How Rob Kleiner Went from Starving Artist to Red-Hot Music Producer

By Jeff Siegel on June 10, 2018

I first met Rob Kleiner at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago in 2000. Kleiner was the keyboard player everyone kept talking about: an over-the-top performer who not only made it cool to be a keyboard player in an underground experimental punk band, but who also had the musical chops to roll with some of the biggest names in the business who also made their fortunes sitting in front of 88 keys.

Of course, Kleiner was never one to sit. Often riding an aluminum keyboard stand like a drunken surfer while actually playing sophisticated melodies, Kleiner typically looked like he threw back an eightball of coke and a few poppers before hitting the stage. In actuality, his excitable, trance-like behavior was not drug-induced but rather all natural. And his antics were legendary.

Despite a decade-long (and counting) career as the mastermind behind the experimental punk outfit Tub Ring, Kleiner ditched his tenure as an unapologetic road dog to set up shop in Los Angeles and ultimately become a much sought-after music producer. It’s not every day that you hear about a hardened workhorse of the underground experimental punk scene trading up to the shiny world of big-budget music production. But that’s exactly what Kleiner did.

In 2010, Kleiner was tapped to co-write a song for Goodie Mob superstar CeeLo Green. That song, “What Part of Forever,” made the soundtrack for the Twilight Saga: Eclipse. With that, Kleiner catapulted into a world where he could write and produce songs for a livinga career choice that allowed him to not only continue to work as an artist but actually get paid a decent wage to do so. Not a bad gig for a guy who used to bleed on stage and only walk away with enough cash for a tank of gas and a five-dollar per diem.

The bottom line is that Kleiner went from touring eight months a year—and not in a fancy tour bus—to spending his days collaborating with some of the world’s biggest stars, including Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Natalia Jimenez. It’s not a common story, as most big-name producers don’t seem to have the same pedigree, but given Kleiner’s success, it does beg the question: Do producers with real-world, DIY, touring experience and non-pop music resumes offer more value for big-budget acts than those who never ventured far from the studio? PRØHBTD spoke with Rob Kleiner to get his take.  

You don’t have the typical pop music producer pedigree. You didn’t get your start networking with celebrities or going to the “right parties.” You were actually on the road for what seemed like a lifetime, touring with some pretty impressive underground bands like Tub Ring and Mindless Self Indulgence. You created music that was never meant for the masses yet enjoys a cult-like following, similar to what bands like Mr. Bungle, Dog Fashion Disco and Ween have enjoyed. Going from one extreme to the other, do you think your early days on the road helped you refine your skills to do what you do today, or do you see the two as mutually exclusive?

It's funny you say "what seemed like a lifetime." It did. I tell people that was my previous life. Without a doubt everything is connected. I learned a lot about music playing live for as long as I did. In front of a crowd, you learn fast what works and what doesn't work. I take all those experiences and bring them into what I do today.

You worked on projects with some pretty big names like CeeLo Green, Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears. Do any of these artists know about your time on the road with Tub Ring and Mindless Self Indulgence? And do you think any of them would’ve handled life on the road? And I don’t mean lounging in a Prevost, eating catered dinners every night, but instead schlepping from state to state in a tour van with no air conditioning and the stench of man sweat and Taco Bell.

Virtually zero people that I work with currently know anything about my old touring bands. At most they know "Rob toured with some bands a long time ago." Touring on zero budget with no support as an indie artist was very grueling. I was literally a starving artist for about 10 years. I remember surviving off about $5 a day for a long time. There were many years we did 200 gigs a year. For me, it never felt like a sacrifice. It felt right. No doubt there are artists that come up in easier ways, but I think many of them would do the same. Certain people, it's in their blood.

Tub Ring shows were always over-the-top. And as far as keyboard players go, I’ve never seen a keyboard player in any band throw down as hard and as aggressively as you. Although the money is probably better as an “in-demand” producer, do you miss the live experience?

I get asked this a lot from people who knew me in my old life. The answer is no. It was certainly fun, and it'd certainly be fun to do it again. However, the entire time I was touring I was dreaming of the life I have now. Waking up every day and then writing and producing new music. I'm a songwriter at heart, not a performer. I literally work 10 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and I love every second of it.

Is your work all behind the scenes? Do you ever want to focus on yourself as an artist instead of helping make other artists better? I bring this question up because you did a cover of Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me.” No disrespect to Flo Rida, but your version is far superior.

Thanks. It was funny working with Flo Rida. He was cool, and I almost got up the nerve to show him my cover song, but never did. All my heart wants to do is make cool-sounding records. I thrive on being able to work with many different styles and voices. The variety is awesome. I think part of the fact that Tub Ring had no genre—or that we genre hopped—is because I wanted to write in so many different styles. Being married to just one sound for an entire career always seemed awful to me. Some days I want to make pop, other days hip-hop, maybe next week I'll want to do soul or gospel or R&B. These days I get to do it all and with the best people there are at those styles. I consider writing and producing [to be] "my art." For me it's heaven. Plus, being a recording artist yourself comes with a whole set of things that are a headache to me, like finding a label, promoting yourself, booking yourself, etc. No thank you. I get to create without any of those pressures.

You co-wrote and produced Desi Valentine’s “Never Looked so Good.” The song has received a lot of love. I know it was used for a recent GoDaddy commercial. How did you hook up with Valentine and how did this collaboration come about?

Los Angeles is truly an artistic utopia right now. There are so many people doing so many creative things here. Most people have a very open and inviting collaborative attitude. For creatives, it's truly a paradise. It's also a very small world out here. People that can help each other grow artistically seem to somehow find each other. We found each other through mutual creative networks. We both have similar tastes and both admired each other’s previous work. That's all it takes.

You did some mastering work for Broad City, one of my favorite shows. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have not only embraced cannabis culture, but have actively worked to destigmatize the negative images associated with cannabis use. Is this something that appeals to you to?

Absolutely. It seems pretty clear where the future is headed. It also seems clear to me that what I grew up being told about cannabis wasn't accurate. I think there's a lot of misinformation that needs to be undone, and it's great to be able to find the truth through art.

Do you find cannabis helps with your creative process?

I've met a ton of artists and creative people who thrive on cannabis. They kick into high gear with it. It's awesome to see! My internal chemistry is different, so for me, I need to steer clear during creative hours.

Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which would you say has been the most rewarding?

All my songs and projects are like my children: I love them all, truly. Any further "rewards" I get from them just come from the outside. Anything that gets heard.

So I’m thinking about starting a death metal klezmer band. What would it take to get a guy like you on my team?

Only if you join my Jamaican trap yodel band in return!

Sure, but only if I can consume cannabis during the creative process.

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