"I wasn't planning on doing this. It was just something I did out of necessity, and then it just kind of turned into my life."
Larry Elyea, veteran musician and guitarist for the hard-core metal band Gift, is the most sought after hard-rock producer in the Valley. He estimates he records between 30 and 40 demos and five full albums a year. He also went through the major-label experience with a previous band, the rap-rockers Bionic Jive, and other bands come to him to guide them to similar heights, to help them refocus and regroup as they try to make their own breaks.
On May 28, Elyea convened with the members of Signal to Noise at a private north Scottsdale studio to record three songs of what will be a 12-track album. The space, owned by band manager Steve Smith as an extension to his house, is enormous, and filled with top-of-the-line equipment in soundproof rooms. Elyea says there isn't a studio that can compete with this one within 400 miles.
It's a hard-core environment for what promises to be serious business. Bassist Steve Faulkner says the group has turned to Elyea for the record they hope to parlay into major-label interest. The album will be used solely for shopping themselves this fall. With the record industry in a horrendous sales slump, the band's chances are probably slim. And Faulkner admits that he and his bandmates could have made things easier on themselves.
Last year, their previous band, Trik Turner, was dropped by RCA despite selling more than 300,000 copies of their self-titled debut album nationally. Rather than try to continue on with a name brand, however, Faulkner and singer Dave Bowers decided to regroup -- literally. He knows it's a risky move.
"There's so much money and marketing behind everything, it would make it more appealing for labels if they can say, They already have a fan base. The name is already out,'" he says.
But Faulkner and Bowers say their decision to ditch Trik Turner and form Signal to Noise came down to their desire to write better songs. "I believe in this stuff, and I like it," says Bowers. "I would love to be able to tour this album this year."
Already, they've scored a local hit. The moody midtempo rocker "Find Myself," which features the refrain "I don't want to feel this way again," reached the top 10 most requested songs list at KUPD-FM earlier in the spring. The song mixes nu-metal sludginess with a melodicism defined in part by hair metal. (Trik Turner, meanwhile, soldiers on without the defectors.)
Faulkner says the band came to Elyea because the producer has an ability to make them sound more powerful on a recording than they do live. Elyea calls that an ability to "make the songs jump off the speakers."
"These guys have been in the game," offers Elyea, who with his shaved head, muscular frame, shoulder-draped tattoos and penetrating eyes is a startling, intense figure. "Their arrangements are like 90 percent there. They know what they're doing. It's not like taking a band that's really raw."
But the band seems also to identify with Elyea. They share a definite bitterness toward the music business. At times, they sound like grumpy old men together.
"I don't think any of us think we're going to ever fucking sell a million records," Faulkner says. "That's not the mind frame we're in at all. We're a lot more realistic about it now."
So's Elyea. He spent two years doing nothing but recording and touring with Bionic Jive. He says the band spent $500,000 over four months to record its 2001 album Armageddon Through Your Speaker for Interscope, only for the album to underperform. Elyea recently played his final show with the group.
"Now I know how to do a record like that. If I know what to do now, why would I pay someone $200,000 to do it for me? I'd still have money left over." He pauses briefly. "I'd have a lot of money."
That line draws a room full of laughs as Signal to Noise prepares to lay down their own tracks.
A few days later, Elyea's running things in a very different setting, namely his own Mind's Eye Digital recording studio. If things with Signal to Noise were chummy, on June 4 in east Mesa the producer's feeling some pressure as he works with rising rockers Fivespeed.
Wearing two nicotine patches, Elyea's just quit smoking over his concerns for his wife's health. Fivespeed singer Jared Woosley, meanwhile, is coping with a breakup with a girlfriend.
But what really ramps up the tension is the task at hand: Fivespeed, the colossally noise-inspired band signed to Virgin Records last year, is finishing up a six-song demo they hope will gain them the go-ahead to finally begin recording their major-label debut. They are visibly stressed, wanting to ensure the material they present is solid. They're also acclimating a new member to the band's repertoire. Shane Addington, formerly a guitarist for hard-core band Stereotyperider, replaced drummer Chad Martin last month after, Woosley says, Martin and the other four band members found themselves "going down two different roads" musically.
"It's been the hardest thing I've ever done, to get back on the drums within three weeks," a sleepless Addington says as he rests on a leather couch behind the small three-room studio's main console (tiny as it may be, the intimate red-and-black-walled room is a near $300,000 investment, according to Elyea).
Elyea, in this setting, his sonic playground since 1992, is more of a mentor than a friend. You can see his sense of stewardship as he leads guitarist Jesse Lacross through a tricky but supple melodic guitar line and then moments later as he suggests a counter melody line to balance things out further down in the mix.
"When I first met these guys, they were pretty avant-garde arrangement-wise," Elyea says. He also produced the band's full-length debut, Trade In Your Halo, released last year on Sunset Alliance. "They wrote straight from feeling. Over time, their song structures got a lot better."
Lacross agrees. "I would say it's a lot more mature, a lot more dynamic, a lot more thought out," he says. "I think we've found our direction, what we've been looking for."
Lacross then expands on the band's learning curve over the past year. From the sounds of it, the feedback and micromanaging and demands from the Virgin reps have been intense.
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"Everyone goes into this a little immature," he says. "It's been a hard time for everyone, but hopefully it'll all be what we wanted."
Maybe Elyea can help them get there, and maybe he can't. Elyea knows he's in a position to help his various clients realize their dreams -- as well as his own, since Gift, too, is in contact with the major labels. But he also seems a little conflicted about the life as a whole.
"Here's the deal with the record labels: Every school of logic that applies everywhere else in life, throw it out the fucking window," he says as he lounges in his chair back in Scottsdale. "How much of an idiot do you have to be to want to do it over and over again?" he ponders. "That'll tell you a little bit about where our heads are. When you do something for so long, you don't know how to do anything else."
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