Spike Leo is a music producer, sound engineer and songwriter, who has worked with a number of different artists and musicians over the past few years, as well as continuously working on his own musical endeavors and building a unique and lasting career for himself. We were blessed with the opportunity to chat with the Melbourne based creative to find out more about what drives him and what his advice would be to upcoming producers and musicians. This one turned out to be an incredibly informative and inspiring discussion, a huge thank you to Spike for his time and expertise. Here’s the interview in full.
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Hi Spike, thanks so much for your time with this today – it’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you. How long have you been making music, and who or what first inspired you to start?
I have been making music since I was 10 years old. I started drums lessons very young and as a teenager started playing around with fruity loops and another program called acid pro, very similar to what Logic X is today. I was definitely first inspired by a performance group called, “STOMP” who I have seen many many times over the years and had the chance to meet and jam with them on occasions. Hugely inspired by Michael Jackson growing up, dancing and music wise. MJ’s music had such an emotional impact on me growing up. He really helped me through times of turmoil as a young lad and helped me channel music as a means of therapy through my childhood struggles.
How do you get started when crafting a new piece of music, and how do you know when something’s finished and ready to be shared?
I used to really struggle with starting a piece of music but over time found ways to find inspiration. I believe that is key and there is no such thing as writers block. I always found it hard to write happy songs as anger or sorrow would often spark my imagination lyrically and get my pen writing.
Now a days it can just be a sound from a new synthesiser, or a sample that gets me excited. From there I try not to think too much and just slowly build pieces together however, if it is for an artist and they have specified a particular sound or style then I spend more time crafting the sounds and ideas moving forward. Inspiration is all around us, just listen.
The big question, how you do you know when something’s finished? Well, you don’t. A piece of music is never really finished; there is always something you can add and always something that can be fine tuned or taken away. I use to think a piece of music has to be filled to the brim but you never fill a whisky cup to the top of the glass now do you? Music is much the same; some of the best songs we’ve ever heard are not filled to the brim. Prince, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams. Having said that, some of the biggest productions like MJ, James Brown and so on are pretty full and luscious. It really depends on the piece of music and what it draws from you as an artist or producer and it’s that intuition and place of vulnerability you must be connected with.
With practise and time, you just know when a piece of music is finished. It can sometimes just be when you’ve listened to it for the 10,000th time and there’s a moment where you’re like, yup, it’s time.
You mentioned in one of your videos that it’s music and passion first, in every case. Do you think anyone with the right passion for what they create can make a career out of it, or are there other factors involved?
I strongly believe that if you are passionate about something that it’s one of the main ingredients to success. Although, you could be passionate about something and not work hard, in which case, you probably won’t find much success. Then again when I say the word passion it seems to tie in nicely with the idea of hard work, it doesn’t feel like hard work because you love it so much and the passion means you want to do it constantly and consistently.
When you’re pursuing anything on your own, it’s hard. It’s lonely and you need to be at a point that you believe in yourself. There is no one out there keeping me motivated everyday, it’s up to me, its my passion and devotion to music. It has served me so well through my life, I never fell into drugs and any hard times I endured music was an aid for me. It’s something I’ve always done and prior to music production I was a performer in NY on Broadway doing shows around the world. It didn’t feel like success, it felt just like part of the journey but if you asked me 10 years ago if I thought that would be my career and “Successful” I would have been super excited at the concept of it all.
To come back to the question, I think that anyone who has the passion must have the discipline and work ethic to compliment it. You can be passionate about something like cars and instead of building a dealership and owning/selling the best cars; you could just sit there and passionately watch them on YouTube all day.
Creating a career is easy; creating a successful career is the challenge. Passion is but one ingredient of the overall picture.
What’s an average day like for you at the moment, what sort of projects do you have on the go?
I usually wake up 6:30-7am, go to the gym for an hour 5 days a week Mon-Fri. I end up at the studio about 10-1030am. I check my emails, enquiries and list of things to do for the day, which I send myself, an email with the night before. I either start with an hour of self-education in music production or leave it till later in the day. I spend the start of the week finishing off client’s projects from the week before. Production, mixing and so on, this usually all happens Monday, Tuesday. I book most of my clients mid-end of week for new projects.
I have been working a lot with many different artists. One I am very excited about at the moment is Rob Johnson. He is one of the most understated and exciting artists in our country at the moment. I would easily say he has one of the best male pop vocals our country has seen and I am very excited to be releasing some work with him early 2018, but that’s all I can say for now!!!! More to come.
My days usually range from 8-15 hours depending what needs to be done and I love to put aside a few hours to just create and utilise all the fun gear in my studio. The only way I improve is by creating in my own time as well!
Come Friday/Saturday I work in a Juvenile prison helping troubled kids ages 12-20 with music, music production. Teaching them song writing, recording and basic engineering in hope that once they integrate back into society they are able to develop those skills and use them as I once did as a refuge from their troubles. Sunday, I take the whole day off, no writing and no enquiries. Just me and the family.
What made you decide to start helping other musicians and producers?
When I first started, I had the passion, just no idea what I was doing, but I knew that I wanted to write music. I had spent the last 10 years performing overseas and decided to come back and spend some of my savings on a small studio set up. I locked myself away for one year, spent about 8-10 hours a day just experimenting and trying to write music. I sucked and so did my music but I didn’t stop!
I hit up maybe over 50 different places in Melbourne during that time who were involved in music production of some sort, offering them cleaning services, coffee runs, anything I could just so I could watch some sessions and learn how all the greats did! Alas, I was ignored by everyone except one chap by the name of Jimi Maroudas. An incredibly hard working and talented producer, engineer. From time to time he would drop me some gems, listen to my music and give me some advice. The one thing that really stuck with me was when he said, “Take your time, the longer it takes you to get there the longer you will stay at the top” or something along those lines. He basically told me to keep working hard as many who have made it quickly to the top, dropped even further to the bottom. I keep that in mind every day.
So once I got to the point where I was like, “Ok, I know what I’m doing and do it well,” I really wanted to help people not go through the years of torment without someone to answer their questions and give them the feedback and confidence they need to believe in themselves and pursue their passion.
It once took me 24 hours to figure out by myself how to bounce midi down to an audio wav file. I literally sat at my computer for 12 hours each day nearly in tears with frustration, not being able to find anything on YouTube, calling friends etc, no one could help me! Somehow I figured it out and it was as easy as 1,2,3. Imagine if I had someone to call up and be like, “Hey blah blah blah” and I got the answer there and then.
That’s what I offer to people, I do it all the time, I’m so happy to help! I’ve had phone calls with people just starting out and I’m genuinely happy to give my time and know they don’t need to deal with the frustration! I also offer more intense one on one sessions but regardless of that I’m happy to give a helping hand to people who share my passion to make music!
There is such a small community here in Australia and I plan to bring them together and share the great music (And music tricks and tips) that Australians are known for around the world when hearing their music!
What are three main tips or snippets of advice you would give to musicians or producers who are looking to start crafting a career and building an audience?
I used to be totally against anything, “Business” wise in relation to music. Us musicians are all about the music right? Wrong! If you don’t become business savvy in this day and age I strongly believe nothing will happen. It’s not enough to just release a record and hope that your music is enough. Record labels use to help with PR and get your music out there but honestly, we don’t need them anymore. You just need to put your thinking hat on and do some research.
Number 1 tip to building an audience – Learn how to market. Learn how to market yourself or music on all social media platforms. 95% of my business is based off that! If I can, then you can too!
Tip 2 – Before even considering to build an audience, work your ass off to perfect your craft!
There’s so much competition out there, it’s really worth investing the time and even some money in self-education. You don’t need to reach out to recording studios anymore. You got the legends teaching their tricks online. “Deadmau5,” “Hans Zimmer,” even “Quincy Jones.” If you’re a producer and don’t know these names, then you already got homework to do!
Tip3 – Don’t be so hard on yourself, be patient, enjoy the process.
I am practising patience every day. In this fast paced society we all want it yesterday. Building a business, building anything, it’s lonely, it takes time and patience. The discipline and perseverance is the, “Hustle.” Not posting on Instagram that you’re, “Hustling hard.”
What have been some of the best decisions you’ve made in your career so far?
I think just always going with my gut, trusting in myself. Forgiving my mistakes. I always have this itch since I was younger to be better, to grow, to improve. The best decisions I made in my career is when I felt the tough decisions brewing in my stomach, I took that time to think about it and then I leaped. I would always think am I crazy? Why do I feel this way and no one else does? Why can’t I stay in a job for 10 years and just be happy? Truth is, if I’m not growing and following my passion, heart and doing what I love, then I’m miserable and I’m just not prepared to sacrifice my happiness. I want to die with no regrets and know that I gave it my best shot.
The best decisions I have made in my career have sometimes been quitting the thing that I use to love most. Quitting performing on stage with a steady pay and being a performer 7 days a week to start a career in music production, which I knew nothing about, was tough.
Don’t be afraid to make those decisions because at least those decisions that are made won’t be replaced with regret. So many of my friends are still stuck doing the same job. When I see them, they’re almost embarrassed to mention it. Be proud of what you do and make sure you listen to yourself!
What mistakes have you made, if any, and what did you learn from those experiences?
I am always making mistakes, but it depends how you think about a mistake. A mistake would be a regret in the grand scheme of things. I’ve always been lucky to just jump and hope things work out. My parents just always supported me and made me feel safe; I knew that if something went wrong I would be ok.
I guess if there’s anything it would be that I did more practise through my 20’s. I have always had this fear that I’m not working hard enough, even when I’m pushing myself to the max. It’s just always there in the back of my mind that someone might be working harder than you! I really think it just comes down to how many minutes, hours, days, and months and years you put into that passion that will ultimately make you a master of it. All the mistakes and successes have allowed me and moulded me to make difficult future decisions. I am so grateful for all the experiences and mentors I’ve had over the years. Now in my 30’s I don’t take those for granted. I wish that I always had this sense of gratitude for those people that have shown me love and been there for me.
There are no mistakes, just moments that may not seem favourable, but I strongly feel those, “Mistakes” are there to help you with your future decisions or guide you in a different direction.
Can you imagine all the immediate mistakes I made on stage when the show is live. PLENTY! Does anyone care? At the time, maybe? Does anyone remember? No.
What advice can you give to anyone who is struggling to overcome rejection or to get themselves out of a creative rut and reignite that fire?
To become great at something you must do it many times, rinse and repeat. Rejection is the same thing. You only become good at being rejected once it happens enough. If you give up when you first start getting rejected then the worst thing you’ll do is live with regret! However, if you continue you will certainly reap the rewards.
I have been rejected at 100’s of auditions and was maybe accepted a few times but those few times I was accepted, changed my life. If I gave up trying, I wouldn’t have made it to perform in NY. That, however, is a story for another day. The only way to overcome rejection is learn to live with it, accept it and just know that that’s not where you are meant to be! Being honest with yourself is also really important. No one likes being rejected but ask yourself first if it’s something you really want? Then decide if you’re willing to passionately work hard at it, then audition or try again! Rejection and failure is a sure path to success but you’ll never know if you stop at the first obstacle that you face.
In terms of a creative rut or reigniting that fire, it can sometimes mean you just need to step away from it, take a break and then come back. Sometimes overworking on something can be stepping backwards. You need to constantly balance. It’s not about finding balance as I don’t think you’ll ever find it! (Said one of my Mentor’s Tony Mantz, also known as Jack The Bear). Sometimes when you try to balance yourself you fall over, but get back up and come back to it. Music for me is much the same, I need to make sure that I am not always focused on the one thing or I get burnt out. I once worked 6-7 days a week 12-15 hours a day. After 5-6 weeks it resulted in me sitting in front of the television for 12 hours a day for one week straight and not wanting to touch music. So go slow and steady or burn out is my advice.
Searching for inspiration, new music, mentors online or in person, people that you enjoy listening to. I watch a lot of Gary V, music producer Illmind, Music production courses. They are my sources of inspiration if and when I need it. Eventually, you learn yourself and know what you need to keep things steady and constantly move forwards. It comes in time and takes patience!
How important is collaboration for you, and what have been some of the most unexpected or rewarding results you’ve encountered from working with other artists?
You will only know as much as you know if you just work with what you know! If you work with someone else, they know a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t! So I totally encourage collaboration. I love working with other producers and artists and if I like their work I rarely say no. Say yes to all opportunities that present themselves! There might be one tip or trick that will change up the whole way you think or work about things! I have learnt some of the greatest tricks and lessons from my peers. Reach out to people who inspire you and they might reach back.
How important is live music for you as both an artist and a music fan?
This is a really tough one. Live music gives us something that a recorded piece of music can’t. Vibing off the energy of players and bands is electric (pun intended).
I am in two minds about this now. A year or so ago, I was playing a live show as a synth player with one of my mates bands and we were nearly playing to an empty pub. Music is so accessible and flooded across the digital platform that no one really listens to a complete works any more. Just a single here and a single there.
Many years ago the best way to discover new bands was go out and see them live but now, it’s all through the digital platforms. You can listen from your phones, computers etc and I’m finding less and less people are going out discovering new talent. They will only go if they have a strong following online first. That’s just the way things have developed. So I think now it’s really important to have an online presence and again, know your marketing to initially get out there!
As a music fan, make sure you get to your favourite artists live shows! Especially if they’re starting out, the struggle is real and live music will inevitably die out if people stop showing support. If the artist doesn’t make money, then they won’t be able to make music!
What do you have planned for 2018?
I’m hoping to put out a lot more video content and wanting to start half way through the year an audio podcast. I want to make sure I am across all platforms to engage with the music world and community. Working with inspiring artists and just improving as much as I can! I am striving to be one of the greats!
What do you currently offer to other musicians and artists, and what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?
I offer music production lessons in different packages according to what the producer would like to achieve. I also have a one off 3 hour session for artists to record vocals over instrumentals. A great way for artists to get into the studio if they haven’t been before or just want to see what my capabilities are as a music producer.
The last package I offer is four 3-hour sessions with an original song finished within 12 hours. Artists have one on one sessions with me and we sculpture a sound and fully produced song around their taste and musical direction. I make sure every client leaves every session feeling excited and happy!
People can hit me up through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Email, Phone. I’m pretty accessible!
If people only have time to check out one release of yours, which would you suggest, and why?
I’m really happy with how my Lorde – Dynamite remix came out! Simplistic half glass full, not too much going on but a nice electronic chilled vibe with some creamy guitars in the chorus.
What’s the bigger picture for you?
I want to create music for the rest of my life. I want to work with like minded passionate people and help encourage up and coming producers through their journey. I would love to work in LA for a year as a music producer for artists and would love to watch Pharrell work. If I can do this every day for the rest of my life, I’ll be a happy man! Making music everyday? It doesn’t get better than that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Thanks for the interview, really enjoyed it. Great questions. I encourage anyone who needs a hand to get in touch, help is out there, you just need to ask!
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Massive thanks to Spike Leo for his time & insight. Find & follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Youtube. Visit his Website for more information.