First week of December, drummer Andy Thompson was on tour with his friend/collaborator Jeremy Messersmith’s band when he got an email from his friend/collaborator and Grammy-winning producer Dan Wilson:
“Hey, by the way, Taylor [Swift] is up for Album of the Year, so that means we are, too.”
Meaning, of course, that Thompson, who has become Wilson’s go-to production and engineering partner over the past few years, is one of several producers and engineers who had a hand in Swift’s “Red,” which is nominated for four Grammys Sunday, including Best Country Album and Album of the Year.
“I’m super excited,” said Thompson by phone from the road. “I’m coming home Saturday, and I’ll be there for 24 hours and my wife [freelance writer Melissa Thompson] and I are flying out and we’re staying with Dan [in Los Angeles] and going to the whole shebang. I’ve never been to anything like that before. I bought a new skinny black suit, and I’m hoping to look pretty spiffy.”
Since 2005, Wilson has recruited Thompson to play in bands and collaborate on recording projects via Pro Tools over the Internet. The two artists are rarely in the same room when they craft a track, as was the case with their contributions to “Red,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, spent double-digit weeks on top of Billboard’s Country chart, and has sold an estimated 5 million copies worldwide.
“She worked with a string of producers on this album, and she just lets them do their thing, so Dan got to do his thing and it worked out really well,” said Thompson. “I’ll ask him, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And he’ll be like, ‘Whatever.’ So I played a bunch of guitars, keyboards, did some drum programming. I just do what I think sounds cool and send it back to him, and then he’s got an engineer in L.A. who kind of helps him turn that into arrangements and he gets a bunch more overdubs in L.A. So that’s kind of how the work flows.
“I worked really well as I heard it. When I can kind of camp out and I’ve got all my instruments around me, I can work really fast. I can pretty quickly get in the zone. We did those two Taylor Swift songs, and didn’t hear back for a long time. She had a lot of songs in the running for that record. And then we heard that ‘Treacherous’ was going to be the second track on the record and then months and months later, heard about the Grammy thing, so it’s pretty fun.”
Thompson grew up in Edina and attended Edina High School, and from an early age studied classical piano and violin. When he was 14 years old he got an electric guitar and started learning Led Zeppelin covers, while simultaneously playing drums in the high school band and studying jazz at the MacPhail Center for Music. He studied classical composition and computer science at the University of Michigan, where he moonlit as a drummer in jazz, big band, and rock groups in and around Ann Arbor.
He returned to Minneapolis in 2002 and “started to figure out how to make a living doing music,” which has meant playing in bands with everybody from singer/songwriter Robert Skoro to hip-hop stalwarts Heiruspecs, teaching songwriting and composition at McNally Smith College of Music, and producing CDs by Twin Cities songsmiths such as Nathan Elliot, Julia Douglass, and Natalie Lovejoy.
“I look for people whose songs speak to me,” said Thompson. “That’s very important: When I hear it I think, ‘Oh yeah, I could bring something to this.’ And then it’s just distilling the song to its essence and building it back up. I have a background in orchestration and arranging, but also I’m a total computer nerd. I’m pretty fast at getting sounds and working with synthesizers and stuff like that.
“Dessa just hired me to some sheet-music phrasing for a vinyl release she’s doing, and I haven’t done something like that in a long time – sitting down with Sibelius and notated something, and I could’ve done it for days, just getting inside it like that. Dan just sent me three new tracks, so I’m pretty busy. I’m just picking projects I enjoy, and that’s kind of the idea: to be at a point where you can just choose to work on projects that inspire you, that’s the goal.”
Oddly enough, Thompson will meet Swift herself for the first time at the Grammy awards show in Los Angeles. In similar under-the-radar fashion, the country-pop queen’s Minneapolis-based producer/engineer hasn’t exactly been trumpeting the latest accolades for his work.
“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like talk about things in case I jinx it,” laughed Thompson. “I’ve kept pretty quiet about the (Grammy) thing. I told my family, some friends, and that’s about it. But Jeremy tweeted it, so … I don’t know. We’ll see.”
One thing’s for certain no matter what happens Sunday night: If his recent past is any indication, Andy Thompson will be busy making music the day after the Grammys, and for many days to come.