October 3rd, 2007
Music producer Mark Batson has come a long way from the Brooklyn projects where he was raised. Over the past several years, he has worked both as a producer and contributing musician (he plays just about every instrument known to man) with an eclectic group of artists ranging from G-Unit to India.Arie to Beyoncé to Anthony Hamilton to Seal to The Game to Gwen Stefani to Eminem to Rachel Yamagata to Talib Kweli.
Batson gained national stature with India.Arie's 2001 release Acoustic Soul, on which Batson co-wrote and co-produced several songs. The album garnered seven Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.
His latest project is Dave Matthews Band's Stand Up, out May 10. Tableau recently chatted with Batson about his personal and professional background and his production experience, as well as his work with DMB.
tableau: How did you end up in this field, working as a producer?
Mark Batson: I've been playing music all my life, since I was a little kid. I started piano lessons when I was four or five years old, played every kind of music you could possibly imagine in bands, in church, percussion ensembles. I went to college and played in a big band. I went to the Smithsonian, and for about three years, I had my own big band up there.
I always arranged music, wrote music, all of that. At the same time, I came up at the beginning of early hip-hop, so I've worked with a lot of hip-hop producers. So after touring and playing in lots of bands and traveling a lot, I just thought I'd give more focus to making records. I wanted to spend more time in the U.S. and spend more time with my friends and my family.
Who are your greatest musical influences?
Stevie Wonder is a big hero of mine, as well as Sly Stone and The Grateful Dead. That's kind of what I grew up listening to.
Whose music have you been listening to lately?
There's so much music and so many new artists that I work with. I work with Dr. Dre and we just finished up Busta Rhymes' album, which I think is fantastic. I listen to a lot of different things. There's an Indonesian singer I listen to. ... I listen to a lot of Wu Tang albums. I just got that Mars Volta and popped that in and thought that was pretty interesting. I listen to Coldplay a lot, Radiohead, and of course, DMB.
Of all the artists you've worked with, who is your favorite?
I don't have a favorite. For all of them, there was something that they do, something that they had that was the favorite in that category. Certain people were the most clever, and this one had the best sound, and this one had the best range, and there are so many different categories that different people were better at.
Of the artists you haven't worked with, who would you like to play with or produce?
I would have to say Ghostface and Raekwon on the same record. But, at the same time, I also love bands like U2.
In the past, you have tended to work with a lot of R&B and pop artists. How did you and Dave end up working together on Stand Up?
I met Dave and the band at a show. I got to go in the back and talk with them and they were looking for somebody to do something different with. They wanted the band to make a different type of statement. They wanted to start evolving their sound into something that represents what they all think now.
So, I kind of went backstage and we all hung out and we had so many similar musical influences. I went to college up in Washington, and with these guys being from the D.C./Virginia area, it's kind of like being in the same family. A lot of the musicians that we played with and we wrote with and we learned from were the same guys. Stefan's bass teacher was the bass player in my big band at Smithsonian museum.
They had so many musical influences that they felt like they wanted to do something strong and driving, but still wanted to have a musical sensibility to it. So, after we talked they said, "Let's give this a shot and see what would happen if we gave Mark a chance to get this thing rolling," and it worked out. We just kept writing. We just kept creating.
It was a great experience.
How has your production influenced the sound of Stand Up relative to other Dave Matthews Band albums?
I have this really strong knowledge of hip-hop and have worked with a lot of hip-hop producers and work with modern hip-hop now and also saw the development of hip-hop in the past, which was an art form that incorporated a lot of live musicians.
If you go back to early hip-hop records before sampling, there were a lot of live musicians that played on those records. So, to have somebody who understood and had elaborate knowledge in that area, but also was an arranger who could do horns and strings, and I play piano –- I can relate to them on that level.
That's what made them choose that they wanted to work with me, with somebody who could offer them a lot from a variety of worlds that constitutes the eclectic nature of the band itself. The band has African influences, American influences, European influences. The band is influenced by the music of all these different cultures and then combines these together into this one thing, and they needed somebody who had played in an African band and played in an Israeli band and played a little reggae to work in conjunction with them.
What was your greatest challenge in working on the album?
I'm a Dave Matthews fan, so my greatest challenge on the album was to not walk in and say, "Hey, can you guys just go play 'Crash Into Me?' Just record that and put that out? 'cause it's great!" So the biggest challenge was to not fall onto the previous work, was to actually work in conjunction [with the band] in a kind of organic way to take the band into a new area. Which means to say, "Okay, well, we have to try to record in a different way."
And that's when the decision came to me to deal with each member of the band individually and to draw references from what they were listening to and how they vibed, and then put it together one-on-one, and then put it back together in a group setting. That was the challenge.
You've worked with several individual artists in the past. How was it different working with a band with a group of dynamic musicians?
That was the most beautiful part. When I go into the studio and work with the artist, it's myself and the artist one-on-one, or myself and maybe two or three collaborators. And then you just go in and you create and create and you push the artists you're working with to create and to dig deeper and try new things and challenge themselves. But it's only so far that one person or two people can go.
This was a situation where I had a whole group of musicians and each one is extremely talented. So, the pool of resources to draw from was much deeper than what I get usually when I go into a work situation.
Do you have a favorite song on Stand Up?
My goal in recording is not just to get the right this and the perfect this, it's to get emotion on records. So the records that I love -- although effectively proficient and great – it's the emotion that has me coming back to the record year after year after year.
My whole goal was to get all these pure emotions on these songs, and for me one of the moments where I get the most pure emotion is in "Out of My Hands."
Do you think you'll work with DMB again?
I would love to and I hope I get the opportunity to work with them again.
We have more songs that we did that we had finished, and hopefully at some point we'll get to come together and work and do some more music. I think it would be great.
There's a lot of things I see coming up for the Dave Matthews Band in the future. This is the beginning of a new chapter in Dave Matthews Band history, this sound and what they're doing now and how they're making this next move forward is the beginning of something new, and I would love to be a part of it as much as I can and work in conjunction with them to collaborate with lots of different people.
What projects are you working on now?
I'm finishing Busta Rhymes' album right now with Dr. Dre. I'm working with India.Arie and also Anthony Hamilton -- I have him back on-deck.
Is there anything you'd like to add? Any parting thoughts about the album?
Just to turn it up.
The record was made to be listened to when you feel good, when you're driving, when you're living –- the record is a life record. It's not really meant to be over-analyzed. I would advise the listeners to just give themselves the opportunity to open up and feel, turn it up, listen to it loud, drive to it, listen to it at parties.
I just want them to get that good feeling that the guys felt during the time the album was being created.