Behind the Boards with Carter Lang: Producer Talks Working with SZA, Lil Nas X, and Post Malone

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The post Behind the Boards with Carter Lang: Producer Talks Working with SZA, Lil Nas X, and Post Malone appeared first on Consequence.

Behind the Boards is a series where we spotlight some of the biggest producers in the industry and dig into some of their favorite projects. For this edition, we sit down with producer Carter Lang to hear about his work with SZA, Omar Apollo, and more.

Before it’s a hit, before it’s a song, it’s probably a patchwork of ideas that may never come together. But when the pieces fall in place, it becomes, as Carter Lang puts it, “a thing.

The songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist behind hits from SZA, Post Malone, Doja Cat, and Chance the Rapper, may not have the exact terminology to describe this feeling. But becoming a “thing” means that the song is taking on a life of its own. In our conversation singling out five standout productions from his career, Lang notes the various times in which those five songs transformed from looped rhythms and demos to something more.

Lang began his music career in Chicago, often working with the hip-hop collective Savemoney, which featured 2010s Chicago rap mainstays Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, and more. After meeting a burgeoning SZA in 2015, Lang contributed to her 2017 debut Ctrl; his hip-hop background and guitar prowess was a perfect fit for SZA’s free-form style, and Lang once again contributed several tracks on her stunning follow-up, SOS.

After Ctrl, Lang continued to develop his repertoire by working with dozens of pop, R&B, and rap artists, even contributing production to a 5 Seconds of Summer track and songs from last year’s Lykke Li album. Another high arrived with the release of Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” a chart-topping hit that emerged from a simple drum pattern Lang developed in Chicago. According to Lang, he had no idea that the song would end up in the 2018 film Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse: “I didn’t realize how big a part of the movie it was because I was trying not to accept the accomplishment, like, ‘Ah, it’s in the movie. I’ll see it someday,'” Lang says. “And then I saw it way late, and I was like, ‘No way. This is the movie.'”

Now that SZA’s SOS is finally out in the world, Lang has been gearing up for another influx of sessions at his Los Angeles studio — and investing in some new guitars and recording equipment while he’s at it. “I love to research,” he tells Consequence, “then the research turns into acquisition, and the acquisition turns into creation, which turns into elation.” It’s safe to say that when Lang enters the studio, either with an artist or alone, he’s never too far from a special creation.

Read our deep dive with Carter Lang about the process behind SZA’s “Kill Bill,” “Love Galore,” and more below.

SZA – “Love Galore” feat. Travis Scott

SZA, Ty [Donaldson], Cody [Fayne, A.K.A. ThankGod4Cody], and I, and a friend of ours, Chris Classick, who has a studio in Chicago, and was engineering with us — we all went to my house in Michigan. I drove a bunch of stuff up and we set up in the basement, and Ty, Cody, and I were making ideas, while SZA and Chris were tracking upstairs in this makeshift kitchen studio in my mom’s office with blankets and such.

So we had this kind of flow going, we were just trying just to make ideas. Cody and I were downstairs, and we started to just harp on a Moog riff. Then Cody’s like, “Alright, cool.” We stopped there, started to process that. And then I went to the next instrument and a beat just started happening. And it started to have this really cool, spacey feel to it, and it had a nice bounce — Cody started to put the bounce to it and was really going in on the drums. As he went in on the drums, I would go to another instrument.

I’d be like, “okay, pull me up and record.” So Cody and I were flowing. And then we went upstairs and played it for SZA, played the beat for her, and she spent a whole day on it, at least. We were out there for about a week, and yeah, that was a really important one — “Broken Clocks” came out of that too, and some other starts. But yeah, that song took shape pretty quickly after the beat was done.

And then she had something to play for people, and it started to become this kind of pillar that’s like, “Oh, let me play you some songs,” and boom, that song would come on, and it just starts so minimal that it grabs your attention. And then the way that she cuts through is just amazing… how she repeats things but in such a linear, free-form way. And I loved it. Her verses were crazy. And then yeah, it became a thing. And performing it was so much fun. I got to perform with her for a while after. I love to play that bass part. I went from the Moog to playing it on the electric bass, using harmonics to mimic the sound.

And then the Travis feature happened. I was like “Wait, now there’s Travis on it? Okay, this is great.” I didn’t even realize what was happening at the time, no one really did.

SZA – “Kill Bill”

That song came together in a cool way, too. My friend Rob Bisel, who’s engineering with SZA on that whole SOS album, we were also co-producing together. And so we occasionally passed stuff around to say, “Hey, what do you think about this? You want to mess with this?” And I was like, “Let me just mess with this really quick.”  I tried some digital drums on it and I had a different feel in my head, a different flow in my brain, how it was supposed to be received.

In my mind, I was like, “I know it could be cooler.” And then the next week, when Rob left, I worked on it again by myself and I was like starting to add little drum machine hits and stuff like that and a polyrhythm started happening that kind of had some swing in it and I started to move that block around until it started to evoke a different rhythm. I was like, “Okay, this is what it’s supposed to be.” And then the rest of the elements started flooding in, just flooding my mind.

I went to the studio a few weeks later, when we’re all together the studio, it’s the time to support her, the time to create, we hang, we bond, we listen to stuff. I popped over, played some stuff, she went through a few ideas, did some cool stuff on things, and I was like, “Amazing, maybe we’ll go back to these tomorrow.”

It’s super late at this point, and then when Rob went to the bathroom, I played the “Kill Bill” beat. It wasn’t called “Kill Bill,” it was called “Igloo.” She started just humming to it. I was like, “Oh, maybe she likes this, this is cool,” and then Rob came back in and she was doing a full-blown melody to it. But it wasn’t the way it is now.

I think the next day they worked on it, and Rob hit me and was like, “Yo, this is a thing. It sounds crazy.” I was initially thinking that they were some pretty harsh lines over such a sunny beat. But it also had some sounds that were just kind of sinister in the way that they’re kind of desert-y and evoke a bit of a Kill Bill sort of feel too, and we played into it more after.

They came up with the title (I wasn’t there for that), but after, I was like, “Okay, now we can get a little bit more animated with the sounds,” without being super cliché. I’m wasn’t going to put Foley art sounds in there or anything, but we could really get into that vibe and then choreograph the music a little bit more to her flow.

When we took it out of the demo beat form, it blossomed, it became a pillar, something that we could play for people. So it was a cool marker for the album, and then it being its own thing the way they marketed it out as a single. And then TikTok sort of grabbed a hold of it. That was really special because it takes something that’s kind of “avant garde” in a way and it makes it into something that everyone knows — maybe it’s not quite “avant garde,” but it was unexpected.

Post Malone & Swae Lee – “Sunflower”

This one happened out of nowhere, really. I was in Chicago before we had the session where we made the beat. I was making some ideas on my MPC, which is a beat pad/sampler. I made a cool beat and I started playing some synths to it, and it was just something that I saved and just never really finished it (like a lot of stuff that I start). So I went to LA and linked up with Lou Bell, we were with the same management, and they linked us together like “You guys play nice!” I got to know Lou right away and I was like, “Wow, he’s very focused and quick, and when you hear something, this man needs it ready.”

So I learned a different side of my own approach through working with Lou. I didn’t have anything bounced, so I opened some Logic sessions. He’s like, “Why don’t you have anything balanced into any stems?” I was like, “I don’t know. They’re just starts.” He’s like, “Signal out those drums. Those are cool.” And I was like, “Okay.” I signaled out the drums. And he was like, “These are super cool drums. Do you have the separate tracks of them?” I was like, “No, I did it in an MPC, so it’s just one thing.”

He’s like, “Okay cool.” And then he started playing and instantly coming up with a chord progression, looking at me being like, “This is cool.” I’m like… I can’t disagree. It was kind of weird sounding though — but this man’s just coming up with ideas, let’s go with it. So the progression developed with Lou and then we started adding melodies with the guitar, I set up and played some progressions on it and some arpeggiations, some things that I was really used to discovering with SZA, putting that sort of emotion. And then the beat was a beat, it was super cool, and we called it ’80s Instrumental’. We had three beats that day, but Lou sent it to our manager, Austin, who was then trying to send it around, I guess. He told us, “Oh, this would be great for, like, Rihanna.” And I was like, “That’s sick! [Laughs]

But what ended up happening is that I was back in Chicago, and Lou was at a session with Swae Lee. Swae Lee did that on the track, and Lou helped with some of the cadence and some of the repetition, some of the melody choice, but it was really like a
“Swae Lee off the cuff” verse vision that turned into a whole thing. Then there was some identity to the song, it was about something, there was imagery in the song.

Then we wondered, “Who’s gonna mess with this song next,” you know, “Who’s gonna get it?” But Post [Malone] was part of the management and Lou is Post’s super close homie and producer accomplice. They just did their thing on it, and after time, they just tried to crack the code together, with Billy Walsh. They all wrote stuff together, and it was pretty magical what they were able to do with it to really bring the song home and bring Swae Lee and Post’s voice together. They’re very different and they’re really cool to hear on the track, this low raspy voice and then the sort of sweet, buzzing voice, the melodies being so snappy from one artist to being so croon-y from the other artist.

Then the Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse thing came out of nowhere. I think management was probably trying to figure it out, maybe they were talking to Spider people already or something, I have no idea. And then that came out, and I didn’t realize how big a part of the movie it was because I was trying not to accept the accomplishment, like, “Ah, it’s in the movie. I’ll see it someday.” And then I saw it way late, and I was like, “No way. This is the movie.”

Lil Nas X – “Void”

Montero is the best. He’d be like, “Yo, what are you doing?” at like 11 p.m., and I’d be like “Shit, not much, come over.” I really liked that aspect too, as hard as it was sometimes to get prepared at the last minute. But we’d work like that a lot, and then sometimes we’d meet up during the day, too, and just have a full day. One day we linked over at John Cunningham’s spot.

Cunningham, Nas, and I were vibing, and John had this guitar loop that was just so beautiful. I think I just had that loop when Nas came over and I was going through ideas. Nas is pretty selective with his stuff. He’ll be like, “Yes, I’ll try something.” And then he’ll be like, “You know what, let me put that to the side for a second. I want to keep looking, I want to find the thing. I know what I’m feeling.” He’s aggressive with his taste, which I get.

So I played that loop, and he started going off, and I was like “Amazing, this is gonna be something for us to work on together, I love that.” So he was just at my house on a late, late night, just him and I riffing on that idea. He kept going, and he likes to do these takes that are beautiful, long takes where eventually, he gets the entire arrangement down. He’ll do it as many times until he figures out the whole arrangement of the song because there’s a loop, he has to kind of imagine it. So I’m just sitting there watching him do it and he keeps coming back around to these different sections and doing them better each tim. By the end, we started color coding the different sections and we put together this comp, that just felt like a thing.

I was like, “Wow, this is tear-jerking,” you know? But that song just came out of him like that, and then John and I started to hammer out the production. I must have did bass on it while Nas was tracking, just because sometimes I’ll be sitting there, I’ll plug in a bass and play along with him, just so that I could have some shit to cut up and be like “I did something on it, too!” It also is nice, too, because we feed off each other. There’s someone else playing in the room. They’re not just sitting there watching it. I’m listening to the music and interacting with it just like he is.

So I just played along with them, John and I developed the parts and we started to push the feel. We thought that maybe we could find a way to make this song feel uptempo without stressing it — I don’t think we ever said, “Oh, we need to make this uptempo.” I think it just became that once the toms started rolling in and we got to incorporate more live elements. I was banging on the drums and John was looking at me like, “This is fire.” It was fun, and it became an interesting part of the album too, where you’ve got all this music already digested and then that comes in and sort of grabs you.

I think it evoked something in listeners that also listen to a lot of ’90s or 2000s rock, Smashing Pumpkins-era shit. Cunningham and I were pulling from that, we’re roughly the same age and Nas also has got a deep perspective and does a lot of research on music. He was able to relate and pull from that without it being pushed on him.

Omar Apollo – “Invincible (featuring Daniel Caesar)”

This one was interesting, too, because I just had to call Omar about it a second ago [laughs]. I remember the thing that really set it off and started to set the idea in motion was when we were jamming at the same time. He was on guitar in my studio here in Glendale, and we’re just vibing — I was on the MPC and I was doing my thing. I’ve always loved working with the old MPC and using it in ways where you can generate unexpected rhythms and it’s very fun to manipulate.

So I was doing this rhythm that almost felt, I don’t know, maybe Radiohead-inspired? It just felt different. It was something that Omar was really locked into and I went on forever. I did the longest take, I was trying to do what Nas was doing, where I do really long take and I try to get all the different parts to go back-to-back-to-back. So I was like, “Omar, if you mess with this…”. He’s like, “Yeah, I mess with this, just send me the whole thing.” So I sent him the whole 30 minutes, and he chops it up with Nathan [Phillips] his engineer and puts together this whole situation, and I thought “Well, this is beautiful.”

There was even amp noise in the guitar that we were recording at my place. And I was like, “Should we get rid of that?” And Omar was like, “Nah, we should keep it, it sets the tone.” I’m like, “That’s sick.” I thought, “Okay, let’s give them more imperfections.” The way he was playing that guitar, it felt emotional, and we started to develop the rest of the song. We added some more pieces and synth stuff and it started to really like create an ascending situation.

And then the video, the color correction on the video, all that stuff goes with the song too. Everything about it was really interesting, and it was dry — we didn’t cake everything up in reverb and stuff. It was just natural, it happened so naturally. It’s the luck of the music, not us. The music just gives that to us.

Behind the Boards with Carter Lang: Producer Talks Working with SZA, Lil Nas X, and Post Malone
Paolo Ragusa

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