William Wordsworth. Eric Clapton. Jane Austen. Bob Dylan. Grammy Award-winning music producer Rob Cavallo ’85 credits his knack for recognizing greatness to studying the literary classics.
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From English Degree to Grammy Award
USC Dornsife alumnus Rob Cavallo credits the skills he learned in his English classes with helping him become a multiple Grammy Award-winning music producer.Video by Mira Zimet
In 1993, in a small, dingy apartment in Berkeley, Calif., Warner Bros. Records producer Rob Cavallo sat on an overturned bucket. He listened, rapt, while a punk band of three scruffy 20-somethings belted out their latest songs.
Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything
All at once?
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone
No doubt about it
“I watched these guys do their thing, and it was just amazing,” Cavallo said, remembering his initial audience with Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool of Green Day.
Earlier that year, Cavallo had been mixing his first record with punk rockers The Muffs when colleagues slid a cassette tape over to him at the sound board. When he left the studio around 1 a.m., he grabbed the tape labeled “Green Day” and stuck it in his car stereo as he drove down the Ventura freeway.
“After the second or third song — one of them was ‘Basket Case’ — I remember thinking, oh my God, this is actually music that is near and dear to my heart. This is the kind of stuff I really like,” Cavallo said. “They’re singing great melodies, their lyrics are together and the band is making a new sound. They hit all the marks for me.”
Cavallo signed Green Day to Warner Bros. Records label Reprise shortly after. Their first album together, Dookie, was released in 1994 and sold 15 million copies. Cavallo eventually worked on six other albums with Green Day, including Insomniac, Nimrod and American Idiot. To date, Green Day has sold more than 65 million records worldwide, and has won five Grammys.
Almost 20 years and hundreds of albums after his first meeting with Green Day, Cavallo is chairman of Warner Bros. Records, a position he was named to in 2010.
His discography is epic — the Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac, Jewel, My Chemical Romance, Eric Clapton, David Cook, Shinedown, Paramore, Lindsey Buckingham and Dave Matthews Band. He has produced singles for movie soundtracks, including Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” from City of Angels, and Phil Collins’ Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning song “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan. Cavallo won the “Producer of the Year” Grammy in 1998, and was nominated for the award in 1999, 2004 and 2010.
Cavallo received his first guitar at age 7 from Zal Yanovsky, former lead guitarist of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and he has converted the garage of his Hidden Hills, Calif., home into a state-of-the-art recording studio. For a man whose life has always revolved around music, it might come as a surprise that Cavallo developed his personal checklist for musical genius while sitting in his college English classes.
“The USC English department gave me the ability to recognize when there is greatness in an artist,” said Cavallo, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 1985 with a degree in English. “I started to realize, through my professors’ urgings, that there were essential elements of style that make a story feel complete.
“They apply to every piece of entertainment you can have, even a two-minute punk-rock song.”
Content that Carries Weight - “Are the melodies valid? Do they carry weight and emotion? Are they hook-y? Are they deep?”
With Cavallo, everything in his life leads back to The Beatles. When he was 11 years old, he listened to a stack of their albums belonging to his father, former music manager and current Disney Music Group chairman, Bob Cavallo.
“Something just clicked in me, and I had to find out how this music could make me feel this way — it was happy, made you want to jump around the room. The art form was so powerful, I had to know how they did it.”
So Cavallo learned the vocal, guitar, drum and piano parts of every Beatles song he knew, recorded himself playing and then remixed the songs. He did the same with works from The Rolling Stones, The Who and any other hit records he could get his hands on.
When Cavallo came to USC in 1981, instead of taking the more traditional route of classical music training, he selected an English major, which he said “felt like the most natural major to take.”
A World View - “Do they say something unique about the times, something original?”
In his literature classes, Cavallo learned to think of writing in its historical perspective. He compared William Wordsworth, “the great pop poet,” to Bob Dylan, both writers who Cavallo recalled as encapsulating in their works the culture and mindset of their respective time periods.
“When I look back at my training at USC, it was basically to help me understand on a grand scale how music and popular culture could be married.”
In addition to studying literary classics, he wrote constantly, sometimes pounding out 20 pages in one sitting that he would then read aloud to his classmates.
Cavallo studied the art of writing under novelist T.C. Boyle, whom he worked with on his undergraduate thesis. Boyle, Distinguished Professor of English and a former rock musician himself, “made it very cool to be an English major.”
After graduation, Cavallo joined Warner Bros. Records as an artist and repertoire representative in 1987.
Cavallo called Boyle soon after Green Day released Dookie, an album that Cavallo described as a snapshot of what it felt like to be a young American male in the early ’90s. “I told him, ‘This is so much like your class. We’d talk about issues of the day, and we’d put them in the form of short stories. Now, we’re putting them in the form of rock songs.’”
A Gut Feeling - “The most important element.”
“George Martin, when he signed The Beatles, said he just had a gut feeling about them,” Cavallo said. “That was brave, because there were no other bands like them at the time.”
This gut feeling extends beyond deciding which bands to sign. For Cavallo, it also means recognizing the true sound of an artist, and working to preserve that sound when recording in the studio.
Hayley Williams, lead singer of the rock band Paramore, recalled what it was like to work with Cavallo on the band’s third album, Brand New Eyes, released in 2009.
“He would sit back and listen to what we were doing, and if he thought it was great, he didn’t feel the need to put his hands all over it. Yet when we needed a push or something wasn’t coming across, he was honest and showed us where we were lacking,” she said. “I think just about any other producer would’ve tried to sugar coat it, shine it up, or make it something they thought was more understandable or accessible.
“Rob gets where music comes from. It all boils down to a human heart and he’s not afraid of that.”
After more than 15 years in the producer’s chair, Cavallo’s new role of chairman of Warner Bros. Records means he spends more time on the business side of making music than he used to. But he’s still able to leave the office behind to spend the afternoon — and often the rest of the night — in his studio, doing what he loves most.
“When the song starts to take shape, it gets really exciting,” Cavallo said. “You’re making something that’s moving you. I’m in my 40s, but I still get very excited by it, because I know it’s going to turn people on.”
Cavallo’s home is a visual history of his love for music. A mosaic of brightly colored guitars hangs outside his recording studio and a collection of awards, signed sheet music and photographs decorate the rooms.
In one image, Cavallo sits observing with a hand to his cheek as Dave Matthews strums an acoustic guitar during their work on the 2009 album Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.
“We went from nothing — an acoustic guitar, Dave, the band — to 15 months later, when I was in an arena with thousands of fans screaming over the songs we’d just produced,” Cavallo said. “And let me tell you, that feeling is just fantastic.”
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