The Breakdown: Goodboys on how to write the perfect pop hook

In our ongoing video series The Breakdown, we shoot artists and producers in the studio showing us the gear and techniques behind some of their best tracks. This month, we're in the studio with Goodboys, the Grammy-nominated production duo behind some of the biggest pop-house hits of the last few years.

Joshua Grimmett and Ethan Shore, AKA Goodboys, first formed less than five years ago, and almost stumbled into multi-platinum success with Piece Of Your Heart, a hook-laden, deep-house inspired piece of pop co-written with Italian trio Meduza.

The track racked up millions of streams, picked up Grammy nominations and inspired countless imitators with its pitched-down vocals and crossover sound. Follow-up, Lose Control, another collaboration with Meduza and vocalist Becky Hill, scored similar worldwide success. 

This summer sees the duo preparing a hectic lineup of releases and live shows, as well as putting the finishing touches to a new studio in London’s Soho. We grabbed them for a chat in a rare free moment.

How did you get into music making?

Josh: “I’ve been making music for a long time, I was doing a lot of Christian and gospel music growing up. I started making songs with Ethan’s big brother Johann. I used to go round to Ethan’s house, and we’d end up watching Tomorrowland after movies and all these DJ sets.” 

Ethan: “That’s how we realised we had similar taste in music. Because Josh was doing more gospel stuff I just assumed he wouldn’t be up for starting a production, dance music duo. But then he was like, ‘I’m really into that kind of thing, I’d love to make it’. We basically just booked in a few sessions to try making stuff. At first it was mostly, like, the worst stuff you’ve ever heard [laughs].”

J: “We made a song called House Is Life, with Ethan talking in a German accent over the top of it.”

How long ago was this?

E: “That was probably four or five years ago.”

J: “We were both living in London.”

E: “We were just working in full-time jobs, trying to work out what we wanted to do. Trying to make music on the side.”

J: “I don’t think either of us knew, at all, what we were doing. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but somebody gave me a cracked version of Logic and loads of plugins…”

E: “We’re clean now though!”

J: “We were just trying to figure out, basically through YouTube, how all that stuff worked.”

In terms of musical skills, what instruments do you both have a background in?

J: “I was singing and playing the odd bit of guitar and piano.”

E: “I was playing piano and drums. Josh was actually writing lyrics and melodies. When we linked up, it was more than just meeting on a production level. One thing I quickly noticed was that we were able to build up a proper song bank. Some DJs have to turn to sessions or samples to find toplines to work with, but we realised that between us we had this ability to come up with songs rather than search for hooks and toplines. That was super exciting at the time; although we could work with other people – and we still love doing that – it meant we can write things ourselves.”

At what point did things start to click?

J: “I’d thought that I’d try my hand at doing some pop writing things. We’ve got a mutual friend called Conor Blake, and I did a session with him and a guy called Nathan Cross – we were writing some really cheesy pop songs. Nathan sent them to this Italian trio who were called SDJM at the time. They were making things like covers of the Backstreet Boys with Conor Maynard on the vocals, and other cheesy pop songs. 

“They came across to London to finish off one of the songs we sent. We had two days in the studio, at Warner, which was my first time in a big studio. It was Conor’s first time too. We finished the song on the first day, so on the second day, for a bit of fun, we thought we’d try making a dark house track – it was Piece Of Your Heart

“At the end of the week, the three Italians, who were SDJM at the time, played all of the songs for their label A&R. They told them ,‘oh we just made this thing for fun too,’ and played them Piece Of Your Heart. The A&R was just like, ‘OK, we’re cancelling your project and we’re doing this new thing. You’re now called Meduza, and we’re putting that song out.’ At that point I’d just demoed the song, as a songwriter. Then I came and played it to Ethan. To see what he thought of it.”

E: “You played me a load of other ones first, and they were all great, but then you played Piece Of Your Heart and I was like, ‘what even is this?’. It sounded like that underground deep house scene, but it was so pop. Like a pop version of that melodic sound. I’d never really heard anything like it. I said, ‘we need to work on this with these guys and ask if they’ll put our random project – which wasn’t even a real project yet – on the song’.

It kind of petered along, then suddenly it just peaked overnight. It was really random and surreal

“That was a massive leap, because I don’t think we thought they would do it, but because they wanted to keep Josh’s they agreed to work with us on it. And that’s when we came up with the name Goodboys. We just needed a name. We didn’t think the song was going to be as big as it was, so we just randomly chose something. If we’d known things would get this big we probably would have spent more time thinking about it [laughs].”

J: “I remember sitting in an Uber with Ethan and his brother Johann and being like, ‘imagine if this song gets a million streams…’.”

E: “We still had jobs, so we were just thinking that if we could DJ at the weekends and make a couple of hundred quid that would be great.”

J: “And now it’s like, that particular song is Grammy-nominated and I don’t even know how many times platinum in terms of streams.”

How quickly did that track take off?

E: “Not very, it was a pretty slow burner. It came out in January 2019, I think. It kind of petered along, then it started getting added to some big playlists and radio picked it up. Then suddenly it just peaked overnight. It was really random and surreal.”

J: “It was a mix of some amazing early adopter DJs – like MistaJam, who really championed it when he was back at Radio 1 – and then Shazam too. I think the reason playlists and all that got really excited was because the Shazam stats were out of this world.

“Within a really quick period we went from being some mates having a joke around to people asking us, ‘so what’s your vision for the project?’.”

E: “We were suddenly getting put into serious rooms where everyone is really talented and you know them all from, like, the music industry.”

Did offers to collaborate come in pretty quickly?

E: “Yeah, I’d say so. I think it’s a compliment, because a lot of people quickly started pitching their vocals down and doing the underground deep house thing to get on the radio, which was strange. A lot of people then wanted us to either work on a track or for Josh to sing a track that they had. It opened up a lot of doors.”

J: “Actually the first door that it opened was with Meduza again, because they wanted to work on the follow-up single. We were in the studio with, literally, if you were to make a who’s who list of songwriters, that’s who we were in the studio with. It was like that every day for months. We were taking time off work for it. We wrote so many songs, but eventually we came up with Lose Control, which has done – thank goodness – just as well, if not better than Piece Of Your Heart.”

Did you learn quite a bit from those collaborative sessions?

E: “You learn a lot about people’s personalities. How to navigate rooms and be yourself while being aware that someone in the room is really talented. You might have ideas as well, but for the most part if you’re producing a track and you want to get the most out of someone, you want them to be able to do their thing. If somebody is in the room who’s great, you kind of have to champion them and ‘produce’ them to get the best out of them.”

J: “I think it’s also just about knowing when an idea is a good one. For example, we did this tune with Imanbek called Goodbye. Me and Ethan came up with the idea while we were having breakfast in LA – which sounds like a flex but it just happens to be where it happened. 

To be honest though, even though we’ve got all the new gear, we still use an SM7 microphone

“We came up with this hook, and probably took it into three or four sessions with different people but couldn’t get it to work. It was like the idea was better than the execution. Part of the challenge is being able to be protective of those good ideas until you can fully realise them. People will often put a good idea on the shelf and abandon it just because they can’t get the production right, or whatever. But it’s worth sticking with it and reworking those ideas until you get them right.”

Tell us about the new studio…

J: “It’s a mix of analogue and digital.”

E: “We got quite heavily into outboard gear during lockdown! Finally we can properly afford that stuff [laughs].”

J: “We’ve got a Juno-6 in there, a Sub 37, one of Dave Smith’s newer synths. I’ve got a couple of 500 series things too – a 1073 preamp, a Neve EQ, an API compressor. To be honest though, even though we’ve got all the new gear, we still use an SM7 microphone.”

E: “Given all the vocals we record we should really be the guys with all the great microphones, but there’s something quite nice about us just sitting in a room together and Josh recording his vocals simply like that.”

Is it a case of, ‘if it ain’t broke…’?

J: “Exactly. I’ve looked at a Manley or a U87, but I think, because we’ve created a vocal chain that manages to replace the top end you lose from recording with an SM7B, we’d have to completely relook at our in-the-box vocal chain if we were using one of those other mics. We will do at some point, but we just haven’t yet.”

E: “We’ve got some new Focal speakers in the studio too. Plus a Nord for general use.”

J: “Oh, and a Rhodes too. Actually we’ve got two Rhodes – both classic models. I’ve got one at home and we have one in the studio.” 

Goodboys on the track they wish they'd produced

Goodboys chose Faithless' techno-trance classic Insomnia as the one track from musical history they wish they'd produced. Describing the song as "iconic", they praised the song's spoken word passages and recalled meeting two members of Faithless, who gave them an interesting anecdote surrounding the song's unforgettable synth hook. 

Goodboys latest release, Salvation, is out now. 

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