Itai Shapira is a Los Angeles-based producer, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and audio engineer who has worked with a long list of music legends and up-and-comers, both in the studio and on stage, including Kelis, Banks, Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio), Om’Mas Keith (Sa-Ra/Frank Ocean), Robin Hannibal (Rhye/Quadron), Moses Sumney, Seu Jorge, Stuart Zender (Jamiroquai/Mark Ronson), Noelle Scaggs (Fitz & The Tantrums), Coco Owino (Quadron), and many more…
Having grown up in L.A., Itai was immersed in music to lead him to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA (2004). As a multi-instrumentalist in the studio and as a performer (guitar, bass, drum programming and keys/synths), he has recently joined a thriving music production team and recording studio facility in Santa Monica called Manifest Music, spearheaded by Grammy-nominated engineer/producer Adam Berg. During this time, Itai also formed the production team and L.A. band The Decoders, alongside Todd Simon and Adam Berg, which has garnered a lot of attention on KCRW and other media outlets worldwide, including BBC Radio (Gilles Peterson & Jamie Cullum), Okayplayer.com and Wax Poetics.
With Itai having just gotten back from playing the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, I was able to catch up with him and his busy touring schedule to talk about life as a current working musician in Los Angeles and abroad:
B.C./N.H.A. – Being born and raised in the Los Angeles area, tell me about what originally got you started with a career in music.
I.S. – I was born and raised in L.A., and lived a few years in Israel as well. I didn’t really have a calling for music until I turned 13. Before that I was into sports and thought I’d be a soccer or basketball player. However, as soon as I heard the opening chords to “All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix my world came crashing down and I knew instantly that that was what I needed to do with my life. It was like an “aha” moment, and it could have happened anywhere really. The fact that I happened to grow up in L.A. and what you could call a “music capital” of the world was secondary…I just knew I had to do music for the rest of my life.
B.C./N.H.A. – Having attended both CSSSA and UCLA for music studies, how did those experiences help shape your own musical identity?
I.S. – Both CSSSA and UCLA were incredibly motivating environments for my musical pursuits at an early age. They played a major role in nurturing my hunger to create music that is breaking new ground while paying homage to the masters that came before us. I mean Kenny Burrell was the head of my department at UCLA! Gerald Wilson, the legendary big band jazz arranger, would give courses on Jazz Orchestration in lecture halls and some of the world’s finest musicians (Airto Moreira, Francisco Aguabella, and Shujaat Khan) all taught performance master classes there as well…I studied Brazilian and Afro-Cuban percussion, sitar, and jazz arranging while there and my peers are some of L.A.’s finest musicians of today. I was really lucky to be there during that time, and it definitely shaped my work ethic in music and the courage to keep challenging myself as an artist.
B.C./N.H.A. – What got you pointed into the roles of music engineer and music producer and how have those roles helped you as a musician?
I.S. – I was playing in bands in L.A. and went on a few college tours after I graduated. It was a “humble hustle” and I began to realize that in order to progress I would need to climb a bit higher up the food chain to get behind the boards and have more control over the product of the music I was creating, so gradually my passion for how records are made became stronger than the desire to just show up on stage and play. I met Grammy award-winning producer Larry Klein shortly after this realization and began apprenticing with him (and scrubbing toilets!) at a big recording studio in Hollywood. It was another “grind” but as soon as I got my hands on the console and started engineering and mixing sessions for Larry, I realized how much I really loved doing it and my curiosity grew rapidly and continues to grow, as there is so much to learn in the engineering and recording arts. Larry also taught me a lot about the old school ways of producing, which is kind of like a dying art these days…
B.C./N.H.A. – What have been some of your current studio based experiences as a producer or player?
I.S. – I have been blessed to have some pretty amazing experiences in the studio in my young career. I’ve worked on a record for Herbie Hancock (although I never met him), the legendary Sly Stone, Raul Midón, Leon Ware (producer of Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson), and more recently Rhye (Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal), Kelis, Dave Sitek, Stuart Zender (founding bassist for Jamiroquai), and a rising star from L.A. named Moses Sumney. And the list goes on!
B.C./N.H.A. – You are currently the bandleader and production point man of your group The Decoders. Tell me about the history of group came to be as it seems to be very unique.
I.S. – Ok, so while I was working with Larry Klein, I had the opportunity to meet Richard Rudolph (Larry’s studio partner at the time), the husband and original co-writer of Minnie Riperton. I flipped out when I found out who he was, because I was such a huge fan of Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton and Charles Stepney through my 90’s Hip-Hop upbringing and Tribe Called Quest’s sampling of her material back then. I became an avid collector of Minnie’s music ever since, and after our meeting, Rudolph asked me if I would like to re-record her catalog for licensing opportunities through a large publisher he works with called Music Sales, whom not only owns the publishing of Riperton’s catalog but also owns the publishing for lots of other great recorded music from the 1920’s to the present. Its like mining for treasure, and that’s where the name The Decoders came from…we’re attempting to de-code classic hit songs that have stood the test of time. It’s like a school; it’s all very educational. After Rudolph asked me to do it, I called up Todd Simon, whom I knew would be able to recapture and reinterpret the vast horn and string arrangements on these classic tunes, and Adam Berg, whose keyboard and arranging skills were a logical next step to take the project to the next level from a production standpoint as Adam is the studio owner and head engineer at Manifest Music (Decoders HQ studio).
B.C./N.H.A. – What’s on deck for The Decoders in the near future?
I.S. – We have a show (our first official L.A. club date) at NOLA’s in downtown L.A., it’s a “KCRW Presents” event. Today, August 8th, our “Volumes 1 and 2” (already released digitally) will be released on CD by Impartmaint Records in Japan. We are currently 2 singles into “Volume 3 – Adventures From Paradise: A Tribute To Minnie Riperton”. Look out for more releases from this tribute in the coming months online!
B.C./N.H.A. – Now on top of The Decoders you are an active touring member of the electro-alternative group Rhye who are gaining major popularity as we speak. Tell me about how you were lead to being a part of this up and coming group.
I.S. – Ok, its kind of a long story…I have actually known Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal (the creators of Rhye) for quite a while now. I met Milosh in 2005 while he was touring his Plug Research solo record “Meme” at Temple Bar, a legendary music venue in L.A. at the time. I knew about Robin Hannibal’s work through his project Owusu & Hannibal that was released on Ubiquity Records back in 2006. While promoting a night with KCRW DJ Aaron Byrd at Zanzibar in L.A., we had the opportunity to fly Robin’s then new group Quadron out to L.A. for their debut US performance, so we jumped on it and I had the chance to get to know Robin from that. When coincidentally, Robin and Mike started working on the Rhye material in the studio, Robin called me to record guitar on a few songs. Thomas Lea, the violinist/violist behind all the string arrangements on this record, was tapped to put the touring band together. Thomas was also doing all the string arrangements for my project, The Decoders, so he reached out to me to play bass/guitar when Rhye was ready to start touring…the rest is history.
B.C./N.H.A. – In your opinion, what are some of the keys to success for Rhye in this age when the music industry is so troubled?
I.S. – Really great PR is the key…before the Rhye record came out, there was almost a yearlong PR campaign that accelerated a few months before its release. Biz3 (the PR company who also does PR for Daft Punk, Diplo and Major Lazer among many others) did a really great job, so hats off to them! In truth, you don’t really need a record label, just a really good PR team to get the word out…and if the music has legs to stand on, you can be unstoppable. I know its sounds very optimistic but it’s true. It’s about putting together a formula that just works!
B.C./N.H.A. – You have already toured worldwide this spring/summer and have been on Major TV shows performing with Rhye, what have been some of your personal highlights so far?
KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and Jimmy Kimmel were both very thrilling performances because when you imagine the sheer number of audiences worldwide its quite staggering. While in Europe, I really fell in love with Lisbon in Portugal. Such an ideal and passionate city and culture! Montreal was quite a charmer of a city as well… Japan was also unreal. Felt like I was in a dream while walking around the streets of Tokyo…all our audiences thus far have been amazing, and in the thousands which is also quite a rush 🙂
B.C./N.H.A. – What are the plans for Rhye headed into the end of summer and into the fall?
Mike Milosh is about to release a solo record so we may be taking a brief hiatus from touring, but there has been talk of a follow up to Rhye’s album “Woman” (nothing official yet) and some spot dates in the fall (Culture Collide Festival in L.A. on October 12th). I am sure we will keep getting offers here and there, so I am very much looking forward to it all…
B.C./N.H.A. – How do you juggle all these projects? I’m sure people would want to know!
I.S. – It’s a mystery, even to myself. I can say that you have to prepare to have a lopsided social life. It’s rare for me to have a free evening where I am not in a session at the studio or playing a show somewhere, so I bring my social life to my job…it’s my only choice! I do need to take a vacation soon, just unplug ya’ know? But for now it’s full throttle with really no end in sight. Time management and a disciplined work ethic is the only way I am able to stay afloat. Eating well and exercising as well, of course!
B.C./N.H.A. – With all these great projects you’re apart of, what are you thoughts on the current standings of the music scene currently in Los Angeles? Would you say you’re part of a family or crew that’s helping to develop and nurture this scene?
I.S. – There is definitely a sizable movement of music being exported into the world from L.A., as is evident with some of my projects but also with so many others. I am really a pea in the ocean, it’s kind of staggering…but all I can say is that I am really proud to be a part of it and wish everyone the success they dream of. It’s great to see all my friends and peers making a name for them selves!
B.C./N.H.A. – Lastly, what advice can you offer to any upcoming artists and musicians coming up in the Los Angeles?
I.S. – Don’t get jaded. No one wants to work with you if you do. Be pleasant, be a team player, and enjoy what you do. That’s the whole reason we do this to begin with, right? Leave your ego at the door; it’s about the music. Have fun and work hard, the pay off comes when you least expect it. If you want immediate results you’re in the wrong business. Blood, sweat, and tears and endless hours in the studio and on the road go into the making of your career, so be grateful for it all because you’re sowing the seeds for a bright future if you can stay humble and wait your turn.
Rhye Performs “The Fall” on Jimmy Kimmel:
The Decoders Performs “Black Gold Of The Sun on KCRW:
Lastly, to see Itai perform in L.A. check out The Decoders upcoming performance at “KCRW Presents The Decoders at Steady Groovin” on Saturday, August 17th hosted at NOLA’s (in downtown L.A.) – 734 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90013 – $15 Cover, 21+, Full Bar, 10pm-2am, Tix can be purchased here.
Hope to see you there!