How Foxygen's Jonathan Rado Became One of Indie Rock's Most In-Demand Producers
Though it's only about 20 or so miles from Hollywood, Woodland Hills feels like a world away from what we think of as Los Angeles. Sure, it's got the palm trees, hot weather and slow-moving traffic, but Woodland Hills resembles something closer to a quiet suburb, complete with multiple parks, diners and a country club.
But deep within the distinctly uncool area that produced the Valley Girl stereotype, Foxygen multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado slowly began to leave his mark on the overall sound of 2010s indie rock, one tape recording at a time. Now, only four years after he bought a compressor and used it completely wrong throughout the entirety of Foxygen's …And Star Power -- he had heard that Todd Rundgren used to press all of the buttons in at the same time -- Rado has become one of the most in-demand producers in his genre, pumping out acclaimed records from Father John Misty, The Lemon Twigs, Whitney, Alex Cameron and more, most of which hail from his Woodland Hills garage.
"I'm probably using everything totally incorrectly," Rado explains. "I always need to be in that position where I kind of don't know what I'm doing because if I'm too comfortable, I'm going to make everything sound like everything else."
His often-freewheeling and old-fashioned approach – Rado refuses to use computers throughout the recording process – has attracted a number of musicians to his Woodland Hills garage and new studio in Los Feliz, artists who know full well that the experience is going to be unlike working with any other producer. Rado and new recording partner Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, War on Drugs, The Voidz) recently created a 24-track tape loop that would spin around the room on a tape machine in the studio with Houndmouth, recording the warbly sound as it passed by, something that can distinctly be heard on their upcoming album Golden Age.
But Rado – as he's commonly known by his peers – never had formal training, learning most everything he knows either through artist/producer Richard Swift (The Shins, Nathaniel Rateliff, Tennis) or by throwing himself into the deep end. "He's my hero, my mentor, my everything – he's the reason why I started doing this and I love him to death," Rado says of Swift, who worked on Foxygen's breakthrough 2012 record Take the Kids Off Broadway.
Through the sessions for Broadway and its excellent successor We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Swift gave Rado the confidence to go it alone and produce on his own, first working on Dub Thompson's debut record, 9 Songs. Around the time that album dropped, Rado received a fateful tweet from a teenage brother duo from across the country, imploring him to "Be Richard Swift for us." Before long, he was working on The Lemon Twigs' debut.
"We knew that he self-recorded a lot of stuff, but we just got in contact with him to show him our music," the Twigs' younger brother Michael D'Addario remembers. "We didn't really expect him to say, 'Hey do you guys want to come to California for a couple weeks and record ten songs?' He offered it up."
Before they knew it, the teenage retro rockers were flying to Los Angeles to record and stay in Rado's home. The resulting sessions were an experiment for everyone involved; the D'Addarios were working with a producer for the first time while Rado was just beginning to get his bearings.
"His excitement carried us through that whole process," elder brother Brian D'Addario says. "I don't think his enthusiasm ever dwindled."
The Lemon Twigs' resulting album, Do Hollywood – jokingly titled because of the difference between the brothers' expectation of Los Angeles versus the reality of Woodland Hills suburbia – eventually became an indie success, released about two years after their initial Twitter exchange with their producer.
In the meantime, Rado continued to hone his production skills, working on Whitney's debut, Light Upon the Lake, in fall 2015. The Chicago band's core duo, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, camped in a tent in Rado's backyard. Fueled by "a hundred PBRs" according to Rado, the band, made up of former members of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns, drank and smoked their way through late-night recording sessions to make one of the most critically acclaimed debut albums of 2016, a collection of summery jams that recalls the best of '70s Americana folk-rock.
"We were nothing at that point," Ehrlich explains. "We weren't looking at him as 'Oh he hasn't produced anything that's big. We need a big name.' We didn't really care about that."
Though they may have been unknowns at that point, Rado heard something in the band, as he does with every band he decides to work with. "My general rule of thumb is if I listen to their demos and I listen to them once and I turn them off, if I can remember what it sounded like after I turn it off," Rado says. "If I can spend an hour and think back – 'Oh I remember exactly what that sounded like!' – that's what I want to work on. If it doesn't stick with me, I don't feel like I have much to offer to it."
The Whitney sessions also showcased yet another side of Rado – his multi-instrumentalism. He plays at least something on most every band's album he works with, but with Whitney, he helped morph album highlight "No Matter Where We Go" from a distorted guitar-based song to the breezy, road tripping track it is on the album.
"We didn't realize that he could really even play instruments as well as he could until he sat down and starting playing what eventually became the 'No Matter Where We Go' piano part," Ehrlich remembers. "It was meant to be weird psych rock, like Jimi Hendrix shit. He sat down and started playing this ragtime piano and Max and I were stoned and laughing our asses off and then also realized, 'Oh my god, we have to change the song and base it around that.' He just knows how to use his sounds really well."
After those releases, Rado suddenly found himself at the center of mid-2010s indie rock. He became incredibly in demand, unable to keep up with the rigors of being in a touring band while saying yes to everyone he wanted to work with, having to turn down multiple enticing offers due to time constraints.
"The things that I really want to do, that I really really want to do, I'll find a way to do it," he says. And you can hear it in his voice – Rado is quite simply a massive fan of everyone he works with, echoing Brian D'Addario's earlier statement.
Perhaps one of the main reasons that he finds the time to record with so many different artists is due to the fact that he works at such a fast rate, using an antiquated approach to production that doesn't allow him to overanalyze everything.
"Rado is just a go-with-the-feeling guy and he works faster that way," rising U.K. crooner Matt Maltese explains, mentioning that his new album, Bad Contestant, was recorded in just twelve days. "Having tape so you can't go in and chop and change things, you're just like 'oh that's it, let's move on.' Growing up with [computer program] Logic, it was nice having someone like that who works so fast and has the gear to make it happen."
With only a couple of exceptions, notably the upcoming Houndmouth album which took place over six or so months, every project he's worked on has been completed in two or three weeks, sometimes even quicker. For example, Father John Misty's God's Favorite Customer was recorded in just days, with the first three songs finished on day one. Most of the vocals you hear on that album were completed on the first take.
"Very organic and fast," cult comedian Tim Heidecker adds, who has recorded two albums with Rado and has another on the way. "You don't over-talk it, you don't overthink it, you go 'this sounds good with this on it' and Rado's really good at things like that. He doesn't overthink it and it's a fun conversation. We both have a musical knowledge of who we can refer to things and be like 'this reminds me of Neil Young's guitar part or something.' We both like the same kind of music and talk about records in between takes and stuff and that connects us."
Rado's encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially of releases from the '60s to the '80s, helps the artists he works with reconnect with that era. But retro isn't quite the right way to describe his recording style, as old-fashioned as it may seem.
"I used to think, 'I'm a retro guy; I do everything retro,'" Rado says. "But that got really old for me. I felt really trapped. I became really disillusioned and unhappy with where modern psych rock was going. There's nothing that's more boring to me than psych rock – it doesn't interest me at all. How do we make this sound like not in an era? I'm not opposed to something sounding like the '60s, but I think that it has to be subverted in some way to be truly interesting."
But in 2018, his back-to-basics approach to recording is almost radical, rejecting technological advances for a flawed, charming overall sound. Sure, you'll hear some tape hiss from time to time if you pay close enough attention, but that's part of Rado's appeal, aiming for vibe over perfection.
Whether in his garage or his new studio at Sonora Recordings in Los Feliz, a quiet spot just across the street from the Los Angeles River, musicians flock to Rado, hoping to mine his ear for that specific modern-yet-throwback sound. That new studio, a big windowless room that once birthed Figure 8 by Elliott Smith, is now home to the Rado sessions for Weyes Blood's new album. According to her, Elliott Smith still haunts the place – "Anytime there's a fuzzy channel or something goes wrong with the tape – 'Oh, Elliott didn't like that.' He's trying to have a say on this record."
But regardless if it's the '80s-influenced sheen of Alex Cameron's Jumping the Shark, the breezy California summer vibes of Whitney's Light Upon the Lake, or Father John Misty's heartbroken Americana on God's Favorite Customer, Jonathan Rado is there, shaping the overall sound of this decade's indie rock one release at a time. Adding a piano riff here, a guitar line there or just twisting knobs, his laid-back and passionate persona is the x-factor for countless artists aiming to make the best record possible, regardless of their level of renown. Even as "produced by Jonathan Rado" becomes more commonplace, he's still that same guy messing around and experimenting with specific instruments and recording equipment that he may not fully understand, always searching for a specific sound, one that utilizes archaic techniques to create something fresh and groundbreaking.