Andrew Dawson On Working With Kanye West, Fun. & Pet Shop Boys: Interview
Andrew Dawson is a name that might not ring a bell at the moment, but that’s about to change. The classically trained pianist from Minnesota quietly won three Grammys through his work as a mix engineer on Kanye West’s albums The College Dropout, Graduation and, most recently, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now he’s made the transition to full-fledged producer, and set up his SoundEQ studio in Hollywood. “It’s got a really cool vibe,” says Dawson. “I have a little writing room upstairs that actually used to be Orson Welles’ writing room! So, it gives me some inspiration to write some outer space stuff up there.”
Andrew is also branching out from enhancing beats and melodies for hip hop kings like Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and T.I. In 2011, he spent time working in his studio on current chart topping act fun.’s Some Nights LP and writing with New Zealand songstress Kimbra. Further expanding his resume, Dawson just wrapped up Pet Shop Boys’ next album and produced upcoming records by P.O.S., VersaEmerge and POP ETC (formerly known as The Morning Benders).
During a break from all this studio wizardry, the 31-year-old gave us the scoop on the eclectic array of acts he’s crossed paths with. You just earned your third Grammy the other month for Kanye’s last album. Congratulations! ANDREW DAWSON: Thank you! You know what? I already have two. The third one’s just very anti-climactic, because they do a whole auditing process. To get a statue as an engineer or producer, they need to verify that you did more than 51 percent of the playing time. Then randomly, probably in like May or June, a box will show up on my doorstep kind of anti-triumphantly. But it’s always cool. I’m always really excited when that happens. I’m just more happy to be working on the great projects that I am. The statues are the nice icing on the cake.
Obviously you cut your teeth working with Kanye, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But first, what are some songs or albums that influenced you as a kid and made you want to pursue a music career? AD: I started taking piano lessons when I was 5. It was mainly classical training for about 10 years or so, maybe even longer. But then I remember discovering Yes and King Crimson and some more progressive stuff. I persuaded my classical teacher to let me learn more Gershwin and more Rachmaninoff — more of the progressive classical stuff that borderlines on jazz. Then when Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails dropped, it made it cool to be a keyboard player. After that I discovered [A Tribe Called Quest’s] The Low End Theory and it was like, damn, how do they get the bottom end on these records?
And you set about figuring that out. AD: I just started playing with four-track cassette recorders. I was always into writing little songs here and there and playing with the sound of them and how to make them sound different. My tastes were pretty much across the board — it was like classical, jazz, hip hop, pop, progressive rock.
How close were you to graduating when you left Berklee College Of Music? AD: I got busy, got an offer. I think I’m short something like two classes from my bachelor’s degree. It was very small. My folks still bring it up from time to time: “You could go back and take a couple classes and finish that up.” I’m still waiting for that lull in the action to go back to school and finish.
Let’s talk about this long history you have with Kanye West. AD: At the time, I was working out of Sony Music Studios in New York. I’d been there a year or two. Kanye fired about five or six people over a month. They just weren’t rockin’ the way he needed them to, so the video master was like, I need you to do this session, you’re next up on the list. I was like, okay, cool, I’ll go do it. A day turned into a week, turned into a couple months, turned into a year, turned into eight years ago. I picked up with him pretty much halfway through his College Dropout record. We just got along really well and I really love working with him.
You and he clearly have some commonality outside of the work. Do you hang out together, outside of the studio. AD: I do. We go to each other’s birthday parties, and he came to my wedding last year. We’ll go to a movie on off-dates or whatever. But I kind of like to not be involved in everyday life. If I’m working with somebody over the course of an album, and if there are some people who ingrain themselves with a part of the camp or part of the group, I make sure to not be there all the time. At the end of the day, maybe that’s part of why it worked so well, because we don’t hang out all the time. He could say, “You know what, that really sucks, that’s not working,” and not be worried about next time we hang out. There’s definitely a separation of the professional and the friendly life. If it’s too friendly of a relationship, then the album and the music suffers because it’s not getting to what it needs to be.
Fun. currently have the #1 song in the country, so congrats on that as well. How did you come onto that project? AD: Jeff [Bhasker], who produced the album, was like, there’s this great new band I’m working with and I’d like to bring you in. He brought me in to engineer the album. We split the time between Jeff’s studio and my studio. He would work some days in his place with doing arranging, and I’d have the band over at my place and we’d be tracking guitars. [Frontman] Nate [Ruess] is not the kind of guy who wants to go in the vocal booth. He’s like, “Oh, well, I’ll just sit on the couch next to everybody and sing my parts.” It was really fun working with those guys — fun working with fun. [Laughs]
Your place, being SoundEQ. AD: Working with Kanye and Wayne and everybody else, I would go to whatever studio du jour in whatever big city we were in, and those places are awesome. But a year and a half ago I wanted to set up shop for the way I like to work and the way I like to get sounds. There are not shared rooms with other studios, and we’re not going to have some person walking down the hallway popping in on our session. I wanted to get away from that because I had been doing that for so many years. So I started putting my studio together. It’s kind of hidden in this great old historical building in Hollywood, in this 1930s bungalow. It’s got a really cool vibe. I have a little writing room upstairs that actually used to be Orson Welles’ writing room! So, it gives me some inspiration to write some outer space stuff up there.
Switching gears from Kanye, I’m more than curious to hear how you came to produce Pet Shop Boys’ upcoming album. AD: It was really exciting for me. I got an email one day out of the blue from their manager that was like, “Would you like to talk to Neil [Tennant] and Chris [Lowe] about working on their next album?” I was like, hell, yeah — I would love to talk to Neil and Chris about working on their next album! They’re so talented. The breadth of their career has been phenomenal. They’re great at reinventing themselves and keeping true to their core sound. So Neil and Chris and I started talking on the phone. They sent me some demos of songs that they had been recording over the past year. Over our phone conversations, they were like, “We want to make a record in Los Angeles.” So they ended up moving out here for the recording process, and renting a place, and we’re making their first L.A. record. They’ve never done a record in Los Angeles before. They wanted to be around that thing, and get that classic L.A. sound — the L.A. players and all that stuff.
Sounds like quite a change from Yes, their last album. What has the experience been like? AD: The first day we were jumping in right away – let’s pull this, let’s work on that — especially because this record has a very tight time frame for finishing. We’ve had to make use of every day. They’re in the studio about five days a week, then I end up staying on weekends to finish and catch up on stuff and get stuff ready for the next week. But this is their 11th original album. They’ve earned the right to take weekends off! It’s been a really good process. They both have incredible ideas. Neil will interject something and we’ll try it out and it’s like, wow, that’s a really great idea. Same thing with Chris — he’ll be like, “Well, what if we tried that?” We’ll pop it in and, oh, that was perfect. They have so much experience doing records. I’ve definitely learned a few tricks from them on making records, too.
Are Neil and Chris open open to your suggestions, as well? AD: It’s definitely a collaborative process. I have a way that I like to do things and the way that I approach and hear things, and the sounds that I’ll choose. And they have the ideas of what they want to do. It’s a really good working environment where everybody’s been pretty much on fire with their ideas. The stuff that everybody’s come up with has been really, really good.
You also worked with Kimbra, who’s hovering just below fun. on the charts. AD: We did some writing sessions together, and actually, I’m not sure if the stuff we did together is slated to be on her US album or not. But she’s another great talent to work with. She’s such a prolific writer and has a very clear vision of where she wants all her songs to go. But her song “Settle Down” is doing really well, and her song with Gotye is blowing up.
“Somebody That I Used To Know” kind of underscores the point that anything goes on radio at this moment in time. AD: It’s very interesting you say that, because a lot of the production I’ve been doing with records and albums the last couple years is kind of taking a homogenous look — taking the pop mentality — and changing up the sound and the way you approach it so you’re not going to use the same synthesizer and same drum machine as everybody else. You look at the Gotye song, it’s a great example. It’s like a shuffle guitar thing with some jazz brushes and marimba! And it’s a pop smash. I love that.
What else do you have up your sleeve? AD: I have two more albums coming out this fall as a producer. Ones from a group called The Morning Benders, and another guy is P.O.S. It’s been a couple years since he’s had an album out and I think his fans are really hungry. I think this is gonna be his big breakout record. We put in a lot of work, and spent the better part of a year working on the record.
I read that you went to high school with P.O.S. AD: That whole Doomtree collective and [label] Rhymesayers [Entertainment], we all went to the same high school together. P.O.S. actually reached out to me to work on his last record, and I was super swamped with Kanye at the time. I wanted to do it, but I just didn’t have the time. But, yeah, we went to the same high school together, Hopkins High School in Minnesota. He was a year behind me. All those guys in Doomtree collective went to my high school and were all within a span of about four or five years.
Who are you going into the studio with next? AD: I’m actually heading into another project — I’m going from Pet Shop Boys to this group called VersaEmerge. Like fun., they’re on Fueled By Ramen as well. They’re a rock group with kind of a harder, progressive edge, and we’re playing with some new ideas and new sounds. They have a very clear and cool direction that we’re working together to bring out for their next record. When somebody has something in mind that they’re going for, it’s that much easier to deliver.