Photos by Kasia Meow
U2, Frank Zappa, Beck, The Shins: For the past three decades, probably half the shit you've heard you've heard because of producer Joe Chiccarelli.
"Seeing Elton John write songs in the studio; seeing Etta James rip into a gut-wrenching vocal performance at 10:00 AM; watching Jack White kill a guitar riff," the starkly bald, not-fucking-around Boston native remembers. "These are moments in the studio that are pure religion—times when a performance comes together in a way that is unexplainable. Helping [musicians] paint the overall picture is extremely…satisfying."
Satisfying is not a word anyone would ever use when describing avant-garde metal act Oxbow, whose long-awaited opus the Thin Black Duke is difficult, dire and depressing in the extreme. It's also another of Joe's projects. He's putting the final touches on it at Oakland's 25th street studios when singer/shit-stirrer Eugene S. Robinson asks him if anybody's ever yet mentioned his Oxbow production work to him—you know, in the same way that they ask him about, say, Bon Jovi or Journey or the Boston Pops.
"Ah, no. But I'll tell you what:" Joe laughs, shaking his head, "The next time that happens, which will also be the first, I'll call you right away to let you know."
And yet, Oxbow's name is part of the same conversation as names like Morrissey, as it has been since he produced their 2007 album Narcotic Story. That record, along with ones for The Shins and Kurt Elling, also saw Joe get nominated for Producer of the Year (ultimately losing to Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson). These days Joe's bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, his unique brand of brilliance and no bullshit approach a hot commodity.
"It takes two things to make a great recording," he says. "One is an irreverence for all that came before and a fearless willingness to take chances. The second is simplicity in melody and lyrical message. There needs to be a universality of emotion [in the song] that cuts through."
What does he know? Whatever someone who's bringing home his 10th Grammy award (for his production of Bajofondo's Presente) might know.
"Traditional producers who said pithy things and carried a clipboard—those guys are doomed because they depended on the old physical distribution model to collect their royalties," adds Steve Albini, owner of Chicago's famed Electrical Audio studios and a prolific indie rock musician who, by his own estimation, has recorded thousands of albums, including releases from the likes of Nirvana, The Stooges, The Jesus Lizard, and also, incidentally, Oxbow. "But Joe makes records that sound good so he will always have work."
"The advantage is that I get to work on only the best material now—no filler," Joe says about his role in the modern music industry, noting that he is only working with artists who express a "singular vision." Among those who meet that standard are Oxbow, whose record is being recorded throughout 2014, Morrissey, Jack White, JEFF the Brotherhood, Spoon, and a handful of other bands that strike his clearly strange fancy. And while some people focus their time and energy on solving the market challenges that face musicians and the producers that serve them, Joe says he keeps his attention on solving the creative problems that are part of making records.
"I just try and make the best music I can."
Oxbow and Joe
Matthew Harper likes his producers like he likes his music: badass.
Kasia Meow is a photographer with an imaginarium. Visit Meow's Imaginarium on Facebook.
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