Mind Equals Blown editor Maria Gironas recently met up with producer Eric Lilavois and talked to him about life as a producer and a dad, artists he’s worked with, and other projects he’s involved in.
MEB: Hey Eric! So, how is your day going? Do you mind mapping it out a little for me?
Eric: Well, today I was in the studio with The Second Hell. They’re a band that I’m insanely excited about. We’ve been working on some new songs together. Usually some days are a little more “family” days, but today was the only day we could squeeze in another session, so I spent the morning with my kids and the afternoon with the band.
Oh, very cool! How many kids do you have?
Two. I have a five year old and a one year old.
Goodness, you really do it all! A family man and owning a couple of small businesses on your own.
Yeah, it’s definitely not. There’s definitely not much sleep involved but I’ve gotten used to it (laughs).
Very cool. So, how did you get started in this industry?
I was in a band called The Days In Between in my early 20’s. We were a DIY touring band, we toured the northwest and southwest all on our own and sold a few thousand independent records, and then, because that band was sort of winding down, I started getting more interested in production and a lot of other bands started asking to help them and work on their material with them. It was just kind of a natural evolution.
Very cool. Now, production is a whole new monster as opposed to playing in a band and touring. How did you find it most different and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Well, luckily, towards the end of the band, as far as the other band mates were concerned, it was sort of evident that I was a producer in a band, you know? I was always the one that was kind of focused on the arrangements and if other people were bringing in their songs, I was the one who would ring us all in, as opposed to just being the more typical lead singer who’s just bringing everything in and enforcing everything on everyone. I was just lucky that the group of guys I had was recognizing the role that was developing for me. As I was spending more and more time in the studio, it just became evident that that was something I was much more interested in than being out on the road all the time, than hitting the pavement as a band member.
Yeah, that makes sense. I guess, one of the biggest questions I had for you was that production means a lot of things to different people. I’ve worked with producers, and interviewed producers for who production means from the initial writing process all the way through to mastering, and for some it’s just recording, and then they send it off to others who master and check levels. What does production mean to you and what kind of system do you go through in general?
Sure. Well, I’m pretty hands on in just about every aspect of the production. Of course it depends on the band. Some bands have bigger needs than others, and there are some situations where it just makes sense to just hand things off to another mix engineer or a mastering engineer to just get another set of ears on it. Typically, though, for a band that I’m really, really working with on all levels of production, I’ll go in and do pre-production with them and rehearsal, and work on arrangements and structures and that kind of stuff with them. If they’re interested in co-writing, then I’ll co-write with them. I’m really involved in the tracking process. I engineered all my own records. I had an assistant with me, but I engineered all my own records. From that point, it just depends on the needs. There are some records that just mixed and I didn’t have anything to do with as a producer. If the bands’ needs are for me to mix it and it’s really making sense then I’m happy to. If we’re all kinda feeling that we need another set of ears on it, we’ll pass it on at that point.
Are you picky with some of the artists that you work with?
Yeah, particularly on the development side, most definitely. A lot of record labels just aren’t doing development any more. It’s a huge part of my philosophy, that I work with artists I can help make the biggest impact with. I do get very particular with who I work with in that respect.
Have there been any particular bands that you can think of that you really helped develop that you’d like to note?
You know, there’s no one that I wanna call out and just say “Hey, I made their career!” That’d be unfair. I’d like to think that, whether or not I helped make a career defining album or not, I helped push some artists along in whatever capacity that might be. That’s another huge part of my “process” that you mentioned earlier. A lot of it goes far beyond just making a record together, just making music together. It’s like life experiences together. You spend a lot of time in the studio together, you spend a lot of time talking about things that are very important to you. Everyone’s in the room because music is important to them, but that can mean a million different things. For the most part, the musicians are know are doing it because it’s a profound influence on them and their life’s path. Inevitably, it becomes a bigger conversation than just a song or a record that you’re working on.
That’s awesome. Is that what you’d say is your favorite part of it? Getting to those small conversations while you’re writing or mixing?
Most definitely. You see a light turn on and sometimes one turns on for you. It’s everywhere. It’s in a book you read, a new band someone exposes you to, finding common ground in influences or just fighting because you hate a band someone else loves. All those things make it a process. The end result happens to be a song, but all those things are in there somewhere.
Very cool. What do you think makes you stand out from other producers?
What we just discussed is a big part of it. I’m much less progressive than a lot of other producers. Everyone has a different style and I think that’s okay. There’s a certain assertiveness that’s needed to achieve what you want. If you’re going for a pop record, there’s a certain personality you need to achieve that. If you’re going for a record that’s insanely reflective of who you are and all those things, then you probably wanna look around and figure out who you’re working with. It’s just about finding the right fit. No style is wrong.
I noticed you said “working with pop”. What your genre of choice that you like to work with, if you have one?
I like working on a variety of stuff. For the most part rock, indie, folk, those are all things that are very much in my wheelhouse. At the same time, it’s fun to stretch myself. One of my favorite records I’ve worked on in the last couple of years was for Dustbowl Revival. That was so much fun, getting all these different musicians in the same room and work on such a throwback style. Early on, I was a lot more concerned about being pigeonholed as a rock producer, but I’ve worked on such a wide variety of stuff, including classical records. This wonderful person, Emily Holmes, has done this meditative music therapy. That was a trip, a completely new experience. So again, I was just kind of able to help her get to the root of who she is and what’s her path and why she’s doing it. That was more important than the style of music we were working on.
Have you ever been challenged with any artists? Can you think of a particular challenge and how did you overcome it?
There has definitely been conflict and challenges. Personalities tend to run a little hot and high in our field. It’s stuff that everyone involved is very passionate about. It’s not always a love fest. Conflict does arise, but for the most part, my philosophy is that you hire people for a reason. You have to trust them. That goes for the producer, too. When all that comes together, things work out, but conflict is inevitable.
You seem like kind of pro, so I’m sure there are no surprises anymore.
You’d think, so (laughs).
I wanted to ask you about your small business aspect, too. I noticed that you own two studios. I was intrigued at first just by you owning one. How do you balance that in the Seattle Washington music scene?
Shiny happy people, right (laughs)? One part of it is that I have two excellent partners in the studio in Seattle, Johnathon Plum and Geoff Ott who are the ones who originally pulled me into the partnership. That studio was originally owned by Rick Parashar, very talented producer, who did Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden. Lots of iconic records out of Seattle in the 90’s. John and Geoff had worked with Rick for a long time, for him and with him before buying the studio from him in 2005. I started working with Geoff in my band, The Days in Between. I kept in touch and when I moved into producing, Geoff offered me to join them. They do a fantastic job. They’re sitting on two generations of history up there. I spend half a month on average every month up there working on stuff. Crown City, in LA, is my baby. It’s been my main production space since I started. It’s just grown and developed, and I have a great team of people around me that have with me for a long time. It’s not easy to balance, but it helps to have good people around to share the load.
That’s beautiful that you have so much support. How does that arrangement work for you and your family? Do they live in Seattle or LA?
Right now, we live in LA. We do a lot of car pooling back and forth. My daughter Madelyn travels with me occasionally. She drags her suitcase and wears her PJs, it’s awesome. I’ve always wanted to make them part of my life. They’re down in the studio quite a bit, they meet all the different musicians. Just today, I was working with The Second Hell, she grabbed the talk button and told Ryan, the drummer, “good job”! It’s certainly integrated, you know?
Wow, that’s amazing. It’s so interesting to hear that. With a lot of musicians, they have to parallel their lives a little. It’s amazing that you’re able to tie both lives together, and I’m sure your kids will be having an experience of a life time.
It’s not the easiest path, but it is the path. It’s kinda “everybody, strap in!”
Take each day one at a time.
I was really excited when I found this out: you are the talent buyer for the Make Music Pasadena Festival?
Yeah. I figured, I don’t have enough shit to do, so I may as well just keep stacking it. I get bored very easily.
It’s just fascinating because I’ve been at Pasadena Make Music for the last two years and I’m a huge fan. It’s just so funny because I assumed some big time booking company was doing this whole thing, but it’s actually you, some guy with two studios! What is that experience like?
It was more of a support role in the years previous to 2014, to be honest. Josie and Kershona, who were the main organizers of the festival, would just kinda look to me for advice on bands to book, and I would sort of funnel some of the artists that I was working with as well. This year, after their departure, I was asked to carry the three main stages, and I just dove in head first. It was a great experience, just trying to figure out how to make this the most diverse, eclectic lineup that I could. Insanely time-consuming, though. It was intense, working with the different agencies and trying to come to some kind of accord. You’re right, it’s not some main corporation putting on this show, it’s a small group of people with limited funds from the city, the budget just doesn’t even compare to other festivals. Trying to get it together and keep it free for the community is a challenge. It’s just another one of those things where a group of people come together to make it happen. I had a great support team in the city and they let me pretty much just do my thing on the booking side. It was a really nice partnership.
Have you done booking in the past, or was this kind of your first run at it?
This was my first run at this, from the ground up.
Oh my, you’re freakishly impressing me.
(Laughs) Yeah, I’ve booked smaller things here and there, but this was a monstrous task. I’m glad it’s over, but I’m looking forward to doing it again.
How was trying to balance your business, your family and this project? Were you compensated for it, or was this just a labor of love?
No, I wasn’t compensated for that. That was purely out of love for a festival that I’ve been part of for quite a while, and for the community I’m part of here in L.A. with my studio in Pasadena. I just wanted to help put together a program that the city was going to enjoy.
Really cool. In what else are you part of, besides owning your own businesses? Like, are there any other projects you’re involved with?
Right now, no (laughs). I need to get my feet back on the ground after the monster that was the last twelve months. I’m sure I won’t be settled down for long, though.
I was also wondering if you have any advice for any aspiring musicians?
A certain amount of humility is vital. I won’t mention any names, but there are some artists that are totally in it for the notoriety. A little bit of humility goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to find out who you are, your limitations, your virtues, your strengths, your weaknesses, and just learn. Soak up as much as you can. Work hard, too, as hard as you can. Don’t move too fast, but don’t move too slow.
Cool. As for the production side, a lot of what stops people from entering that section of the industry is the internship aspect. There just aren’t many of them. If you were to Google studio internships, there’d be virtually none. It’s also an extremely expensive hobby to start. Is there any insight you can offer as to that aspect of the industry?
Relationship building is vital. Listen to the people you respect. Listen to the records that you dig, the style that you can see yourself working on in the future. That’s the best starting point, research and relationship building. An internship is just one small aspect of it. If you don’t make the connections and true bonds while you have that internship, it’s not gonna do much for you.
Makes sense. Just wrapping up, if you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?
Oh my gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before. I would probably be somewhere in the non-profit world, or taking a stab at some writing. Probably failing miserably, but still taking a stab at it (laughs).
Cool. So my last question – oh, my actual last question – if someone was wanting to intern at Make Music Pasadena, or one of your studios, what would be the best way to go about that?
We’re a pretty open book. Everyone’s pretty good at responding to the emails, so the best way is to just contact us directly through email, for any of those avenues. We’re friendly and open, and we’re pretty good at getting back to people.