Interview With Nick Raskulinecz, January 10, 2007

Like so many other hesher kids of his era, former Beardenite Nick Raskulinecz was a Rush freak when he was playing bass and guitar in local Knox rock bands circa 1990. That's right, Rush, those silly Canuck rockers famous for grandiose prog epics and utopian fantasies, science fiction and musings on Ayn Rand.

Say what you will about their goofy intellectual pretensions; the unvarnished truth of the matter is that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart were responsible for some of the best and flat-out ass-kickingest proto-metal to emerge from the trough of '70s moustache rock. Put aside your hipster prejudices and listen with fresh ears to the overture off 2112, Geddy screaming like a scalded banshee while guitarist Alex careens between post-modernism and heavy blooze, and Neil blows through mammoth drum rolls that run all the way across a trap set the size of a small forest.... It was heavy rock music for people who were serious about their heavy rock, virtuosic and heady and visceral and cathartic all at the same time.

Then imagine the excitement for Raskulinecz-now a well-regarded record producer living in L.A.-when the band's management called last year and offered him the chance to produce the venerable outfit's 19th studio album. Raskulinecz accepted, needless to say, and spent five weeks living and working with the trio in a remote woodland studio on a mountaintop in upstate New York. The resulting album, yet untitled, is set for release in April of this year.

"It was a dream come true, because they were one of my favorite bands since I started listening to music when I was 10 years old," says Raskulinecz, speaking from his home in Northridge, Calif. "Suddenly, I was sitting in Geddy Lee's kitchen, Alex Lifeson is there drinking coffee, and we're talking about preproduction.

"I think they needed someone to kind of come in and kick them in the ass, and I was able to do that. We had a great time, and I think we made their best record in 15 years."

For Raskulinecz, it's one more in a seemingly never-ending parade of dreams-come-true, one more step for this 36-year-old Knoxville expatriate who's making his living in the music industry in ways he never dreamed when he first strapped a guitar across his chest in some dank Bearden-area suburban garage.

Even if you didn't pay attention to the Knoxville rock scene of the early 1990s, you may have seen Raskulinecz's name before, maybe in the pages of this very paper. He's now a five-time Grammy winner, amigo and business associate of Foo Fighters singer/guitarist Dave Grohl. Raskulinecz produced the last two Foo Fighters studio albums, 2002's One by One and 2005's In Your Honor, both of them multi-platinum sellers. Fast friends since a chance encounter in an L.A. studio some eight years ago, the two men opened their own private facility, Studio 606, in 2005, as a venue for future Grohl and Foo Fighters projects as well as for Raskulinecz's production efforts.

But there's been a down side to his relationship with Grohl and his almost freakish success with the Foo Fighters-10 Grammy nominations and more than 7 million in album sales; it's the kind of success some observers take for granted, in light of Grohl's outrageous pedigree.

"Dave is such a famous person, so incredibly talented, and he had huge success before we even met," says Raskulinecz of the man whose first introduction to mainstream rock audiences was in the early '90s, as Kurt Cobain's frenetic drummer in Nirvana.

"So there's a certain number of people who will say, 'He wouldn't be doing it if it weren't for Dave Grohl.'That happens sometimes when you have success with one artist or one band. People think of you as that guy."

For those of you who missed it all, Nick Raskulinecz was a tall, rangy kid with rugged good looks and an imposing dark brown rocker's mane who first made his bones in Knoxville in the late 1980s as one of two guitarists in Without Warning, a hard-riffing metal outfit that also featured future underground guitar star Mick Murphy, now with the L.A.-based My Ruin.

After that group splintered, Raskulinecz and Murphy joined with a three other Bearden-area youth-Chris Brewer, Manning Jenkins, and Mike Walls-in Hypertribe, a headlong thrash-funk outfit that built a sizeable local following, in an era when rivethead outfits scarcely batted an eye at sharing the bill at local venueswith goths, grunge bands and post-punk alt-rockers.

The band eventually changed its name to Movement and headed west to California in the mid-1990s, hoping for a record deal. Raskulinecz, who had become uncannily proficient with his eight-track recorder back in Knoxville-producing CDs and cassettes for a vast assortment of local bands-found a day job as a gofer at Sound City, a storied L.A. recording studio.

The job eventually forced Raskulinecz to retire from Movement. Working brutal 80-hour workweeks, running errands for the likes of Tom Petty and John Fogerty and Carl Perkins, Nick the gofer became Nick the assistant, who became Nick the sound engineer.

And finally, Nick the full-fledged record producer. Though to Raskulinecz's way of thinking, he had earned his stripes as a producer long before he was recognized as such.

"I've been producing records ever since I was in Knoxville," he says. "I didn't know it, but that's what I did when I worked with local bands. I don't feel like there was ever a point where I turned into a producer-I've been one the whole time. It just took me a while to figure it out."

The recognition finally came during a whirlwind period between 1998 and 2001, when Raskulinecz produced albums for 16 different metal and indie rock artists, including Glenn Danzig, Doom-rock heroes Goatsnake, and Knoxville's own Superdrag, for whom he recorded the Arena Rock Recordings release In the Valley of Dying Stars.

In the meantime, his work as an assistant and an engineer forhigh-profile studio projects led to his meeting Dave Grohl, whom he helped in recording an album called Into the Pink by Alabama-based alt-rockers Verbena in 1999. The two men hit it off, but lost touch after the session. But a chance meeting two years later resulted in an invitation for Raskulinecz to join the Foo Fighters in Virginia for the recording of the album that would become the Grammy-winning, two-million-selling One by One.

"Dave and I just hit it off," Raskulinecz remembers. "He believed in me and gave me the shot to do it. He could have gotten anybody. But he's not like that. He doesn't feel like he has to have the big name guy. He does what he wants, and he usually vies for the underdog."

For a while, though, Raskulinecz says he felt pigeonholed as "the Foo Fighters guy"-a tag that had more to do with perception than reality, given his production work with countless other artists, not to mention his credentials as an engineer.

Changing that perception has taken many long hours of studio time, but Raskulinecz feels like he's finally arrived. In 2004, he produced a track on Velvet Revolver's Contraband album, and thus shared in the band's subsequent Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. His work with L.A. rockers the Exies on their 2004 album Head for the Door produced the hit single "Ugly". And his work on nu-metallists Stone Sour's 2006 release Come What(ever) May, has thus far resulted in a pair of hit singles, over 700,000 in album sales, and a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance (Raskulinecz's twelfth Grammy nomination to date).

And then there's Rush. In his online blog, drummer Peart described his experience working with Raskulinecz by saying, "I have never enjoyed the recording process so much, nor been so satisfied with the results." According to Peart, Raskulinecz also "coaxed, coached, and inspired [Peart] into ever more outrageous drum parts... the very edge of my abilities," and "urged Geddy's [Lee's] bass playing into uncharted areas."

"For a few weeks, I was basically the fourth member of Rush," Raskulinecz says of his production method. "I become part of it. I have to really be able to get inside the songs; when I make a record, I can't just be casual about it."

He adds that the upcoming release will have "the sound and vibe of an old Rush record"-i.e. one of those gloriously overwroughtsci-fi prog-metal epics he grew up with, albums like 2112 and Hemispheres and Permanent Waves.

For his own career, the Rush project marks yet another resume highlight apart from his fine work with Grohl and the Foos; the last year has seen him record five different non-Foo-related artists, including Rush, modern metalcorists Shadows Fall, and former Knoxvillian/Superdrag frontman John Davis, whose second solo record is now being shopped to a couple of large labels.

"I feel less pigeonholed now," says Raskulinecz. "I'm becoming a proven hitmaker in the industry because I've had hit singles with three or four different bands. I'm not just the Foo Fighters guy anymore. I'm the Stone Sour guy, and the Shadows Fall guy, and the Rush guy...."

It hasn't been easy; Raskulinecz and his wife Amber, who also hails from the Knoxville area, saw their first child, daughter Sophia, born in 2005. And having a full-time family life on top of it all is a heady responsibility for a top-drawer record maker whose work requires him to plunge from one high-intensity eight-week recording gig to the next with scarcely a breathe of fresh air in between.

But maybe it keeps him grounded, out in L.A. where the prospects of film- and music-industry success have turned so many small-town kids into cutthroats and leeches and prima donnas. Raskulinecz is still a Knoxville guy at heart, down-to-earth enough to drop a line to the local alt-weekly, just to let the folks at home know how he's doing out in Cali.

Or to bring an old friend-John "Louie" Lousteau, ex-drummer for a gaggle of local Knoxville outfits, including most recently cover-band favorites the Throwbacks-out to L.A. to work as an assistant engineer. Lousteau came to Los Angeles at Raskulinecz's invitation in January of '06, and has worked with him since.

"I was at the point where I really needed someone I could depend on, someone I know is reliable," Raskulinecz says. "We're great friends, and I know John has a good background in music. I offered him the chance; he loved it, so he sold his house in Knoxville, and he lives down the street from me now. We worked on five records together last year.

"This has gone way farther than I ever thought it would go," Raskulinecz offers. "I knew I'd keep doing this, that nothing was going to stop me. But everything that's come with it has been way beyond expectations. I feel like I made it. I'm working at the top of my field; I'm on the 'A' list now."