Editor’s note: This originally ran in 2011 as an excerpt from Howard Massey’s “Behind The Glass Volume II,” which features more than 40 all-new, exclusive in-depth interviews with many of the world’s top producers and engineers.
Joe Chiccarelli is a chameleon.
Not literally, of course. But unlike many producers whose sonic stamp is immediately recognizable (a Roy Thomas Baker or a John Shanks, for example), you’d be hard pressed to identify a Joe Chiccarelli “sound.”
It’s hard to believe that the same individual who produced the rough-and-ready White Stripes’ Icky Thump was also responsible for the ephemeral, moody ambience of the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away or the smooth, slick jazz tones of Kurt Elling’s Night Moves.
But not only was it the same guy, it was a body of work that netted him a 2008 Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year.
Chat with the soft-spoken, self-effacing Chiccarelli for just a few minutes and it becomes apparent why artists in so many different genres gravitate to him.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’m confident enough in my abilities to have a sound and a strong direction,” he admits disarmingly. “It’s more important to me to study the song and the artist and figure out what’s strong about them and then help the record be the best it can be.”
Originally from Boston, Chiccarelli relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1970s after playing in a series of rock bands. Always interested in the technical aspects of music-making, he landed a job as an assistant engineer at Cherokee studios, but his big break didn’t come until the day that Frank Zappa’s regular engineer was held up in London with visa difficulties.
As low man on the totem pole, the 20-year-old Chiccarelli was given the assignment to work with the notoriously difficult and demanding artist. Seven albums later, he had a career.
Since then, Chiccarelli has worked with an astonishingly diversified group of artists, including Tori Amos, Oingo Boingo, Black Watch, American Music Club, and My Morning Jacket. And every album he works on, it seems, sounds totally different from every other album he’s ever worked on.
“When people ask me, ‘What’s your approach to producing records?’” Chiccarelli says laughingly, “my answer is, ‘Well, what day is this?’ But on a creative level I think I would be dead if I just made the same record over and over again. The personal challenge for me is to try to make something that’s unique to that artist.” Clearly, he’s succeeding.
What do you think it was that Frank Zappa saw in you that made him want to continue to work with you?
I think it was because I was very much an open book. At the time, my only experience was in making good, clean contemporary pop records, while Frank’s whole thing was to try the most outrageous things possible in order to make the music interesting and dynamic and over the top.
It was a new place for me, but I was very willing to go there. Perhaps he just viewed me as someone who hadn’t done a lot of records and so wouldn’t be as set in his ways or closed to new ideas.