Production Notes: John Fields

I Don't Have Rules

Music Features John Fields
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Production Notes: John Fields

Glen Phillips hit bottom in 2002. Five years after the breakup of his band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, he’d finally come out of a prolonged depression to record his first solo album, the highly organic Abulum, with producer Ethan Johns, only to see his label, Gold Circle, go under. Without a record deal, he stayed out on the road — away from his wife and three kids in Santa Barbara—for months at a time in order to pay the bills. But Phillips kept writing, determined to make a proper follow-up, even if he had to pay for it himself. He went to Austin and recorded an album’s worth of material with producer/musician David Garza, who was himself quite familiar with recording on a shoestring. But unhappy with the results, Phillips scrapped the whole thing and pondered Plan B.

Enter John “Strawberry” Fields, a Type-A up-and-comer who had recently relocated from Minneapolis to Los Angeles at the urging of his friend and colleague Jack Joseph Puig, moving into a house in Hollywood with a guest cottage out back — the perfect spot for his Pro Tools studio. Fields had done a radio remix of a song from Abulum, and his name had been on Phillips’ original short list of producer candidates, but the producer was then in the midst of projects with Switchfoot and Mandy Moore and had to decline. But then Fields had an opening in his schedule. He agreed to produce the record in return for a stipend up front, with the understanding that he’d be paid an additional fee when and if the artist secured a record deal. His only stipulation was that he would choose the players. “When you work with new musicians, there’s a little more tip-toeing going on in terms of how you move the session forward,” Fields explains.

Phillips wanted to make the modern equivalent of albums that had captivated him while he was growing up—intricate, highly produced classics like XTC’s English Settlement and Peter Gabriel’s So. Knowing exactly what to do—there’s not an indecisive bone in his body—Fields threw himself into the job in characteristically dynamic fashion. The producer summoned his homeboys—bassist Jim Anton (Johnny Lang), guitarist Michael Chavez (John Mayer) and drummer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello)—and haggled a “secret rate” on the big room at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. There the basic tracks would be cut live, with vocals and overdubs handled later in Fields’ home studio. “There were a lot of favors and low-cut deals,” he says. “It was a for-the-love-of-music thing.”

With Fields on keyboards, Windham Hill-vet Steven Miller engineering and Jon Brion bringing his mad skills to the final session, the studio band blazed through 17 songs in five days, bang-bang-bang. Back in the guest cottage, producer and client endlessly manipulated the sounds, and they kept tweaking even after Phillips went back home, sending redone parts back and forth as IM attachments.

“Everything is about forward movement with John,” Phillips marvels. “He has no technological theories—he just keeps going. He uses the technology to free him so that he can make the kind of record in a couple of months that would’ve taken a year to make in 1980.”

“I don’t have rules,” Fields says of his fiercely pragmatic approach to record making. “Whatever gets the job done, that’s what I’ll do.” “I sit here in front of the computer and I just massage the songs into what I think sounds good, and that to me is essentially what is competitive for the radio in terms of sonics. I also have a style of track improvement; I just start going at it, and if I don’t like that sound I’ll do somethin’ else. That’s different from spending nine hours on a guitar sound and then going, ‘OK, think blue and purple. Now play the part. Do we have enough incense? Let’s get some food in here.’ I’m not that kind of producer. [I’m] way more like, let’s just do it now.”

Months after the sessions, Phillips called from Santa Barbara with good news: He’d been signed by Lost Highway. But the label wanted six more tracks—recuts on two potential singles, and four new songs. Thanks to Fields’ foresight—he’d put Phillips together with two of his pals, Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Trip Shakespeare) and Danny Wilde (The Rembrandts) for co-writing sessions—the artist had some strong new material for the second round. Lost Highway A&R exec Kim Buie is presently poring over the completed tracks, which now number 25, to nail down the dozen or so that will be on the album, which is slated for release in February 2005. An EP is under discussion as well.

“The project came out great,” says Fields. “It’s all over the map; there’s a lot of super-dark, eclectic stuff and a lot of poppy stuff that I would associate with the old Toad sound. I was actually going, ‘Glen, people wanna hear that guy. We have plenty of these dark, brooding songs; I wanna hear that voice that people respond to.”

Fields motions to the gleaming Mac G5 that awaits his next command. “I have a lot of ways to fix stuff now, enabling the first-take performance to be the final performance. Glen was so down with it I was surprised, considering the last album he made. I think it turned out to be a good match of live and Pro Tools.”

Phillips wasn’t the only one who was down with it—the label and management were delighted as well—and the producer now has himself another satisfied customer. “I’d always wondered whether you could combine an amount of complexity of production with so much spontaneity and happiness,” says Phillips, “and it turns out you can.”