Linkin Park legacy: Get to know record producer Jeff Blue
Jeff Blue has triumphed in nearly every aspect of the music business. He’s published his own magazine, he’s cowritten crossover hits, and he’s discovered and produced famous artists like Linkin Park and Macy Gray. A career like this is bound to have a compelling backstory, and that is exactly what Blue details in his new book One Step Closer: From Xero to #1: Becoming Linkin Park.
Blue’s book gives personal insight into his creative process, as well as his struggles with mental illness, which bonded him and late Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington. He similarly delves into the struggles of getting Linkin Park signed, and how he eventually decided to take matters into his own hands.
Film Daily was fortunate enough to chat with Jeff Blue about his legendary career. The multifaceted artist also talked about failures, dream collaborators, and his plans to write a feature screenplay.
What role did music play in your life when you were growing up?
Music was everything to me. I had some traumatic experiences growing up and music was my therapy. It allowed me to lose myself in something other than my troubles. I immersed myself in every sound, every style, from one hit wonders, pop, punk, rock, hip-hop, rap, metal, to dance and soul.
I stared at the album artwork and the magazines on the newsstands, spending endless hours listening to the radio, and every song on every album, imagining what the artists were really like. I wanted to play drums so bad but my mom forbade it. She said if I got straight A’s in high school for a whole year I could get a drum set. It seemed impossible, but I did it and although she thought I’d give up on the instrument after a couple months, it changed my life.
How did you break into the music journalism field?
I was rejected by every record label in my quest to get a job as an A&R assistant. I figured the only way to make myself indispensable was to become someone who wrote about unsigned artists. I called every music magazine that existed, but I was rejected because I had no experience. I finally got a woman on the phone at Music Connection Magazine (the magazine rejected me dozens of times before).
The woman just started that day as the new editor. She asked me if I was one of their staff writers, and I said yes. One of the regular writers was sick and she needed someone to cover a show immediately. I jumped at the opportunity and wrote a great article.
I confused her enough that it wasn’t until a month later that she realized I had never written anything in my life, but now I had the experience, and I had secured freelance writing gigs at Billboard, BAM, HIT’s and others. My career moved forward.
You published the magazine Crossroads while serving as a drummer in two bands. Did working as a rock journalist influence the way you played?
Not only did it influence the way I played, I was able to discern if what we were doing was more unique and marketable than other bands, and what qualities labels were interested in. Working as a journalist helped me analyze every part of every band, star power, song writing, authenticity, musicianship, performance, and the ability to be as objective as possible while being subjectively involved in the creative process.
Crossroads focused on unsigned acts. How did the magazine inform your future career as producer and A&R?
Writing for a magazine covering unsigned acts required me to go out and discover new artists that hadn’t yet been discovered by A&R people. I just applied the same basic principles that A&R people do, and I put the analysis in writing. It helped hone my listening and producing skills.
Do you have a method or routine for determining which artists you want to develop?
I decide based on my gut instinct. I think social media is important but it plays too much of a role. It seems that the 5th band member is now the social media person. I want people with fan engagement that also have the most talent and drive. I try to judge strictly on the music, the chemistry, the authenticity and believability, identifiability, and urgency in the art.
In your novel One Step Closer you say that you signed Linkin Park when they went by the moniker ‘Xero’. What initially drew you to the band?
There was an authenticity about the band members. Brad Delson was my intern, and his personality was much like mine. He was very passionate about music, driven, extremely intelligent, and well spoken. Mike Shinoda was instantly recognizable as a visionary, even though our personalities were very different. I loved the music even though I knew it wasn’t quite right, and that’s why I did a small development deal.
Normally, development deals last a few months and are just for a four song demo. Our relationship turned into a full-fledged, every day, drive for success. The guy’s work ethic was phenomenal and when we finally got Chester into the band, I was 100% certain we had magic. Chester was the missing ingredient that made the band explosive, but even that took a while for Mike and Chester to find their perfect balance. Still, after we got Chester, the band was passed on again by every label.
Chester Bennington joined Linkin Park on your recommendation. What made you think he would be such a good fit?
When Chester sang his first note on his demo even over the phone, I was certain he was the guy. His tonality and cadence, energy, identity….it was everything together that made me realize even before I met him, even before I knew what he looked like, that he was the right singer for Linkin Park.
I’ve trained my senses for-hearing an iconic voice. Whether it’s Macy Gray, Daniel Powter with Had a Bad Day, Jonathan Davis of Korn, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra …all the artists I’ve worked with have immediately identifiable, iconic voices that absolutely fit their music.
You negotiated a deal to sign Linkin Park after they struggled for years. Were you taken aback by their massive success?
After being told for three years that the band was horrible, and was going to be ‘career suicide’ I still believed in the band, and made signing them part of my employment deal with Warner Bros. We were all hoping that someday we’d go gold in the USA (500,000). Of course we knew we had something special that had the potential to touch millions, but none of us imagined the impact the band would have.
You signed bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit in the wake of Linkin Park’s rise. Do you think success is easier to replicate once you’ve experienced it?
I did the publishing deals for Korn and Limp Bizkit prior to signing Linkin Park’s publishing and record deals. Having success gives you confidence for other deals, and it makes it easier for other bands to trust your expertise, but you can never replicate anything. Each band is unique in their own way.
The authenticity and dynamic of each artist is what makes or breaks it. I am not responsible for the success, it’s truly the artist. I can only see the vision and direct the team in the right way to help them realize their vision.
In One Step Closer you get candid about depression and the way it bonded you and Bennington. How did his death affect you?
It really messed me up. This business sucks the life out of you, the demands and the expectations, the non-reality of it all, and the cutthroat nature. Chester and I were extremely close in the beginning, and we had a lot of close discussions about what we were both going through at the time, him with the band, and me with the band. Making that album was really rough. Success takes a toll on everyone.
I feel awful that Chester felt that he wasn’t able to reach out to those closest to him, and if he did, that no one saw the signs. Also, those who don’t suffer from depression have no idea how dark and scary it can get. Friends often ignore when people suffering from depression reach out, thinking that someone like Chester “had it all”.
They can even downplay it, which makes the person feel worse inside. I urge anyone dealing with depression to seek professional help.
You’ve worked on countless movie soundtracks. How does working on a soundtrack differ from a rock or pop record?
It’s totally different. Many times, in a soundtrack you’re either looking for songs to fit scenes, or alternatively, songs that would be good on a soundtrack compilation album. Also, it depends on if you’re looking for original music inspired by that specific film or you want existing music that will sell the soundtrack itself, or both.
On a soundtrack, you could be working with ten or more different artists on what would be considered a compilation album, encompassing different styles, and different songs that usually exist prior to the film.
When you are making a traditional album with an artist, you’re working with that artist’s new material that will begin and end with the artist’s vision alone. It’s a much more personal endeavor.
How was your experience as music supervisor on the upcoming film After Masks?
It’s great. We are working with some multi-platinum artists including TLC as well as some up and coming artists. The film is really special. I am even doing a new version of the hit song “Pictures of You” that I co-wrote, that was in dozens of films. This new version is really moving and the lyrics and vocals have more impact. We were inspired to do it for the film. The team on After Masks is really creative and open.
You’ve co-written hit singles for Hoobastank, Macy Gray, and The Last Goodnight. Do you prefer collaborating with bands or developing them?
A lot of the time, since I am so hands-on when developing an artist, we end up writing together. I prefer developing artists, but I also enjoy collaborating with them. The authenticity must come from, and be genuine to the artist’s inner being. Otherwise, it’s not as believable. I can play different roles.
With Macy Gray or Emphatic, I was developing and writing, With Hoobastank, I was just writing. With The Last Goodnight, I was writing, producing, developing, and playing drums. With artists like Better Than Ezra I was just producing.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
I think for me there are eras and certain albums that inspired me. I remember my life by songs and albums. Music is the soundtrack to our lives and there are so many artists that have inspired me, it’s ridiculous. Queen, Prince, JAY-Z, Zeppelin, Kiss, Nina Simone, Bee Gees, and I have the most amazing playlist of one hit wonders from the 70’s, so I would say everything inspires me in little ways.
What do you consider your greatest success?
Linkin Park. The band and I overcame so many roadblocks, 44 rejections, tremendous politics, changing band members, changing label heads, and almost getting dropped during the creation of the album. It is a testament to the band that they had the perseverance and fortitude to push ahead and create one of the best rock albums of this century.
All the stars aligned when I found Chester, but the success must be attributed to Linkin Park and Mike Shinoda, as well as the team at Warner Bros, especially the radio and marketing department. I am proud of how well all pulled together against the odds.
What do you consider your greatest failure?
I brought Machine Gun Kelly into Atlantic Records a year before anyone had heard of him, but my boss passed. I was blown away by his early show I saw in Cleveland. I should have pushed harder for him, so it really was raw when they made an offer a year later.
Also I saw The Killers very early on, in a 115 degree and 100% humidity tiny room, with the smallest stage in the world. I was so miserable in the heat that I couldn’t focus on how amazing the band was. They were ready to sign with me and I let one bad show deter me. Had I done that with Xero, we would have never had Linkin Park.
What can you tell us about your new iHeartRadio podcast?
I’m doing a new docuseries with one of the developers of the Twilight sagas and Gannon Prod that focuses on the A&R stories and development of your favorite artists through the decades as well as a podcast with a big national radio personality, who I actually signed to a recording agreement over 20 years ago when he was only 17 years old.
We discuss all the behind the scenes, discovery, signing, and album creation of your favorite artists with the execs and industry people who helped shape our musical culture.
I also have a podcast with the original manager of Linkin Park where we go through many chapters of the book, One Step Closer: Becoming Linkin Park. We include live interviews with many of the people in the chapters and their memories of that exciting time. We give inspirational and educational advice on what can be learned from the band’s development, and the process of what the band and team did right that made Hybrid Theory the biggest selling debut album of the 21st century.
Finally, I also have a movie screenplay in development with a diverse cast that’s like Scream crossed with Saw crossed with The Breakfast Club!
Are there any musical acts we should be looking out for?
Grandson is an incredible artist kind of like Bob Dylan x Rage Against the Machine x Trap Rock. They’re on Atlantic/Fueled by Ramen. Very prolific and urgent. The drummer, David Rehman, is my best friend and the band is awesome live!
There’s also a killer new unsigned hybrid female percussionist DJ group led by Chastity Ashley who has worked with Kygo, Kanye West, Frank Walker, Duran Duran and more. The group is called Neon Pony.
You’ve had an incredibly versatile career. Is there anything you want to do that you have not been able to thus far?
I’m extremely excited to begin working on the production of my screenplay!
What tips do you have for aspiring producers and A&Rs?
Follow your gut, never give up, listen intelligently to constructive criticism and adapt accordingly but always stay true to your heart. And never take the obvious path, instead, focus on forging your own way. You’ll discover more about the job and yourself along the journey!