If there’s anyone who can give advice on making it into the music business, it’s Eyal Levi. Known by many as the creative mastermind of Daath, Levi has also made a name for himself as part of the Audiohammer Studios family. He’s been behind the mixing board for the past decade’s best albums in extreme music. Hell, the past year alone he helped produce and/or mix new music from The Black Dahlia Murder, Reflections, DevilDriver and Battlecross (just to name a few). So it’s not too surprising that Full Sail University in Sanford, FL asked him to speak to students about the realities of the industry last month.
Recently, Levi took a moment to talk with us. During our chat, Levi spoke about working with musicians in a recording atmosphere, embracing social media, the downfall of the industry, his future musical plans with Keith Merrow (as well as a top-secret writing gig) and Daath’s lack of future plans.
Last month, you held a seminar at Full Sail University. What was that experience like?
It was a lot like playing a gig. It was basically you’re on and have to keep these people interested. I enjoyed it. There was nothing weird about it whatsoever. It felt actually completely natural and it seemed like a good thing to be doing because from the looks on these peoples’ faces, it seemed like the info I was giving them was a) surprising, and b) appreciated. So it’s something I would do again. I don’t think that these schools really go too far into reality, as far as what people can expect after school. There’s basically a safety net, which is: you can redo assignments and what’s the worst that could happen? You drop out, then what? I mean, nothing that can happen to you in school is really all that bad at the end of the day, whereas in real life, you don’t get too many chances. If you fuck it up, you may never get the chance to repair whatever it is. So I think it was kind of helpful for these people to get a little bit of that reality shoved down their throats.
Well speaking of the reality of the business, what would you say is the biggest misunderstanding you think musicians have about the recording studio or about recording in general?
Professional or unprofessional musicians? Because it’s two totally different worlds.
How about both?
Well, the non-pro guys tend to have absolutely zero concept of what it means to actually be prepared. That’s just what I’ve noticed. And I can’t fault them for it because how would they know? They’ve never been through it. So there’s only so good that they can get without having been through the experience a few times. Their misconception is more along the lines of what the standards really are, or where they’re really at. I call it more delusion than misconception. A lot of the times, and this is more often than not, the unprofessionals, meaning the amateurs, I’ll get guys that think that they’re one thing, and the reality is that they’re far below that. And it usually hits them pretty hard.
With the pro-bands, it’s a whole different thing because they’ve been through it a few times. And with them, a lot of the time, I have to convince them that they’re actually better than they think they are. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would think. The pro-bands who have been through it, they know just how good they aren’t because they’ve toured with bands that are better than them, because there’s always a better band out there, there’s always a better guitarist, there’s always somebody better, and you’re a pro-band, you’ve been schooled in the studio a few times. So, unless you’re just a total cockhead, which is pretty rare, most of the pro-bands are actually way too humble and the trick is to get them to feel more confident about things.
So how then do you go about trying to make them feel confident?
Usually, once you get a cool tone rockin’ and things are going great, their confidence kicks back in. They are pro after all. They got to that level because they are good, so all it takes is the playback sounding awesome and then we’re good, generally speaking. I’m just talking about misconceptions coming into the studio. Like I said, the main misconceptions are peoples’ own level. It’s really hard for people to gauge where they’re at.
Going back to the seminar in general, what do you hope that the students in the audience took away from it?
I hope that they took that they can’t coast at all in music and that they can’t expect any handouts, whatsoever. But while maintaining a ridiculous work ethic, they need to remain cool, and that is very, very tough to do because it is very intensely focused on achieving something and not taking no for an answer you can become over intense with people, so it’s a tough balance to achieve. I hope they understood that it doesn’t matter how hard it is, they need to achieve that balance because if no one likes them, no one is going to hire them. And the other thing I hope that they took from it was the understanding that if they aren’t making money for anybody, they’re not going to be employed by anybody in any capacity. Whether that means as an independent contractor (aka a band on a record label) or a producer or whether that means an employee of a management firm or whatever, if they’re not bringing in the dough, they’re not going to have a gig. It doesn’t matter. It’s amazing in the music industry how many exceptions people will make for total jackasses if they’re making money for people. So I just hope that they understood that the more money they make for people, the longer their career will be.
It is sad a little bit to hear that that’s still a driving force, but it’s a reality.
Well, I mean, it is what it is. You can’t do this long term without bringing in money. I mean, you have to pay for your house somehow. Personally, I’d rather pay for my life from music than from other things. I think it would be a way bigger bummer if I had to have a job in order to do music as a hobby because then I’d have to be working 40+ hours a week on one thing in order to do the thing I really want to do. I would rather figure out how to bring in money from the thing I really want to do and not ever have to enter the “real world.” But in order to do that, you have to keep a financial perspective on things. That doesn’t mean you have to sell out and play music you hate and get involved in shitty deals and rip people off, it doesn’t mean that at all. It just means you need to approach the things you want to do with a business sense and find the angles on how you can profit from your endeavors.
You recently launched a Tumblr page, allowing fans to interact with you and ask any questions they want about the industry, music or just business in general. What inspired you to do this?
Well, I was following Sergeant D’s tumblr, and I thought it was a great idea, that was the first thing. The second thing was getting hit up nonstop all over the place. Whether on my cell, or people would find me on Facebook, or email, just a nonstop flood of questions. And lots of the questions would repeat, like I’d get asked how do you re-amp a guitar, for instance, 300 times. Well I would probably answer it 15 times via tumblr, and people know that’s the place to find the info because other people who are asking that or looking at me for answers will read the tumblr see their questions answered. So I saw it as a way to minimize noise in my life and also help more people out. It’s a win-win solution for everybody.
It seems to be working so far and accomplishing that!
Yes! It’s working out great. I didn’t think it was going to last this long, I was hoping it would but I didn’t think that it was going to keep on growing, but it is. So that’s good stuff.
Given your experience of the tumblr page, how important of a role would you say social media has become in the music business, at least in regards to fan interaction? Is it for the better or worse?
I think that it is a bummer that you can’t expect to become a millionaire from playing guitar like you could maybe 20 years ago. You can’t have the same goals, it’s just not smart. Then again, 20 years ago, it was still about as rare as winning the lottery. So I feel like while it is true that sales are dropping, I don’t need to be one more person talking about how things have changed. I mean while it’s true that people don’t make as much money as they used to, it’s not like that many people made that much money in the old days anyway. It was still rare as hell. So I don’t know why all of these people are complaining, it’s not like they would have been huge anyways. More than likely, they have more of a shot at something in a career now than they would have back then. There’s no barrier to entry now. So people should stop whining. If anything, I’ve seen social media do nothing but help if it gets used correctly. It has helped me tremendously since I started taking it seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of static on there, which can be harmful, but it’s the same thing as having radio and nothing good on. People eventually find a way to find what they’re looking for. I don’t see the negative. If some people want to make a point about CD sales diminishing, you can say “Well at some point cassette sales diminished and at some point vinyl sales diminished!” That’s what happens, the model T got replaced. It’s the natural order of things. It’s not a big deal.
Would you argue that maybe people are a little more frantic about it because while, yes, the cassette decreased, we quickly adapted to CD. Do you think the adaptation is a little bit slower this time around?
Well the problem is that while there was a solution right away when the CD came around, this time around the solution wasn’t embraced fast enough. So the public figured it out before the industry did. The industry should have figured this out back in the year 2000, the way Napster did, but instead held on to the old ways and fought it tooth and nail. And it’s kind of like trying to stand up to a tsunami. It’s not going to happen! They tried to fight the future. You cannot fight the future. And the public adapted and figured out their own ways to use technology to get music. You snooze you lose. The industry lost. I think they waited a little bit too long. And then you totaled out with things like Guitar Center being huge and existing, and social media being huge. And then no wonder you have market saturation the way you do. It totally makes sense. No barrier to entry plus unlimited outlets equals market saturation.
I want to segueway towards your own credits in production. You’ve worked with so many bands on arguably their best pieces of work. What are the five top albums you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?
That’s hard. I think probably Everblack by The Black Dahlia Murder, probably [Levi / Werstler’s] Avalanche of Worms, and Daath’s self-titled record. I’m pretty proud of The Contortionist’s Intrinsic just because it was really, really different than the other bands in their genre. I thought it was going to be completely hated because we used a pretty natural drum sound and went for basically for a 180 degree polar opposite of what is popular in that style. And it turned out to be really well received, so that one surprised the hell out of me. Then I’d say the Demon Hunter record that I [mixed] with Jason Sucof [2012’s True Defiance] because it was the first time that he really started to trust me enough to make moves mixing and that record has some great songs on it. It’s not exactly what I would listen to, but just the fact that it was one of the first records I could do my thing on was pretty cool.
You mentioned the natural drum sound with The Contortionist, and I also know you’ve been hosting web seminars on digital drumming. Would you say that drumming is an important part of the recording process or one that you really view of importance?
Do you mean as opposed to programming drums?
Just even the drumming process in general, would you say that you really put a lot of focus on the recording of drums? More so than maybe even the other parts of the album?
Well, it’s the part that can make or break everything else. If you have weak drums, nothing else is going to sound good. If you have strong drums, other things that don’t sound that great will still feel alright. So you basically have the make it or break it element of the album right there along with the vocals. And sorry to guitar players, I mean, I’m a guitar player, too so nobody can whine to me about it, but I just don’t think it’s as important as the drums. And they basically set the tone for the entire record. So, yeah, it’s pretty important stuff.
I ask just because I remember hearing how Rick Rubin would put a lot of focus on the drums during his sessions as well. He always seemed to be a little bit more interested in the drummer. So it’s interesting to hear you express similar love for drums as well. Who would you say that you looked up to in regards to production?
That’s a great question because I don’t know. I basically look up to almost everyone in production that doesn’t suck. I know that sounds like a simpleton answer, but it’s really not. Any time I meet somebody that I think is pretty decent at recording, whether they’re on a national level or not, I start picking their brains and try to get what I can out of them and see what I can learn and what tricks I can pick up. So basically I look up to anyone in production that can do something I can’t do or can do something better than I can do. I don’t really idolize anybody; I think everybody has something to teach.
Do you recall a recent interaction that you’ve had with a fellow recorder?
Yeah, Jay Ruston, who a super nice guy and an absolutely unbelievable producer/mixer. He’s done like Stone Sour and Steel Panther and all kinds of stuff. His credits are pretty crazy. He was teaching me some stuff about getting super fat guitar tones, and that was pretty mind blowing. Mind blowing to me how simple it is and how much I was overlooking. A lot of the time, lots of these recording secrets will be something small that you didn’t realize. You just didn’t realize you weren’t thinking about it that way. Then you can never go back to doing it the other way. So, he kind of enlightened me a little bit. That was pretty cool.
If you could name one band that you could produce/work in the studio with, which band would it be and how would you direct/work with them in the studio?
Do they have to be alive?
Let’s do both!
Alright. I would try to work on a Beatles record. What would I do with them? I have no idea. What would you do? [laughs]
I would say “Oh my god, I’m in the same room as The Beatles!”
Yeah, exactly! I would just try to gauge where they’re at, and go from there. It’s really tough to say what you would do with a band until you hear the material. And then even when you hear the material, it’s tough to really know what you would do until you hear the players. Only then can you really know. But even then, there’s another layer to it which is once you hear the material and players, then you need to get to know the players. What you would do depends on their personality some and the strength of their ego. If they can handle criticism, well you can go one way about it. If they just can’t and they’re such a fragile little flower, well then you have to go about things in a whole other way. So it’s really hard to say; I couldn’t really answer that without being there. In a general sense, I would just try to make The White Album and Abbey Road over and over and over and over and over again.
Those are really two albums that push recording in a new, bigger direction.
They basically pushed and invented every single style of rock n’ roll and metal. There’s almost no element of modern rock that they didn’t touch on at some point. So I would just try to get in on that! I’d be happy to make them coffee or clean their toilets. I’d just be happy to be involved with those guys.
Now what about a band that is still around today?
Muse would be amazing to work with. They’re the perfect combination of song writing, composition, arrangement, technical ability and then just over the top bombast. Those 5 elements squeezed together into a very accessible format, I love it. I would love to work on one of their records. What would I do with them? I would just try to do Absolution meets the future, basically.
I would like to hear that!
Yeah, Absolution is still my favorite record by them and a lot of people’s favorite record just because it rocks so hard and it’s so gripping. I would just try to get something with that level of fire, but they’ve taken a much more modern and high-fi direction lately, so that’s where their heads are at. I would try to merge those two things.
I want to talk a little bit about Daath. Some of your band mates are busy in Chimaira at the moment. Does the band have any plans for the immediate future?
I don’t see a future in it right now, but stranger things have happened. We’re all buddies, which is cool. There’s no weirdness or anything like that, but there’s no time to do it. Honestly, I’m not at the same place in my life anymore. That last Daath record for me was kind of the exclamation point at the end of whatever paragraph we were in the footnotes of metal history. And I have not felt like writing a Daath riff since, so no plans as of now.
Do you have any desire to create music of your own, or with other musicians? Are there any other projects in the works?
Absolutely! I’m in the middle of a pretty amazing writing gig right now that’s pretty dreamlike. And I’m going to do a record with Keith Merrow in February or March, but I’m not talking about the one with him and Jeff Loomis where I’m going to be doing some engineering. I’m talking like me and Keith are going to make an album of original music. So that’s kind of cool. There’s no definite time table on it since we’re both so busy. We’re looking at early-ish next year. There’s a few other projects in the works, but I kind of don’t want to do anything unless it can be real, in a sense. I’m not into making music just for the fun of it or just for my bedroom anymore. There has to be some sort of ability to follow through and turn it into something real. The projects I have going on right now all have that. The one with Keith has that. That’s kind of my criteria. If you’re just doing something musically amazing just for the sake of being musically amazing you’re basically just masturbating in my opinion.
I don’t know if the two of you are even at this point, but have you and Keith started thinking about which direction you want to go into stylistically wise? Or is it still too early into the phase?
Well right now he is hard at work with the Jeff Loomis project and I’m hard at work with four different albums plus the writing project. So we haven’t really started making music yet, but we have definitely talked about it. To sum it up, we’re going to make it over the top. Whatever that means, it’s going to be pretty over the top. The only thing that we’ve really agreed on is that we’re going to do something that blows minds. It’s difficult to speak about your own music because pretty much it seems like everybody says we’re going to make our heaviest record yet or we’re going to blow minds or we want to do something different that’s not just like everybody else. [laughs] Clichés aside, it’s going to be over the top.
I hope you don’t mind me prying on this, but you talked about a writing gig, do you want to go into more detail on that? Or is that hush hush?
Nope! Absolutely not. [laughs] It’s pretty cool. Sorry, I would, but I can’t.