A handful of Svengali-like producers have acted like silent partners in bands that went on to change the course of rock and roll. The Beatles had George Martin. Cream had Felix Papalardi. Iggy Pop had David Bowie. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers have Rick Rubin.
Rubin’s own career has been well documented, from his beginnings as a pioneering rap impresario and producer of such bands as RUN DMC and The Beastie Boys, to his work with The Black Crowes, The Cult, and his resurrection of Johnny Cash on Rubin’s own American Recordings label, as well as working with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and Rage Against The Machine.
“The Peppers had asked me to make an album with them before Chad was even in the band,” Rubin says. “It was kind of at the height of the unhealthy version of the original line-up, and at the least healthy stage of that period. I remember going to a rehearsal and just thinking, ’This doesn’t feel good.’ Musically, it felt good, but the energy in the room felt dangerous and not good. A few years later we hooked up again and it was the new line-up and a there was a whole new energy in the band.”
At this point, Rubin has worked with Smith more than any other drummer, and gained unique insight into the process of capturing Smith’s talents. Similarly, Smith has gotten to study Rubin’s producing habits close-up, and has benefited from the producer’s skill. DRUM! got the opportunity to speak with both while the Chili Peppers were in the studio working on the band’s newest release, By The Way. It was a rare and exclusive glimpse into the close relationship between two creative personalities at the heights of their game.
DRUM!: Rick, what is your philosophy in recording the Chili Peppers?
Rubin: I would say my philosophy is to capture a moment. You don’t really look so much for perfection, it’s more getting a snapshot of a moment. We do enough pre-production that by the time we get to the studio, we know pretty much how the songs are going to go, so it’s really only about the performance. There’s no writing in the studio, there’s no looking for parts, there’s no, “Are there too many kick drum hits there?” It’s usually all worked out. I would say out of everything the drums may be the one place where we find things that we weren’t able to hear in rehearsal, because in rehearsal everyone’s playing loud and you feel the drums, but you don’t necessarily hear every note – it’s not under a microscope. When we get into the studio it’s really much more under the microscope and we will kind of change little things here or there. Again, I would say musically 99 percent of it is arranged before we get into the studio, and drum-wise 95 percent is arranged before we get into the studio.
DRUM!: When you work on an album, do you have a preconceived idea of how you want it to turn out?
Rubin: I don’t put a lot of thought into it ahead of time. The Chili Peppers are the Chili Peppers, and my job is to capture who they are on tape.
Smith: Not to underestimate Rick’s input into the songs. Rick’s really helped us a lot in making our songs the best they can be, whether it’s pre-production or changing things in the studio – that’s his forte. I know he’s helped a lot of bands that way. It’s made us a better band and better musicians and probably better songwriters.
Rubin: We put a lot of stress on “the song” and I feel like the producer’s job is to do what they can do to benefit the song. We’re all at the mercy of the song. By thinking of it that way, instead of concentrating on individual parts, what we do together works.
DRUM!: How involved with Chad’s parts are you during pre-production?
Rubin: Very, because that’s one of the two key jobs I have. One is the overall arrangement of the song – “What’s the chorus, what’s the bridge, when does it happen, how many times does that go around?” – that’s the first part. The other part is really helping keep the order straight – how the drums and the bass work together, keeping consistency and looking at it from a holistic point of view. Because, obviously, the drummer is worried about the drum part, the bass player’s worried about the bass part, and so on. I’m not attached to any of those parts. I’m not attached to anything. So it’s coming in and looking at it from an overview and saying, “Hmm, how can the bass and drums do something that works better together, how can the guitar and drums do something that works better together?”
DRUM!: What sort of things do you suggest to Chad?
Rubin: It might be, “Let’s change this beat. Let’s try a double-time thing, try a different kind of a fill. These beats are all good, but the fills that put them together don’t really suit the song as much. Let’s find a fill that defines the song and really kind of make it part of the song.”
Smith: Rick really concentrates on the drums because they are going down first and they’re not going to change. You can change guitar parts, you can change bass, but you’re not going to change drums [after the basic tracks are recorded]. The way we do it is we keep almost everything during basics, so that’s the hard part. Sometimes it gets really frustrating because I just want to play and not think about changing this part or that pattern, so some songs we work on all day and never get a take. It can be frustrating for the other guys too, sitting there while I’m figuring something out. Rick will go, “Yeah, it’s got a good feel, but Chad, could you come in here for a minute?” And I’m like [frustrated scream] and I’ll throw some sticks at the wall. But it makes the song better, and that’s the most important thing. He’s good at hearing things. I’ll acknowledge it, and sometimes I’ll disagree.
DRUM!: Are there ever times when you say to Rick, “Trust me. I think this is the right part.”
Smith: Yeah, because I find that my gut feeling about the song is usually pretty right. Rick might suggest something different on the snare, or something, and I will try it. We all make suggestions with each other and we always make a point of trying it, even if someone doesn’t think it’s going to sound good. We always try to flesh out all the possibilities. But if I think it just doesn’t feel right to me or if I would never play it like that, then I’ll stick to my guns. But we mostly trust each other’s judgment after all these years.
Rubin: There’s a song on the new album called “Cabron,” and we tried a bunch of different directions drum-wise. Then finally in the studio we came up with a kind of stereo slap-back effect that’s on the whole drum kit that really changed the character of the drums. Once we found that, then Chad played to that and his part changed and gave a signature to that song.