Max Martin interview
Questions: Peter Robinson
Answers: Max Martin (obviously)
Hello Max. It’s unusual to be having this chat today – usually when a new band comes into view it will be the lead singer who’s put forward for a chat. Yet here you are to tell us all about Carolina Liar. What would you like people to make of this new band?
I hope it’s gonna be the same thing that caught my ear the first time I heard them, which is that it’s all about the songs. You know? Well crafted and well written soulful songs.
And it was Chad, the singer’s own demos that turned you on to the band?
How did you change Chad’s early demos?
Well a lot of people think – because of what I’ve done earlier, and my reputation I guess – that this is something I’ve built from the ground up to what it is now but in this particular case it’s actually the opposite because if you heard the demos that I heard you’d hear the songs as they were. People ask me, ‘how was it?’, but although I’ve co-written on a couple of the songs on this record most of it is not me. My involvement was about not fucking it up – it was all there, I just needed to make it sound a little better.
Do you feel more pressure not to fuck it up when it’s someone else’s song?
I think so. It’s different no matter who you work with, it’s always a different process, but in this particular case there was something… I mean I don’t normally produce other people’s songs I just write myself because I have to, because nobody else will. (Laughs) At least that’s how it started. But this time round it’s a big responsibility because it’s Chad’s stuff and I know how much it means to him.
As a producer how do you know what a song is supposed to sound like? What is there about a song that makes you think, ‘this song should sound organic or electronic or R&B and that is the only possible way this song will reach its potential, or should be allowed to sound’?
Wow. Well, normally, when I write my own stuff it’s kind of easy because it comes with the writing. Especially if you write for other people they have something they want to express so you know what kind of lane you want to be in. That’s when you’re the ‘hired gun’. But with Chad he already had that, so like I said it was up to me to maybe add something here and there or change the structure here and there. But it was all easy.
But if you thought he’d written a song that would have been better suited to Britney, or Kelly Clarkon or whoever, would you have said to him ‘look, I don’t think this song’s good for you, let’s give it to someone else’?
Well with this it was all his thing so I wasn’t thinking like that I suppose. I mean listen, we were hoping he would be – we’re hoping he will be – something a lot of people pay attention to, but if he wanted to [write for other artists] he could totally do it. But having a voice like his it would be a waste, I think.
You’ve got a rock background so you might understand this mentality better than most, but a lot of rock artists might be put off working with ‘Britney producer Max Martin’ because of concerns about how they’d be perceived. Is Chad quite open minded about that?
I guess in his position he didn’t really have a choice! (Laughs) He sent me his stuff when it was all getting done and he didn’t really send it anywhere else so I got him early! Let’s see what happens on the second record…
Do you become quite protective of the artists you’ve worked with – do you prefer them not to work with other producers?
I never believe in shoving stuff down people’s throats. There have been times when people come back, and there have been times when people don’t come back. Music is so personal so I try not to take it personally myself. Sometimes it just doesn’t work – you make one record and it’s great then a second one and it’s not that great. And a third time they don’t wanna come back. Maybe you have a vibe for five minutes when you write the perfect song, maybe you don’t. People are free to do whatever they want, I think.
I interviewed one writer/producers recently and he said that a lot of songwriting is about when the planets align, when the perfect moment comes along. Do you work to that principal or do you have a trick to force the planets into alignment?
Do you mean when I’m writing a song?
Yes. In the sense that some people can sit down in an empty room with no windows with a blank sheet of paper and a piano and make themselves write a hit record, whereas for others inspiration strikes unexpectedly or can’t be controlled.
I think it works in all those ways, actually. I think I’m pretty good at ‘saving up’ inspiration. Especially since I had a kid, so you don’t have time to do it all the time like I used to. Let me put it this way – songwriting and producing is 99% about confidence. To me it is, anyway, When you don’t have confidence you don’t write good stuff. And over the years I’ve begun to feel that, well, I kind of know how to write a song now. So I’m not worried. And once you’re past that you’re at least halfway there. So I never really had the cramps, knock on wood, that I hear people get. They sound horrifying actually.
There was the point between Cheiron and Maratone where you took a break, though…
Well I had a kid. And, well, I didn’t really do good stuff either. It wasn’t that I didn’t do stuff. It just wasn’t really that great – and it didn’t work. But I wasn’t really worried about that. Thinking back I didn’t panic, at all. I don’t know why, it’s just not me [to panic].
People form deep emotional connections with your songs but it sounds like when you’re writing them you’re quite calm, even businesslike?
I know a lot of people think I’m that. A lot of people think I’m old. Well I am kind of old. (Laughs) But the point is that I hear a lot of things about me, because I’ve done the things that I’ve done, like the Britneys and the Backstreets and that’s considered ‘lightweight’ or whatever you want to call it, but people think I’m businessminded. I would say I’m not. I think that the minute you start thinking like that, is the minute the songs suffer. I try to make the songs as good as I can – the way I like it, you know? And I guess my taste sometimes happens to be what other people, particularly radio programmers, like too.
You mentioned the idea of a ‘perfect song’. Which of your own songs do you consider perfect?
Oh… (Long pause) That’s for somebody else to say. You’re asking me which of my children I love the most! That’s hard. I can’t! I can’t… I don’t know. (Another long pause) When I release something, that’s the one I love the most. I might look back on it ten years form now and say ‘well, that kind of sucked’, but at that moment I wrote it I thought it was great and that’s what really matters to me.
Is the Carolina Liar material something that you’ll look back on and love?
Yeah, I’m excited about this. It was just too good to let pass in my life and I had to do something about it, even though I don’t normally just produce music for other people. I felt like I needed to – it needed to come out.
Do you think a few years ago – you said earlier you were old – you would have formed a band with Chad?
Me in the band? (Large laugh) I hear there’s a temptation. I see a lot of producers on MTV lately… (Laughs) That’s what you’re ‘supposed to do’, isn’t it? I feel like I’m done with that part of my life and since I was a singer too I kind of feel he outgunned me. So I don’t think I would make the advance, even if I wanted to.
What do you look for in a singer? Is there some hidden quality you can say Chad has in common with someone like Britney?
Well, as a producer you’re always looking for a special sound – something different. And it’s the same with a singer, if there’s something different you’re halfway there already. If just by the artist opening their mouth singing there’s something there, it makes the job a lot easier. If there’s identity in their voice, I guess. When Amy Winehouse starts singing, you know it’s her and you don’t have to do much.
And that’s something that’s always there in her voice, isn’t it, no matter what sort of state she’s in.
I totally agree. And that’s the power of the artist.
Is she someone you think you could work with?
(Laughs) I don’t think she would ever want to do that. I would love to do something with her but that would be a question for her, rather than me! Who knows?
If she turned up tomorrow and said, ‘Max, I’ve got three hours, record a song with me’, would you have a song you could pull off the shelf?
(Thinks) I would, yes. I’d find it pretty fast.
It’s fascinating, the idea of these songs that songwriters and producers have on their shelves or in the top drawers, just songs waiting for the right artist to one day come along. It makes you quite angry actually. Songs held in captivity for years, even decades. Surely these songs deserve to be liberated?
I know what you’re saying! I don’t have that much stuff lying around to be honest with you, but it’s also interesting how much of it happens by accident, when you’ll play something and the artist will go ‘whoah, what was that one? Let me hear it again?’. I’ve always been bad at that – the ‘knowing’ thing. Knowing when something’s good or right.
Is that why you’ll co-write with people so much, so that they can catch the good bits when you don’t notice them yourself?
No, I just believe in collaboration. I mean I’ve written songs on my own, you know, but I think if the artist has something to bring to the table – someone like Pink, for instance – where the have something to say, it makes your job easier and more special.
When you’re writing or making a song do you write with a specific audience or listener in mind, or do you just try to write totally naturally?
There’s two different things there. There’s writing songs and trying not to think about business and all that sort of stuff, yeah? Cos I think the ‘target market’ and ‘audience’ tends to come with the artist. If I’m doing something with a young pop artist I may not choose to have a brass section in a song, for example. Sometimes you have to think about what the artist already is. But once you start thinking about that stuff too much is when you get – well, when I get – cramped. It’s music, it’s supposed to be fun and inspirational. You have to be inspired. If I did it because it was my ‘job’, and I only did it to make money, I don’t think I’d still be doing it.
The whole industry of making music specifically for children, or making music you intend to be targeted at people you perceive to have a low quality threshold, is one of the main causes of bad pop music, isn’t it.
Yeah. As you know, a lot of the stuff that was once considered rubbish or ‘for kids’ is now considered classic and people get knighted for their involvement in it. Pop music is always about NOW. But only time will tell what songs will survive. That’s what pop culture is supposed to be about. If people were going to be scared about how they’d look in old photographs they’d never buy fashionable clothes – it has to be about the moment. Artists, clothes, music, you have to take the risk and make your mark.
The UK can be a very different and difficult pop market which international labels sometimes find quite confusing – who do you think will buy Carolina Liar music?
Well it sounds kind of lame but I mean my daughter loves it – my daughter is eight – and my mum likes it too. My mum is not eight. I want everyone to like it! It’s hard for me to say, in a way I don’t care about it but I do want people who buy the record to be able to listen to it again and again and again. That’s one of the things we thought about. To make every song special. I don’t think there’s a lot of throwaway stuff on there – it was hard to pick the songs for this record.
What do you hear at the moment, music wise, that excites you?
Um… (Stupendously long pause) I dunno, this is like the second interview I’ve done in about ten years so I’m not prepared! I really like… Uh, what’s the name of that band that everyone likes now? Kings Of Leon. I really like them. You know what’s weird sometimes is when everyone’s watched a movie and loves it, you kind of want to go, ‘I don’t like it’. But then, I had to like it. Everyone likes it and I do too. I admit it.
It’s not always the case but sometimes saying you’re the only person to think something is bad is just a different way of saying you’re wrong. Contrary to belief it’s possible to approach music objectively.
Yes, exactly. You’re right.
Also, Max, to be fair, you’ve made a career out of multi-platinum singles and albums so you can’t really be complaining about music that’s enjoyed by lots of people.
(Guffaws) Yes I know, I know. Let’s hope Amy agrees. Amy Winehouse that is.
So she is on your wishlist?
You know what, to be honest I think she’s better off without me. But I mean, hey, I would love to record a song with her. But I don’t think she needs my whatever-I-do. She’s doing fine by herself.
Is there any music you’d like to recommend to Popjustice readers?
That’s a good question that makes my head go blank. Um…
Some producers and songwriters try to shut themselves off from the outside world so that other songs don’t affect or influence what they’re doing…
Yeah, you know what I don’t really listen to a lot of music. I am what they call a ‘Mr Smith’ kind of thing – where you’re like every other dude. I listen to the radio when I go to work. Right now I have Janis Joplin in my CD player. But my music tastes are pretty cheesy, I think.
Do you think Janis Joplin could have sung ‘…Baby One More Time’?
Well she was dead when I wrote that song.
Yes Max. Yes she was. But if she hadn’t been dead.
(Laughs) I don’t know about that. Seriously? Oh… It would have been awesome, but I’m not sure how it would have sounded.
Well TLC turned it down, didn’t they, because of all the hitting business? Perhaps Janis would have been on their side.
Yes. I think she did alright without that stuff.
Well she died, she didn’t do that well.
But she’s a legend now.
She is Max. A dead legend.
Yes, yes she is.