Every time you read about the Cleveland music scene the same bands and names are constantly gaining high praise, dominating headlines or making coveted “To Watch” lists. Akin to Hollywood juggernauts topping the charts such as Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and Drake, they all had one dream in mind when they began, making it big. How one makes these lists or gains headline notoriety on any level is the big question. Outside of the obvious answer of talent, you need someone behind the curtain to amplify your ability, master your sound and achieve the edge to make an impact. You, my friend, need a kick ass producer.
The aforementioned “cream of the crop” Cleveland bands seem to all have one thing in common, when it comes to their producer selections. More times than not, they work with one of two Cleveland production titans: Jim Stewart of Jim Stewart Recordings and Evan McKeever of Savage Audio. It is not always, or really ever, the case, but today is the day that the people hidden in the shadow gain a small glimpse of the spotlight they have helped so many bands achieve.
We were expecting a battle between these two giants. Analog this, digital that, but to the contrary, as we mentally (and physically) prepared ourselves to witness some serious discourse, we realized we were pretty far off base. While these two absolutely have differences in opinion on the way they prefer to work or create, differences in the their process, and differences in how they got to where they are now, overall they both agreed on this sticking point from McKeever: “there are a million tools to build a house, no matter how it gets built, as long as it does, that’s all that matters.”
McKeever and Stewart started down their parallel paths by discovering their passion for music during their high school days and finding themselves in need of quality production. Both discovered the recording options available to them resulted in spending an exorbitant amount of cash for a product that left a lot to be desired. Stewart was left with the feeling he had been “taken for a ride.” Simultaneous light bulbs went off in their minds and shifted their trajectories towards recording.
Stewart started off with what you might call a more traditional route, attending Record Workshop, studying the fundamentals. He found that for him, school was a great stepping stone, but actually immersing in production is how you really develop your skills. Stewart did exactly that after school and started working at various studios. Meanwhile, McKeever took a more direct means and went straight into the workforce at Jungle Studios. It was there Brian Patrick and his Pops (who was working there at the time) took him under their wings and showed him the proverbial ropes. He then toured the country playing in various rock bands.
First, McKeever was touring with Before Their Eyes and then moved onto Downplay (now Starset) where they were signed by Epic Records. It was with Downplay that McKeever says he saw the record industry fail first hand after a shelfed record ended up being dropped by the label. Experiences like this only further engrained his passion for producing and awakened his desire to run his own studio. Presently, McKeever and Stewart man their respective studios with all the knowledge they picked up or was imparted upon them along the way.
These two powerhouses make being a skilled producer appear to be easy, but it is quite the contrary. A lot of moving pieces have to meld together to create one cohesive sound and body of work. One of the biggest challenges is simply defining the job responsibilities and outlining the details of the role. “The lines get blurred on a what a producer really is,” Stewart said. He continued that one of the most important attributes to possess is, “personality; someone who is easy to be around, decisive, can ‘drive the bus’, has a good perspective and can be an unbiased third party.” Stewart followed up with a laugh, “As an afterthought, doing a good job.”
McKeever agreed that it is hard to truly define the role and stated that “the producer digs into the guts of the song. You’re half-part babysitter and half-part song writer.” He considers himself more of a manager since he helps develop the band’s image, sound, writes songs and handles everything from conception. “I want to invest myself into the band; that’s why I take a hands on approach.” McKeever noted that bands come to him for his ideas, agenda and sound. Part of the role for him is actually shaping the sound and developing the band. “I am willing to do whatever it takes to get bands signed. All my years trying to get there lights the fire under my ass.”
This is one of the points where the two do differ slightly; Stewart makes it a point to not “impart my stuff on a band. Ideally I want the band’s style to come through. I try not to push my sound. I track live, full takes of the band together. I will do whatever is needed after that, but keep in mind what the band had in mind for tone. I’ve done three and a half hour recording sessions for an album and I’ve committed two and a half years. I try to let them carve out their own path,” said Stewart.
However, defining what that role will be with each gig is vital. Both have been burned in the past by not doing just that. Stewart noted that when that happens “you feel like you did this together and then they didn’t value your work at the end of the day. Carving out that role and dictating what you were hired for is key.”
When you are working with different musicians with ranging goals and personalities, it is a struggle to “own the role” and fight for what you know is the right direction. “To be in a band, you have to have an ego. Bands get really into their own specific parts,” Stewart explained. According to McKeever, “That is what makes songs great, though. Everyone’s individual ideas and conflict, the resolution is the best part playing through.” He added that the notion that “sometimes the vocals are the best, sometimes it is the guitar or drums; however, the clash of all the moving parts is where you find the potential for greatness.”
Many times McKeever and Stewart share the same experience with bands that hire them to help them find the best version of their sound only to turn around and fight them on it. When Stewart experiences this, he tries to focus on collaboration and make the best version of the song. McKeever sometimes will send two copies: one their way and one his way. “Sometimes, the Frankenstein is the best version. Options are never bad,” McKeever concluded.
It is hard enough to deal with the inner turmoil that exists within bands; however, with the music industry constantly changing by the minute, it creates an entirely new level of chaos. “There is barely a music industry,” Stewart stated. “The public wants music right away which leads bands to trying to be resourceful on a shoestring budget.” Stewart mentioned that some bands are turning to crowdfunding, which affords them the ability to have the fans do it for them.
Outside of music consumption, bands want changes and they want them fast. They want to just record on their own, send it over and have everything get to where it should be instantaneously. Problem being, if it wasn’t right at the beginning it will never be as good as it could have been if someone had been there to guide them.
Another item they both agreed on? Cleveland music is fantastic. “Bands are really supportive of other bands. Cleveland is like a weird island. If you know about this thing, then you know about it,” said Stewart. “How do you break out of Cleveland? These bands sell out places like House of Blues and can’t get shows outside of Cleveland. You end up seeing the same pamphlet of shows over and over.” “You used to be able to jump on any show in Cleveland because you were a good band; that’s gone now. The Foundry is a great venue and side note, they have good tacos,” McKeever continued, “The lack of success stories in Cleveland starts to pit everyone against one another.” They noted that there are few really good bands from the area that stand out and once they do see a little success, they definitely feel the wrath of other area bands.
Turning Cleveland into a recording hub would be a huge success for the city. The hope is to let bands know they can come here and receive high quality work and follow in the veins of what Matt Squire was able to accomplish in Boston. For Stewart, that would be the goal, having bands ideally come to him here in Cleveland, especially now that he has been in his new studio, Jim Stewart Recordings, for about two months. At the end of the day, Stewart says, “I’m making music full time, so that’s all I can hope for.” McKeever has been in Cleveland for ten years, but eight years of that has been spent on the road touring with various bands. This year, Savage Audio will be moving into its own space and his next move is “to dig my claws into Cleveland. I want to focus on building a scene at home.”
From all the appearances, these two are night and day. McKeever is rock’n’roll to his core, complete with the “don’t fuck with me boots” and leather jacket. Stewart, on the other hand, has a more laid back, even-keeled, yupster (Is that a thing? It is now.) vibe. Stewart primarily records analog, meaning live, while McKeever produces almost everything digitally. Ultimately, I was really hoping for a bitch fest from these two seemingly opposites. In the end, the musically unsung heroes have more in common than anyone could have anticipated. Stewart summed up the battle royale we all expected with, “This hammer or that hammer. Both hammers work.” And as McKeever mentioned, no matter how you achieve, the end result is really the key. “When you can hear the magic and the long hours, you did something, you made a piece of art.”
Who is our Hot Cover Chick?
We know you are all wondering who the angelic beauty gracing our cover is, while she clearly resembles a cover model she is no other than local Cleveland musician and artist Jenna Fournier.
Fournier has been a staple in the Cleveland music scene for just shy of a decade now- that is if you count the solo coffee shop gigs that got her started. As the female linchpin in Nights, formed New Year’s Day in 2010, Fournier has played some of the best live music venues in Cleveland. She cites her favorite venues as The Grog Shop, Beachland Ballroom, and Happy Dog, “I’ve had countless great nights at all those places over the last decade, playing shows and watching shows. They are all dear to me.” If you ask her about what some of those fun nights have included though, she is keeping mum, “We only drink tea and never get into trouble.”
Some of her most memorable shows outside of Cleveland have included solo gigs, previous bands and Nights. “A favorite moment with Nights was actually in a teeny tiny room on tour where I played acoustic for only a few people, and my bandmates all hummed melodies and tapped drums with their hands and feet. It was so intimate and improvisational,” Fournier reminisced. As far as a memorable solo gig, she had the opportunity to play Tokyo, Japan. “It was packed and I was so nervous, but when I started, the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It’s amazing to be given that kind of respect and really allows me to open up completely on stage.”
Fournier is not only a beautiful singer/songwriter but she also is an accomplished artist. She describes her style as, “a little surreal, a little abstract, a little whimsical, and sometimes a little dark.” To her painting and music feel very separate, “I’m the only one who touches that canvas, but music is collaborative. I suppose they might both intend to express something similar though.”
Forced to choose music or art she understandably struggles with the thought but there is a distinct devotion to her art, “Both ebb and flow and weave in and out of front position. I suspect one day I won’t want to haul gear around and sing in front of blasting amps, but I will probably paint until my bones deny me of it.”
You can find Nights’ music at NightsBands.tumblr.com, catch them on their upcoming US spring tour or if you are up for some travel, catch them in July while they takeover Japan.