Biography and Profile of Brendan O'Brien

Rock Music Producer

Brendan O'Brien. Mike Windle-Stringer-Getty Images

Brendan O’Brien is one of the most in-demand producers in the rock world over the last two decades. There’s a very good chance that you’ve heard at least one of the albums he’s produced – he’s assisted on records from Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine, Velvet Revolver, Incubus and Papa Roach. As befitting his low profile, O’Brien doesn’t have an overarching style, preferring to let the artist’s creative voice take center stage on his productions.

Still, the albums he’s worked on can be loosely described as sharing a no-frills, hook-heavy sound that makes them easily accessible.

Stone Temple Pilots

Brendan O’Brien’s first mega-successful record was Stone Temple Pilots’ debut, Core, in 1992. On Core, O’Brien demonstrated his skill at muscular guitar rock, which paved the way for his involvement with other celebrated ‘90s alt-rock groups. Core had one foot planted in the classic-rock traditions of groups like Led Zeppelin while the other foot rested firmly in the punk and modern-rock worlds that STP also wanted to explore. O’Brien had produced smaller records before hooking up with STP, but Core was the one that helped establish his reputation as a hitmaker. O’Brien has gone on to produce every STP record since.

Pearl Jam

Brendan O’Brien’s next commercial smash occurred with Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs. The 1994 record found the band trying to distance themselves from the slickness of their debut, Ten, and embrace a darker, edgier sound.

The result was another blockbuster for the group, cementing their status as grunge’s biggest-selling band. As with Stone Temple Pilots, O’Brien became Pearl Jam’s go-to producer for the rest of the decade, helping the band cultivate an increasingly-sophisticated style that stretched from punk to folk.

Rage Against the Machine

The third major band to work with Brendan O’Brien in the 1990s was Rage Against the Machine. O’Brien produced the group’s two No. 1 albums, Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles, which established RATM as the decade’s preeminent politically-conscious rock band. Even when frontman Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics were crude platitudes, O’Brien made sure that the songs sounded like mini-riots, highlighting Tom Morello’s metal-tinged guitar work. Rage broke up at the dawn of the new century, but O’Brien subsequently helmed Audioslave's 2006 third and final album Revelations and Morello’s Nightwatchman records, including 2008's The Fabled City.

In the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Brendan O’Brien has widened his repertoire, assisting on pop group Train’s spectacularly successful 2001 record, Drops of Jupiter, while continuing to work with major-label hard rock groups like Incubus and Papa Roach. As a testament to his versatility, he’s been responsible for Bruce Springsteen’s comeback records 2002's The Rising and 2007's  as well as helping steer heavy metal group Mastodon into the mainstream with 2009’s Crack the Skye. In 2015, O'Brien produced Chris Cornell's solo album Higher Truth – with Cornell and O'Brien playing the majority of the instruments.

Quotes

On how he got into producing: 
"I've been a musician all my life and started playing guitar as a kid. I've been in bands and played in clubs, so I just gravitated toward it and started working in studios in my 20s … I was engineering and producing on a very small scale, holding other odd jobs to pay the bills, then one thing led to another and suddenly I had a couple of records that did well and I was in business."

On his insistence on avoiding the limelight:
"There are other producers who haven't done that much who are very well known because they're very good at self-promotion. I've just never bought into that. I've gone out of my way not to be photographed and interviewed."

On his greatest talent as a producer: 
"My strength is communicating on a musical level and trying to inspire artists and get them confident in doing their work."

Trivia

  • The first album he produced was Doug, the 1988 record from the Coolies.
  • Brendan O'Brien was briefly a member of the band that would later become the Georgia Satellites.
  • He at one time had his own record label, 57 Records.