This exclusive interview with Ross Robinson marks the debut of guest columnist Emily Lazar. In addition to being a BITPOM member and a damn good interviewer, Emily is a model and the vocalist of September Mourning. She describes herself as “stage trasher, attention getter, model, writer… I create.” Does she have your attention now? In addition to BITPOM, you can check her out at www.lovebitesandrazorblades.com.
Ross Robinson used to fetch Slurpees at a recording studio in California with lightning speed. As a teenager, he’d run down two flights of stairs, jump into his car, and break all the traffic laws going to and from the store for this miniscule task. In his gut, he knew that a producer was behind the great albums being made there, and that it was a role he would one day take.
Robinson consistently defines and redefines genres of music with the albums he creates. From the nu-metal sound of Korn’s first album in 1994 to the post-hardcore sound he honed with At The Drive-In and Glassjaw and the beginnings of the rap-metal movement with Limp Bizkit, Robinson’s trademark techniques of loud, dynamic, meaty recordings take their listener on a journey, uncovering angels and demons along the way. I caught up with him on Christmas Day, and speaking to him was the best Christmas gift I could have gotten.
M LaZar: What was your first memory of inspiration through music?
Ross Robinson: From my mom and her side of the family. She played the ukulele and sang – not country, but she had this really unique and cool vibe that, as a child, made me happy. Our lives were always centered around music. When my sister and I were kids, we’d put on Zeppelin IV and sneak wine from the liquor cabinet and listen to “Black Dog” as this warm liquid filled our stomachs. I remember the driving pulse of that record. I remember how it made me feel. My grandparents had all this 70’s music [like] ZZ Top and the Eagles.
ML: Before you began producing, you were a guitarist in a thrash band, correct?
RR: I was in a band called Detente and we used to go to a studio to record… [That] studio is where I basically learned what not to do. The engineer used to steal outboard gear from the studio we worked out of and rent it back to them the next day. He literally founded a rental company out of this act of basic petty theft. But you know, back then the bigger bands like Motley Crue had these big budgets to do records from the majors, so people took advantage.
ML: And now well, getting a big budget out of a label is almost like, “good luck with that one”, huh?
RR: Yeah, I just need enough to survive. The deeper I give and the more selfless I become, artistically it turns into something amazing. The best records I’ve done were not a reflection of their budgets; they were done because my career depended on it.
ML: It seems like a lot of bands hustle for that first and second record and then they hit it and get lazy.
RR: Yes, it seems like the art somehow gets lost within it all. I like to think of Machine Head with their latest record though. How they were so into the art of the music on the Blackening. We went into it to destroy and we did.
ML: Your first real gig as a producer was the 1991 Fear Factory album, Concrete. What were the things you learned from your early production work?
RR: With Fear Factory, I actually wanted to be in the band. The guys and I were friends so I asked and they said ‘no,’ but asked me to produce the demo. That’s kind of the rule for me though; I would do a band that I would wanna be in. They ended up rerecording everything we put together, and I learned from that mistake to always get the band to sign something.
[A year and a half later] I saw an ad in the paper for Creep, formally LAPD, and my band at the time had played with LAPD. So I went down there to check them out at the show. There were maybe 5 people in the audience, but I really liked that guitar player and they had some sort of beat about them. I told my friend about it and took him over to see if he would invest money into the band and the singer slapped the bass player in the face. He hit him really hard, and the bassist is trying to hold back tears. Drama all the way, and well, that turned into Korn. Two and a half years, a couple of demos, a different singer and guitar player later, that was Korn. The process of recording them was just crazy, but seeing the vision of not what was in front of me but what was beyond that is what I do. It all starts with the beat though. That’s why I’m so hard on drummers.
ML: I’ve heard stories about the lengths in which you’ll go to get a performance out of a singer.
RR: I tell them if you really wanna sing about this you got to feel it and know it in front of us all. You aren’t gonna run away. There’s been blood and things flying through the air. I mean when I heard that Daryl (Glassjaw) almost died before he came to the studio to record, I was so excited. Here was this kid who had this intensity, who faced death, and I was going to get that out of him, get deeper than I have ever gone.
ML: [Glassjaw’s] Everything You Ever Wanted to know About Silence is one of my favorites. His voice on that album is just ridiculous.
RR: Yeah, every time that pays off. Definitely. The amazing thing about these records is how the band is able to follow the pulse and rhythm of their singer and how you can hear every word. Everyone is supporting and following that pulse. It’s so important.
ML: The industry has made so many changes. Declines in record sales and loss of production budgets have made room for a new business structure to be introduced. How have you changed the way you budget your production in these times?
RR: I record everything at home. I created a full studio here. For the Norma Jean record, we wrote, recorded, rehearsed, and did everything here at my place. Normally that would be an extra 30 grand in pre-production. I save that. The band will stay in my house, which also saves a huge expense. What I plan on doing is making records with bands I really really love, front the studio time, bring them here and partner with a PR company to get them going. Give them a piece of whatever and be creative with the revenue source to get them going.
ML: Speaking of bands you love, tell me a little about how it was making the Cure record.
RR: I had a full on spiritual mandate to do that record, because at the darkest, most heart-wrenching moments of my life, I had the Cure going. That record took so long to make. I mean I went into a cave for two and a half years to make it. It was so intense and they would change everything so much. It took so long and I was so burnt that when I was done with it finally and came up for air, a whole new generation of musicians had slipped in. All of the sudden I had to get current, so I won’t do anything like that again. It was definitely something I’m proud of doing though. It is way too important for me to stay current though, above all else. Music changes too fast.
ML: I noticed that on the latest Norma Jean album, The Antimother. Cory sings. He hasn’t on previous records. Was it your idea to use his vocals on the album to bring a different color to it?
RR: It came from that craving, that need to be expressed. Cory heard it and I heard it. With this record, their drummer had changed and so had the dynamic of the band. As I’ve said before, I really push the drummers. It was very important for Chris to rise above what he thought he could do. Everything that band had ever worked for or toured for, I wanted them to surpass that. I made sure in this record that the band was exposed, that their color came out.
ML: Another thing that I like about your production is that when you record vocals, the nuances in the voice are exposed. The takes that are a little bit cracked, off or broken are recorded and used in a way that makes the song work on an emotional level.
RR: I’ve done recordings where the singers are so whiny about everything being so perfect. I try to sneak in things whenever and wherever I can to make that feeling come out when I comp the vocals together. It’s the breath in between the words that is so important even.