Creating big hits takes talent, toil and the ability to thrive under pressure           

By Michael Gallant

When Grammy-winning producer Matt Serletic steps into the studio to record with the likes of Rob Thomas, Carlos Santana, Aerosmith or Joe Cocker, he brings lots more than a knack for piecing together catchy tunes. Thanks to exceptional talents as a musician, songwriter, arranger and music business executive, Serletic has helmed records that not only sound timeless, but also find their ways into the ears and hearts of millions.

Serletic started early, accepting an invitation to join the then-unknown band Collective Soul as a keyboardist at age 13. Ten years later, Serletic helped the band record their breakout multiplatinum album, Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, lending his chops as a producer, string arranger, mixer and even mastering engineer to the project. “That was a huge experience,” he says. “Being in a rock band, finally getting a record deal, and seeing it take off,” he says. “It was life-changing.”

Serletic’s musical upbringing wasn’t all rock ’n’ roll, though. While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance at the University of Miami, he helped pay the bills as a trombonist in salsa and merengue bands. “I spent years getting to know those grooves, and when they were right, they felt fantastic,” he remembers. Fast-forward to 1999, and Serletic found just the spot for those grooves when he produced Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana’s Latin-tinged mega-smash “Smooth.” “I tried to channel my experiences playing with those bands into that record.”

Serletic has since helmed albums by a wide range of acts from David Cook and Courtney Love to Gloriana, Celine Dion and Matchbox Twenty. But Serletic’s accomplishments stretch beyond the recording studio. In the early 2000s, he served as chairman and CEO of Virgin Records, and he currently heads his own Emblem Music Group. As co-founder of Zya, he’s also developing a new video game and music-creation software program. Serletic discussed with us his creative process behind the glass with today’s biggest stars.

How do you decide who to work with?

If I feel a connection to an artist, an artist’s material, that’s what I’m looking for. If I can see something in them, then it’s my job to help bring that out so other people see it, too. It’s all about connection, whether you know an artist and their work or if they’re someone you happen to see in a club.


Have you ever chosen to work with an act after seeing them live?

I found Matchbox Twenty when some of the guys were in a band called Tabitha’s Secret, playing in Winter Park, Fla. I experienced a connection with Rob’s voice, and we’re still working together. Gloriana was the same sort of thing. When you hear that chemistry and vocal harmony, and if they can do it on the fly, that’s really exciting. I was excited to sign them and start working with them a few years ago.


How was it working with Aerosmith?

A lot of fun—even though working on “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was a real clutch moment. The band had just finished an album and was in the middle of a tour. We were on a tight deadline because the song was for the film Armageddon. We literally had one weekend. I met them in L.A., we sat at a piano and played through the song. “OK, we’re going to do it like this. See you in New York!” Few days later, we met up at the Hit Factory and had to make it happen. They were worn out from the road, but it didn’t matter.


What was the band dynamic?

They’re great musicians and pros. Steven and Joe in particular were great to watch—there’s a reason they’re famous and known as two sides of the same coin. They work really well together. Joe pushes Steven, and Steven certainly pushes everybody.


How did you deal with the massive string parts in that song?

We cut the record on Friday and Saturday, and I had to write this 60-something piece orchestration for Monday morning because the record had to be turned in that night. It was a Herculean effort. I think we burned through a couple of assistant engineers on that! They weren’t used to staying up for three days straight.


Was the orchestration a challenge?

I studied big-band writing and all kinds of orchestration, and it’s a love of mine. I think of making records as modern arranging to some degree. Now I use computers, but back on that project, I sat there scribbling by candlelight because my eyes were so swollen trying to stay up. The copyist would come in at 3 a.m. to take a page back—and I just kept writing out the second oboe part, or whatever came next. That project was old school in that way.


What notation software do you use?

We use Sibelius. What a luxury! When I was coming up, I was taught you had to hear the parts of an arrangement in your head so when you picked up the pencil, your ideas would turn into a saxophone line, or whatever it was supposed to be. That’s still incredibly useful, but now it’s great to be able to hear the arrangement come together as you work on it.


How is working with Rob Thomas solo different from Matchbox Twenty?

The solo projects have been an expression and exploration of other things that influence Rob. We’ve gone further afield and don’t play by any rules. With Matchbox Twenty, it’s still a pop-rock band, so there are certain things that we tend to do. I just finished the band’s new record, and what’s been cool is all of the experimentation Rob did has been brought back into the band. At the same time, the guys have all progressed into fantastic musicians and songwriters. So a great deal of newness was brought to this album—but there’s still this longstanding bond as a band. They grew up with each other and just embraced the chance to create together. The guys wrote more than they ever did on the first three albums, so it’s been a completely different process. It’s been collaborative in a way that’s similar to when Rob and I work on a solo record—he and I using fantastic musicians and going in all sorts of directions.


How do you approach producing a Carlos Santana guitar solo?

A lot of times, it’s just encouragement. When Carlos and I first worked on “Smooth” he threw a bunch of stuff at me and we did a few passes. We worked on it, and I went back and comped it much like I do for a vocalist. We worked together again last year, and in the years between then and now, he’s become even more laser focused. He’s found his voice more à la John Coltrane, where every utterance is magical. It’s cool to see a guy like that still finding a higher level of playing. But when you’re in the studio, everybody has great days and everybody has bad days—and the music has to happen no matter what.


What do you do when you’re having a bad day in the studio?

You roll up your sleeves and just do it. You have to be good in the clutch and help other people be good in the clutch—and the tricky thing really is vocals. Voices are human instruments, so sometimes the tone just isn’t happening. Sometimes the best advice is to pack it up and come back. Save the studio time for tomorrow and get some rest.


How’d you learn to handle the pressure?

Back in the beginning days of Collective Soul we had no money, so we had an arrangement at this studio to use time nobody else wanted. That usually meant recording at midnight. We would go in and build tracks all night. Invariably the last parts we tracked would be the production and keyboard elements, so when the sun was coming up it would be my turn. I got used to the pressure of, “Well, I have one pass. Time to make something happen.”


Any advice for young producers?

Do something that nobody else has done. It’s so tempting to copy existing sounds and styles when you’re starting out. Part of that is necessary when you’re learning to do things musically, but move past that. The greatest musicians and producers were all different from what came before them. They all created different sounds—so find your difference. Find some way to make yourself unique and then be really good at it. A lot of people stop halfway—“I’m kind of good at it and I’m kind of different.” That just doesn’t cut it. You have to be both.



There are so many. I remember hearing the White Stripes for the first time when I was at Virgin—and I wanted to sign them. My A&R team came in and some loved it, some hated it. The person who introduced the band to me said, “I don’t like this but people do—and it’s so different sounding.” They’re just one of many examples. There are always shifts going on, whether it was when Nirvana came out, when the White Stripes got big, or when hip-hop emerged from the East Coast. Music is always shifting and there are always new artists, new producers and new creators leading the change. What I’m always looking for is stuff that can make that change.


comment closed

Copyright © 2012 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·