John Seabrook’s non-fiction writing is the manifestation of his public image. The websites I have found that are dedicated to him are not very informative, so if you want to find out more about how he came to write The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, and what it is like to find your niche as a non-fiction writer and a journalist, you can watch an interview with him by Michael Johnston, for Johnston’s YouTube video series, Writing F(r)iction, recorded on June 11, 2021. (Bottom of this page.)
The interview has not had much exposure, and it is long and wide-ranging. However, Seabrook’s comments about The Song Machine, specifically, are worth noting. The transcript is provided below. It is only a fraction of the entire 47-minute long interview and covers one or two points in the many subjects they spoke about.
Writing F(riction), no. 43, John Seabrook – Transcript
Source: YouTube, retrieved Aug. 12, 2021. Partial transcript from auto-generated captions, redacted and edited for readability.
MJ (Michael Johnston): How did you develop an interest in music?
JS (John Seabrook): I’ve always been a huge listener, music meant a lot to me as a kid. I was kind of a lonely kid. I got a lot out of listening to songs, listening to the lyrics, connecting with what the singers were saying. And I always remembered all the lyrics, and also, I play music. I never really seriously considered a professional career as a musician, but I wrote a book about a very specific thing, something that I tried to do myself – pop song-writing.
Growing up with music
I started thinking about the book during the time of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. I clearly remember the Backstreet Boys’ album “Millennium” went to number one at the very end of the actual millennium. My sister and I remember hearing about this guy, [Dr.] “Luke”, [a.k.a. Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, record producer, songwriter, singer] and about this weird impresario guy named Lou Pearlman. And I thought [at the time] that it sounds like an interesting story. But another ten years went by and Lou Pearlman ended up being a huge Ponzi scheme swindler, among many things, and went to jail.
The book started as a New Yorker article about a production pair called Stargate, [Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen] two Norwegian guys who have a studio in New York, who have had some hits.
Finding out how modern pop gets made
I didn’t really understand at that point how modern pop music is made. I still had this idea that you have a Bert Bacharach-Hal David-situation where there is one guy at the piano, and another guy with the words, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee. And that was totally wrong, absolutely completely wrong. I realized that within an hour of sitting in the studio with these Stargate guys.
The very first day I was at the Stargate Studio it was absolutely the opposite of the way I thought music was made. Instead of beginning with the melody and lyrics, it began with production, which you would think comes at the end. But in fact with this method it came at the beginning, and the Norwegian guys made all these tracks, and they didn’t have melody. They just had chord changes [progressions] and then atmospherics.
Topliners and hooks
They would have a top-line writer come in, who would listen to all the tracks and then come up with a hook. And that person, whose name in this case was Esther Dean, became a major character in the book.
The way she did it was basically to just go into the booth; they would start putting on one track after another, and eventually they would come up with one that would resonate with her. And then she would sit there and start throwing out these kind of vocalized sounds like syllables, and she had catchphrases in her phone, hooky-sounding kind of things. I’m on the other side of the window with these guys and listening to her and I’m watching them get excited as she approaches the hook that she’s looking for. And then eventually she hits on this thing that they think is right and everybody goes crazy, because it’s like finding gold. When you have a really good pop song it’s worth a lot of money, so that gold rush element always there.
Music in a box
This was in 2010/2011, and I ended up spending as much time as I could with these guys. When the story came out, I didn’t know if other people were as amazed by this way of making music as I was, but it turned out they were. A lot of people were appalled, older people in particular, about the fact that they didn’t use instruments. For people who don’t know this kind of recording, in the book I call it “making music in the box”, and what that means is creating music all inside of a computer where you literally don’t touch an actual instrument.
The pro tools they working on was [Apple’s] Logic [Pro]. It’s a huge rig and synthesizer. One of the guys was a very good musician, and although he rarely played, he did occasionally perform part of a song. The other guy was more of an “ears” guy who could sit back and listen to what was happening, and was able to say this is good or this is not.
MJ: Older people are appalled that the music is technologically made, but younger people people from more diverse backgrounds are really excited by the democratizing aspect of this. You didn’t necessarily have to have a music education and maybe you weren’t wealthy enough to afford that. All you really needed was beats and a laptop [with software] and that was very exciting to do, and continues to excite people.
JS: Music [making] is not just limited to people who have had this level of expertise. If you have a song in your head you can get it out there.
MJ: When you got the green light for the book, did you know who Max Martin was?
JS: I knew who Max Martin was, because I’m a guy who looks at billboard charts and the details of song production. I didn’t really realize that he was going to be this great white whale that I ended up pursuing in the course of writing the book. But but that actually worked out well. The book became the story of this little group of Swedes who started out in Stockholm n the late 80s, early 90s, and became these mainstream hit makers.
I never officially interviewed Max, but we ended up meeting a few times and talking. He has delegated some of his people to represent him. I think part of the reason that Max is shy is because his English maybe isn’t as good as some of the others – he’s a little bit insecure about that. Also, amazingly in a world in which everyone is out for attention, he honestly and sincerely doesn’t want it at all.