Luke is a thin, handsome, 36-year-old guy with an alert manner but a laid-back demeanor. He’s produced a lot of hip-hop, but now he works primarily with spunky female solo artists, with whom he seems to have an easy rapport. Once, while producing with Avril Lavigne, he asked her to pepper-spray him, just for fun. (“It’s actually not as bad as you’d think. Getting tased is a little different.”) When we meet for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, a short drive from Luke’s house in the Hills, he arrives wearing white flip-flops, light-gray jeans, and a pink T-shirt with a record player on it. He’s a lifelong New Yorker, transplanted to L.A. two years ago; refreshingly, he’s one of the few expats I’ve encountered who doesn’t pay wistful lip service to the culture and pace of the East Coast. “The New York I grew up in is gone,” he says bluntly. He bought a $4.69 million house that overlooks the vast canyon of L.A. and that he’s currently remodeling; right now, there’s a mattress on the ground, a slew of framed ascap songwriting awards—he was ascap’s 2010 Songwriter of the Year—leaning on a wall, and an obstacle course of keyboards on the living-room floor. At the Marmont, when he spots a particular light fixture that appeals to him, he snaps a photo on his cell phone. “That’s kind of cool: nice and simple,” he says. He’s very detail-oriented—“I analyze songs, think about what made them work, why they did work. I think about that all the time”—as well as a proud traditionalist; as everyone else obsesses over ringtones and digital downloads, he believes strongly in radio and record charts. He can rattle off the current chart position of any of his singles and says “the biggest driving force to having a hit song in this country is radio. Absolutely.” So far, his devotion to old-time religion has served him well. When we leave, he asks to borrow a couple of bucks so he can tip the valet (Luke drives a bling-free Prius), as he only has a wad of hundreds stuffed in the front pocket of his jeans.
Lukasz Gottwald originally wanted to be a drummer. But his parents—“understandably,” he says—didn’t want a drum kit in the house. So at 13 he took up his older sister’s guitar. He grew up in a garment-district loft with an architect father and an interior-designer mother who had a taste for the Stones, Ornette Coleman, and free jazz. Luke listened to Madonna and Run-DMC, but despite his natural proficiency with the guitar (“I was pretty dexterous”), he was never interested in starting a band or becoming a rock star. He was more of a technician. He’d listen to bad music over and over, if there was a guitar part he admired, so he could figure out what the guitar player was doing right.
After attending the Manhattan School of Music, he landed a job as a house guitarist on Saturday Night Live in 1996, picked up supplemental gigs playing on jingles, and spent his nights D.J.-ing and working on remixes. He was making a good living but soon started thinking, I don’t want to do background music. I want to make songs that reach millions of people. One night while D.J.-ing a house party, he met Max Martin, the Swedish producer of several huge hits for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Luke was drafted to give him a tour of New York clubs, and they struck up a friendship. “But that was the extent of our relationship,” Luke says. “Knowing how big he was, the last thing I was going to do was be like, ‘Hey dude, will you check out my tape?’ ”
Nonetheless, Martin became a mentor and then a collaborator, enlisting Luke to play on a few tracks. In 2004, they co-wrote a song called “Since U Been Gone” and sent it to Kelly Clarkson, an American Idol winner who’d had trouble establishing a post-Idol identity. Much of her music had been syrupy ballads or generic pop anthems, but Luke and Martin had the idea to pair her with an angry breakup song full of crunchy grunge guitars. “I had played that song for a lot of other people who passed on it,” Luke says. “I tried to get it to Pink, but I couldn’t reach her. But Kelly Clarkson was unexpectedly the exact right artist.” The song, a huge hit, represented a breakthrough (for Clarkson); a comeback (for Martin); and an attention-grabbing calling card for a producer who, during a hip-hop session with Mos Def, had picked up a nickname: “Dr. Luke.”
“Tell me if this is too loud,” Dr. Luke says, jacking the volume to a level you might describe as bowel-loosening. We’re in his studio and he’s cued up one of his latest tracks, “Dynamite,” by the young British singer Taio Cruz. As he listens, his leg moves rhythmically, almost spasmodically, beneath his desk. With his face a few feet from the now-throbbing speakers, drowning in sound, he’s like a man returned to his natural element: Aquaman in the ocean or Captain Ahab in the salt spray at the prow of his ship.