It’s 2,500 miles from Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, to Nashville. But for producer Joey Moi, the distance from his tiny hometown to Music City is measured in hits, not miles. While the 37-year-old’s path — from producing Nickelback smashes like “Photograph” and “Rock Star” north of the border to recording with Jake Owen and Florida Georgia Line south of the Mason-Dixon — may seem like a twisted one, it makes perfect sense to him.
Moi specializes in populist music that “rocks people’s balls off,” he says. “I just love the larger-than-life version of a song. Drum fills you can play on your steering wheel. You can imagine pyro going off: ‘I can see flames coming up behind the band right now!’ That’s the brand I always wanted to create.”
Moi has firebombed Billboard’s Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts during the past two years with his rock and country hybrid, producing a slew of No. 1s, including Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” and “Alone With You” (co-produced with Rodney Clawson and Tony Brown), as well as Florida Georgia Line’s “Get Your Shine On,” “Round Here” and “Cruise.” The lattermost spent a staggering 24 weeks atop Hot Country Songs, the longest tenure in the chart’s 69-year history. Not bad for someone who didn’t start dabbling in country professionally until 2009.
“We call him ‘the Wizard’ because his brain is so amazing,” says Brian Kelley, who, along with Tyler Hubbard, make up Florida Georgia Line. “He can create these sounds — the things he can do on the computer, the things he hears in his head. He’s always pushing for better. He takes our songs and makes them huge.”
It’s a sound that has the potential to transform country music and replace its current obsession with dirt roads and pickup trucks with sunny, wide-open songs built around in-your-face drums, massive hooks and ringing,arena-rock guitars. Growing up in his small 3,000-person hometown in Northeastern British Columbia, Moi rocked out to AC/DC and Metallica — until CMT came to Tumbler Ridge and changed everything. “I would just sit and watch CMT after school,” he recalls. “I had my guitar and would try to learn all the songs. It had all these American country songs that we didn’t have access to. I remember just being like, ‘Whoa!’ It was a whole other level of music that we got exposed to.”
While attending CDIS School of Engineering and Sound in Vancouver, Moi befriended Chad Kroeger and the other members of Nickelback, well before their breakthrough album, 2001’s “Silver Side Up,” which Moi engineered. The pair honed their craft at the school’s studio, which Moi had access to between midnight and 8 a.m. “Chad and I would record bands in the middle of the night,” he says. “We were basically cutting our teeth and learning how to make records sound as good as we could.”
Moi’s relationship with Nickelback evolved from engineering to co-producing such hit albums as “The Long Road,” “Here and Now” and “Dark Horse,” the lattermost alongside his hero, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, whose big, open style, heard on blockbusters from AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain, Moi emulates. “It was very special to be able to sit next to him for seven months and pick his brain: ‘Remember when you did ‘Back in Black?’ How’d you get that snare drum sound?'” Moi recalls.
Moi’s work with Nickelback grew to include songwriting, and he went on to write hits for Daughtry and My Darkest Days — making Moi a so-called quadruple threat: songwriter, producer, engineer and mixer. Moi says this gives him an edge in the studio. “It’s like if your car is broken down and you’re a mechanic — you can look under the hood and you understand exactly what everything does,” he says. “I can look under the hood of a song and know what piece is broken and how to fix it.”
Songwriting is also what led Moi to Nashville. In 2008, top country writer Brett James came to Vancouver to write with Kroeger and Moi. James wanted to pen rock songs, but they persuaded him to collaborate on a country tune as well. The result was “It’s a Business Doing Pleasure With You,” the first single from Tim McGraw’s 2009 album, “Southern Voice,” which reached No. 13 on Hot Country Songs.
Around the same time, Dallas Smith, lead singer for Canadian alternative rock band Default, told Moi he wanted to make a country record. The pair headed to Nashville for two weeks, armed with a schedule jammed with writing appointments. “We got to write with everybody and, not having any frame of reference, we didn’t really know if it was an A-list writer or a D-list writer,” Moi says. “We were just bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and super-excited to be in Nashville.”
Fortuitously, one of Moi’s songwriting blind dates was with Craig Wiseman, Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins of publishing company Big Loud Shirt. “We all realized immediately that we were cut from the same cloth,” he says. Wiseman, writer of such hits as McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” and Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime,” approached Moi about signing a publishing deal with Big Loud Shirt. Moi agreed, and started coming to Nashville to write every two weeks or so. Soon after, he, Wiseman, Kevin “Chief” Zaruk and Seth England formed Big Loud Mountain Records, which comprises a label, publishing, production and management companies.
Moi officially landed his first work with a country artist when Big Loud Shirt writer Clawson recruited him to produce a song he’d penned for Owens. But Moi’s transition from his usual rock recording methods to the Nashville way was a bit jarring. “We’d spend days and days, sometimes a month, on one song, building and writing it,” he says of his earlier rock work in Vancouver. “Coming to Nashville, you book a three-hour block, go into the studio with five guys, they hear the song once and they go and play it perfectly. That was so foreign to me, and an actual terrifying thought.”
Clawson’s song turned out so well, however, that Owen asked Moi to produce five more songs, including the title track and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” a late addition that they laid down with the remaining $2,500 in the recording budget. The song became Owen’s first No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2011.
The year prior, Moi’s business partner England turned him on to Florida Georgia Line’s Kelley and Hubbard, who were attending Nashville’s Belmont College. “I really fell in love with their work ethic,” Moi says. “As soon as I heard Tyler sing, I thought, ‘There is nothing on the radio like this at all.'”
He signed the duo to a publishing deal with Big Loud Mountain, and then produced the act’s 2012 EP, “It’z Just What We Do,” which included “Cruise” and “Get Your Shine On.” The former was the first song Moi wrote with the band, building on a tune the pair had already started with Chase Rice and Jesse Rice. They recrafted the tune layer by layer with Moi, rewriting lyrics and revamping certain sections. “It was one of those days where everything was firing perfectly,” Moi says. “No one got hung up or was banging their head on the wall trying to find a word that rhymes with ‘car.'”
The EP attracted the attention of Republic Nashville, which signed Florida Georgia Line that year. Moi added several new tracks to create the duo’s major-label debut, “Here’s to the Good Times,” carefully incorporating his rock influences without allowing them to dominate.
“If we went completely all the way and had put an active rock wrapping paper on Florida Georgia Line, I don’t think that would have worked,” Moi says. “We still made it really twangy, with a large dynamic. The country audience appreciates a more organic sound.”
After “Cruise” became a country hit, the label suggested broadening the duo’s appeal by creating a pop version featuring a hip-hop artist. Moi wasn’t totally sold on the idea initially: “We wanted to solidify ourselves in Nashville and country radio. We were very hesitant. It was just kind of a scary thought of trying to cross over,” he says. But he knew if the song was promoted to top 40, “we would need an urban addition to legitimize it.” The Moi- and Jason Nevins-produced pop version, featuring Nelly, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is up for vocal event of the year at the Country Music Assn. CMA Awards — one of four nominations garnered by Florida Georgia Line.
The success of “Cruise” and “Here’s to the Good Times” helped push the album to 1.1 million in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan — and made Moi, who lives in Nashville full-time now, very much in demand. “There are definitely some more opportunities coming my way,” he says. But for now, he’s focused on growing Big Loud Mountain and producing its two new signings: the aforementioned Smith, with whom Moi will make another country album (Smith’s Moi-produced solo debut, “Jumped Right In,” arrived last year on 604 Records), and Chris Lane, a singer out of North Carolina. “This business keeps me locked in this world. I haven’t been able to entertain a lot of outside [offers],” he says.
Moi will, however, take a break from country to return to his rock roots through a new project from Canadian band Three Days Grace in October. Still, Moi says there’s no chance he’s putting his exploding country career on “Cruise” control: “Nashville has kept me really busy, super-obsessed with this new company. I just have my head down and I’m working.”
That’s perfect for Florida Georgia Line, according to Kelley: “We wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone else touching our music.”