Not unlike Swedish, Tagalog, and Esperanto, music is a language, with its own conjugations and (lewdly) dangling participles. A snare drum that sounds like a fiend pounding the bottom of his cauldron is an expression meaning “metal.” Brief eructations of melodic, refrigerated keyboard mean “pop.” A man mumbling close to the mic while combing his beard with a toothbrush means “freak folk.” And so on.
But who writes the language? Not the artist. The artist is in a perpetual stupor, where every day just might be Wednesday. Or Thursday — who the fuck knows? (If the artist is wearing matching shoes, he’s having a great day.) Forget the artist! The man who writes the language of music is the producer.
We live in a fallen world, of course, which means that most producers are terrible — hacks, copycats, enemies of inspiration. Here at Phoenix HQ, for example, we will always associate the violent blare of Phil Collins’s “Sussudio” (produced by the artist himself, with the help of a man named Hugh Padgham) with a kind of minor soul-death. But from time to time, according to the elemental law of creativity, a producer emerges who either so rewrites music’s language or phrases it with such precision that certain modes of terribleness are no longer possible. Sam Phillips was an earthquake; George Martin was a forest; Brian Eno was Sigmund Freud; and Phil Spector was (and possibly still is) Napoleon.
So here’s our list of the 14 current moguls of noise whom we consider to most powerfully rule the musical roost. Like Matt Squire, the newest member of the class, their names are now part of the language of music. They live in its addled, poly-rhythmic bones. Where a finger squeaks on a fretboard, where a keyboard demurely farts out a squiggle, there they are — the producers.
Landmark work Panic! At the Disco, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out; Boys Like Girls, Boys Like Girls
Ass-kicking current release All Time Low, So Wrong, It’s Right
Wrestling name Emo Boy!
Just a few short years ago, Matt Squire was an apprentice, working under producer Paul Q. Kolderie at Camp Street Studio in Cambridge. Even though he lives in LA now, he’s still got a 617 cell number. But over the past two years, that number’s been bringing in business from across the country, as Squire’s rapidly become the go-to guy for mainstream emo-punk. Because, along with having strong ties to Fall Out Boy and their Fueled by Ramen label, Squire’s sound has helped launch two of the bigger left-field rock-music breakthroughs of recent years: Panic! At the Disco’s 2005 A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and Boys Like Girls’ self-titled 2006 Columbia debut.
He’s also amassed an impressive list of production credits and some buzz-blown underground successes, including Boston’s the Receiving End of Sirens, the Florida hardcore band Hot Water Music, and, most recently, the Maryland punk-pop foursome All Time Low. Just as Rob Cavallo was in the right place at the right time to set the standard for commercial-punk production with Green Day’s 1994 modern classic Dookie, Squire is now positioned to stamp his imprimatur on an entire genre of modern rock — even if few of the bands involved seem comfortable with its label.
Squire doesn’t have a problem with the emo tag. “People have called it all sorts of things,” he says over the phone from Santa Monica, where he’s currently producing another Fueled by Ramen find, the Cab. “To me, it’s just new alternative — new young rock music. But ‘emo’ is not a word I fear. There have always been genres. And those genres usually define a particular vocal style. The grunge era was based on a vocal sound that was pioneered by Kurt Cobain and Mudhoney and Soundgarden. And emo is no different. It’s born out of Green Day and Blink-182: they had this certain vocal style that has now evolved into what is accepted and what is hip. If you look at the evolution of rock music, there’s always been an element of that.”
For Squire, vocals — the passion and intensity conveyed by a singer — rank high in what he looks for in an artist. Like a lot of producers, he subscribes to “the acoustic guitar test”: as he puts it, “if a song rules with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, then you can do almost anything with it. The rest is just style.”
It’s an ethos he may have picked up in the year and a half he spent working with Kolderie, who, with Sean Slade, produced breakthrough classics for Radiohead (PabloHoney) and Hole (Live Through This), as well as discs by dozens of other alt-rock notables: Throwing Muses, Dinosaur Jr., Lemonheads, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, to name just four.