Before he started working with Bruce Springsteen, Brendan O’Brien was best known for producing some of the seminal alternative-rock records of the ’90s: Pearl Jam’s Vs., Vitalogy, Yield, and No Code, Stone Temple Pilots’ Core and Purple, Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles, and so on. Even in the last year or two, he’s been in the studio with ungenteel acts like Incubus and Velvet Revolver. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Springsteen’s new Magic is being called one of the Boss’ hardest rocking albums ever. What is surprising is how much of a ”pop” record it is, too; till now, we weren’t necessarily thinking of O’Brien as Phil Spector’s heir apparent.
With Magic widely hailed by fans and critics alike and a likely shoo-in for Album of the Year at next February’s Grammys, we thought we’d check in with O’Brien to see if he’d give up any magician’s secrets.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re a man of many projects. Do you put everybody else on hold when Springsteen calls? Even knowing that, with his rep, these could be recordings that never get released?
BRENDAN O’BRIEN: I do make a lot of records with a lot of people, and sometimes they overlap, and sometimes I have two or three things going at once. Everybody I work with is the most important person I work with, while I’m with them. But sometimes I have to compartmentalize and move on for a few days and do something else. Obviously with Bruce — with really any artist — I’ll do whatever I can to move things around. But it’s funny that you said that… I remember the first day that Bruce and I met. I said, ”Hey man, I’ve gotta tell you. We had a great day together. I’m excited about doing this…. But I’ve just got to tell you, I’m worried. You have a history of recording things and not putting them out?” — I don’t know any of this stuff, but I had always heard — and I said, ”That scares me to death, man. I don’t want to do that.” And he just kind of went, ”Well, I don’t know what to tell you, man.” [Laughs] There was no reassurance, at all, like, ”Oh, it’s gonna be okay.” He just goes ”Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you — we’ll see how it goes.” [Laughs] And I thought, I guess I can accept that.
Jon Landau said this is Bruce’s most guitar-oriented album, and that in the past, Roy Bittan and Danny Federicii were so good they could tip things in a certain keyboard-oriented way.
I think a reason some of these earlier records were so keyboard oriented — I would have to assume, after working with Roy and Danny — is that those guys are very quick at picking things up. And I would imagine that, when they recorded, maybe Roy was the first guy to pick up all the chords! [Laughs] So it became a piano song. I don’t know. But in terms of this one being more guitar-driven, keyboards do play a big role. I mean, Roy and Danny are all over this record. Roy, I think on this album — I teased him about it, and I think he digs it — he’s more the rhythm guitar player. He’s playing such heavy rhythm stuff on this record, and not a lot of the high, right hand [that he’s famous for]. It’s very heavy, chordal stuff, and it’s really driving a lot of the songs. It’s not as distinguishable as the higher stuff, but if you pulled it out of the mix, you’d go, what happened to the whole bottom end? Roy’s a big part of [why this album rocks].
You’ve used the word ”pop” in connection with this album.
I would say in the sense that they’re songs that have hooks in them and lyrically they’re meant to grab your attention. I don’t think there are any songs that are particularly extended on this record. They’re all kind of concise and compact. It’s obviously not the same pop record as, say, a Fergie record…
A lot of the songs have great bridges. And maybe a lot of other Springsteen songs have in the past, too, but somehow it wasn’t as noticeable. I’m a sucker for a great bridge.
Me too, man. Bruce is a great bridge or great middle-8 writer. I know on this record we had a blast really making little songs-within-a-song for the bridge sections. A lot of these things he was writing for the bridges in my mind were perfect opportunities to actually have a little 40-second song…in the middle of the song.
NEXT PAGE: In the studio with the E Street Band…is that tympani we hear?