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Industry chat 03: All about being a producer, with Fredrik Nordström

Fredrik Nordström is surely a name that nearly all metalheads would recognise. Producer extraordinaire, this man has an enormous discography under his belt, as well as being a musician in his own right, in the band Dream Evil. We caught up with Fredrik a while ago to talk about the world of album production and what it takes to make it in that part of the industry.

As a simple taster, some bands Fredrik Nordström has worked with include At The Gates, Arch Enemy, Dimmu Borgir, Evergrey, HammerFall, The Haunted, In Flames, Job for a Cowboy, Lord Belial, Malevolence, Nightrage, Opeth, Rotting Christ, Soilwork, Zyklon, and more. For a more extensive list, go to this Wikipedia entry.

In thinking about how to get places in any industry, especially today where tertiary study is generally widely accessible – especially in the West – its easy to imagine that you can do a course somewhere, gain some work experience, and pretty soon you'll be heading to the top of the list. This is not so.

The key thing that got Nordström where he is today is hard work. How much hard work, you might ask? Let's try 14-hour days, seven days a week, for ten years. Not many people are willing to go the yards to work that hard to get where they need to be. But it's not just hard work.

'Good luck also,' he told me. 'Not many people have been so successful as I am and, maybe, have not worked so hard as I have done at the same time.'

Throughout his time in the music industry, Nordström has seen a lot of changes, and worked with bands that emerged from the underground to become forces of their own. But, like most people in his position in the industry, he did have a moment that he would consider his 'break'. That moment was working on the album Slaughter of the Soul by At The Gates (1995).

'Slaughter of the Soul was a big break for me,' he said. 'It changed for me how everything would look. Suddenly I was getting phone calls from outside Sweden and that had never happened before. So, that album was a big break for me.'

Like with many who end up in eminent positions no matter their field, Fredrik Nordström didn't plan from the beginning to get into the production side of things. What he was interested in was the technical stuff: the recording equipment and things like that. While he had a share in Studio Fredman, he used to use the space primarily as a means of recording his own band. Eventually, more and more people would come down to the studio, and it wasn't for about ten years that he finally got to record his own projects - having spent all the time working with others. Rather than choosing a career, Nordström pretty much had it thrust upon him.

And these days, much of the work isn't even about production or recording any more; what they tend to spend their time doing most is mixing.

'Mainly the bands record by themselves in their homes and then they come to the studio and mix it. But on a typical day, normally we come here and open up the studio and make our coffee, and then we sit down and start working.'

But it wasn't until we started talking about the nitty-gritties of the work itself that Fredrik really started to come to life.

If you know vaguely what producers and engineers do, and haven't had the courage to ask any of your friends, whom you suspect are more knowledgeable about these things, read on. The differences are different but as Nordström noted, the line that exists between the two roles has become quite weak.

'Producing can be so different,' Nordström emphasised. 'It can be everything from re-arranging music, it can be helping the band, like, telling them when they do good or bad things. And it can be so different. Like, you get a band like The Haunted, they are a band that know exactly what they want. And you spend most of your day doing what they want. So they tell you "oh we want more of this, that". Now, I listen to the band. But as I see the producer, he is like the [site leader], that is, he makes sure that the album ends up with a good result.'

The engineer, on the other hand, as Nordström explained it, is usually the guy doing the hands-on technical side of the work. But, as with many things, it's not always clear cut.

'It depends on the band you work with,' Fredrik explained. 'Like, some bands you have to take down all the music and, like, build it up again because it makes it better. I can play guitar, I can play drums, I sometimes help with singing. It's very, very different comparing the bands you work with.'

Time, too, is a factor in working on an album.

'Also the time you have, because sometimes you have, like, two weeks to finalise an album. If you have a short time to record an album then it is done, like, twenty-four hours a day. And then the producer part of it is, like, pushing people forward.

'I think that line between the producer and engineer is very weak,' Fredrik clarified. 'I know in the old days, we'd have a producer, we'd have an engineer, we'd have an assistant engineer. And all of them have separate roles. Like, the assistant engineer was moving the microphones. And the engineer told him, and the producer told him he'd want more treble in the kick drum ... and today it doesn't work like that. Normally you're like, one guy in the studio and you do all the jobs as necessary, from preparing guitars to helping the band.'

Given the way that the industry has changed, one of the things I asked Fredrik was what people looking to get into the field should study, or at least be prepared for. His answer, 'Ahh... Hell!', followed by a raucous laugh, wasn't quite what I expected.

'It was hard for me when I started. Now it's, I think... I have a lot of students that come in here, and what I tell all of them to start work live. Of course, you can get the work in the studio but you don't get paid because there is no money,' he explained. 'But you can get money from the live scene, like front of house, working sound, stuff like that. I think it's just a good thing to start with.'

But he pointed out that you need to be prepared to work as hard as possible if you want to get anywhere.

'Also I think if you want to work in the studio you have to be, like, so die-hard. Because there is thousands of people who all want to do the same job, and only the best win I think. You cannot be lazy, and you have to be prepared to do a lot of crazy stuff,' he laughed. 'Maybe do like I did, working seven days a week, fourteen hours a day... say goodbye to family and friends.'

Fredrik laughed when I asked him what attitudes wouldn't somebody very far. He told me: 'Actually, I don't think I have that attitude myself', and then laughed again. Getting serious again, he pointed out that a good attitude is vital.

'I think if you are polite and gentle then that's easy to work with. I think that's a very important thing. It's like, if you go on a tour bus and you have a guy that's the best sound engineer ever but he's an asshole, then he's not going to get a job anyway. Because nobody wants to have this guy. You need people that are easy to work with and don't fight too much. It's like if you have a drummer and he's the best drummer in the world but he's a prick, and you have the second-best drummer in the world who's a nice guy, then you take the second-best drummer. It's a very easy choice.

'I think the attitude is very important. You need to have a good attitude. And don't think you're a rockstar. '

So what would Fredrik Nordström consider is the best thing about his job? He took time out to think hard about that one.

'There is really a lot of good stuff. And I know many people are jealous of what we are doing. But I think the best things are like when you're coming to work with a band, and you do the album, and you get the feeling that you're like and extra member and you have a very good artistic vibe going on. I think that's absolutely the best part. But the most boring stuff is when you have to do stuff over and over and over again. You don't take 400 takes if you can help it.'

With changes in technology, too, it has made certain processes far easier. For example, now if they're doing a mix for a band and the vocal track is really very bad, it's something that can be pretty well fixed in a day or two.

'I think it's very important to keep up with technology. But, you cannot follow everything. Like, the guy I work with now, he's very very good with the new stuff that is coming. I also follow it of course. But, there is so much stuff going on all the time with technology so I am just focusing the technology we are doing here. Like, the ProTools stuff I make sure that I know everything about that. But still, the best take is the best take, it doesn't matter.'

You may wonder, as I was, what Fredrik's worst experience as a producer has been. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was something he didn't have to think about, and told the story like he was reliving it all over again. The story itself is a good lesson for any band out there.

'I had some band from the other side of the world, from the United States or Mexico. And they had been travelling here in the belief that they're gonna sound like Arch Enemy when they are coming [here], but they sound like crap,' he laughed. 'Yeah, and I suppose I didn't check out the band first or whatever, but if you're going so far - this is many years ago - but if you're going from so far away, to Sweden, then you'd know how to play. But this band don't know how to play. And then you actually have to sit in and do all this, you know, helping the band sound decent, and that can be really hard. Like, the drummer can't play and I was really surprised. Like, he'd come all the way from Mexico or the United States and he cannot play while he's here! He's like, “I want it to be like Arch Enemy” and it's like, "wow, no you're not". It was a very bad experience because then I had to … like, what can you do? Can you just send them home again? No, you have to help them out.'

In that situation, normally what Fredrik would do would try to keep the music as simple as possible.

'[You have to] tell them that what you're playing is not good for the song. It's like, try to keep it as simple as possible. You have to reduce the technique he can play and take it down to basics,' he told me. 'And they managed to do much better when they don't do so much technical stuff. You're just scaling down to more basic content and let them play that. And tell them that when you're coming home you should start practising.'

Fredrik Nordström's list of credits is incredibly long: he's had the fortune to work with so many awesome bands, and everybody appreciates his work. But you'll never guess the one band that he would kill to work with – so much so that he didn't even pause to think about it.

It's AC/DC. When I expressed a modicum of incredulity, he laughed good-naturedly.

'Yeah, I love that band! They're excellent,' he chuckled. 'They're that basic, it's ... I love it!'

Having the experience of being on both sides of the desk - Nordström is indeed a musician himself - is something that he also believes helps his work enormously.

'Yes, absolutely!' he exclaimed. 'Before I had my band I was not experienced in, like, touring and all that stuff. And a band would come to the studio and they'd disappear for two years, and then they'd come back and they'd disappear again. From my own touring and stuff like that I learned the other side. I'm very unskilled, if you can say so, in touring,' he laughed. 'So, yes. But I learned a lot. I got a better, like, picture of the whole business.'

So, can just anybody be a producer? Well, yes and no.

'I think it's really important that you understand music, that's the main thing,' Fredrik stated firmly. 'You have to know music and you have to know a lot of instruments. And stuff like that; I think that's a very important thing. Like from the creative side; but the technical stuff you can learn. It's very easy. I think everybody can learn how stuff in the studio works, but I don't know if everybody can learn how to handle them.'

Before he had to go, I asked Nordström what he would say are the top skills needed to work in his field. They are: a good ear, taste, and patience.

'I think you need a good ear. And taste,' he said. 'I cannot say if you should have a bad or good taste,' he laughed, 'but taste is one of the top skills to have. Because some people think something is good and I think it sucks, but I think you need good ears, and, like, music skills. [But also] taste, and patience, which is also important.'


For those of you who are curious about Fredrik's own project, here's something to leave you with. Dream Evil's Book of Heavy Metal.








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