As the proliferation of roots-based artists like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers and Alabama Shakes grows in the mainstream, more attention will be paid to the producers and recording engineers who help define their sound.
One such producer is Ryan Hadlock, head of Bear Creek Studio near Seattle.
Built by Hadlock’s parents in the late ‘70s, Bear Creek has been able to grow into a state-of-the-art facility while still maintaining a cozy, cabin-in-the-woods feel. With amenities such as a hot tub, babbling creek full of salmon and a tranquil setting, it’s decidedly more relaxed than many other studios.
Some of Hadlock’s recent projects include Brandi Carlile’s Bear Creek (named after the studio) and the Lumineers’ Grammy-nominated, smash debut. In years past, legendary artists like Eric Clapton, James Brown and Lionel Richie have also chosen to work there.
Hadlock spoke with CMT Edge about his experiences as a producer, the current norms in the recording industry norms and what it’s like to create a hit.
CMT Edge: Tell me a little bit about your studio and what makes it special.
Hadlock: Our studio is in a big old barn outside of Seattle. When my dad build it, it was the first 16-track studio north of San Francisco. I think the thing that really makes it unique is it was built by a family of producers. We didn’t have a big investor behind us. We had to work hard and build the thing, put the nails in the walls and trade bands studio time for their help in building it.
The whole thing has kind of been a labor of love, and I think when you walk in the space, you feel that. It’s not like an office building. We’ve had some really top-notch people that can work anywhere in the world come out and say, “Hey, this place is different.” When somebody with a lot of experience like Brandi Carlile — who’s been through the ringer in the big giant factory studios — walks through a place like this, there’s a real personal connection that you get.
How did you get into recording, and why is it so interesting to you?
I grew up in our recording studio. I helped build it. We built it when I was 5, and I was a little kid helping my parents paint and wire, so I’ve been around it forever. In addition to Star Wars action figures and other toys kids had, I had three tape machines, synthesizers and stuff like that. I built forts as a kid out of cardboard, but I put a tape machine inside of it and a synthesizer. So, that’s how I got into it.
Then I played in bands on and off … but I kept wanting to be in a different kind of band after I worked on a project. Every month or so, I wanted to do something different. Then I realized that I don’t have to be a performer to get my creative fix. Then I also started realizing I’m a lot better at helping other people finish their music than I am at getting my own together.
That brings up an interesting point. It seems like today almost anyone can record themselves. So what is it that makes a producer a skilled professional?
I think a lot of the people that record themselves end up spending way too long in obsessing over the process. Having that extra ear, somebody to say, “That was great,” or “That wasn’t good enough,” the artist can be too involved to know that. So producers are keeping people from doing things over and over again. When things are good, try to keep them. I think that’s an important rule for the producer. Somebody like me, I’m not interested in a solo career as a musician or touring artist. I love helping other people make records so they can continue with their career. I really like helping an artist be their best or better than they ever thought they could be.
Let’s talk about the Lumineers a little bit. Being such a fresh band, what did you expect from that project when you started?
The Lumineers record was really a labor of love for me. I was handed a demo at South by Southwest by a friend of mine who’s their manager. She said, “I’ve got this great band. Would you consider doing the recording?” And I was like, “I have to listen to it first.” It was funny because I went to that party because I was tired of hustling and trying to find the next artist, and I fell in love with them. I went back home, and it was the first CD I put on. I got a speeding ticket while I was driving to work. I was going like 90 miles an hour, and I didn’t know it and got pulled over. I loved it! I mean, I really did.
So she brought them up to the studio, and we all met and decided to do it. Nobody knew who they were. They were pretty much just a two-piece with a cello that had just joined. We went in the studio and just tracked the songs out and did it pretty quickly. Then we sent it out to all the record labels … and nobody really responded. Everybody got really interested after they signed with Dualtone.
Did you have a sense that “Ho Hey” was going to be a hit before you laid it down in the studio, or did that come out in the recording process?
I didn’t hear the demo and think that. The management was really excited about this song called “The Big Parade,” which I listened to and was like, “This is five verses. … This isn’t going to be it.” The thing is, when I’m working on a record, I just hate the idea of having that feeling and having it be a letdown. So I never think that way. I just put everything I can into making it be the best song it can be. But Wes [Shultz] is a special songwriter, and I had a deeply personal connection with all the lyrics on this record. Even though I didn’t know what the story was about, it really resonated within me. So I didn’t know it was going to be the biggest indie smash … or whatever, but I did feel a connection with them. I was just really excited to be a part of it.
Do you have an overarching philosophy for your recordings?
I tend to like to have people play together. Not a lot of people know this, but the kind of pop, manufactured way to make records for a while has been to isolate — to build it up like you would a foundation one instrument at a time. Seattle is a live town, and bands play music together, but I’m finding out in L.A and Nashville that’s not necessarily the way that things happen. I try to get people all together jamming because I think you can learn from that. There’s interaction there, and people feed off each other. You feel alive all the time. A lot of records don’t have that feeling or energy of feeding off of each other. I try to get that initial inspiration and excitement in the track while we’re working on it.
I know that the L.A. Wrecking Crew, which was responsible for a lot of hits in the ‘60s, used to practice the licks over and over until they weren’t even thinking about it. Other people insist the first few takes is where the magic is. What do you think about that?
I think the first two takes can be where the magic first is in a solo or a lead vocal, but at the same time, it’s either take one or take 20. I do think it is important to get that energy, but when working with a band or group of people, I work the way the Wrecking Crew did. Let’s fine-tune every moment, take a break or come in the next day, then lay the thing down in one take.
I just finished a project back in L.A working with an artist who had only worked in more of an assembly-line way. I had all of her studio musicians play the whole day before we recorded anything. They were all like, “This is pretty old school. Nobody does this.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? It’s kind of the way I always do it.” I’m 40 years old, and I’ve been doing this since I was 5 or less. I never thought I was doing something different from anybody else.