I think it was sometime in college when a friend handed me a copy of Pavement's Terror Twilight -- "have you heard this?," he asked. "It was produced by Nigel Godrich." Godrich, of course, had made his name as the man behind Radiohead's dials. Since then, he's worked with pop stars like Natalie Imbruglia, put out albums with Beck, scored Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and been fired by The Strokes. Godrich has that sainted quality that only a handful of indie rock producers have -- think Steve Albini, Brian Eno, or Dave Friedman -- they've got name recognition to the point where they not only have their own sound, but opportunities to work with just about any act they want, or in the case of Albini, anyone that can put up with them.
With the passing, last week, of The Beatles long time producer and collaborator George Martin, I couldn't help but think back of when I looked for what records based on producers as well as artists. And, I couldn't help but wonder, besides the handful of names that I could come up with (add Jim O'Rourke & Don Zimmer to that list as well), where have all the producers gone?
There's always been an inborn tension between indie and producers. The DIY roots of much of the music having to do with a lot of it. Bands want to control their own sound. And outside of a few groups (see Fugazi and Zimmer or Radiohead and the aforementioned Godrich) who have found a genuine collaborator in their producer, we hear more when people are pulled off projects in legendary spats like Albini vs. Nirvana on In Utero.
Recently, figures like Guy Picciotto (from Fugazi), O'Rourke (former collab of Wilco, Sonic Youth, and others), John Vanderslice (solo artist), have made forays from being mostly musicians into producing. While producers have made their way into films. The diversification of how you can make a living means pulling attention off certain areas -- recording in studios with bands -- toward more lucrative ventures. Not only that, but the advent of streaming services, whose sound quality is less than most physical outputs, the knob turning has been rendered less important in our earbuds and even with the supposedly better quality of Beats.
As Martin's passing showed, it's perhaps only the extraordinary producers who seem able to coexist and get the best out of their groups. And, indeed, it's rarer to find one that helps determine the artistic progress of a group. In Martin's case, he didn't just help create a musical group, but a zeitgeist. It's hard to see, in our present time, many others being able to follow in such giant footsteps. Yet, we shouldn't discount or dismiss producers. Obviously, their role in hip-hop and pop is unquestionable and undergoing a major renaissance these days, but for indie rock, too, producers can be the center of attention. Perhaps this is a good time to not only remember but think about who can help create the next zeitgeist.