A band is only ever as good as the albums they make, and success often relies on working with the right producer.
This has never been truer for Californian pop-punkers Blink-182. Their puerile, hit-packed albums Enema Of The State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, and 2003’s more experimental self-titled album, were elevated by punk production messiah Jerry Finn, securing the band cult status in the process.
Following Finn’s tragic death in 2008, and unbalanced by in-fighting and then a lengthy hiatus, Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker and Tom Delonge struggled to hit their stride on 2011’s self-produced Neighbourhoods.
The future looked bleak, but last week Blink-182’s fortunes shifted significantly when their phenomenal comeback album, California, hit number one in the UK and US.
So what changed? How did Blink reclaim their mojo? The band – with Alkaline Trio singer/guitarist Matt Skiba in and Tom Delonge out – set their sights on making their finest album since their early-noughties purple patch, and needed a producer of considerable calibre to help them complete their mission. Cue John Feldmann.
Not only had members of Blink toured with Feldmann and his ska punk band Goldfinger in decades past, they were well aware of his golden touch, distinctive sound and snowballing success with other bands in the genre.
John’s production and writing contributions have so far helped generate 34 million album sales for artists as wide ranging as All Time Low, Good Charlotte, The Used, Black Veil Brides, Ashlee Simpson and 5 Seconds Of Summer.
John was the ideal choice to helm Blink-182’s 2016 revival, but it wasn’t a straightforward journey to the studio. MusicRadar spoke with John about his love of The Beatles and Jerry Finn, the making of California and the winding path that led him to Blink-182.
On producing California...
Blink-182 must have had a strong idea of what they wanted to achieve before they went into the studio with you?
“Jerry Finn was one of my mentors. Whenever I could corner him at a party, I harassed him about how he gets guitar sounds and how he gets his mixes to sound so punchy. The guys in Blink didn’t know that stuff happened, but they knew the sound of my records was influenced by the records Jerry made.
"One of [Blink’s] long-standing members [Tom DeLonge] left the band and there was a bunch of question marks for them as far as what their career looked like. They tried doing stuff on their own and it was coming out a bit like patchwork.
"There wasn’t really a thread sonically throughout the songs they’d written. Had all that stuff come together, I wouldn’t have been considered [to produce California].
“Like Steve Jobs says, you can only see where you’re at in your life by connecting the dots backwards. No-one has a crystal ball to see the future, but everything that’s happened in my life has led to me having the privilege of producing Blink.
"This project came to me because I was ready to do it, because of all the experience I’ve had being in a band and helping other bands get signed and making their records.”
Was it a challenge to capture Blink’s essence, particularly with Matt Skiba now in the fold?
“That’s the biggest challenge I had: not making it sound like an Alkaline Trio record and not making it sound like a Blink covers record.
"Basically, trying to make Matt be who he is, capture his essence as the guy who grew up in Chicago and had a different upbringing to anyone else in the band, but not trying to force him into the role of Tom.”
What gear shaped the sound of California?
“To me, the essential Blink sounds are the band’s instruments. Travis has a total custom kit that’s been built from scratch using some vintage parts and some modern parts that him and his tech Daniel built from the ground up. Besides being the best drummer that’s ever lived, his passion for the instrument is key to his sound.
“All of Mark’s basses are custom-built Fender’s made to his specifications. Jerry Finn actually suggested re-routing Mark’s pickups to flip them because of the way Mark plays – he has this really interesting downstroke.
"I haven’t seen anyone play that way; that sound where you almost hear the roundness of the strings, you hear that grinding sound of the pick hitting the strings, it’s because the bass has been re-wired that way. Skiba used custom Jazzmasters and Jaguars.”
What about vocal microphones?
“In the end we used a Telefunken 251 because unlike Tom and Mark, Matt and Mark’s vocals are in a similar register, this kind of baritone tenor. We used the Telefunken 251 for both vocals. We tried eight or nine different vintage mics.
"Mark has a vintage C12 that he brought in. That ended up being too bright on his voice. The Telefunkin felt warm but you could still hear all the sibilance on the top end and you can hear everything they’re saying.”
Which tracks stand out for you?
“I love Built This Pool. Mark already had that song written, but knowing they were willing to embrace the humour that all Blink fans love so much – and that kinda went missing for a little while – I knew that we were going to be able to make the record that Blink fans wanted.
“Los Angeles was a really important song for me. There’s so much synergy that’s happened between [me and Blink]. I was born in San Diego and lived there almost half my life. Mark spent most of his time in San Diego.
"For all intents and purposes, Blink are a San Diego-based band, and now we’re all living in Los Angeles. It’s the heaviest song on the album and it was great to be able to capture this heartfelt song about the city we love and embrace as home.
"It also showcases Skiba’s voice, that rasp and grit when he sings high. When he sings that chorus it gives me goosebumps. That was the first song we mixed and when I heard the mix I was in my car. I took a picture of goosebumps on my arm and sent it to Mark and was like, ‘Dude, we’ve made it man.’”
John Feldmann's music and production influences
Queen, Queen II
“Queen II was the first album I bought. My parents were devout Catholics and we weren’t allowed to listen to rock music. I learned how to play my version of the song Nevermore on piano. I was real young, must have been 12.
"To listen to an album and to love it so much where you want to learn how to play it, that was the first time I knew there was something I could connect with outside of my friends, outside of school, outside of my parents, outside of church.”
Social Distortion, Mommy’s Little Monster
“I think Never Mind The Bollocks [Here’s The Sex Pistols] was the first punk album I had, but Mommy’s Little Monster was the first one where I knew I could do this [music]. There was only three or four chords! I saw Social Distortion play a bunch when I was in high school.
"Even now, Mike Ness [Social Distortion singer/guitarist] is the coolest dude that’s ever lived. Watching him as a kid and listening to that record, where he’s talking about girls running away at 15 and shooting crystal meth, he really spoke the truth to me about what life was really like to be a teenager living in California. As much as I loved Never Mind The Bollocks, I didn’t know what the dole was or what the Tube was – I grew up in the Bay Area.”
The Beatles, The Beatles (The White Album)
“Revolver is probably my favourite Beatles album, but [I’ll choose] The White Album just for the sheer reason that they had a discussion and decided they were going to put Helter Skelter, arguably the heaviest song ever made at that time, next to Blackbird, one of the most beautiful songs ever written. To go from this acoustic ballad to the heaviest song ever written… Wow!”
John Feldmann's production career highlights
The Used, The Used
“There were a hundred moments in my life where I’m like, ‘Alright, I’ll have to go back to selling shoes’.
"When my metal band the Electric Love Hogs got dropped, I had to go back to selling shoes – it was fucking terrible. Goldfinger had happened and I’d signed Mest and Showoff, then I got into consultancy work with a record company. [The label] were going to drop me because two artists I’d signed didn’t break.
"Then I found The Used. They came to a show in Salt Lake City and the universe was just ready for me. If that first Used record hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be talking to you, Blink wouldn’t have come to me.
"That Used record put me on the map as a producer. I had a part in it, but the band had a much bigger part in it. They wrote the music. That album for me is the most important because if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have a career as a producer.”
5 Seconds Of Summer, 5 Seconds Of Summer
“I was at a point where bands like My Chemical Romance and The Used were all you heard on alternative radio, then that era morphed into Mumford & Sons and folky music became alternative.
"The sound I helped create wasn’t really as important. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do now? I’ve got to reinvent myself, yet again.’
"Then 5 Seconds Of Summer came along and I just clicked with those kids. We had a bond. I was able to meet those guys when they were figuring it all out. I helped define what their sound was going to be; helped them grow as songwriters and helped them get the confidence to tour.
"We had this great relationship. They trusted me to co-write with them and we wrote a lot of great songs together.”
“It’s hard to answer these questions without thinking I’m going to alienate my friends and family that are in bands and that I’ve made records with! When I listen to the Foxy Shazam record I did think, ‘Man, we made a timeless piece of art.’
"Same with the City Sleeps album that no-one ever heard – that could be one of the best sounding-records I’ve ever made. I also want to say Blink’s California, All Time Low’s Future Hearts and Black Veil Brides’ Wretched and Divine. I’m so proud of that one.
"Stylistically, because Queen was the first band I sunk my teeth into, there’s one song that sounds like Vaudeville, another song that’s super heavy metal and another that’s a crazy, classical opus. Because [Queen] were such a big influence on me, I can go from working on Hilary Duff to Black Veil Brides. I can make both those records.”