Photo credit: Knut Koppang
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Babelson Audio Artist
"The Soul of a Man"
Leif Johansen has had a long musical journey that isn’t over yet. Leif studied classical and Jazz bass at North Texas State University and University of Miami before relocating to Oslo Norway and playing bass and programming Synths for A-HA. Leif moved on to produce and write for the Phenomena records and founded 21 Guns with Scott Gorham. He was also a member of Far corporation as a bassist and song writer. Leif is the owner of Stable Studios in Oslo Norway where he produces, mixes and masters many records each year.
How did you start producing and what gave you the motivation to stay with it?
I have always had a desire to have a finger in every pot and after years of attempting to master the bass I moved on to programming synthesizers in the mid 80s. That put me elbow to elbow with some amazing engineers and producers. During my tenure with A-HA I got hired to program synths for the Phenomena 2 record. I think it took all of half a day before Tom Galley pulled me aside asking if I could co produce the album along with him. It turned into 30 wonderfully long days recording and hanging with many of my rock and roll heroes. What a bunch of amazingly cool people. Non pretentious and open to new ideas. Plus they could play and sing their asses off. After that I felt even more comfortable in any studio situation. Scott Gorham was involved on that album and we just hit it off. We started writing vignettes for Headbangers Ball on MTV and a video magazine called Hard and Heavy. The title track to Hard and Heavy got Scott and myself a huge publishing deal with EMI and then eventually a record deal with RCA.
What other producers, songwriters and/or artists do you see as your primary inspirations?
I was lucky to run into Mark Spike Stent and I hired him to engineer the third Phenomena record. You could hear the mans genious already then. He had just done a Mission album with John Paul Jones so he was at the start of his career but what a thrill to work with him. I had already done quite a bit of studio work with A-HA where Gerry Kitchingham was engineer and Brendan Lynch was the tape op. Brendan went on to produce Paul Weller amongst others. I also worked with the amazing Jason Corsaro on the James Bond Living Daylights title track with A-Ha so I was constantly surrounded by amazing engineers and producers. When 21 Guns was looking for a producer we met with Chris Kimsey, Roy Thomas Baker, Keith Olsen, Bob Ezrin and the we hooked up with Chris Lord Alge and we both felt it was the perfect fit. Chris is a great guy and really knows his way around a studio. So we did the first 21 Guns album with him in L.A. There are quite a few producer engineers I would love to work with so I am not finished with learning something new.
It must be said that back in those days we had budgets that bought us time to experiment. Of course the gear and software we have today makes the process quicker and easier but the technical aspects of a production is only one aspect of a work of art. Reflection being one little part of the process and these days we are shooting from the hip due to time restraints. Not much reflection happening…
How do you approach the sensitive task of discussing changes and rearrangements with artists?
I don’t have a problem asking the hard questions or suggesting something new. I try to have a playful approach so it’s more like “Hey guys, how about trying this?” If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work but at least we tried it. I do have the habit of having everything ready to go so we are in record within 15 minutes of the band arriving. I set up drums the night before and amps are ready to go so it’ s a plug and play situation. When the band is happy with what they are hearing they are already trusting me and open for new ideas. Plus, if they didn’t like my ideas or if I felt I had nothing to offer I would politely back out and suggest other producers.
What is the one thing every song must have for it to be solid?
When the arrangement is good the song mixes itself so I would have to say a good arrangement. I don’t necessarily need world class musicians but I do need musicians who have a voice with something to say. And when everyone is on the same page delivering the same message through a good arrangement then it is solid.
What other producers, songwriters and/or artists do you see as your primary inspirations?
This was already asked but I work a lot with Georg “Jöjje” Wadenius. Jöjje was a studio guitar player in New York for decades and played with so many artists. Google him 🙂 His attitude towards music is so playful that I feel that we are both 14 years old when we work together. Scott Gorham is also my soul mate both in the studio and on stage.
Can you describe, briefly, how the two of you work together on a musical project?
I have been blessed to work with some amazing guitar players and pleasing a guitar payer is an artform. I say that jokingly but it is true. You can have the same amp, same guitar, same mics and it will sound awesome one day and the next day its different. It’s called bone tone and being honest with yourself and open to how the guitarist is feeling about the sound and about how its working in the track. Getting the right sounds for Jöjje is totally different then for Scott but when it’s right that’s when the magic happens.
One lesson I learned from Scott was that he always pictured himself playing the songs we were writing on stage and in front of a packed house. Everything had to have attitude and basically bad ass.
What is the first thing you listen for when listening to a new recording?
Does it inspire? Does it jump out at you? And does it have charm? Originality sonically or original playing wise. Something can be played perfectly but it just doesn’t grab you. Then the riddle to solve is whats missing or lacking.
Do you have a favorite musical project that you've worked on?
I have so many. The A-HA days were cool because I was like a sponge and to be able to work in the best studios with the best gear was incredible. Plus, I learned so much from the band creatively. I was also lucky to spend some time in the studio with Queen during the recording of the last album with Freddy. I get goosebumps just thinking about it but that is a story for another day. I guess what I am most blessed with is that I get to work with so many different styles. From Classical to Pop to Rock to Hip Hop to Country and Blue grass. Understanding their nuances and how to draw that forth technically is a wonderful challenge. So I have no favorite.
How did you build contacts and/or clients?
Everything I have been hired to do has been word of mouth. Usually if I get in the same room with somebody I get the gig. I put people at ease but I do admit that I’m terrible at selling myself. The best compliment is that people keep coming back for more so I must be doing something right.
Is there an artist you want to work with that you have not yet had the opportunity to work with?
I have a feeling that I will work with Paul McCartney someday but its just a feeling. I have been lucky to have worked with most of my heroes so why not ;.)
Do you have advice for young people who want to become a music producers?
If you look at recording budgets today and compare them with Budgets from 10 or more years ago you will see that the line for producer fee is just gone. Unless of course you are producing Ed Sheerans latest. My advice is that you find out how you will interact with the artist or band. How will you draw out the best they have to give. What is your role in the room? There are few producers these days that can just sit on the couch and have an opinion. There were many back in the day that is for sure and some of them were geniuses but these days the producer is either behind the desk/computer or playing an axe. But most importantly how can you put the artist and musicians at ease so they can reach a level of performance they didn’t know they could achieve.
What do you like to do for fun outside of working on music?
Buying gear 🙂 It used to be running marathons until I needed four knee operations. So now it’s buying gear 🙂
If there was one word you could use to explain your experience so far while working as a music producer, what would it be?
Have you ever embarrassed yourself? If so, how did you overcome the incident?
Oh Yeah! I was in Detroit with a band of friends I went to school with at North Texas State and Michael Henderson was producing us. I was a solid bass player but he wanted to hear what I could do on a mic vocally so I was asked to do a vocal ad lib. I had never sung in a mic and or heard my own voice before so when the moment came I opened my mouth and the most ghastly sound came out. I think I embarrassed everybody else more than I but it taught me humility ;.) I guess…
There are times in a career when life isn’t going your way, how do you keep your mind on your work without losing focus?
Every thousand-mile journey starts with one step and that is how I approach both my private and professional lives. Kids first and everything else falls into place. I do admit that the lack of respect that the streaming industry shows us is very provoking and at one point I thought about throwing in the towel out of disgust. But then I changed my business model. I realized that my true partners were songwriters and artists and not the record companies. So these days I feel that I am 16 years old again and jmming in my mother’s garage. Nowadays I don’t have to please anybody but myself and the artist.
Have there ever been a time where you haven’t gotten your work done on time? If so, how did you deal with it?
I don’t remember ever missing a deadline since I have lived with the philosophy that if you have two years to do something it takes two years. If you have two weeks, then it takes two weeks. Any possible delays are usually caused by doubting artists in the eleventh hour of the production and it’s the producers’ job to remind them what the original goal was and to keep them on track.
What goals did you have set before you started your career?
My first goal was to be Chick Coreas bassist before I turned 21. I remember turning 21 playing in a top 40 club in Detroit. Not a good day but I picked myself up the next day and kept moving forward.