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Bruce Springsteen Producer Breaks Down 'High Hopes': Exclusive

'The fact they're older songs doesn't detract from the brilliance of the record,' says Ron Aniello

Bruce Springsteen performs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
December 30, 2013 9:25 AM ET

Bruce Springsteen has worked with only a tiny handful of producers during his 40-year recording career, so Ron Aniello could barely believe his luck a couple of years ago when he got tapped to produce 2012's Wrecking Ball. He was equally thrilled when Bruce selected him to sort through a pile of outtakes from the past decade of his career to see if they could carve out an album.

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We spoke with Aniello (along with Bruce himself) about the extremely unusual birth of Springsteen's new album High Hopes, in stores January 14th.

Thanks for doing this. I'm really enjoying the album.
That's always good to hear. I'm always so nervous, especially with Bruce. I can't even listen to my albums. I don't wanna think, "I fucked up" or "I didn't do this . . ." But before I got on the phone with you I played the album just to refresh my memory. And it sounds good. 

Tell me the backstory of this thing. I know it started out as a slightly different project.
I remember that Bruce called me on my birthday, so it was December 9th, 2012. He said to me, "I have some songs. I want to get together." Knowing Bruce, that just meant a conversation. He doesn't do things cavalierly, so I just assumed, "OK. I'll get the songs and I'll listen to them." They were demos he had done with Toby Scott, older songs that had been around for a while that he really liked. He said, "We're gonna get these in shape and see what we've got." That's how it started, but the obstacle was the Wrecking Ball tour. He was gone most of the time, so we weren't able to sit in a room and sort it all out. It all happened in a very unusual manner. But once we got started on it and he started to uncover what it was exactly it was . . . It just took the most part of a year for him to figure it out. I'm not sure what he had in mind from the beginning, but this is what we ended up with. 

When you say it was "unusual," do you just mean that you recorded it in stops and starts?
It was unusual in the fact that he was on tour. There was a lot of conversations in Europe and I did some of the recording via iChat when the band was in Australia. We just didn't have the same amount of time we had for Wrecking Ball. We had a block of time for that and there was consistency. This was more put together between his stops. I think at one point he was in Europe for three straight months, never coming home once. I did as much as I could here in Los Angeles, and we recorded in New York as well as those sessions in Australia. I was in there with the Brendan [O'Brien] tracks as well. Some of that was just unusual for Bruce.

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Many people were surprised the album was going to focus on older songs. Did that surprise you too?
No. For any other artist alive, that's how they make records. It's, "Oh, I got a song. It's great." Then it just ends up on the record. With any other artist, this would be completely acceptable. And we're not saying it's unacceptable to some fans. It's just if you read fan sites you see people saying, "Oh, it's older songs." 

But you have to understand it has its own story, in my opinion. This is the story of what he's not willing to put on albums because they don't fit. They just didn't fit the particular story he was telling for each album. The first time I heard "Hunter of Invisible Game" I thought, "My God, this is one of your greats." He went, "Yeah, it just never quite fit." That's the story of the record. So I'm not sure how fans are going to react, but it's a great Bruce record. It's a great rock & roll record. The fact they're older songs doesn't detract from the brilliance of the record.

Do the songs tell a new story within the context of the album?
I think so. You have a song like "Frankie Fell in Love," which reminds me of him and Steve [Van Zandt] hanging out together. That song has some of the best lyrics I've ever heard from him. It's just a great, playful, rowdy rock & roll song. Then you have these other songs . . . Maybe it's not as linear a story as his other albums, but it's interesting to see what he let go. 

I'm not speaking for Bruce, but it just seems like he doesn't have that sort of weight on him. It's a little more relaxed. Putting together a novel like Bruce does in his records, that's hard. That's why it takes so long and that's why he doesn't release that many records, really. It's just very difficult.

When I first met him he goes, "You know why there aren't that many great albums?" I said, "Why?" And he goes, "Because it's just hard." You know, you might be young and come up with an idea out of sheer inspiration, but that can only happen once and you have to do it again and again. It's hard. It is really hard to make a promise with the first song and keep it all the way to the end. 

This record, again, is a collection of great songs that 99.9 percent of the artists alive would release at any given day in their lives. With Bruce, people are going, "It's all old stuff!" I just hope people can appreciate it for what it is.

Bruce said he wrote a whole bunch of songs before Wrecking Ball, but I suppose he didn't want to dip into those for this album.
Those were about 30 or 40 songs. They were very unique for him, unlike anything I'd ever heard. That's what I wanted to do originally, to help arrange those or give him ideas or look for some inspiration. Those are lovely songs, but none of them are on this record. 

How would you describe the sound of those songs?
I hope Bruce doesn't slaughter me here, but I would compare them to Aaron Copland. It has a very open landscape feel and I guess . . . You wouldn't call it country. It's just very hard to describe. You'll just have to wait. I'm actually working on some of the songs now and going through them. He's looking for a way to approach that album.

There's 12 songs on High Hopes. How many did he consider before cutting it down to 12? We recorded 20, at least. He cut out some of my favorites, real great tracks. He's obsessed with sequence, where songs are going to go. The thing with Bruce is that he accepts his inspiration without question, he doesn't analyze it. But when it comes time to analyze, that's when he turns the screws on everything. Then he'll go back and forth with sequences for months and months until he gets it exactly where he wants it. 

I don't see that in any other artist that I work with. It's usually like, "What's a good sequence?" And then, "Oh, the hit sounds good first. Then the bad songs should go at the end." That's not how Bruce does it. He has a story to tell. We recorded a lot and at first it was a much longer record.

He did the same thing with Wrecking Ball. I have the piece of paper with all 15 or whatever songs on it, and he draws a line through the last four and goes, "This is it. Let's take these four off." It was like a knife in my heart. I was like, "Those are my favorites!" At the end of the day, though, he's always right. It's gotta work as a piece. This was a much bigger experiment because it was so different. There was a little more back and forth with it.

Have the fans heard any of the songs he cut off this new album?
I don't know. I go on Backstreets occasionally just to see what the fans are saying. I get a kick out of that. They're very smart and very cool. But I don't really know what the fans really know, because if I knew that I don't think I could be objective. With "American Skin (41 Shots)" and the others that I did, I didn't listen to the other versions. I didn't even listen to the original version of "High Hopes" on Blood Brothers.  

I think I owed it to Bruce to be fresh, so I'm not sure what everyone is aware of. To be perfectly honest with you, I didn't know "Dream Baby Dream" was so well known. He played me the thing and said it was an experience more than anything at the end of his Devils and Dust shows. It took a lot to get that experience on a record for him. We had to do that song probably 10 times – different versions of it – until he was satisfied it was the right version.

So these songs were outtakes from The Rising, Magic and Wrecking Ball, is that right?
I wouldn't say they were outtakes. I'd say that the Brendan O'Brien songs were because they were basically finished recordings, but our songs . . . Let me look at the list. There's not one outtake from Wrecking Ball. The only thing we tried for that record was "American Skin (41 Shots)." We did try a track of that. He said, "All right, this is one of my great songs and I'd love a recording of it." But it wasn't really an outtake. I wouldn't say any of them were outtakes, except for, I guess, "Harry Place" and "Hunter of Invisible Game," which is my favorite.

On those songs, did you overdub anything?
On "Heaven's Wall" we took the basic track and jumped on there with overdubs. That's pretty much the original, vocal, drum and bass. And on "Harry's Place" we added Tom Morello. There's a nice Clarence [Clemons] moment there too. The editing we did on "Hunter of Invisible Game" was very light. With respect to Brendan, that's his production, and I didn't want to meddle too much. We touch it up and Bruce might have changed a lyric or two. I actually can't remember, but for the most part those were the Brendan O'Brien stuff.

It must have been emotional to hear Clarence's horn playing through the speakers.
Yeah, it definitely was for me. It's like the moment when we made Wrecking Ball and we listened to Clarence's solo. I'll never forget playing that for Bruce. With "The Wall," what's fascinating to me is that it's an even older song. I think it's a 1990s record, though I'm not sure. I think that's just the band playing in a room. It's haunting. Danny [Federici] is there, too. We had a couple of guitars, but we wound up just using one. 

The way they transfer the music to digital, there's no track sheet and you don't know who is playing what. I didn't know who was playing what, and I added some touches to it. But that's the E Street Band back in the day. The track is beautiful and haunting. I think that's the only one they are all playing on. 

Why does Josh Freese play drums on "This Is Your Sword" when it's Max Weinberg on all the other songs?
As you said, this started as a much different project. He gave me demos and I was trying to get them into shape. He was on the road and I was in Los Angeles. Max was busy on the tour, so I went through and brought Josh in to play drums. Bruce and I play drums all the time on demos just to see what it sounds like without a drum machine. That's how Josh wound up on that song. Max pretty much played everything else.

Walk me through his instructions to you at the very start in more detail.
He really just wanted me to get the demos into shape. He does them very quickly, often in a couple days. You'll have to ask Toby [Scott], because I'm not there for that. He said, "These are a collection of songs. I'm on the road. Just fool around with them and I'll see where you're at." 

I tried to get them into shape, so to speak. There might be wrong chords or there might be a click track and no drums. There might be a drum program since it's a demo. So I was like, "Let's see what a new drum sounds like. Let's see what a new bass part sounds like." And then I play it for him to see if he likes it. He goes, "Oh, that's inspiring me." He might go, "That's terrible. You totally got it wrong." Sometimes I'm totally off and I have to start again. When it gets to the place where he feels like he has something, then we go in and get serious about it. 

When they left for Australia, did they intend to record down there, or was that spontaneous?
I think that was a spontaneous thing. The beauty of that was that Nick DiDia was there. That's Brendan's engineer, and he moved to Australia. There may have been talk of doing the album earlier back then, but I forget. I don't get involved in the practical aspects of what they're thinking as far as the release, but I know they were trying to get if finished.

Bruce and I were working tirelessly, though communications was a huge obstacle between us when he was on tour. But the day before he flew to Australia, he came to Los Angeles. We were doing mixes and he was posing for the pictures, too. His was working his ass off, just working his ass off. I've never seen someone his age work like that. He put in a 15-hour day in the studio. We recorded "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello.

I think what happened is that "High Hopes" came around and the band was there and they had this studio, so they just decided to cut a couple songs. I was listening in online. I wasn't part of the tracking session. I was listening via Knifecast, which is a program we use through iTunes where can I can listen anywhere in the world. And then for overdubs and stuff, I was on iChat talking to the musicians. Then we linked in via satellite or something. It was a very interesting record, a very modern record. 

Did you fly out to his home studio in New Jersey ever?
I flew out there quite a bit. He has a great farm studio there. I brought the music back to Bruce and he'd say, "Let's add in this. Call  up Max . . ." Once he went to Europe it got difficult. We were mastering the album at one point, and we literally had to send our engineer over there. He was listening on headphones and he kept saying, "This doesn't sound right." I was like, "What are you listening on?" He goes, "Well, I got Dr. Dre Beats headphones." I went like, "Well, you're probably hearing a lot of bass that isn't there. I'm going to send the engineer out. He's going to set up the speakers in your hotel room. That will give you a good idea of where we are." 

That's literally what we had to do. I sent my engineer out to Milan, and he was very happy about that. That's why I said the tour was an obstacle, but we got around it.

Was there one moment during this process where something clicked and Bruce realized this was definitely an album?
You'd have to ask him that. The best I can do it try and get it to a place where it's good. For me, it was when we did "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "American Skin (41 Shots)." I knew we were making something special, and then Tom Morello made them so fresh. Bruce and Jon [Landau] would always joke around and go, "More Tom!" He was very inspiring for Bruce. In my mind, it just turned it into a larger record.

I like all the drum loops you put into the music. Is that something you pushed Bruce towards these past few years?
I think that during Wrecking Ball he was fascinated by them because he hadn't really worked with them. There aren't as many on this because it's more of an organic record, and we started Wrecking Ball from scratch. I mean, if you get too hip-hop with your drum loops it just doesn't sound like Bruce. He was fascinated by the computer being a relevant tool. I told him – and I hope someone makes this quote famous – I said to him, "The computer is to pop music what the guitar is to rock & roll." It's a tool that can be used by a creative mind like Bruce Springsteen's. It allows you to change the beat to whatever you want. He became very interested in that.

Walk me through your average day of recording with Bruce at his home studio.
We get out there early with the boys, since I have a couple of engineers with me. We usually have something for Bruce we've been working on. He'll come in around 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. We'll give what we have a listen and then start blowing it up. "OK, OK, that's a good idea. Let's do this and that." He plays through his instruments and puts this and that on.

This was a little different than Wrecking Ball because this is an organic album, so we'd bring in Max to play drums. Each day he'd give me a list of things and I'd write them down. When he starts talking, I start writing. Then I try to distill what his advice is about the song to make it work for him. We play the song again and get it to a place.

Take the song "Dream Baby Dream." I had some versions of the song and he was like, "That sounds good, but it's not quite there," or "It's good. You're really close." Then the next day he'd be like, "Ah, it's terrible. Throw it out." I was like, "Come on, love this song. I gotta deliver this song for you." We went over and and over it. You never know what he's thinking. It's not like when he was 21 and he'd go 16 hours in the studio without eating. He doesn't have to do that now. He has a home studio and it's quite comfortable for him. 

Were a core group of E Street guys usually there for recording? I mean, Garry, Max and Roy . . . ?
I'm trying to think if we were ever together. I was in Los Angles and so was Roy, so we put a bunch of piano on some of the songs. Max would fly to New Jersey or we'd record him in Los Angeles. Bruce flew to Los Angles a few times, which is unusual for him. Garry lives in Nashville. Charlie lives in New York, so he'd record at the farm. Honestly, however it would work, it just worked. 

There are tracks where the band is all playing together and they are fantastic. It's the sound of a band playing, like on "Just Like Fire Would" and "The Wall." The others are the way Bruce traditionally makes a record with core members and then he overdubs over them. 

It's a pretty nice honor to be called back for a second record. He could obviously have most any producer in the world if he wanted.
Yeah, obviously.  It's part of my thank you prayers every single night. "Thank you Bruce Springsteen, for calling me back."

Do you think any of those pre-Wrecking Ball songs are going to be released someday?
I don't know. That's another practical question. But there's an amazing record there. I don't think I'm supposed to talk about what's not on the table, but there's a masterpiece there, I hope. It's all up to Bruce. I know they're going on tour in January. Hopefully sometime in 2014 they'll be interested in hearing my record.

Can you recall any song titles he cut off High Hopes?
Am I allowed to say that? Well, there's a song called "Cold Spot" I really liked, but it didn't make it. There's a song called "Hey Blue Eyes" that I also loved, but it didn't make it. Another was called "American Beauty" and there was also "Mary Mary." Those are the ones that come to mind. There might have been five more.

Anything else fans should know about this record?
I just want to reiterate that he's the only artist in history that tells a different story with every album. It's a great rock & roll record, and it stands alone. I think that's important.

I think the fans will all get it the moment they hear it.
Some are like, "Oh, it's old songs." Certain fans you just can't make happy. But they love him and it's their right. Bruce told me something once. He said, "You surprise your fans. You don't freak them out." 

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