Born c. 1954; married Suzanne Vega (a singer-songwriter); children: Ruby. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
Mitchell Froom has been a pivotal force behind some of the most acclaimed albums of the 1980s and 1990s, yet his is hardly a household name to those outside the music industry. A veteran keyboard player, his talents as a studio musician can be heard on the records of a variety of performers. But it is as a producer that Froom is best known among industry insiders.
Froom has served as producer for artists as diverse as the Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and Suzanne Vega. "Cut the crap; get rid of extraneous elements right away," Froom described his method of production in an interview with Rolling Stone writer Bud Scoppa. "Keep as many generic elements out as possible. Make sure the song is right and understand the emotional level on which it works. And then, to make a song interesting, I like to think that there's the 'wild element'--what Brian Jones did for the early Stones--where you go for something unusual, but it still works."
Froom hails from Northern California and like many a musician, studied classical piano as a youngster. He also played the pipe organ, which one day he would help reintroduce as a quirky instrument of choice in late 1980s studio sessions. Froom became increasingly seduced by rock music, however, and as an adult relocated to Los Angeles to be closer to the music business. He played keyboards on one of rock musician Ronnie Montrose's solo projects in 1982, but his first real break came later that year when Froom was hired to score an artsy, X-rated independent film called Cafe Flesh. He was paid $2,000 for a week's worth of work that entailed putting the soundtrack together on an eight-track recorder with a drummer. In 1984, Bob Biggs, president of Slash Records, liked what he heard in Cafe Flesh so much that he decided to release Froom's score as an album.
The resulting Key of Cool, Froom's only solo release, was a minor success and landed Froom another production job. This time it was a little-known Boston bar band on the Slash label, a bluesy, Hispanic rock ensemble known as the Del Fuegos. Both the label and Biggs were in a quandary about how to record the group--they feared the Del Fuegos studio sound would not be as thrilling as their live performances. Froom cut a demo with the musicians, which led to their debut album, 1984's The Longest Day. Slash was thrilled with the resulting sound; also impressive, Froom had done the job quickly and within budget. He was hired to produce the Del Fuegos' 1985 follow-up effort, Boston, Mass.
His association with Slash Records helped Froom obtain more studio work as a keyboard player. Noted musician and producer T-Bone Burnett tapped Froom to play on the single "Will the Wolf Survive?," an early hit from another group of Latino rockers--Los Lobos. At the time, Burnett was their producer. Froom also played keyboards on several tracks for Elvis Costello's lauded 1986 King of America release, produced by Burnett, former Plimsoul Peter Case's self-titled solo album, the best-selling 1985 release from the Bangles, Different Light, then Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams from the BoDeans, and 1985's Downtown from Marshall Crenshaw.
Froom's skills as a keyboardist so impressed Costello that the British rocker invited him to join the Confederates, who were backing Costello on his 1986 tour. Although Froom had a commitment to produce a third Del Fuegos album, he accepted anyway; he would fly back to Los Angeles after performances to work with the Del Fuegos. "The combination of my respect for Elvis as an artist and that band being the greatest group of musicians that I know of made it impossible to say no," Froom told Billboard's Paula Parisi. Froom and T-Bone Burnett would work together on a number of other well-received projects after Costello's King of America album, including the aforementioned BoDeans and Marshall Crenshaw discs. Froom also became a frequent collaborator with Los Angeles recording engineer Tchad Blake.
Richard Thompson is another performer who has utilized Froom's talents for a series of recordings. The British folksinger and guitarist, formerly with Fairport Convention, often uses unusual instruments in his repertoire. Froom has managed to translate his exceptional sound onto recordings such as 1986's Daring Adventures, 1991's Rumor and Sigh, and Mirror Blue, Thompson's 1994 release. For Daring Adventures, Thompson and his musicians used medieval instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and shawm, as well as standard folk fare like fiddles and accordions.
At the time of Daring Adventures's release in 1986, Thompson told Billboard's Parisi that Froom "approaches things from a musician's point of view, so he contributes enormously to the arrangements and was instrumental in selecting the musicians." Eight years later, in a Stereo Review critique of Mirror Blue, writer Parke Puterbaugh praised Froom's expertise calling the album the duo's "best work to date." Puterbaugh nonetheless noted that on some tracks, "Froom's production signature--a dry sound with a dull finish marked by percussion that means to be unconventional but sometimes feels contrived--tosses a wet blanket over Thompson's passion," but concluded that with the combination of Thompson's "daring and Froom's production, Mirror Blue manages to be both timeless and up-to-date."
As he added many more successful albums to his production credits, Froom returned to the arena that had given gave him his first break, scoring films. In 1987 he did the nearly all-instrumental soundtrack for the oddball release Slam Dance, a movie featuring Tom Hulce, Harry Dean Stanton, and Adam Ant. He told Scoppa of the score in Rolling Stone, "I classify it as 'Debussy hires James Brown's horn section and records in South America.'" Froom also scored an episode for the avant-garde children's television series Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
In 1992 Froom produced songwriter Suzanne Vega's release 99.9, a collaboration that led to marriage; the two have a daughter, born in 1994. Another successful debut in 1994 for Froom was the Elvis Costello album Brutal Youth. The work, which reunited Costello with his original band the Attractions, was co-produced by Froom and Costello; Stereo Review's Puterbaugh termed it "as dense and unrelenting as anything Costello's ever recorded." Froom's longtime affiliation with Los Lobos led to a related undertaking that year--the self-titled 1994 debut from the Latin Playboys. The release, a side project with Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Louis Perez, featured Froom and Blake as players as well as producer and engineer.
Froom's keyboard skills are often utilized on the spot in recording sessions. Billboard writer Parisi queried Froom as to when he actually stepped out from behind the mixing board. "Most of what I do in terms of music is atmospheric and subtle," he replied. "I don't come in with a musician's ego, saying 'Boy, would I love to play on that track.' It's more like there's a job to be done, and it's a lot simpler if I do it than to bring in another personality." When not behind the keyboards himself in the studio, Froom professes to a prejudice for recording musicians who have little experience on the instrument. "Often the best keyboardists for a given piece of music are the people who can barely play," Froom told Keyboard writer Paul Tingen. "You hear an individuality and emotion that is deeply rooted in the songs they've written. There's also a sense of struggle and amateurism in their performance that can provide a good tension to a track."
Froom has also worked extensively with Australian pop ensemble Crowded House. For their 1986 self-titled release, Froom guested on electric piano and Hammond organ as well as producing. His expertise on the latter dates back to his youth and resulted in an "astonishingly contemporary effect," declared Parisi in Billboard. Indeed, Froom often prefers vintage instruments to the newer, high-tech models. He owns an extensive collection of electric pianos and organs, Mellotrons, and other early synthesizers. Froom contends that older instruments present artists with unusual challenges and seem to bring out their strengths.
Despite his preference for older equipment, Froom asserts that the new computer-driven technology is not wholly responsible for the chilly sound sometimes found in modern music. "It's ... the human application that too often yields such dismal results," he told Keyboard's Tingen. "If more musicians would utilize the capacity for spontaneity these things provide, they might come up with weirder musical hybrids of more unusual arrangements." Froom does see the new technology eventually bringing the music industry fresh blood and fresh sounds. "Record companies aren't so sure anymore about what it takes to become successful," he remarked. Maybe some kid in Idaho will plug his fuzztone into his grandmother's home organ and make a great roaring noise that will be heard around the world."
by Carol Brennan
Mitchell Froom's Career
Contributed keyboards to Ronnie Montrose album Gamma 3, 1982; scored film Cafe Flesh, and released soundtrack as Key of Cool, Slash, 1984; produced Del Fuegos debut album, The Longest Day, Slash, 1984; scored film Slam Dance, 1987; member of Latin Playboys, 1994. Has served as session keyboardist and producer for numerous artists, including Crowded House, Richard Thompson, the Pretenders, Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos.
- Selective Works
- (With Ronnie Montrose) Gamma 3, Elektra, 1982.
- The Key of Cool, Slash, 1984.
- (With Latin Playboys), Latin Playboys (also producer), Slash/Warner Bros., 1994.
- As producer Del Fuegos, The Longest Day, Slash, 1984.
- Del Fuegos, Boston, Mass., Slash, 1985.
- Crowded House, Crowded House, Capitol, 1986.
- Richard Thompson, Daring Adventures, Capitol, 1986.
- Crowded House, Temple of Low Men, Capitol, 1988.
- Crowded House, Woodface, Capitol, 1991.
- Richard Thompson, Rumor and Sigh, Capitol, 1991.
- Elvis Costello, Mighty Like a Rose, Warner Bros., 1991.
- Pretenders, Packed, Warner Bros., 1991.
- Los Lobos, Kiko, Slash, 1992.
- Suzanne Vega, 99.9, A&M, 1992.
- Peter Case, Six Pack of Love, Geffen, 1992.
- American Music Club, Mercury, Reprise, 1993.
- Elvis Costello, Brutal Youth, Warner Bros., 1994.
- Richard Thompson, Mirror Blue, Capitol, 1994.
- Ron Sexsmith, Ron Sexsmith, Interscope, 1995.
August 2, 2005: Froom's album, A Thousand Days, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_1/index.jsp, August 9, 2005.
- Billboard, November 22, 1986; March 12, 1994.
- Keyboard, April 1993.
- People, May 23, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, December 4, 1986.
- Schwann Spectrum, Winter 1994/95.
- Stereo Review, May 1994; June 1994; July 1994.