Adam Lambert first worked with Max on his 2009 debut album ‘For Your Entertainment’. In fact you can read a bit about one of the songs he worked on for it right here. The pair then collaborated again in 2015 on Lambert’s third album, ‘The Original High’ (Max and Shellback acted as executive producers on the album, in fact).
With all that in mind I thought it might be nice to have a chat with Adam about Max’s working methods, why he’s a genius and how he avoids becoming “an arrogant fuck”.
Why do you think Max is still at the top of the game in the fickle world of pop?
Adam Lambert: I think it’s a combination of a couple of different things. Firstly, I think that he’s really down to earth. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not an egomaniac. Someone with that kind of success could definitely be an arrogant fuck, pardon my French, but he’s not. He’s cool. He’s got a really dry sense of humour and I think he genuinely loves making music. I think his personality is a big part of why he’s stayed where he’s at. For him, it’s not about the fame. It’s not about the celebrity side of it. In fact, from what I know, he doesn’t really like to take pictures or do interviews. It’s easy to assume that maybe because of a couple of people he’s worked with, or the amount of hits that he’s had, that he’s this Svengali guy that just manipulates the hell out of his artists’ vocals and that he’s pulling all the strings. But the thing I noticed when I worked with him is Max really thinks very carefully about the artist. He thinks about the voice the artist has; the persona the artist has and where to place them. His words exactly are ‘how to crack the code’. That’s another reason he’s done so well – he really thinks about it. He won’t just throw an artist on a track arbitrarily. It has to make sense to him – sonically, thematically and contextually. I’ve worked with some producers who are like ‘oh we have this demo, do you want to sing it?’, but that’s not how he works.
He’s very good at doing the songs that take popstars to the next level, isn’t he? Demi Lovato’s ‘Cool For The Summer’ being a good recent example.
Yes definitely. I think the Demi song is a good example because it utilises her strengths. She’s a got a big powerful voice and he found a big anthemic chorus for her. She wants to express her sexuality at the moment and he found a song that does that for her. He understand what’s authentic for an artist.
You’ve said before that Max likes to surround himself creatively with new talent, like Ali Payami, who did a lot of stuff on your last album. Do you think that has something to do with it too?
Yes absolutely. Again, because he’s not a huge egomaniac, he likes to work with people. He’s got the masterplan, the grand vision, but he’s aware of trends and the sounds, and it’s always rapidly changing. So because he’s aware of that he’ll pull in people he respects that he wants to collaborate with. He’ll bring in co-writers who have great ideas and what Max will do is fine tune it and make it into a hit. Max knows how to take an idea and polish it into the best possible record.
What was Max’s role in ‘Ghost Town’?
The idea came from a writer called Sterling Fox who’s a singer-songwriter. He had a demo of this song and it went through one incarnation when I first recorded it which was so different to how it ended up. It was a bit more straight ahead and rhythmic. In a way it had an EDM feel to it but it was very different to the final version. So then we sat and listened to it and I recorded it and we made some changes to the hook, and then talking about bit I said ‘I think we can go darker with the production’. I wanted it to be spookier and more ominous. I was a big fan of the 90s house thing so I said ‘can we go there with it?’. And Max said ‘yep, sounds good to me’. Literally the song did a full 180 degree turn and so when I came in the studio a couple of weeks later they were like ‘we have something to play you’. It was still the same vocal I’d recorded but it was basically a whole new song. That’s a testament to his genius that he’d basically remixed the song and re-imagined and changed the whole mood of it.
What else did he bring to the album as a whole?
What I loved about working on this project with him was that as much as I love my new label, we kind of created this project on our own, without the label getting involved in the creative part of it initially. We did the songs, we finished them and then we presented them to the label. I have to say I much prefer this way of working. In far as his hit-making, it’s about his sixth sense for knowing what the masses will respond to immediately. It’s about what’s going to connect to the most people effectively. He understands how to take an idea and make it shiny and glossy and gorgeous, but he understands that less is more in a way. There’s a simplicity to his work. The songs catch on quickly because they’re accessible. My instincts are sometimes more is more (laughs) and I’ve learned a lot from working with the Swedes who understand the opposite philosophy. They trust their initial concept to the end.
I’ve heard from other singers that a song can sort of be finished, everyone’s happy with it and then Max will come along and add that last bit of magic to transform the song.
Yeah you’re right, that’s it. There’s a subtlety to his approach too – he doesn’t overwork things. The edits and notes he makes are very subtle shifts but they make all the difference in the world. It’s pretty impressive. He’s also open to hearing ideas – you can suggest things and he’ll say ‘well let’s try it’. Max is so nonchalant and unassuming and doesn’t act like a big shot. I remember at one point Max, Brian [May, of Queen fame]and I were sitting in the studio talking for about twenty minutes and Max suggests we start working and Brian says ‘well where’s Max?’. I was like ‘this is Max, Brian! He’s been there the whole time!’. He thought he was just an engineer or something, which is a testament to how down to earth Max is. Max doesn’t act all high and mighty.
Do you think him working with the likes of The Weeknd has opened him up to a whole new world? Perhaps to a ‘credible’ world that were maybe a bit snobbish before?
I don’t know. I guess some people might view The Weeknd as more credible then someone else, but I view a lot of the people he’s worked with as credible. The stuff he did with Pink is really elegant. I guess it’s him dipping into the R&B world, but then he’s done Usher too. I think that’s just a media thing anyway – I think most of the public don’t even know who the producers are. That’s the funny thing about the music world isn’t it? People might just assume the artist does all the work.
What’s your favourite Max Martin song?
There are a lot of really good songs in there. I love ‘So What’, the Pink record. And ‘Who Knew’. Hmm…I mean, ‘…Baby One More Time’ is pretty good too (laughs).