Producer Howard Benson Still Carries the Torch for Rock 'n' Roll and Motley Crue, But Not So Much For Country

Bryson Roatch
Howard Benson

Few rock producers in the 21st century have enjoyed as much success as Howard Benson. The records he made with My Chemical Romance, Daughtry, P.O.D., Hoobastank and the All-American Rejects dominated the sound of rock radio in the 2000s, earning Benson two Grammy nominations for producer of the year and enough gold and platinum records to line several hallways at his studio in Woodland Hills, Calif., where today he does most of his projects.

And those projects continue to rack up hits. Earlier this year, Three Days Grace earned their seventh and eighth Benson-produced No. 1’s on the Mainstream Rock chart with "The Mountain" and "Infra-Red," both co-produced with Gavin Brown and taken from the band’s sixth album (and third collaboration with Benson), Outsider. "Infra-Red" marked Three Days Grace’s 14th time topping the chart, surpassing Van Halen for the most Mainstream Rock No. 1 singles of all time. 

"Who woulda thought that?" Benson marveled, speaking by phone from his studio. "It’s not something I think any of us would have expected. But that band just has a lot of staying power. They write strong rock songs."

Benson is the first to admit that rock singles have less crossover potential now than they did a decade ago, but he remains committed to the genre for which he’s best known. In addition to producing more well-established bands like Three Days Grace, All That Remains and In Flames (the latter of whom have a new Benson-produced album due out next year), he continues to work with emerging acts, including Georgia nu metalcore upstarts Issues -- whom Benson described as "like Snarky Puppy with metal guitars" -- and youthful Orange County, Calif., blues-rockers Joyous Wolf, whose Roadrunner Records debut single, a raucous cover of Mountain’s "Mississippi Queen," came out in September. An early advocate of digital production in rock recording, he also just released his first set of guitar plug-ins through STL Tones.

Late last week, while waiting to find out whether the Woolsey Fire had spared his home in Calabasas, Calif. ("I've been up all night," he noted. "I had to sleep with one eye open because the fire was visible" from his home), Benson discussed the current state of rock music, as well as his work on the forthcoming Motley Crue biopic The Dirt and the change in producers that reunited him with Three Days Grace for the first time since 2009’s Life Starts Now. [Editor’s Note: After evacuating for several days, Benson and his family were able to return home to find their house intact.]

You didn't work together with co-producer Gavin Brown on Three Days Grace’s Outsider. He started the album and you finished. Why the switch? 

I don’t know. Strangely enough, I’ve never met Gavin and yet, I’ve had a lot of hits with him. Like with the first few Three Days Grace records, we did a lot of good stuff on that. And I think he might have written the Skillet song “Monster” that I [produced] and a few other things, but I’ve just never met him…It’s really hard to say [what happened] on these things. I feel for the other producer because I’ve been in that movie before. Sometimes things are beyond your control. 

So you’ve been in situations where the shoe is on the other foot and you’re the one being replaced?

Oh yeah. That was one of the pivotal moments of my career, actually. This was a long time ago, but I did a band called Southgang, which was a hair metal band signed to Charisma Records. Happened to be that the guitar player was a fellow named Butch Walker. This was their second album. The first one did OK; the second one … I didn’t really know as much as I know now. So I was struggling a little bit. They changed managers, and the new manager came along and did exactly what he should have done, which was, “I don’t know this Howard Benson guy, I’m bringing in Keith Olsen.” And I’m like, “Look, I know you’re taking over the project but I’ll help you with it. You don’t even have to put my name on it.” Because I knew at that point in my career, I needed more mentoring.

And [Keith] was unbelievable to me. He taught me so many things about not how to make records, but how to handle yourself in the studio. How to be organized, how to be “The Man.” I watched how he handled Southgang. They were running all over me. Nobody was thinking about the songs. It was all about everything but that because the band, that’s what they wanted. Keith, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less. Keith was like how I am now. Like, “I don’t care what guitar sound it is. Do you have a great song or not?” If you don’t have a good song, it doesn’t matter what guitar sound you have.

Would you say the common thread in your work is that you make bands think not just about their sound, but about their songwriting and vocals and lyrics and those elements?

Absolutely. That’s what I think about the most. Look, if the band doesn’t come in with their sound intact -- if they don’t know who they are, I’m not gonna be the guy to fix that. Don’t bring up other bands to me. Don’t say, “I wanna sound like this, I wanna sound like that.” No, you wanna sound like you. And it’s really empowering once they get that that’s where I’m at -- that I’m not trying to make them sound like anybody.

I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “Oh, your records all crossed over to pop. So what’d you do special?” I’m like, “I didn’t do anything special. We made the records and pop music came to us.” A lot of our songs did work on pop [radio] -- like [Hoobastank’s] “The Reason,” the All-American Rejects stuff. But that’s just because that’s where the market was at that time…Bands just don’t even really aim for that anymore. 

It seems like you don’t hear guitars in pop music anymore. Even so-called rock bands like Maroon 5 and Panic! at the Disco, you hear their hit songs now and there’s hardly any guitar in them. Should we be worried about rock’s future?

I don’t think it’s like the way it was when disco took over. When disco happened, the guitar disappeared -- then Eddie Van Halen came out and reinvented it. The challenge [now] is that the biggest competition for the guitar is your Mac. The average kid, you think about it -- they’re gonna pick up their Mac and, not every kid, but a lot of kids, they’re gonna go, "Well, I can go into [digital audio workstation]  Logic and make a song in about four minutes and sound pretty good doing it. On [guitar], I have to take lessons and do all this other stuff, and I can’t even find anybody my age who plays." I think that’s the biggest problem. There’s more competition for the bandwidth of a kid who wants to be creative. 

On the other hand, you have bands like Greta Van Fleet and Joyous Wolf [who are] guitar artists, there’s no doubt. They both have their own points of view. Joyous Wolf -- boy, do they put up a fight in the studio. They wanted it their way. They didn’t want any Auto-Tune, they barely wanted any editing. They wanted it to be them. And that’s what attracted me to them. That’s all you can ask for. I mean, hey, if it fails, at least it failed on its own terms.

As you’ve continued to produce rock bands, have you had to contend with shrinking budgets?

Yeah, we all have. I think that’s why I bought the studio. When I did the math and figured it out, it was a real estate investment. It’s a house in Woodland Hills. It’s a half an acre of land. It’s probably worth way more than what I bought it for. Owning a studio is not a money-making endeavor for anybody -- unless you’re a commercial studio that really puts time into that business, and I don’t. So I thought to myself, “OK, I’ll buy this studio, I’ll make it a real estate investment so I don’t have to worry about the studio costs that much. And I’ll just use it for my projects."

You’ve branched out from rock and worked with artists like Kelly Clarkson. Is that still something you do occasionally -- look for projects that people wouldn’t normally associate with you and your track record?

Well, I think it’s them looking at me, actually. A lot of that stuff -- Kelly Clarkson, Gavin DeGraw, Rascal Flatts -- those are bands that came to me. And I have no problem producing [artists] like that. They’re the same basic process, just different players and different points of view. I think they were all pretty easy. The one I had the hardest time with and I probably wouldn’t do that again was Rascal Flatts. It was OK to make the record, but in country music, the tempo of recording, the process, the vibe -- the whole thing is completely different than it is in L.A. Country music [is] very, very formulized. Like Chris Lord-Alge, my mixer, always said, “Well, the mandolin has to be on track 12.” They have it down to a science.

What can you say about the music you’ve been working on for the Motley Crue biopic The Dirt?

I had the greatest time ever doing that. I haven’t done that many films but I loved the process. You had to be on your A-game the whole time. You’re constantly going back and forth between the music supervisors, the director, the producers; you have to make changes on the fly. I would do it again in a second.

The secret weapon we found was this kid named Timmy [Craven], he was the lead singer of a band called Motley Inc., which is a Motley Crue cover band. I think the supervisors found him. He’s an LAPD underwater rescue guy. He’s like six-four; he could break you into pieces. And then he opens his mouth and he’s Vince Neil.

Have you ever crossed paths with Motley Crue?

I did once because I was in a really bad band in L.A. when I first got out here. We used to play across the street at the Viper Room [then called the Central] and they were playing at The Whisky. I remember we had nobody at our shows, and they had people around the block. I remember looking at them all dressed up in their stuff and I remember saying to my guitar player, “Ah, that stuff’s so of-the-moment. It’ll never last. We’re real musicians over here!"