resume includes work with Ben Kweller, The Pierces, Adam Green, and Rufus Wainwright (whose “Old Whore’s Diet”, from the Want Two album, was recorded at Shabby Road).
Such is the life of a musician and producer who has carved out the exact niche that he wants in an industry where there’s no such thing as bad publicity. (Exhibit A: the infamous People’s Court appearance in which he calls plaintiff Scott Alexander a “self-hating Jew”, among other unsavory descriptors.) But, without a doubt, Greenawalt would trade both notoriety and money for more fame. “I just want to have the max amount of neurons and the max amount of human brains,” he says. “I want the max amount of time spent listening to my stuff by people. I’ve seen this term recently—mindshare.” His voice drops to a whisper: “I like that.”
He has a way of speaking that’s musical in its crescendos and decrescendos, surprising in its accented syllables, and sometimes so meandering that it seems possible that it would only emanate from the mouth of a crazy person. (Mad genius, maybe.) For this reason, the quotes that follow have been left fully intact except where paragraph breaks indicate breaks in the conversation. I’ve used ellipses to indicate actual pauses rather than cut text, and I’ve left in all the “um”s, “you know”s, “whatever”s, and the like. If I’d cleaned up the quotes, they’d have lost their wonderfully bizarre rhythm.
(And anyway, it’s my blog, so I can do whatever the fuck I want on it.)
OH: What is mindshare?
RG: That’s, ok, so, instead of like, people are looking for metrics to find value and decide what to do and what’s important, and Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are at the top of one metric, and there may be living artist reputation one, might be, Bob Dylan. Whatever.
(His cell phone rings. The ringtone is the sound of a cuckoo clock.)
This is the crisis in show business, book business, newspapers, magazines. Music’s free. I don’t pay for it. Who does? Only suckers. And so. What are you doing it for? Same reason as Keith [Richards]. Same reason I’ve always been doing it: is glory. I want as many people as possible to hear my stuff and go, “That’s the shit.” I want to have a Charles Barkley—I mean Gnarls Barkley “Crazy” that’s a tune of mine. You know, just, it’s the one. Just so I could go, like, in the fuckin’ airport, when the person next to me on the plane says, “Whaddya do?” And I say, “Oh, record producer.” “And they say, “Oh, who have you worked with?” And it’s like, “Do you know that song BA-ba-DA-ba-BA-ba-DA?” And like, “Yeah.” “I did that.” Hey, fine. Now. Whatever.
RG: The closest is “Secret”, by The Pierces. ‘Bout three million downloads, and it’s the, uh, theme song of Pretty Little Liars, it was used on Dexter, it was used in Gossip Girl, um. Whatever, so, in terms of like mindshare, it’s that song for the last three years.
OH: What bands are you working with right now?
RG: Electric Child. The model, think Yeah Yeah Yeahs-meets metric. It’s me and this chick Alison Clancy. She’s the best dancer in New York, I think. Modern dance. She gigs at the opera—she’s in the ballet troupe of the Metropolitan Opera. That’s her day job. She’s the principal, and it’s the dance company. It’s advanced shit. She’s deep.
The music is just my extreme landscapes, just loudspeaker painting. I don’t just, I don’t give a fuck about music anymore. I really just want it to be like an atmosphere that’s so believable, and you’re in it, and there happens to be music playing in it.
So I’m a fetishist, totally egalitarian about any sound from any period of history, how it’s made, irregardless [sic], there’s no credibility associated with how a sound is generated or how it’s recorded, through what process. It’s just the sound that’s coming out of the speaker, and that’s it. And—except—that singer for the voice. And there, it’s like Chairman Mao, and this is the Cultural Revolution. We’re just all suckin’ the vocals’ dick. ‘Cause it’s really all about the human voice. That’s what our brains wanna hear.
(His other current collaborations include work with the band Lovely Liar, solo artist Leah Siegel, and French singer Violette. One notices the pattern of gorgeous women figuring prominently in each equation. Greenawalt has something of a Svengali reputation.)
OH: You’re a highly regarded bassist now. But what was the first instrument you learned?
OH: When did you start playing?
RG: Thirteen, fourteen. And then it was just total. When I switched. I just, remember vividly, I just started playing, all the time. I already had the habit, or the temperament, anyway, of obsessional [sic] practice with baseball. So it was an easy switch. Now all that energy just gets poured into that.
OH: Where was this—where did you grow up?
Suburban Maryland. Right outside of Washington, D.C.
My parents met studying Russian. 1958, like height of the Cold War. My dad was an intelligence guy. My father was in the C.I.A., so that was his job, too. You needed to learn their language, in the same way there’s lots of smart kids at Syracuse University learning Arabic now. Whatever. The problem’s going to be, they should be learning Chinese. But anyway. Yeah. Annnd…Music! Music!
Seventeen music school, by nineteen doing the band full-time.
(“The band” is The Dark, a New Wave band in which Greenawalt played guitar. He left Berklee College of Music for The Dark.)
But, you know, what I found in The Dark was I quickly became bored of the guitar.
I was basically doing the most extreme sound effects I could do on guitar. Wasn’t even playing. You know how Hendrix kind of did lots of sound effects, would sound like a chainsaw, would sound like uh—a jet engine. Make it sound like, uh, a siren. That’s the shit I was doing. I wasn’t even playing music anymore. And the music I was playing was things that are in the air, very jagged, rhythmic, jagged, like, what—Gang of Four? Public Image Limited, just fragments of sounds, with effects. Or U2. But usually simple things—not—no chords. Always been very suspicious of chords.
OH: How did you get into producing?
RG: I’m just, you know, by temperament solitary and just so non-authoritarian that a lot of my outcome in my 20s was just predicated on that, really, more than anything. I wasn’t the type of guy who would have been able to tolerate the good advice of mentors in their 50s, which is part of what is crucial to making it in your 20s.
And then, just the supervisory role, being in the studio. The guitar, see, wasn’t enough. I kept trying to get a bigger canvas than guitar. And literally it became a canvas.
The band’s just, a rock band’s just so limiting when you’ve got…the recording studio. And really that’s the best instrument. You know, it’s awesome. Just the loudspeaker paintings is the best thing to do. And it’s endless.
I know I can have this [studio] forever. I’ve kind of proven the point. Since 1987, I’ve sustained myself as a record producer, and uh, so, I guess that point is proven.
OH: Can you talk a bit about your Beatles project?
RG: Oh, the Beatles thing. God, I’ve got so much work to do. (whispers) I’ve got so much fucking work to do. Um. San Francisco, I’m doing one in kind of like a society setting [third weekend of November]. It’s this thing called the McEvoy Ranch. That’s in my family. It’s my aunt’s. Um.
(He crunches a Ricola. This happens often.)
Olive oil business, it’s award-winning. It’s interesting. It’s hundreds of acres in Petaluma, north of San Francisco. You have this big harvest festival. And I’m playing like an hour-ish version of my Beatles Complete on Uke there. Which is just me on uke along with a band playing Beatles and reeeeaally good singers.
I’m doing the Beatles Complete again here [in New York], which is a hundred eighty-five songs. In twenty-four hours. With like a hundred guest people. I’ve done it like four times, so it’s doable, and I figured out how to do better now. The best way I’ve come up with so far is the way I’m doing it this year. A Saturday night, fifteenth of Jan, six to midnight. That’s kind of like the grown-up part. And then next day, wholesome fuckin’ family uke and little kiddie brunch noon to six. Same venue, Brooklyn Bowl.
OH: What do you like so much about the ukulele?
RG: It’s awesome. I mean, let me just put it in your hands. Have you ever played one? Ok, so look at this right here.
(He gets up, takes his ukulele out of the case, and sets the instrument parallel to his cat, Chatterbox, who is lying on the bed.)
Do you see this, anything, similar, between these two objects? Chatterbox and the ukulele?…I’m not kiddin’—look. What do you notice about this two—this set?
OH: They’re about the same size?
RG: (grins) Bingo. And, this is also the same size, ratio-wise, of a baby to an adult. Of a kitten to an older cat. Ok, so there’s something really happening here, with about this size and shape, in your arms like this. It’s not true for a guitar, not really. It’s not true for a keyboard, sitting at this piece of furniture. K, so? This is already something magic here like this, cradling it, like this. See? Hold it. Just do it. Hold it like a baby. Just hold it like a baby, seriously. Not like a guitar. Hold it like a baby.
OH: Like a baby?
RG: You don’t—like a baby. See, yes! I’m serious! Hold it like a baby. Just feel like the—and you’ll see like, oh, and look how the little curvy kinda fits in, even that—that fits against your boob there? You know what I’m saying? Like it goes right there, like a little baby. Right in your hands. It’s awesome. Now. Have you ever played—the instrument—before?
OH: I’ve messed around with one, but I really don’t know—what are the strings here? What have we got?
RG: All right. I’m gonna teach you a song right now. Put your first finger there. All right?
OH: First finger?
RG: Doesn’t matter which one. Now. Strum steady. Like this…Keep it steady…Keep going. Don’t stop. I’m gonna start—we’re gonna learn a song now.
(He begins singing a very staccato, unusually pronounced version of “Frere Jacques”.)
Door. May. VOOSS!
Door. May. Vooss.
Climbs the Eiffel Tower.
Coo. Coo. Cachoo.
Who. Is. The dude?
Crude is oil
In my ear…
OH: Never heard those words before.
RG: Well, I’m just making it up.