The name "Greg Kurstin" might not sound instantly familiar, but chances are pretty good you heard one of his songs on the radio or on your mp3 player on the way to work or school this morning. He's become one of the most in-demand writer/producers in pop music, working on albums from the likes of Ke$ha, Britney Spears, Pink and Kelly Clarkson, producing and co-writing Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," up for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year at this year's Grammys.
But the pop mega-success only tells part of the story with Kurstin, who also maintains cred in the indie world with his work with The Shins, Santigold and most recently, Tegan and Sara, whose heavily Kurstin-produced 2013 album Heartthrob is one of the early year's most acclaimed albums. What's more, Kurstin has been a part of the alt-rock world as a successful musician in his own right, achieving early-career success with Geggy Tah (and their 1996 hit "Whoever You Are"), and later as a member of cult-favorite indie-poppers The Bird and the Bee (who won fans both with original material and their Hall & Oates covers, the latter collected as Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1).
A couple days before his big night at the Grammys, we caught up with Greg to talk about the many winds his career path his taken, and some of the interesting people he's worked with along the way.
Popdust: First off, congratulations on your Grammy nominations. You have any specific plans for the awards?
Greg Kurstin: Uhh…not so much. You know, there's always parties around it but I dunno if I'm gonna go to anything. I think we're just gonna go and just hang out. Dress up. I got a tux, so I'm all already to go.
Have you sized up the competition at all? Are you feeling good about your chances?
Oh, it's really tough competition, I don't know. I have no idea what's going to happen. All of those songs were so massive, a few of them even seem like they were more massive [than "Stronger"]…but then again, I dunno. Depends on who you talk to, what mood I'm in. Sometimes I feel like "Well…maybe I have a chance," but I dunno. There's fun., and Gotye, and all those songs were just massive. I think all the songs have a good shot.
If you had the choice between winning Record and Song, is there one that means more to you?
You know, in this particular case…I mean, they're both awesome, but Record of the Year is kinda cool, because even though I'm a writer on the song, the production was something that I feel proud of, I was proud of the accomplishment. But I mean, it would be awesome to win songwriter. There's a lot of songwriters on that song…
Do you remember what your specific input to the writing of that song was?
Yeah, it was almost like a finished song when it was presented to me by the label, and I kinda basically rewrote the track. I rethought the music part of it, I guess. It had a different tempo, beat, chords, and I kinda just came up with that guitar riff that goes into the verse, and that was the first thing that I kinda contributed…then, you know, just changed the feel of the song. It was sorta mid-tempo and the chords were kinda different, just flipped around. So that's how I became a songwriter on the song.
Was there like an "aha" moment for you on the song? Like you got one part of it that really started to gel, and you were like "OK, this song's gonna be big?"
I think it was the guitar riff that kinda starts out the song. That guitar/bass thing that happens. That took me a minute to figure that out. I kinda presented the label with the version before I figured that out, where the tempo was fast, and they were like "Well, it sounds cool, but…you wanna just try to work on it some more?" And I was like "Oh yeah, maybe the verse isn't right." So I then came up with that, and I was like "Oh, well…this is kinda cool." So they were into it too.
Did you follow the song when it was climbing up the charts? That was your first #1 [on the Hot 100], wasn't it?
Yeah, that's my first number one in the U.S. It was cool, I definitely followed it. I wasn't sure, you never know how it's gonna do. My wife was like "It's gonna do great! Don't worry!" I'm like "All right…" It kinda exceeded my expectations a little bit.
So I wanna take it back to the early parts of your career, and talk about Geggy Tah a little bit. We were listening to "Whoever You Are" in the office, and talking about how that song was kinda the sound of 1996, because it was this really weird time in alt-rock, where kinda anything went. Were you surprised that it became such a successful song?
Yeah, it was definitely a surprise. That was the first thing I'd ever had that had been played on the radio. It was kind of a big moment for the band, and we kinda fit into this quirky thing that was going on, with like Eels, and Beck, who I think opened a lot of doors for sort of weird, quirky guys making music. We sort of fit in there...It was really cool, and definitely a learning experience going through all that. I thought I could retire after that song. I was like "Wow, this is it!" And then I realized the realities of music, like "I guess I have to release another single after that!"
Did you expect further success once that song took off? Did you think that was gonna be the beginning of Geggy Tah being, like, the next Pearl Jam?
Yeah, you definitely think that when you're in your twenties and you have a hit song...I didn't really understand the reality of it at the time, but it seemed like "Wow, this could be kinda huge." I didn't even know what it meant, in terms of dollars and cents. But I sort of realized "Wow, it's just one piece of a huge puzzle, and everything has to sort of be in place for it to really mean something." It meant something, but it definitely doesn't secure your success, one single like that. You need a lot more going on to do that."
Are any of the big pop stars you come into contact with on a daily basis ever like "Oh my God, you were the guy in Geggy Tah? I love that song!"
Well…it's happening less and less the older I get. But yeah, there's a couple people, if they're old enough to remember that. Definitely, pop stars in their 20s have no idea about that song. I don't even bother to explain it. I'm just like "Don't worry about it. It was the '90s. Just worry about Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and you're fine."
Do they ever ask you about Bird and the Bee, then? That's more of a contemporary thing.
Yeah, they do, actually. I get a lot of artists that like the Bird and the Bee. In the pop world, people sort of discover it, and I've definitely gotten a lot of positive feedback from artists about that.
So what's happening with Bird and the Bee? Are you guys working on anything new?
Yeah, we are working on a new album. And we're close to finished. We're probably gonna need a few more songs, and then we're probably gonna put out an album, if all goes well, in the summer or something like that.
Are you ever gonna do an Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2?
I think so, yeah. Down the road. I think we're gonna do original songs the next album, and then we have an idea for maybe the following album and I think that'll be originals too. Then I was thinking that we'd probably do another Interpreting the Masters.
You have any leads on what artist you're gonna do for the second one?
We've thought of some ideas. It's top secret in the Bird and the Bee vault, we don't wanna tell anyone…we do have a couple ideas, but nothing 100% yet.
Did you ever get either Hall or Oates' take on Vol. 1?
Yeah, we did! We got on the phone with Darryl Hall, and he was really happy, like "Oh, I really love what you did with the songs." He was really cool, and we talked to him for a bit. And then John Oates came out to a show and jammed with us, and that was fun. He played the guitar and sang "She's Gone," so that was pretty awesome. He's an amazing guitarist and singer.
So was there ever a point in your career where you made the conscious decision, or came to the conscious realization that you were gonna be more of a behind-the-scenes guy?
You know, I had no idea. After I left Geggy Tah, I started playing with Beck, and I was a touring musician, I was trying to sort of figure out what I was gonna do. I was always kind of a keyboard/session guy, and I'd always had that going and that was always sort of my bread-and-butter. I wasn't really making money doing Geggy Tah that much, so I was always doing that on the side, so..
Did I see that you played on [the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' 1999 album] Californication?
Yeah, I did. I met Flea a few years before that, and just became friends with Flea, and he would always call me back to play on albums and stuff. So that was kind of a big break for me in the session world, I did a lot of sessions kind of around that. So I was kind of a keyboard-for-hire guy, a musician-for-hire…I'd just gotten off the road with Beck, and I just missed writing and producing tracks like I always did in my life.
So I started to write instrumental, electronic music tracks, and spawned the Bird and the Bee around that time too, and then I got a publishing deal, and then I just really worked hard at it, and made up in my mind that this was what I was gonna do. That was a little over ten years ago, and I just worked every day…working day and night, pumping out songs, trying to get that off the ground. One little thing hit here, one thing hit there, and it just kinda snowballed into where I'm at now.
For the second part of our interview with Greg Kurstin, click NEXT.
Was there one song or project that you remember working on where, after that, everything was a little bit easier?
Well, definitely a couple things. [Working with] Lily Allen was definitely a big, huge thing for me. That was one of the first chances I got to really showcase what I could do. And also the Bird and the Bee, too. Those were two things that I could kind of present to people and go, "This is what I do." So that was really huge for me.
Were you disappointed that Lily decided to take so much time off music?
It was fine, I was so busy with other things, that I was just happy with her. We worked again during her time off, and we've been working on a musical for Bridget Jones' Diary…
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Is that coming along?
Yeah! It's coming along. It's a very slow process, that world. It's the first time I've ever done that, but yeah, it's going great, I'm really happy with the songs we've done. It's been really fun. We've been kinda working on that for the last few years, and that's been off-and-on. So I feel like we've been working together a lot, even though it seems like it's a time off.
Is there another artist that you've worked with since that you really feel that kind of kinship with, that you'd maybe want to be associated with for a long time?
I don't know, there's been a lot of artists in different ways…With Pink, you know, working with her, I found it really fun, and I can be really quirky and she loves it. I thought that was really cool, and we got along so great…I don't know, most of the artists I've worked with, I feel like I get to do different aspects of my personality with them, and the ones that I get along with really well, we seem to have this ongoing relationship. It's cool, it's very satisfying.
Is there somebody else you've worked with that's maybe not quite on Pink's level of fame and celebrity yet that you felt, while you working on it, like "All right, this person's gonna break big," but it never quite ended up happening that way?
Yeah there's always people like that. I've been working with Mikky Ekko recently, and I feel like he's on the verge. He's featured on the Rihanna song ["Stay"], and I feel like he can be a really big artist, and I just feel like he's really talented.
I know you worked with Sky Ferreira on her last EP [Ghost], are you working on her full-length at all?
Well, we worked on the EP together, I haven't worked with her since then. But I worked with Sky for a long time, actually. I worked with her in the early days, when she was really, really young, and so I think Sky's really cool. Even when she was really young, I thought she was special. She has really amazing taste in music, and had really researched all this crazy old '60s music. And I was like "Wow, how do you know about that?" She has a really good way of pulling together the right people, and sort of creating a really cool end product.
Do you think she has a little bit of an identity problem? Her music is so diverse, do you think that's an asset, or that it might be a little bit of a liability when trying to find her niche in the pop world?
I think it makes it a little bit more difficult sometimes, but I think she's getting there. The more I hear her put out stuff, I feel like it just sort of has a sound now. I've always heard a little bit of a flavor, even with the early stuff, there was always an element to something a little bit different than the mainstream pop thing. She's always had her finger there, so…it could be still early with her, but she's definitely on the road, and every step she takes seems closer to something that's more unique to her.
When you got hooked up with Tegan & Sara, was that like a conscious decision of theirs to go for a big pop sound?
Yeah, I feel like they came to me, and...they had started to collaborate in that world, with Tiesto and David Guetta and stuff like that. I think that they really enjoyed it, and wanted to reach a broader audience, so they discussed it. The demos were very synth-oriented. It was a different sound for them, even before I came into the picture. They presented these songs and I got really excited.
They were OK with it, and I think that's always great, when people are so comfortable with themselves and not worried like "I need to be cool!" or whatever. And it sort of put the pressure on me, like "I really wanna try to make this cool, and also pop at the same time." I really felt a responsibility to not go completely mainstream, cheese-pop. I wanted to try to do something that also sounded cool at the same time.
Do you think that the pop sound was them pushing for more of a mainstream audience, to cross over in that sort of way, or was it just, that's they were feeling at the time?
I think it might be just what they were feeling at the time. It feels real to me, not just a marketing scheme. I feel like it's music that they love, and that they grew up on. I mean, we were talking about, like, Roxette and stuff like that. They love that stuff. It doesn't feel forced.
I've heard people do it where it feels like they were really sorta trying to…you know, are they doing it for the wrong reasons? Like, "Our last album failed, we need to do something that's pop." But it wasn't that, I don't think that was the case at all with them. I think their previous album was great, and was sort of a high point. I think they've had a lot of high points. But I think they were ready to do something a little bit different, and I think that artists should do that. Change it up.
So I was reading an album review of Heartthrob, I think it was on Pitchfork, and they referred to you as "Greg Kurstin: Pop Impersario." I was wondering how that sounds, and how that feels to you, as some guy who used to be in an alt-rock band, played keyboards with Beck, and now you're this pop impresario?
Well, coming from Pitchfork, anything positive is a compliment! I was thrilled actually, like "Wow, that's nice." It's funny, 'coz that review was kind of an amazing review for the number it got. I was happy to be in the 7's. Like, Radiohead got a 7.9 on one of their albums, so I was like "OK, the 7's is not a bad place to be on Pitchfork."
But you know, it's funny, because that's kind of what I am now. It's kind of what I've been doing for the last ten years. It's kind of my new identity. So I actually have no problem with it.
So if you had the choice between getting a 9.something on Pitchfork or winning Song of the Year at the Grammys, which would mean more to you?
Song of the Year, definitely. I don't know, more and more I'm getting more comfortable in my pop place. I'm just into pop music, always kind of been into pop music. I've been into more than my share of indie and avant-garde music in the past, but I do love the David Bowie pop songs, and I love the Beatles, and I like a really solid song. So even when I used to be a punk rocker, when I was like 13 years old, I kind of always liked the hits, the punk hits. I've been getting more in touch with that all the time.
And I feel like there's some interesting stuff in pop music. Like, all these indie rock producers are producing Justin Bieber records, and everyone's records. Right now, it's just like a crazy time. The lines are getting blurred.
That kinda leads into my last question. I know recently you spoke at a benefit recently with Dan Wilson, who used to be in Semisonic and is a successful pop songwriter now. And it seems like there's a bunch of guys who kinda flirted with success in the alt-rock '90s. You guys, or Gregg Alexander [of New Radicals], or even Linda Perry [of 4 Non Blondes]. And now, you're these gigantic pop songwriter/producer people. Was there some way that your experience prepared you somehow, or some way that being successful once for a brief period made you ready for mega-success as a behind-the-scenes guy?
Yeah, definitely, we should start a club, all of us! The one-hit wonders of the '90s! It's kind of funny, I do think of that every now and then. I do know Gregg Alexander, and I have met Dan. It's kind of funny, that we all have a similar thing.
But yeah, it did prepare me. I wouldn't have been ready in the '90s, when I was doing what I was doing. I had so much to learn. I was sort of focusing on being a jazz musician around the time, my heart was sort of in jazz. I was just all over the place, really, but I knew one part of me wanted to try to break radio, so I was always kind of interested in that too. I was learning, that was basically my schooling years, when I was figuring it all out. I probably couldn't have gotten to what I'm doing now without going through that.
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