It was fondness for the music of Plumb that sent me looking for an interview with producer Matt Bronlewee, who has been a mainstay in the band’s music from day one. The former member of Christian rock band Jars of Clay has made quite a name for himself as a songwriter and producer of names like David Archuleta, Selena Gomez, Natalia Imbruglia and for his music placements in TV and film. As a fan of the above names, I was happy to chat with him about his contributions to their discographies.
Tell me about your beginnings as a songwriter and producer? I’m guessing this would have been with your first band?
Yes, I had my beginnings as a co-founder of Jars of Clay. This was during my college years. My roommate was the keyboard player. Dan Haseltine (vocals) and Stephen Mason (guitars) lived next door. That was a life changing time period, in terms of what we were able to create. I left the band early on, but my involvement catapulted me into my first publishing and song-writing deal, and to also produce the first Plumb album, which set me on the production path.
Is any of your musicianship on the final release of the 1st album?
From what I’d heard, my guitar playing might be on there, and definitely my songwriting. I know the band went back to re-record some things, but I think some of the demo material is on there too.
It’s interesting to think of that time. Our first EP sold around 500 copies, and I still see some of them floating around. I saw one on eBay recently that was selling for around $700, which was unexpected.
Did stepping away from the band cause any misgivings or regrets, given their subsequent success?
It was a difficult decision. But I knew that I didn’t want to be on the road. As much as I loved songwriting and recording with my band-mates, I knew that the touring life would be different. Charlie Lowell’s best friend from Rochester was a great singer and guitar player, and he was able to step into the role I had been filling, which made it a lot easier for me to step out. Then came a year-long period of wandering and trying to figure things out, but through meeting people like my manager, and Plumb, things came together.
How do you think your trajectory would have changed had you not been a part of the early Jars of Clay lineup?
I don’t know that I can answer that. After leaving the band, the plan was to go back to school, but got I dragged back into music by a friend. I don’t know if he would have been so insistent had I not been in Jars Of Clay. The band opened a ton of doors for me because it was a known name, and people in this industry respond well to things they recognise.
Is it true that you worked with Natalie Imbruglia on “Left in the Middle”?
Yes it is. My work with Natalie started through my publisher Debby Dill, who was at Windswept Pacific, now a part of EMI. She played one the early Plumb albums that I had worked on for Natalie, who liked what we had done on that, and she reached out to me about songwriting. So we ended up doing a number of songs together. We recorded most of it in LA.
Which songs did you work on with Natalie?
“Impressed” and “Smoke”, which was the 2nd single in the UK. I did a few others, though I don’t know if they were released or not. “Impressed” was the B-side on the “Torn” CD single, which sold more than 4 million copies.
“Smoke” is quite the stand-out track on that album. Did you by any chance program the 808s on that?
Yes I did. The dumbest thing I ever did was sell that 808 drum machine. It was a real one. I had a programmer in the studio that I worked with and we did it together.
What was the source of the piano in that song?
It was probably either from Omni Studios or Quad Studios, here in Nashville. I used to work at them quite a bit, but it was so long ago that it’s hard to remember. But I’d guess that it was a real piano at Quad.
Were the songs recorded to tape, or had you already transitioned to using DAWs?
This was back in the 2-inch days. Although I was doing quite a bit of recording on Pro Tools 4, printing and mixing was all done on 2-inch tape.
Speaking of tape, I remember we had an incident with one of Natalie’s songs. I can’t remember which one it was, though I think it was “Smoke”. We’d already recorded the vocals, and she had flown back to London. During the mix, I heard this horrible noise from the tape room. I ran in, and there were pieces of tape flying through the air. The 2-inch master had stretched and broken. Obviously, I came unglued. It’s not like we would have been able to recover the song if the damage was too severe. The 2nd engineer sent me away for 2 hours saying, “We’re gonna figure this out”. Sure enough, they were able to splice in missing parts in the bridge, and luckily most of the damage came from parts where there weren’t any vocals, so we lucked out.
I see in your discography that you have some notable music placements in TV, such as the Vampire Diaries. Tell me about your experience in this field.
There’s a lot of film and TV stuff I’ve been doing for the last 3 or 4 years, alongside an artist called Ruelle. Those songs have landed in different places. Sometimes we work off a brief that may come from a specific editor or director. But for the most part we create songs on our own that we believe in and that lean towards the type of emotions that will be usable in different places in a series. A brief from the editor might help to narrow the focus of the lyrics and music, but a lot of times the very reference songs that come with the brief ends up being the one used in the scene. So a lot of times you may write to a brief and it won’t get used there, but rather in other places that want the same emotion. The music supervisors are often working on multiple shows or movies or trailers. So even if they don’t pick your song, they might reach out 6-12 months later and request to use your song for a completely different project. So songs can have a long lifespan over a period of years that way.
Interesting. Well, lets jump into the first Plumb album. Where was that recorded?
Most of it was recorded at the Bennet House in Franklin, south of Nashville, which is also the house for Keith Thomas, a famous producer for the likes of Amy Grant and Brian McKnight. Unfortuantely, it’s no longer a recording studio, as it was shut down around 10 years ago.
What was the division of labour like on that album? Did you have a primary role?
It was an unusual process. Dan Haseltine, the lead singer from Jars of Clay, was a co-producer for a lot of the recordings, even though he had to leave half-through due to health concerns. But we’d come up with a bunch of unconventional scenarios. We brought in 3 or 4 different drummers over the course of a week, and recorded drums with no songs in mind. All we wanted to do was record different loops and patterns. We tried anything to get wild drum sounds. I remember having to hold a water bottle in place that was being used as a kick drum. The engineer, Aaron Swihart, was very accomplished, so whatever scenario we threw at him, he was able to figure out how to accommodate us.
How were the drum loops created? Was their peculiarity due the how the drummers played or the recording process?
We wanted to lean into the drummers instincts, instead of having a pre-conceived notion of what they should play, which would have constricted them. So we gave them a click track and let them play until they came up with something intriguing. During the recording process, we’d do things like swap out the snare for something else, or throw towels over the drum kit, or send the drum mic signals into an amp.
Elaborate on that. Why send a drum signal into an amp?
If we had a Shure 57 mic on the snare, we would send the signal it into the board, but then back into the room to a Fender amp, which would bleed back into the mic. But sometimes it was more about getting that amp resonance into other mics in the room as bleed.
The thing about recording to tape was that on 2-inch tape, you only had 24 tracks. One of them had to be dedicated to time-code, and then you’d leave one track blank so that you didn’t erode the time code. So now you have 22 tracks. But because we only recorded drums in the beginning, we could use all the tracks just for that. So we had an amp channel, distant mic channel, etc. We’d do mixes of just the drums, and then re-use them in a 2-track format.
Do you remember what board was used for those recordings? And mics?
I want to say it was a Trident 80B, though I don’t remember 100%.
They had great vintage mics there, Telefunken 67s, 87s and 47s, that we used a lot. We also had 1176s, LA2As, etc. A lot of classic stuff, most of which we used, including 2-inch tape.
In those days, I remember reading somewhere that U2 had recorded to tape at 15 ips with Dolby noise reduction, so we rented Dolby and did the same, which was supposed to be better for drums and base. The thing about tape was that you could choose from a variety of types and I remember liking Ampex 456.
There’s a strong synthesis between grunge and electronic music on the first Plumb album, with smatterings of hip-hop production, which was unique for the time. I can only think of the nu-metal scene that would have been doing something similar. Where did that influence come from for you?
We were really influenced by Garbage. I thought Butch Vig was an amazing producer. There was also major UK influences, like Portishead, Massive Attack and Prodigy. DJ Shadow was important to us too. I should also add that for all the early Plumb records, I’d bring in a real DJ to do production work as the final part of every track. There was a guy called Ric Robbins who would come in with his turntables and just drop noises, samples and beats all over the track. Anytime you a DJ scratch or vinyl effect, those weren’t samples. It was Rick playing it off the turntable. Even the drums that sound like breakbeats are being played off real vinyl, which is why they sound like that. I would play the song, he’d line up the tempo and drop in breaks and vocal samples. I even used him on some Natalie Imbruglia stuff.
Wow, how unexpected. Well, since we’re talking about details, let’s look at some specific records on the Plumb album. Can you tell me about the opening sound on “Sober”. It sounds like a bass-heavy synth that’s being time-stretched.
On that record, I processed most of the guitars through a very loud Mesa Boogie amp. So that was feedback from that, going through an Eventide Harmonizer, which caused to sound like a mix between a synth and guitar. The drums after that was one of the loops we created, even though it sounds like a sample.
The drums on that sounds like its being processed thorough a phaser and then reverb. Is that correct?
Yeah, but some that occurred in the mix. The mix engineer for that album was called Rick Will, and he was renowned in Nashville for heavy manipulation during the mix, which was unusual at the time. The idea for most mixers is to take the existing stems and make them sound good together. But Rick was known for adding to and changing the stems. So some of what you hear in terms of effects was done by him
Were you present for those mixing sessions or did Rick just play it for you later?
Because I was a new producer, I didn’t want to miss anything, so i would just sit around for hours to listen. But not all the time. Rick was also known for playing music at a ridiculous volume, with the knob all the way up. We used to joke that he had it so loud to discourage the A&R guys from hanging around the studio for more than 10 minutes, haha. But he was great with the producers and would bounce ideas off us and ask for input.
Lets look at another track. “Who Am I”. You have the white noise effect and then it goes into what sounds like a pitched-down drum loop. Where did that come from?
I want to say that it came off an old drum machine, the kind you’d have on an organ. Some of the early vintage organs, like Lowry and Silvertone, would have beats on them and we’d take them off there.
Towards the end of the song, around 3:30, there’s a drum loop. Where was that from?
I’d say another drummer in the studio did that, but I could be wrong. It was such a long time ago. Some of them were mixtures of live drums and sampled ones.
Next is “Unforgivable”. Do you remember how the bass guitar was recorded?
There was a guy named Brent Miligan who played that bass and others on the album. I’d guess that it was him. He had some great J and P basses from the 60s. I believe we recorded on an SSL, though I don’t remember the series. We’d have 2 or 3 different signal lines, and one signal would go into that, another would be sent to a distortion pedal and another to an amp, and we’d blend all together later.
Didn’t you initially say you used a Trident desk, not an SSL?
When we recorded the drums, we were at the Bennet House, which I think had a Trident. But for the guitar and bass overdubs we were at a studio called the Salt Mine, which had an SSL. And then the mixes were done on a different SSL.
Got it. How were you able to create such crunch on the guitars?
It was early days for me, so I virtually had no gear, other than a Les Paul that I was borrowing from Gibson. I think I used it for everything. I had a few different amps that I borrowed or rented: a Mesa Boogie with the steel grill on the front, and an Orange amp. Those are the two you hear on the Plumb album. For pedals, I used the Big Muff a ton, and a Tube Screamer. I also had a Space Echo, either a 201 or 301. One of my favourite things to do was to overdrive the tape on that. Sometimes I didn’t even use the delay effect and just used the tape.
Where did the opening drum loop on “Cure” come from?
I’m pretty sure that was live playing combined with 2 or 3 percussion loops that we created. I remember bringing in a trash can lid that we used as a drum to record a beats for a whole afternoon. We played it with brushes. I think that one of them made it into this track. We brought in the drummer from Sixpence None The Richer, Dale Baker, and that might be one of his beats.
So after all that production work, how did record labels and the industry at large respond to the album?
Sales were pretty good. I just remember that the album was so unusual that no-one knew what to do with it. It’s difficult for an artist or producer to break out from the mould, so by working on that album, it helped stand out from my contemporaries because we were all used to hearing clean recordings. Sometimes the focus of a producer was solely to record things well. But I’d been influenced by the likes of Mitchell Froom, who were unusual in their methods and results, and my approach was to be heavy-handed with production. So the record ended up being something of a production showpiece and industry took notice.
It would seem that Plumb’s subsequent albums moved away from the melancholic, broody grunge-tinged sound of the first album to a more personable form of alt rock. Why was that?
Things were changing all around at that point. By the time we got to “candycoatedwaterdrops“. The grunge movement was already becoming stale and we didn’t see it becoming anything more than what it had become. So we as artists wanted to move in a different direction. To just make another version for 1st album wasn’t motivating.
What was it like to make the next Plumb album, “candycoatedwaterdrops”?
By “candycoatedwaterdrops”, I was actively producing other people’s albums, and I was very ambitious. My manager would always sit me down before every project, and ask “What do you want to do on this record that you’ve never done before?“, and I said “Record the London Symphony Orchestra“. So we did. I also wanted record in a new environment, so we booked Tayha Studios, which was Amy Grant’s personal studio. She had a large parcel of land with fields, horses, ponds, that kind of thing, including a barn with a studio in it, which we used for 2 months. It was really cool place to work at. Because of the availability space, we recorded the drums outdoors.
I will say that by this time, the band had grown and more was expected in terms of having a single that could do well at radio and to have crossover appeal. But our main focus was to do something ambitious.
I have to ask about “Damaged”. Where did the synth arp come from?
I’m pretty sure all the synth sounds on that track were made on my Juno 106. It’s actually not an arpeggio. It was played by hand, through a Roland tape delay, either a 201 or 301. The original sequence was very simple, 1/8 time, but it’s the delays that give it its rhythmic cadence. I got that from listening to how U2’s Edge applied dotted delays to his guitar.
Last production question. Did you work on “Boys Don’t Cry”. Can you share any trivia on that? Do you know how the explosive guitar chorus at the end was attained?
I co-wrote that song. For whatever reason, despite being optimistic people, we were driven to talk about dark subject matter on that one.
I didn’t produce this one. I think it was Jay Joyce did. He’a great guitarist, so I can understand why he would drive that to the foreground.
There’s a certain strain of commentary about Christian rock music, which is that there’s a lot of derivative sounds that come out of there, particular of the singer-songwriter meets soft alt-rock variety, whether it’s Hillsong arena rock or the guitar-strumming introspective Christian. Sprinkled among that you have bands who abandon that template and still find success, like Plumb and Relient K. What are your thoughts on the sound that comes out of that genre?
When it comes to Christian music, I guess you could argue that it does have a kind of sonic characteristic to it. There was an era in the 80s when Christian music was an alternative choice from the mainstream for Christians. I remember CCM Magazine would have music recommendations like “If you like this mainstream band, check out this Christian one that’s similar”. So I think those early Christian bands were presented as a safe alternative to secular music. But in the early 90s, we wanted to abandon that label to make great music aside from a sonic aesthetic. To this day, that can be a struggle for some.
Worship music does tend to have a “sound” to it: slightly anthemic in a vaguely U2 meets Coldplay kind of way. I don’t know why it works. Probably because the artists want to tap into a grand set of ideas, and the sonics lends itself to that. So it could be that it’s actually U2 and Coldplay are the ones pursuing that sonic, rather than Christian artists trying to sound like U2 or Coldplay.
Christian music did have a run in the 90s, with Creed selling 20 million albums and DC Talk going Platinum over and over, and their labels were behind them. Do you think things have changed to the point where the labels are hesitant to get behind Christian artists?
I think the labels will get behind whatever will sell. At the top of major labels, the mindset isn’t artistic, it’s very businessy. They pushed DC Talk because they were already doing well at the time. The entire business has changed though. Unless it’s someone like Taylor Swift, labels won’t make major investments into an artist anymore. Artists are carving out smaller niches for themselves now, and there’s money to be made there, though not necessarily mass media exposure.
On a final note, tell me about your label, Unsecret Music.
It’s my own little label. I’ve got an artist signed called FJØRA , who just recently landed two TV placements with her songs. We’ve been putting out pop music with her, but will be focusing on cinematic music this year. It’s a passion project though. Some of the releases are instrumental, others are cinematic, and others are what I’m doing on my own. Breaking FJØRA is my focus and I have other personal projects that I’ll be putting out on there this year.