Sound Affect: A Conversation with Franc Tetaz
Interview by Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran
Images by Rachel Garcia
“If you can create something where people demand it in their lives;
something necessary. It’s like a raincoat when it’s raining.
If you’ve got a song that’s like that... That’s kind of what I strive for:
— Franc Tetaz to make something that has a purpose in someone’s life.” — Franc Tetaz
Sound Affect is a conversation series which explores the various ways in which different artists, fans, creators and consumers affect each other and the Los Angeles music scene, deliberately and unconsciously.
RACHEL GARCIA AND THU TRAN
Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran are the LA-based band The Singer and The Songwriter. Their debut album What a Difference a Melody Makes is available now. Find more information at www.thesingerandthesongwriter.com
François “Franc” Tétaz is an award-winning Australian film composer, music producer and mixer. As a producer he has worked with Gotye, Kimbra, Architecture in Helsinki, Sally Seltmann, Lior and Bertie Blackman. He won an ARIA for his work on Gotye’s Making Mirrors album in 2011. Franc won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year at the 55th annual Grammy Awards for “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Gotye, featuring Kimbra) in 2013. The record was produced by Wally De Backer (Gotye) and engineered and mixed by Wally and Franc. The song also won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance as performed by Gotye and Kimbra, and the Making Mirrors album took home the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album.
Shinjuku Thief was a Melbourne-based industrial and experimental music group formed in 1992 with Charles Tetaz and Darrin Verhagen. They released four albums by March 1994. Verhagen formed the record label, Dorobo Records, to release their later albums including Tétaz’ solo album, The Motionless World of Time Between or the Drunken Taxicab of Absolute Reality in 1997. (via Wikipedia.org).
How did you start with music?
Franc Tetaz: I’ve never done anything else. It’s always been the thing that I’ve been attracted to.
My mom taught violin and piano, so I started off playing violin. And I played violin fairly seriously. I was ok, but I was never a really great violinist. Then I started playing drums and percussion and that became my main instrument in my teenage years. When I was 17, was when I first thought seriously, “Music is what I want my life to be centered around.” At that point I thought that meant being a performer. I thought I’d be a percussionist. I didn’t really have any sort of plan, it was more “I love music!” I’ve joked that it’s still the same for me. It’’s sort of a ramble, the way I tend to work: if I find something that I’m interested in, I go ahead and do that. I don’t really have a fixed idea of what I’m doing at all.
Were you in bands?
FT: I had one band called Shinjuku Thief when I was 18 or 19, which was the first band that turned into something. It was an experimental band. It was mainly instrumental, it had samples, it kind of wandered vaguely through different cultures (lots of samples from different places). It was on a label called Extreme which was an experimental label.
That was the first time I had the concept of trying to make music in an ensemble without any rules. We just spent time trying to make something we thought was interesting. People kind of vaguely got into it.
After that I had a three-piece punk band in the early 90’s when I was 21, which I tried to form into something, but I found it hard to find the collaborators that would take it as seriously. The singer in the band was a guy called Boon Loo who’s a really great punk guitar player. He’s a graphic designer now, and he said to me, “Franc, you were just way more serious about it than the rest of us.” It was hard to shape into something. I was really wanting to make it something. Those bands never aimed for anything apart from experimentation.
Do you wish you were in a band now?
FT: A lot of my projects now, I’m on the edge of the band. I get really involved in long-term projects. So I’m always somehow related to the band. I find it funny when I pick-up on tour, and the band is like “Ugh, touring…” and I’m like, “Oooh, this is great! Look guys, we’re all in a van together!” (Laughs)
I don’t long to be in a band. I’m a bit more project based; I like collaborating with other people.
What attracts you to a project?
I like when people are super ambitious with whatever they’re trying to do. If they have an ambition and drive for what they’re doing, I always find that compelling, and it’s one of the things that I look for in someone that I’m going to collaborate with. Stylistically, it can sound like anything.
I find it very hard to know why I find something interesting. Usually, it’s the person involved. If I find them an intriguing person, then whatever they’re doing and making I find it intriguing too. It’s based around an artist as a person, or group of people.
“I think I’m incredibly un-hip
and I think it’s
a really important quality.”
— Franc Tetaz
Do you find them or do they find you?
FT: It’s a bit of both. There’s a lot of people who hit me up and say, “I like what you do.” It doesn’t really matter where they’re from. I tend to get an eclectic range of people: Swiss rappers, or someone who sounds like Lana Del Rey from Mexico, pop stars, Moroccan rappers. Most of the time it’s hard to tell what it’s going to be like.
Quite often I’ll hear something or discover something that I’ll think, “Oh, this is really amazing” and I’ll find a way to send them a note saying that I really like their stuff and would love to have a chat. Some people are open to that, depending on where they are in their career and where their ambitions are focused. I try to find people who try to find who I am and see what I have to offer and see this as a long-term collaboration. I’m not really interested in being the flavor of the month or a “go-to producer.” I think I’m incredibly un-hip and I think it’s a really important quality.
I think it’s important to be both in the present and completely outside of that.
When you collaborate with an artist how do you balance your own preferences with an artist’s vision?
For me, it’s trying to discover what that artist is saying and what’s unique about that, and what subject do they talk about that I really want to hear them sing about. If you’re an artist that hasn’t made a lot of music, it can be hard to find what that is. If you’re singing about people fighting or if you’re a dire romantic – you don’t really know until you start working and find out
Sometimes I think I’m not the best person to articulate an idea. With some artists, the collaboration will be just lyrics or just sounds or just melody. A lot of what I do as a producer is to look at the gap between the element that I think they need to get right and help them with that, and not try and change the thing that they’re making that is unique to them and that is really strong in their outlook.
Sound-wise, it’s very eclectic. Sometimes I think it’s very clear what I’m adding and sometimes I think it’s not clear at all.
So what is a good gauge of success when working with an artist?
FT: It’s like a tennis match – you just want someone to hit the ball back. With some artists, they’re so magpie-like that you give them a lot of ideas and they kind of stack them up and put them together and say “Great” and they just (makes building sounds). Other people are impenetrable. So you can suggest something and they’ll say, “That’s not what I’m meaning, I’m actually meaning THIS” and then you say, “Ah, I see what you’re saying” and you can subtly shape what they’re working on, but it’s so solid a world that you don’t do anything apart from some editing or arranging. So it’s different for different artists.
In some stages in my career, there have been points when I’ve felt like the things that I’ve added to an artist have been the weakest things or they were things that took away from it because it felt as though there was a purity in what they were doing.
But I’ve also done a lot of flipping on tracks where an artist would give me a thing and I would say, “How about we take it and make it like this (motions turning something upside down)?” And they would listen to the two things next to each other. They’d both be equally strong, but they have completely different emphasis, and then you can subjectively weigh which one works better.
There are lots of times where I try to be transparent, where I think about what I’m doing and why, but as long as an artist is moving forward in some way.
This week I was working with an artist where their weak point was lyrics. So I was working on getting them to approach lyrics the way they approach production. They have a [digital] library of sounds, so I was saying just apply that same idea to linguistics. So just like they have a library of kick drums and snares – what’s the language for that? What are the words you use? What are the authors you read? And just magpie together all the things you have. So then instead of a blank page, you actually have a way into [the song], and it can spur into things. I do a lot of that – I call it “arts practice.” Like, “how do you make something?” But not technique that is preset.
I’ve got a bunch of knowledge and insight on things because I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and if you’re 22 maybe you haven’t done that, but maybe you have a great instinct and a great voice. If I’m able to say, “Hey, just look at these techniques” and it’s not about content, but the technique behind it.
I’ll do a lot of things like that with pop music. I’ll use an example like a song by Shania Twain, when I know an artist can’t stand Shania Twain or would never want to sound like Shania Twain. But you can see what happens in the song and what happens in the lyrics and you can see how this song works and how it applies to what they’re doing. So I’ll do a lot of stuff like that which can be confusing and challenging, but sometimes can give you outcomes.
Do you have a go-to sound if nothing else works?
FT: Not really. I honestly fail a lot in songwriting when collaborating with people because I’m always reaching to find something new and it’s very hard to do that.
I have this technique that I use: like if you’re working on something and you have to imagine it and you don’t have any music to imagine with. So we would sit here and I’d ask, “What do you want to write a song about? What does it make you feel? How does the melody go? What instruments would it have?” and you try to imagine [the whole song] without an instrument or anything. And it’s a very unusual process to do because most people spark off of chords or rhythm, so for a lot of people it’s horribly confusing. But it can also bring real clarity to an idea.
I also like having one microphone in a room with a few instruments, like not much at all, and start fishing from that. Rather than starting with a computer full of sounds. The hard thing with that nowadays is that as a songwriter sometimes the production sounds nothing like the way you imagine it [when you play it live], and so sometimes you need the right production to frame it the way you want.
“For me, it’s trying to discover
what subject do they
talk about that I really want to
hear them sing about.”
— Franc Tetaz
How does production and songwriting affect each other? What’s the interplay like for you?
FT: I always think making the hook is the easy bit. We could write something catchy and instantly identifiable this afternoon, if we wanted. But what I’m hunting is something other than that. It’s something that can have those layers and it can be immediate, but I’m after all the other things like the story, the resonance, the multiple-listen and the cultural significance.
The reason I work in pop music is that I like it as a form. I used to work in experimental music – music that was searching for other forms – and the reason I work in pop music is that it’s framed within a really tight structure. The form is the most important thing; the content – you can put anything into it. The thing I’m after is multiple levels: the melody that grabs you and takes you somewhere, the story or the idea that does that and the feeling behind that so it communicates something really clearly. And that’s not necessarily about a sound (it can be). It’s a complex thing: I can hear you sing something and it would sound amazing, just as I could hear someone else sing it and it doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s like telling a joke.
One thing that can happen when you’re working with singers who are good is when you hear them sing anything, it sounds pretty good. And then when you have a song structure that sounds pretty good – you can listen and say, “Yeah! It’s pretty good!” and it might not be good at all – it’s ok, it’s working. That’s the thing for me: you can make a song work, but to have something else going on, that’s the real battle.
I’m always trying to create something that’s unique, and that’s really hard. I create a lot of things that are ok, or they’re ordinary or whatever. It’s very hard to find those moments that make you go, “Oh, there’s something really special about this.”
How does success affect the work that follows?
FT: At any point in my career where I’ve created something that I’ve gone, “Oh, hey someone likes this – that’s really weird,” and it sort of takes on its own life, my big test is this: it has two things about it. If you can create something where people demand it in their lives; in other words, it’s something necessary. It’s like a raincoat when it’s raining. If you’ve got a song that’s like that, where people have to have in their life, they have to hug it or they have to have it, I think that’s a really special feeling. It becomes like food. And that’s what I’m talking about. You can make a song and it can be like, “That’s cool!” but to make something that has that quality about it where people feel like they need it. And that can be for whatever reason: it can be for hedonistic reasons, it can be for emotional reasons, it can be for any reason. But when a piece of music has that power, it’s a really full-on thing. That’s kind of what I strive for: to make something that has a purpose in someone’s life.
When that happens, it’s funny because you think, “What is that?” and “Why is that?” because it’s always a bunch of decisions you’ve made, and they’re always specific to that song, so they don’t necessarily apply to another one.
So [success] doesn’t really affect the way you write another song. At moments, [past success] has kind of given me more confidence when something’s been terrible. Where in the past I would have thrown it away or stopped and gone, “This is just awful,” now I’ll go, “Maybe I’ll give it just a little more time. Don’t throw it away just yet,” and that’s handy because I’ve been through that process on things that have worked really well, and then it worked out.
I know when I’ve got that feeling, “Oh this is going to be great” then that’s more than I can hope for.
Is that intuition ever off?
FT: It doesn’t mean the song is going to be popular. But it’s not about that. If something has a moment like that, then I know a bunch of people are going to have that moment. And I know that there are a bunch of things that are out of my control that can make it popular or not popular. But I know that with a few things that I’ve made that are not particularly popular, but with the small audience that it’s reached, I’ve had people have very intense responses, just as I’ve made things that are pretty ordinary and no one’s ever spoken to me about it (laughs).
I had a really funny reaction from this kid from a band called Shepard, a pop band from Brisbane. And I booked them to play an awards night that I was MD’ing because I really like what they do. George, the singer, has just an incredible voice. I’d never met him before and we were rehearsing, and he came up to me on a break and he said, “You know, Franc, one of my favorite pieces of music is…” this cue from a score for a movie I did in 2000 (when he must have been 13 or 14). He said, “That melody is just incredible,” and then he sang it to me. And it’s kind of obscure, just a piece of music from a particular scene of a movie. And when you have moments like that it’s always amazing. It’s not that it sold a huge number of copies or anything, it just really resonated with someone. I think that’s kind of priceless, no matter whatever scale it happens on.
As a dad, is there anything you wanted to share with your kids?
FT: I got them a record player recently and the first record I gave them was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and I showed them the lyrics. And I found that they would put it on and listen to it on their own, and it sort of became their own thing. I like that thing of having a physical record. It works great because you can give them the music and the lyrics, as opposed to having a stream of things and then you have to look up the lyrics – it’s detached. Sharing that is fun.
Taking them to concerts, I love doing that because you get to see it through their eyes. It’s interesting to look and see what they are getting out of this because they’ll be like, “It’s too loud!” or “Can we go? This is boring.”
I took my oldest to see Katy Perry when she was 9 or 10, and I was the only dad, it was pretty much all moms and daughters. That was great. Especially moments like when she performed Peacock, and seeing her mime a blowjob onstage, and you’re just like (puts his hands in the air) “Yay!” (laughs). Great parenting moments.
I like knowing what they enjoy.
“Even the move to Los Angeles
was a very pragmatic thing.
It’s just such a great place
to live to work on music;
to collaborate with people.”
— Franc Tetaz
Have they introduced you to any music that wasn’t on your radar?
FT: There’s a few things they got me into that I wasn’t into to start with. For example, Bruno Mars, I really struggled with him for a long time; I just couldn’t get into it. And through the repeated exposure, I really loved it, and now I really do. That was a real turnaround for me.
Taylor Swift was a big one too, they really got me going with Taylor Swift. Frozen is the same; I think Frozen is amazing. Not that I was against Frozen at all. Most of the dads I know have a hard time with the music that’s aimed at that age group because they do have to listen to it a lot because it’s demanded and you can have a funny relationship with it. You can decide just in principle that you hate it because it’s being forced upon you. You can feel Disney’s hand just coming and reaching into your pocket, so then to have it thrown at you…
Would you say you have a special advantage because you can listen with a slightly different perspective?
FT: Yeah. I’ve written songs that are trying to be like that. “Let It Go” is just an incredible song and vocal performance, and therefore it’s also really annoying. Because it’s that good. I have an appreciation for someone being able to articulate an idea so coherently, so quickly. It’s astonishing because it’s so hard to do.
What parts of your career have been surprising to you?
FT: I didn’t have a distinct aim. I had a funny moment with an Australian choreographer I work with named Gideon Obarzanek who has a contemporary dance company called Chunky Move. I wrote a few scores for their pieces. I like Gideon a great deal. He remembers having a discussion with me over 10 years ago. I didn’t start working in pop music until I was in my 30’s. [He remembers me] saying to him, “I’m really into pop music and I really want to work on creating some amazing songs.” because I had been working in these obscure long forms for so long. And he reminded me of this conversation because I had completely forgotten that I said that. I always felt that I was falling into it. I was really just trying to make things that were good, but with no distinct plan. And it’s funny because obviously somehow my brain has programmed that, but it wasn’t what I set out to do. If you had said to me, “Franc, you’re going to move to LA,” I would have said, “Really?” Even the move to Los Angeles was a very pragmatic thing. It’s just such a great place to live to work on music; to collaborate with people.