Although he is most well known for producing rock bands for Tooth & Nail Records, or lately Acceptance, New Found Glory and Story of the Year, Aaron Sprinkle’s original childhood love was pop music. He discovered the Beatles in third grade and soon thereafter Michael Jackson, George Michael, Depeche Mode and the Cure, his all-time favorite. So it only makes sense that after dabbling in pop and electronics on 2013’s Water & Guns, his newest solo album sees him doubling down on the blueprint.
There’s no question Real Life is a modern-sounding pop record through and through. It makes use of the latest trends in technology, uses vocal effects as its own instrument and features an array of guest spots, a first for Sprinkle. But it also contains those ‘80s influences Sprinkle loves, a fondness for juxtaposition and a mission of creating songs that are actually about something, rather than a collection of cool-sounding words thrown together.
Behind the Setlist talked with Sprinkle about his jumping between genres, chasing emotional responses in music, why he thinks Real Life is his most honest record, and the story behind that cover photo. Part two, where he discusses his 24-year producing career and history with Tooth & Nail, can be found here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long have you lived in the Nashville area now?
Do you miss Seattle?
Sometimes. I don’t really think about it that much, but sometimes I miss it. I miss people there, for sure.
What’s your studio setup like in Nashville?
It’s a bedroom in my house and it’s the greatest thing ever. It’s really been nice for a season. I’m starting to feel the itch of having a real studio again, but it’s been a really nice break. It’s helped me figure out another layer of growth about priorities and what it is I actually want to continue to strive at and care about.
Culturally, it’s like the thing out here that everyone does. There are a million actual studios, but most of the records being made out here, unless they’re huge budget records, are being made in people’s houses. Even a lot of big budget records are being made in people’s houses. I know that’s the same everywhere, but it wasn’t as pervasive in the culture of Seattle when I lived there. I’m sure it’s changed since I moved, but it’s been a thing here forever.
It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to have a studio in my house before when I lived in Seattle, just the same way that here it doesn’t occur to anyone that it’s weird if I say, “Hey, we’re going to work in my studio that’s just a bedroom in my house.” They don’t even say anything. It’s a nonissue.
Your solo music has always been in more of the rock and singer-songwriter worlds. With this record and the record you put out in 2013, Water & Guns, you are exploring more of a pop and electronic style. How has that move in between genres been for you?
It’s exciting for me because it actually goes farther back to my roots than the folky rock stuff does. The first music I ever made was electronic when I was a kid. The stuff that got me into making music was synths and drum machines. I love organic instruments. I love rock and roll. It was easier to have a rock band and play shows and record crappy demos when I was a kid than it was to try and be Depeche Mode or whatever.
The funny thing is the very first band that I ever did, the first band that ever played shows, was a band that eventually turned into another band called Poor Old Lu. I programmed synths and drum machines and played guitar. Another guy played bass and another guy sang. It was kind of half electronic and half the Cure meets U2.
When bands bring me in on their records, a huge part of why they bring me in is to do the programming, the electronics, and to bring a pop element to what they’re doing. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people because they see it from left field. I think it’s just a perspective thing. I’ve happened to work with a bunch of bands that are these emo, Warped Tour kind of bands, that have big guitars and all that, but the reasons they wanted me to work with them included bringing pop elements and electronic elements into their music.
When I asked Ryan Clark, who is one of my dearest friends – he’s done all my album artwork since Lackluster, which was my compilation solo record, he’s the singer of Demon Hunter, and he and his brother have that firm Invisible Creature – about this record, because I was nervous that my very small fanbase would be thrown for a loop, he said to me it’s a completely natural progression. It’s the record I would expect you to make. That’s because he knows me as a person in a relationship kind of way.
The other thing is I didn’t try to make this record. I just tried to make a record and this is what came out of me. I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to use trap hats in all the songs, which I did in almost every song. I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to do this or that. I just went into it wanting to make the most honest record I’ve ever made from a lyrical standpoint and a musical standpoint, with no holding back and no trying to make something that I think someone else wants me to make.
I was chasing the feeling that I get when I listen to music that inspires me. I was trying to get that out of my music. I was pretty deliberately chasing feelings, like emotional responses. I love pop music. I always have. Everything that I love I consider to be pop. Pop music to me is hooks and it’s emotional response. That’s what it is.
“I try to keep stuff kneejerk. That’s not to say that I’m trying to be flippant about it, but I want it to have that expressive, instinctual flicker to it.”
I assume you’re a Max Martin fan, being a pop guy, and I remember he did a rare interview last year where he was talking about how he approaches writing. It’s not like he has a formula for it per se, but he has certain ingredients and was talking about how some things feel right to him when they’re in a minor and go against what you’re expecting in a chorus or whatever. Are there things like that you appreciate or find that you do when you’re working on something more poppy?
Yeah, I love juxtaposition. I love things out of their element. I love mashing together two worlds that you have never heard before or are rarely together, which can be anything from sad lyrics in a happy vocal melody or two different genres of music put together. I really like that it makes you able to wear your influences on your sleeve but make something exciting and new at the same time.
Matt Carter from Emery is one of my best friends. He worked with me for a long time. He’s a musical genius and knows everything about theory in music and all that stuff, and I know nothing about that stuff. I can tell you what the keys names are on the piano and what the chord names are that I’m playing on my guitar, but that’s about it. So I don’t think about that part of it at all.
I know if something is right or wrong, and if it’s wrong I try and get it right. If I can’t get it right and I’m fighting it, I usually throw it away. I don’t really fight stuff too much. I try to keep stuff kneejerk. That’s not to say that I’m trying to be flippant about it, but I want it to have that expressive, instinctual flicker to it, you know what I mean?
The Beatles got me into music when I was in third grade, and I love George Michael and Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode. The Cure is probably my favorite band, and I consider them to be primarily a pop band. I’ve had these giant emotional responses to the songs that defined me and all I’m trying to do is gleam a little bit of that same response from a song that I’m making.
That could be from the way the last note hangs over the end of the chorus into the post-chorus or whatever re-intro happens there, or the vocal melody of the chorus or the vocal melody of the pre-chorus. Jason from Acceptance is someone that probably more than anyone we have this symbiotic relationship when it comes to chasing that moment, that indescribable moment. We both know when we got it and we don’t even have to talk in the room.
But yeah, I try to keep it somewhat mystical, which sounds probably really pretentious and I’m not trying to be. I do try and keep it there, and try to keep a fan perspective and not overanalyze stuff too much.
You were able to include quite a few features on the record, which is something of a first for you. How did you like bringing other people into the mix for this?
I have been wanting to do that for a long time. Honestly, the reason it hasn’t happened earlier is just logistical. I’m usually putting my records so low on my priority list, because I don’t make money off of my music. It’s a total passion project for me. I make a living helping other people make records.
I finally was like, no, I’m going to do this. I’ve got these people that I’m fans of and close to that I love and I want to hear what it sounds like if we really collaborate. Sherri was the first person I hit up, and then Elle. I’ve worked with both of them. I did Poema’s very first EP they ever did for Tooth & Nail, and was kind of part of them even getting signed to Tooth & Nail back in the day. Then I worked on some of Eisley’s early stuff too on their first record a little bit. We’ve been mutual fans of each other, both of those people.
Matty from Memphis May Fire is almost my neighbor. He lives like two miles from me. We met through mutual friends, and we’re super fast friends and both big fans of each other. I asked him if he would do it. He was pumped and it turned out great. And then Stephanie is someone that I met since I moved here that not enough people know about. Again, I thought something really cool would happen and it did. That’s maybe my favorite song on the record, “I Don’t Know Who You Are.”
I love collaborating and it was something I’ve always wanted to do. The spirit out here in Tennessee is very collaborative and it’s exciting to open up your options when you have another person added into the mix.
“I don’t make money off of my music. It’s a total passion project for me. I make a living helping other people make records.”
At least off the top of my head, I don’t remember you working with many female singers throughout your career. It was cool to see you able to bring that into it a bit more.
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve actually done a bunch of stuff in my early years with female artists, but it was super indie local Seattle stuff that no one’s ever heard. I always think of myself as someone who does a lot of that, but I haven’t done a lot that people have known about. I listen to a lot of music made by females across the gamut of genres. I’m very influenced by a lot of female singers, so it’s natural for me, but that’s neat. I didn’t even think about that.
As someone who has a strong singing voice, how do you like adding different effects and layerings and manipulating the human voice in all these different ways?
It’s exciting to me. When I got the songs to where I felt like each part of it needed to be, it was exciting. It was something that made me excited for other people to hear it. It was giving me the feeling that I wanted from it.
I love technology. I don’t think you can use the word “real instrument.” I don’t think that is a real thing, because everything is an instrument. Most of the music we listen to anyway, all the quote-unquote “real instruments,” are edited just as much if not more than the fake instruments are.
The Beatles were absolutely using the bleeding edge technology at the time to do every single thing they did. I’m not trying to do that, but I love it. I love hearing something and thinking, how can I bring a little bit of that into this that I’m doing? All across, from the ‘80s until current stuff. It’s just another layer. It’s fun to use your voice as an instrument in that way.
You said earlier this was one of the most honest records that you’ve done. How did you then approach writing the lyrics for this?
The only thing I told myself going into this record is I wasn’t going to have any songs that weren’t about anything, because I’ve done that a lot. Most people I know have. It’s easy to write a song around lyrics that sound cool and then try to figure out something they mean later on. Even after you’ve recorded it and put it out, you’re trying to figure out what it means.
I wanted to be thinking about what I was singing about while I was tracking the vocals while I was making the song. My writing process is I literally write the song as I record it. Most of the vocal takes on this record are me singing the lyrics for the first time ever, and I wrote them that day. I wrote the lyrics the day I recorded the vocals, and then that’s it. It’s very much a channeling kind of process, and I will go back and fix stuff if I think it’s stupid. If I listen back and I’m like, “Oh my gosh,” I’ll go back and fix it.
It was really just wanting to say something, whether or not it’s the most important thing in the world. It’s probably not, but it’s something. I tried to be honest and connect with people through that authenticity and integrity.
What’s the story behind the album cover picture?
So the album cover picture is my freshman high school photo.
This would have still been in the ‘80s?
’89, yeah. When I was sending out rough mixes to people, I was using a private SoundCloud link, and for fun I was throwing up funny pictures I had on my computer as album art as a joke. I put that one on the song “Real Life” when I sent it to both Ryan Clark, who did the album art, and Sherri, who sings on it. Both of them, without talking to each other, literally said if you don’t use that as the cover of your record, you can’t use my voice on the record or I will not do your album artwork.
At first I was like, “No no no no no! That’s ridiculous. That’s my funny picture from the ‘80s.” When I told Ryan the name of the record was going to be Real Life too, he’s like, “No, dude. This is epic. You have to do this.” I was able to step back and look at it from an artistic standpoint and totally embrace it. I even made some shirts with that picture on it. It’s fun. My parents think it’s hilarious. My friends from school who remember me looking like that can’t handle how funny they think it is.
Part two of our conversation, where Sprinkle discusses his 24-year producing career and history with Tooth & Nail, can be found here.
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