My good friend Robert Johns interviewed me a while back and I thought I’d post it here since it contains a ton of my thoughts on music.
How did you get your start playing music?
I always say my love for music started long before I picked up instrument. I can still remember singing to my mom’s choir rehearsal tapes in the car with her when I was a kid. But I started playing guitar around age 8. My dad taught me a few chords and I was self-motivated to teach myself the rest. My best friend growing up played snare drum in middle school band and I thought that was awesome. So I started playing drums/percussion in 6th grade. This gave me the fundamental skills and the desire to pick the full drum kit the summer before I started high school. I played a lot at church as well in many bands in my hometown before I went to college.
Who are the musicians and producers you most admire and why?
Truth be told, I don’t know a ton of musicians/producers by name—at least ones that I try to emulate. I guess I esteem the specific traits of talented people more than I do the people themselves. I just know the albums/artists I love and some of the people that worked on them that made them great (producers/musicians). Here are a few producers, musicians, and notable albums that I appreciate.
Dan Huff – the man’s credentials as a musician and producer span a mile long. Just Wiki him.
Brian Eno – co-produced several U2 records and Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”.
Robert Marvin – produced all of Mat Kearney’s records, as well as tobyMac and Britt Nicole. I’m a huge Mat Kearney fan.
Aaron Sprinkle – I’m not crazy about most music he does, but he did an outstanding job producing Copeland’s last album, and I like his work with Anberlin and Eisley.
Musicians: (Disclaimer—I’m a drummer/guitar player).
On drums – Paul Mabury, Matt Chamberlain, Steve Jordan, Chris McHugh, Dan Needham.
On guitar – Dan Huff, Paul Moak, John Mayer (trite, I know), The Edge.
Mat Kearney – “City of Black and White”
Metric – “Fantasies”
John Mayer – “Continuum”
Copeland – “You Are My Sunshine”
Keith Urban – “Golden Road”
U2 – “The Joshua Tree”
Sara Bareilles – “Little Voice”
What is your overall philosophy when going in to make a record?
It’s All About The Song
If philosophy means formula, then I don’t have one. I don’t believe there is a strict formula to making great records. I believe in great songs much more than I believe in great production. As a producer, I want to be inspired by the song. I want to get lost in capturing the song in its essence and bringing it to life in recorded medium. If the song isn’t good, then I’m forced to somehow manufacture greatness (hardest part of my job sometimes). There is nothing that inspires me more than a great song. Does production play a role in that? Yes. Am I passionate about that? Yes. But a lot of what I hear today is mediocre songwriting with great production. Where are the good songwriters and their songs? I think great songs are the launching pad to greater production. And when these two marry, you have a hit song that defines an artist and gives identity to a culture of listeners. And I’m not talking about Ke$ha’s new hit song that’s dominating the airwaves. Cause no one will remember her in 2 years from now. I’m talking about Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (the imagery in the verses of that song coupled with a great melody make it outstanding) or U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. They are staples sewn into music history and for good reason. This leads me to another soapbox tied to the previous statements.
Vocal Performance in the Studio
OK, say all the other ingredients are there. Great song, great production, etc. Nothing kills me more than to see a vocalist suck the life out of their own song in a vocal session. And I’m thinking to myself, “If you wrote this and you poured your heart, soul, sweat, blood, and tears into it – then perform it that way in the studio! And don’t do it for me! Do it because you can’t NOT do it. I want to hear the heart of the person who wrote that song come through. One of my favorite songs of all time, as aforementioned, is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. What is it about that song that STILL sends chills up my spine and puts tears in my eyes? It’s not Edge’s guitar playing (as epic as it is) and it’s not the chord progression (as fitting as it is). It’s the way Bono performed that song in the studio. Notice that I didn’t say how Bono “sang” it. Bono didn’t sing that song. He performed it. And he performed it like his life depended on it because he meant what he wrote. His heart so clearly comes through. And that’s why it’s still breath-taking 23 years after it was released on The Joshua Tree album.
Treasuring Great Musicianship
Lastly, I cherish great musicianship in the studio. When you have a producer who can communicate vision and a musician who can understand it and play it back on an instrument, you have a winning team. A personal example for me is Carson Wagner. I love having him in the studio because he gets it. He’s easy to work with because he places himself in the song. And lets face it—he can play just about anything with keys and very well. But allow me to play devils advocate on myself for a moment to make a point.
What if the musicians aren’t great? What if they can’t play anything and everything you throw at them? Then they need be known and respected for their “thing”. Drummers with a “thing” would include U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. He’s no incredible drummer. He’s actually really loose sometimes. But for some reason, it just works for U2. I don’t know why, but I don’t think I’d like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” if he were any tighter on his drum beat. In fact, I think it would kind of ruin the song for me. So, cheers to open-mindedness! But I still really appreciate great musicians.
You’re well known for being a jack-of-all-trades. What is your favorite thing to do? Produce, write, play?
That’s a hard question to answer because it kind of depends on the day. But I began producing because I released a record of my own in which I wrote and performed the music on all of the songs. I didn’t grow up saying I want to be a producer. I grew up with a love of playing and writing music. So I’d have to say that playing music is my first love. Writing music is a way for me to express that love. And producing is my humble attempt at helping others capture their love of song in a way they can be proud when it’s all finished. My dream job would be to play drums for an artist I truly believed in that I could co-write with. And then on my off days, I’d love to produce other projects.
You’re in a late night recording session and you’re hungry. What’s your go-to food of choice?
Well my food pantry has been empty for weeks in the studio. But my favorite Japanese express is less than a mile from my studio. So it almost always wins the war over what I eat. Seriously, I’d eat it every day if I could afford it.
Any chance we’ll see another Kyle Cummings project in the near future?
I think about it everyday. Since “The Interstate“, I’ve written some of the best music I think I’ve ever written. And that’s always the kind of confidence I want to carry into the making of a new record. So I feel like I’m there and I really want to do another record. So we’ll just have to wait and see when it actually happens. Whenever it is, I’m super pumped about everyone hearing it!
What’s something you’re passionate about that most people might not know?
I am a Fox News junkie. I love watching the news. I have a small TV in my studio that I’ll sometimes keep on but muted (with closed captioning, haha) just because I want to stay connected with the world outside. It’s really funny to me. I just really like to know what is going on in the world I live in – and the world my kids are going to grow up in. Ignorance is not an option for me.
If you could give one piece of advice to every musician out there, what would it be?
I’ll speak to the musician who is hoping to make a career out of music. One word. Simplify. It’s a trite concept in the world of recording, but it is one that most musicians I encounter still haven’t fully grasped. If you’re playing in a band, then play TO the band. Don’t be so selfish to think you’re the only one people are listening to. You’re not. Playing TO the band involves using your mind and asking yourself, “What can I give up to make this song sound better?” Drummers, just because you CAN play the fill doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. Guitar players, just because you think your tone is the best, you can shred, and the chick you’re crushin’ on is in the crowd, that doesn’t mean you play Lincoln Brewster’s solo in ever worship song this Sunday morning. Exercise true confidence by showing musical maturity. And more times than not, that’s going to involve you playing LESS. Trust me, the true musicians in the crowd will notice you for it.