Hits keep coming for Dr. Luke
Dr. Luke has lived in Los Angeles since 2008 but he still hasn’t gotten the hang of valet parking. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the attendants at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills are having trouble matching the songwriter-producer’s ticket to his Prius. Turns out he took his car keys with him into the restaurant — and not for the first time, either. “I grew up in New York,” he explains a little later. “I never had to learn this stuff.”
What Luke has learned — indeed, what he’s more or less mastered — is the art of the hit: Born Lukasz Gottwald in 1973, he’s the knob-turning, button-pushing, party-starting pop savant behind what seems like every second song on the radio right now. Katy Perry’s " California Gurls”? Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”? Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”? Luke produced them all.
Stretching back even further, the list of hits that bear his signature is astounding, and makes him perhaps the most successful pop producer you’ve never heard of. Starting in 2004, Luke has written or co-written hits by Kelly Clarkson (“Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck Without You”), Avril Lavigne (“Girlfriend”), Pink (“U + Ur Hand”), Britney Spears (“Circus”), Flo Rida (“Right Round”), Ke$ha (“Tik Tok,” “Your Love Is My Drug”) and more.
“When you analyze a track record as strong as his, there’s a consistency to knowing what makes up a great pop hit,” says Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, whose company has released many of the producer’s biggest hits. “He’s obviously not a fluke — he’s done it time and time again.”
Perry’s “California Gurls,” which recently topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for six consecutive weeks, is arguably the song of the summer, and Dr. Luke has reteamed with the singer for a handful of other tracks on her sophomore album, “Teenage Dream,” due Aug. 24.
The Dr. Luke sound has its roots in the high-energy teen-pop productions of Max Martin, the Swedish songsmith responsible for such classics of the genre as the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and “Baby One More Time” by Spears. Martin gave Luke one of his first big breaks when he enlisted the younger musician as a partner on “Since U Been Gone,” the 2004 Clarkson smash; the two continue to collaborate.
Yet if Martin’s work has little use for nuance, Luke’s seems ideologically opposed to it. His signature tune might be “Tik Tok,” in which Ke$ha describes an unconventional dental-hygiene regimen (“Brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack”) over a spring-loaded electro-pop groove. Like all of Dr. Luke’s most memorable tracks (and much of history’s best rock ‘n’ roll), “Tik Tok” feels stupid and brilliant at the same time: sophisticated songcraft in the service of plain-and-simple pleasure.
“I’ve read that I’m ruining music,” Luke says of a reputation for shamelessness that extends back at least as far as Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” “It makes me kind of laugh.”
Before he was laughing, Luke was studying: two years of jazz guitar at the Manhattan School of Music, then a decade as a member of the house band on “Saturday Night Live.” During that gig Luke began moonlighting as a DJ at clubs around New York, which led to invitations to remix and produce hip-hop tracks by the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. (A DJ job is also where he met Martin.) Luke admits that fans of underground rap “would probably hate” his more commercial material but says, “I think I applied the same things that I’m doing now to that: I just made it make sense to me in a certain way.”
His process too was molded by those early years. “We’d work in the studio until 5 in the morning, then wake up and get at it again,” says Ke$ha, who compares Luke to an older brother. “I was really broke and he’d let me crash on a mattress in his spare bedroom. We did yoga and would go hiking and swimming together; he gave me advice about boys.”
In 2007, Luke quit “SNL” after he realized he was spending more time flying to recording sessions in Stockholm and L.A. than he was at home in New York. “I probably should’ve left three or four years earlier, but I wasn’t ready to move out here,” he says. “And it was the only thing that was relatively stable in my life.”
Beyond a seemingly permanent place inside the upper reaches of the Top 40, Luke isn’t sure how much more stability he’s attained. When asked how he divides his time between his professional life and his personal life, he replies, “What’s that second phrase mean?” At his house in the Hollywood Hills, musical instruments significantly outnumber pieces of furniture.
He’s similarly unmoored in regard to his future. Inside his tiny home studio, he pores over the latest sales figures from SoundScan and iTunes, examining the competition with an enthusiasm that suggests a deep affinity for the current pop-industrial complex, in which A-list songwriter/producers such as RedOne, Linda Perry, Kara DioGuardi and will.i.am take turns collaborating with a relatively small set of A-list stars. Yet Luke says he’s growing tired of that model.
“If you have a super-hot producer that’s really, really big, and he’s doing the singles on 11 different artists’ records, what’s going to incentivize people to buy those records, as opposed to just the singles?” he asks. “What’s the reason to buy into an artist when the record is the accumulation of all these different things?”
At a moment when album sales appear to be in a free-fall, Luke says he’s looking to the example set by Quincy Jones in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
“He would do a whole album and each album had a different sound. I think there are records that will sell, and I think what makes a record sell is a continuity of sound,” he says, pointing to recent efforts by Amy Winehouse and Norah Jones. “Why else would someone buy an entire record unless it was like, ‘I want that’? If it’s the same as everything else — if it’s the same people — I’d be less inclined to do that.”
Luke says he’s spending much of his time working on a rerelease of Ke$ha’s “Animal” album that he hopes to have in stores by Christmas. And he’s finishing up singles by a handful of other acts; from his laptop he plays rough cuts of new tunes by Flo Rida and a young English singer named Jessie J. But he’s increasingly thinking about applying his talents in fresh ways.
“I have other things that I want to do with music,” he says. “I feel like I’m still discovering what I’m good at, and it might be broader than this.”
Among the possibilities: signing artists to his RCA imprint, Kemosabe Entertainment, producing movies, “maybe even doing some sort of Broadway thing.” He also wants to use his leverage as a proven hitmaker to reshape certain aspects of the music industry.
“You’ve got video games that are licensing music for way below what the rate should be,” he says. “I’m not necessarily saying ‘yes’ to those licenses anymore. And if I’m not doing it, who else is gonna hold the line?”
“The world is Luke’s oyster, and I don’t say that about a lot of people,” says RCA/Jive Label Group Chairman Barry Weiss. “He’s got the vision and the smarts and the wherewithal to take his career wherever he wants to take it. It’s just a question of what he wants to do.”
According to Luke, that definitely does not include his own spot in the limelight. “I’ve been asked to be a judge on a really big TV show,” he says. “You can use your head to figure out which one. And I turned it down.” Why? “It’s not what I need. For me to just be a face on something, I’d look at myself and be disappointed. I’d rather be the person behind the scenes making the show.”