“Love Like We Used To” wasn’t supposed to be Captain Cuts’ debut single. The producers behind hits like WALK THE MOON’s “Shut Up And Dance” played the song to L.A. Reid in the hope of placing it with one of his artists. Instead, they ended up with a record deal. What makes the track so special? An unashamedly romantic earworm with a massive sing-along chorus, “Love Like We Used To” sounds custom made for pop radio. It’s also a prime example of the trio’s retro-future pop aesthetic, which blends classic songwriting techniques with modern production.
Not that Ben Berger, Ryan McMahon and Ryan Rabin are letting that fortuitous turn of events slow their roll as hitmakers for hire. The guys have been busier than ever — recently hitting the studio with Tove Lo, Kesha and Jennifer Lopez. I recently spent some time at Captain Cuts’ HQ in North Hollywood and found out more about those collaborations, the group’s philosophy about releasing music in the age of streaming and their budding career as artists. Get to know them better in our Q&A below.
Why did you decide to step out from behind the boards?Ben: It wasn’t really our choice. It wasn’t something that we planned to do, but we always had in our minds the idea of wanting to do an artist project.Ryan: It was not a decision. This was the result of us walking into Epic for a regular A&R meeting and played “Love Like We Used To” and asked, “Do you have any artists in mind that could do a song like this?” And LA Reid just said, “You’re the artist, so that’s that.” That’s literally how it happened.Ben: And halfway through the meeting we had a record deal.
It sounds so Hollywood!Ryan: I know. It really was.Ben: It sounds straight out of a movie, it doesn’t make sense. So, we left that meeting and we’re shell-shocked but then we’re like, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it for real.” That’s kind of where we’re at right now.
Has anything changed since you released the single?Ryan: We are focusing on the songs, still. We’re in here every day writing songs, and now we’re just thinking, “Could this be for us?” But yeah, there is the five to ten percent of our days that are now spent doing gold chain photo shoots. Which we never expected to happen.Ben: But it’s fun. It’s making things interesting, it’s definitely breaking up the routine, just coming here and working on songs every day into other outlets of creative expression, now.Ryan: And sometimes when you’re writing songs, you’re like, “Who could this be for?” Whereas now, it’s like, “This could be for us.” It can be an outlet for the more interesting, out-there ideas, if possible.
Given that “Love Like We Used To” wasn’t written specifically for you as artists, do you still feel the need to create a body of work that sounds like it?Ryan: Well, the song we played for Epic was a full demo. It had no production. It was just the chords and some snaps the whole way through. So, the song had no personality, no sonic personality. Once we were like, “Okay, this is for us,” we then went through… we produced that song like seven times, before we found the vibe of this one. Now we’re kind of refining that sound. We found the sound through the song, basically. We keep coining the phrase retro-future — the song feels like a classic song but with modern production and that’s the vibe that we’re continuing to go for.
The track is so sweet and romantic compared to a lot of the fuck-you anthems on the radio. Were you in a super happy place when you wrote it?Ryan: We were just working with Nate Cyphert, who’s our favorite writer to work with. We were having a great time in the studio, so the vibe was already good, and then Nate went in and his voice is unbelievable. Just a piece of that chorus melody came out, and both of us looked at each other and we were like, “Oh, that’s really rad.” It sounded like a classic Motown melody and we immediately aimed for that upbeat, classic sound. That melody dictated it from there.
Are you working on other songs? Is there going to be an EP?Ben: I think we’re going to just do singles. I think there’s something very cool about the current landscape of music where you can just write until you find a song that you love and put it out. Because we don’t need to have months of setup for a specific body of work, if we just consistently put out music that we love, that kind of feels like a better model for us than hunkering down for months to create an album and hope that that one album does well.Ryan: And there’s something more exciting about being like, “We only need one song in the next three months, let’s make sure it’s the best one we currently have.Ben: It sets the standard super high. Because I feel like when you’re in an album mentality, you’re like, “Let’s get three singles and then some album tracks.” But we don’t want any of our songs to be album tracks, so there’s no reason to spend our time on those.Ryan: And I think The Chainsmokers have proved that that model works. In the last year they’ve only put out four songs, maybe, and they’ve all been amazing and they’ve all crushed it.
You’ve worked with a lot of really famous people and seen have crazy it is. Are you wary or excited about the possibility of things taking off for you?Ben: I mean, first of all, great problem to have. In the current music industry and world, the more you put yourself out there in different ways, the more there is a chance for you to have more opportunities. This opportunity came to us and thought it’s a great way to build out another aspect of our creative output. So having a hit song as an artist would be extremely exciting — not only because we would get to experience that whole side of things, but because it would also help us being able to work with other artists that we admire. I see it as only positives.
What’s the response to the song been like from artists you’ve worked with?Ryan: We got a lot of great text messages from our songwriter friends. Everybody we’ve worked with is incredibly supportive. We were with Tove Lo last weekend and she was like, “I’m so proud of you.” And we were like, “You’re throwing this massive party for your album, we’re proud of you!”Ben: The songwriting community… Everyone is so supportive of each other. Because no one is in it for the money anymore, because making money is really hard to do as a songwriter, everyone who’s in it and working, loves what we do. So, it’s just, everyone is rooting for everybody. It’s kind of amazing, actually.
Does Nateur sing on all the songs or will you be using different vocalists?Ben: We’ve done a lot of songs with Nate in the last couple of weeks, just because we love working with him. I think there’s no real plan as to whether there’ll be other featured vocalists. I think we’re definitely open to it. There would be something cool about featuring Nate again, but I think it just depends on which song we end up choosing or going with.
Why do you think so many songwriters and producers are being signed as artists at the moment? Ben: I think it’s a couple of things. Number one I think that people respond to great songs. And yes, they also respond to artists as well, but the power of a song is undeniable right now. Because of the whole playlist thing, people need to be grabbed immediately. And who knows better how to do that than the songwriters and producers that have been doing it for other artists forever? So what you have is a lot of labels that are not afraid to take a risk when they believe in a song.Ryan: And I think you can see through the creative vision all the way to then end, whereas mainly artists are working with other producers, and maybe they’ve got the sound in their head, but they can’t tell the person exactly what they want. Whereas, as the producer and the artist, you’re able to really see the exact vision that you have, sonically, for a song. You can see it from start to finish much easier, which is cool.
I want to ask who you’re working with at the moment, but let’s start with Bebe Rexha. I love “I Got You.”Ben: Oh, thanks.Ryan: Thanks, man.Ben: Yeah, we’re excited about it. She’s so good. She’s incredible. She’s amazing. So, we’re obviously extremely excited, she’s performing it at the EMAs on Sunday. We did that a long time ago.Ryan: Wrote that song two years ago.Ben: And it’s just been another one of those ones where there’s been like 25 versions — just fine-tuning and fine-tuning. It paid off in the end.Ryan: It was very rewarding at the end.Ben: When it comes out and you see people enjoying it and you’re like, “Ah, okay, it was worth the work.” And she’s very, very, very hands-on with her music, which is a good thing. It really feels like we all finished that song together.
Who else are you working with at the moment?Ryan: Let’s see. Who we can talk about…Ben: Tove.Ryan: Yeah, Tove Lo. We did a song with Tove that I think will be on her next… she has a double album. Who else have we been working with … Well, we have our first session with Kesha today. We did a song with Jennifer Lopez.
What was that like?Ben: It was the best. J.Lo is incredible. We did it at her house, which, her house is obviously unbelievable, and the studio was amazing. And then she showed up at like maybe 10 p.m. after a full day of work and was like, “Alright, let’s go! I’m here to record this until you guys feel like you’ve got it.” She had been working all day long and was there with us until almost 1:30 in the morning.Ryan: We were like, “Thank you so much for staying up so late.” And she was like, “This isn’t late.”
Anyone else?Ben: A lot of writers that we love, we’ve just been kind of hunkering down with a bunch of songwriters. We’ve been working with Nick Petricca from Walk The Moon. We have a cool song with him.Ryan: Also 5 Seconds of Summer.Ben: Yep. Hopefully something will be coming out of that.
Have you ever had a song you were certain was going to be a smash, but the artist turned it down?Ryan: Yeah, I think everybody has those songs.Ben: Yes, it’s funny because almost every writer has that story. I feel like the one thing that we’ve learned is that it’s so hard to know what is a hit and what’s not a hit. You know what you love and what’s good, and we know it’s good, but a hit song has so many factors. There’s so much timing and luck and the right situation at the right time. We definitely have songs that we love that are just sitting on our computer.Ryan: The first song we ever wrote with Nate Cyphert, actually, is probably one of our favorite songs we’ve ever done, three years ago. The Weeknd cut it at one point and we were like, “Yes, this is it!”
What was it called?Ryan: It’s called “Broken.” It’s a ballad. We love it. It might become a Captain Cuts song.Ben: It definitely could. That’s why the longer we do this, the more you don’t let it get to you. We can write a song and be like, “Oh, this is blah-blah-blah’s single for sure,” and then they hear it and they’re like, “No, I hate it.” And then somebody else, who’s a brand knew artist likes it and it becomes a hit.Ryan: And you hear stories. I mean, Max Martin tells those stories or he did when he was giving interviews “…Baby One More Time” was turned down by TLC. You just never know. So that’s something that gives you encouragement.
Is there anyone left that you really want to work with?Ryan: Let’s see. There’s so many people. We’re lucky to have worked with a lot of artists that we’re fans of, people who live in the left-of-center pop lane. I think we’re always going to be doing stuff in that lane, but I mean, there’s the crazy wish list of like The Weeknd and Bruno Mars.Ben: Of course Max Martin.Ryan: Oh, yeah. From the songwriter side. He’s the A-List celebrity in our mind.Ben: He’s honestly the only person that I get nervous around.
Final question. Who’s doing pop really well in 2016?Ben: I mean, we love what The Chainsmokers are doing. Especially because we grew up in the pop-emo scene and there is something about this new … It’s not emo music, but it definitely has a little bit of that lyrically and vibe-wise. There’s a little bit of this throwback to that kind of stuff with what Halsey’s been doing and The Chainsmokers, and even Troye Sivan, to some extent, and gnash with “I Hate U, I Love U.” But at the same time, we’ve been excited about the idea of music being fun again, so when that Bruno song came out we were like, “Yes!”