Jerimaya Grabher: Director, Sanctuary Producer Management

Interviewed by Cathy Genovese

Record Producer Manager
Where are you from originally?

I'm from the northeast, from Vermont, about as far away as you can get from California if you draw a straight line.

How did you get to L.A.?

I was 20 years old, going to college and working in Burlington, Vermont. I actually had this fortuitous moment when I met Daniel Lanois who was on tour supporting his second solo album. He happened to come into the store that I was working in — a sort of funky vintage store like you'd see on Melrose — and I struck up a conversation with him. I knew that he was playing that night, and he ended up getting me into the show that was sold out. We were talking and I was telling him that I wanted to continue with college, but somewhere where there was a music program where I could finish off with a degree in the music business or whatever. He just said, "F**k that. Move to New York or L.A. and do it. Figure out a way to just do it." Well, if Daniel Lanois says it's OK to just quit college, then I will! So, that was sort of one of those defining moments where it kind of sealed the deal for me. I met one of my idols, a guy who had produced records that I loved, and it seemed just like, "Duh." I chose L.A. over New York because I was sick of the weather in the northeast.

Once you got to L.A., how did you find your way into the business?

Very accidentally. I ended up meeting someone who gave me connections to three different people in the business: one at CAA, one at MGM in the film music department, and one at A&M Records. I called all three of them, announcing myself as someone who's desperately trying to nudge their foot in the door. This wonderful person at A&M named Carrie Goldman, who didn't have any work for me in the marketing department, forwarded me to her friend Christine Campbell, who was in the A&R administration department. I talked to Christine, we met, and she hired me for an unpaid internship. I started on the original A&M lot three days a week in the A&R department, pushing paper, filing, making copies. That's literally how I got in. I had no connections when I moved across the country here.

So how did you move from intern to an A&R position?

There was an A&R department office assistant/receptionist guy who was in a band that got signed by Interscope, and they went on tour and he left the job. I got bumped into that spot and became a full-time guy in the office. Then, whenever someone's assistant was out for a day or a week, I would cover for them. Again, you're sort of earning your chops as an assistant. There were two A&R executives, Larry Hamby and Jeff Suhy, who shared an assistant, and when that assistant was moving on, they interviewed me and I got that job. So I was now officially working for two A&R guys exclusively. I learned first hand from two very good teachers how to make records and how to do business. After Larry Hamby left A&M to head A&R for the Windham Hill label group, I was given more scouting responsibilities - going out night after night, three to five shows a night all week. I ended up bringing in an L.A. band called 10 Speed that Jeff Suhy signed. They made a killer record with Matt Hyde, but got shelved. I ended up leaving the company just before Universal bought Polygram and shuttered the label.

Take me from there to how you got to Sanctuary. What's been your experience?

After A&M I took an A&R position at Windham Hill. I inherited a bunch of projects that I A&R'd mainly the samplers that WH was well known for. I also executive produced an all-star Hammond B3 Jazz album featuring guys like the late great Jimmy Smith, John Medeski, and many more. I left Windham Hill to focus on growing my own business, RPM Direct, an industry directory of record producers, engineers, and mixers started while I was still at A&M. In 2001 Jim Phelan, who was the head of A&R at A&M in New York when I worked there, got back into producer management. He reformed his company, established a client roster, and then sold his business to Sanctuary. In 2003 Sanctuary Producer Management moved from New York to L.A. It was at that time when Jim and I started to see each other more often now being on the same coast. We'd get together and discuss me possibly coming to work at Sanctuary. Obviously my connection to and knowledge of literally thousands of producers was an asset. Not to mention my experience making records. I was reluctant at first because I liked working for myself, and it felt a bit weird to have been this neutral guy — sort of like Switzerland — with all these producers and producer managers that are a part of RPM. Now I was sort of choosing sides by going to a management company. But I didn't want to pass up the chance to work with Jim. He is a great guy and has an amazing amount of experience managing producers and their careers — and a client roster that reflected my interests creatively.

Tell me what your role is at Sanctuary.

I am the day-to-day manager for 14 of our clients. I manage Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, Jessica Dobson), Jacquire King (engineer/mixer/producer), Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, Ray Lamontagne), Joe Chicarelli (engineer/mixer/producer and industry veteran), John Alagia (John Meyer, Liz Phair, Lifehouse), Nathaniel Kunkel (engineer/mixer who does a lot of 5.1 surround work), Charlie Sexton (producer and signed recording artist), Page Hamilton (founder of Helmet, producer), Joey Waronker (producer and session drummer that has toured with Beck, REM, McCartney), Noah Georgeson (recording artist and producer), and more. I'm a very busy guy.

Give me different aspects of what you do for them.

Soup to nuts. I do everything from help with creative decision making for each project, generate the recording budget for the project, book studio time, hire engineers, hire session players, organize travel, track all recording costs, process AFM and AFTRA contracts, coordinating any additional personnel, mastering. Not to mention interface with A&R and A&R administration at the label, managers, and lawyers.

Let's take Page Hamilton as an example. He's currently producing Bullets and Octane for RCA. We initially work together to create the overall recording plan, but then I take over on all the details so he can focus on doing his job — making a kick-ass record with the band.

Do you have to find new acts that they work with?

Yeah, definitely. We're always talking to people, whether it be A&R people who have an artist they're looking for a producer for, or managers, attorneys, publishers. I go out pretty often to see shows and to get out there, meeting up with A&R people and managers mostly.

Is it mainly through labels and publishers that you find new acts and what about unsigned artists?

It's labels, managers, and publishers, probably in that order. The unsigned stuff is a little harder just because of budgets. If you're an unsigned act and you want to work with any of our top clients, you're probably shooting a little bit high, unless you've got a phenomenal demo and they fall in love with it, which is entirely possible. Many of our clients are probably out of most unsigned artists' price range, given the level of work that we're able to get consistently from labels that have money to spend on bigger budgets.

But we do have some producer clients who develop projects. There are some unsigned things that some of the guys are developing now that are truly great. We are going to be involved in helping to shop these acts to A&R and other creative people.

What is the difference in the job of the engineer versus the producer?

An engineer is going to record all the performances. They are also going to work the sonics of the recording space, figure out the best way to get the sounds that the producer and the engineer and the artist want. So, whether it's in a major recording studio or if it's in a bedroom, figuring out the best placement for amps, mics, instruments, sound-diffusing equipment, whatever — they are really the sonic scientist in the room, if you will.

On the producer side of it, let's take Dennis Herring as a good example. Dennis will typically entrust engineering to someone else because while Dennis's focus may indeed be on the sonic quality of the recordings, he's also very much concerned about getting the songs right and making sure the arrangements are as tight as they can be, and that the songs are fully realized before he attempts to record them. So it's lots of rehearsal and pre-production, really working through the material so that you're ready and there are no hidden surprises when you actually go to record the stuff. He's a big-picture guy. The engineer is kind of the hired gun; he's in the room; he gets the sounds; he makes sure performances are captured; he does his job. But the producer has to interface with the manager, with the A&R guy who signed the act at the label. He's got to interface with all the other people involved with the project, and be the main creative point man to steer the ship, stay on schedule and on budget.

What is the role a producer plays in developing an artist?

Let's say a producer goes out to see a band or somebody sends them a demo and they say, "Hey, this is great. I really want to help develop these guys," we would then figure out what kind of arrangement we can make between the band and our client, the producer. Then they get to work, and it really could be anything. You could have someone who has an amazing voice, or a band that plays really well together, but maybe their songwriting isn't so great. So that can be developed and worked on. It's going to be a process — lots of writing and re-writing and lots of critiquing. It's really like being the creative partner in helping them to grow and refine the best of what they're trying to do.

How in that sort of situation would a producer get compensated?

Say, for argument's sake that an artist has a nominal budget of $5,000. Maybe there is some initial compensation where the producer receives an amount to cover the costs of their own studio, any materials like hard drives, things that you shouldn't ask the producer to go out-of-pocket on. If there are any session musicians, paying them a comparable union scale wage — it's not a union signatory gig because there's no label. But mostly the producer participates on the back end. If this artist gets signed, the producer will get "X." It's all how you structure the deal. But the artist has to essentially acknowledge in these deals that, "yes, this producer is contributing an unbelievable amount to the development of my sound and I'm willing to give him proper compensation for it when I hit a certain milestone."

Where does the spec deal come in, and how often does that happen?

Spec is basically free, at no cost. You do a spec job to get the job, to show people that you are the guy who should mix it or produce it, or whatever. We don't do spec projects really. If you want our clients to "try out" for your project, either hire them for real, or don't.

In terms of unsigned artists, is it a viable option for a band to get a producer on a spec deal?

Not so much, because you're basically asking someone to work on your music for free. There has to be some sort of compensation, whether it's a single page producer agreement that says like, "If this band puts this record out independently, they'll give me $1,000 by the time they've sold X number of CDs." Whatever it is. It could be nominal and not really complicated legally. But a producer should be compensated because they're providing a service and a skill.

TAXI tends to get a lot of listings from producers who are looking to develop acts. Is that just as good for a band to go for initially, aside from trying to get it directly to an A&R person?

Yeah, I think so. First of all, bands should be pursuing every avenue they possibly can to expose their music to people, whether it's potential fans or producers or people who could work with them. I think, like these TAXI listings, that people should definitely submit their music if they feel like it's the right fit, given the criteria. But, you know, producers are creative people, and often times they are musicians, they are songwriters, they're former creative executives from record companies. Whether or not they're on a paid gig or not, they're always looking for something to fuel their creative juices or to keep them interested. So producers are always looking for the, "Hey, maybe I found something here. Maybe this is a diamond in the rough and I can work with them. We'll cut three or four tracks and it'll be a great demo, and we'll blow this up."

Given that for the most part a producer is a self-employed individual, then looking for new bands to develop is effectively just like them looking for new work. Because if they develop something and it happens to go somewhere, there's the potential for some kind of payback for their work.

How could a band or singer ensure that they are not being taken advantage of on the back end?

They should have a lawyer look at whatever they're signing. There are plenty of good music attorneys in this business who will do something on an hourly basis. An attorney can simply review a document and let you know that if it is legitimate and if it protects you sufficiently from whatever. Nobody should be signing anything without at least having a second opinion of someone like a lawyer or manager or someone with experience to know what this stuff means.

What could you offer as a suggestion to people who work from home on a say a four-track recorder? Just some simple advice for making a simple process sound good.

First I would say to learn as much as you can about the techniques of recording. There are "Recording 101" books out there that offer all kinds of information. Depending on your budget, relatively updated equipment is a good idea. These days a four-track could easily be outdone by the Mac software GarageBand, for instance. You can make near-master recordings on it and most listeners wouldn't know that it wasn't recorded in a professional recording studio. You can really get creative with multiple tracks in a digital environment — and this technology is easy to acquire and easier to use than ever.

Would you say the same for songwriters who are just pitching songs?

To a lesser extent, but I do think it's important. I mean you're trying to communicate a story in a song or an emotion or a feeling, and if you've got a lousy recording, you're going to jeopardize your chances of delivering that emotion or story the way you want to. So having a good recording is a good idea.

It's interesting that you say that because people will always say to us at TAXI, "Can't A&R people hear a good song through rough production?"

I think that's generally true. If there's a really strong song buried in a lousy recording, it's like a weed, it's going to want stick out no matter what you try and bury it with. But the way I look at it is your recording is almost as important as your songwriting, or your submission package — it's all the same thing. Would you set up an industry showcase and then put on a sloppy performance? Probably not. Would you scrawl out your bio in dull pencil on torn out loose-leaf paper? Probably not. It's the same kind of thing. Would you go half-ass on the songwriting or your performance of the song? No. So the recording is the same for me. You should make the recording the best it can be, just like everything else you're trying to do.

What are some mistakes that you think artists and songwriters make on their demos?

Trying too hard. Trying too hard to produce something that doesn't want to be. Take an artist like Norah Jones, the songs are wonderful, and the production is great, but it's fairly straightforward. There aren't too many bells and whistles on that record. What has happened as a result is that she's able to deliver the songs as they should be delivered, they just come through. I think some people think about recording say, "How can I really blow people away with this?" When in fact being as straightforward in your delivery as you can is likely to make probably the clearest impression, and leave people — A&R, a producer — with the idea of more possibilities.

In your position, how often do you listen to new music, aside from what your clients are working on?

Every minute of every day. I have an hour commute to and from work, which gives me a lot of time to listen to new demos, recordings our clients are working on, and new music. I listen to music all throughout the day at my desk, in our meetings in the office, and when I get back in the car at night and drive home. I've got a stack on my desk that never seems to end. Not a bad problem to have, really.

What do you think is one of the best produced songs of all time?

As far as one of the best songs of all time... that's a hard one. You could argue tracks from Sgt. Pepper's or Dark Side of the Moon or the like. But off the top of my head right now, I would say "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley. You can't play that song anywhere in the world without people reacting somehow, without people singing along, mouthing the words, or whatever. It's a really straightforward recording. It's a dude and his guitar. That's it. But the way that that recording was captured, it's as if you're hearing the guy and there's no recording, it's as if he's playing in front of you live. There's a very direct line to the emotions in that song. That's powerful to me. You can have a 100 multi-track recording with horns and layers and layers upon layers, but at the end of it all, there's power in that singular voice and guitar. In the end of it all, it's about feeling what the artist is sharing and how accessible that is.

So you're sort of answering my other question of what do you think is a well-produced song and what makes it a well-produced song?

A well-produced song is when the song causes you to react somehow emotionally. It causes you to move your body in a certain way, dance, sing along, get excited, feel sad, whatever it is. The success of a production is when a song works and takes you somewhere. At the end of a recording you feel like you've traveled this mini-distance. And I think really good producers know how to identify the best features of a song, to provide them with the right kind of sonic environment and the right direction, and sort of let it happen. It's like cooking. The more ingredients you add to your recipe, the likelihood is the more overdone it's going to be hard to digest at the end.

There's a System of a Down song on the radio right now ["B.Y.O.B."]. A phenomenal track. It just blows me away. But I feel like I'm listening to like five different songs at once because there are so many different directions in the song. Each one of them is killer, but it's distracting. I was thinking about it last night when I heard it driving home. I want to love that song, but it's making it too hard for me. But take a guy like Nick Drake — the very definition of nice and simple but there's no shortage of subtle power in those songs, even as quiet and chilled out as they are.

I don't know; I waver. I'll go back and forth. Next week it'll all be about bands like Mastodon and Monster Magnet and s**t, where it's super loud and heavy, with way too many elements pounding you in the face. But that's why I live for music — for all the amazing places it can take you.

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