Special K

February 1, 2009


For people in the business of recording music, there are few greater honors than a Grammy nomination for producer of the year, especially when they find themselves on a list that also includes Rick Rubin (who got the nod for working on 2008 releases by Metallica, Neil Diamond and Weezer), Nigel Godrich (Radiohead), Danger Mouse (the Black Keys, Beck and Gnarls Barkley) and will.i.am (Estelle, Sergio Mendes, Usher, Chris Brown and Fergie).

“It came as quite a surprise,” says South Side native John Karkazis, better known on the rock scene as Johnny K, the producer listed on recent albums by the Plain White T’s, Staind, Black Tide and 3 Doors Down. “I mean, I knew I had a good year, and I was excited and proud of the work I did. But when I got the text message [about the nomination], I remember looking down the list at the other producers and thinking, ‘I had some good records, but … oh, man!’”

Though most music fans know the names of legends such as Phil Spector, George Martin and Dr. Dre, many remain uncertain about exactly what record producers do. That’s no surprise: While their core duty is to see that the artist makes the best recording he or she is capable of, at various times, the producer is an audio engineer, co-songwriter, arranger, accountant, business manager, ruthless taskmaster and sensitive therapist.

“I think I’m definitely another band member — an unbiased band member, an additional musician, an additional perspective, an engineer and a song arranger,” Johnny K says. “I always contribute to the writing — the harmonies or arrangements — whether I get credit for it or not, and I’m also definitely

motivating [the artists] to get good performances. Some producers are hands-off guys; they just sit there. But there is something about the way that I like to work where I let the guys do their thing, then listen to it and think about who they are and what they are trying to say, and motivate them to get to that next level.

“You have to have good taste and good direction. It doesn’t matter how good the record sounds if you don’t have some sort of insight: ‘Is this going to work? Do people care about what you’re doing? Do people want to hear this?’ ”

Like most producers, the 43-year-old Karkazis arrived at this position of good-taste guru via a circuitous path. He grew up in Mount Greenwood, began playing guitar at age 11 and eventually joined several bands that gigged at small clubs like Lounge Ax and the Empty Bottle. (One group called Ace of Clouds included his sister, and another featured Stella Katsoudas from Sister Soleil — “I was in these bands with the girls, so I was the one who basically loaded all of the equipment!”) At the University of Wisconsin, he fiddled with a four-track TASCAM Portastudio, “making up songs with my friends, goofball stuff.” But he studied economics, not music, and after graduating, he found himself working at his family’s coffee shop, Karson’s Restaurant and Pancake House on 95th Street in Evergreen Park.

“I was miserable: I was working at the restaurant and living at home and I was like, ‘I’m out of college now, this is ridiculous!’” Drawing on his business training, he took advantage of a loan for recent grads, bought a town house in the suburbs, quickly realized he hated it, sold that property at a profit and invested what he earned in another house and some recording equipment that he could use to tape friends’ bands.

“It was a real cheap, crusty, run-down dump in Evergreen Park — I bought it close to the restaurant so that I could do recording sessions and still run back and forth to work — but in that house I cut my first gold record. It was on the ‘Varsity Blues’ soundtrack and it was a song called ‘Fly’ by Loudmouth. I demoed those guys for two years, and then they got signed and dropped me like a hot potato.”

This was the first of many lessons in the “record producer’s school of hard knocks,” Johnny K says. “I used to work hard and fast and put in really long hours, but I really had a good time doing it. It had its ups and downs: I had the crappiest local bands ask why their music didn’t sound as good as Metallica’s ‘Black Album’ after we spent a whole two days on their demo, and it was like, ‘Well, let’s see: Your budget wasn’t $2 million and we’re recording in my house!' But I made good recordings back in the day, too, and I think that coming from the South Side, it just meant I had to work harder.”

Johnny K’s first big break came courtesy of angst-ridden South Side hard-rockers Disturbed. Unlike the members of Loudmouth, when Dave Draiman and his band were signed to a major-label deal, they fought with the executives in order to continue working with the producer who recorded their demos. Disturbed’s 2000 debut “The Sickness” was a hit that has sold more than 4 million copies, and Johnny K was on his way.

In addition to continuing with Disturbed on “Believe” (2002) and “Ten Thousand Fists” (2005), the producer’s resume includes albums by Kill Hannah, Drowning Pool, Machine Head, SOiL and the recordings that won his Grammy nod: “The Illusion of Progress” by Staind, the self-titled fourth album by 3 Doors Down, “Big Bad World” by the Plain White T’s and “Light from Above” by Black Tide.

Along the way, Johnny K moved his recording gear from the house in Evergreen Park to a bigger industrial space near Bucktown and finally to a dream location in a former brewery in an industrial area south of the Loop. Now christened Groovemaster Studio, in addition to the state-of-the-art equipment, the 40,000-square-foot space boasts several gorgeously appointed recording and rehearsal rooms, a chill-out space complete with an antique bar and a hot tub, views of the skyline — and a vintage Cadillac wired into the mixing board, “so when you want to give a recording ‘the car listen,’ you literally walk out, sit in the car and listen!”

Now Johnny K is gearing up to attend the Grammys in Los Angeles next Sunday. “My girlfriend is shopping for Grammy dresses now, and it’s like a full-time job,” he says, laughing. But he pauses when he’s asked about what else he’d like to accomplish.

“That’s a tough one. I would hope to not be like, ‘OK, this is my one chance to get acknowledged and that’s the end of it.’ I would love to make a Metallica record. I would love to make a Coldplay record. I really feel like I want to be the best producer in the world. I mean, who is that guy now? Rick Rubin? I do study other people’s careers and what they bring to the table, and I assess what I have to offer bands and think, ‘It’s feasible.’ At this point, my name is on a short list with his, and I think I’ve had a longer, more difficult road to get there.”

The Grammy nomination “is the biggest thing that has ever happened in my life,” Johnny K adds. “To be acknowledged among these people — to be a Chicago guy from the South Side listed with these people who’ve made records with Radiohead and Metallica — I can’t even describe what that feels like.”