Having been living in Berlin for 11 years, and producing great acts such as The Strokes and Regina Spektor, US producer/musician Gordon Raphael found some time in his busy schedule giving classes at British & Irish Modern Music Institute in Berlin (BIMM) to answer a few questions for indieberlin.
indieberlin: Reading an interview with you online, you said that you didn’t really like The Strokes before you produced their album. Actually that you preferred another band on the night that played with them. How so?
When The Strokes were on stage they looked fantastic
Gordon Raphael: There was two reasons: The first band was amazing, and sounded like a Beatles thing going on. Many vocal harmonies, really interesting, more my kind of thing. When The Strokes were on stage they looked fantastic. They were really proud of themselves, I really didn’t see much in the music when I heard them. And I spent the whole night watching the drummer Fab, and he was young at that time, around nineteen. And he was hitting the drums so hard, it looked like he was going to hit his back everytime he hit the snare drum. It was like a traffic accident, What is going on with this guy? He’s going to really hurt himself. So I didn’t really learn how great they were until I started recording them, and really understanding them.
indieberlin: Did you envisage The Strokes becoming so big?
Gordon Raphael: Not at all. Zero. I recorded 50 bands a year and The Strokes were just another band that came into my studio. I actually felt sorry for them, because don’t they know that nobody in New York is interested in guitar music? That was the least fashionable thing. When they came to my studio, there was this article in the NY Times, about the death of Rock & Roll. They had cartoons that had a gravestone shaped like an electric guitar, which also had engraved ‘The old man is dead’, its fifty years now that rock and roll has been around and no one is interested in it anymore. All the live venues are closing, no radio station is playing it. It was the least fashionable music. So not only did I think that they were not going to be famous, but I felt sorry for them for playing this old style of music, that nobody was really interested in at the time.
Working on Regina Spektor’s album ‘Soviet Kitsch’ was a mind-bending miracle of a record
Gordon Raphael: I will not say that. However I will say that working on Regina Spektor’s album ‘Soviet Kitsch’ was a mind-bending miracle of a record. It was fantastic working with her. She would just play it, and sing her songs. I set up the microphones and sit patiently until she was happy. It’s such a fantastic record! Working on ‘Is This It’ with The Strokes, knowing that the whole world was going to really love this, and that the whole world was waiting for that record to come out. It was already pressed, the journalists and the record labels in the US and UK were in my studio while we were making it. It was so exciting to be part of something that was already guaranteed to be blowing up at that moment, was a great experience. I never had that before.
indieberlin: Any eccentric habits of the bands you’ve produced?
Gordon Raphael: Yes many. Many bands are eccentric. But I would have to say about eccentricity, the most interesting and the most common ones for me are the dedication, eccentrically dedicated to the music. I mean obsessing over details, and incredible abilities of hearing. I have met Regina Spektor and Julian Casablancas, the way they hear music, and the way that they practice music, the way they think about it, I would say is eccentric, completely like crazy. And the details, and the dedication and the time it takes to work on those songs. We’re not going to be talking about people taking alcohol. No we’re talking about people who are dedicated to their music, to such a degree that it’s almost a fascinating obsession to detail.
Argentina is a very interesting culture because unlike Europe and the US, they did not abandon rock and roll music
indieberlin: What’s the South American fixation?
Gordon Raphael: I work in Argentina a lot. Two years ago I was there for a hundred days, recording many bands. I started my own band there, I had an art show there. Argentina is a very interesting culture because unlike Europe and the US, they did not abandon rock and roll music, they did not turn their backs on it. It’s an important part of their culture. So guitar music is an important part of their culture. So me being into rock music, I get respect working there, which wasn’t happening in Europe or in the US. Guitar music is so ten years out of date. Now the reason why guitar music is so important there, is that had a series of very bad governments, dictatorships and very hard times. And a lot of the hope and the message for the people came through in rock music that was being produced there. So for them just like in the US and in England, we have our John Lennon. Like Saint John of rock and roll, they have Charlie Garcia, and other people that really helped the culture, during the hard times. So they look at it with emotion, with love towards guitars and rock and roll music. So for me that’s amazing.
indieberlin: Do you refuse a lot of big offers?
Gordon Raphael: First of all I don’t get a lot of big offers. Never have in my career. For some reason, record labels don’t call me, famous bands don’t call me, only kids in rock bands. I don’t know why, and I don’t worry about it. I would worry about it if I wasn’t working, if I was unemployed. The fact that I don’t get big offers, it means that I don’t refuse them. And I say no occasionally to bands, if I find them not very interesting to me. Or sounds like a copy of something else, I will say no. But 97% of the time, I say yes thank you to any jobs I’m offered.
I work with underground bands, unknown bands, for some reason that seems to be my thing
indieberlin: So do you prefer to work with underground acts?
Gordon Raphael: I don’t know if there’s a preference. It’s more like they chose me. I look at my facebook, I look at my email and there is some young band waiting to ask me to go to Barcelona or Argentina, whatever. Yeah I guess I work with underground bands, unknown bands, as for some reason that seems to be my thing. The music I make is very underground-sounding, it doesn’t sound like it goes into the charts. It doesn’t sound like it’s trying to fit into today’s style. So I think I have already a vibrating tool to an art form that isn’t the mainstream. I’m very outside of the mainstream in my taste of music. There was a time when my taste in music was mainstream, for example – people like Jimi Hendrix – who I really based a lot of my inspiration on, was the most popular entertainer of his day. He was really number one. And bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles are really number one bands. But those days are very much done. I can’t say that if I listen to the number one artist now that I get excited.
indieberlin: You must get a lot of demos from young bands. However what would it have to be, for you to say ‘OK I’m going to work with you’?
Gordon Raphael: There’s an emotional reaction. Is this fun? Is this exciting? If it’s fun and exciting, I’m going to like it. Usually what I get excited about, its something that is unique. I don’t want to hear from a band that pretty much sounds like another band. Oh I’ve heared this riff before, or I’ve heared these words that everyone is saying. I want to hear new poetry, new guitar riffs, new drum-beats, new sounds. Then I’m really interested.
indieberlin: There was an article on NME, where it said that you found the acts that were performing with The Strokes last July in Hyde Park nauseating. Can you tell us who they were?
When I hear music which is really boring, I get angry
Gordon Raphael: No I won’t say. The bands that I saw that day apart from The Strokes just put me off in a big way. Music is very personal. It is not objective. We’re not talking about how tight they were. How famous they are. How rich they are. For me it’s like food. You taste it, and you either love it, or you think it’s boring, or it tastes bad, which is three reactions I have with music, just like food, it’s very personal. But when I hear music which is really exciting, I get really excited, and when I hear music which is really boring, I get really upset. I get angry. I go shopping for jeans, and they’re playing shitty music in the store, I just leave. I can’t be around music that I hate.
indieberlin: Seems you’re a rock and roll guy, rather then a laptop/midi/abelton guy?
Gordon Raphael: I’m definitely not a laptop/midi/abelton guy. But there is a lot of music I like. I really like Bach organ music. I really like Chopin piano music. I really like Wendy Carlo’s electronic music. I really like Miles Davis and John Mclaughlin jazz style. So I’m not only an old-school rocker, but I have to admit that I’m going to be listening to The Doors, Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Bob Dylan many times a week.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Interview by Shawn James