By Claire Donzelli
The following transcript is from an interview conducted by Berklee student Claire Donzelli with music technology expert and industry veteran Jeff Forehan. Jeff has worked with Prince as the lead sound designer/keyboard tech, was the drummer of Bananarama, and is currently the Director of Commercial Music at West Valley College. In this interview, he discusses his experience playing and producing music all over the world, what it was like owning his own production company, and his advice for aspiring musicians.
Claire: My first question for you is, how did you first get involved in music?
Jeff: I started playing the piano when I was eight, then played saxophone when I was in the school band in fourth grade. My mom said I was beating on hat boxes and pots and pan lids when I was five because I was so into the drums. And then, all of a sudden, the Beatles hit and I started playing the drum set. I put my first band together when I was twelve. That was maybe the summer after seventh grade, and I’ve been playing in bands ever since. That’s pretty much how I got started. Along the way you learn the business and meet other people, and then you have to start thinking about what you want to study in college, and I thought that music was probably the most exciting thing for me, so I just kept studying music and playing in bands and trying to become a rockstar, then going back to school and studying music and then going in bands and trying to be a rockstar. So I started way back, probably when I was twelve years old in my first band.
Claire: That’s great. That leads me to my next question, which is, how did your time studying music in college influence your music career?
Jeff: Well, that’s an interesting story because I’m a huge music theory rebel. In other words, when you go to study music, traditionally you go learn music theory based on the status quo, which is the common practice period of Western Europe, usually with the figured bass symbol analysis and the vernacular involved with all that and the terms, which you don’t see outside of academia at all. What I discovered was, to study theory that way was not necessarily a waste of time because you could get out of it some fairly decent things if you knew what to look for, but when I went out to Berklee, for instance, I ran into a very hip music theory program, a very wonderful ear training program, and it made sense to me. Because when you get into a recording session or a session where somebody gives you a lead sheet, they’re not going to say play this major-minor seventh chord here, or use this plagal cadence here, or oh, that was a French augmented 6th chord… you’re never gonna hear that stuff. I had to look long and far to find the right education, and Berklee was part of it.
I didn’t stay long enough. I wish that I would’ve. But I came back out to LA and I found the Dick Grove Music Workshops which was equally as hip and wonderful as Berklee but didn’t last as long because Dick Grove, the guy who started it, eventually died. But I was there when he was there and I got a fabulous education, and that made all the difference in the world to me in terms of understanding music, demystifying music, and it opened up all those doors and it parted all those curtains that you walk through to try to understand music so you’re not scared of it and I was really glad I did.
Claire: What was it like when you first started working in the music industry?
Jeff: I did my first paid gig in 7th grade for 50 dollars — the whole band got 50 dollars. After I graduated from the composition and arranging program at Dick Grove in about ’81 or ’82 in Los Angeles, I decided to start my own production company. It’s a long story and I’ll spare you the details, just that it was based on a particular piece of technology that had just hit the market at the time, and I got really good at it. There were only a few of us in LA who deal with this particular technology because it was very expensive. My production company was based around that, and because of those particular skills, and because in the music industry, and this is important for you to understand this, at the top of the list of what’s most important is who you know and how well you play the game, and then, of course, you have to follow that up with talent and the right attitude.
But with regards to the who you know, Prince was in Minneapolis, and he called his road manager out in LA to ask him to find a keyboard tech who had particular skills on this technology that I had mentioned earlier. Of course, the road manager, Jeff Mason, called my next-door neighbor because they knew each other, right? And so that’s the whole thing with who you know and how well you play the game. So my next-door neighbor said, “Yeah, the guy next door to me, he has those kinds of chops. That’s what he does.” So Jeff Mason calls me and says, “Hey man, Prince is looking for someone who can handle this type of technology for his keyboards,” and I say, “That’s what I do.” And I flew out to Minneapolis and I never came home. Well, I did three years later, and I moved out to Paisley Park and did two albums and a world tour with a band for like three years. And that was a Ph.D. education if you know what I mean.
Claire: What were some of your favorite or most memorable experiences working with Prince?
Jeff: Well, I was basically what you call his keyboard tech, so when he was recording an album, I’d sit right there next to him and program the keyboards and bring up the sounds of a sample he wanted, or I’d sample this and I’d sample that if he wanted to try to get experimental. So I got to work right next to him.
Claire: That’s so cool.
Jeff: Yeah, to watch how he works, and then to watch him put the show together from the ground up. I mean, we finished this album, it was called Love Sexy, and he wanted to do a world tour, so he started rehearsing the band, doing the choreography, and making all the arrangements because the tour was a nonstop medley of all of his hits, and it was an amazing experience to watch him put that show together from the ground up — all the way from band rehearsals to full production rehearsals when they brought in the stage, the lights, and the PA system, and all the people from all over the world who were going to be part of the tour because Paisley Park had a big sound stage where you could set up an entire concert. So, to watch that start from the ground up was nothing short of priceless.
Claire: Yeah, wow.
Jeff: Yeah, I mean, there were a couple of other great experiences like when we were on the road. We were in Europe and doing outdoor shows, and we were in Holland, I think it was, and when we were doing soundcheck we got word that the next show we were supposed to go to in Rome was canceled because nobody figured out the fact that the weight of our stage and the weight of our entire concert was too much for the venue — it was too heavy. And so they had to cancel the shows but all the plane flights and all the hotel rooms were already paid for, so the whole tour got to go to Rome and have three days off. And, of course, Prince can’t take time off because he’s a workaholic. So, he grabbed me and he said go get this keyboard and get that keyboard and get this keyboard, we’re going to London to record. So while the whole tour was having fun in Rome with three days off, all expenses paid, I had to go to London and sit up with him for three nights doing a remix of a song called “I Wish U Heaven,” which was from the Love Sexy album.
I got paid extra and that experience turned out to be invaluable because the last night we were there he said, “Let’s go get dressed up, we’re going out.” So, after we finished the remix, we went back to the hotel, got in nicer clothes, and he had made arrangements to go to this club in London called the Hippodrome. Of course, he had to have a table that was roped off that overlooked the dance floor, and I got to walk up there with him and he and I hung out at the table and had a glass of wine. I’d never seen him drink wine but we had wine together and we got to visit as real people, from one musician to another, and talk about influences and music, and that was very rare because that kind of stuff rarely happens where you get to sit and talk with him casually like that, and that was priceless.
Claire: That must’ve been quite the experience to do that.
Jeff: It was because when I got back to the tour and I told the rest of the crew, they would say, he never does that, are you kidding, you guys went out? He never does that. These guys have been with him for multiple albums before me — I was the new kid. But that turned out to be priceless. And I guess the other great experience was after that world tour was over, I had come back to the west coast and had gotten a call from them saying, “Hey man you gotta come back here, we got one more gig to do.” And the gig was the Saturday Night Live 15-year Reunion in New York City. It was their first reunion and it was priceless because Prince had a hit at the time from the Batman album, which was the other album I had done with him, called “Electric Chair,” so they wanted him to perform “Electric Chair” on the Saturday Night Live Reunion. I went back there and we rehearsed for 3-4 days, and we went to New York City and did the show, and that was amazing. It was an experience that was unbelievably priceless.
Claire: Yeah, that sounds amazing!
Jeff: Yeah, to go get on the Saturday Night Live set and see all those original Saturday Night Live members return for the show, and the master of ceremonies was Robin Williams. And so here’s Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, and Bill Murray — all these original cast members coming back, and we’re all just sitting there howling and Robin Williams during the run-through. I was really lucky to be there.
Claire: That sounds like the experience of a lifetime.
Jeff: It was, and that experience is what made the difference between me and the next guy who was trying to get the job that I have now. When it came down to the administration picking me or somebody else I think the main difference between me and my colleague who was trying to get the job that I have now was the fact that I had that experience with Prince, and I’m glad because the job I have now, again, is priceless, and I’m lucky to have it.
Claire: What made you want to pursue working in higher education as the Director of Commercial Music at West Valley College?
Jeff: Well, it’s funny that you should ask that because when I got off the road after I came back home from the Saturday Night Live Gig, my choice was to either go massage those contacts that I had and play the game to get the next gig, to go out on the road some more, and to do some more of that kind of stuff, and I had just been living out of a suitcase for 3-4 years because the Prince tour lead to a Bananarama tour, I forgot to throw that in there too.
Claire: Wow, that’s so cool.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s a long story in itself but basically, after the Prince tour, one of the guys, I think it was the head rigger on the Prince tour, was tagged to be the road manager for the Bananarama tour, and he asked me if I wanted to go out be the keyboard tech and I said sure. This is a long story but it’s an incredible story that I’ll make short. I started as the keyboard tech for the Bananarama tour but because they were playing to loops and pre-recorded tracks, the drummer that they had chosen did fine during rehearsal but when he got out on the road he got too excited and started overplaying, and he started drifting from the tracks and it became a train wreck.
Claire: Oh no.
Jeff: Yeah, on like two or three major shows like Washington D.C., Detroit, or Philadelphia, I mean, major shows.
Claire: That must’ve been stressful.
Jeff: It was, and so they had a big production meeting and I went up to the road manager of Bananarama, and said, “Hey, you know, what I really do is play drums and I know this show inside and out, and he’s just overplaying.” I had been working with sequences forever because of my experience with the music technology stuff that I mentioned earlier, and my timing was fairly solid so she said come play sound check tomorrow. So I went and played soundcheck and I nailed it because it was easy, it’s just prepubescent disco music, you know what I mean. It was really easy to sit down in the middle of it and play it the way it should’ve been played, and so I eventually got that gig, they sent him packing, and I became the drummer of Bananarama.
Claire: Well, it was lucky that you were there.
Jeff: Yeah. So I went from the crew to the band and went around the world as a band member with Bananarama.
Claire: How long did you do that?
Jeff: That was about a 4-6 month tour but it was cool because we got to go all over the Asian Rim, you know, all these really beautiful countries out there — Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, even Jakarta, and even Australia. Then we came home to the U.K. because the girls are from the U.K. and we did a bus tour all over the British Islands to all these beautiful little towns from Land’s End in the south all the way up to Ireland, which is an island off the northern tip. That was brilliant. And I got to sign autographs and do interviews with teen magazines and stuff. So, when all of that was done, I was tired of living out of a suitcase.
Claire: Yeah, that’s a long time.
Jeff: Yeah, so when I came home, I decided to start teaching drums privately. I did it through a very hip local music store, and I started teaching and getting lots of students. I realized how much I loved it because I was connecting with these kids and it was exciting. And I went, wow, I really like this. I thought I was doing fairly good with it, and so I decided, I think that I like teaching, I don’t necessarily want to teach K-12 where kids are there because they have to be — I’d rather teach at the level where kids are there because they want to be, and so I went and got the credentials necessary to do that.
I got my master’s in recording arts and electronic music, and because I was seduced by the technology, it was the perfect timing because music technology and recording arts were all becoming something that the ivory tower of higher learning, in other words, the snotty little ivory tower guys that dictate what you study and how you should study music were beginning to realize that commercial was important, and if they didn’t start addressing it, things were going to change because so far everything had just been about concert bands and orchestras, and more recently, jazz bands, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but nobody was dealing with rock and roll and commercial music — except for Berklee.
Claire: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff: The more adventurous community colleges around the state were starting to want to create commercial music programs, and I found that job description at West Valley College, and I did the dance just right and got the gig, and I’m very happy for it.
Claire: I learned so much from you when I was at West Valley College about production, theory, and technology, and these skills have been so important to me. What skills do you think young musicians should learn to successfully navigate the music industry?
Jeff: Well, I think it’s important to understand the industry and how it works, and the most important thing is you have to be able to put yourself out there. You have to be able to show potential to people who would maybe hire you or people who would be able to promote you — you have to show them what you do, what you’re about. So you have to learn how to record and produce yourself. You have to know how to put it up on a website. So there’s web skills, and there’s obviously production skills, everything from arranging and composition and songwriting to knowing how to sequence and produce.
You have to wear all these hats now as an engineer, arranger, producer, composer, and as a music technologist, and then as a music business person. It’s doable because the technology is so easy now — it’s so wonderful. It’s just, I think it’s very important for musicians to develop their musicality, to understand the language of music, how it works, what chords are, and the terminology that you need to understand to produce music. And then, of course, you have to get familiar with at least one of the major DAWs out there and learn how to produce yourself because you can. At the minimum investment, you can learn how to produce yourself in your own bedroom.
Claire: It’s just amazing how that’s possible, and I didn’t know that personally before I took one of your classes.
Jeff: I know. With a good microphone, a relatively powerful laptop, a good converter, and some decent monitors and headphones, if you have a DAW that’s as comprehensive as Logic with all the instruments and audio effects, you can produce yourself in a way that we couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago. And that’s what you need to do. You need to produce yourself at a professional level, and you have to learn what a professional level is, so going to get a great education really helps. Then learn how to promote it, and that’s where the music business comes in. That’s why I think it’s great that you’re doing your music business major as well as your songwriting major because you’re learning to write songs and to produce yourself, and you’re also learning about the business. That’s a real valuable combination.
Claire: Thanks, Jeff! Do you have any other advice for music students who want to start a career in music?
Jeff: Yeah. My advice would be that just making beats is not enough. Just knowing how to rap is not enough. It is for a very selected part of the market but that selected part of the market is way over-saturated. To learn how to do all that stuff but to learn how to mix that up with a well-developed musicality, and to learn how to engineer, and to get creative with all of the wonderful tools that are available to you and music technology and the advanced Digital Audio Workstations… all that is easy for me to say, it’s also a lot of work, but for somebody who’s dedicated, you just stay up all night and you do that every night. You develop your musicality, learn about the business, learn how to make your website and how to do photoshop and graphic skills, learn how to make and edit videos, and how to promote yourself because you have to use all of those multimedia things now. You have to know how to edit video a little bit, use photoshop a little bit, sequence your music, produce and arrange your music, and mix your music. You have to know how to write, know music theory… it goes on and on and on but those are the multiple hats.
Everybody’s out there doing it, and this is going to sound flippant right here what I’m about to say, but the most important thing about success in the music industry, in my opinion, is a good attitude — is being able to be someone who people like to work with. Being a yes-person, you know. If you’re working for someone and they ask you to do this, just say yes or give me a second and I’ll figure it out. Those kinds of positive attitudes will go a lot farther than somebody trying to be critical, have an attitude, or be condescending. I mean, I can’t tell you how critical that is. You could have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not fun to work with, you’re not going to get very far, and that’s huge.
Claire: That makes sense. I just have one last question. How has the music industry changed in your lifetime?
Jeff: It’s the difference between night and day. I grew up in the analog days. I mean, I grew up when they were recording in mono on one track, and I’ve witnessed that change to two tracks, then to four tracks, then to eight tracks, then to sixteen tracks, then 24 tracks, and then link the machines together to get more tracks. And then all of a sudden, digital recording rears its lovely little head, and then all of a sudden, computers become powerful enough to record MIDI and do sequencing. And oh, now they’re powerful enough to record into and onto the hard drive, and now they’re powerful enough so we have a digital audio recording, and now they’re powerful enough that all those synthesizers that we have racks and racks of can now be emulated quite effectively in software. And I just went over about 70 years of music history right there —music technology history from the 50s all the way up to where we are in 2020.
It’s incredible and I hope that students and people who are getting into it now truly appreciate what they have before them, and the only way that you can do that is to look at what it used to be like, you know what I mean? I mean, look at all the wonderful music that was made with what we would consider to be significant limitations. What, you only had four tracks? You synchronized this four-track machine with that four-track machine and made Sergeant Pepper’s? That would be unheard of today. To be able to make yourself deal with those limitations and produce that quality of stuff is something that people need to learn to appreciate so that they can get a good perspective on what we’re doing now and why it is so wonderful.
Claire: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff: Obviously, it parallels everything else with regards to photography, film, and anything else that used to be in the analog world that’s now in the digital domain. It’s absolutely out of control in a good way but it also has lots of pitfalls and potential problems if you become overly seduced by it, you know what I mean.
Claire: Yeah, like getting too far into the details or something?
Jeff: Well, that’s not necessarily so bad getting off into details, but knowing when good enough is good enough. But also, relying on technology for your quality of musicality, does that make sense? In other words, relying on technology to replace musicality.
Claire: Yeah, that makes sense.
Jeff: Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of that stuff recently with a ton of pitch correction stuff. I still think we as human beings appreciate talent, and we appreciate accomplishment, and that stuff happens with dedication. It’s not necessarily a result of technology.
Claire: That’s very true.
Jeff: So there’s a healthy balance between being able to use technology because of how wonderful it is if you understand it, to be able to use it to produce the best you if you know what I mean. The best you, in my opinion, is somebody who’s worked at developing their musicality and talent and has realized that it doesn’t come without a lot of hard work, you know what I mean? So that’s just my two cents.
Claire: Thank you so much, Jeff. That’s all I have for you but I appreciate your time and your advice and stories.