Franc Tétaz pt 1: ‘Gotye has his own kind of language’
He may not yet be a household name, but Franí§ois “Franc” Tétaz has played a hand in some of the biggest tracks in recent memory – from Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ to Kimbra’s ‘Settle Down’ and Architecture In Helsinski’s ‘Contact High’. In the first part of a two-part interview, he tells DOUG WALLEN he’d rather be involved in a collaborative relationship with an artist than cultivate a “classic Phil Spector gun-on-the-desk vibe”. Photo by ALAIN BOUVIER.
Ever the perfectionist, Franí§ois “Franc” Tétaz can’t help but tweak and troubleshoot the sound quality of our Skype interview even as he jokes at the prospect. Part of the experimental electronic project Shinjuku Thief back in the 1990s, today Tétaz stands on his own as an in-demand producer, composer and all-around creative guru. He has scored such high-profile Australian features as Wolf Creek and The Square, as well as the Oscar-nominated short Miracle Fish, and is next scoring Robert Connolly’s Julian Assange-based film Underground. He has done A&R work for Rubber Records, is the music director for the APRA Music Awards and is A&Ring the forthcoming seventh spiderbait album.
On top of all that, Tétaz has acted as producer and regular collaborator with Gotye and Lior. He worked on Gotye’s Like Drawing Blood (2006) and Making Mirrors (2011), including a minor blip on the radar called ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. He brought Kimbra to the latter, after producing half of her 2011 album Vows and co-writing the songs ‘Settle Down’, ‘Good Intent’, ‘2 Way Street’ and ‘The Build Up’ with her. He has worked on all three Lior albums and co-produced Sally Seltmann’s Heart That’s Pounding (2010) and Architecture in Helsinki’s Moment Bends (2011), both shifts in career paths for the artists. He also co-wrote and produced Bertie Blackman’s next album, Pope Innocent X.
When working for himself, Tétaz operates out of Moose Mastering, a multi-function warehouse space he set up in the ‘90s in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Richmond. The name is a misnomer now, as Tétaz is so busy and successful with his other pursuits that he doesn’t do much mastering anymore. Laughing, he admits, “I didn’t have another name, so it’s just stayed.”
How did you get started co-writing with artists?
Well, from early on I was always writing music. So when I started producing, it was just using another skill set that was part of what I did. I felt like production was the technical or add-on version of what I spent time doing in the rest of my life, if that makes sense. In my early 20s I spent my time writing music and writing film scores. I wasn’t really into songwriting that much. I didn’t understand lyrics. What I mean is I wasn’t interested in lyrics. I was very much just interested in sound. And as I got older I started working with songwriters [as a producer and] started looking at lyrics more.
Then I became much more attracted to song form as a form. That’s when it crossed over where, when I was working on records as a producer, I would always be working on the form of songs and lyrics and the perspective of lyrics and meaning. Talking to people about the meaning of the songs, because it’s the thing that inspires me to do anything in the song. So I start from “What’s this song about?” or “What’s its intention?”, and then later that will be the starting point for what I decide to do with a song, in terms of how it sounds or what the instrumentation is.
From that it turned into, with some artists, it being a little deeper. Bertie’s record’s like that. Architecture in Helsinki, I do conceptual feedback with them but not so much songwriting. Although I work a lot on form, I wouldn’t really work on lyrics. With Wally [De Backer] I do feedback on lyrics and suggest things, but I don’t write. He has his own kind of language. But with Bertie it was something where we had a very natural fit, so we worked on both music and lyrics together. It became a much closer collaboration. Kimbra was like that too: quite a few of her songs were just verses. She’d have just a starting idea and she wouldn’t have a chorus and wouldn’t be quite sure what the song was about. So part of what I’d be doing with her is discovering that along with her. It was linked to composition.
Yeah, I noticed you co-wrote several songs on Kimbra’s record. It’s such an intimate thing, co-writing a song someone will have for the rest of their career.
I really like those processes because they all cross over. When you’re actually deciding whether a song’s good or not, or whether it’s a good idea for an artist, that process is a really interesting one, in terms of how you hear someone and what their voice is. By voice I mean what they’re trying to say as an artist. Because quite often they could think that something they’re doing is interesting or true to them, but in fact something else could be the case that they’re not conscious of at all. And I really like that aspect of it.
But for me that’s not just production or just songwriting or just A&R-ing: there’s a big crossover. To have an understanding of those ideas is a really important thing when collaborating with an artist. And the deeper you can do that, the more risks you can take. I’ll follow the artist, just as they’ll do the same thing with me. I’ll say, “Let’s take out this section of the song” or “Let’s make the bridge the chorus, because that feels right for me.” Trying to get that trust going when you have a very deep creative understanding of each other makes that easier, because they’re not just like, “Ugh, the producer has got some dumb idea.”
I try to form those relationships with all the artists I work with. Like Lior: any song he’s written, he’ll just send me as he’s writing. He might be a year or two years away from actually making it, but I’ll give him my instant outsider feedback of what I think about it. That’s the same with all those artists. They also know that I just have my opinion on it and they can take it or leave it.
So if you give your opinion and they don’t agree, they’ll just go ahead with it?
I’m always right, Doug. [Laughs] I think about these things deeply, so hopefully when I suggest something I’m not just … I mean, sometimes I do things off the cuff…
“With Wally [De Backer] I do feedback on lyrics and suggest things, but I don’t write. He has his own kind of language.”
Obviously those initial responses, that’s what it is…
Yeah, this feeling of “I love it” or “No, I’m not into this.” Sometimes when you say those things, you need to explain the reason why. If you’ve got a really good reason why – “This lyric’s a cliché. Let me show you 10 other songs that use the same image you’re using in this. Therefore an audience is going to reference it very clearly back to this song.” – it’s very hard to counter that as an artist. And what I’m always saying is, “Let’s come up with something better, that’s truer to you, that really says something that’s really clearly about where this song is coming from, instead of resting on something else.” Or it needs a line that gets you through that and that can be a cliché because you don’t want it to draw too much attention to itself. Those don’t tend to be arguments because in the end you tend to agree, as long as you’re coming from the same standpoint. And that’s the important thing, that you have the same rules.
When I interviewed Architecture in Helsinki for Moment Bends, they talked about how you were brought in at the demo process to provide that guidance.
They had written a lot of different ideas. So you have to work out what you want to continue with as a sound, when you’re casting out wide with a lot of different ideas. They wanted to make quite a coherent record, like a statement record. A “new sound” record. So to do that means a different approach to how they’d make their earlier records. I’m also into the idea that wherever you start is wherever you start, so coming in with them on demos is a really great way of being able to bring new ideas before they get locked down too much. Just as coming in later, if everything’s formed, is fantastic. There’s strengths and weaknesses in both, starting earlier and starting later.
Instead of spending too much time on a song that’s not working, you can identify that early.
And they had. They’d made a whole bunch of different songs. It was more a matter of choosing which collection to start on. It was quite a production-heavy record so it eats up a lot of time. If you decide to start on a song and it isn’t really working, you can spend a week or two working on it and end up not using it. And that can be very demoralising when a song doesn’t quite get there.
So they’re trying to figure out which songs would draw together and unify to make this new sound they wanted?
Very much so. And Cameron [Bird] had an idea of the different sorts of songs he wanted on the record. From a sound point of view, structurally how they would work. So he would have written three songs that have a half-time breakdown chorus, for example, and he’d be choosing one of those. It was an interesting and also postmodern pop way of looking at a record, ‘cause it was as much about conceptual pop records as it was about selecting good songs.
And Haima Marriott was the engineer and co-producer?
Haima’s an integral part of the process [with AiH]. He’s the conduit that everything passes through. He’d basically man ProTools and Ableton at the studio every day when they were working. Then he would take any idea that anyone had and work with it. He’d either help make the sound, record it, edit it or take it anything I was doing and add it in. He’s a reactionary guy so he wouldn’t necessarily have a new idea he would add, but if you had an idea he would take that and run with it. He was there every day. I would just call in when someone wanted me or check in. But otherwise Haima would be there articulating the ideas day in and day out. That had a very strong influence on the record. There’s a lot of that record that for me sounds like Haima’s aesthetic.
Since I always see records as being co-productions, most of my records I list myself as being co-producer or additional production. Because generally speaking it’s a collaborative process. It’s not just me ruling the place, laying down the law, telling people what to do. It’s me having a strong opinion and then someone else reacting to that or having an equally strong opinion. It’s a very important feedback loop. It works better, I think, as a collaboration than it does in the classic Phil Spector gun-on-the-desk vibe. I’m partial to that but I always think everyone should have guns rather than just me.
Every time I listen to Moment Bends, I’m taken aback by the depth of sound. How did you go about achieving that?
It’s quite a layered record. Some of the production’s quite deep, meaning that [for] any instrument there would be a multi-faceted way of achieving that one sound. So if it’s a synth hook they would be looking at the nature of what that synth needed to be. They might make one component of it and then add this other aspect and add [more]. So a lot of those sounds would have maybe four or five different dimensions that are all subtly interlinked and tweaked and made so they all fit together like a little jigsaw puzzle. So it might sound like one sound, but it has a lot of different sonic aspects to it. I always feel that record is quite rich like that. Those textures are very deep. They’re not just like, “I’ve got my pre-set Prophet 5 sound and that’ll do it.” There was nothing like that. They really wanted to make something that had a unique, deep tone about it.
That was very much to do with the thought behind the record. Where Cameron was coming from as a concept was that it should feel like that. I was mixing like that too, where all those sounds feel as though they have an epicness about them as a space. It’s a moment. The cover art’s about that. It’s about capturing a particular moment and finding the feeling in it and making sure that felt deep and had an eternity about it. And that’s what I was trying to do when mixing: trying to find that kind of feeling, as wanker-y as that sounds.
‘Eternity’ is a good word. I was going to say ‘infinite’. You feel like you can stare off forever in any direction.
Yeah, there was a lot of talk about horizons. There’s a lot of imagery that talks about what would happen if you die. “What will happen to me in the future?” It’s a very deep, philosophical record like that, and the approach in the production and the ideas have to carry that same kind of weight. Otherwise you don’t really buy it at all. [Laughs] I don’t think people would really get into it. Although it wasn’t really a commercial success, and I think the marketing of that record was really … it wasn’t well supported or articulated in terms of what the record was publicly. There’s a lot of people I know who have a real deep affection to it and find it very moving, and I know I really love it like that. I’ve put it on several times in the car and just really loved it as a record. I love that feeling, when you make something and it has that feeling after the case. Ten years later you can still put it on and go, “Wow, this has a real feeling about it.”
I had the same experience when I listened to it again for this interview.
Ah, great. That makes me so happy to hear that. From an audience point of view, when you have that intention behind something and someone has that feeling [you intended], I don’t care how many people it is. If it communicates that to someone, I’m just thrilled.
Do you think it was the fact that they’d been around a while and had been known for something else that made it harder for people to give this record a shot?
Totally. That said, it’s successful on [one] level. There’s a lot of people who have that record; it’s just they didn’t necessarily buy it. [Laughs] ‘Contact High’ was #12 in the Hottest 100 and people dearly love the band. I went to see them at the Big Day Out and there were 4000 people absolutely loving it in 40-plus-degree heat. It’s an incredible live show. So on a lot of levels it’s really successful as a record. It just wasn’t successful on a sales level. Speaking to a few people, they were talking about the challenges of making the story of what they were trying to do coherent [in the marketing], so people could actually get that. I don’t think that was done at all well. So then when people looked at it, they were like, “What the fuck’s this? What are they doing now?” Whereas if that was their first record, I’m sure people would take it in a completely different light. Because you get a bit of a free hit when you’re a new band.
Also, it’s very much a record. It has to open with ‘Desert Island’. You can’t just get those songs, whack them around in any order and pick out one or two. I liked ‘Contact High’ as a single but it’s totally different in the context of the record.
Yes, very much so. We tried a whole bunch of different orders. We had the bookends [‘Desert Island’ and ‘B4 3D’] going and tried lots of different things with it, to see what other sense it would make and also from a label point of view, with what they were thinking with singles. But that was the story of the record that really clicked. You could think something might be better from a commercial standpoint, but whenever we tried changing things the music didn’t work.
Have you been working with them on the follow-up?
Only casually. I speak to Cameron every week and he’s just getting into demoing now. I helped them set up a new studio space and they’ve got a new recording booth I’ve designed for them. I call in and hang out but I didn’t want to say, “Hey guys, do you want me to produce your new record?” I leave it very much up to Cameron if he needs my help in whatever capacity. That’s the way it’s been from the start. On their first record Fingers Crossed I did some sounding-board things and just finished some mixes for them, really. It might not actually need me, this record. I know it’s gonna be very different, from what we’ve spoken about. It won’t sound anything like the last record.
Oh, of course. [Laughs] They always go in different directions. He’s talking about it being more lo-fi – it won’t be such a hi-fi record – but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what he’s writing about.