Photo by Mai Ismail
Music producer David Bottrill in the studio
By Caroline Foreman
I stepped outside Liar’s Club in Chicago on Aug. 10 under the twinkling summer night sky with my veins still resonating with the musical pulse of the alternative dream band DoubleSpeak’s live set.
Immersed in the orange glow of the street, I chatted with three-time Grammy-winning music producer David Bottrill about his work with the band, his favorite projects, the evolving music industry, and his unwavering devotion to formulating, capturing and preserving an artist’s best work in the studio.
David’s career spans over 35 years working with artists including Peter Gabriel, Tool, Rush, Muse, Silverchair, Coheed and Cambria, King Crimson, Smashing Pumpkins, Dream Theater and many more. David came to Chicago from his home in the Toronto area to work with Doublespeak as they craft their first album. Guitarist Steve Gray initially contacted David about mixing a couple of the band’s songs, and as David recalls, “I liked the material a lot, so he sent it to me. We worked that way, and then he expressed an interest in carrying on working on some new material, so I came down to Chicago.”
Throughout his vast discography spanning genres and generations, David’s work never fails to demonstrate clarity, highlight individual musicianship, and a rich extra dimension. As David described it, “I think my records all have a certain characteristic to them, but what I really try to do is bring the most out of the band that I’m working with. I’d rather that it be their album with my help guiding them to bring their songs to the best that they can be, rather than it be my album where I superimpose a band on top of it.”
Photo by Caroline Foreman
Record producer David Bottrill posed for a photo during the alternative band DoubleSpeak’s live set last month. He is the producer for the band.
I asked David what it takes to make a song successfully crafted. He replied, “I think the best thing is down to the integrity of the artist and what they’re trying to say. You can lean on sort of standard chord progressions, or you can lean on the tropes of pop music structure, but really, what’s more important is that the intention of the song gets through to the listener.”
He continued, “I feel like a song has to have a number of things: it’s got to have passion, it’s got to have meaning, and it’s got to have cohesiveness.”
There are also outliers, as David detailed. “With a band like Tool, they’re an enigma. They can do ten-minute songs and get away with it. Not many other artists can, so I try to make the songs work such that they are able to flow and keep the listener’s interest throughout the entire song.”
What then allows a music producer to reach levels of success in the studio? What makes a great producer? David said, “It’s very individual. Some producers are very aggressive. The first things they do is come in and fire the drummer, or one of the band members, just to assert their authority. And it works for them. For me, I like to work with the materials that I have and try to bring the best out of them.”
He went on, “I try to keep the band as a unit and have them grow together and be as good as they can be together as a unit. So, a great producer is someone who brings the best out of the artist and the songs, and hopefully, the band feels like they are better musicians for having worked with that producer – and better writers. There are things they can learn from me, and things they can learn from the experience of making the record.”
Of his overall style, he said, “I’m collaborative, I work with people and work with their ideas and then bring my ideas to the table to try and build something new.”
Still battling my star-struck emotional state, I asked David which of his projects he considers his greatest accomplishment. He said, “I can never narrow it down to one, but of the records that I’m most proud of, I think the first one would have to be the soundtrack for “The Last Temptation of Christ” that I did with Peter Gabriel. I learned so much about varying musical styles, different instruments that I had never heard of before, how to record them, and how to get the best out of those. I poured a lot of my heart into that record, and I feel like that one was a threshold. It made me grow as an engineer and as a producer from somebody just starting out and trying to do something, and I felt like I had a little more validity after that.”
He also said, “The two Tool records that I did, I’m very proud of those. I think that was a very interesting collaboration from somebody who didn’t really do heavy music before they called me. One of the reasons they did call me was because I hadn’t done that music and wasn’t a well-known Los Angeles metal producer. They wanted a different perspective, so I’m quite proud of what we ended up achieving, which I think, to this day, is still quite unique.”
Then we delved into the studio process and David’s methodology with each new project. He responded, “I will always ask an artist to send me the material beforehand, so I can really get into the music and get into the songs. Then I’ll usually go into pre-production, and unless I feel that they are really strong compositionally already, I will tear them quite a lot apart and then rebuild them with the band, with their blessing, and with their cooperation.”
He continued, “I’ll rearrange it, and sometimes we end up very close to where we were at the beginning, but I find that I have to experiment with these things…all I ask of bands is that with all the ideas that flow into the room, everyone gives them a chance. I insist that all ideas get their fair share and when people have their ideas, you try them and try them with conviction. You give it your all, you play it like you mean it, and the room will know whether the thing works or not pretty instantly.”
I asked David how he has seen the music industry transform over the course of his career. He responded, “There was a confluence of things that happened – the downloading issue happened; Sept. 11 happened – there are a lot of things that turned the creative industry into what it is today. The beauty of it is that there are still bands. There are still people that want to create new music.”
He added, “I used to consider marketability a lot for music, but the way the industry’s gone now, I think we’re almost in the situation where anything goes. There isn’t the glamour involved as much as there might have been in the past, but people still do it. So that’s what gives me hope, that there are still young people that want to write and create new music.”
I asked for his advice for fledgling new artists just starting out. He answered, “It’s harder today because there used to be a developing system, but bands now have to essentially develop themselves. So, there’s a lot more weight on the band to create their own fanbase and social media.”
He emphasized, “I would say the best thing you can do is hone your song-writing craft. If you have great songs, they’ll find their way through the morass of stuff that’s out there. There is no substitute for practice and experimentation; and making mistakes and learning from mistakes.”
He advised, “Keep doing it, and write as many songs as you can. Throw away the ones you don’t like and don’t belabor them. The artist Holger Czukay used to say, ‘sometimes you have to put a song on the shelf to brew a while.’ Basically, it just meant get away from it, let it sit, come back, and listen to it another day. You may have a new perspective on it, but let it brew a while.”
Finally, we chatted about some fashion. David said, “When I was a kid, we listened to Led Zeppelin and we wore bell-bottomed jeans with Kodiak boots, and flannel shirts or jean jackets with hoodies inside. That was our uniform.”
He continued, “People like to fit in with groups. And then occasionally you’ll have the outlier, the Marilyn Mansons. They dress and don’t care what anybody thinks.”
More so an advocate of the capsule-style uniform wardrobe, David said of himself, “I wear mostly black clothing, simple jeans and t-shirts just because over the years, I found that it’s just easier. But I admire somebody who has a sense of style and sense of fashion, like (David) Bowie was great, a great fashion icon. He pushed the boundaries and redefined himself regularly. That’s fantastic.”
For music groups, David believes, “Defining yourself with a style as a band is important. However, you do it, like with writing and like with playing, you’ve got to do it with conviction. You’ve got to own it, and do it with conviction. You can’t be self-conscious.”
My wide-ranging chat with David Bottrill was a truly thrilling and uniquely enlightening experience. Over his career, he has maintained staunch respect for the artist’s perspective in the studio. Through the determined and thoughtful progress, he continuously achieves the successful preservation of the very best iterations of each creative expression, and everyone involved grows and learns in the process. His continuing work with DoubleSpeak will no doubt conjure both an excellent musical accomplishment and strong growth experience for the band.
Fashion Chat columnist Caroline Foreman grew up in Palos Park and is now a Chicago-based model, writer and musician. You can follow her adventures or message her @yoyi_antonia on Instagram.