From playing in local bands, to recording them, to producing, mixing, and engineering albums for the likes of Matt and Kim and The Mars Volta, Lars Stalfors can’t be confined to any one facet of the music industry. In just the past year, for example, he’s produced the debut album for LA up-and-comers Funeral Party and hit the road as a sound manipulator with Omar Rodriguez Lopez, composer, guitarist, and recording for The Mars Volta (and former member of one of my all-time favorite bands, At the Drive-In). Sound manipulator? Sounds complicated, but if anyone has the talent and skill necessary for such a complex role, it would be Stalfors.
Read on to find out what Lars had to say to LA Music Blog about his experiences within the music industry, what he looks for in the bands he works with, and his psychological approach to producing.
How did you get your start working in the music industry?
I’ve been playing drums in bands since high school. At first, I would just record the music of the bands I was in, and then other bands would ask who recorded us. I’d tell them it was me, and it just snowballed from there.
What led you from engineering to producing?
It was a natural progression into producing. The first projects were basically just snapshots of the bands and reflected what they sounded like live. Then you get into, “Well, how can we make this better?” I think that’s where the role of the producer comes in, offering ideas and aesthetics and things like that, and that was definitely a natural progression for me.
I’ve had pretty good results with the bands that I’ve worked with, and I think that some of it’s luck and some of it’s what I hear in the bands. Their sound just has to be striking and something quirky that people are going to gravitate toward. So many bands out there sound like copies of everyone else, so you have to look for that thing that is going to make a band stand out from a million other bands.
Take Matt and Kim for instance. They have a unique sound, and when I met them, I knew that they were the real deal because they’re exactly the same on stage or off. They’re happy and almost like amazing camp counselors. I knew they were a band that was going to work and that they had something going for themselves.
Out of all the acts that you’ve worked with, is there one in particular that you hope to work with more?
Of course I hope to work with all the acts again and again, but I have to say that working with Mars Volta is like working with family. This will be the third record we record together, and I am tighter with them than anyone else, but I’d love to do another Matt and Kim record. I’d also love to do another Funeral Party record. I loved working with them in the first place, so I would always love to work with them again.
What is your process for producing a record with a band?
It’s definitely something that varies project to project. You just have to get in there and see where the band is as far as writing and how they feel about production. You have to really get the vibe that they’re trying to go for. It’s not a factory situation where they just come in and we push out a record. You have to take into account the type of band and the dynamic of everyone in it. You can’t just go in and have one answer for every band because it’s just never going to work.
I don’t walk in telling everyone what to do. I listen first and see how everyone interacts with each other, and then go from there. If you come in with a firm grip on everything, you’re going to have rebellion. This is especially true with new bands, which is who I love to work with. Usually this is their first time with a producer, so you really have to understand everyone’s little hang-ups and wishes and how they interact with each other in order to help them make a great record.
I feel like most people maybe don’t take into consideration that producers actually have to kind of become a member of the band, and like you said, part of the work is being like a psychologist and understanding where the band is coming from as musicians.
Of course. When you make a record with someone, it’s the most intimate thing. You’re there when they’re tracking vocals and trying ideas. You’re getting to hear things that no one else will ever hear, and a lot of artists—especially new artists—are frightened to do that in front of someone.
You have to really take time and be someone that they can look to and trust that you’re not judging them on their first try. You have to be there and be a creative member and really put forth the idea that you are there to help them, not to push them through or push them around. You’re there to help them really make a great record.
Do you have a favorite part of the process while working with bands?
I really love mixing. That seems to be the part I’m the most excited about. I love production and I love recording the drums and getting the keyboard sounds and the guitar sounds and everything, but I really love that final home stretch of finishing the record and letting everyone hear the mixes. It’s just that final process when everything comes together and becomes cohesive.
You’ve mentioned that one of the things that you look for in a band is their ability to pull off live what they can do in the studio. Taking that into consideration, do you have the bands you work with actually record live or do you record tracks within the session?
It’s totally on a case-by-case basis. The first Matt and Kim record was cut live because that was what needed to happen. That carries throughout that record. You feel like you’re at a show watching them play, and that’s perfect. That’s exactly how that record should be done.
Other bands, sometimes we don’t even do drums first. It just totally depends on how the record needs to be made. It doesn’t always work to cut live or to cut in the studio. Like I said before, producing and engineering even are determined on a case-by-case basis of what’s the best way to make the best record. I don’t care if we start with vocals first. [LAUGHS] We just need to do whatever makes it work the best.
Are there any acts out there that you haven’t had a chance to work with yet that you’d love the opportunity to produce?
Yeah. There are a lot of LA bands. There’s a new band coming out called Hands that I think is fantastic. Another LA band called Dunes is just coming up, but I think they’re a really awesome band as well. There’s an east coast band called Twin Sister that I’d also like to work with.
As you’ve grown as a producer, are there any other producers that have inspired you?
Yeah, definitely. Alan Moulder is a total inspiration, as is Brian Eno. I think I’ve definitely tried to follow in their footsteps, and it’s easy to see why they’re successful. They’ve held out for really good bands, so other bands always want to work with them, and they always get amazing bands to work with.
Who are some acts that you’re currently working with or will be working with that you feel people should know about?
Actually, I just finished mixing a band called SISU. It’s the drummer from Dum Dum Girls new band. I just got it back from being mastered, and I’m really excited about it. I think it’s something that’s extremely special. The new Funeral Party record that’s out is also something that I’m really excited about. I think that’s going to do really well, and I can’t say enough good things about that band. I think that they’re amazing.
You mentioned earlier that you are also a musician, and I know you just got back home from doing a tour with Omar Rodriguez. How did you get involved with that?
I helped record some albums with Omar, and there are so many treatments that he does and interesting drum loops that need to be put into the live show. Since I was there during the recording and I know where every track is, it was just an easy thing to have me recreate it live.
Considering that you’re in the studio quite a bit, is it a nice break to be able to get out on the road? Or while you’re out there do you miss being in the studio?
The grass is always greener. You’ll think, “Oh, I wish I was in a studio,” or “I’d love to be home mixing,” and then when you’re at home, you think, “Oh, it’d be really nice to be in New York today playing a show, or “Being in Australia right now would be awesome.” Each one has amazing benefits, but I don’t think I’ll be a touring musician forever. I do know that I’ll be making records for the rest of my life.
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