Industry Profile: Eric Lilavois
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Eric Lilavois, the Crown City Studios, and London Bridge Studio.
In trying to locate Eric Lilavois on any given day, one has to search recording studios and record shops in Pasadena, California and Seattle, Washington.
This multi-faceted producer/mixer/songwriter/studio owner divides his time between his two studios: The 4000 square foot Crown City Studios in Pasadena, and the legendary London Bridge Studio in Seattle, which he has co-owned since 2013.
A self-taught multi-musician, the 35-year-old Lilavois spent 2004Ė2006 fronting the DIY-styled band the Days In Between before beginning to oversee productions by friends in local Los Angeles bands.
He has since worked with Atlas Genius, Surfer Blood, My Chemical Romance, Saint Motel, the Smokey Brights, Atlas Genius, the Dustbowl Revival, Celeigh Chapman, and the Second Hell.
Lilavois has also co-written, and produced 70 original cues for television and independent films, including for the History channel programs, ďPawn Stars,Ē ďAmerican Restoration,Ē and ďCajun Pawn Stars.Ē
This year, he moved up from advisor to being talent booker for the annual Make Music Pasadena summer festival.
Eric Lilavois is also a partner in a label, The London Tone Music Group.
How long have you operated the Crown City Studios?
Thatís coming up on 10 years. Itís actually a bit closer to 8 years. I was a silent partner, initially. There was another individual who started the space. About two years in I kind of took over, officially. I was still running with bands, and I was just starting to get my production chops.
Were you still with the Days In Between?
This was just wrapping up Days In Between. Thatís when the transition started to happen to more and more production. Bands were asking me to help with their stuff (productions) based on the stuff that they were hearing from the Days.
Was wanting to get off the road pushing you to production?
Absolutely. Thatís why I have so much respect for bands that do it, stick to it, and understand it (doing roadwork in a career).
And havenít yet killed each other.
Right, and have survived.
All the clichťs of being on the road in a band are true.
Yeah, thatís true. I wish that I had had a little more perspective. The thing that I try to infuse with a lot of younger bands that come through here is enjoy this, because these are stories that are going to be with you for the rest of your life. It was hard for me to just enjoy it. You are so tied up in, ďWhere to put the trailer?Ē
With most bands, thereís usually one guy that stays in the studio after everyone else leaves. It takes dedication to stay night after night and get production right.
It does. It absolutely does. Not to put down guys in bands that I have been with because they are certainly hard workers as well, but I certainly was the guy that was hanging around until the very last second to make sure that we had what we needed, and what we wanted. I think thatís what the big segue was for me to the production side. It started to make sense. Like the two dots were connecting.
At Crown City, you have an SSL board?
Yes. An AWS 900 console.
You also have Neve and Trident outboard gear. Is that what you had when you opened the studio?
No. In the very beginning, it was that Trident channel, and a couple of other pieces of outboard gear. It was just sort of based on those few pieces. I kept growing, and kept collecting over the years. It was probably about five or six years ago when the AWS console came into the fold. I felt the need to make a massive jump forward from the small outboard gear thing, to the build-out studio thing.
Did other musicians immediately accept you as a producer? When you want people to pay you for your work, thatís a transition thing.
It is a big transition. I was fortunate that there has always been a high level of trust with the artists that I have worked with. There have been very few circumstances where Iíve come home and said, ďMy gawd. Why am I working on this?Ē I have been fortunate. But it is a big jump, and it does take a massive trust. People should put a lot of thought into who they work with. And the second that they make that decision that they are going to work with someone, they have to trust them.
Why would people want to work with you as a producer now? What do you bring to the table that they may be looking for? Other than your track record, what are they getting?
(Laughing) Iím a hugger. I give great hugs. High fives are fun. No, honestly, for me, I really want an artist to see their vision through. For them to be the upmost version of who they want to be. Sometimes they are not necessarily aligned with that.
Itís difficult working with a band when that happens.
Yes, absolutely. So when Iím trying to work with an artist, and change certain elements of a song or certain elements of what an artist is doing, Iím not trying to make them into something that they are not. Iím trying to help them toward, ultimately, what they have described what they want to be. They donít necessarily know how to get there.
Do you turn down bands saying, ďIím not right for this.Ē
Yes. Absolutely. It is hard, but if I feel that I canít contribute to it and I truly feel that Iím going to be able to....it doesnít necessarily have to be my stamp on it if I feel that I canít influence it or help it along I have no business working on it.
Some of the best recordings ever were recorded right off the floor in one or two takes. Do you like productions like that rather than beating a track to death which often happens with musicians who own home studio?
I do. I think that intuition is everything. I honestly do believe that the first few takes are the best takes. Beating it to death is certainly not my style. The scary thing about the guy tinkering in his basement for six months is that is not necessarily the best sound quality either.
So many people donít know how to use microphones in the studio.
Right, which is why (producer/engineer) Al Schmitt is such a hero. Itís, ďLetís get it right in the room, and letís move if itís not workingĒ as opposed to, ďCrank on an EQ and try to change what the sound that is coming in.Ē
[Los Angeles-based Al Schmitt has been involved in creating some of the most memorable and sophisticated recordings of the contemporary pop era. Over a five decade career, he has worked with such leading musical figures as Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Steely Dan, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Michael Bublť, Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Al Jarreau, Toto, the Jefferson Airplane, George Benson, and Quincy Jones.]
What are the sound characteristics of the Crown City Studios?
Crown City is just very, very live, and very lucky. I will be bluntly honest with you. It was not designed as a studio. Beforehand, it was an AA ( Alcoholics Anonymous) facility. There is an energy to it, absolutely.
I felt the energy in the room when I visited the historic Sun Studio in Memphis even though it had been an auto parts store before reopening in 1987.
Last month, I was in RCA Studio B (on Music Row). My family was traveling through Nashville, and we took this (daily) historical tour. They do this very cool thing where they pump Elvis over the speakers, and tell you to close your eyes and imagine him in the room. It is just goose bumps. You can feel that energy still there.
Meanwhile, RCA Studio A in Nashville may be sold and converted into apartments.
Hopefully, the Country Hall of Fame will still be able to protect it. I really hope that they are able to. Itís the same with the London Bridge Studio. Thatís partly why I got involved there. The first time that I walked through that studio, I could just feel this intense artistic energy. You start to feel those people who have been in that room.
Is it true that when the Days In Between was rejected entering Canada in 2005, the band decided to do a 5-song EP at the London Bridge Studio in Seattle?
Absolutely. In our little DIY days, we thought that we could outsmart you guys (Canadians), but you kicked our ass.
When you recorded at London Bridge, it had new owners.
Yeah, Geoff (Ott) and Jonathan (Plum) had just purchased it. I think that Geoff was still painting the walls. They had been doing their own thing elsewhere. They had a couple of different places across the city (for production). I was grateful and thankful that they did take that step (of re-launching the studio). Itís pretty intense to be part of it.
[London Bridge is one of about 70 recording studios in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 1985 by brothers Rick and Raj Parashar, the Lake Forest Park facility catapulted the Seattle grunge sound to the world in the early '90s.
The studio surged to fame with the 1991 release of Pearl Jam's seminal album "Ten"--which was instrumental in popularizing alternative rock in the mainstream--along with productions of Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Blind Melon and Soundgarden.
With Rick Parashar in greater demand as a producer and worked elsewhere, the studio fell into disrepair. When his 10-year lease was about to expire, Rick decided to sell the studio, its recording equipment and rights to the brand name were sold to former employees, Jonathan Plum and Geoff Ott. Apparently, Plum mortgaged his condo and his parents' Bellevue home to acquire the studio which had sat idle for nearly a year.
Rick Parashar died Aug. 14th, 2014 from natural causes stemming from a pulmonary embolism at his home in Seattleís Queen Anne neighborhood. He was 50.]
I can tell you one reason the sound is so good in London Bridge.
Iíd like to hear your take on it.
It was designed by the late Geoff Turner who also built Little Mountain Sound in Vancouver, and operated Pinewood Sound in Vancouver for over 30 years.
Geoff Ott was telling me a story on my last trip up there that somebody came through the studio and said, ďGeoff Turner designed this, right?Ē Ott was like, ďWhat do you mean?Ē
What makes London Bridge so special that you decided to become a partner?
Well, what makes it special is the energy. There isnít a person I have brought into London Bridge that doesnít feel that immediately. Even if they are not connected to the bands in the same way that I am connected to a band like Pearl Jam, and how much I adore what they did there. Still, everybody just senses that it is a special place.
Then, in terms of moving into the future, John and Geoff started to really embrace and bring in this community vibe which is kind of how London Bridge originally was. They have sort of re-infused that vibe into it. I think that what I have brought to the table was really sort of marrying those two worlds. The history that I am so into, and that I am soómore so than them who were there when it was happening and that same sort of sense of community, and bringing everybody in that was already happening for me being in Los Angeles.
A lot of historical albums recorded at London Bridge were with the studio's Ď70s Neve 8048 console.
We still have the Neve 8048. We are in the midst of a campaign to restore it. We did an Indiegogo campaign, and raised about $30,000. We are still adding to that.
What are they operating with in there now?
The Neve is still there. It is in the middle of restoration. Itís modular so we have been working with Vintage King (Audio), shipping out six channels at a time. So the board basically goes from 30 channels to 24. But, yeah, we have been working closely with them. Weíre about half-way there. We will certainly need some help to finish it off, but we are getting close.
Did Geoff and Jonathan seek you out as a partner?
Geoff and I had been collaborating on projects. Heís the one that recorded the Days In Between, and we kept in close touch. He was mixing some of the records that I was producing. The tipping point was that he was in town for Grammy week nearly two years ago, and he and I spent a long week together talking over both of our goals. That was sort of the tipping point where he brought me into the fold four months later.
Thereís potential synergy between your LA and Seattle operations. I guess you are doing some of that with London Tone Music Group.
Some artists have been done down here in LA. The majority have been done at London Bridge.
Is London Tone Music Group a label?
Itís a label. It is basically Geoff, Jonathan and I, and Jeffrey Ross and Jeff Heiman (of 2 Jeffs On Music) forming a partnership to come up with London Tone Music. Our launch idea was ď52 X 52óA Year In Your EarĒ which has been intense. (Recording) 52 artists in 52 weeks, releasing a single a week.
I donít know many of the acts involved other than the Smokey Brights.
The Smokey Brights is great. I enjoyed working with them. Such a solid, great group of people.
Is Motown Records the template for the London Tone Music Group? Great artists working in the studio together. With the studio being the entry point for anyone coming into the music industry, you are on the ground floor for discovering new talent.
Absolutely. Development has been such a massive focus for me. Thatís another part of this London Bridge community. It really is wide open and relentless, even between three producers. If Jonathan is working on something downstairs, and Iím working on something upstairs, we have no problem running to each other and saying, ďWhat do you think about this?Ē Or, maybe, thereís a drummer downstairs which just happened with the holiday single (a collaboration between many artists on the London Tone Music roster) that we were recording. We didnít have a drummer for the holiday track. You run downstairs, and you say, ďWhat do you think about this part?Ē Suddenly, boom, it all kind of clicks. So, it (London Tone Music Group) is based on the Motown model where the studio and label are the driving forces behind this creative community.
How do you oversee all the productions coming through?
We have weekly meetings on Monday, and everybody plays what they are into, and what is coming into their inbox.
Where are the meetings held?
They are in Seattle. For some of them, I call in. If I am in town, we will all get together. We make it religious to all talk on Monday morning. Itís great. Itís fun to even see everybodyís distinct taste and styles. And then to see everybody break out of that too. By the 10th, 15th, now 52nd meeting, the conversation is a lot different.
How many releases have there been to date?
We are almost at the very end of it (the 52 X 52 run). I think that we have four left to go. I donít have an exact number, but we are in the late 40s.
Mostly digital releases?
All digital. We have been using CD Baby. We have a partnership with them for the London Tone releases. They have been great. Just exceptional partners.
Your debut solo release, ďThe Only Way,Ē in 2011 was released digitally.
The next record I am just finishing up, itís called ďSalt, Sea, and Smoke,Ē which is going out on London Tone Music. Iím breaking it up into three EPs that I am combining for the a physical record. The first EP ďSaltĒ was just released. Then we will release ďSeaĒ and ďSmoke.Ē In March, we will release the whole thing (album) on vinyl.
Who is going to distribute the vinyl version of ďSalt, Sea, and Smoke?Ē
Thatís a good question. I donít know. (Sell it) out of the back of the van? Basically, the drive behind me doing this record on vinyl is still very sentimental. It doesnít necessarily mean that itís going to pencil out exactly as you say. But that artwork, that feel, that sentimentality is so very important to me.
You are in a unique position where you have been musician in DIY-styled bands; you oversee two studios; and you work in the developmental stage with a lot of bands. Your advice to young bands is, ďDonít suck.Ē It really does go back to that doesnít it?
Yeah, absolutely. You gotta own your craft. You have to really work, work, and work at it. Sometimes it eludes you. Sometimes it piles up. All of the outside things. All of the outside noise piles up. It gets harder and harder to maintain that focus. It does. But you have to remember that this (a music career) is an actual craft that you have to work.
Operating a studio and being a producer as well as being musician probably provides you with a significant vocabulary to work with other sectors of the music business.
Most definitely it does. Everybody has a different way that they approach their unique jobs. There are a lot of different personalities within the studio, even, as there are within a band. There are different instruments.
Being in Los Angeles, you have likely met a lot of music executives or former music executives in their 40s and 50s telling guys like you in your 30s how things should really be done.
Right. Yeah, let me carve out my own path.
You have come up within music industry with your own circle of peers. You arenít quite part of the mainstream yet, but the sector you are working in will likely eventually become the mainstream. I donít know if that makes sense to you.
It absolutely does. It a huge part, again, of the developmental field. Itís all connected.
What peers do you feel a creative kinship with?
Do I want to name other producers that.... Hmm, man. Thatís a really great question. Nobody has ever asked me that before. I donít even know if I can answer it.
Your experiences being in and working with bands are what likely influences your outlook today.
Thatís so interesting. I want to explore that. I am seriously going to explore that internally because I think you are so in the thick of it, and you are kind of pushing along.
That you donít realize until years later what you were doing.
Right. You donít realize until you look back, and you have some perspective on it. You go, ďOh wow.Ē You are just chugging along, and not even thinking about those things.
Have you had surprises dealing with mainstream music industry people? In that that you found them unexpectedly supportive or more advanced in their thinking than you expected?
I have. There have been some circumstances where I sort of envisioned from peoplesí roles or approach that was very different than from the reality of it. From the DIY perspective, itís been really interesting seeing bands that have to fill a lot of roles themselves, and who donít have the same education that some of the people in the old school industry do. What has propelled them forward is the need to innovate on their own path going forward.
There are innovators in mainstream music industry as well. Managers, booking agents, music publishers, promoters, and A&R people that are cutting edge.
Most definitely. A lot of people are focusing on areas that you wouldnít necessarily imagine. One of the big ones is technology, which is great because I think that is a huge part of what got us into a little bit of an issue of everybody talking about how terrible the industry is in the first place.
The Big Bang of the music industry came about after labels told kids not to come into music stores if they only had $5 because they wouldnít be able to buy singles. The kids went home, and discovered music on Napster. Then came consolidations of the majors which hampered A&R development as well as big box retailers devaluing music. It wasnít just technology which re-shaped the music industry.
I agree with that. As a music lover, I was in that transition where I bought the CDs that I could afford. I was still hungry for more music. I was out there looking for more of my music. I donít know but if somebody gets one of these streaming services right, I think that might be an interesting way of filling the gap of allowing people to search for music, and find new music, and still satiate that hunger, but still compensate the artist as well.
Brick and mortar music retailers have either disappeared or a decade ago stopped stocking catalogues. Certain genres of music, like metal, indie, country or roots, you suddenly could no longer find at retail unless it was at independent store specializing in a specific genre. When you couldnít find a lot of music you were seeking, you went online.
Definitely. Or if you were looking for B-sides and bootlegs. There were some bands that I was just feverish about. I had to have everything that was out there in the universe. You are absolutely correct. It wasnít there for me to grab.
Stores that once had import CD singles sold them for up to $15.
I remember that. The Warehouse was the music store. I remember combing the import section for anything that I could afford, and getting my hands on them. Those were the ones. Those were the jewels.
Who were you feverish about?
I am still a giant Pearl Jam fan. I have seen way too many shows.
You bought all of the official bootlegs of their shows?
Absolutely. I have a pretty ridiculous number of those bootlegs and too many posters. My poor kids are going to have to sort through all of this memorabilia.
Some really good record stores in Los Angeles, including Liquorice Pizza, and Vinyl Fetish Records, are no longer with us.
Stores slowly disappeared. Even the local shops here like Penny Lane.
[Penny Lane Records continues operate out of an industrial complex on the west side of Upland California, between Mountain and Benson Avenues on 13th Street.]
Do you still buy many records?
I do. I like to comb some of the (music) shops in Seattle like Easy Street Records, Bop Street Records, and Sonic Boom Records. Iím kind of feverish about going in them and picking up stuff that I havenít heard of as well as finding local artists. I do lots and lots of shopping at Easy Street in Seattle. You can get breakfast and a beer, and then you walk around, and grab your records.
I am practically banned from Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard by my wife.
We are in a similar situation. My wife makes me pull out the amount of cash that I am allowed to spend, and then she steals my wallet, and lets me loose for about an hour in there.
You still live in Los Angeles.
I live in Los Angles and Iím making the transition to Seattle as well since I go back and forth so often. I want to get some firmer roots up there.
Do you live in a house or an apartment?
You have two kids and a wife. Do you hear, ďYour stuff is all over this house, Eric.Ē If it isnít equipment, itís probably records. Are you limited at home to where you can put things?
The studio has been a massive blessing in that I can drag all my stuff over there. Itís great because it plays into my sort of style, and the way that I connect with artists in that the production and that influence is very, very important to me in terms of the bands that I am working with. Itís great. I get to drive all my books over there. My typewriters. My records. Everybody has access to it. So, maybe, some of the posters and stuff stay at home.
Is your wife a music junkie as well?
I wouldnít say that sheís a music junkie. SheĎs a fan. Sheís been dragged to a few too many shows.
With DYI, not many people can pick up that torch, and really do what is necessary to further elevate their career.
Thatís true. Thatís why I have so much respect for the artists that do. That really understand that it takes 10 or 15 years to be an overnight success. Saint Motel has does such a spectacular job. They have been consistently career musicians. They made a decision that they were going to do this. They have stuck to it. I respect that so much, and I think that itís necessary to have a band that has some kind of lasting impression, and longevity.
As a DIY band, members have to learn about bookings, gear, recording, music publishing, and internet distribution. A lot of hats to wear, and jobs to master.
It is, and itís increasingly necessary, unfortunately.
We arenít drawing a lot of new people into the business.
No, no. And itís (the new music industry is) creating a lot of hybrid individuals though, even to me looking at some different things. Does a producer have any business booking a festival?
You started out advising event manager Kershona Mayo and music publicist Josie Mora on acts for the annual Make Music Pasadena music festival. This year, you stepped up as the talent buyer. A job you had never done before?
No, no, exactly. It was just kind of suggestions before that point. Itís a similar situation with what you are describing with the bands. Itís really kind of how am I managing my career, and what do I really want out of my career, and my legacy moving forward.
All emerging musicians work against the pressures of life. Whether it be in the early stages with parents tired of bankrolling them, or girlfriends or wives tired of them being out on the road. Those are real pressures for a musician.
Yeah, and it evolves to kids who start to get tired of you being on a flight to Seattle every other week.
Itís hard to say to a band or artist that a music career consists of an 8 to 9 year development period. For anyone half way through that cycle, who is tired of Kraft dinners, tired of the road, and tired of playing the same crappy gigs for no money, thatís discouraging.
And itís very very hard trying to say to a band, ďThese are the tools that I can help you with. These are the things that I can do for you, but I cannot do it for you.Ē Itís just the truth. Those bands have to hit the ground as hard as they can. I agree with you. It gets scary. It gets to the point they think, ďIs this really worth it?Ē Five or six years in. Thatís something that they have to determine for themselves.
At the same time, itís more difficult selling music at gigs today. Bands canít count on that income anymore.
Itís true. Our drummer used to trade CDs for Subway sandwiches. That was in days in between (gigs). We had an individual in Idaho who worked at a grocery store and he brought us a box of groceries that they were on the verge of throwing out. That meant everything to us at that level. Better than the chips from the gas station.
What part of California did you grow up in?
I grew up in San Gabriel about 15 minutes outside of Pasadena. My parents have lived there for nearly 40 years. Since before I was born.
Your parents are Haitian?
My parents are both Haitian. They were both born in Port-au-Prince. They didnít meet there, surprisingly. They both came here (to the United States) while in their 20s, and met on a blind date in New York. Then they were married that year.
Was your fatherís record collection your first introduction to music?
Yeah. He had traveled a bit to Spain. So we had a lot of Spanish records and, of course, a lot of Haitian records. Itís funny they (the records) didnít come out all of the time. They came out on special occasions when we would have the whole family over. A lot of it is kompa (or compas, a modern mťringue musical genre in Haiti with European and African roots). It is very celebratory, but it can also be very sad, and very profound. It is the kind of music that you were either addressing the trials of the country or you were dancing on top of it.
Your fatherís collection only contained only three English-language albums, Johnny Cash ďLive at Folsom Prison,Ē Bruce Springsteenís ďBorn in The USA,Ē and the Beatlesí ďAbbey Road?Ē
Thatís it. Thatís all you need in a sense, right?
In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster, you wrote, recorded and released the song ďAyiti Cherie MemoriesĒ to benefit UNICEF relief in Haiti. That project must have meant a lot to you.
Yeah, it did. And it brought back so much of the emotions for my family. You get disconnected to it (your heritage). We are American. We arenít Haitian. You get disconnected from it. I was born here. I have never have been to Haiti. I hope to go there, sooner than later.
Immigrants to a country often relate more to their adopted country.
Itís so true. Dad used to poke fun at us when weíd see a Haitian flag or some kind of Haitian memorabilia, and we would buy it. Heíd say, ďWell, you are American.Ē We have a stronger connection to Haiti than he does.
What did your dad do for a living?
My dad was a bookkeeper. He was an accountant for years. He had a couple of his own businesses here and there.
Does he do your books?
No, no. Heís has since retired. Heís in full kick-back mood.
You briefly attended Pasadena City College where your brother Randy coached the womenís soccer team.
Right. I have to admit that I had stints at a lot of different little colleges. I was never the career student. I went to Golden West College in Huntington Beach for a second. I started at Long Beach State. I just kind of bounced around. I eventually ended up at The Arts Institutes in Los Angles.
Why all the school changes?
It was that constant internal fighting of people telling me that I needed to have something to fall back on. I think that I have always known and felt in my heart of heart that wasnít me.
Being born in 1979, you missed the earlier LA punk and hardcore scene with the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents, Christian Death, Suicidal Tendencies, the Three O'Clock, the Long Ryders, Thin White Rope, Young Fresh Fellows, and American Music Club.
Yeah, what I would have done to be part of that stuff live. Whenever I come across a friend with parents or siblings who were cool enough to bring him to that stuff I just sit around, and listen. I donít get a word in.
Did you attend a lot of shows growing up?
I did. I went to a ridiculous number of shows. I keep all my ticket stubs. Name it, and I think Iíve seen it. I have thousands of these things in shoeboxes. The mid to late Ď90s was the real ridiculousness. Live, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam. That whole time period. Thereís probably some really embarrassing ticket stubs in that box.
Any Insane Clown Posse tickets?
I may even have that one there somewhere.
Anything stand out for you musically from those days.
There was that fun ska period that came around with the Hepcat, and the Specials. Everybody coming back around. That was a lot of fun. I was never deep into that scene but I went to those shows and I really enjoyed that.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.