Photo courtesy of Zakk Cervini
Zakk Cervini On Producing Yungblud, Finding Inspiration During Quarantine And Why Rock Might Roar Back After COVID-19
Producer Zakk Cervini believes the world is ready to rock again. Despite rock making a minor resurgence in the latter half of 2020, rock bands are not performing live—which Cervini says has been surreal, especially for artists missing out on the best years of their careers. But once local and state governments roll out the vaccines and it's safe to attend concerts again, the genre might resurge in a big way.
If it does, it's safe to say Cervini will be a big part of it.
These days, artists who traditionally worked in pop music have been turning to rock, like Poppy with her 2020 metal album I Disagree. (That album's track "Bloodmoney" earned her a GRAMMYs nomination for Best Metal Performance.) Rock bands are also making return-to-form records, like All Time Low with 2020's Wake Up, Sunshine. "It's like the itch that the world is getting right now," Cervini, who produced both of those albums, tells GRAMMY.com. "They have the itch to rock again."
Cervini raves about all of the artists he's worked with. "His voice was just unbelievable," he says of his frequent collaborator Yungblud. (He follows this up with a pretty convincing Yungblud impression.) Cervini has deftly helped artists navigate musical transitions and is skilled at working alongside artists who inhabit the space between genres—and Yungblud is undoubtedly one of them.
"He's unafraid to push boundaries," Yungblud tells GRAMMY.com of Cervini via a voice note. "He's unafraid to push the genre into a place that it's not been yet, and he's completely fearless."
Cervini built his rock royalty from the ground up. After working with producers Machine and Will Putney and eventually leaving college, he moved to Los Angeles to work for famed producer John Feldmann, who has produced bands like The Used and Story of the Year. They worked together for five years, including with Blink-182 and 5 Seconds of Summer, before Cervini decided to go solo.
Since then, he's produced Waterparks' 2019 album Fandom and Yungblud's 2020 album Weird!. He's also mixed tracks on Machine Gun Kelly's chart-topping 2020 album Tickets to My Downfall and the UK metalcore band Architect's 2021 album For Those That Wish to Exist. He's also recently done some mixing for the film composer Danny Elfman.
Throughout his career, Cervini has gotten the chance to work with artists he loves. On a Zoom call, he holds up the acoustic guitar he used to record a cover of the All Time Low's 2007 hit "Dear Maria, Count Me In," which he and his brother once performed and uploaded to Facebook. He brought that same guitar to Palm Springs, where he worked with All Time Low on their most recent record. "Monsters," a single from that album, has spent a total of 18 weeks at number one on Billboard's Alternative Airplay chart and a remix featuring Demi Lovato made it to number 18 on the Top 40 chart.
GRAMMY.com checked in with Cervini to talk about his recent production work and how rock is making a comeback during the back-half of the pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get into producing? Was this something you always wanted to do?
I'm 27 years old now, and I started producing when I was around 14. I grew up playing guitar, and I loved playing guitar. Somehow, from an early age, I wanted to be in a band. I had a hard time finding musicians who were as dedicated as I was and wanted to do what I wanted to do.
One day, I downloaded a free recording program on my parents' computer. I remember the moment I pressed record and recorded a guitar part. The second that I heard that guitar part back, I was like, "This is incredible." That was the moment for me.
I used GarageBand, and I started producing my friends' bands. I found a lot of joy and satisfaction in taking other people's music and turning it into a real thing, helping other people execute their visions.
What did you learn from John Feldmann?
I learned so much from him. One of the overarching things that I learned from him is how important it is to deliver a finished product. Because it's really easy to have ideas for songs and ideas for this and ideas for that.
But being able to present a written, recorded, produced, mixed, mastered song—sometimes it's hard for people that aren't on the creative end of music, like I am, to understand something until it's completely done and realized. He showed me how important it was to deliver an amazing quality finished product to someone.
I also learned so much from him on the songwriting end of things because that's one of his strongest skill sets, in my opinion. He's an amazing songwriter. Just how to use song structures and classic song structure techniques that are tried and true that just work.
I also learned from him that—you should not sacrifice the quality of your work for this—but in this business, especially in this day and age, it's super-important to be fast. And I've taken that to heart.
I love being in the studio with artists like [All Time Low vocalist] Alex [Gaskarth] or like Yungblud, who have so many ideas, and they're so all over the place. My job is to rein in their ideas and turn it into something that sounds good quickly.
And you said you grew up listening to metal? What kinds of artists did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to a lot of emo and metal music. I love Slipknot; I love Rage Against the Machine. When I was in high school, I loved Motionless in White and all this kind of heavy rock music. I love bands like All Time Low.
I love aggressive music with pop sensibilities, so Korn, Nine Inch Nails. That's my bread and butter. That's the kind of music that I love, and that's my favorite kind of music to make. I also love pop music as well; I grew up listening to a lot of Avril Lavigne. Then, that turned into Katy Perry.
And now I'm a huge BTS fan. I love great songs, and they can be dressed up however.
How do you pick what projects to work on?
I've dabbled in hip hop, I've dabbled in pop, and I've just found over the years that I love making music that has kind of a rock or alternative edge to it. I just love aggressive music.
So I tend to kind of always lean towards stuff that has an aggressive edge, with drums, live guitars, and an amazing vocalist. A band that I love that I think I'll make a great match for that will succeed.
I listened to a podcast that [All Time Low drummer] Rian [Dawson] recorded. He said that you don't want to produce your favorite bands' albums. Is that correct?
Isn't that what they always say? Don't meet your heroes, or don't work with your heroes? It's funny, I have worked with a lot of people that I grew up listening to.
Again, I'm sure I would do it. [Still], there are certain artists I would be happy with never approaching me and with me just listening to their music forever because I just love their music so much, and I wouldn't want to have a weird experience in the studio.
Writing and making music is like hooking up with someone. If it goes well, that's awesome. But if it doesn't go well, then every time you see that person, it's kind of like, "Oh, hi." I wouldn't want to have that feeling with an artist I loved and was inspired by so much.
And how do you see your role, working alongside an artist's inspiration?
Whenever I work with an artist, I want whatever we do, whatever song we make, or album we make, for the inception of the idea to come from them. I love working with great artists who can write their own songs and come up with their own ideas and concepts.
So, Yungblud's a perfect example. If he comes in, and he's like, "I have this idea to make a song. This is the concept, and this is kind of what I want it to say," my job is to help him get to the finish line and make him realize that idea and turn it into a finished thing, which is awesome.
That's the kind of stuff that I love doing most. He has all these ideas, and I just need to filter them and then put them down and turn them into a three-minute song.
And you also worked on the Waterparks single "Lowkey As Hell," which is influenced, I think, by being in quarantine. I was wondering how that came together. How has quarantine affected your working process?
I'm very conscious of the bad things going on in the world right now. And I've been very lucky to be doing well in this quarantine. And I'm very thankful that I have been doing well because I know it's been like hell on Earth for many people, which is horrible.
For the first couple of months of quarantine, the studio that I work at was closed for a few months, so I had to figure out how to work in my apartment. I bought a new laptop, and I got a pair of headphones. And I had to figure out how to do what I do in my apartment on a laptop.
That's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I've been doing some of my best work, I think, like that. And now I can kind of do what I do anywhere and know it's going to be the same quality as if I was in a studio.
"Lowkey as Hell," the Waterparks song, was an interesting one. It was me, Awsten [Knight, vocalist], and our friend Andrew Goldstein. That was just one of those songs that was done before I even knew what happened.
It just came together super-quickly. It was done in a couple of hours over Zoom. That's the only song that I've done over Zoom this whole time, and it's pretty fitting that it talks a lot about what we're all going through right now.
The All Time Low album came out at the start of quarantine, and Yungblud's album came out in December 2020. All this work you've done is coming out at a time where people can't experience it live.
That's something that I miss a lot. Going to shows is my favorite thing ever, and hearing songs that I performed live is one of the best feelings in the world. It's such a strange thing to have these songs come out and not be able to hear them live.
Usually, you make an album with a band, and they go on tour and have all these experiences, and then come back, and then you do it again. But this time around, I'm like, "Are we going to have to make albums back-to-back in quarantine?" It's really weird. And there's a lot of stuff going on in the world, movements and political stuff.
I think that it's been hard for a lot of people, myself included, and I've seen it in artists, too, to find a lot of inspiration because people aren't on the road, and they're not having as many experiences as they're used to. It's hard to make an album and then just go right into the next one because it's hard not to do the same thing twice. [After all], the inspiration is running low.
You said you've been mixing more during the pandemic. How have you been picking those projects?
I love mixing because I can do it on my schedule. When I'm writing or doing sessions with people, that stuff is awesome, but it takes a lot more energy to do something like that, in my opinion, versus just open up my computer and mix the song.
If someone hits me up to mix a song, and I hear the song, and I love it, and I think that I'm the right person to do it, then I'm going to do it. People always send me songs, then I hear them, and I'm like, "This song is so sick." I just instantly hear in my head the way that I want that song to sound, and then that makes me want to do it.
It's been kind of a pretty big two years for rock music in general. Especially this [past] year, with the success of Machine Gun Kelly and even the All Time Low song ["Monsters"], I feel like it's exploded in popularity. And I think there's a lot more crossover with different types of genres. What has it been like being so close to it?
That kind of stuff excites me because that's the kind of music that I love. I grew up listening to rock music, and I love making rock music, so I love the fact that it's seeing a comeback.
I feel like, for the past 10 or 15 years, music has gone in many different directions. There was dance music, and then there was Skrillex, who is incredible, and then hip hop's been so big. People have explored so many different sides of electronic computer-based music, and I think now people want to hear some more live-influenced music again. That's what it feels like to me.
Seeing artists like Machine Gun Kelly is the coolest thing ever to me because he made a straight-up rock album, and it's like, one of the biggest albums of . It's so cool. And that's kind of helping to pave the way for all of us.
I always love rock music with pop sensibilities. That's just what I've been trying to make for the last [however] many years, and it's cool seeing it finally get into the mainstream.