Eric Lilavois has produced countless bands and artists, including Saint Motel, Atlas Genius and My Chemical Romance. He owns Crown City Studios in Pasadena, California, and co-owns the legendary London Bridge Studios in Seattle, where some of the most influential albums of the 90s were recorded, including Pearl Jam’s Ten and Dirt by Alice in Chains. An artist in his own right, Lilavois recently recorded an album – Salt, Sea and Smoke – with a some of the most accomplished session musicians in the US, the making of which has been captured on film by documentary-maker AM Bushe. I called him at his home in LA shortly before he set off on tour.
You’ve just announced that you’re releasing a new album, Salt, Sea and Smoke, but you’re making it available in three stages over six months. Salt is out now followed by Sea and then Smoke. Why haven’t you made the entire album immediately available?
Well, I knew I wanted to put the entire record out, but at the same time I didn’t want to just throw all this material out there and have it not be digested entirely, so splitting up the EP felt like a natural way to introduce people to the music gradually in the groups that it was intended. Upon the release of the third EP, I’ll release the work on vinyl.
Is that a reflection of the fact that nobody listens to full albums anymore, are you hoping to encourage people to listen to it by releasing it in three stages?
That’s definitely part of the thinking; but the other side of it is the concept of the album is still very sentimental to me. I really wanted to release this as a complete piece, so it’s those two worlds being at war with each other – the change that’s happening but at the same time the desire to release a collective work. Releasing it on vinyl encourages people to play the full work rather than skip through the tracks.
I read that you took your acoustic guitar and a typewriter up to Ojai, California, to write the album – you didn’t take any digital recording equipment or laptops. Why was that?
I think that you spend enough time in the studio with all these things around you, and of course they’re important and they can be tools to propel you forward, but I think as a writer, personally, I always tend to lean back on the things that are a little more organic and really sort of speak to me.
Do you always write music in the same way? Just you and an acoustic guitar, you don’t play around in the studio first and build it from there?
For my own records it always starts on the acoustic guitar or piano. There’s just something about sitting down quietly with an acoustic guitar or behind the piano and letting something flow through. It’s just the best feeling when a song feels like it’s writing itself. For a lot of the artists I work with as a producer, it’s quite different. We definitely do spend a lot of time in the studio in pre-production depending on the style of the band.
What was the idea behind the documentary – The Journey – about the making of the album. Was it a collaboration between the director, AM Bushe, and yourself? Can you explain how it arose?
Sure, he approached me. We’ve worked on a number of projects together and we sort of explored a lot of concepts about capturing the moment. Every experience is different; no matter how many artists you work with or how many songs you create every one of them is their own unique, individual moment in time. That was what compelled us to capture it. Alongside the people involved, too. We had some really cool characters involved on this record and some brilliant musicians and so it felt like an opportune time to take a glimpse at exactly how it was made.
Are all these musicians going on tour with you?
This first little jaunt is going to be all acoustic and a little more stripped down. We’re working on some more dates towards the middle of next year and we’re hoping to get most of the original cast back together for those. Thankfully, there’s a very wide network of musicians that I’ve been blessed to work with … the cool thing about working with a lot of different people is that sometimes the songs change through the course of performing them. You don’t have people coming in and just reading a script, they start to naturally put their own spin on it, so throughout the course of a year a song can change from what it is on the record.
Do you prefer working with other artists or producing your own work?
I don’t think I could do one without the other anymore. I really enjoy working on my own material, at the same time there’s something that compels me to embrace, nurture and push other artists. I get the question a lot, ‘Are you a producer first or an artist first?’ The truth is they’re not mutually exclusive, they really go hand-in-hand and I don’t desire to do one without the other.
How do you avoid crossing over the line? You’re a producer but you’re also an artist, is it not tempting to over-influence the band with your own creative thoughts, how do you strike a balance between trying to get the best out of the band and not making it an Eric Lilavois record?
That’s a great question. There is a line there for me, because I’m really trying to extract the very best out of the artists I work with and make them the very best representation of themselves. I think that’s partly why they go hand-in-hand. If there’s a true, true artistic expression I want to get out there, I have my career as an artists to do it with. If there’s something I truly feel like I can influence and push and infuse in an artist, then that’s there too. I’m not the kind of producer who is over everyone’s shoulder and demanding what I think is best, it’s very important to me that I’m extracting and pushing forward the real and true essence of the artists I work with.
How do you decide who to work with? Does the record company come to you, do you approach them?
It’s a combination of all those things. I have a hard time saying no to things that I love and feel passionate about. There’s an enormous amount of people reaching out individually and, if it clicks, it clicks … I’m certainly seeking things out, too. My thirst for music, thankfully, hasn’t gone away as a connoisseur and as a fan. I’m always out there at shows and picking up new bands.
Is there any band in history that you would have liked to have worked with in the studio?
Oh man, that’s amazing – there are so many. I listened to this Lovin’ Spoonful record, and I thought how cool and odd it would have been setting up mikes for that session and listening to the conversations that were going on around the room. But there are so many. Pipe dream would probably be Neil Young, and I don’t even know how I would approach that, but it’s one of those pipe dreams that if you could go back to another time … there are just too many.
You play a number of instruments, is that right
I play just about any instrument you don’t need a bow for or you don’t have to blow into, that’s where I draw the line.
How long does it take you to learn a new instrument, do you find it an incredibly natural thing or is it something that takes time and energy to master?
To play it, to make my way around it, it has always been intuitive and natural. I think to master it is a whole other story. There are people who have spent their entire lives mastering one craft.
You have Haitian parents and released a fundraising single following the earthquake. That must have been a strange time for someone who doesn’t live in Haiti, but was deeply affected by the disaster. Was that why you released the song?
It’s a strange thing as I was born and raised in the States. My parents never really wanted me to go back and visit Haiti, there was always so much political unrest. Even when I got into the position where I could make the decision for myself, it was just so intense and I kind of kept putting it off – I’ll get there one day … I’ll get there one day – and then this earthquake happened and the realisation sort of hit that I was never really going to truly see the place where my folks were born and raised. It was forever changed. Literally, geographically and everything. It was such a strong part of my upbringing, especially musically. I was taught to learn emotion through a lot of Haitian music, you could hear the tragedy in the music, you could hear the joy, there were these very stark contrasts. Once I heard the news and once I saw what was happening and it continues to absorb … you sit down with a guitar and this stuff just kind of appears.
Do you feel more closely connected with Haiti following the earthquake and your record? Has it brought you closer to your roots?
Definitely, especially as I feel the biggest part of what it did was just awareness, it wasn’t necessarily that I impacted this in any way financially, it’s not like the few records we sold were going to change all the atrocities happening there. It’s definitely part of the conversation and it’s something people ask me about, I think that’s the most important thing. People are still feeling the effects of this earthquake, it’s not hunky-dory by any means, so I’m glad it’s still part if the conversation.
What’s making you passionate about being involved in music right now?
Surprisingly, the day-to-day is still very exciting. There’s so much music and so much access to music. A lot of the things that people describe as problems in music and with the industry, I’m really excited about seeing what the solutions are and where it’s going to go. I’m tired of people talking about the music industry being dead, that’s a dead conversation as far as I’m concerned. There is so much more access to artists. What we pay artists and making a living is important, but I’m tired of ‘the industry is dead’ conversation, I’m excited about what is next.
Interview by Craig Scott. London and LA. December 2014.