music morsels The Band Mates Network November 2007

MUSIC CAREER MANEUVERS - Featuring Frank French, Producer/Songwriter/Studio Owner
Strategies to maneuver your career path from the people with the know-how
by Mark E. Waterbury

Jason Spooner

Considering the fact that he has produced at least a hundred projects in his career, it can be considered a wise choice that Frank French did not follow his dreams of being a singing cowboy, which blossomed after watching Roy Rogers as a youngster. Born on a U.S. Army base in Japan, Frank's family moved back to the States where he grew up in various cities in Colorado. He began playing music in school when he was nine years old, and it was soon discovered that he had a natural talent for picking up various musical instruments. His musical tastes matured to the more pop rock influences of the Beach Boys and of course, the Beatles. Frank started gigging in clubs primarily as a drummer when he was thirteen, and he began writing his own music, recording it on a four track recorder that his father had bought him. He was sixteen when the band he was in recorded their first album in a real studio, and Frank continued to gig at a hectic pace through high school and college. In the early 70’s, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he formed the band Teaser, that would become a popular band in the region, at one time playing three hundred gigs in a year!  In 1977, he loaded his drums into a VW bus and moved to Atlanta, where after performing with several fairly unknown bands, he joined the punk band The Nobz. The Nobz had reasonable success after the Sex Pistols performed in Atlanta, and Frank also became more involved in producing while working with them. He then returned to Wisconsin for a year where he played with 1910 Fruitgum Company. Upon returning to Atlanta, he opened a futon company so he could finance building his home recording studio.  He met singer/songwriter Kevn Kinney in Milwaukee, and eventually Frank and Kevn formed a band in Atlanta that would become the seeds of the soon to be popular Drivin N Cryin. Frank helped produce, write, record and perform the band’s early material, but left the band before the release of their official debut “Scarred But Smarter.” By this time, Frank was gaining a solid reputation as a producer, and before long a new folk group called the Indigo Girls approached him. Frank produced the debut album for the Indigo Girls, and this albums would eventually be re-released on Sony records to widespread acclaim. Having found that he loved producing much more than performing, Frank stayed on that career path, producing the projects of “more people than (he) can remember the names of.” Currently, along with producing and songwriting, Frank is the Music and Worship Pastor at the Church of the Messiah. He and his wife Jeanne are also active members of the Cherokee County Music Society, helping to spread the word about the great music that is to be found in this metro Atlanta county.

MM: You said you recorded your first album with a band at the age of sixteen. Did you actually get involved in the recording process beyond playing the music?

FF: At that time, the only experience I had was recording on my four track at home.

MM: Did you feel you had a knack for recording, and did that early exposure plant a seed that producing may be something else you wanted to get into?

FF: Definitely. I really enjoyed the process of producing my own recordings. At the time I was the only guy I knew who was recording my own music. I mean, Pete Townsend and Brian Wilson were doing that in their home studios. So when we did go into that professional studio to do our first band recording, I really paid attention to what was going on. I found it wasn’t that much more sophisticated than what I had at home. I watched how they did it through the whole process, and it really fascinated me.

MM: When did you start gaining more interest in producing than performing?

FF: You know in the 70’s when I was playing with Teaser and bands like that, I enjoyed making my own recordings as well as working in the studios. There was some horrible music in the 70’s that was recorded with a real dead sound, and I knew I could make better recordings than were being released commercially at the time. When I moved to Atlanta and was with the Nobz, we were signed to a publisher who paid us to do songs during the punk rock days. That is when I really became a straight ahead producer, not only for my songs, but for the songs written by the other guys in the Nobz. They came to me because I knew how to get the maximum use out of the studio. When the 80’s came along I started thinking to myself, if there was one thing I could get as an instrument, what would be the most useful for me? That is when I decided to start building up a pro studio. Performing live was fun for a while, but I started realizing that I was enjoying producing better than performing as I got more and more into it. It really is a lot of fun being in studios and building these recordings.

MM: You’re a multi-instrumentalist, so do you feel that is important for a producer to at least have a rudimentary knowledge of most instruments, if not a more thorough knowledge?

FF: I don’t think they necessarily have to know how to play them all, but they should know what all the instruments can do. Producers should understand how an ensemble fits together, whether it is a duo or trio or a full blown orchestra. They need to know the range of instruments and what they can do. One of my music theory teachers told me once that it was good to know what the rules are so you know how to break them. As a producer, it really helps to know the potential of the singers and the players you are working with and how it all fits together. Sometimes you have an idea of what a song will sound like in your head from the first time you hear it. Then when it is done, it sounds pretty close to what you initially heard in your head. Especially when I am working with new clients, it is good to look inside them and listen to them and define the essence of the artist to help develop the songs.

MM: Do you also think since you had been a performing musician for a lot of your life, does this help you interact better with musicians in the studios, since you are a peer instead of someone who has always just been a producer? Do you think that is also something important for producers to have that musical background?

FF: Definitely, because many people think they can produce but are terrible producers. A producer is a bridge between the engineering/technical side, and the artist/musician side of the recording process. They help balance the sounds of the instruments as a whole, where an engineer may listen to each individual instrument and get them to sound great, but the producer is the one who has to balance them all together so the whole ensemble sounds great. Getting everything to balance and making sure everyone and everything is working to their potential is what a producer does.

MM: When you were starting to learn how to produce on your own, was it basically a college of hard knocks where you learned as you went? Or did you have mentors or other avenues to hone your craft?

FF: I have things that I study and I read them all the time. Like reading how someone produced a certain song; I read those interviews and pay attention to what they are saying. I also paid close attention to what the producers were doing in the studios I was recording in. I would get a hold of the Nobz and push the parameters myself. I found out what each piece of equipment could do, and now, when I get a new piece of equipment, I push it to see how far it will go before it falls apart and sounds awful. Once you find out where your boundaries are, you learn how to use it. It was great that I got to work with all the progressions from four track to eight and sixteen track, and then from analog to digital. When digital came along, there were things you could do with digital that you couldn’t do with analog, but there are still a couple things you can do with analog that you can’t do with digital.

MM: So do you think producers should also know how to use vintage equipment rather than relying solely on digital?

FF: It’s good to study history in anything because there are always lessons you can learn. Looking back at history from a safe distance you can look at it from a different perspective than a person did when they were going through something. With recording, there were some things that were done great and were done right, and many things that were mistakes and were done wrong, and should never be resurrected again. (Laughs)

MM: So learn from your mistakes, right?

FF: Yeah, you learn from your mistakes, hopefully you do.

MM: Since you have done all of this touring and performing, looking from that perspective, what are some of the things you have seen that musicians do wrong when they are trying to get their career to work? What are some of their common mistakes?

FF: One mistake that they still make today that they made thirty years ago is looking for that big record deal and that big financial advance. If somehow they do get that advance, then they go and blow it. All of a sudden they are caught in a debt that they will probably never be able to pay back to the record label.

MM: In other words, find out what the word “recuperation” means.

FF: Yeah. (Laughs) They find out the mistake they made when they are waiting for their royalty payments and they never come, because the label is deducting the money from the advance. Another common mistake is people don’t think globally, they only think locally. They never raise themselves to the level of having to compete with international artists and finding out what it takes to be on stage of someone with a very high caliber. They may make fun of some sappy pop song, but if that song has gone multi-platinum, then they really should not make fun of it because there is a reason for it being popular. There are many people who are great artists but have never learned how to make a living off their art.

MM: What do you feel is the best advice you can give musicians who are starting out?

FF: First thing is get real honest with yourself and ask yourself if there is only one thing you can do with your life, is this what you want to do? Is this what you are passionate about? We tend to think our life is going to go on forever, and if we try to do too much, we end up not becoming great at any one thing. So everyone needs to ask themselves what is that one thing you are the most passionate about and then invest your life in it.

MM: You have to do that with any walk of life, but it seems that with music you have to push even harder because it is an art and there are so many others struggling for that piece of the pie.

FF: Yeah. If you are going to be a singer/songwriter, become a GREAT singer/songwriter. Realize what your strengths and weaknesses are and discipline yourself to enhance your strengths and overcome your weaknesses. If you are going to spend a number of hours a week doing something, you may as well spend it doing something you love, and also make a living at it.

MM: When a band or musician first comes into a studio, what do they need to do to prepare themselves to make sure that A: they put a good product out there, and B: they don’t piss off the producer?

FF: (Laughs) One way to be prepared is to make a recording of your rehearsals of the music and then sit down and listen to it critically. Don’t ask your friends what they think of it because they will either lie to you or sway you. Just sit and listen to it and figure out among yourselves what you can do to make it better. Be well-rehearsed so when you do get into the studio, you don’t have to waste everyone's time by rehearsing in a recording studio. There is nothing more boring for an engineer or producer than listening to a group rehearse something they should have already done.

MM: Sounds like you’ve had some experiences with that.

FF: A few times. (Laughs) Also, when you go into a studio, don’t come in stoned. Don’t bring in alcohol or drugs or anything that is going to give you a distorted view or hinder your performance. Some people think they play better when they are high, but they really don’t. They are just fooling themselves.

MM: And that should apply beyond the studio as well, right?

FF: Yes. This is the business of music and it is pretty well known that most musicians are terrible businessmen. Some of them do put the party before the business. When you think of what Hendrix or Jim Morrison or Keith Moon could have done if they hadn’t died, it’s tragic. They hadn’t given the world everything that they had. Also, if you are really serious about the music business, get a good entertainment lawyer. Someone that will help you interpret all the papers you are going to have to sign, so you don’t sign your life away as some people have. Don’t sign away your songs because the people who end up living a more comfortable life are the people who wrote the songs and the ones who own the copyrights. &

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