Monday, October 15, 2007
Jon Landau: Inside the 'Magic'
October 15, 2007
The one-time music critic has been in Bruce Springsteen's camp for more than 30 years. With the Boss's new album at No. 1, Jon Landau tells us about his balancing act over the years as manager and producer
By Chris Willman
Jon Landau once wrote probably the most famous statement ever made by any rock critic, when in 1974 he said, in a long defunct publication called the Real Paper, ''I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.'' But Landau wasn't content to watch that future play out without his direct participation. He did his part to make that pronouncement a self-fulfilling prophecy by getting out of the journalism business and back into the production and managerial side. From 1975's Born to Run through the Human Touch/Lucky Town double-hitter in 1991, Landau co-produced all of Springsteen's albums, and he continues to this day as his manager.
Springsteen's acclaimed new album, Magic, has generated more instantaneous fan enthusiasm than anything he's done since 1987's Tunnel of Love. As part of our series on the men behind Magic, EW spoke with Landau to get his take on how Springsteen pulled off this particular hat trick.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: People always wondered why Bruce didn't use the E Street Band for an entire album between 1984 and 2002. I always imagined that there was a feeling he didn't want to indulge in nostalgia, that he felt it was time to put away childish things, as it were. It feels like that dilemma was solved on this album, somehow.
JON LANDAU: Well, I think that takes you a little bit into the relationship that has developed between [producer] Brendan O'Brien and Bruce. And I think that on the Rising album, which was the first time they worked together, they were just getting used to each other's style. This time they were just totally ready for the kind of interaction that they have. One of the things about this album that I personally find different is that this really is the most guitar-dominated record that I believe Bruce has ever made. The guitars, the number of them, the range of them, are the dominant sound most of the time. And with our two great keyboardists, a lot of times in the past, the keyboard sound was a little more dominant. And I think some of the force and power of the record is related to that development.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Legendarily, a lot of stuff that Bruce writes gets left on the cutting room floor, because an album gets streamlined and things don't fit. This is his shortest album since Lucky Town — and it's a full half-hour shorter than The Rising — so I would imagine that was even more the case here.
JON LANDAU: That is a good point. One of the things Bruce did do that we talked about is he kept this record very tight and focused. The actual length of the album is not exhaustive. What I encouraged from my corner was just a certain playability. And the record moves like a rocket from beginning to end, and that's a great feeling. It's obvious from the record that the artist was aiming for a certain level of concision and tightness and focus, and maintaining the flow going from one song to another; the sequence is very meticulous. But it's not a case where there's a zillion outtakes or things of that nature. There's very little.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One thing I didn't think I'd hear on one of his records again was the whole Phil Spector/Beach Boys influence.
JON LANDAU: ''Girls in Their Summer Clothes''? That's a masterpiece. When I heard some of it in its more finished form, I was as surprised as anybody. [(Laughs)] I think the occasional use of strings that Brendan brings into it enlarges some of the pieces and really does help to drive it into that sphere. I don't know that anybody was setting out to remind people of anything that specific. Whereas on the album Born to Run, Bruce had Phil [Spector] very much in his mind, along with some other influences that were guiding his hand. Bruce, if he hadn't done what he has done, [could've] had a whole other potential career as a — oh my God! — rock critic. There's nobody I know of who listens to more current and old stuff. Bruce is just a person who's thrilled with music.
ENTERAINMENT WEEKLY: This album walks an interesting line between the personal and political. But if you say ''political,'' people get scared.
JON LANDAU: My favorite song on the album is ''Long Walk Home,'' where he sings, ''that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone.'' And that's followed by the reference to ''what we'll do and what we won't.'' And I think at that point, the listener knows what he's talking about, without him getting hyper-literal.
So I think there is a commentary and an expression about things. But I think it's always part of a bigger thought. It's not an end in itself. And I don't think Bruce is engaged in writing political music as it's commonly understood. Now, with the Seeger Sessions band, he recorded an old-fashioned political song, ''Bring 'Em Home,'' Pete [Seeger]'s own song. He did add quite a bit of his own lyrics to it. And he was also doing a great early '30s song, ''How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.'' So in the context of doing a tour that focused on other people's writing, he picked up some very direct types of things. But in his own writing, I've never known him to be fundamentally [political]. The political implications of the songs are just that: they're implications that come out of a larger vision.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you miss being in producer's chair, since you haven't done that since the early '90s?
JON LANDAU: No. I started out as a ''legendary rock critic.'' My ambition was to be a record producer, and I had started doing that in the late '60s with my work with the MC5 and my friend Livingston Taylor. I took a hiatus from that, and then got back into the production thing when Bruce and I met up. And after we did Born to Run, I continued to work as a freelance producer, trying to build my skills and reputation; I made The Pretender with Jackson [Browne]. But after that, from Darkness on, basically because somewhere in that process I added the hat of being a manager, I was pretty much just taken up with working with Bruce.
By the time we got to the '90s, after all the thousands and thousands of hours we had spent sitting side by side in the studio, I felt whatever it was I had to offer, I had done. Whatever I know and whatever talents I have, Bruce had absorbed them. So my presence wasn't required. So in the '90s, I stopped producing and sort of expanded our management work. We did quite a bit with Natalie Merchant and Train, and had a wonderful time with Shania Twain for six years or so. That was great fun, because from a management point of view, we got to do a lot of things that one doesn't do with Bruce, because they're not appropriate for Bruce.
But at the same time, I was sort of looking for who could be a fresh influence in the studio for Bruce. Now that I was out of the equation, for a while he continued with our great production partner, Chuck Plotkin. But at a certain point, it seemed like there was a need to shake things up. It was actually our pal Donnie Ienner [former head of Columbia Records] who said the guy to look into was Brendan O'Brien. I sort of investigated Brendan a little bit and became convinced that that was potentially a great idea. And eventually Bruce decided to explore the idea of having a fresh producer.... That took a while for him to absorb. But once the two of them sat down, they formed a relationship very quickly. Bruce himself is a great record producer. It's just that producing entirely on your own has some of the shortcomings of a lawyer doing his own case. And Brendan brings in this state-of-the-art skill set. The second or third night he was recording with Brendan, Bruce called me. He's kidding around and he says ''Jon, this is fantastic. This is just better than I could have expected.'' So I said, ''Well, what's his method?'' He said, ''His technique is very simple. Let me explain to you how he does it. First you go in and play, right? Then you come in and listen to the playback, and it sounds phenomenal. That's his method.'' (laughs)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From a managerial standpoint, there must be so many new challenges with the way the business is changing. I'm sure every manager thinks he handles his client in a unique way. But Bruce is so sacred to people, so even more care than usual might be put into not wanting him to do the wrong thing. Yet you do face all these new challenges where record companies want you to do even more. in terms of the web, and with retailers, and so on. Are you doing anything different now than you've done before?
JON LANDAU: You know, we try to acknowledge the changes, when we can fit them in. For example, giving away ''Radio Nowhere'' for a week on iTunes, we didn't have any issues with it, and it seemed like a positive way to create awareness and excitement. On the Sessions tour, we broadcast a different song each night, live, from every U.S. show on AOL. So we have been working in our own way in that area for a while now. The fundamentals of managing Bruce involve three major things, and making sure the conditions that pertain to each are 100% correct: One is writing great songs, two is making the best album he can make, and three, doing the best show he can do. Everything else is a lesser issue. That's the way it was when I met him in 1974, that's the way it is in 2007, and that's the way it's gonna be for as long as we're doing this. And then, with the Internet and [learning] how to use television, which is something we make a lot more use of than we used to, those are extensions. But what I've found is, if you accomplish those three core things, then everything else follows.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You came up with the most famous line of any rock critic of all time. Did you ever imagine that decades later that line would have entered into the lexicon to such a degree?
JON LANDAU: No, I really didn't. I'd like to be well known for some things in addition to having said that, but that seems to stand out, from 1974. I guess if Bruce's career had been a big flop, my quote about him would have been forgotten by now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do people still spoof you with that? Do family members call you in for dinner and say ''I have seen dinner future, and its name is beef stroganoff''?
JON LANDAU: (laughs) Well, you know where the quote comes from. It's from Lincoln Steffens, the journalist who went to Russia at the revolution and said, ''I have seen the future and it works.'' Now, he was wrong, but I was right.