Recutting classics with Lady Gaga and Riot City in the age of Spotify

The Audiophile: Riot City

“When you go into the studio with an artist and it clicks, there’s this energy going that’s hard to describe. You’re just in the zone. Every producer and artist wants to be part of that.”

Remakes can be tricky beasts, especially when the stakes surrounding them are so high. Such was the pressure faced by Rene Arsenault and Billy Mohler, the hit production team known as Riot City. The dynamic duo had just been tasked with updating Chic’s massively catchy number one 1978 dance hit, I Want Your Love, for fashion designer/director Tom Ford’s new, outside-the-box campaign.

“We went through a bunch of songs, but that one really seemed to resonate,” recalls Arsenault, who’s been producing Ford’s runway soundtracks in London and Los Angeles for the past two years after previously working as the fashion icon’s music director at Gucci and YSL. “At first, we were going to have a remix done, but I suggested we take it a little further and have Billy and I re-record the song in a new version. We reached out to [Chic co-founder and noted producer] Nile Rodgers, and he was super-down with it. He replayed all of his guitar parts.”

That was a good first step, yes, but how would Riot City be able to make this track stand out from the boulevard of broken cover-version dreams? Enter Lady Gaga.

Riot-City-Logo

“We had a list of people we were going to try and get to sing on it, but about maybe a week before the shoot, Tom reached out to Gaga about being in the accompanying video,” Arsenault reports. “And since she was going to be the only recognizable celebrity in the video — the featured artist — it was pretty clear right then that we had to get her on the track. We sent it to her, and she loved it! She came down to the studio in Malibu, and she just killed it.”

That she did. Riot City’s alchemical take on I Want Your Love shines from the Gagaloo-get-go, as the Mother Monster’s electropop contralto vocal catwalks straight down the middle of the mix, framed expertly by Rodgers’ wide-panned guitar riffs, a propulsive club-ready bass line, driving percussion, and uplifting string-section accents. The track has been so well-received — over 3 million cumulative views on YouTube between the designer’s and Gaga’s own respective channels alone — that Ford is keeping it in active rotation as the backbone of his already in motion #TFWSS16 Spring/Summer 2016 campaign.

Not only that, but Arsenault and Mohler continue to have the hot in-studio hand. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on a new EP set for early 2016 from Aimee Osbourne, whose Riot City-produced single Raining Gold — released under her ARO alias — has garnered 2.4 million YouTube views to date, and counting. Digital Trends called the production pair in Los Angeles to discuss what sold Gaga on singing on the IWYL remake, their views on Spotify, and how well they synced up with Nile Rodgers. Like no other, they’re two steps above.

Digital Trends: Did you guys cut a fully original version of I Want Your Love, or did you take some stems from the original track and just add Nile’s guitars to them?

Billy Mohler: We actually remade the track from scratch.

Rene Arsenault: We got the original a capella vocal track as a reference before we added any vocals on it. We just built it from the ground up.

It always starts with drums and bass with us. Billy and I went in and stripped the track down and built everything around the guitar line, and it just kind of came together. At first, we stayed relatively true to the original, but the more we dug in, the less it sounded like the original. The signature bass line [by late Chic bassmaster Bernard Edwards] started to disappear.

We also had someone do a string arrangement based on the string arrangement that was already in there — a really beautiful, very simple string arrangement.

Mohler: At the very beginning, it was pretty much all drums and bass, and then synths. The hard part about that track was figuring out what you want to keep, and, at what point, where you lose the essence of the original track. To us, you need that guitar, for sure — otherwise, the track doesn’t exist. It really moves the whole track, that guitar part.

Riot City

Arsenault: The strings had to stay and the piano part had to stay, because that seemed to harmonically push the verses. There aren’t a lot of changes in the verses; I think it stays on the same chord the entire time.

And then we just started experimenting with new stuff. Synthwise, we tried to make it more modern without losing the classic feel.

What specific synths did you use to do that?

Arsenault: We used everything! We just started getting into the Moog Mother-32 [analog synthesizer] — actually, wait; it was the Moog Sub 37. We just added five keys to it. (all laugh) We were using that a lot for bass lines, and then doubling bass lines. And using a lot of soft synths, like the Arturia stuff. You can make pretty much anything out of those synths.

You make a good point — you needed to keep that vintage ’70s feel going, but you also had to add the modern sensibilities to it to give it a 2015/2016 vibe. Otherwise, it might not work at all, and fall flat.

Arsenault: Absolutely, 100 percent. That was the fine line we had to toe. Ultimately, it was for the client, Tom Ford, but Tom Ford let us dig in, and we know at a certain point that anything we did from that point on was only going to add to it, and make it better. Once we knew what that line was, we stayed in that zone and tried to make it as funky as possible.

Mohler: I don’t think Lady Gaga would have sung on the track if it sounded like a straight knock-off. To be honest, I don’t think she would have even wanted to be a part of it. Her whole thing was, once she heard it and heard it had a fresh take to it, it sparked her interest to sing on it.

Did you get direct feedback from her before you went into the studio?

Mohler: No, we showed up, and then she showed up, and we just got into it. She’s incredible in the studio. You can tell she’s got a special talent for being in the studio. She’s just an amazing studio singer with a lot of great ideas. She’s really fun to work with. She gets into a vibe, and just goes for it.

“I don’t think Lady Gaga would have sung on it if it sounded like a straight knock-off.”

For us as producers, that’s the best thing you can ask for — getting an artist who can stay motivated for an eight-hour session and keeps that creative flow happening. I felt we were all passing the ball to each other throughout the whole session, which is a really great thing.

It elevated everything. It elevated her vocals, and it elevated the track. And then she went back and elevated her vocals again, because the track changed a bit. She was inspired. Over the session, the track kept evolving and evolving, and her vocals would evolve with the evolution of the track. It was really cool.

At about 2:35 into the song, Gaga yells out with a bit of a rasp, “Have you ever been in love?” Was that an improv on her part there?

Mohler: That was off the cuff. She was just feeling it, and going for it. We had so much amazing, energetic stuff like that, so we had to pick what we wanted. We had to go through it all and say, “These are amazingly inspired vocal takes and ad libs.”

But on that one, we both just looked at each other when it happened — and we knew that just has to be in the song. It’s such a moment, you know? I’m a fan of that part as much as anybody is.

And that ad lib, just in itself, really captures the feel of the song. It’s funny that you picked up on that one moment because for the both of us, that moment has so much energy that it sums up the entire track. To us, it’s such a powerful, poignant moment.

Fill in the blank for me: The best way to listen to music for you guys is — what? Are you streaming guys, do you listen to hi-res audio… what do you prefer?

Mohler: I’m Spotify, all the way. I know there’s a huge thing with streaming royalties, but for me, it’s just ease-of-use at this point. We need to reference things quickly.

And honestly, it’s become a standard among the artists. A lot of the artists we work with, if they were on one specific format, that’s what we would be on. And everybody we work with wants us to listen to their Spotify playlists, and Soundcloud. Those are our main resources.

I do the Spotify Premium so artists get a little something out of it.

Mohler: We do the paid account too. At this point, Spotify are the standard. I think it’s going to be hard to knock them down.

Truth be told, I’m either in a studio listening to tracks on monitors that cost thousands of dollars, or on my phone, or in my car. That’s just the nature of our business now. In a perfect world, we’d be listening to everything on insanely expensive speakers in a controlled listening environment.

Tell me more about working with Nile Rodgers. It must have been great to get his approval.

Arsenault: Yeah, he was great. He was super into it. He’s an awesome dude, and a very willing collaborator. He loves to work with people. It was a pleasure working with him.

Spotify has become the standard among artists.

Mohler: And he’s a great engineer too, so he was able to get the tones and record it pretty much exactly the way he played it originally. It’s kind of scary. Just that feel — there’s something about it. It’s in the cracks. It’s the notes that he’s not playing are the ones that are sometimes the loudest. It’s kind of crazy that he can replicate that.

Agreed. The song’s rhythm feeds a lot off of what Nile’s not playing and what’s in between the notes.

Mohler: It’s interesting you say that, because we added a guitar to the track, and you almost don’t notice it because it plays off of Nile’s guitar and the drum part. It’s kind of like skank — it’s on the 2 and 4. It adds a little edge to the track. It makes it dirtier, for sure.

Arsenault: That’s one thing we wanted to do — dirty up the track.

Mohler: Like something very Clash-y, with that Clash tone.

It’s totally like Clash City Rockers [a 1977 Clash track], so we’ll have to call you the Magnificent Two, rather than the Seven.

Mohler: (laughs) I’d answer to that.

Arsenault: Cool! I like that. It always comes back to The Clash with us, for some reason.

MM: What’s the next move with Lady Gaga? Would she give you something else to work on down the line?

Arsenault: Who knows? Let’s just say when she’s ready to record another record, we’re ready.

Mohler: She’s got such a thing built up with [her longtime producer] RedOne, but  the most important thing is, when you go into the studio with an artist and it clicks, there’s this energy going that’s hard to describe. You’re just in the zone. Every producer and artist wants to be part of that. And when it happens, you want to capture it.

Arsenault: We try to foster that environment with everything we do that goes on in the studio. And if Beyonce, Bjork, or Iggy Pop ever call, we’re there!

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