You may remember Evan Taubenfeld, former guitarist for Avril Lavigne turned solo artist, from my earlier post about him (“Evan Taubenfeld, Jew Tween Idol“), in which many of his fans got angry because I made a few good-natured jokes at his expense. I felt bad, because I am a fan of both Evan and his music, and I think many of the stangry commenters didn’t see that. To atone, I figured it would be cool to do an interview with him instead of making cheap jokes about shiksas breaking his heart.
In all seriousness though, I’m have a ton of respect for Evan. I’ve done a lot of fucking interviews over the last 15 years, and I can honestly say this is one of my favorites of all time. You won’t run into many people who are as unflinchingly honest as Evan– anybody can be a boastful dipshit, but it takes a true hardass to admit their mistakes and shortcomings. It’s hard enough to look yourself in the mirror and admit that you came up short, let alone talk about it in a public forum like this, so I really appreciate his willingness to talk about the realities of the music business.
While Evan is no more perfect than the rest of us, he is both a really friendly, funny guy and a very talented musician. I may have grown up on 90s hardcore and death metal, but Evan and I share one thing in common: in his words, we’re both “slaves to the song” who love good pop music. If you’re already a fan, I think you’ll find this a really interesting look behind the scenes. For those of you who aren’t yet fans, check him out– even if you don’t like his music, I think you’ll agree that he deserves some credit for keeping it real as fuck!
So, what are you up to these days?
I know this is going to sound crazy, but the only analogy I can use is that it’s like I’m in a shootout. I just shot a bunch of rounds at the other cars and I’m presently hiding behind my car and reloading my gun.
I’ve been signed to Warner Brothers for six years now, my record finally came out in May, and I’m very excited about it. We’ve been promoting a song called “Pumpkin Pie,” we made a video for it, and in the spring I’m going on tour to open for Avril all around the world. That’s very exciting, and I’m very lucky to have that friend, so I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do musically between now and then: do I wanna make a new record, write more songs, or give my current album more time? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that yet.
There’s a bunch of things in there I want to ask you about, but first of all, why did it take this long to release the record?
Actually, nobody has ever asked me that question, and I’m very excited to answer it. The truth is that it didn’t take that long to make this record. There was an entire first record that we didn’t use, we threw it away. We spent about a year-and-a-half and a lot of money on that– I went into the studio with a big name producer named Howard Benson and recorded twelve songs. This was in 2005 or 2006, and we scrapped it.
I started writing for another entire year, making a second album, then went into the studio with John Fields and recorded it in about three weeks. We gave it to Warner’s, who were very excited, but the question became “How do we put it out and when do we put it out?” We were going to release the record in 2008, but we couldn’t get a single out in time. Then we put out a single to radio in 2009, and it didn’t do very well, so everybody said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t put out your record!” [laughs] “Who’s going to buy your record? Nobody cares about you.” So I toured for six months really hard and tried to build some awareness of who the hell I am, and we finally put it out in May.
So, it took a long time, but not because I was trying to take a long time. It’s just that a lot of things didn’t go my way, that I couldn’t control.
You said that you recorded your new album really quickly– it sounds like you’re taking the approach of “do a lot of stuff fast and cheap, put it out there, and see what happens” instead of the old-school model of finding the next blockbuster?
I think you couldn’t possibly sum up the growth I’ve had as an artist in the past two years. When I joined Avril, I was so lucky to be in a band with those people– I mean, she is so fucking talented, and people don’t give her enough credit for that. She put out “Complicated” and it sold 16 million records. I sat and watched that, so when I got signed, I figured “I’ll put out a song, and of course I’ll also sell 16 million records.” I thought it was all about that huge hit, that you step up to the plate at the bottom of the ninth and hit a grand slam.
And when that didn’t work for me, for whatever reason– maybe my music’s not good enough, maybe the music business has changed– so I decided to wholeheartedly embrace the other side. I was like, “OK, I tried that, and it didn’t work,” and now I can do a recording in my house that sounds competitive, so I don’t need to do things the old-fashioned way. What if I just keep putting out new songs? If people hate the songs– and I have put out songs people hated– then they hate them and that’s fine, and if they like them, they like them. At some point, something will click, because I’m never gonna fucking stop! If you keep beating on a wall, at some point, whether it takes a minute, a year, or ten years, you’ll knock a hole in it– and that’s the way I plan on doing things.
You seem to approach your videos the same way: you’ve got a lot of them, and they’re all really good, but look like you did them pretty inexpensively rather than rely on a label, big production company, and all that.
Which makes it kinda sad that I’m giving someone 85% of my money, right??
I think traditionally pop artists, which is how I categorize myself, rely on record labels a lot to find them songs, put them in the studio with producers, tell them how to dress and act, help them find directors, make videos, and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that, with what Britney Spears does, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been afforded the opportunity to have a team of people helping me, so I just have to do it myself. I’m really lucky to have a bunch of friends who are really talented at making videos, co-writers, and producers, so we just do it. We don’t overthink it.
I learned it the hard way: I made a record that we spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on. You could buy a house with that– and that’s MY money! I have to pay all that back to the record company.
A lot of people don’t know about that part- it’s not free money.
No matter how successful I become in the immediate future, it’s very likely that I’ll never be able to pay back the debt that I’ve incurred. And that’s ok, because the company invested in me and gave me the ability to make this music, and I understand that. I’m not one of those kids who’s mad at the world and doesn’t understand these things. Warner Brothers paid for me to produce the music, and they need to be paid back, or they would be a charity, not a business.
So when I made this record that cost $300,000 or whatever, it was a very eye-opening experience for me. For one, that was a huge mistake. And two, I don’t necessarily think that paying a large amount of money for these things guarantees a certain quality. So when I started about trying to correct those mistakes, you’re exactly right. I said “Look, maybe this won’t be 1000% as good as something we spent a ton of money on, but I bet I can get it REALLY CLOSE, and if it fails, then the loss is minimal. But if we win, then who gives a shit if it was good or bad??”
To put it in perspective for you, I’ve been hustling my ass off for years. Regardless of whether people think my music is good or bad, I’ve been trying really hard for a really long time. But when I look back at my career, one song sticks out as being the most successful. Ironically, it’s a song called “Merry Swiftmas,” which is a spoof Christmas song I did about Taylor Swift. It was fun, I’m proud of it, and I think it was a good song, but the point is that it cost zero dollars. I did it in my house in about an hour-and-a-half, and that’s the song that got the most Youtube views, that sold the most singles.
Two questions: Did she hear it and was she of age?
[slightly flustered] Yes– yes, she was of age, and she did indeed hear it. She tweeted about it, that it made her smile, which is the reason that it did so well.
Anyhow, after that happened, I think I learned a very important lesson: when things connect with people, it doesn’t matter how much you spent on the recording, who directed the video, or anything like that. But when you spend a shitload of money and FAIL, then [investing heavily in it] is actually a bad thing.
You referred to yourself as a pop artist, and I noticed you were wearing a Rick Springfield shirt in one of your photos?
“Jesse’s Girl” was the original template for the record.
Pop is one of those genres that critics just love to hate. Why did you choose pop instead of something less prone to haters?
I’ve always loved pop. When I was 10 I loved pop: instead of listening to Guns N Roses, I was dissecting Ace of Base writing arrangements, you know? So pop is just what I naturally do, and I think you have to make the music that you love and be honest. A lot of people I think choose to make pop because they want to sell a lot of records and make a ton of money, and because of that they get scrutinized for making music that seems to be less sincere. Ironically, for me it happens to be the music that I actually love! If you looked at my iPod, you’d think it was your kid sister’s, but it’s just what I like.
Me too! I’m really into Cody Simpson right now.
That shit is awesome! You can’t tell me that “Since You Been Gone” and “Sk8r Boi” aren’t great songs. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some obscure music that I listen to, but when I’m making my own music, I don’t know, I just really really like writing catchy, three minute-long pop songs.
To people who hate pop, I’d say a) if it’s so easy, why don’t you do it, and b) the hardest thing is to write something simple and catchy– something that people actually like.
A lot of people hide under the guise of doing something obscure, but if you really scrutinize it, I don’t know if that’s really the case. There’s that old story in which a king is talking to an artist and says, “Show me your genius. Display for me why you are the best,” and the guy just drew a circle. The point was that doing something simple and doing it well is often harder than doing something that appears to be so complex. That’s what pop music is.
Yeah! Like “Candy” by Mandy Moore, that is the perfect song to me.
My friend Dave Katz did that song. He works with Boys Like Girls, Cobra Starship, all those bands.
Oh man, I love Boys Like girls!
You may subconsciously be a fan of his writing then!
Producers like Sam & Sluggo or Geoff Rockwell are so talented– to me, what they’re doing is epitome of good music.
Sluggo is Dave Katz. They’re killing it. It’s great, and it’s catchy.
Which is why I like what you’re doing, it’s just unabashedly pop like that.
I appreciate that, that’s a very generous comparison on your behalf. But at the very least, you know what I’m aiming for.
I made fun, but about heartbreak– reality or theme?
Every song that I write is personal. I wish that I could say I was smart enough to say, “Oh, love– that’s what connects with people, I’ll write about that!” but I’m just not, so I draw from personal experience. I think the reason that my videos have a slightly cocky, tongue-in-cheek, adolescent kind of tone is that I’m really self-conscious. I’ve dealt with a ton of rejection from girls, with music– I’ve got my heart broken in the way that everyone has. I’ve gotten ostracized. So I figure, there’s no better way to respond to that than write scornful song that’s like, “Ha, fuck you! See this on your Facebook feed now!”
You made a lot of twitter jokes in video- how long until that goes from timely, cutting-edge pop culture reference to laughably outdated?
I’m going to say maybe four years?
Oh. I was thinking like six months.
You think? I mean, if you made a video a couple years ago that was all about Friendster, you would still get that, right? It would still be cool, wouldn’t it? Wait, no it wouldn’t at all. Fuck. We had some treatments with Facebook and Myspace, but we couldn’t clear it with them, but Twitter told us to go for it.
Speaking of which, you are really good at using social media: you have a ton of good videos, you’re very active on Twitter, etc– can you talk about how you use all those tools?
The internet is awesome! It sucks, because 10 years ago, I would have been a multi-multi-millionaire already, but that’s life. But anyway, it’s awesome because it’s leveled the playing field. Bob Smith in Winetka can write and record a song, then get it to people, without anybody getting in between them. It’s just so direct. I’m sure there’s some silly business book out there that will say [business dork voice] “Stay close to your customers!!” and all that bullshit, but the point is that we can connect directly with our biggest supporters, face to face! I can literally say, “Hello, nice to meet you. Thank you for supporting me– what can I do better? What kind of music do you want me to make?”
That’s so fucking cool, and for me, as someone who makes pop music, I’m clearly at a disadvantage compared to bands who toured in vans for five years. They have a cult, underground following that I don’t have, so for me, my way to compete and make up for that is by being very savvy and put as much energy into connecting directly over the internet.
Actually, I think you do have a cult fanbase– I’ve talked a lot of shit on a lot of bands over the years, but I got more angry comments and hatemail from your fans than I ever have before!
We may be a small army, but we’re very vocal! [laughs]
I’ll take a small amount of dedicated ones over a bunch of half-assed, fairweather friends.
Absolutely. The one thing about our family is that we are always going to be together. All of the people who support me, whether there’s five of them or a hundred, we’re all in this together. When the next record comes out, it’s just as big of a bummer for them as it is for me if it doesn’t do well. I try really hard to create stuff especially for them. Maybe they could have a better sense of humor though… [laughs]
It’s understandable, especially with young girls who take these things very seriously. And young girls are really all that matters when it comes to selling an entertainment product.
I wonder why they don’t just make a 13 year old girl the head of a record label. There’s more power in lovers than haters.
They’re not cynical, that’s what I like about them. They’re very positive, they don’t just want to cut things down like people in their 20s.
It not jaded, it’s very pure. It’s the way a kid looks a fuckin’ lollipop.
“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!”
He doesn’t know yet that it’s gonna give him diabetes, or that he’ll get fat, won’t be able to fit into skinny jeans, and he’ll get made fun of if he eats it. He just loves it!
Producers? Labels? Why?
I will say that John Fields, who I did my record with, is a genius. Guys like that will always have a place, because they add something that artists can’t do themselves. He actually provides something that’s unattainable without him– and there are a lot of producers out there who also do that. But the ones who don’t, the ones who are basically leeches with an overinflated salary, they’re gonna be fucked.
Yeah, they deserve it. They’ve been able to overcharge and exploit bands for years. As for record labels, I have nothing negative to say about Warner Bros Records– or nothing about WMG specifically that I wouldn’t say about any other record label. Luckily for artists these days, they’re in a position where they don’t necessarily have to have a label. It’s not a prerequisite, so every artist has the opportunity to ask themselves, “Do I want to sacrifice X to gain Y?”
You’re a very smart guy and a Jew, so I’m sure you could have done whatever you wanted for a living. Why music? And why not just be a touring musician/session guy, get your $2K a week, and be done with it?
Well, first of all I would say that your figures are… overly generous. [laughs] That helps make the decision a lot easier. There’s a lot of people who say, [moron voice] “Fuck it dude, I’d cut my dick off for a million dollars.” To them I’d say, OK, here’s a million dollars– now it’s a little harder to make that decision.
But the thing is, I do music because it’s what I love. Despite what it might seem, it’s not my dream to make money. The decision to transition from being a salaried, touring musician to a solo artist was really easy. It was like, “This is really fun, this is a great job, and it pays really well, but I’m not 100% satisfied.” And if I just wanted to have some job that I wasn’t totally satisfied with, I’d have been a doctor or a lawyer– they pay better and have better hours. But I feel like, if you’re going to get this close, you have to go for it all the way.
You’ve see many different facets of the music industry, although maybe in a different order than most. What would you say to bands who are getting their first taste of success, and figuring out if its going to be a career for them?
I would say that you need to constantly ask yourself in the mirror, “Do I love this enough to pursue it blindly? Am I willing to sacrifice what I know I’m going to have to sacrifice?” And if the answer is no, that’s OK– better to know that now. Look, I didn’t sell 35 million records, Avril did, but I’ve seen what it looks like to be the most successful artist, and I’ve seen failure. The only thing that will get you through the hard times that come– and they will come– is sheer, unadulterated love for what you do. And if you’re in it for the wrong reason, you’re going to get kicked out anyway.
Finally, is that really your Range Rover in the video for “It’s Like That,” or did you just rent it for the day?
It was mine, but I got rid of it. Let’s just say I went green.
Oh, you got a Prius?
Uh… I’m just saying that I went green, technically speaking. But it only gets like 1 mile to the gallon. If I got a Range Rover that was the color green, would that count as “going green”? Even if it’s been modified to spill jet fuel?
I think so– at least, that’s what I’m going to tell people when I get a lime green M5. Anything you want to add?
If you’re reading this, thank you so much for your support!