Michael Beinhorn is a master of teasing incredible records out of the most testing circumstances. Throughout his career he has presided over more than his fair share of brutal sessions, from bands ravaged by fractious interpersonal relationships and substance abuse, to others who have found themselves at odds with his exacting and meticulous methods. Included among his most celebrated records are Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Mother’s Milk, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzmosis, Hole’s Celebrity Skin, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, and Korn’s Untouchables, many of which presented challenges that may have broken lesser producers. Yet in each case, his unique ability to galvanise and pull a project back from the brink not only rescued them from derailment but also delivered sparkling bodies of work that rank among those artists’ defining moments.
“All the best ones seem to have been pretty challenging,” Beinhorn smiles, adding the caveat, “except maybe for Mechanical Animals. There were tough moments but the songs were pretty well established and once we got in it was easy”.
It’s 8am in LA, where Beinhorn is Skyping us from his home studio, his manner bright and chatty despite the early hour. He’s happy to talk everything from staples in his back catalogue, to the detrimental impact reduced recording budgets are having on music today and the increasingly blurred definition of what it means to be a producer in 2019. He’s also keen to highlight today’s lack of focus on pre-production, something he is currently immersing himself in and evangelising about. His most recent project in this capacity comes in the form of Weezer’s new offering The Black Album.
“I did some pre and post production – I came in after a couple of songs had been worked on and finished,” he says. “Rivers [Cuomo] wanted some assistance with structure and lyrics, real foundational aspects. So my role was song analysis, breaking stuff apart and getting to the core of what was and wasn’t working. I probably worked on 75 per cent of the record, and it was very interesting working with Rivers. He’s a very different animal when it comes to album creation; extremely talented. I feel people haven’t seen just how talented he really is.”
In clarifying his role on The Black Album, Beinhorn’s attention quickly turns to what the ‘producer’ label means in today’s industry and how it is perceived by artists of this generation.
“At this point in the English language the term producer might be the most extrapolated upon word that I know of,” he laughs. “It suggests so many different things. At this juncture in history, my view of a producer is someone with extremely high laptop skills who can use a mouse like no other. When I first started I thought of a producer as someone who was a collaborator, a jack of all trades. My musical skills weren’t particularly formidable at that point but I had a good ear and was able to apply that. If I’m working with a good engineer, the combination of my skills with theirs is going to yield something really great. It’s the collaborative aspect that makes a great production.”
He continues: “I don’t think that approach is especially popular at this point; that’s to do with how the economics of the business have changed. The recording industry would have been happy to chug along it’s merry old way if we were making the same money we were in the ‘90s, but that’s not happening now, people are deriving their income from very different sources. One of the victims of that approach has been pre-production, which has been to the detriment of a lot of recorded music right now.”
It’s not just the sonic fabric of today’s music that has been compromised by declining production standards, says Beinhorn, but the songwriting process as well.
“The current state of affairs isn’t helping song composition,” he states. “People can project the illusion of a good song, when actually they are missing crucial components. Songs now are generally composed with the thought that each section must have a strong hook. That’s an industry-wide formula. Previously, music was a matter of tension and release, you didn’t keep people on for the ride simply based on the fact you had a hook in each part, but with dynamic periods of tension. They would then want to see how it resolved, with a powerful release. If you only listen to music built on hooks it’s like having too much sugar, there’s no nourishment.”
In recent years, the rapid rise of streaming has magnified the music industry’s focus on hook-laden hits, simultaneously shifting it further away from the album format. And with the constant pressure to create an instant smash, studios are becoming increasingly filled with professional hit makers – in some cases by the dozen – to ensure the commercial viability of their output. According to Beinhorn, this poses both a major challenge and a major opportunity.
“A lot of people aren’t even thinking about albums now,” he states. “The idea of trying to make single-only records or putting out one song at a time is very prevalent. People in the pop world are so cowed by the restrictions of the industry that they only think in those terms. They’re probably willing to veto a song because of arbitrary standards like length, who was involved, etc. The value of having 15 or so writers on a song is a deciding factor. As a listener, it’s much harder to lock into the emotional core of a song like that, but to someone in a record company it’s a big asset because you have all these successful people participating.
“But this makes me feel great because there are tremendous opportunities to alter the landscape. Any time a situation arises where something is being jeopardised, it engenders those on the creative side with the responsibility and opportunity to improve it.”
So, has Beinhorn ever found himself in the studio with 15 different songwriters?
“Ha! I don’t think my style would lend itself to that,” he chuckles. “When people make records like that a lot of the writers also have certain production skills. You have what amounts to a fully completed song when the writing session is over, so as a producer I don’t know how much you can add. I try to do things from a more personal standpoint. Working with bands, for example, there are so many levels to the production. Once you’re in the studio you’re not only involved in setting up the session but also in the interpersonal aspects. When you have a song with 15 songwriters, you’ve pretty much shunted the artist out completely. You’re not getting a sense of who the artist is. Music is about sharing some kind of human experience. Even if we’re talking about music from the middle ages, people were singing to god, but they were still communicating to other people. Music is always about transmitting a human experience to other human beings. A bunch of people sitting in a room coming up with cool phrases… that ain’t saying shit.”
As talk turns to production styles, Beinhorn reflects on his own approach. Perfectionist and uncompromising, it’s a style that hasn’t always endeared him personally to some artists, not that he’s especially interested in making friends in the studio.
“I have to go in with a couple of credos, one of which is that the album is the most important thing and that everything, including my own ego, is going to be sacrificed at its helm,” he asserts. “That can put you in dangerous waters. I’m getting paid to serve the artist’s work. I take that very seriously, sometimes to the point where it’s put my position on a project in jeopardy. A producer has to be willing to put their ass on the line for what they believe in, otherwise, why choose me? You didn’t choose me to blow smoke up your ass. You have to have the ability to say something to a performer that they may not want to hear, recognising that it’s for the good of the project.”
Among the most arduous sessions he has headed up over the years was 1998’s Celebrity Skin by Hole. Bidding to make a polished follow up to 1994’s Live Through This, the band called upon his services to pull at their more melodic threads. Things, however, did not get off to a good start. Beinhorn picks up the story.
“There were some very dark parts of that recording,” he recalls. “The hardest was at the start when I discovered the drummer (Patty Schemel) was having a tremendously hard time working in the studio. The only caveat the band provided me with before we started – because I apparently had a reputation for doing this – was, ‘You can’t fire our drummer’. I was like, OK, that’s not my position. They wanted to make a really slick rock record and my job was getting the drummer to a place where she could pull it off. We spent a month and a half in pre-production. I was working closely with her on the parts and we put a lot of time and effort in, but when we got into the studio everything went south. After three weeks, I told the band we were in serious trouble. They said, ‘Remember what we told you? You’ve got to deal with it.’ Then one of the band members came in, heard one of the tracks and recoiled in horror, like, ‘What’s this?’ And they decided that was it. I had to present this to the drummer, and it was tough. Passing that information on is brutal. You’re hurting someone, and I didn’t like the position I was put in.”
Despite the difficulties that plagued Celebrity Skin, Beinhorn recalls fondly the relationship he struck up with the band’s formidable leader and creative driving force Courtney Love.
“I enjoyed working with her immensely,” he says. “She was very entertaining to work with and was at the top of her game. She felt invincible and was just brimming with vitality. She worked really hard on her lyrics – on a good day she’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Another iconic but deeply troubled record was Soundgarden’s Superunknown. While it would go on to earn a place in the pantheon of legendary ‘90s rock albums, its birth was painful and protracted.
“It was really tough,” Beinhorn remembers. “They sent me demos of a bunch of songs – a third of it was record worthy, the rest wasn’t going to cut it. So I told them they needed to write more music. They weren’t particularly happy about that. We butted heads a lot because they wanted a quick set up. My feeling was this was going to be a very important record for them and I couldn’t treat it in a casual fashion. They weren’t happy with my approach, but I don’t recall them complaining too much when it came out!”
Despite the frosty atmosphere that permeated aspects of Superunknown, Beinhorn has great memories of observing the band’s frontman, the late Chris Cornell, at work.
“The world has suffered a terrific loss,” he says. “He had an incredible work ethic. I realised we would get better takes from him if he was recording by himself in the control room; I set him up and told him to record however many tracks he wanted. After an hour he came downstairs all breathless and said he never wanted to work any other way. I remember going upstairs at one point and through two double air locks I could hear him singing, that’s how powerful his voice was. We were using U87 mics, and he fried five diaphragms irreparably. The studio manager was shaking his head saying, ‘The only time we ever fry diaphragms is when we put them too close to a tom!’ He had everything. He could make his own recordings, he could play all the instruments, he was a really good drummer, his voice was beyond compare, he was a great songwriter, and he looked the part… what more could you want?”
For now, Beinhorn is devoting his time to more pre-production work and spreading the word of its importance to the future of music. But before we part, he is keen to point out that there is still plenty to be excited about, and that the prevalent tools of today can still produce outstanding work.
“It’s all about trying to make music that will make this business healthy and bring some artistry back to popular music, regardless of the technology” he says. “People can do wonderful things with a laptop, it’s just a matter of freeing your mind, unfettering yourself, and letting your imagination run wild.”