Acclaimed producer and performer Justin Meldal-Johnsen is a sonic chameleon. Whether he’s producing music for M83 and Neon Trees or performing on stage with Nine Inch Nails and Beck, Justin can seamlessly adapt to any situation and leave his own inimitable stamp.
Adaptability is a trait he began honing almost in tandem with his first steps as a musician. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was always surrounded by music. A gamut of artists, spanning from Ray Charles to Pink Floyd, The Band to ELO, piped from his parents’ stereo, influencing him early on. During the 1970’s, a young Justin found himself in the company of various artists, such as The Incredible String Band, who were friends of his parents.
Fresh out of high school and armed with a bass guitar, he began working the night shift as a janitor at the famed Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. A chance encounter at the studio landed him a job with famed string arranger David Campbell, and he struck up a friendship with Campbell’s son Beck.
Quite organically, Justin became a go-to session player and performer in the LA area. He worked with several different local bands and recording projects, culminating in an association with Tori Amos as her recording bassist for several releases. In 1994 and 1995, Justin joined up with the seminal Los Angeles noise-pop ensemble Medicine for their Her Highness album and tour. In early 1996, Justin’s old friend Beck tapped him to join his band, and they then embarked on the whirlwind two-year Odelay world tour. This now classic line-up quickly became renown for their reckless, visceral yet highly musical live shows.
This tour had the band traversing most continents multiple times, along with making many notable live TV, festival, and awards show appearances. From then on, Justin played bass and made other contributions to most all of Beck’s albums: Mutations , Midnite Vultures , Sea Change , Guero , and The Information (2006). He has also served as the Grammy Award-winning legend’s music director, bringing the albums to life on the road.
Simultaneously, he’s been a studio go-to for a surprisingly diverse array of artists such as The Dixie Chicks, Ladytron, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Garbage, Dido, Nelly Furtado, Courtney Love, They Might Be Giants, Mark Eitzel, Goldfrapp, Emmylou Harris, Pink, Brad Mehldau, Macy Gray, Pete Yorn, Sara Bareilles, Cass McCombs, Turin Brakes, The Mars Volta, Blood Orange, and more. His talents have also solidified his place in the film world, via contributing bass to the scores of films such as The Muppets, Ocean’s Thirteen, Team America: World Police, Shoot ‘Em Up, The Informers, Starsky and Hutch, The Way, Super, Sucker Punch, Get Carter, Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels, and many more.
In 1998-2000, Justin became involved with the French band Air as their touring bassist and eventually helped with the engineering and creation of the album 10,000Hz Legend.
Between 2003 and 2005, Justin also embarked on his own band project, Ima Robot. Their self-titled debut earned considerable critical acclaim, and Justin toured with the band extensively worldwide during this time.
By the mid-2000’s, Justin’s associations in the music business ranged far and wide, though he never felt like he was sacrificing any personal identity. “Anything goes,” Justin says. “Survival dictates diversity for those like me. But more importantly, specifically as a session or live musician, I take a great amount of pleasure in the opportunity to play anything. I refuse to be limited in terms of style. I savor the privilege to do very different things.”
In 2008-2009, Justin joined Nine Inch Nails on the road for the band’s “Lights In The Sky” audio-visual masterpiece, as well as the “Wave Goodbye” farewell tour. At the same time, he began a correspondence with M83’s Anthony Gonzalez. “I told him his music meant a lot to me, and I wanted to produce his next record,” he goes on. “It was a brazen thing to say, but we both felt something…some form of of direct connection.”
The result was 2011’s unanimously acclaimed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. With its ethereal exposition of raw emotion and fearless sonic diversity, the album is emblematic of the producer’s style.
“I desire emotion,” he exclaims. “Records are made almost too easily these days, and the main thing that separates good ones from bad ones, in my opinion, is the purity of their emotional intent. How can I cultivate a sense of truth in a recorded form? My whole purpose centers upon that desire. I want to make sure the artists I work with feel that the core of their expression is actually acknowledged. If I’m producing, I care about it as much as they do. The recording experience may be different every time, but the intent is always the same for me.”
He’s effectively brought his perspective behind the board for Neon Trees’ 2012 release, Ken Andrews’ Secrets of the Lost Satellite, as well as releases from Moving Units, Division Day, and others. He works well in the production chair because he’s got a very particular, subjective understanding of bands and how they work.
Justin adds, “I play in bands, I do recording sessions, and I make records. It’s simple really: I come at this from the same emotional space and artist perspective as anyone I work with. I want to help them achieve their vision and do it in a way that gives maximum respect to their process and the art form.”
Justin concludes, “I want to inspire through the music I work on. Every artist, inadvertently or otherwise, has this sort of innate responsibility to challenge, inspire, change, illuminate, what have you. That’s why I’m here.” — Rick Florino, January 2012