When music producer Jeff Bhasker — the mastermind behind fun.’s breakthrough — had thoughts of becoming a musician, the high school student in the jazz band figured he would play keyboard for a talented singer looking to carve a space in the musical universe.
“In the jazz world you become a sideman, say with like Miles Davis. You become Miles Davis’ keyboard player and then you learn from Miles, and then you have your own group,” he explained.
The eager musician was hoping to have a breakthrough like Herbie Hancock did with Davis. And Bhasker did — but with Kanye West.
The Berklee College of Music graduate began playing piano for the multiplatinum rapper in 2008. And then he became West’s musical director. And then the two went into the recording studio.
“I learned so much from being around that moment and grabbing on to the rocket. It happened really fast,” said Bhasker, who produced several tracks on West’s albums, “808′s & Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
And in between those West records, Bhasker’s name — and drum-filled sound — popped up on credible liner notes: He produced for Alicia Keys. And Jay-Z. And Beyonce. And Bruno Mars.
And now the producer is really having fun — thanks to the band fun.
Crafting anthemic jams like “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” for the New York-based trio — who released their underwhelming debut in 2009 — not only made fun. a household name, it made Bhasker even bigger. Now the hitmaker is nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Non-Classical Producer of the Year and album of the year for helming all 11 tracks on fun.’s sophomore release, “Some Nights.”
“First and foremost, it’s about hearing for him. He’s not out to make a quick buck,” said Nate Ruess, the lead singer of fun. “You meet a lot of producers, especially in the pop world, where they don’t have any emotional attachment to the music. I’ve even sat in like writing sessions with people where it’s just lifeless, and Jeff is the exact opposite. He brings emotion. He only wants to do things that move him.”
The Grammys stage isn’t unfamiliar to Bhasker — he’s already won two trophies for Best Rap Song in 2009 and 2011 for co-writing Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” and West’s “All of the Lights.” This year, he’s also nominated for record and song of the year for his work on fun.’s No. 1 hit “We Are Young.” The band earned six nominations — including Best New Artist — and are tied for most nominations at the Feb. 10 awards show.
“The whole time we were making the album I really, every day I was saying, ‘We’re making Album of the Year,”‘ Bhasker said of producing “Some Nights.”
Ruess said he recruited Bhasker to executive produce his band’s entire album because of the producer’s impressive resume and style. Bhasker helped usher in West’s Auto-Tune-flavored, melodic and synth-pop sound in 2008, co-producing songs like “Love Lockdown” and “Paranoid.” Months after fun. released its album, Taylor Swift worked with Bhasker on two songs for her best-selling “Red” album, which takes the singer even further from her country roots to pop domination.
Oh, and the Rolling Stones called Bhasker, too.
“It’s so tricky because you don’t want to mess with the Rolling Stones and the essence of what they do,” said Bhasker, who produced “radio mixes” of the band’s new jams, “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot.” “But I tried to bring a little bit of a contemporary twist to it.”
Mars, who used to play live with Bhasker when they met years ago, also enlisted the hitmaker to co-produce the majority of his recently released sophomore album, “Unorthodox Jukebox.”
“My brother would play drums and I’d play guitar, and I would beg Jeff — this amazing, incredible piano player, producer, musical genius — to come perform with me so I could make this 100 bucks, and he would drive all the way from Santa Monica to the Valley to do these gigs with me,” Mars said of his relationship with Bhasker years ago. “And we’d play covers and have fun and get drunk.”
Mars said Bhasker — whom he calls a “mad scientist” of a producer — was one of the first people he collaborated with when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career.
“We were both kind of wet behind the ears. And then one day he called me and was like, ‘I’m going on tour with Kanye West’ and I was like, ‘What about the band bro? What about the band?’ He said, ‘F your band,”‘ Mars recalled in laughs. “And it’s nice to reunite and do what we never did — which was finish a song.”
Indian-born Bhasker, who grew up in New Mexico, said he decided in high school that he was going to pursue music professionally, though his family was full of doctors and was unsure about his choice. Bhasker says he — and his relatives — are happy he chose a musical route, and he’ll get to show even more of himself when he releases his solo debut, “Born on the 4th of July,” this year. He performs under the moniker Billy Kraven and says the album’s theme is about soldiers, “what they have to face when they go to war and the concept of death.”
“I really got sick of writing songs about love and girls, which is the great basis of it, but something in me wanted to write what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if anything, just to have a conversation about it,” explained Bhasker, who said he drew inspiration from listening to NPR and watching the HBO series “Generation Kill.”
He says he’ll likely release the album independently and that he’s already started work on a second album. He could even call in some of his famous friends for assistance — or not.
“I do have Nate on one song and Bruno singing background in a very subtle way,” he said. “But I think I’m just going to keep it pure.”