July 2009

Greg Kurstin

Plus Wilco, Engineers, Sonic Youth, Zee Avi and More

Greg Kurstin Photo by Scott Council

Think of him as a Swiss Army knife of the music industry. Los Angeles–based multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin has worked with artists as diverse as Ben Harper, Jane’s Addiction, Kylie Minogue and Pink. His most recent work includes cowriting songs for and producing Lily Allen’s latest CD, It’s Not Me, It’s You. I caught up with Kurstin recently to find out what makes this renaissance man tick.

Nic Harcourt: You moved to New York in the late ’80s to study jazz, but you discovered a slew of music while you were there—what was your takeaway?
Greg Kurstin: After high school is when I really started listening to a lot of jazz—Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Miles Davis. That’s when I moved to New York to study with Jaki Byard, who was Mingus’ pianist. In New York, I listened to a variety of music, such as African and Brazilian and especially hip-hop, which inspired me to get more into drum machines and sampling sounds.

NH: Your first band was Geggy Tah, which had a pretty big hit in 1996 with “Whoever You Are.” What kind of impact did that have on your career?
GK: “Whoever You Are” was a new experience for me. Having a song being played on the radio was tremendous, but then eventually it wasn’t on the radio anymore, so it was back to the drawing board!

NH: When I met you in 2002, you were working as musical director for Beck, as well as for Gwen Stefani. What does a musical director do?
GK: Beck needed to rehearse a new band but was in Europe doing a solo tour. I knew his songs, so I rehearsed the band and began working out the arrangements—that’s one of the roles of a musical director. With Gwen, they asked me to put together a live band and rehearse them until the songs were ready to be played on tour.

  • Eaststrikewest, Unreleased
  • Zee Avi, Zee Avi
  • Sonic Youth, The Eternal
  • Engineers, Three Fact Fader
  • Wilco, Wilco

Eaststrikewest
“Stumble”
Unreleased

I was at a conference in Liverpool recently, and somebody handed me this song on a promo CD. I’m a sucker for big anthemic indie shoe-gaze pop songs, and this fits the bill on all counts! Listen at myspace.com/eaststrikewestband.

For Fans Of Coldplay, U2

Zee Avi
“Bitter Heart”
Zee Avi

This Malaysian singer posted a few videos on YouTube and caught the eyes and ears of Shins manager Ian Montone. Her debut album, recorded here in L.A., is a collection of bubbly acoustic songs about boys.

For Fans Of Meiko

Sonic Youth
“Sacred Trickster”
The Eternal

Twenty-five years on, and one of indie rock’s pioneer bands is still at it—and still means it! On this song, Kim Gordon delivers a blistering two-minute jagged commentary about being “the girl in the band.”

For Fans Of PJ Harvey, Pavement

Engineers
“Clean Coloured Wire”
Three Fact Fader

From the U.K. comes the Engineers’ second full-length release, with a collection of dreamy, layered space pop. This opening track pops with bubbling electronic beats over a slow psychedelic dirge.

For Fans Of Human League, New Order

Wilco
“Everlasting Everything”
Wilco

Jeff Tweedy’s band always uses the studio to expand its regular instrumentation. The end track—with horns and strings and the lyric “everlasting love is all you have”—rounds out the album nicely.

For Fans Of Radiohead, Lucinda Williams

NH: You worked with Inara George, one of my favorite vocalists, in the band The Bird and the Bee. What drew you guys together musically?
GK: I played keyboards on Inara’s first solo record, as well as in her live sets, where we began to play eerie versions of old jazz standards at the end of the shows. I was doing more producing and writing at my home studio, and we started recording songs together. This eventually became the first Bird and the Bee record.

NH: You have a whole bunch of production credits, including recent albums by Britney Spears and Lily Allen. What’s it like working with artists who are in the news for everything but music?
GK: There’s a bit of a racket going on when they’re being chased by the paparazzi on the way to the studio, but once we’re in the room together, it’s like working with most artists. We’re all just trying to make the best music we can.