Songs are living things that grow and change over time. From a song's birth as an idea of perhaps a few chords, to it's release out into the public by being performed or recorded on an album, a song can be made better or worse; and in the saddest of cases, killed if placed in the wrong hands. There are few people on this planet that know this as well as Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Throughout Justin's long career, he has worked in practically every genre, and been involved in every aspect of music making. Justin has toured as bassist for Beck and Nine Inch Nails, written songs for his own project Ima Robot, recorded for acts like Tori Amos, Dixie Chicks, and Garbage, co-written with acts like Macy Gray, helped translate songs into a live show for bands like Gnarls Barkley, and most recently, produced a breathtaking new album with M83. Through years of writing and performing, Justin has developed an unmatched ability to write or co-write great pieces of music, breathe sonic life into them in the studio, and fully mature them into moving live performances. We had the pleasure of meeting Justin at M83's concert at Mezzanine, in San Francisco, Ca. Check out Justin's insights on M83's album, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" below.
You've had a long and varied career working in almost every aspect of music making. Some highlights that get mentioned often are your work as Beck's bassist and musical director, Nine Inch Nails touring bassist, cowriter with Macy Gray, performing musician on dozens of albums, and now your role as producer for the new M83 record, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming." Out of all of your musical projects, is there any one project that you are particularly proud of?
There are four, in fact, that always stick out for me. The first would be Beck's "Midnite Vultures" album, because of its reckless sense of adventure and fun, which has now become quite influential. Beck's "Sea Change" album, which is probably my finest hour working as a musician in an ensemble situation. Also, the self-titled debut of my band "Ima Robot", and then of course M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, which is the most intensely personal and fully realized recording/writing/performing I've ever done.
What are your biggest influences musically?
I have too many. But I come from a world of Anglophilia, so my heart lies firmly entrenched in the world of Joy Division, Wire, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, New Order, Gang of Four, Cocteau Twins, Chameleons, Love and Rockets, Bauhaus, The Stranglers, The Damned, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen, that kind of thing. I have lots of other stuff that influences me. But that's the era when music took over my life, so I can't deny how deeply those influences cut.
Do you have a particular formula or method for writing songs, or do they just grow organically?
I certainly don't claim to have any methodology. Songs evolve in so many ways, organically and inorganically, which largely depends on the circumstances and personnel. That's very much part of the allure of the process for me: the unpredictability, volatility, and even the tender fragility of those writing scenarios.
How did you get connected with Anthony and had you heard of M83 before?
Oh I certainly had, yes. I came at him out of the blue from the perspective of a fan. But along with just being a devout fan of the band, I also somewhat brazenly felt that I could add a new dimension of evolution to their recorded output. I always respected the extent of Anthony's work, but knew that he had something even more grand, an even bigger statement to make. These discussions began in the summer of '09. And so the dreams for that album began.
This album uses a much wider range of instruments than M83's previous work, was that your influence or did Anthony specifically want to use new tools?
Both of us. We both knew the songs themselves had room for more grand, sophisticated, orchestral statements. We also knew that the songs needed to have more pure, raw, ungoverned emotions. There were many indicators that we could go for bigger things, and since I had the opportunity to be there from the earliest moments, I was able to co-write all the songs with him to varying degrees. This allowed me to help him execute some of his ideas from a slightly more evolved musical perspective. We were going for everything to expand in relation to his previous output: the emotional resonances, the musicality, the size, the depth, the recording quality, everything. And all these thoughts governed our process from the very beginning. It was a tall order!
Did DrumCore play any part in this album, either on the demos or the final productions? If so, what do you think of the plugin?
It's cool software. We used it to demo all kinds of things. It provided the main groove template for several songs, including "Reunion". Some aspects of it still remain on the record, if memory serves. There were certain percussion things that we attempted to re-play with live percussion, but I think we ended up preferring the DrumCore stuff. If a virtual instrument can sound good and also be really simple to get running, it's a complete winner in my book.
What are your current musical projects?
I'm still doing various things with M83, but also producing the second record for Neon Trees, and doing some recording and performing with Beck.
Where can our users learn more about you and your projects?