Georgetown graduates do trials, not Billboard hits. Tell that to John Alagia and he’ll laugh out loud, because he’s been the mastermind behind nearly a dozen, recent hit singles.
In fact, you can dub him the alt-pop answer to hip-hop magnate Kanye West. Both producers grew up in the Midwest, majored in English, collaborated with A-list musicians, sold millions of records and started their own record label. But the similarities end here.
Alagia seems much more charming and grounded, if not self-deprecating, despite being the driving force behind Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Liz Phair and Lifehouse.
“I was supposed to be a lawyer,” he laughed while on a break at The Village Recorder in West L.A. “I was going to take over my father’s law firm — and the grooming began early on — but I couldn’t help but think about the idea of playing music and making music.”
Growing up in rural Kentucky, Alagia, 41, always had an affinity for musical instruments. He played in bands all throughout grade school, high school and college, eventually forming a band of his own during the late ‘80s called Derryberry & Alagia.
While studying at Georgetown University, he and recording buddy Doug Derryberry set out to master the art of producing. The two often opened for other bands and later invited them to recording sessions that were really opportunities to hone their mixing and engineering skills.
“It was something we had to learn, because we didn’t want to go into professional recording studios and spend all our money,” Alagia said. “So we built our own studio, and all the money we made (from selling and recording records), we threw back into it.”
By the time the recording duo released its third album, “Reinvigorating The Wheel,” in 1992, Alagia had a chance encounter with Dave Matthews, who was still starting his career.
“I met (him) at a bar, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Alagia said. “I was a fan right away. He was playing ‘Satellite’ at the time. It was so fresh. I’d never heard the blend of instruments — the fiddle and saxophone. It was a unique sound, and all I could think about was, ‘How can I get this on the tape somehow?’
“We started a friendship in 1992, and Dave just started coming to my home studio in Virginia, putting together little ideas. He’d play a whole bunch of things, and we’d try to piece them together.”
Like an exponential curve, Alagia’s producer stint took off. His production on Dave Matthews Band’s “Remember Two Things (1993)” went platinum (1 million copies sold). This was followed by “Under the Table & Dreaming (1994),” which was certified six-times platinum with hit songs “Ants Marching” and “Satellite.” And by 1996, it was same old, same old. Again, DMB went six-times platinum with another album, “Crash.” Five more albums went double platinum soon thereafter.
Fast-forward to 2001, and there’s more gold … two Grammy’s even for “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance” and “Song of the Year.” Having collaborated with a then-unknown John Mayer, Alagia propelled his award-winning album “Room For Squares” to triple platinum status.
Today, Lifehouse’s “You And Me” graces the airwaves, while another Mayer-Alagia project is in the works. Yet regardless of the mind-bending record sales and instant hit singles, Alagia has no qualms about divulging any type of “secret formula.”
“A lot of it starts with a being a good listener and being really patient,” he said. “Even getting to that point, you have to really believe in the artist you’re working with. And if you don’t have any kind of connection with them — if you don’t believe in them — then you have no business being in the studio with them. You’ve got to be head over heels with the people you’re working with, creatively and vibe-wise to a certain extent.”
Mechanically, Alagia thinks about the best way to support a song, fine-tuning the tempo to suit the lyrics.
“I’m a knuckle-head when it come to the rhythm section — the bass and drums,” he said. “It’s really important to address how their patterns are going to be laid out for their foundation. It all has to feel good in the end.”
And what does this music tycoon, now Hollywood resident, have to show for all his mega-success?
“I drive a soccer-mom car — an old Volvo station wagon,” he said. “All my friends think it’s ridiculous, me being a record producer. I don’t care though. I love the sound system. That’s why I bought it. I love it.”
This article originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.