03.25.04: Following is a transcript of
CNNfn’s The Biz interview with host David Haffenreffer and the
Underdogs—music producers Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas.
David Haffenreffer: They’re in the studio with the Backstreet Boys, working on a new album. They’ve also helped out Justin Timberlake and Ruben Studdard. The producer team—the Underdogs—are here.
[Backstreet Boys in the studio]
Nick Carter: They’re very open-minded so, when we bring things to them and ideas, they like to create too—it’s nice.
Haffenreffer: That is Nick Carter and the rest of the Backstreet Boys. We got an exclusive look at their upcoming new album, which contains tracks by the Underdogs. The team of Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas have worked with Ruben Studdard, Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson and more. They join us today, we’re happy to tell you, from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.
Both: Thank you.
Haffenreffer: You guys do everything but actually sing the song, is my sense. You guys are a real company going on here. Tell me a little bit about what’s going on with the Backstreet Boys at this point—where are you in the studio work?
Harvey Mason, Jr.: We’ve been in with them for a couple of weeks and we’ve recorded a bunch of songs and it’s really exciting for us to be able to work with them. They’re really talented and it’s a fun challenge trying to come up with something new and fresh for them.
Haffenreffer: Yeah, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve heard anything from them. Damon, you said in an interview recently that music is changing so much every six months, that it’s probably a bit of a challenge to stay current. How do you take a group that has been off the charts for three years, and get them back on the charts?
Damon Thomas: You have to come with an undeniable hit record. That’s the bottom line with a group like the Backstreet Boys. It’s all in the song.
Haffenreffer: So do you sit down and work with them and talk to them about what they’ve been doing lately or does that matter about what’s happening in their lives?
Thomas: That matters with any artist. The stories come from them a lot of times and we get concepts and we start writing songs based on things they may be going through and that’s how we make good music.
Haffenreffer: Can you give us a hint, Harvey, about how the sound may be different from some of their earlier work?
Mason: That’s a tough question. We just try and stretch it and push for things that they haven’t done. We’ll add new elements, musically. We’ll talk about things that normally might be a little bit different from things they’ve said before. But we’re just trying to bring new and exciting sounds to their music. As far as the style, its got a little bit of R&B influence, its got a little bit of rock influence, and I think that it’s just something that’s different and fresh.
Haffenreffer: Part of the secret to your success has been to know what the kids are into. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what the kids want to listen to?
Mason: We try and create what the kids want to listen to. We try and stay ahead of what the trend is and try and find something fresh, and talk about current things and current subjects that people can relate to.
Haffenreffer: So it’s not necessarily what the kids are looking to listen to—you guys want to set the agenda yourself. That’s even more challenging, Damon, I imagine.
Thomas: Yeah, it is. You gotta stay in the club a little bit.
Mason: Know what’s going on out there, and keep your finger kind of on the pulse, but also try and stay ahead.
Haffenreffer: You guys have worked with both established artists as well as new artists. What are some of the differences that you go through when you’re preparing material for an established person versus a new person?
Mason: I think that when you’re working with an established person, you look back at the history of what they’ve done, you know who their audience is, you know who they’re singing to, you know what kind of songs they can sing and where their voices are very comfortable. With a new artist, you have to explore and experiment a little bit more and find out what their niche is going to be in. Sometimes as a producer you have to establish that for them and help them create their sound.
Haffenreffer: It was back last summer, last August, that you all signed a deal with Clive Davis and J Records to begin to produce and have your own label and develop your own artist group as well. Damon, where do you go to find this new talent—it’s not just watching American Idol, I take it.
Thomas: [Laughing] Definitely not. We actually just signed our first two acts, Luke & Q, and a girl—Krystal. We’ve taken a lot of demos and people send us stuff all the time. You really have to be careful in trying to pick great artists, so we’ve really been patient and we’ve found two great artists so far.
Haffenreffer: What do you look for?
Mason: We look for stars. We look for people that are exciting to us, first of all. We look for people that we think have a story to tell—something that can translate to the general public, something that people will really accept and get behind. But more than anything, we’ve just got to feel their energy, feel that they’re someone that we want to be with and someone that people will like.
Haffenreffer: Are they, in this day and age, obviously they have to be marketable, but they are essentially just actors or actresses when you guys are the guys who are preparing the music, writing the lyrics, and doing all the work for them—with the exception of actually just belting out the song?
Mason: Well I don’t know if they have to necessarily be actresses or actors, but they do have to be able to carry themselves and sell the song that they’re singing. I guess there’s a little bit of acting in there, but it’s always also nice if they can participate in some of the writing and get some of their ideas down—that way it’s coming from their heart or coming from a place of honesty and they can really relate to the song. So I think that translates to the listener.
Haffenreffer: Damon, who you like to listen to in your free time? Are they people who are writing and performing their own music, or are they some of the people who are having their music written for them?
Thomas: In [our] free time, we listen to things that we don’t do. We’ll listen to Coldplay; we’ll listen to other artists. We listen to a lot of different types of music and we take from that to try and incorporate that in what we do everyday for new artists and established artists.
Haffenreffer: What about you, Harvey?
Mason: Our tastes are similar with what we create, but a lot of the times in our spare time we’ll listen to totally different things. We both appreciate all kinds of music. Damon] will listen to Kenny Loggins, I’ll be listening to Foo Fighters, or Jay-Z. Whoever it may be, we have a wide variety of people who we listen to, and like [Damon] said, we like to bring that to the artist and be able to have that at our disposal to pull from whenever we need to.
Haffenreffer: Are there some artists out there that you’d like to work with that you perhaps, listen to on the radio or whatnot, that you might not have the opportunity to work with, at some point?
Thomas: Destiny’s Child. Beyoncé.
Mason: We love the Usher stuff—we’d like to work with him. And then we’d also like to diversify and get into some other sounds, other types of music, work with some groups, and continue to do new groups as well.
Haffenreffer: Has the reality show craze, and I guess specifically American Idol, helped or hurt the music industry?
Thomas: It’s definitely helped.
Mason: Yeah, it’s helped. The sales are up, obviously, on those projects, and I think it’s reintroduced people to a new brand of artists. For us it’s been exciting because we’ve gotten the chance to work with some really great artists that have come through the show.
Haffenreffer: Like Ruben, like Kelly Clarkson. Even people who are getting bounced off the shows these days, seem to be coming up with record contracts. Do you guys try to meet with people who get thrown off the show?
Mason: We don’t directly but I think a lot of the record companies do. Clive Davis at RCA Music Group is, I think, pretty involved in signing some of those acts and we see them come through once they’ve done their deals.
Haffenreffer: And finally here, we talk so much on this show, about the illegal downloading phenomenon that’s going on out there. How do you guys view this, and these lawsuits that the music industry is trying to push against the people who are doing this illegal downloading?
Thomas: I think it’s a crime. I think that they have to find a way to stop it. It’s stealing. People work and spend a lot of time working on the albums; budgets can costs millions of dollars, and immediately people are downloading it for free and it’s an illegal thing. I think that it’s something that has to be stopped in order for the business to get better.
Haffenreffer: And who among all the artists you’ve worked with is the most difficult to work with in the studio?
Haffenreffer: Is it Justin Timberlake?
Mason: No, that was not difficult.
Thomas: He was probably one of the easiest. He’s incredible.
Mason: Every artist comes to the studio with issues and I guess we have our issues too, but it’s a challenge to find a good working relationship every time in the studio. We have fun every time.
Haffenreffer: Yeah, gotta check that ego at the door. Gentlemen, thanks for being on the program today.
Both: Thank you.
Haffenreffer: Damon Thomas and Harvey Mason, Jr. – they are the Underdogs.