Ariel Rechtshaid is tall and gaunt. His stubble is overgrown, and he is slightly pale. One wonders if the 32-year-old producer gets enough Vitamin D. Although over coffee in Echo Park he insists he goes on vacation from time to time, he seems anxious and out of place everywhere except the recording studio.
But it's his dedication to his craft — not to mention his connections and his amazing ear — that are the reasons he's approaching the pinnacle of his career. In the past two years, he has co-produced Usher's hit "Climax," a recent Grammy winner, as well as Justin Bieber's "Thought of You" and No Doubt's "Push and Shove." He's also behind successful indie albums from Cass McCombs and Active Child, is currently working with rising stars Sky Ferreira and Haim, and co-produced Vampire Weekend's latest work, Modern Vampires of the City, scheduled for release in May.
Along with producers like Diplo, with whom he has a close working relationship, and Dev Hynes, with whom he collaborated on Hynes' debut as Blood Orange, Rechtshaid is one of several knob-twisters injecting indie sensibilities into modern pop music. After his punk band The Hippos disbanded in 2001, his roots in reggae, ska and punk came to the surface in his new role as a producer. The woozy, relaxed feel of Rechtshaid's sound stands as a down-tempo complement to Diplo's dancehall and techno leanings.
A self-described "pop whore," Recht- shaid grew up in Van Nuys. He remembers listening to the radio for hours while riding around with his Israeli dad to the various laundromats he owned. His father liked The Beatles, The Stones, ELO and Talking Heads, while his mom, also from Israel, took him to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to expose him to classical music. He preferred Dad's taste.
By the time he was 17, Rechtshaid was touring the country with The Hippos, opening for thriving acts like Jimmy Eat World, No Doubt and Bloodhound Gang. Their songs were surprisingly thoughtful and well developed, particularly for snarling teenagers. After a three-album run, which included releases on Interscope and Vagrant, they called it quits.
"We broke up and I was over it. I didn't like the part about being in a band, where you have 10 or 12 songs [to perform] for a year or two. The creative output wasn't high enough," he explains. "It just seemed like it was too much about vanity and less about the creativity."
Rechtshaid began producing out of his parents' garage not long thereafter, recording vocals and doing the engineering on Murs' highly praised Definitive Jux debut, The End of the Beginning. The acoustic Plain White T's track "Hey There Delilah" came just a few years later, in 2006, and was a massive hit; major labels started to acknowledge Rechtshaid's talent as a producer and began reaching out.
Aside from a couple touring gigs and a brief stint on bass in the indie band Foreign Born, he's essentially sworn off playing in groups. "I realized I liked being in the studio and working on translating the ideas into recordings," Rechtshaid says. "I knew how I wanted it to be in my head, but I didn't know how to express myself, and that was what put the fire under me to learn the art of recording."
This realization seems to have heavily influenced Rechtshaid's approach to production, which relies both on the technical aspects of music and on getting to know artists personally in order to capture their hidden talents. During a recent session at a private studio on Melrose, he's working with the three sisters in indie-pop group Haim, two of whom got their start in a band called The Valli Girls, which specialized in kid-friendly schlock for the Disney set.
Observed in the midst of vocal takes, Haim have taken to him like a brother. One bonding point: The girls' father is from Israel as well. Before long, they're all eating Chipotle together and discussing their upcoming trip to Disneyland. No one seems to want to leave.
It's not always like this. Single-day recording sessions and passing off tracks through email have almost became the norm, particularly with pop music.
"That's the winning model for the top producers, because you have nothing to lose," Rechtshaid says. "If the record does great, you're associated with it. If it doesn't, you didn't spend that much time on it anyways. I'm still an idealist. My manager is always trying to talk me out of it, but that's just the way I am."
On occasion, he'll produce a one-off single for a superstar like Justin Bieber. But when he's contracted for albums, he takes the long view and does his homework, determining the talents and influences that make the artist unique, and then attempting to highlight those eccentricities in the recordings. In that sense, Rechtshaid sees himself as an old-school producer, more along the lines of David Bowie collaborator Ken Scott or reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry.
"It's my mission to make sure that people can hear their musical training and roots and influences from an early age," he says of Haim, whose debut album will be released on Columbia this summer. "They've been playing music since they were very young, and while they may not listen to Michael Jackson every day now ... it's embedded in their musical DNA. So if you're not feeling those abilities and influences, I feel like it's a disservice to them."
He's taken a similar approach with Sky Ferreira, a model, actress and singer, who recently told Pitchfork she felt wrongly pegged as a typical vapid songstress by her label EMI. Ferreira messaged Rechtshaid to compliment his work shortly after he liked her Facebook page.
"I was in a Pinkberry and I heard one of her songs and Shazam'd it. Next thing I knew, we were in the studio together, and less than a year later, we were making a record together," he says. "That was definitely a product of the Internet. It's super useful, and it feels very organic and healthy."
Rechtshaid has stories like this for days: About the time Snoop Dogg stopped the music at a party and shouted him out on the mic, about the time he met 2 Chainz at the Grammys, about the time Miley Cyrus came to his home studio to cut vocals for the Snoop Lion album. But what seems to excite him most is working with his idols, like classic reggae artists Junior Murvin and Lee Scratch Perry, whom he met while contributing to the latest Major Lazer album. A fan of both artists since his teenage years, Rechtshaid says his efforts as a producer came full circle while working with the two on separate occasions last year.
Rechtshaid's successful track record speaks to the effectiveness of his methods, of making a personal connection with artists. Fidgeting with his phone and clearly anxious to get back to recording, he says, with commitment, "I just think that with music, it's kind of like life, and so the people you work with, you generally develop a relationship. You don't have to try to explain things. You just know. It's like you're in the band together and striving for the same goal."