James Valentine discusses collaborating with many, many artists, his time in the studio, and the band’s new album.
This is certainly not Maroon 5’s first rodeo. After five albums, three Grammys wins, and two number one charting LPs, the Los Angeles-originated band are savvy veterans who can quickly shake off any of the usual record release jitters. They’ve seen their typical studio process evolve from a bunch of people in a room jamming to a more piecemeal process that currently might be the best method for aligning large names and busy schedules.
At this point, rather than resting on their laurels or settling into a repetitious process and pushing out the same sort of sounds that filled arenas for years, Maroon 5 decided to circle back and revisit the hip hop roots that helped fuel their earliest success. On their newest album, Red Pill Blues, the band collaborated with young talent including A$AP Rocky, SZA, LunchMoney Lewis, and Julia Michaels.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with guitarist James Valentine to discuss collaborating with so very many artists, his time in the studio, and the band’s new album.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Red Pill Blues. Just to start, how is the mood in camp; are you guys excited, nervous, anxious?
James Valentine: We’re always a little anxious putting something out, but at the same time, it ain’t our first rodeo. It’s crazy that this is the sixth record. I think we really felt the anxiety and the pressure, especially on that second record, but even the third record, just because we really wanted to follow up the early successes of Songs About Jane, the first record. When we released that first record, we released it to a kind of understanding that nobody was really going to like hear it for a while. It took years for people to really to hear that record, so we weren’t really nervous about that.
We’re excited. We’ve had the first single out for awhile and it seems to be doing really well and really connecting with people, and we’ve been out on the road already playing that song and it seems the response to that song makes us pretty confident in the releasing of the rest of these ones.
CF: As you said, you’ve been to this rodeo many times before, but last time you scored another number one. Did that add pressure to this new release or is it same old, same old at this point?
JV: It does add a little bit of pressure. At the same time, it’s like we know a lot of those albums just depend on when you release them, what else you’re up against, whether or not they go number one or not. That first week kind of thing, to me personally – I won’t speak for the entire band – that’s not as a big of a deal because being around this many years, sort of seeing how the music lasts over a whole decade is way more interesting to me than what it does in the first week.
Of course, you don’t get that feedback for a while, but just from sort of putting these songs out, I know now “What Lovers Do” will be one of those songs that will be in our setlist 10 years from now. We can already sort of feel that, and that’s the most important thing for me.
CF: You guys worked with so many different producers and this is more collaborators than I’ve seen on an album of yours before. You guys all have such busy schedules, I imagine that it’s hard to find time to get everyone into the studio together. Could you take us through a bit of your songwriting process because of how busy you guys must be?
JV: It’s a way different experience than our first few records. On a record like Songs About Jane or It Won’t Be Soon Before Long or Hands All Over, the songwriting process was much more traditional or what you would think of if you picture a Behind the Music-type of scenario. You picture a band in a studio for months at a time, all in the room together playing stuff down over and over again and perfecting it. That’s how we used to make records and what not, and to be fair that’s not how many people make records. It is assembled in a much more piecemeal sort of fashion. We’re very lucky to have The Voice, it has been a huge blessing to the band to expose us to a whole new audience, but that also affects the amount of time that we can spend together in the studio, because Adam is cranking out two seasons of that a year.
A lot of these songs, sometimes we were in the studio at the same time – but a lot of times it would be like I was cutting some guitars and then Adam would sneak in and put in his vocals after taping that night, so we’d sort of tag-team it in the studio. It was kind of all over the place. It’s interesting, it’s a different way to make a record, but it’s definitely efficient and allowed us to get it all done.
CF: Sometimes there are these stories where there was that one moment in the studio where everything falls into place, and you saw the vision of what you wanted the album to be. Was there one of those moments here, and if so can you tell us about it?
JV: There was one day when we were all there, we were jamming on the song “Closure” and we just kept on jamming, and it ended up making the record as the last song on the record, and it ends with a pretty long jam session, and it was like, “This would be a pretty good way to close the record because this song is also called ‘Closure’.” That was a really fun day and that was all of us recording live together in the room. That also felt like old times, and that was a real fun moment of the record.
CF: A number of producers were involved in Red Pill Blues, but J. Kash was the executive producer. What made him the ideal man for this large project and why is he unique to work with?
JV: We had collaborated with him on “Don’t Wanna Know”, and I think Adam felt really comfortable with him, and I think that’s the most important thing in our relationship between a producer and an artist, and Adam really trusted him and his vision and he brought in some great songs and great collaborators, so it really worked with him.
CF: You guys have worked with Wiz Khalifa in the past so you’re not strangers to working with hip hop artists, but this time around it feels like you really went after that genre blend between hip hop, pop, and rock. What does blending Maroon 5 with hip hop allow you to do that is different? Why did you seek that out particularly this time?
JV: It’s something that we’ve flirted with in the past and it’s worked, and hip hop is one of our big inspirations, even on the earlier records. Even though there might not have been actual guest verses on there or actual rapping on there, instrumentally, musically, sonically we were finding most of the exciting stuff back in the early 2000’s was coming from the hip hop world, so it’s kind of a natural progression.
I think it grows out of the fact that I think we’ve been around for long enough that we’ve established ourselves to get the opportunity to work with these great artists, and so why not? If we have the chance to work with someone like A$AP Rocky or Kendrick Lamar, we are going to jump on the opportunity.
CF: How couldn’t you…
JV: …Yeah! It’s so fun and those collaborations, a lot of times, you don’t talk about moments in the studio. There have been times when they’ve actually… or we’ve had an artist come to our studio and do it, but usually we’ll send off files because a lot of these guys have their own studios or guys they like to cut their vocals with, so you send off your files and it’s a really exciting moment to get the files back and be like, “OK – what?”… because we have no idea…
We aren’t going to tell Kendrick or anybody else what to do. We want them to do it because we trust them and know they’re going to deliver something that is amazing, but so it’s always such a surprise to hear what direction they take it, lyrically what they choose to play upon because we’ll listen to the song, so usually that’ll give it sort of a starting point, but you never know what’s going to happen. That’s always really exciting.
CF: There is a political commentary that seems to be flowing through music now stronger than it has in the last few decades. How do you view the voice and even the responsibility of the artist in discussing the surrounding world?
JV: I think it’s important for artists, but I think the same responsibility is there for doctors, lawyers, gardeners. I think everyone needs to speak out. I think we are facing such bizarre circumstances and there’s just so much injustice, I think it’s more important for artists to speak out more than ever. And I think you’re seeing that happen, especially on social media. It’s just a really weird time and I think everybody needs to speak up.
There has, in the past at least, been this attitude of, “Shut up and sing, keep politics out of it,” but I just think we’ve never dealt with anything like this before, and I think it’s always been an artist’s responsibility to speak out, or just like a citizen’s responsibility.
Just because I chose to be an entertainer, it doesn’t mean I gave up my citizenship. I still vote and I still have my own opinions and I have just as much a right to talk about them as anyone else. You kind of get that feedback from people who don’t agree with you, which is unfortunate [laughs]… but yeah, people need to speak up.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
JV: Earlier this year, I had a great opportunity to go back to my hometown, Lincoln, Nebraska, and play a concert with some of the jazz musicians there that were mentors to me growing up, and that was a real full circle sort of moment. Being back in Lincoln, playing some of the music… I had set out when I was much younger to be a jazz musician and then sort of got pulled more and more into the pop and rock world, which has been great – but just going back and reconnecting with my hometown and being able to play with the guys who inspired me, that was really fun. That kind of reminded me that I have a pretty cool job, still being able to do this [laughs].