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How To Produce A Record, According To Pete Anderson

Pete Anderson never set out to be a record producer, but he concedes he may have been born with a gift for leadership.

“Left to my own resources on the playground from when I was like nine years old, I was the organizer. Hey, let's do this! Let's jump in that hole! I was that guy,” a highly animated Anderson says in Episode 249 of The String. “And I went to Catholic school in eighth grade, the nuns said you should be a priest. Because they wanted me to go out and convert people!”

Dear reader, that’s not what happened. The Detroit native soaked up the rock and blues music surrounding him and set out to make a living in Los Angeles. The then-unknown but highly ambitious and directed Dwight Yoakam approached him and invited him into his band and music-making world, which changed Anderson’s life. Pete produced Yoakam’s smash debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc… as well as all of his albums up to the early 2000s, a remarkable run of success that included selling around 25 million records.

After setting out on his own in 2002, he widened his scope as a player, recording a string of rich and satisfying vocal and instrumental albums, perhaps best exemplified by Birds Above Guitarland in 2013. He also built himself a niche as a key L.A. producer by reconfiguring his four-car garage into his full-time home studio. He backed California twanger Moot Davis as he established himself as a brilliant throwback country artist. He made albums with Lucinda Williams, Blue Rodeo, Rosie Flores, Jim Lauderdale, Joy Lynn White, The Meat Puppets, Flaco Jimenez and others.

Those decades of experience met the boredom of the Covid pandemic, and Anderson found himself motivated to compile and communicate his understanding of his art and craft, resulting in the new book with the a truth-in-advertising title - How To Produce A Record - A Player’s Philosophy For Making A Great Recording. “It was like organizing my office in my brain,” he says. “Because it was cluttered. It was cluttered with this information.”

It’s a slim and conversational volume but it’s packed with insights about every step of the process - at least his approach which he concedes is personal and one that can work - not the only one that works. There are chapters about managing the psychology of bands, arrangement, capturing basic tracks, overdubbing, mixing and more. He defines the various kinds of creative approaches to production and is clear that his strength is as a “musician-producer,” meaning that rather than coming to the studio with training as an engineer or a musicologist, he’s a working player who’s been on “both sides of the glass.”

I was struck that Anderson’s methodical approach, capturing parts with sonic isolation, allowing for fixes, “comping” of vocal parts, overdubs, additional sweetening, is a bit of a contrast to many producers in roots music who place value on capturing a natural performance in ways that make fixing or tweaking much more limited. They’re both valuable modes of working, and Anderson had a great answer about how his method sprang out of the origins of his work with Dwight Yoakam in the 80s.

“I was in competition, in my mind, with the Eagles,” he says. “If you don't think the Eagles make records like what I'm talking about, you're mistaken. They take years and thousands of dollars to make those records. I could not afford to make it a live performance. I was making extremely competitive records. And they have to be perfect. My duty was to the artist and the marketplace that we were dealing with.”

Nobody listening to Dwight’s Pete Anderson albums today - or any of the scores of albums he’s made since, would question his attention to sonics, detail, and overall effect. Given that, his might be the best book for a music fan to read about production, because it’s all in plain English and not too in-the-weeds. It made the basis for a great conversation about record making and music itself. Speaking from his studio, he exudes a bright confidence. Pete Anderson could persuade me to jump in a hole.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>