The name “Greg Kurstin” might not sound instantly familiar, but chances are pretty good you heard one of his songs on the radio or on your mp3 player on the way to work or school this morning. He’s become one of the most in-demand writer/producers in pop music, working on albums from the likes of Ke$ha, Britney Spears, Pink and Kelly Clarkson, producing and co-writing Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” up for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year at this year’s Grammys.
But the pop mega-success only tells part of the story with Kurstin, who also maintains cred in the indie world with his work with The Shins, Santigold and most recently, Tegan and Sara, whose heavily Kurstin-produced 2013 album Heartthrob is one of the early year’s most acclaimed albums. What’s more, Kurstin has been a part of the alt-rock world as a successful musician in his own right, achieving early-career success with Geggy Tah (and their 1996 hit “Whoever You Are”), and later as a member of cult-favorite indie-poppers The Bird and the Bee (who won fans both with original material and their Hall & Oates covers, the latter collected as Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1).
A couple days before his big night at the Grammys, we caught up with Greg to talk about the many winds his career path his taken, and some of the interesting people he’s worked with along the way.
Popdust: First off, congratulations on your Grammy nominations. You have any specific plans for the awards?
Greg Kurstin: Uhh…not so much. You know, there’s always parties around it but I dunno if I’m gonna go to anything. I think we’re just gonna go and just hang out. Dress up. I got a tux, so I’m all already to go.
Have you sized up the competition at all? Are you feeling good about your chances?
Oh, it’s really tough competition, I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going to happen. All of those songs were so massive, a few of them even seem like they were more massive [than "Stronger"]…but then again, I dunno. Depends on who you talk to, what mood I’m in. Sometimes I feel like “Well…maybe I have a chance,” but I dunno. There’s fun., and Gotye, and all those songs were just massive. I think all the songs have a good shot.
If you had the choice between winning Record and Song, is there one that means more to you?
You know, in this particular case…I mean, they’re both awesome, but Record of the Year is kinda cool, because even though I’m a writer on the song, the production was something that I feel proud of, I was proud of the accomplishment. But I mean, it would be awesome to win songwriter. There’s a lot of songwriters on that song…
Do you remember what your specific input to the writing of that song was?
Yeah, it was almost like a finished song when it was presented to me by the label, and I kinda basically rewrote the track. I rethought the music part of it, I guess. It had a different tempo, beat, chords, and I kinda just came up with that guitar riff that goes into the verse, and that was the first thing that I kinda contributed…then, you know, just changed the feel of the song. It was sorta mid-tempo and the chords were kinda different, just flipped around. So that’s how I became a songwriter on the song.
Was there like an “aha” moment for you on the song? Like you got one part of it that really started to gel, and you were like “OK, this song’s gonna be big?”
I think it was the guitar riff that kinda starts out the song. That guitar/bass thing that happens. That took me a minute to figure that out. I kinda presented the label with the version before I figured that out, where the tempo was fast, and they were like “Well, it sounds cool, but…you wanna just try to work on it some more?” And I was like “Oh yeah, maybe the verse isn’t right.” So I then came up with that, and I was like “Oh, well…this is kinda cool.” So they were into it too.
Did you follow the song when it was climbing up the charts? That was your first #1 [on the Hot 100], wasn’t it?
Yeah, that’s my first number one in the U.S. It was cool, I definitely followed it. I wasn’t sure, you never know how it’s gonna do. My wife was like “It’s gonna do great! Don’t worry!” I’m like “All right…” It kinda exceeded my expectations a little bit.
So I wanna take it back to the early parts of your career, and talk about Geggy Tah a little bit. We were listening to “Whoever You Are” in the office, and talking about how that song was kinda the sound of 1996, because it was this really weird time in alt-rock, where kinda anything went. Were you surprised that it became such a successful song?
Yeah, it was definitely a surprise. That was the first thing I’d ever had that had been played on the radio. It was kind of a big moment for the band, and we kinda fit into this quirky thing that was going on, with like Eels, and Beck, who I think opened a lot of doors for sort of weird, quirky guys making music. We sort of fit in there…It was really cool, and definitely a learning experience going through all that. I thought I could retire after that song. I was like “Wow, this is it!” And then I realized the realities of music, like “I guess I have to release another single after that!”
Did you expect further success once that song took off? Did you think that was gonna be the beginning of Geggy Tah being, like, the next Pearl Jam?
Yeah, you definitely think that when you’re in your twenties and you have a hit song…I didn’t really understand the reality of it at the time, but it seemed like “Wow, this could be kinda huge.” I didn’t even know what it meant, in terms of dollars and cents. But I sort of realized “Wow, it’s just one piece of a huge puzzle, and everything has to sort of be in place for it to really mean something.” It meant something, but it definitely doesn’t secure your success, one single like that. You need a lot more going on to do that.”
Are any of the big pop stars you come into contact with on a daily basis ever like “Oh my God, you were the guy in Geggy Tah? I love that song!”
Well…it’s happening less and less the older I get. But yeah, there’s a couple people, if they’re old enough to remember that. Definitely, pop stars in their 20s have no idea about that song. I don’t even bother to explain it. I’m just like “Don’t worry about it. It was the ’90s. Just worry about Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and you’re fine.”
Do they ever ask you about Bird and the Bee, then? That’s more of a contemporary thing.
Yeah, they do, actually. I get a lot of artists that like the Bird and the Bee. In the pop world, people sort of discover it, and I’ve definitely gotten a lot of positive feedback from artists about that.
So what’s happening with Bird and the Bee? Are you guys working on anything new?
Yeah, we are working on a new album. And we’re close to finished. We’re probably gonna need a few more songs, and then we’re probably gonna put out an album, if all goes well, in the summer or something like that.
Are you ever gonna do an Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2?
I think so, yeah. Down the road. I think we’re gonna do original songs the next album, and then we have an idea for maybe the following album and I think that’ll be originals too. Then I was thinking that we’d probably do another Interpreting the Masters.
You have any leads on what artist you’re gonna do for the second one?
We’ve thought of some ideas. It’s top secret in the Bird and the Bee vault, we don’t wanna tell anyone…we do have a couple ideas, but nothing 100% yet.
Did you ever get either Hall or Oates’ take on Vol. 1?
Yeah, we did! We got on the phone with Darryl Hall, and he was really happy, like “Oh, I really love what you did with the songs.” He was really cool, and we talked to him for a bit. And then John Oates came out to a show and jammed with us, and that was fun. He played the guitar and sang “She’s Gone,” so that was pretty awesome. He’s an amazing guitarist and singer.
So was there ever a point in your career where you made the conscious decision, or came to the conscious realization that you were gonna be more of a behind-the-scenes guy?
You know, I had no idea. After I left Geggy Tah, I started playing with Beck, and I was a touring musician, I was trying to sort of figure out what I was gonna do. I was always kind of a keyboard/session guy, and I’d always had that going and that was always sort of my bread-and-butter. I wasn’t really making money doing Geggy Tah that much, so I was always doing that on the side, so..
Did I see that you played on [the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' 1999 album] Californication?
Yeah, I did. I met Flea a few years before that, and just became friends with Flea, and he would always call me back to play on albums and stuff. So that was kind of a big break for me in the session world, I did a lot of sessions kind of around that. So I was kind of a keyboard-for-hire guy, a musician-for-hire…I’d just gotten off the road with Beck, and I just missed writing and producing tracks like I always did in my life.
So I started to write instrumental, electronic music tracks, and spawned the Bird and the Bee around that time too, and then I got a publishing deal, and then I just really worked hard at it, and made up in my mind that this was what I was gonna do. That was a little over ten years ago, and I just worked every day…working day and night, pumping out songs, trying to get that off the ground. One little thing hit here, one thing hit there, and it just kinda snowballed into where I’m at now.
For the second part of our interview with Greg Kurstin, click NEXT.