“I was always a musician,” John Kurzweg says. It’s a sunny afternoon and the performer/producer/singer-songwriter and I are sipping coffee and chatting for the first time ever, though we met once before years ago.
"When I was in high school, I dreamed of having some kind of multi-track [recorder]," he continues, "but they didn't have those readily available back then." Kurzweg recalls he visited a professional studio in his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, when he was about 16 and became fascinated. He would subsequently follow the development of portable recording devices through the audio-based magazines of the day and, by the time he was 20, he finally owned one. "It was the very first one that ever came out," he says. "And it changed everything."
Audio engineering schools weren't exactly abundant in Kurzweg's youth in the '80s, and he'd have to learn alone. "I'd been one of those geeks who listened to records for hours and hours, over and over," he explains. "I had this dumb idea that if you were the leader of a rock band, you were supposed to know how everything worked—I thought my favorite rock stars knew how all the music fit together, but I came to find later they didn't have to know any of that."
His borderline obsessive need to uncover the nuts and bolts of music paid off, however. By 1985, he was signed to Atlantic Records under the name John Philip (labels at the time didn't jive with the name Kurzweg) and recording his debut, Wait For the Night with producer Ken Scott, the man behind David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and an engineer for The Beatles. But this isn't exactly a straight-shot-to-success story.
"The record didn't do anything," says Kurzweg. "Back then, it was common to get a deal, do a record and wind up broker than you'd ever been in your life."
He moved home from Los Angeles to Florida and continued his own forays into songwriting and recording until a friend, aware of his recording equipment, connected him with some no-name band looking to make an album. "We did it on cassette, because that's all we had at the time," Kurzweg reminisces. "Well, they took that cassette to the college radio station in Tallahassee, and after that my phone never stopped ringing."
Kurzweg estimates he started picking up more production work than any of the nearby professional studios, partly because he had an ear for music, but also because he was cost-effective. "I found I could record drums in my garage in two minutes, and it often sounded better than what was coming out of the studios," he says. "But even on my eight track, I had to really think, 'OK, how are we gonna get all the tracks down for this song?'" Kurzweg followed in the footsteps of The Beatles and their longtime producer George Martin: Multiple tracks get dumped back onto one and the process gets repeated, meaning layers are indeed achievable but producers must be smart and economical.
His reputation as producer grew, and this was at the height of a music business model that really only existed for roughly 35 years; namely, one during which labels had money to burn and heavy-handed production was commonplace. "It took me 30 years to figure it out, and by the time I did, it was all gone," Kurzweg recalls. "Everything I know about the record industry isn't applicable anymore. … On the one hand, the playing field is more level than it's ever been—it's just hard to wade through everything."
Still, by the '90s, Kurzweg was working for then-popular acts like Puddle of Mudd, Godsmack, Eagle-Eye Cherry and (gulp) Creed. Don't blame him for the music, though—and keep in mind that those days in the music biz earned producers serious money.
"It's funny," he says. "The bands I ended up producing that were that kind of rock. There was this overlap where I could like it and get into it, but it wasn't necessarily my kind of rock." He says an article once referred to him being like a rock version of Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC creator Lou Pearlman, though he finds the comparison laughable. "They laid it out like I was part of some big corporate rock conspiracy," he explains. "That was so funny to me."
Creed, by the way, sold millions of records, but it was ultimately limiting to Kurzweg's career. "You get typecast as a certain kind of producer, and I certainly was," he says, "but I just never wanted to change the essence of who a band was. … You try to access the strengths and downplay the weaknesses."
These days, Kurzweg sticks mostly to his own music. He's developed an easily listenable mid-tempo style, first honed while performing guitar with the Sean Healen Band and now on his own. "I was always more influenced by Americana or folk music," he says, "or acoustic music, at least." His band generally consists of a rotating cast of local musicians such as Peter Williams, Andy Primm, Karina Wilson and others and, he says, it's surprising if he plays more than once or twice a month. Kurzweg still dabbles in production, though nothing as intense as his previous work. "It's a nice blend emotionally to do a little bit of each," he says. "It probably comes from doing it forever and being fairly left-brained, but I think my whole journey, my whole life has been about how to become more right-brained."
John Kurzweg Band
8:30 pm Friday May 19. Free.
319 S Guadalupe St.,