Robbie Stiefel is a talented set of ears crafting tunes with several of your favorite local bands.
Ben Hanna and the Knighthawks. A Shadow of Jaguar. Whiskey Autumn. Greg Corcione. These are just a few of the Boulder-based acts that producer Robbie Stiefel has worked with over the past few months. And after recently watching Stiefel insert his own beats and sounds to a band’s live performance while he sat next to me at The No Name, I can see why so many local acts are partnering with him. His job is to bring that thing into a band’s recording. That thing. You know, the one that every musician is always chasing. And the one that Robbie can somehow hear in his head whenever he listens to a track. So I sat down with him over a giant calzone to find out exactly how he does it. How did he develop finding that thing? And this is what he told me:
Stiefel’s from the East Coast. He grew up in DC, started playing sax at 11, and followed that with guitar, which is when he says “the addiction started.” Toss in his Dad’s love for James Brown and Stiefel’s own discovery of Zeppelin’s discography at 13 and there was Robbie: a kid obsessed with sound.
“I used to sneak into my high school gym and re-record songs with this rudimentary cassette four-track trying to recreate Led sounds using ambient rooms. I was always trying to capture different noises, different ways to do something. And I played in a couple of high school bands too.”
And eventually, playing in bands is actually what brought Stiefel to Colorado.
“My first more serious band project was Ego Vs Id. I grew up with Jesse [Parmet, currently of The Yawpers] and when we first moved here, he had this big house and it was basically just a studio for us. It was like our college- we were just teaching ourselves and experimenting for a couple of years with different recording techniques. Eventually, things got more serious with Ego Vs Id and we had unlimited access to a local studio. We actually just worked for a year and a half on an album and learned to craft songs in the studio, trying to make them sound effortless. Making that album solidified something in me.”
But, like many bands, eventually the guys went their separate ways into other projects. And for Stiefel, the most serious of those became production.
“I ended up moving to the Bay area for awhile. I worked with artists there and made connections at different studios. And then I made my way back here eventually and have kind of been doing that same thing.”
Which is when I wondered, what exactly is the producer-artist relationship like? To which Robbie had my favorite answer of our whole conversation:
“Being a producer is like holding a wolf by its ears- I feel so responsible for the project and its success and to make sure that what a band wants done is done. By the end, I want them to feel like I’ve made it more clear as to what they are. I put a lot of pressure on myself- I can be obsessive but I think that’s a good thing. I mean- it’s a lot of money to record. I’m getting paid here. And it’s not like paying someone to fix your deck- it’s paying someone to work on what is most important to you. So I always feel like I’m playing with this very dangerous thing- like a wolf- but it’s only dangerous because I care about it so much.”
Though holding a wolf by its ears sounds like an almost impossible task, Robbie assures me that while it’s a challenge and a fine balance of sorts, he puts in a ton of preparation before heading into the studio with an artist:
“What it’s really about in preparation before the studio is synergy. The way I work with projects is that I’m basically being invited in as a temporary member of the band or a collaborator, and so there has to be this initial connection there. Especially with bands- they have this brotherhood-tribal-thing and I’m coming into the mix aware that I’m in that situation and building trust. And sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to do that before you start recording. But I’m an artist too, so when I ask them to make big choices, I get the whole ‘I don’t want anyone telling me how to make my music.’ That’s why building that initial trust and having synergy are so important. I know that what I’m asking an artist to do [in my role as a producer] is a lot.”
And so what does one do when there’s a battle back and forth on finding that thing: on finding the right mix, the right beat, the right shaker for a track? On creating and developing one’s sound and making studio magic?
“In those situations, it goes back to trust. But the best thing I can do is to let a certain amount of any idea be worked through- everyone needs to be able to express what they want. You can’t shut anyone down. And then I have to ask, ‘How passionate are you about this?’ because then I need to let them know realistically I will go down that road with them, even if I wasn’t intending to, but that the consequences and hesitations will be x,y, and z. I can’t beat around the bush- that’s the worst thing you can do in a creative environment. At the same time, they have to feel comfortable- somehow you have to have that.”
Which brings me back to the night I watched Robbie tapping out new rhythms and making sounds that somehow fit into a song he’d never heard before at that live performance. How did he hear those beats he was making? Where does that come from? When I ask him about this, he laughs:
“I’m at a point now where I do just hear it. It’s hard to explain. But I think the development of that came from having an awareness when I’m listening to something of what excites me. There’s this alarm that goes off and I’m suddenly aware that something has grabbed my attention. ‘Oh that’s where that shaker comes in’ or ‘That’s where that intentional harmony changes.’ And I can pull sounds from so many things that I’ve listened to. Eventually, you just kind of have this idea of ‘Oh that might go there’ and things come together.”
And in listening to music from several of the Boulder artists that Stiefel’s been working with, things sure do. A Shadow of a Jaguar already released their single that Stiefel worked with them on, titled “Mama Needs the Bottle” and you can listen to it here:
And the other artists mentioned have plans for new releases soon. We’ll be featuring those as they come out, but in the meantime, go check out two of the artists Stiefel has worked with LIVE THIS FRIDAY at The Fall Showcase.
Read more about Robbie here.
And get details for The Fall Showcase on our FB event here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.