Inside the Topanga Canyon Studio of Jacknife Lee, Producer for U2, Taylor Swift & 'Divergent'
The words "Abandon Taste" glow on a neon sign in the main room of Jacknife Lee's Topanga Canyon recording studio, part of a three-structure compound that also includes his home -- and a yurt. It's an ironic statement, considering Lee, real name Garret Lee, is the acclaimed, Grammy-winning producer featured on Taylor Swift's "Red," U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" and Weezer's "The Red Album."
More recently, he produced "Cannibal," the crunchy new single from Silversun Pickups' "The Singles Collection," released Feb. 25; and "I Won't Let Go" by frequent collaborator Snow Patrol, a heartfelt highlight from the "Divergent" soundtrack, released March 11. Like most of Lee's recent (and best) work, it was recorded here, on an impossibly picturesque bluff overlooking the hills of Malibu.
If the Irish-born producer/songwriter, 45, boasts an eclectic client roster -- One Direction to Crystal Castles to Bloc Party -- his studio's contents are no less diverse. Kraftwerk posters hang next to Mexican folk art, and original Banksy prints cover every available surface. But what defines the space is the beguiling sprawl of tactile hardware, wired and ready for action. Rare synths from Korg, Moog, Arp and Roland lie alongside high-end compressors and preamps and obscure '80s drum machines.
"You go to studios that have amazing gear, but it's often all packed away," says the press-shy Lee, in one of only a handful of interviews he's done over his two-decade career. "I try to have everything so it can be ready to be used in seconds, so when people come in here they just want to start playing."
The musicians who have graced this close-knit warren of rooms have proved more than up to the task. It was here Lee recorded "The Ghost of the Mountain" -- the latest album from Tired Pony, the tweaked country combo he formed with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. "That's Peter's chair," says Lee with a laugh, pointing to a seat in the corner. "Peter picks the place he wants to play the first day, and he never leaves it. Once he picks it, you have to sort of arrange the studio around that area."
Lee's profile exploded in 2004 when he helped produce U2's comeback smash "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" along with Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, Chris Thomas, Nellee Hooper and other A-list names. The album went on to win nine Grammys, tying Santana's "Supernatural" for the most honors bestowed upon a single album in one year. "U2 was a turning point," says Lee. "Make one record that sells, and people start trusting you."
After U2, Lee produced R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" (2008) and "Collapse Into Now" (2011), the group's last albums before it broke up. Lee says both projects were key to his evolution as a producer. "From R.E.M., I learned most things -- what's a good take, what's a bad one, really committing to things," says Lee.
"Garret possesses more curiosity than any man I've ever met," says R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe. "His interest in everything that has ever been, and will ever be, is unfathomable. If there is something in the world that completely stumps me, profoundly moves me or makes me laugh so hard I can't type, I write to Garret. I know that he will understand."
With his wide-ranging projects, Lee doesn't have a trademark sound that can be easily quantified and characterized -- and that's how he prefers it. "I like to get people in a room and have them play," he says, "and then I process the results the way I'd do with dance music."
Indeed, dance is familiar ground for Lee. While he first gained notice in the early '90s as guitarist for Dublin post-punk band Compulsion, he went on to some acclaim as a DJ and solo act signed to Howie B.'s Pussyfoot Records during the electronica boom a few years later. At the time, Lee considered himself more of an artist than someone aspiring to a full-on production career.
His current path stems from a 12-inch remix he tossed together the day that his first daughter was born in 2001. "I wanted to leave the house for a breather, but I didn't want to plug my guitar in," says Lee. "I ended up putting a song of mine together with a Missy Elliott track, and created one of the first-ever bootleg mashups: I called it 'Get Ur 9-lb Cock On.' "
The track's word-of-mouth success was the first thing Lee had done that resembled a hit, and it taught him to always trust his instincts. "Before I'd try too hard, but with that I didn't care -- I just did it," he says. These days, Lee preaches that effortless gospel in the studio, encouraging musicians to loosen up, have fun and take risks.
"What I bring is an unorthodox approach to capturing an atmosphere," he says. "I'm here to deconstruct what it means to be in a band -- to stop musicians from just doing what's automatic. Sometimes I'm asked to shake things up for artists that are stuck, or make them feel safe -- or to take safe people out of their comfort zone."
Worn down by a spate of full-length projects from with Weezer, R.E.M., Snow Patrol and The Cars, Lee took himself out of his own zone a few years ago, putting his production career on hold and devoting himself to pop songwriting with a rotating roster of collaborators. These sessions, which Lee calls "speed-dating songwriting," found him (often with Lightbody as his cohort) working with the chart-topping likes of Ed Sheeran and Bonnie McKee. "I had a lot more freedom," says Lee. "Gary and I finished a song for Taylor in one day."
Fortunately, that sort of instant gratification didn't ruin Lee's appetite for production. Rather, it has informed how he's approaching his upcoming projects -- a new Silversun Pickups album, work with Michelle Branch, the upcoming Snow Patrol LP, which is just getting underway, and a hush-hush collaboration with Don Was and a legendary songwriter that recently wrapped.
"The discipline I brought back from that experience doing pop songwriting is huge," explains Lee. "I'm old school, and I've always looked at the album as a whole entity. But now, I'm really about making every single second of my music count."