Recently I had a chance to talk with Brian McTernan (producer, vocalist) of Be Well. McTernan has a storied past of producing legendary records from bands such as Thrice (Illusion of Safety, The Artist in the Ambulance), The Movielife (Forty Hour Train Back to Penn), and Senses Fail (Still Searching, Life is Not a Waiting Room). These are just a few of the many producer credits to McTernan’s name, and we discussed his process for producing bands as well the advice he would give to young producers looking to make their unique stamp on an album. Not to be lost in the shuffle, Brian McTernan also released a solid album from a project called Be Well this past summer, and he shared his favorite tracks from The Weight and The Cost, and what he’s most looking forward to once its safe to tour again.
Thank you for your time today, Brian, and congrats on the release of your recently released record, The Weight and the Cost by a project called Be Well. What stood out most from the recording process of your new album?
Well, it was a big change of pace for me, because I grew up playing in bands, as well as recording. Sometime around 1999, I just stopped performing and started only producing, which is what I did, for the last 20 years. So this is really the first record I’ve made my own music with in two decades.
So this probably sounds refreshing too, from being a vocalist.
It is kind of a weird thing to record yourself and it took me a long time to figure out how to approach it. It was hard to get an emotional performance at first, while also punching myself in. Once I figure it out, it was fun and very rewarding.
That’s great. So that kind of alludes to the next question, which is, what do you find is the most challenging part of each role, being either a producer or working with yourself as a vocalist?
As a producer, you’re helping the artists be the best that they can be. You want to identify both their strengths and their weaknesses. I try to stay focused what’s really special about this band and amplify their strengths. My job is to be the outside person who’s totally objective and zoomed out. I’m trying to help the artist see the bigger picture, that they may not be able to see on their own. It very strange to all of a sudden to be the artist recording my own music. I was intimately invested in every little nuance, so it has been a totally different experience. And I think that I think it worked with this record, because it is such a personal album. I was really struggling in my life at the time, and the record was written almost out of necessity. I needed to express some things that I was struggling to express otherwise. The reaction has been amazing and realizing that so many other people feel so similarly has ended up making me feel so much less isolated…. it’s kind of the magic of, of music, it’s why we spend our time doing this.
Right, right. So going back to the producer role, what specific things do you look for in a performance from an artist when you decide it’s the “best take” for the recording? And how does that differ between instruments and vocal performances in particular?
I do my best to not think about it. I think as a producer, there’s a kind of two schools of thought: there’s the guys that are like, “Okay, I’m going to get this one line, then I’m going to tune it, then I’m going to double it, and then I’m going to copy and paste it everywhere it happens again.” I am just looking to love how it sounds and to trust my ears and my gut. When I hear it, and I like it…that’s it. That’s the one. There isn’t some system… It’s a feeling. I have made music and produced record my whole life and if I can’t feel what a great take is, or the right take for the band, then I probably shouldn’t be the producer of that record.
I mean, it’s definitely one perspective. You’ve been doing it long enough that you probably have that feeling and you can trust, like you’re saying, your gut instinct on those types of situations.
You’ve produced some of my favorite records by some great bands such as Thrice, The Movielife, and Senses Fail, just to name a few. What qualities in a band make you want to work for them? And then on the other side of the coin, why do you think bands seek you out to collaborate with them for an album?
Well, what I would say is I make better records with bands that are really great people. I like to get really involved in the projects, and really pour my heart into them. So many of the bands I have worked with are really awesome, caring, passionate people. There are other bands that are way more just making the record as a tool to tour, and it’s not as much about the art. All of the bands that you just listed are just…they’re not clients, they’re lifelong friends, and creative partners. I think most bands that seek me out aren’t looking for a specific sound, but they are looking to take the songs and performances yo another level, and have someone experienced help guide the process.
Yeah, it’s interesting to hear that kind of perspective. Because, usually I’m interviewing bands and artists or stuff like that, but I think I’ve you might be my first producer that’s taken on both roles. So it’s curious to hear your perspective on that type of thing too. Because usually you hear only one side of the coin. It’s nice that you can actually speak on both for us. That’s pretty cool!
So getting back to the new Be Well album, it is very much like you said, enriched in not only your personal life, but also the Baltimore music scene right down to the cover art. What do you think makes the Baltimore/DC music scene so unique?
I don’t know…I’ve always thought that the DC/Baltimore region is such a melting pot of diversity in a lot of ways. I feel like there’s a lot of culture and there’s a long history of really great punk and hardcore bands coming up. Baltimore in particular, right now, just has a lot of cool shit going on. There are a lot of great bands and a lot of really great people making music, making art, and booking shows. You can live in Baltimore, and not have to be super wealthy. We have so many independent venues, art spaces, and things like that up here, because the rent isn’t as crazy as it is in places like New York or DC. I think that’s contributed to a lot of really great music coming out of here, right now.
Yeah, that’s a good point. Because basically where I live, just outside of DC, the rents can be a little bit higher, even with home ownership and stuff like that. But it’s nice that you can get with the Baltimore scene, a wide range of living arrangements and stuff that would be conducive for a band to be thriving in those types of situations.
What’s interesting is that a lot of the people I know in Baltimore own their house, where if you live in New York City, or Boston or DC, it’s really hard to be like an artist or a musician and survive. Unless you have some other means of income, because they’re just expensive cities compared to Baltimore. The city is freaky and it’s equal parts kind of shitty and amazing all at the same time. I love the grit of it…I moved here from DC, and just fell in love with it immediately. It’s just a laid back, funky, weird, and I’m never the weirdest person in the room here, which is comforting.
Do you have a favorite song from The Weight and the Cost record that you look back on and you’re most proud of, or one that’s sentimental to you?
The last song on the record is called “Confessional,” and that song is so personal and intense. I was actually saying, “Oh, my God. I’m not even sure I feel comfortable putting this out into the world.” It was very emotionally raw. I was worried that nobody’s going to understand it at all. I spent my whole life having these emotions and thoughts that I wasn’t sharing with anyone. In my mind, I kind of thought that everybody would be saying, “Oh, what is he talking about?” But it’s been kind of the opposite. So many people have reached out to me and said, “Oh, my God, this record really spoke to me.” There are a lot of parenting themes on the record. I have a daughter, and that’s really changed my perspective. It’s been really amazing to me that people understand and that people have related in such a meaningful way, is rewarding.
That’s pretty cool to get that instant feedback from not only you know, other fans have listened to your record, but also you mentioned parents. I’m one of them too that you’re talking to. I have three kids. So, it’s kind of interesting to hear that perspective as well. What do you think is gonna be the most gratifying song to play live whenever it’s safe to do so again from this album?
I’m excited to play “Confessional,” and “Morning Light” in a room full of people all singing along with us. It gives me chills to think about it.
And now people have had time to kind of absorb the record…I know you guys were touring a little bit before the record came out before this madness started, and everything like that, but now that people have had a chance to kind of reflect on the songs, I think it could be a really cathartic experience when you guys tour again.
I am thankful because right at the end of February last year, we had our first headlining show was in DC at Songbyrd, and it was sold out. It was intense and wonderful night. It was such a nice way to enter this phase of not being able to perform.. It has helped me be able to kind of keep focused on the future. So yeah, I can’t wait to play. I mean, I love making records, but also performing, traveling and meeting people. And it’s just such a big component of this whole thing and why people do it.
Yeah, definitely! The last question I have for you today is, what advice would you give to new producers starting out or looking out for ways to develop their own craft?
I would encourage people to not directly dive into drum triggers, grid editing, and copying and pasting, and all kinds of fake stuff right away. There is a craft to engineering, tuning the drums, and recording the drums really well, and getting really soulful performances…I feel like a lot of that has gone away with the onset of technology and the ability to just replace them with triggers. Or a lot of people are having singers sing directly into auto tune. I feel like so much music sounds exactly the same. It’s very safe and very professional, but then you have to ask yourself, “Is it special?” I have this thing where I feel like every band that ever breaks, you could walk into a party, and the music could be on the other side of the room and you can know who that band is right away. People want to have a system and a rule book. For me, I want to push it as far as it can go. You also have to understand that what works for Thrice is not necessarily going to work for Senses Fail, or for Strike Anywhere for that matter. So you have to be able to craft your approach to making the record based on what is special about the band. My example every time is, if you took Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, and Metallica. And you took all those bands and ran them through the same assembly line….those records would suck!
It wouldn’t work, yeah.
So for me, if you don’t think that the bands you’re working with deserve their own approach, their own sounds, own coloring, or their own character, you’re really cheating bands that have an opportunity to be something really special. So I guess to sum it up, my advice to young producers is that it’s not about “you.” It’s about the band. Focus on honing your skill set and learning to be able to approach every record differently, so that bands have the opportunity to be themselves.
Yeah, that’s a great way of taking a look at it. Do you ever get into the mode of saying, how is this gonna translate live during those processes? Or is that ever a sidebar conversation?
I don’t worry so much about that, only because I feel there’s so much about a live performance that you can’t translate onto a record, and there’s so much about a record that you can’t translate live. I like to make the record and then figuring out the live thing as a separate component. The record is the thing that lives on for all time and eternity.
Right. That’s cool. That was great, Brian! Thank you so much for your time. Hope to connect with you at some point in the near future.