“The goal for any musician is to take their influences and references, find their own voice, and take it to a whole new place,” says award-winning producer/songwriter/guitarist John Shanks. “We can talk about the ‘10,000 hour rule’ and how much time you put in to achieve mastery of something, but it’s all about degrees. Some people take it to a certain level, while others take it to the stratosphere.”
Shanks’ career trajectory is one of stratospheric accomplishments. He has produced and/or written 43 No. 1 singles, 119 Top 5 singles, 67 No. 1 albums, 172 Top 10 albums, and over 60 million records sold across the rock, pop and country genres. He has also been nominated for six Grammy awards and won 2005 Producer of the Year.
His meteoric rise in the music industry began when he joined Melissa Etheridge’s band in 1988. It wasn’t his first experience as a touring musician, but it was pivotal. Upon returning to Los Angeles after traveling the world, he established himself as a songwriter and producer. In 1995, he reunited with Etheridge, collaborating on Your Little Secret, working with her for several more years and co-producing her 1999 album, Breakdown, which received four Grammy nominations, including Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album.
In January 2001, he partnered with Michelle Branch, producing The Spirit Room and co-writing four of its songs. Later that year, he co-wrote Sheryl Crow’s hit single “Steve McQueen.” From that point on, Shanks’ phone never stopped ringing. A diverse roster of artists — including Miley Cyrus, Keith Urban, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Santana, Rod Stewart, Alanis Morissette, Hilary Duff, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Pink, Liz Phair, Jessica Simpson, Ashlee Simpson, Joe Cocker and Bonnie Raitt — have recorded in his room at Henson Studios, creating an endless chain of hit singles and chart-topping albums. Most recently, Shanks produced Van Halen‘s A Different Kind Of Truth. As a lifelong fan of their work, he describes the experience as “a privilege.”
Grammy-winning producer and engineer Ross Hogarth has a simple yet effective philosophy about recording: “Whatever works.” It served him well during his years as a guitar tech, on the road with the likes of David Lindley, Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac, and in the studio, recording everyone from Ziggy Marley to Motley Crue. Hogarth applied his theory to Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth, bringing a wealth of engineering experience and techniques to the band’s long-awaited album.
Hogarth was born and raised in New York. His father, Burne Hogarth, was respected worldwide as one of the greatest illustrators of the last century. Through him, Hogarth gained an appreciation for art, creativity and self-expression. He discovered music at an early age, and his parents nurtured that passion. He studied several different instruments and found his niche on guitar. After high school, he left home for California, where his career took off, first as a roadie and then as an engineer, working his way up the ranks from staff position to independent success. That trajectory took him from the upper echelon of touring technicians to in-demand producer and engineer.
Today, Hogarth records wherever makes the most sense with bands he’s producing, and primarily mixes in his studio, Boogie Motel. A Different Kind Of Truthtook him to Eddie Van Halen’s 5150 studio, where he was hands-on when the band prepped to record the album and again when it was time to mix the tracks.
You play several instruments — drums, guitar, mandolin and banjo. Let’s talk about your musical background and the influence of acoustic music.
When I was a little kid growing up in New York, I would pound on the edge of the couch with wooden spoons and take all the stuffing out of the couch. My parents ended up putting me in the basement with an old Slingerland blue pearl kit. It was a great little kit that I wish I still had. I was probably 3 or 4 years old, playing drums in the basement. My dad had a mandolin that he didn’t play, and I started trying to play Beatles songs on the mandolin. Pete Seeger was my mom’s best friend, so as a kid I was around the whole folk scene. I got into playing guitar, banjo, and was interested in all stringed instruments. It helped me later on when I became a guitar tech for people like David Lindley and Ry Cooder.
I also played French horn, and I had piano lessons, but I hated the formal training. At that point, for me, the formal lessons were brutal. I was all instinct and ear. You just want to play music as expression and fun, but you have to sit down with some stodgy, middle-aged person, being forced to play scales. I was all over the place, musically. I initially played drums in the elementary school band, then French horn in the high school orchestra, and at the same time I was in all sorts of punk bands, playing guitar. I had incredibly varied taste in music because of my parents. By age 10 or 12, I was listening to anything from John Coltrane to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, classical and folk.
You have an interesting and varied discography. You also have an interesting route to a career in the studio.
When you look at my discography, I’m all over the place and it kind of makes sense because I became a real fan of all music. I was also the guy that read every credit on every album cover. I knew everybody who made the records I liked. I would sit and scour album covers to see who produced and engineered. I was really interested in the guys who made these records, the people behind the people.
I targeted getting out of New York. I feel I’d be dead if I had never left. I graduated high school, I was gone eleven days later and I have never looked back. I ended up on the West Coast and I immediately got involved between the San Francisco punk scene and the L.A. scene. I was fortunate to hook up very early in L.A. with what was called the Mellow Mafia, which led me to where I am now. The Mellow Mafia was king-pinned by Jackson Browne, who always had his own studio early on, and he is part of the circle of the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder. That became my musical family. I was adopted as this young kid who could tune guitars, set up and tune drums, and set up a p.a. Since I previously had bands and played a lot of instruments, I became the roadie who could do whatever and work with whomever, and I was just happy to be there. It was like my dream come true to work with some of the greatest musicians on the planet.
Early on, before leaving New York, I knew innately that I wasn’t going to be a musician for a living, because the music I had coming out of my head I was having a really hard time getting out of my hands. I’m saying this without any ego: I tended to be better than most of my peers at the time. By the time that I was in high school, I could play every Jimmy Page riff, I was trying to bend a note like Jeff Beck, or play as fast as John McLaughlin, pick an acoustic like Leo Kotke or figure out the chords that Stevie Wonder was playing, and it frustrated me because in my ear I was already so much more advanced than my actual musical ability. I decided that I was not going to fight it. I was going to go with the flow. Music had become a place of refuge. It wasn’t something I wanted to put a lot of work into and it’s never been. The actual playing of music has always been gut-level intuitive. I love it when I do it, but I really enjoyed setting up people’s instruments. I did Bonnie Raitt’s guitars and David Lindley’s guitars and David’s whole band, El Rayo-X. I worked with Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, Jim Keltner and Ry Cooder, just to name a few. I toured the world with these people and it was all about service: making sure that every night, when a musician steps onstage, the only thing in their mind is making music. I got into the whole concept of being a roadie to another level with other guys like myself. We were musicians and capable people that enjoyed working with people that musically were more gifted than us, but as human beings treated us as equals.
To this day, that whole concept of exceptional service is crucial: pushing yourself and those around you to do what may seem like simple tasks, but do them at 200 percent.
You mentioned service, or the concept of service. Do you have anything else you’d like to add about this?
It’s about serving at a level equal to the greatness you’re surrounded by. When I was on the road, working with many of the greatest musicians, I had my head handed to me many times and learned many valuable lessons from it. I don’t want to condescend to some young assistant in the studio, even though I’ve hammered on them because they might have screwed up. You try to do it in a way where they realize that what you’re doing is ruthless compassion. Ruthless compassion is a bit of an oxymoron at first look. Ruthless compassion is a concept where you’re going to chop someone’s head off that day so that a new one grows back in that’s stronger and better.
At a certain point, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on the road. I was the trusted guy for any number of these musicians, and when they were off the road and doing sessions in town, I was paid to drive equipment to sessions, so I was going in and out of all these studios setting up equipment. I was now around some of the finest engineers and producers. I saw that if it sounds good at the source, and you have a decent microphone, at the very least now you’re not f–king up. You realize that all the alchemy you think there is in making records goes out the window. It’s really about the musician, the performance. Eddie Van Halen sounds like Eddie Van Halen whether he picks up the sh–tiest Strat off the shelf. Jeff Beck sounds like Jeff Beck. It’s in their hands. When you learn that early on, and you start to learn the whole lack of alchemy in making records, I realized that the road is actually harder. Every night in a different venue, pulling s–t off the trucks, tubes getting bounced around, I was like, “Put me in the studio. This is a controlled environment that I can deal with.” I just wanted it. In my gig, you have to serve the musician, not yourself. I can’t come into a gig and go, “This is how I want it to sound and how I’m going to make it sound, whether they like it or not,” or “This is what they’re going to use, whether they like it or not.” I come in and try to assess a situation and see what’s needed. If the situation needs a producer, then maybe I’m the right guy. If the situation just needs an engineer, maybe I’m the right guy. Very early on in my life I tried to be the Swiss army knife because I realized that’s how I was going to get work.
Read more on this interview Here,