Justin Timberlake has made all the right moves during this album cycle for The 20/20 Experience, which was borne out by his No. 1 spot on the charts with 968,000 units sold during the album’s debut week. 20/20 boasts immaculate production and shows JT moving in a self-consciously sophisticated, “musical” direction. And his accompanying performances highlight that sensibility, playing off like a big band led not by a singer or an artist, but by a capital-E Entertainer.
In the handful of shows leading up to his Legends of the Summer tour with Jay-Z, JT has perfected the art of interplay, equally working the crowd, the band and his dance moves, all in one seamless blast of effortless cool. Part of this live success comes from the fact that he surrounded himself with a bunch of ringers: Timberlake not only knew how to pick the Tennessee Kids, but he knows how to harness their talent. So when you have a peerless frontman with an expert backing band, the songs — even his lean, futurist R&B hits — all feel heftier.
One of the standout musicians in JT’s band is guitarist Elliott Ives, whose solo on “Spaceship Coupe” and live shredding during hits like “SexyBack” have garnered him praise here and across the Web. Ives and JT have a solid history — Elliott’s band FreeSol signed to Timberlake’s Tennman Records nearly seven years ago — so I chatted with Ives about recording and performing with JT over these past few months. Read on for a look at how JT operates in the studio and on stage (and for a tiny hint of what we can expect on Volume 2 of 20/20).
How did FreeSol link up with JT?
Justin was doing a series of showcases in Memphis to find talent for his label, and we were touring in the Southeast and making some noise locally, and we played the showcases. We were physically in our van going to Atlanta to sign with Universal, when Justin called our rep and was like “What are y’all doing?” “Well, we’re going to sign a deal.” So he was like, “Turn the van around.” That’s literally what we did. We went to Memphis to start dealing with Justin.
So have you seen him develop as a musician and producer since then?
What I noticed more than anything with him, was just his production skills. I mean, the guy was extremely confident and would just go for it, the sounds that he chooses to use. I had no idea that he had so much studio knowledge, technically, and musical knowledge as far as theory goes. He wowed me, he’s freaking amazing.
What’s the most impressive thing about working with Timberlake in the studio?
He’s a real producer. I put him right next to Timbaland. The reason they work together so well is — you have to see it. Justin does things that Timbaland doesn’t do and Tim does things that Justin doesn’t do. They both come in behind each other, don’t really talk about it. The end result is just like, “Oh my God.” Every idea Justin has seems to be the right one.
You’re a fairly rambunctious guy on stage. What have you noticed about Justin as a live performer?
He’s more rambunctious! He was born to do this, you step up there with him and you see that he’s born for this. It’s effortless and just fun when we’re all plugged in. You can just tell that he’s having a blast, he’s been doing it forever and he’s a consummate pro.
There are two guitarists in this band, do you guys compete with each other?
No, I don’t think so. I have tremendous respect for Mike Scott, I’ve been watching him since I was a child. He’s a veteran, he’s played with a lot of big names. We don’t compete with each other, we just complement each other. We trade off on solos, we just bounce off each other and try to make a wall of sound, a wall of guitars.
That’s what really stuck with me at the South by Southwest performance, like when you two were headbanging during “Cry Me A River,” which everyone knows as a ballad.
When [musical director] Adam Blackstone added that, his idea was to add Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir” at the end. Justin was like, “Great idea, come up front and hit it.” I was like, “You got it, man.” My neck still hurts from that.
You have the solo that everyone’s talking about on “Spaceship Coupe.” Was that your favorite contribution to The 20/20 Experience?
It’s hard to pick any one part because the way some of them came about was really cool. Some of them were just, dim the lights and go for it. But yeah, “Spaceship Coupe” definitely has to be one of my favorite moments because I get to stretch out a little bit, but it was funny how that came about. I literally passed Justin in the hall and he said, “Hey man, what are you doing right now? I want you to play a solo on something.” I didn’t even hear the song, he just had it queued up, and he was like, “Plug in, play.”
The way he does things, sometimes they’re really unorthodox but then he’s looking for a certain result, and that sloppy-ass solo was what he wanted. He was like, “Just play, just play.” I didn’t even know how many bars I was going to play, I had no idea.
Well it definitely worked.
Thanks. I was thinking Prince, Eddie Hazel for that. Eddie was one of my top five guitarists of all time, so that was beautiful that someone compared that solo to something he would do. I think when Justin tells people this is a really intense process, that’s why he doesn’t come out with an album every year — he has to wait because for stuff like that, some magical moments, it’s pretty intense and it takes a toll on anybody.
Justin Timberlake — ”Mirrors” on Saturday Night Live
You’ve performed on the Grammys, on SNL, with Jay-Z. What has been the most memorable moment of this whole 20/20 Experience so far?
SNL was pretty special. I lost it when I looked over and it was the original Three Amigos introducing us. And I’m walking off after we did the second song and this guy just grabs my arm really hard. I’m thinking, “Oh shit, am I going the wrong way?” I look over and it’s Tom Hanks. “Hey man, I really like that guitar,” he said. “What kind of guitar is it?” I told him what it was, and he was like, “I really want that guitar.” And I said, “Well man, it ain’t even mine, it’s the guitar tech’s. You can talk to him, I’m sure he’ll make a deal with you boys,” and we started laughing.
That was pretty fun, just to be in the room with all this talent and everyone’s just joking around and having fun.
What can you tell me, if anything, about Volume 2 of The 20/20 Experience? Are the Tennessee Kids still on it?
It’s the same crew that worked on this one, it was all done in the same time period. I probably can’t say too much about it without getting in trouble, but it’s truly amazing. You think Volume 1 is awesome, just stay tuned.