Interviewed by Bud Scoppa

Rob Cavallo, the son of veteran manager Bob Cavallo (the Lovin' Spoonful, Prince, Paula Abdul, Alanis Morissette), had labored in virtual obscurity in the A&R department of Warner Bros./Reprise Records until he signed Green Day and produced the multiplatinum Dookie. With that breakthrough success came a promotion and myriad new responsibilities.

As an A&R person and staff producer at Reprise. Do you feel like you're wearing two different hats?

Yes!

So there's a big distinction in your mind between producing and doing A&R?

Oh, yeah—especially because A&R these days has become more than just A&R. I have to go to the marketing meetings now, and we strategize on how we're going to break bands. Like, I'm sitting here with the treatment for the next Green Day video trying to figure out if it's the right thing. A&R has really become big-time, full-service stuff.

The A&R person seems to be the right person to initiate discussion on certain marketing issues, because the A&R person is the expert on the artist and the messenger of the artist's vision. Who else is going to do that at the label?

You're right, I totally agree. I believe that the relationship between the artist and the A&R person, and how pure that is, is really the basis for the relationship between the artist and the record company as a whole. How the A&R person and the product management person convey the essence of a band to the rest of the building helps to determine how strong a campaign is. For example, if you just go to the art department and say, "We need to take the record cover or one of the pictures and turn it into some advertising or publicity photos, and what's going to come out on the next pro-CD"—When you see cover art, advertising or whatever, you always have to ask yourself, does it feel like Green Day, or does it feel like that band? There is so much strength in that, so much personality that has to be conveyed. What the band is all about has to come through in that first introduction. Those communication channels, the wider they are and the stronger and clearer they are, the better it's going to be for the band in the long run.

I'm curious about what your job and your life were like before Dookie went multiplatinum.

The funny thing is that my life is almost the same as it was. There are certainly some changes that are really fun and nice. You get to work with a lot of artists. You have a lot of people knocking at your door. People listen to you more—they think you know something. Like, "Oh, he sold a lot of records. He knows something!" Well, actually, I know the same amount as I knew when I hadn't sold one fucking record.

Even though I was just an A&R representative—which is sort of the low man on the totem pole in terms of A&R status—they've always treated me with a lot of respect here. "Yeah, it's your thing. Do it. Turn it in to us. Make it be great." Now I'm a Senior Vice President here of A&R and—I don't know how to say it, because I don't call myself the leader of the A&R department, because I'm not really—I think it would be fair to say I'm the highest-ranking A&R person at Reprise, just in terms of title. Jo Lenardi is actually the head of the department, and she's just starting to do A&R—she was the head of alternative marketing—but she's going to be a great A&R person. But they've handed me some big artists to work with—my personal artist roster that I'm supposed to A&R has increased a lot, by times four, I'd say. When my old boss, Michael Ostin, left [to become the head of A&R at Dreamworks SKG's new music division, joining his father, former Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin, and former WB president Lenny Waronker], he handed off some bands to me, and some other things were reassigned to me as well.

Let's talk record producing for a bit. How do you create the optimum studio environment?

The Beatles' Complete Recording Sessions to me is like the Bible of production and making music, because in the seven years that those guys were together—the Beatles and George Martin—the positive creative energy they generated together allowed them to come up with more new and better ideas than ever before—both on a musical level and a technical level. Technically, in the studio they would come up with a problem, and George and the guys in the white coats—the technicians—would sit around and ponder it, and think about how to sync up two tape machines, or how to record a bass direct, or how to get a better echo sound happening, or an automatic double track. They came up with these things because of the musical problems that were presented to them while they were there. The same thing happened musically. The Beatles were breaking boundaries left and right in terms of what they were doing musically. The thing that really struck me about all of this was the fact that between the band and the producer, they created an atmosphere of trust—an atmosphere where you could try anything. And that's what I try to do.

When you go in with a band, you want to make sure nobody feels that they should be embarrassed or ashamed to throw out any kind of an idea. The truth is you have to throw out ideas and mix it up to go forward creatively. You have to not be afraid to be naked and just let it go. That's usually where it's good to have no egos, especially the producer. If the producer has no ego, that means his one job is to sit there and go, "How can I make that idea work? Is that a good idea?" It's also to help sustain that environment where a band member can say, "Wouldn't it be great if we doubled the verse before we got into the chorus?" Or, "I have this crazy sound that I can get out of my bass that would be great for this transition into the bridge." And the guys would go, "Let's try it." If it works, great. If it doesn't work, no skin off anybody's nose—you just go to another idea. I think that's one of the most important things you can do—to create that open kind of environment. Because then what you end up doing is truly getting the best out of the artists that are in that room. You get it onto tape. That's one of the most exciting things I can do in life—to be in the studio with the band and have creative ideas start to flow and to actually be working and getting great stuff on tape.

It happened a lot when we were making Dookie—no doubt about it. I feel really blessed that I got to make that record with them. Right from getting the drum sound, everything seemed to click. We always knew it. Every time we had a take that was the right take, it was like Tré would throw his sticks and you would always hear them click hitting the floor—and then we would take a break. Tré is really a great drummer. The best thing about him is his concept is so wonderful, because if you listen to "Longview," you hear how much he is actually adding to that song. He puts in little things. Just hitting the high hat for a second before the start of each verse is a great little touch. The way he mixes up the pattern on the tom feel during the verses is actually really interesting. And then just the fury and energy that he plays with on the chorus is great. He likes to live on the edge, so a lot of times he comes up with putting on the final touches of the concept when we're actually sitting there putting the song down, which is a great thing. Sometimes it may take him more takes because he's going for something or experimenting with something. It still was quite smooth.

One of the things that was amazing was all Billie's lead vocals were done in two days. And the B-sides. He sang something like 16 or 17 songs in two days. We never comped. He would do one take, then another take, and it would either be take one or two. Sometimes he would do another take and go over take one so take three would be there. Then we would just use one of those. And that was it. Sometimes he did one take and we kept it—there was no need to really belabor it.

That's another sign of a good band: They know when they've communicated the thing they want to communicate. They know when they've had that magic. It's not necessarily a huge struggle for them to get it. They just know that if they basically open their heart into that microphone, that is pretty much all there is. I know a lot of bands really get hung up on getting the "magic" take and killing themselves. Well, you do have to kill yourself, and you do have to get the magic take, but more importantly, you have to know when you've done it. You have to know how to get yourself there, and it's not anything that should ever stress you out. You don't get there by stressing yourself. You get there by being patient and being good to yourself and having a little bit of silent confidence that you know you can do it.

What acts have you signed?

Like most A&R people—or at least some—the first few things I signed didn't really pan out. But I certainly got my chance at bat two or three times and learned the ropes. I started to see that, really, you sign people—you sign people that you think are going to make it. You sign music that is obviously great—something that turns you on immediately. Why sign anything that isn't? I'm not saying everything has to be obvious hits. I just produced a band called Jawbreaker, who are on Geffen. Their music is not obvious—you have to get into it to really appreciate it. But I think it's great. I'm just saying that it has to be obvious that it is good, quality music. After you know you have that, then you look at the people. Do they have a way of winning? Do they have a vision in their head? Do they have an artistic vision as to how they are going to present themselves? Because really the great artists always do.

I'll never forget when Green Day said to me—it was so cool—they said, "We're going to be a great band." And they knew it. "We're going to be a great band no matter what Reprise does for us." They already could draw 1,000 kids in a good 10 or 12 cities across this country, and they'd already played Europe three or four times. These kids were 21 years old. They knew what it took to be successful in the music business. They never had jobs. They made their living being a band by the time they were age 16 or 17. They were like, "We think we need the help of Reprise to realize our potential; however, we are fully confident that we are going to do it on our own anyway. So you're going to take the record that we make and you're going to send it to radio stations for us. So when they hear it, they're going to like it and they're going to want to play it." That was the way they thought. They didn't think like a lot of other bands, that go, "Oh we're on Reprise now, so that means people are going to like us. You're going to get our record played on the radio because we're on Reprise." Well no. That doesn't work at all.

You get your record played because it's a good record; because you know that the content of that record is going to be something that is going to work. No matter what we do or how much money we spend, or whatever kind of silly things that labels do to get stuff on the radio, if it's not a hit, there is no such thing as a "made" hit anymore. Kids have to respond. Let's say you could go buy a radio station. If you could buy a radio station and say "You will play this record"—like old-school payola—and let's say they play it three times a day for two weeks. If that record doesn't respond, if the kids aren't buying it, if the kids don't call in and say they really like it, and if it doesn't research or whatever it is they do to figure out what radio knows, you're not going to have a hit, no matter what. The only thing that brings kids and music fans into the stores to actually buy a record is that they are interested in what the band is saying, and doing, and playing, and what that's about. I know that's probably a real elementary thing to say, but I'm saying it as advice to the bands out there who are trying to figure it out. Unfortunately, I meet too many bands that just don't seem to know that. Again, the goal is not to get signed; the goal is to do great music.

I think some bands are under the misconception that signing with a major is an end in itself, rather than the beginning of the real challenge. In my own A&R experience, I've seen a number of artists who allowed themselves to be victimized by becoming passive during the process of getting signed and being on a label, rather than continuing to initiate their own career courses.

It's funny that you say "victimized," because the truth is that the artists are victimizing themselves—we're not doing it to them. Any good record company will always say to a band, "What do you want your record to sound like? What do you want the cover to look like?" Look at Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, for example: We couldn't have ever "manufactured" him or helped him in any way—other than being supportive—to do his art. No, we're a vehicle to help get that art exposed; we can't help you make the art. A producer does help a band go into the studio experience and try to help them get their best stuff on tape, but again, it's not like anybody is writing the songs for them. It's the band's vision—they have to do that themselves. The stronger the band's vision of what they want to do, the better it's going to be and the greater the chance for success. Every good band I've ever worked with knows what they want to sound like.

I keep trying to make this point and I digress every time: I'm in this new position where I've got a ton of bands to work with, tons of producers to find, and I want them all to do well. At the same time, I can see how hard this is. But experience is the greatest teacher, and I'm going to do everything I can do to help these bands, obviously. This is my day-to-day work—I go in and A&R bands. Help them make it so they can increase their odds for success. That's where I'm coming from; that's really what it's about. I'm trying to fix the problems.


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