Producer, engineer and two-time Grammy winner Doug McKean’s career took root when he befriended a recording engineer during high school in Connecticut. He later enrolled at NYU where he connected with Jerry Harrison, then keyboardist with Talking Heads, who went on to produce for bands including Live and Crash Test Dummies.
McKean has since worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including as the engineer on Green Day’s multi-platinum juggernaut American Idiot. Iconic producer and industry exec Rob Cavallo has tapped him to engineer many records, including those by My Chemical Romance and Dave Matthews Band. He was also an early adopter of Pro Tools, then known as Sound Tools.
Recently McKean worked alongside Eric Bass, bassist with multi-platinum act Shinedown. Bass produced Attention Attention, the band’s latest release. There’s a subtle yet seductive temptation to question whether roadblocks would arise by engineering for a producer that was also a member of the band. Fortunately, that wasn’t McKean’s experience. “Sometimes when someone [else] is producing, there’s still someone in the band who takes charge in the production,” he explains. “This is the third record I’ve engineered for them and on the first, the singer Brent [Smith] was sort of co-producing with Rob Cavallo. Often you’ll collaborate on production with someone in the band so it wasn’t that unusual.”
“Jesus of Suburbia” claims 9:08 of American Idiot’s 57:12. What were the challenges of capturing such an ambitious rock opus? “With Pro Tools, it wasn’t as hard as you’d think,” McKean observes. “We split up the song into sections. Rob and I like to use a lot of tempo mapping with click tracks. We were used to going from one section to another with tempo changes. On a song like that, we might take one section that’s a minute and a half, work on that and when we got to the end of the section we were supposed to transfer, he would start playing the new tempo and we’d just need the click. Once we had that section, we’d set up the click for the new section and punch in at the beginning of it. The only challenge was keeping track of which version of which take and measures were the ones that we liked.”
One of the biggest revelations McKean experienced was when he produced a solo project for Gerard Way, co-founder of My Chemical Romance. “There was a lot more psychology involved,” he recalls. “I had to get the artists in the right place, mentally, to be able to perform up to the level they needed to be. I’ve worked on a lot of projects where I saw Rob chatting with bands in other rooms trying to work through problems that weren’t always music related. You’re like the band’s family therapist.”
Surprisingly––or perhaps not––firmly established artists can still suffer from occasional dips in confidence, as McKean has witnessed. “Even big artists have said to me that every time they work on something new, they risk being exposed as a fraudulent songwriter,” he observes. “It tears them up to think ‘Maybe that’s it; I can’t do it again. I’m all done with ideas.’ That’s a normal thing.”
McKean’s upcoming projects include records with Beth Hart and Sublime with Rome.