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“I’m a bit of a psychopath:" Producer BJ Burton on working with Bon Iver, Kanye West and Sylvan Esso

(Image credit: Press)

As a member of several punk and indie rock bands, producer, songwriter and mix engineer BJ Burton began recording bands during his teenage years. More intrigued by a career in production than a life on the road, he went to engineering school and branched into voiceover work while interning at a music studio.

As a member of North Carolina-based indie pop band The Love Language, Burton moved into the producer’s chair for albums Libraries and Ruby Red, propelling him towards a five-time Grammy award-winning vocation.

Despite purchasing a studio in Minneapolis, he currently resides in LA and advocates an experimental, push/pull approach to music-making. The somewhat reclusive Burton has worked extensively with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Sylvan Esso, most notably on respective studio albums 22, A Million and What Now.

His fast-growing reputation would later lead to collaborations with industry titans such as Chance the Rapper, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and Eminem – the latter sparked by songwriting sessions with renowned producer Mike WiLL Made-It.

Did you always have an interest in how music was made from a production viewpoint?

“My parents were really into The Beatles and my grandfather loved bluegrass, but I rebelled. I was into punk and metal – the loudest, craziest shit I could listen to. I was trying to make music myself, so was trying to read as much as I could about my favourite records and had an interest in how producers or engineers like Rick Rubin and Rich Costey were doing it. But this was when you only had AOL or instant messenger, so it was hard to really find out what was really going on.”

What did the word ‘producer’ mean to you? 

“I’m 33 now but it’s only been over the last few years that I’ve realised the definition of what a producer is. My whole thing is about pushing the process forward to get the art as far along as it can be without getting myself too excited. I’m challenging myself or whoever I’m in the room with and I guess that can be really intense for some people, but that’s what makes me a producer.” 

Somewhere along the line the terminology changed and everyone that made music was labeled a ‘producer’?

“Now everyone has a laptop with Logic, Ableton, Pro Tools or FruityLoops, but I consider them musicians not producers. They’re not making records with live musicians in a room and tracking to tape; it’s just a bunch of guys with laptops plugging an aux cable into a console and jamming.

Now everyone has a laptop with Logic, Ableton, Pro Tools or FruityLoops, but I consider them musicians not producers.

"When I’m producing I’m the one pulling and pushing to get the info I need. I think there’s a balance to be had; you have producers like Mark Ronson who will lend you this overall vibe, but that’s a slippery slope because guys like him are very disposable to the people they work with. I’m more hands on and like to get close to everything I do.” 

Do you have to be ahead of the game in terms of the technology you use?

“I’m definitely always up to date with the technology – that’s my advantage. My grandfather worked at IBM so I would go over there and play on these big computers, borrow his guitars and mesh all that into one thing, so technology’s always been on my side.

"Pro Tools is my main thing and I really got into tracking down to tape when I was in indie rock bands where it’s common to track songs to a 16-track reel-to-reel. I’ve also made a couple of records with no computers at all using pure miking techniques and tape cutting because that’s really fun to do and I like to change things up.”

So when did you start getting seriously involved in the technical aspect of recording bands?

“Throughout high school in North Carolina I was in punk bands recording my friends, then I started making money by going into studios and recording other people’s bands. I got asked to go on tour, so I did that for a couple of years with bands like The Love Language and Telekinesis on Merge Records, but it got to a point where I thought that being in a band was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t want to drive around polluting the world and getting drunk every night; there was a higher purpose and I just wanted to make stuff. That’s when I moved out to the mid-west and hunkered down.”

(Image credit: Press)

You went to engineering school?

“I wanted to get certified for Pro Tools version 5, whatever year that was [laughs]. Since then, I’ve stuck with the software and tried to keep myself up to date.

"Right after high school I moved to the coast and got a job in a studio doing voiceover ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement). They’d send me away and I’d set up a studio, recording artists on set, then send it to a producer in LA via ISDN. At the weekends I was interning at a music studio.”

"It got to a point where I thought that being in a band was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t want to drive around polluting the world and getting drunk every night; there was a higher purpose and I just wanted to make stuff."

One of your first productions was the Lonnie Walker track Inside Factories. How did you get that role?

“Lonnie Walker is a band from North Carolina. I was working at a studio in Raleigh, saw them live and brought them in to work with me. I did that with a lot of bands at the time - some of it worked, some of it didn’t.” 

Were you testing your own parameters?

“It was all about making connections. I liked partying and forging relationships with people. I wasn’t interested in what they were doing now, but what they wanted to do. I want to do the unimaginable rather than something that’s arty or set in stone. When ambition’s driving the conversation then it’s something I want to do because we’re both being challenged and don’t know what the fuck we’re doing - if that makes sense?”  

Did you have your own studio at that point?

“I rented a spot with a friend of mine in downtown Raleigh and built a studio from the ground up, which is how I met the whole Merge Records crew. I was also in a band with a couple of members from the Annuals, who were quite popular for a while.

"There was a really nice community in Raleigh. I worked with Nick Sanborn, the bass player in The Love Language, for a couple of tours and he ended up moving there to form Sylvan Esso.”

Your involvement on the Sylvan Esso album was a little different as it was more of an electronic album?

“I was putting out indie rock on those types of labels but I was also making rap beats and doing all types of other stuff. Sylvan Esso’s definitely that middle ground between loud beats and indie-organic sounds, so when Nick decided to do the project he asked me to help. We’ve just wrapped up recording their third album.”

How far does the producer/artist relationship go beyond the studio?

“Having a connection is important. At the end of a day, even if someone’s super-talented at their instrument I can only do so much with that. Today, a lot of music is stale. Pop music’s in a weird place where everything sounds the same and I can’t even comprehend a lot of that.

"I had a guy who works for a record label come to my house saying he’s looking for music for TikTok because that’s the next cool medium. I almost vomited dude, don’t come in here with that! There’s so much of that in LA that it’s really numbing, but there’s good and bad.”

Is production also about helping artists to evolve as people?

“By default, yes, but I never go into a project thinking that because I don’t know how good a person I am. I don’t want to be someone else’s therapist, but at the end of the day we’re trying to be the best we can be at any given time.

"That’s why I have close relationships with everyone I work with. I’m passionate about what I do but don’t get too excited or pat myself on the back – unless it’s really fucking good!”

After 70 years, does pop music need to find a new vocabulary?

“I think there are infinite areas it can go into, but pop music has a lot to do with the platforms it’s presented on and the people who inhabit them. They need to be willing to take a risk and push things that don’t meet an algorithm that says something could or should be popular. People are willing to push the envelope, but will they be allowed on those platforms?

"That said, certain things have become popular without that, like Bon Iver. It might not be pop as we know it, but he got his way without doing the whole algorithm song and dance. That’s why I like working with Justin [Vernon]; he gives me hope that something can be pushed in a certain direction.

"Artists like Billy Eilish are also very important because their character is positive, weird or unique and that weighs more than the music these days.”

With Sylvan Esso’s debut record you didn’t just mix it but mastered it too?

“I just do whatever it takes to get the job done - not by rushing things but by being aggressive in a good way. Sometimes I’ll say, let’s make a decision and not look back on it for now – it’s just music so we can always decide to change it. When it was time to master that album it sounded great so we just kept going. I’ve mastered a lot of albums actually.”

(Image credit: Press)

Some artists are very conscious of the lane their career is in. Can it be hard to convince them to take a new direction?

“I’ve worked with artists like that. I don’t want to name them but there have been albums where the manager’s in the room saying we’ve got to put the vocals in the first 20 seconds otherwise Spotify isn’t going to put it on a playlist. The artist was like, yeah, we need to listen to my manager and I’m like, fuck this, you don’t get it man. 

"Because of that I’m much more wary about the people I work with, but maybe I needed to go through that for a couple of years to be where I am now.”

Do you research artists you haven’t worked with before or is the past best left there?

“Honestly, I won’t study an artist’s past and think about what they can do differently. That doesn’t seem fun to me, it feels like homework that might colour the whole situation.

"Most of the artists I work with end up lying on the studio floor playing me their back catalogue because they want me to hear it so bad, but I just don’t think I can get to know someone that way. I’d rather get to know the person in the present and maintain a trajectory from there.”

Are there exceptions? For instance, bands you’re highly motivated to work with because of their back catalogue?

“Have you heard of the band Low? They’ve never written a bad song. They put out an acoustic album and I had this vision of pushing them to make the most beautiful, distorted, post-apocalyptic record – the sort of thing you’d find 2,000 years ago if you dug the earth up. We made that record and it’s one of the favourite albums I’ve ever made.”

You began working with Bon Iver in 2006 on the album 22, A Million – not as a producer but co-writer and instrumentalist. Was that a step change? 

“I definitely produced it; Justin and I came up with all those sounds from scratch. He was going through a really crazy time and had a big problem with crediting people correctly, but then he overcompensated on his last album by crediting tons of people.

"Basically, Justin, Chris Messina and I travelled around making that album and I’m really proud of it because we were trying to create sounds we’d never heard before.”

What sort of techniques would you use to achieve that? 

“I remember the first sound we made for 22, A Million came from a tape machine I’d brought over from North Carolina to Wisconsin. I hooked it up and there was a kick mic on a kick drum and Justin was testing the mic and it started clicking out my tape machine and making this crazy distortion. I recorded it, ran it through a vocoder and that was the sound of the song Deathbreast.

"That was the first song and we finished it in an hour. When Justin and I lock in we can write a song that quickly.”

I had a guy who works for a record label come to my house saying he’s looking for music for TikTok because that’s the next cool medium. I almost vomited dude, don’t come in here with that.

Your collabs have led you to work with lots of other artists like Eminem and Kanye West…

“Working on the Kanye West album Yeezus was a big deal for me. I think the album is incredible and being in a room with Mike Dean writing a song on a Moog from scratch and watching how he processes drums by cranking the Pultec on the kick and not being scared really inspired me.

"Seeing how Kanye talked about music, songs and speaking in metaphors was another turning point for sure.”

Is Kanye a visionary?

“At one point, yeah, but I don’t think there’s ever a clear vision. When people of that stature speak, they’re talking out their situation and trying to figure stuff out in real-time to get your reaction.

"It’s never, ’this is what I want’ or ‘I know what I want’ – that’s boring. People like that make bad art. I prefer the people who are trying to figure stuff out with other people in the room.

"Certain artists are constantly talking about what’s on their mind, and that’s where collaboration comes in – that’s what makes the unimaginable imaginable.”

You also worked with Eminem on the track Fall in 2018. Were you similarly inspired by him?

“Like I said, I was making rap beats before I knew how to plug in a guitar amp, but I never actually met Eminem.

"I did a session with Mike WiLL Made-It who’s one of my favourite rap producers. We went to a studio in North Hollywood and made 40 beats per day, which was crazy. I took all that stuff home, chopped it up and Mike said, ‘I’ve got Eminem on this’. It happened just like that.

"Justin Vernon sung the hook on the Eminem track, which was an ad lib, but once we knew Eminem was in on it we worked on the hook and just tried to get the vocals sounding right so he could rap over it.”

Who would be your dream artist to work with?

“My dream was DJ Quik and that happened last year. It was like, fuck man, who am I at this point? I think he’s one of the best producers that lived. I was listening to metal and punk and when I heard DJ Quik it was so cool – West Coast party music with Moog synths and funk guitars. I thought, damn, it’s OK to have fun listening to music.”

You shouldn’t meet your heroes! Did you approach that with trepidation?

“I was so nervous. We were shooting the shit, smoking a little bit and he played me a bunch of stuff. Then he said, 'right, plug the hard drive in and play me some stuff'. My hand was shaking and I didn’t know where I was, but as soon as I hit play we started vibing and it was the best.”

Do you have any abiding principles to your production approach?

“I’m a bit of a psychopath. I’ll use a lot of outboard equipment and throw things into a weird box and distort it to learn what’s happening with sound in general.

"I love interesting signal paths and things like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen or what it’s going to sound like, I just deal with it and try to turn it into something to listen to.

"I guess I’m always learning technicalities, like mixing, analogue summing and digital conversion – it’s never ending.”

You built a studio in Minneapolis recently?

“I’m really proud of the studio because I built it up to be really cool. My goal is for it to be an auxiliary studio but it’s still under construction. That’s what made me get out of Minneapolis for a little bit and come to LA. Now I’m renting a really great place here - it’s like a glass house on a hill and my whole studio from Minneapolis has been moved into it.”

What’s the setup comprised of?

“It’s like having a really cool hot rod in your car and made up of tons of pieces depending on how fast I want to go or how comfortable I want to be. I’ve got all my mixing outboard gear here and I’m always changing the mix setup depending on the album I’m working on.

"For songwriting, I bring my Roland TR-8S everywhere. For listening, my ATC and Adams speakers are very important, and for tracking I have a pair of Neve 1066 preamps - the original vintage ones.

"Software-wise, I go all in on Pro Tools and really crack it open. I do a lot crazy processing with hardware but I’ll also do the same kind of routing inside Pro Tools when it comes to sidechaining, compression and gating.” 

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