Dr. Luke: The Billboard Cover Story
The doctor is in, at the tree-shrouded Conway Studios compound in Hollywood, and he won't be out any time soon.
Lukasz Gottwald -- the writer/producer better-known to the explosive-chorus-loving world as Dr. Luke -- has booked all three rooms at Conway for the entire month of September. He's told his manager to cancel all meetings, and you might have to excuse him if your call goes to voice mail. The deadline task at hand: Coming up with enough new songs for his protégée, Ke$ha, to get a deluxe repackaging of her debut album out in time for the holiday buying season.
Nothing is remotely done yet, and Ke$ha is only available for a three-week stretch, so he and fellow producers Benny Blanco and Ammo are hard at work coming up with rough tracks for the singer to put her stamp on. How many songs are they planning on adding to the "Animal" reissue?
"I'd like as many as eight, if possible," Gottwald says. "But I'll be happy if I got four or five great ones. And a lot depends on the next two weeks. She has a single right now, 'Take It Off,' which is doing pretty well. Last time I checked, it was No. 11 on iTunes. Normally, an artist would be stuck in a fourth-single slump by now, so that's encouraging. But who knows. Two weeks from now, research could come in and say that song won't go as far as we had anticipated, and then that'll mean we need a new song right away."
If Gottwald's attention to chart detail sounds a little bit (as his nickname might suggest) scientific, he's positively a rocket engineer when it comes to the arts and sciences that take place inside the studio control room, where he's known as a genial perfectionist nonpareil. He sweats the small stuff. But that sonic fussiness hasn't gotten him bogged down so much that it's kept him from racking up the most commercially enviable career in pop production at the moment.
Stats speak even louder than beats. On the Billboard Hot 100 right now, he's responsible as a co-writer and co-producer for 40% of the top 10: Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" (No. 3), Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" (No. 2) and "California Gurls" (No. 7), and Ke$ha's "Take It Off" (No. 10), which is defying a fourth-single slump. (He would have claimed half the top 10 if B.o.B and Rivers Cuomo's "Magic" hadn't slipped 11-10.) He can claim four of Billboard's 20 top-selling digital singles of all time, with Ke$ha's 5 million-selling "TiK ToK," Flo Rida's "Right Round," Perry's "Hot N Cold" and Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A."
Then there are the earlier smashes that might've made that list had they been released later in the digital singles sales revolution, like Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes," seminal collaborations with mentor Max Martin that put him on the pop map five years ago. That Gottwald was named ASCAP's songwriter of the year in April probably counts as a performing-rights no-brainer.
In the coming months, Gottwald will co-executive produce Britney Spears' 2011 project, alongside Martin. For his own label, Kemosabe, whose sole release so far is Ke$ha's "Animal," he'll be working with his latest signings, female singers Sabi and Sophia Black. Meanwhile, taking off his executive hat, he's still involved in plenty of production one-offs, like an upcoming single for British powerhouse vocalist Jessie J (who co-wrote "Party in the U.S.A." for herself before sacrificing it to Cyrus).
For the last five years, Gottwald has provided a veritable soundtrack for adolescence and young adulthood, assuming the mantle of Tycoon of Teen that's been passed down from Phil Spector. There's hardly a ballad to be found in his catalog, which is full of rock-tinged dance-pop with an unabashedly ecstatic quality that makes even middle-aged top 40 listeners feel like they're living the teenage dream, to paraphrase Perry.
"His hallmark is 'tempo' records-at worst, they're [midtempo]-coupled with über-melody and great concepts," RCA/Jive Label Group chairman/CEO Barry Weiss says. Consider the fact that many of these concepts have involved some form or another of cheeky female empowerment-see Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," Pink's "U + Ur Hand" and Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend"-and he could almost be considered an avatar of girls, or girl-lovers, everywhere.
But Gottwald, who will turn 37 in a few weeks, resists the suggestion that he might concoct these hits with the image of a teenage girl with an iPod in mind. His awareness of research and chart stats notwithstanding, he swears he's his own target audience.
"Apparently my taste is that of a 13-year-old girl," he jokes. "Not really. But my taste is commercial. Listen, there's been times in my life like the two years that I only listened to jazz, and probably nothing after 1966. When I went to the Manhattan School of Music, the library didn't have anything after 1966. In order to get good at that, I had to tunnel-vision and focus on that.
"But sometimes when I talk to those kinds of people, they're like, 'What is it like making this simple music?' They look down on it. And I'm like, 'No, you don't get it. I actually like this. I don't see a difference between brilliance in one and the other.' There's no compromise to me in what I'm doing. I'm trying to make songs that I love and make them feel a certain way and go to certain places. It just so happens that a lot of 13-year-old girls like that."
When Gottwald was 13, he was living in New York and just picking up the guitar, through the encouragement of an older sister. That stint studying jazz was followed by time spent as a session guitarist, jingle writer and, ultimately, house guitarist for "Saturday Night Live"-a seven-year gig he didn't give up till well into his producing success, when he moved to Los Angeles in 2007. He was part of an ill-fated band, Wide, that signed to Atlantic through Jason Flom but never released an album. ("That was how I was able to get some equipment to make music," Gottwald recalls.)
At the same time, he was starting to gain notoriety for his hip-hop remixes. It was while DJ'ing that he fatefully met the kingpin of '90s teen pop, Max Martin. When, on a whim, Martin invited him to collaborate on some songs, he immediately recognized in Gottwald a kindred spirit who shared his "don't bore us, get to the chorus" philosophy.
"We were friends for a long time before we started working," the notoriously press-averse Martin says. "I came to New York and just wanted to write something, so I called him up, because I knew he had a studio in his basement. We started working, and I instantly knew, because his instincts are really, how do you say it? He wants it to be effective. I was struck by that. 'No, no, that's too long. Get to the point!' And I'm known for that. But he took it even further, and I really liked that."
Gottwald remembers well the genesis of "Since U Been Gone." "That was a conscious move by Max and myself, because we were listening to alternative and indie music and talking about some song-I don't remember what it was. I said, 'Ah, I love this song,' and Max was like, 'If they would just write a damn pop chorus on it!' It was driving him nuts, because that indie song was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes . . . and it goes back down to five. It drove him crazy. And when he said that, it was like, light bulb. 'Why don't we do that, but put a big chorus on it?' It worked.
"But you have to reinvent that now, too," he continues. "It's something I think about a lot. You say a lot of those songs have an explosive chorus. But maybe a chorus needs to explode in a different way. Maybe if they all become these big 18-wheeler trucks slamming into a wall, that in itself becomes anticlimactic. You've got to be careful. You want to ride a sound for a little bit, but you don't want to ride it too much, to the point where it dies and you're associated with the death of that sound."
It was Sony Music chief creative officer Clive Davis' idea to give "Since U Been Gone" to Clarkson, but its writer/producers, certain that they had written a rock hit, were initially reluctant. "They weren't prepared for the casting idea," Davis recalls. "Max was looking to move on from what he had done with Backstreet Boys, and I really spent time convincing them that an 'American Idol' winner could bring all the feeling and passion that was required to the song."
All of a sudden, though, Gottwald playing guitar on a top 40 song became a much-imitated staple. "With that song and 'Behind These Hazel Eyes,' we were able to take Kelly Clarkson to a major seller of albums all over the world where they had never even heard of 'American Idol,' " Davis says. "And on Kelly's last album, their song 'My Life Would Suck Without You' really got her back on the winning side of it.
"Then we had Pink, who had had tremendous success, but then had done a rock album ["Trouble"] that did not fare as well. When you're a pop performer, you need hits. 'U + Ur Hand' really brought Pink the momentum that led to a continuation of her worldwide success."
Gottwald was brought onto Lavigne's last album, "The Best Damn Thing," under similar circumstances. "That record was done before Luke got in," Gottwald's manager Mark Beaven says. "Her manager said, 'Look, the record's done. But if he can come up with a first single, we'd love to do it.' He went in for a few days, the few days extended, and that extended. And they just had such a great time that all of a sudden there were eight new songs [of his] on her record, and eight songs [by earlier producers] that didn't make the record."
If you thought Gottwald needed a second nickname, you might call him "the Closer." "I hear this a lot, that the artists are with [other producers], and they don't have a single, and they want to come to me or my friends and ask us to fix it. And it's like, why didn't we get the call before?" Possibly because his six-figure-per-track salary puts him out of range for some acts, until they realize they're in a pinch, at which time labels may take stock of Beaven's contention that the odds of Luke producing a No. 1 single "are somewhere between 1-2 and 1-3."
Even on records he's in charge of-like Perry's "Teenage Dream," on which he served as executive producer, as well as getting hands-on with five tracks-he takes an it's-not-over-till-it's-over stand.
"If 'Teenage Dream' didn't sell a record, I would still love it, and also know I did everything possible to ensure its success," Gottwald says. "And when I say I did everything possible, I'm not just talking about the music. I'm talking about making people understand that they're not done with the record, when they want to be done and don't want to work any more. Sometimes you have to do things in people's best interests and they don't even know it, and maybe they'll figure it out later and thank you, and maybe they won't. Most likely they won't.
"On 'Teenage Dream,' people on the management side and label side were pretty much telling me that we were done, before we had 'Teenage Dream' or 'California Gurls.' And I said, 'No, we're not done.' Those were the last two songs we did. Maybe I'm just a neurotic New York Jew. But I feel like I know when it's right. I'll bet against myself, too. I want an insurance policy. I feel like if there's three or four right ones-not just three or four songs, but three or four songs that I feel are great-if the first one doesn't go, and you have another one right behind it, it's going to connect."
And he takes it personally if it doesn't connect, knowing that the artist's career is on the line more than his.
"Like with Katy-she's now had two records, and I believe if you can get those both right, you're a career artist. If you can make huge first and second records, if you have a third record that sucks, you can still do a fourth record, no problem. And you have enough material out there that you can tour for as long as you want. But one record? No. You need two. I feel like that's someone's career. As opposed to an established artist who just expects it, I do feel it's more exciting to make a difference in somebody's life. So I want to do everything I can to make sure that works."
Gottwald is mindful of his own career in some interesting ways. At a time when most artists and producers are panicking over declining album sales and willing to license hits and sell synch rights for a song, he's said "no" to a lot of potential ancillary income. Why be such a stickler for drawing that line?
"Let's just put it this way," he says, before pausing to collect his thoughts. "I feel there's a value to music, and I feel people should be paid for it. We're at a stage where physical sales are going down. So if people aren't buying the music, but the music is the fuel for things being sold . . .
"For instance, if you do a game that's based on music, that's played to songs, and you pick the songs and buy the songs on the videogame . . . or there's a network that has 'music' and 'television' in the name of it . . . I don't think they should be getting music for free. I don't care if other people do it. But if no one takes a stand, there's no hope. And maybe it's a futile endeavor, I don't know. But not on my watch. I mean, if you want to license the Rolling Stones, you can't go, 'Hey, I want the Rolling Stones. Um, on contingency.' They'd be like, 'Fuck off! We're the Rolling Stones.' And I think there's a value to my catalog, too."
Gottwald's publishing company is administered by the powerful indie Kobalt Music, whose CEO, Willard Ahdritz, admires Gottwald's selectivity in fielding licensing and synch offers.
"You can see that he values his songs very highly, and rightly so," Ahdritz says. "As we say in publishing, he is really creating copyrights. In this Internet age, where there is an attitude that music should be free, it's important that key powerhouses are defending the value of great songs."
Gottwald earns the right to be that protective of his work and legacy through nuclear levels of meticulousness. "No matter what kind of song he's doing, he will work his ass off and stop at nothing until it is the best," Ke$ha says. "If it was a polka song, he'd made it the best fucking polka song in the entire world. He never half-asses anything."
Benny Blanco, his protégée and frequent co-producer, says, "He's got a real passion for music, and you can feel it when you walk in the room. You're like, 'Damn, that dude always wants to make stuff!' Even at seven, eight in the morning, after being up all night, if he hears something new on his computer, he stays and listens to it, sometimes 10, 20 times."
Jive's Weiss concurs: "He's a working-class guy. He works like he's poor, all the time. And he's very anal about every sound on every record."
Manager Beaven says that while many songwriters "will write one to five songs in a day, he might take two weeks. The slightest little thing that bothers him, he'll fix. He's a systems guy. He could be one of the world's greatest nuclear scientists if he chose. He just likes to understand the way things work together."
But if he likes to fix things, ironically, he also realizes that sometimes his job is to keep the artists from second-guessing their first impulses.
"I tried to rewrite the verses of 'TiK ToK,' " Ke$ha says. "I was like, 'This doesn't make sense. "Brushing your teeth with Jack Daniel's"-are people going to get what I'm talking about? Is this too much? Is it clever enough?' And he literally had to fight me off, and then Benny Blanco had to chase me out of the studio when I got a mind to rewrite it. He kept saying, 'It's good. Just trust me, it's good.'
"He really lets me be myself. All the crazy shit I say, he embraces, because he really embraced my personality. A lot of producers have tried to tone it down. And I wouldn't be as successful as I have been had I been watered down."
"Here's the thing about Ke$ha," says Gottwald, who's sitting at the board at Conway, about to play a track he and Blanco have been working on for her. "She's really smart, and she knows some of the stuff is really stupid. So the part of her that knows music and is educated will be like, 'Really?' And I'm like, 'No, if it's dumb and it's catchy and it works, it's cool.' Artists in general, and myself included, have a tendency to overthink things. Sometimes my job is to prevent people from changing stuff."
He fires up a track they've already worked on with Ke$ha. As usual for her, it's an all-synth sound.
"A lot of people have asked me, about her first record, 'How did you come up with the new sound? Your sound evolved!' " It was a new approach born out of necessity. "That was Ke$ha. She calls the shots, and she said, 'I don't want any guitars on my record.' I managed to sneak one or two in there . . . But you have to evolve. Music is changing all the time."
There's an unfinished chorus on this new track, in which Gottwald is singing through such distorted Auto-Tune, it's impossible to tell what he's saying-which is deliberate, so he won't unduly influence Ke$ha when she comes up with her own lyrics.
Meanwhile, she's already laid down spoken-word sections on the verses. Gottwald is laughingly unsure whether to call it "rap" or just "her white-girl thing." It's very much in line with her chosen persona-and very much irresistible-but apparently, she's not as sure about it as her producer is. The words: "I'm in love all right/With my crazy beautiful life/With the parties, the disasters/With my friends all pretty and plastered/I've been through my sketchy phases/Been a shitty waitress/But I'm not now, guess it worked out/Got here by running my mouth."
"She can second-guess that," Gottwald says, pausing the Pro Tools, "but I like that. I think it's real. Maybe the chorus will tie it together. Who knows? And if it's not good enough, it won't go on the record."