Requiem for a Lucky Man: Greg Lake RIP

Two of MJ’s Tom Anderson guitars with James Zota Baker’s hand painted Strat and a stack of Mesa Boogie amps. Greg Lake loved his “Andys” and Boogies!
I began my day by composing the following email to my friend Tom Anderson:

In case you haven’t heard yet, one of our extended family of Anderson-playing brethren, Greg Lake, passed away yesterday at age 69 after a battle with cancer.

I clearly recall Greg telling me how much he loved his blue Drop Top. You and I later talked about it, and you said, “I don’t know why he likes it so much. It’s an experiment that was never intended to be seen in public. The top is nondescript, and the guitar is a B-flat at best.” Greg had an usual relationship with equipment. When he dug something, he was totally into it, but when he couldn’t figure it out, he simply gave up on it. He practically *gave* me his original Matchless DC30 after I was able to coax righteous tones out of it that he was not. Said it would be better in my hands than his. 

I have fond memories of him. RIP Greg.

Everybody knew Greg Lake as the legendary singer/ bassist of Emerson Lake & Palmer, whose hit “Lucky Man” remains a Classic Rock radio staple 40 years later. Fewer knew he was the voice of King Crimson for a while. I knew him as the generous gear geek whose quest was the perfect note played with the perfect tone.

When my mentor and chosen-brother Keith Wechsler brought me into the ELP fold as a “tone consultant” during rehearsals for a tour, Greg and I immediately bonded via our mutual affinity for Anderson guitars and Mesa amplifiers. Greg had recently obtained a new prized possession, a not-for-sale, in-house “tester” Anderson Drop Top guitar that he borrowed from Tom. To Tom’s surprise, Greg refused to return the guitar, despite reassurances that a non-tester finished product would be more satisfying and certainly better looking.

As the owner of several stunning showroom-quality “Andys” with AAA+++ quilted maple tops, I was acutely aware of the fact that Tom never intended to sell Greg’s guitar because its top had no sex appeal. Its grain pattern was so plain that it deserved to be painted, not stained. Nonetheless, Greg said the instrument gave him inspiration, and that he couldn’t put it down. “When you find something that inspires you,” he said, “you don’t let go of it.”

Greg plugged in to his Mesa TriAxis preamp & Simul-Class 2:90 power amp and treated me to an inspired solo rendition of his 1972 hit “From The Beginning” from ELP’s Trilogy album. The guitar clearly was Greg’s Holy Grail instrument, obviously giving him tremendous joy to play. Afterward, he presented the axe to me with the reverence of a diplomat bestowing a rare artifact upon a head of state after signing a historic treaty. I caressed the fretboard with a few expensive-sounding Steely Dan chords before returning the crown jewel to its smitten owner.

I then programmed some custom presets into Greg’s Mesa/Boogie rig, fine tuning them to his unique “touch” and style. He loved that rig, and was happy to have a few new colors on his tonal palette.

Greg then asked me if I could help him with his new Matchless DC30 because he “couldn’t get a tone” from it. Matchless was, at the time, the new boutique kid in town. The flagship DC30 was intended to be a roadworthy Vox AC30-inspired amp with two separate channels and attitudes. I was already familiar with the amp because Rusty Anderson walked me through his DC30 before a recording session at A&M Studio A. I showed Greg some tips and settings, but he wasn’t feeling the amp. He was simply uninspired by the amp, and it showed. Greg handed me the guitar, and all of a sudden music began pouring by the bucket from the speakers. Horses for courses. I guess there’s no true one-size-fits-all.

Greg’s generosity found its way to me. He believed that I would put the DC30 to better use than he, so he offered to give me the amp–which he knew was valued at $2500! I politely declined, saying that I would be willing to buy it from him rather than accept it as a gift. He asked if I had any cash in my wallet. I said, “Not enough.” He asked how much. I replied, “Only $600.” Greg said, “If you insist on paying for my gift to you, I insist you fork over that $600 right now.” With a wink and a big smile, he happily took my money. I took home a piece of Rock & Roll history.

In the spirit of passing the gift of tone to those more worthy of carrying the torch, I ultimately placed the amp with six-string phenom David Weiss of Travis Whitelaw, Trailer Radio, Slackjaw and Steve Conte’s band. Dave is a solid friend whose fiery-yet-tasty playing never ceases to amaze me. Dave also appreciates his DC30’s provenance and its fabled “green transformer” mystique.

Circling back to Greg Lake, another anecdote worth sharing is my recollection of a lovely “family day” in the park. FM radio giants Kansas and Tower Of Power were headlining an afternoon outdoor concert with Greg at Balboa Park in Los Angeles. Greg, a legend among rock’s royalty, was totally relaxed, low key, savoring the lovely weather and the company of his friends and colleagues. He was just another regular guy who was happy to share sandwiches, cheese and apples with the rest of us mere mortals, both before and after switching to the Rock Deity persona only while he was on stage. There was no isolated backstage cloistering on that day. Greg Lake, legendary rockstar, was unassumingly enjoying his picnic among a thousand diverse Angelenos from all walks of life. I don’t think anyone noticed him until he took the stage.

If I recall, the closest Greg came to playing the rockstar card while off stage was when he and Wechsler, who played drums that day for Greg wearing a cast on his broken ankle (!), introduced me to TOP’s drummer Dave Garibaldi, because I mentioned that it would be really cool to sit behind Garibaldi during his set. Mission accomplished. Cherished memory cast in stone. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. Lucky man indeed.

MJ: “This song’s for you, old friend. Rest in peace.”
 
David Weiss playing his Matchless DC30 that I got from Greg Lake.
 

Simultaneously Blown Away, Humbled and Inspired

I do not remember exactly how I met David Baerwald. He was one half of the duo David + David, whose sole album yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Even though the 1986 release went Platinum, I did not pay much attention to it at the time because my bandwidth was full with my obsession for Peter Gabriel’s So, Crowded House’s eponymous debut (featuring “Don’t Dream It’s Over“), and Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola. Nonetheless, seven years later, David, whose album Triage had just been released, was sitting across from me, jamming on the sofa in my living room. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous Knopfler-esque riffs he coaxed from my Taylor 812c acoustic guitar, even though his performance was punctuated by the sound of flying lawnmowers—which were in reality propeller driven small planes on approach vectors, just about to land across the street at Clover Field, aka Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

David generously offered to network with me, probably because I had recently cowritten a couple songs with John Lang, who wrote the #1 hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” for his cousin’s band, Mr. Mister. Lang, a brilliant lyricist who was understandably tough to impress, admired Baerwald’s lyrics and his singing. A few sprinkles of Lang’s credibility landed on me by association—plus I had recently produced my first major label hit for Irving Azoff’s fledgling Giant (Warner) Records—so the door of opportunity to the Big Leagues was flung wide open for the first time in my young career. This was terrific…until David asked me to play guitar.

Wait, what? If I’m a pro, that’s a chance to shine, right? Yes, but it’s also a sure-fire way to blow the all-important first impression if your chops are rusty. In 1993 I was infrequently playing guitar, and when I did pick up the instrument, I played ensemble parts that worked in the the context of a recording, but made no sense without the support of a full band arrangement. As an example, try to imagine how the guitar parts from “Broken Wings” (during the third verse at 3:14) or Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” would sound without the bass line to define the song’s harmonic structure, or without the drums to let you know where the downbeat is. My point is that “earcandy” parts (which were pretty much all that I played at the time) were simply unable to tell the story of a song by themselves. And they certainly would not impress my guest of honor, Mr. Baerwald, without a point of reference to show him how nicely and precisely they would fit into an arrangement.

So I instead decided to show David a complex solo acoustic guitar piece that I began composing the day before. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and the jazzy chords were of the “expensive” variety whose pedigree might be from the epic Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, Porgy and Bess. The bass line was simple enough, but the sound in my head required the listener to hear all three layers of harmonic content: melody, chords and bass. Therefore, I had to play all three at the same time, on one guitar…and I couldn’t do it. To describe the attempted recital as a “train wreck” would be far too kind. David, who by contrast is a real player’s player, let me off easy, stating that he understood where I was going with the tune, and he wished me luck in developing it.

Despite the fact that I blew it, David invited me to his loft behind Hal’s Restaurant (Cafe?) on Abbot Kinney in Venice, just a short walk from the infamous Radio Tokyo Studios where I became a recording engineer back in, coincidentally, 1986. David’s loft was super cool, with a vibe that begged you to get the creative juices flowing. Downstairs was home to a fully equipped recording studio, while upstairs housed various artifacts that may or may not have been related to certain CIA exploits that may or may not have involved David’s father, a political scientist.

David played me recordings of a new, as yet unreleased, project that he was “playing around with” on Tuesday nights with his friends Bill Bottrell, David Ricketts, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert. They were writing songs with a background vocalist who did some work with Michael Jackson. As David was humbly asking me what I thought of the songs, I was amazed by the work! The recording technique was exemplary, with sonic detail and clarity so crisply defined that I could close my eyes and see the spaces between the instrumentalists! The players were all spot-on, but the virtuosity never overshadowed the organic soul of the songs, which told stories ranging from leaving Las Vegas to having fun on Santa Monica Boulevard, three short miles away from where we sat listening. And that singer! She had a compelling delivery that brought the words to life. I was simultaneously blown away by the sound, humbled by the virtuosity and inspired to elevate my game. I already had a Top 5 MTV hit with Too Much Joy’s cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie!” and I made some seminal SubPop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, plus I was having one of my flavor-of-the-month moments in the A&R community, but my records couldn’t hold a candle to David’s side project. His recordings were marvelous and impressive on so many different levels, but remarkably they remained free of pretense. They sounded timeless, they sounded easy, and they sounded live. At that moment, I became determined to become a lifelong student of the craft of making honest records that would serve the songs, not the ephemeral trends.

Sometime thereafter, I drove onto the lot at A&M Records for a meeting with A&R VP Teresa Ensenat to pitch Brian Charles’ Boston based, Beatles-inspired band, Sidewalk Gallery. I recall three things from the meeting:

1) The pitch was successful, so Brian and I would soon be recording at the historic studio where we would eventually meet Crowded House and Rusty Anderson, who would turn me on to Matchless guitar amps long before hitting the road with Paul McCartney.

2) There were several guitar cases in Teresa’s office stenciled withe the name of Steve Earle. I pointed as if to ask, “What’s the story behind them?” Teresa volunteered, “I was married to Satan.” I changed the subject to the gorgeous SoCal weather.

3) I asked Teresa about the giant painting on the side of the recording studio. The fresh faced new artist, Sheryl Crow, was a priority for the label, and I should listen and let Theresa know my thoughts. She handed me a promo copy of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I spun in the car on my way to my session. I instantly recognized the euphonic gloriousness that mesmerized me at David Baerwald’s loft. “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Run Baby Run” and “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” were so memorable that I was able to sing along with the catchy hooks weeks after initially hearing them. I was happy to know that David was likely to enjoy another well deserved hit.

Less than two years later, I was head of A&R and staff Producer at Jac Holzman’s Warner Music Discovery label, which was on the front line of the WEA distribution hierarchy. Jac, who was Time Warner’s CTO if I recall correctly, had autonomy with respect to signing and prioritizing artists. He did not have to go through layers of middlemen like subsidiary labels did. For example, Madonna’s imprint Maverick had to answer to Reprise, who in turn had to answer to Warner Bros. As one moved higher up the totem pole, each entity took a slice of revenue and creative control of its subsidiaries, who sometimes had to fight hard to sign acts they loved. Because Jac was on equal footing with WEA’s big three (effectively big four, or anecdotally WEAD, at the time) I had the freedom and support to sign quality talent in whom I believed. At SXSW (South By Southwest) festival, I walked into a nearly empty club on Austin’s Sixth Street to hang out with a couple guys I met earlier in the day, mastering engineer Dave McNair and entertainment attorney Wofford Denius.

In that empty room, over the course of 45 minutes, my mind was once again blown, I was artistically humbled, and I was creatively inspired. A tall handsome lad, clad in gas station attendant coveralls, work boots and a Fender bass, sang his ass off while fronting a crack band of pros who were equally comfortable performing tender ballads or bombastic, odd time signature, Prog Rock opuses. His gorgeous ballad “Tea For One” was a heart-wrenching story of a shy guy who finally gets the courage to ask out the object of his desire a day too late, to find her in the embrace of a new lover. Another song, “Certifiable #1 Smash”, was appropriately titled because it indeed sounded like one during that live performance. I introduced myself to the artist, Kevin Gilbert, and offered him and his manager a record deal on the spot. Kevin handed me a CD of Thud, which I promptly marked with a Sharpie to indicate the three potential hits. My wife and I cherish that CD 22 years later for its excellent artistry, as well as the fact that it is a memento given to me shortly before Kevin tragically died far too young.

It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I connected the dots and realized that Kevin was already an accomplished musical force of nature. He was the vocalist of Toy Matinee, whose two hits “Last Plane Out” and “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge” always compelled me to crank up the volume whenever I heard them being spun (physical LPs and CDs, unlike mp3s, actually spun under a turnable stylus or CD laser back in the day) on FM radio. Further, he was also an integral part of David’s mind blowing Tuesday Night Music Club project!

By the time I met Kevin Gilbert, I had learned from my earlier experiences with David Baerwald. I learned that no matter how talented I already was, or who I was destined to become, there was always somebody more accomplished or talented. That knowledge allowed me to be realistic about how I might best serve, and integrate with, top-shelf artists and projects. The life lessons for me were to be open to awesomeness and serendipity, and to appropriately behave in environments conducive to success. In hindsight, the Gilbert working relationship got off on the right foot because I offered to serve in such a way that I could confidently deliver the goods at the highest level. By contrast, I ultimately never worked with Baerwald because I showed him my weak link instead of my true strength. It’s cool, though, because that’s how you learn—and in my case the lessons stuck.

Music As A Means To Self-Realization 

 

Rob Chiarelli (far left) & Michael James (far right) presenting a master class on mixing at Pro Audio LA.

“That’s a great idea! We should do it. If only…”

When inspiration strikes, do you ever think you should make your idea a reality? Why don’t you make it happen? If only you had more time, more money or less stress…

Don’t worry–you’re not alone. Our first-world lifestyles are in many respects defined by the myriad responsibilities that compete for our life force. Most of us cannot afford to commit to a grand endeavor simply because of its inherent coolness factor, so we tend to factor ROI (return on investment) into our risk-based decisions. There is nothing wrong with that–it’s simply reality. But it is also a huge obstacle to self-realization, the fulfillment of one’s own potential.

While there are many strong reasons to not take action, some intrepid souls find a way to rise above the words “if only” and then do something terrific. They do it not for the money, but rather because it’s cool…and because they can.

I’m writing this blog post with the hope that it may inspire some of us to step outside our comfort zones and make something beautiful before our lives become even more complicated and our burdens even heavier. Whatever you choose to do, do it because you want to, not because you need a payday. Its manifestation should be its own reward. That way, you can’t lose. Plus, you just might win. Maybe win big.

Here’s a brief list of self-realized things that some of my friends are currently doing, just because they can.

Zoo Labs is a music and tech “incubator” founded by altruists/philanthropists Vinitha and Dave Watson. Their excellent two-week music residency at their state-of-the-art, in-house recording studio not only results in a record release, but also in “scaffolding” from which recording artists can launch their next career phase in a meaningful accelerated manner. The Watson crew has put together a team of forward thinking geniuses who provide highly relevant workshops along with a resident gourmet chef. Their ROI is not measured in dollars–it’s all about doing something special for the good of humanity.

Rob Chiarelli has approximately 100 Gold Records and 16 Grammy nominations on his discography. He works as a producer and/or mix engineer with superstar artists ranging from Christina Aguilera and Will Smith to Janet Jackson and Madonna. While Rob is in constant demand, he somehow manages to do things that are important to his family–and to up-and-coming recording professionals in need of guidance. Rob and I both believe in giving back (or paying forward), so we frequently team up to do workshops, seminars, master classes and Q&A sessions for music schools, pro audio retailers and manufacturers. We do it because we can, and because the act of service to others is a vital part of our spiritual and philosophical belief system.

The relationship of Walter Heath to his music is an excellent example of doing something because it is intrinsically cool. He was signed to a major label record deal in the early ’70s, and recorded a funky soulful album, You Know You’re Wrong Don’t Ya Brother, produced by L.A. session ace Louis Shelton, featuring the hottest studio cats of the era. Today Walter performs and records music with the express goal of inspiring himself and others to deepen their spirituality by setting Baha’i prayers, meditations and virtues to melodic tunes. Music weaves through his life like DNA through his body. I have seen firsthand how powerful a unifying tool his singing is as it draws together seemingly disparate cultural groups. Check out his tasty home-brewed CD from 2009, Praise His Name, for some nourishment for the soul.

The Invisible Man (Sam Martinez, Jaben Pennell and Tim Torgerson) is a Contemporary Christian band whose ministry takes it literally around the world, instruments in hand. The darlings of the 1998 EAT’M Festival, its members have since found a balance of secular and spiritual pursuits. Torgerson and Martinez are local-hero, working-class family men who enrich their communities with not only their musicality, but also their mentoring skills. Pennell juggles being a single father of two with his fulltime gig as a record producer and session musician. A human vortex of energy, he also teaches recording techniques and A/V courses at Judson University as an adjunct professor. Pennell founded Vibehouse Productions as a passion to serve indie artists outside the metropolitan Chicago area, but thanks to one of his records winning 2013 Golden Melody Awards (Chinese equivalent of Grammy) Album Of The Year, it turned into his bread and butter.

The underlying theme of these four examples is that they were all done without financial reward as a consideration. Therefore, they were done with a purity of purpose and, one might say, artistic integrity. Inspiration happened, and these folks sprung into action. They created their own unique musical versions of the Watts Towers: the creation may look crazy to an outside investor, but the artistic manifestation is its own reward.  Just like a life well lived!

 

An Interesting Interview From 2015

Ebhardt and MJ Glyph NAMM 2016
Rebecca Ebhardt and Michael James at NAMM Show 2016

Rebecca Ebhardt interviewed me for Glyph last year. Rather than focus on technology, she chose to get into philosophy, motivation and pragmatism. I am pasting the piece below because it contains solid info for anybody coming up in the music business, as well as for veterans who want to remain relevant.

Plus, if you know me personally, you may learn something new about me.  Enjoy the read!

Interview With The Talented Michael James On Producing, Finding Success, And The Roads That He Took To Get Where He Is Today



 By Rebecca Ebhardt

How Did You Start Producing And What Gave You The Motivation To Continue?

Short answer is “I was in the right place at the right time.”

The story behind the answer is more complex.  I was an emancipated minor at age 14 and mostly homeless for about six years. I saw my way out of that kind of life by endeavoring to be an athlete or scholar. I was hell-bent on earning a scholarship and I got a full ride to UCLA. I loved writing songs at the time. I was writing a lot of poetry and thought it would be cool to turn my poems into songs. I picked up guitar and began learning jazz. Two years later, at age 19, I landed my first record deal, the result of a $15 demo tape. I had some hits on college radio, which as that time was a big deal–it was vibrant and meaningful, and contributed to the success of some great bands like REM and U2. One day my manager showed me one particular chart that listed four of my songs in the top 10.  That was pretty cool, even though I had no clue how to leverage the buzz into greater success. I thought I was going to be a famous rock star. But, by age 25 I was washed up, and then at 26 I accidentally produced a hit record for NY rockers Too Much Joy.  It began as in indie release before it was picked up by Irving Azoff’s major label Warner-funded venture, Giant Records.  Giant had me add a couple more songs, made a video featuring LL Cool J, and I was off to the races!

My motivation to continue through all the ups and downs is simply that I love making records with creative geniuses who view our world from a different perspective that we mere mortals do.  If this wasn’t my job, it would be my hobby.  It’s an exciting way to spend the precious hours of my life.

The record business is portrayed in the media as glamorous, but it can be brutal and merciless. Even if you were born with prodigious talent, you need to devote countless hours to developing your God-given talent.  And I’m no exception, even after 34 years.  Although I was in the right place at the right time–more accurately, in the right place enough times–whenever I have a day I’m not booked, I still go to work and I woodshed new techniques. I keep a list of mix-related problems that I’ve encountered, and I work through them to add to my bag of tricks.

In the early 2000’s, when Pro Tools became ubiquitous, I embraced the new digital technology, and developed the skills to be equally competent in both the analog and digital domains. Early 2002 I made the jump to full time mix specialist. Now I typically mix a song a day, 250-ish days per year.  I love the work and the lifestyle.  As long as there are innovative artists and technologies in the pipeline, I’ll continue to be motivated.

 

Did You Have Any Doubts That You Would Be Successful?

No.  I didn’t have a safety net, so I couldn’t afford to fail.  At UCLA, I was initially a pre med major and realized I was very unfulfilled by traveling such a rigid predetermined path. When I realized I was a creative improvisor, I walked away for a bit and focused solely on music. It pretty much fell in my lap (though I had to work hard), but I did return to UCLA and switched to Third World Development Studies. I was thinking the whole time “why am I doing this? I am not going to work for Peace Corps, World Bank or IMF.” I realized I loved music and it’s a God-given gift–not everyone has this opportunity, so I figured I’d see where it goes. My only other distraction at the time was racing bicycles–I raced at the world championships once, but racing was my avocation, not my bread and butter gig. It was a fun to contrast to the crazy record business.

 

How Did You Build Contacts And/Or Clients?

By age 25, I realized my artist career ran it course, but by 26, I was a producer with a hit.  In the interim, I decided to become a session guitarist and keyboard & drum programmer. I was pretty good, but there was a snag: I didn’t have a car so I was relying on other people to give me rides to get to the studio. One of my buddies was billing $350 a day as an engineer, and splitting it with a recording studio 50/50. I thought, “Hey man, I want that, I can really get ahead making $1k a week”.  At that time I was still attending UCLA by day, so I would go to the recording studio after midnight with my night-owl friends. They would play their instruments and get free recording time while I learned how to use all of the recording equipment.  I was eventually ready to work prime time sessions.

Bands who recorded at our studio, Radio Tokyo, got great results at affordable prices. We didn’t care about how much we earned; we just wanted to get in the game and prove that we could play ball as well as the big leaguers. I was basically the guy who was working inexpensively for $35/hr. for these bands who didn’t have a pot to piss in. These were bands like Jane’s Addiction, Jawbreaker, The Bangles, et al. Consistent results and a fun, exciting working environment ensured the development of solid relationships. Eventually I just got a great reputation where word of mouth took over and I was booked 8 months in advance. It was never about money. If I make people feel good about their art, they’ll come back again and again, plus they’ll refer their friends. I’ve been working with some artists since 1984. That said, I’m always out there meeting new people and exploring new challenges. You must regularly reinvent yourself and refresh your skill set because when you fail to evolve, you go the way of the dinosaur.

 

What Are Some Of The Biggest Mental Tools You Can Obtain To Be Successful In This Field?

First: Let it go if someone doesn’t like you.  Always treat people with respect and do your work with integrity and a high standard of excellence.  Do that, and you’ll sleep well at night with the knowledge that, if there’s a problem, it’s not due to anything you did.  Avoid dwelling on the haters; instead focus on the folks who appreciate and love you.

Second: Let it go if someone doesn’t like one of your epically awesome ideas.   Just say, “Alright, no problem,” and mentally file the idea for future usage. You’ll have a new tool in your bag of tricks. No good idea is ever wasted. One day there will be a perfect opportunity to use it.

Third: Remember that it’s not your record, it’s the artist’s music.  My goal is not to impress my engineer friends, but rather to impress the artists.  They need to know that I’m helping support their vision, not mine.  Nowadays I don’t have to think creating a testosterone driven “Kick Drum of Doom & Remorse” sound as much as I think about serving the artist. Treat their craft with respect and make the listener focus on the song and the emotion of the song, not the kick drum that will blow your colleagues’ minds.

Fourth: KEEP IT FUN! If you aren’t having fun, you won’t inspire artists to continue working with you.  You’ll live a healthier life, and you will attract others with your positive energy.

 

If You Can Come Up With The One Habit That Could Possibly Ruin Or Stall A Person’s Career, What Would That Downfall Be?

Two things: Bullshit and disrespect.  Always be truthful, humble, attentive and courteous.  It’s a privilege to work with an artistic genius, so be present and don’t take any opportunity for granted.

 

Maintaining A Successful Career Takes A Lot Of Work And Commitment. How Much Time Do You Dedicate To Your Work?

My life and my work are commingled. I absolutely LOVE what I do, so my work is integral to the person I am at the core. It doesn’t define me, but it permeates everything to some degree. I work 250-ish days a year, and shoot for 8 hour days.  Even if a mix takes only half that time, there’s plenty of ancillary work to be done, from taking meetings and generating sales to woodshedding new techniques.  Same net hours as a full-time job, but more flexibility…  When I leave the studio, however, my brain shifts out of work mode and into “balanced life” mode.

 

Is There An Artist You Want To Work With That You Have Not Yet Had The Chance To?

Where do I begin? (Laughs out loud.) My favorite artists with whom I haven’t worked: Neil Finn from Crowded House, the guys from Steely Dan, Jonatha Brooke. There is another artist who I hope reads this; Butterfly Boucher – she did a cover of Bowie’s “Changes” for the Shrek soundtrack. I met her in person and I remixed a couple singles for her when she was an Interscope artist. She’s a consummate musician and arranger with prodigious talent and a unique point of view. She really gets it.

 

What Is Your Favorite Equipment To Work With, And What Makes It Reliable And Easy?

Favorite brands that give me a competitive advantage when I’m mixing:

Manley Labs, Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Tonelux, Avalon and Empirical Labs make the indispensable analog stuff for me. Focal Professional makes my studio monitors.  Tom Anderson builds my guitars; Mesa/Boogie builds most of my amps (I’m using six of them in the studio today!), but I also play a rare George Alessandro High-End English amp and I’m really into Joe Morgan’s custom shop stuff.  On the digital side, Pro Tools HDX, SoundToys and UAD plugins, and Eventide Harmonizers are essential to me. Those things are consistently reliable, plus I have developed relationships with the people involved, who encourage feedback to constantly improve their products. Some of those people, like Bob Muller at Dangerous, EveAnna at Manley, and Paul Wolff (ex-Tonelux and API) solve problems long before I become aware of them. I’ve been known to pick up the phone and ask those guys if they have a solution to a problem, and they’ve already built it into a piece of gear that’s been living in my studio for several years.

I’ve used several brands of hard drives, but my go–to for the past 14 years have been Glyph. I must have had two dozen 10,000 rpm Cheetahs that I would hot-swap as needed. They were so bomb proof that I didn’t retire them until 2-3 years ago. I was supplementing with GT series, because I could run less expensive 7200 rpm drives and get virtually the same performance as the Cheetahs.  I have dozens of GTs in the studio.

My current preference is the new Glyph Studio series. I love using the Studio Mini and the Studio RAID. I have three 1TB Minis because they spin at 7200 rpm and they are buss powered via USB. They’re robust and convenient in the field with a laptop; they’re conducive to pre-mixing tracks on a plane.  I’m actually working off of them instead of merely transferring and archiving.  In my control room, I have three Studio RAIDs.  They inspire confidence because I know my solid backup plan is immediately more robust and the drives handle whatever I throw at them. I don’t need multiple work drives anymore with my Pro Tools sessions; I stripe RAID 1 on the 4TB and 8TB devices. The data are simultaneously written to two different hard drives. If one fails, I can send it to Glyph for hassle-free recovery and repair or replacement. At the end of the day I back up to 3 different places. If it’s something I care about, it has to be in 3 different places.

It gives me peace of mind to work with Glyph. I expect all hard disk drives to fail eventually, but there’s no need to worry or stress about it. I use and rely on Glyph so that I can proactively evolve rather than passively sitting around like a dinosaur waiting for the meteor to hit.

P1050803
MJ with studio boss, Rosie.

My Day With The 5th Beatle: A Mini Celebration of Sir George Martin

Pepper 2
Produced by George Martin. As a kid, I commandeered the Sgt. Pepper cutouts from my parents’ album cover.

Sir George Martin was one of the most respected record producers in history. Much more than “the fifth Beatle”, Sir George also produced landmark albums by Jeff Beck, America, Ultravox and Peter Sellers. His passing this week has saddened countless music fans and professionals who cite his productions as a major part of the soundtrack to their lives.

I’m not alone when I say that I modeled my producer skill set after his. George knew music inside and out, and could do anything from composing and arranging to playing multiple instruments and providing the voice of reason. Plus he brought out the best in his artists, inspiring them to constantly raise the bar.

I’m an industrial-strength Beatles fan. Have been since 1967, when I cut out the cardboard mustache, sergeant stripes, badges and other accessories from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork. Not sure my parents appreciated my initiative or industriousness, but I had fun. And I’ll bet I looked pretty stylish for a wee tricyclist pedaling around the sidewalks of Farmingdale, New York. To this day I still have a soft spot for epaulets, although Jimi Hendrix’s affinity for “the look” may have contributed to my fondness.

A year after Pepper, I clearly remember the day that the band’s next album was released. In 1968, I was six years of age, sitting in the backseat of what was about to reveal itself as a getaway car. My mother’s boyfriend Frankie told Mom, my brother Eddie and me to wait in the car while he ran an errand with his buddy. Several minutes later, he bolted from a Macy’s department store shooting a handgun while disguising himself with a nylon stocking over his face. His buddy didn’t make it to the car.

Did I mention that the car, a brand new metallic gold Plymouth Barracuda, belonged to my father, who rode the train to work? Or that Frankie often stole my model airplane glue so that he could get high sniffing it from a paper bag? Or that he ran a red light, totaled the muscular fish, and sent six people to the hospital?

Frankie did have at least one redeeming quality: he too was a Beatles fan. Apparently more committed than I, because I would never consider armed robbery an appropriate method to procure a coveted new release. The Beatles, aka the White Album, was the crown jewel in Frankie’s sack of liberated loot.

I always loved The Beatles’ records. Their inventive arrangements, underlying lyrical themes of love, psychedelic sitars, gritty yet pretty guitars, and lush vocal harmonies emotionally resonate with me. Today, when I close my eyes, their music transports me to another realm. If there’s an underlying theme to my work as a producer, it’s to achieve a meaningful connection between the song and the listener, which the Beatles did so effectively. Thus, it should come as no surprise that George Martin’s work was so inspirational to me.

As much as I would have loved to work with The Beatles, it seemed like I was often just one degree of separation from the guys. My friends David Kahne and Gregg Bissonette work with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, respectively, and acquaintances Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Rusty Anderson are members of Macca’s touring band.

In 1998, I came as close as I ever would to meeting the guys. Irina (my wife) and I spent a day with George Martin. The experience still left me a degree removed from the Fab Four, but was just as gratifying for me!

Enter the talented drummer Peter Bunetta, who was known for producing the one-hit-wonder (“Break My Stride”) recording artist & multi-platinum (No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom) producer/songwriter Matthew Wilder. Peter and I had just met each other, and were having a great time hanging out at the EAT’M (Emerging Artists and Talent in Music) festival, where I was moderating the Producers Panel. Peter is a super nice guy, and he’s generous with his connections in the record business. So, when David Cassidy (who will forever be Keith Partridge in my mind) arrived, Peter said, “Let’s ask David to introduce us to George!”

“Uh, okay,” was all I could muster with my outside voice. Meanwhile, my unfiltered inside voice was screaming, “Oh my God, is this really happening? I’m going to meet George Martin!”

Keith–oops, I mean David–guided us past security, deep into the inner sanctum where we attained the presence of the master, who was also the keynote speaker of the event. I remember the moment with crystal clarity.

David: “George, meet Peter and Michael.”

Sir George: “With pleasure.” (Extends hand to shake ours.)

Peter: (Instantly transforms into giddy fanboy, and overzealously grabs the legend’s right hand with what I would characterize as…ramming speed!) “George, I can’t even begin to describe how much your work has influenced and inspired me! I know it’s creepy that I’m not letting go of your hand, but I promise I will as soon as I finish basking in the moment.”

Irina and I were amused and amazed that we were watching the legendary producer of Sgt. Pepper attempting to yank his hand free from Peter’s determined clutch! George had a slight expression of horror on his face. It was like the face of a celebrity who comes to the realization that he’s just become ensnared in the terrifying web of a stalker. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, I must admit that it was hilarious!

When Peter finally released George, it was my turn for a handshake. I’ve learned that you only have one chance to make a first impression, so I made a point of not blowing it.

Me: “It’s a pleasure to meet you George. Are you cool if we do a regular handshake instead of an extended one?”

Sir George: (Heartily laughs.) “I would very much appreciate that, Michael! And the pleasure is mine.”

The first thing I noticed about Sir George was his impeccable posture. He was tall, well groomed, and a true gentleman. He appeared to be well aware of his legendary achievements and celebrity status, but he was remarkably warm and welcoming. He made Peter, Irina and me feel like we were longtime friends.

Over the course of the day, we chatted about various subjects. Among them were his upcoming retirement, his genuine affection for “the boys” or “the lads” (John, Paul, George and Ringo), the adventurous creative spirit of Sgt. Pepper, and the desire of the boys to rise above their differences and make their swan song, Abbey Road, be a fitting high-note to the band’s legacy.

During Sir George’s keynote speech, he told a humorous story of being lectured by his bosses at Parlophone Records. They said, “Martin, we’ve reviewed a list of the records you made last year, and we’ve discovered that most of them lose money. Stop making those ones! From now on, only produce the ones that will be profitable.” If you’re in the record business, you’re well aware that Parlophone’s mandate was ridiculous because there is no way to accurately predict how well art will perform in a commercial marketplace.

The biggest takeaway from my day with George was to make records that I genuinely enjoy, and to make them with excellence. That makes a lot of sense because we artists and producers honestly don’t know whether a record is going to be a hit or a flop. What we do know, however, is that some other people have similar tastes in music to ours, and those folks will likely dig the same stuff we do. We owe it to ourselves to make records that we’ll enjoy forever, regardless of commercial success or failure. For that enlightenment and commitment to excellence, I thank you, Sir George Martin. May your soul rest in peace, and may your legacy shine a light on the world forever.

Pepper 1
Thanks to Sir George for giving “the boys” the opportunity to shine and to reinvent themselves every year from 1962-70.

Fly Your Freak Flag! (Thoughts on Nirvana, Adele, Innovation and Emulation)

Rosie goofing off, having a blast!

Sometimes you just have to let go of whatever “the grownup you” thinks you should do, and instead do what “the happy you” wants to do.  Kids, just like Rosie The Studio Cat, are full of awe and wonder; adults, including most recording artists and technicians, are shackled by heavy responsibilities and the need to fit in. 

Uniqueness is much more interesting than conformity. When we march (or dance) to the beat of our own drummer, we show the world our true selves, unique individuals who are probably a lot like the children we once were. Those kids knew how to have fun. 

When we have fun—even if we’re digging ditches—we attract other likeminded people. If we show the world who we are, we’re likely to attract others who have the same taste we do. Some folks will love us, and others won’t. Focus on those who already do. 
This is especially true in the record business and the arts in general. Innovators, not emulators, are the ones with longevity. Remember Nirvana? Of course you do. But what about Candlebox? 

Nirvana didn’t predict the next trend and tailor their sound to it—they were a unique badass band with great songs and a fresh sound that would inspire the birth of Modern Rock. A great artist doesn’t follow the trends, it sets them. Kurt Cobain spoke for a generation of folks who were going through the same shit as he was. He connected with his fans, the folks who loved him. Damn those who didn’t. Life is too short. 

Believe it or not, Nirvana was not universally adored at the time. Seattle’s scene was hot, with Soundgarden and SubPop, but Grunge music was for bands who weren’t real musicians. (Not my opinion, but the prevailing one in the early ’90s.) Nonetheless, Cobain’s songs were indeed radio friendly unit shifters, so countless emulators emerged. 

Beyond the obligatory flannel shirts, the signature formula included massive dynamic shifts. Quiet verses exploded into bombastic fuzzed out choruses. In contrast to the harmonic devices and voice leading of great songwriters of the time, like Neil Finn of Crowded House, the emulator bands often created tension and release without any change to the chord progression such as going to the relative minor or major chord. They simply stepped on the Big Muff fuzz pedal as the drummer bashed quarter notes on the crash cymbals. Perhaps primitive, but it worked. Especially for Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, who had similar sounds, but were very different bands. (Check out the Pumpkins’ chord progression of “1979”—it uses harmonic resolution to create the sense of release into the chorus.)

Formulaic trend following, however, is not the path to a long career. Go ahead and pay tribute to your influences, but distill their essences through your own filter, and incorporate them into your art in unique novel ways. Dozens of major label bands in Nirvana’s wake learned this lesson the hard way. Trust me: I was head of A&R at Warner/Discovery, and I passed on literally hundreds of competent bands because they all sounded the same! They were good, but Nirvana was better. And Nirvana came first. 

Anything unique was a breath of fresh air, so that’s what stood out from the blur. When I say unique, I don’t imply batshit craziness that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing genre. I’m talking about something that’s 90% familiar and 10% unique or fresh. Adele’s new single, “Hello”, is a current example of this 90/10 concept. To folks my age, the sound is nothing new, but the conviction with which Adele sings is brilliant, and it makes the song believable. It feels honest, not formulaic, so it will be a big hit. It stands out from the blur and it resonates with listeners, so they will actually pay real money for it. 

As a parting thought, you don’t have to try to make friends if you just be yourself. Those who are meant to love you will organically find you. You can’t please all the people all the time, so be an innovator, not an emulator. Live your own life and make your own art, not someone else’s. You’re welcome. 

Rosie completely relaxed, with her goofball human guardian and his freakishly sexy giraffe print yoga pants.

Want To Be A Super Pro? Behave Like One!

Dan Rothchild (left), with Beck, for whom he played bass.

My wife Irina and I were driving the car, enjoying a lovely California evening with the radio playing in the background, when suddenly we shut up, locked eyes, and together declared, “Dude, that sounds like Dan!”

We actually stopped the car so we could crank up the volume without distraction, our eyes riveted to the FM radio dial, anticipating each subsequent note that might offer a clue that the groovalicious bass line was performed by somebody other than our dear friend Dan Rothchild. The feel was sexy, the pocket was deep, and the tone articulate and round. The bass was the perfect pivot for Sheryl Crow’s visceral vocal performance of a song that would soon be a massive hit, “If It Makes You Happy.” Dan later told me that this overdub session took only 20 minutes of getting a tone, and 20 minutes of tracking. 

The thing that blows my mind is that Irina and I both instantly recognized Dan’s unique character just as easily as we did Sheryl’s identifiable voice. By virtue of countless recording sessions with Dan, I was intimately familiar with his musicality, but Irina only knew the finished recordings, which were merely a small fraction of her playlists that included Seal, Crowded House, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, et al. She had plenty of star power on her mix tapes, and no reason to pay any particular attention to our homeboy who rode mountain bikes and ate Thanksgiving dinners with us. Yet somehow Irina instantly recognized Dan’s unique musical DNA. 

I called up Dan to find out if it was indeed he who rocked the track. He modestly confirmed what I already knew in my bones. I was so happy for him! He was on another hit, one that was certain to raise his profile. Dan then told me that he was finally getting to really do what he loved. He was contributing on a creative level, live and in the studio, with many of his favorite artists.

I’m writing about Dan Rothchild today because there are so many things to learn from him about professional attitude and behavior, whether you’re on the way up or a veteran pro. Here’s one of the secrets to success, as exemplified by Dan: The right attitude attracts opportunities. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to spend your time doing what you love.

Dan was regularly getting called up to the bandstand by Jon Brion during Brion’s Largo residency, which was the equivalent of a master class in unrestrained creativity for us mere mortals. A quick glance at the audience would reveal a diverse crowd ranging from Aimee Mann and Michael Penn to Fiona Apple and Toad The Wet Sprocket. Everybody in the club hoped to catch a sprinkle of Brion’s mad genius, but Dan transcended that desire. He was actually adding to the strange brew without a net and in the moment, and he was loving it! 

So, how did he get to that place in his career where his professional and personal dreams so peacefully coexisted?

Dan’s initial success came from consistency, character and, perhaps most importantly, his positive “we’re all in this together” attitude. Whenever I called Dan for a job, I knew with confidence that we were going to have a good day. The mood would be fun, and the results would be super pro. Dan knew when to cut up and when to shut up & rock. He still does. That’s why he’s one of the top cats in the business.

Dan may be the ultimate team player. He is more than capable of running the show, as evidenced by his production of Better Than Ezra’s hit album Deluxe, but he respects the creative process enough that he is comfortable adapting to whatever role the situation requires. Even when I was the producer on various records, I knew that I would learn something new from the guy I hired. I distinctly recall Dan teaching me how to watch the lead singer’s lips to lock in the phrasing when doing background vocals. Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not…at least not until you think of doing it. I also remember him showing me two different bass guitar tuning strategies, one for ballads and the other for faster tempi. Strings tend to drop in pitch after the initial attack, so Dan tuned for the sustain on slow songs and for the attack on faster ones with lots of eighth notes.  

When you hired Dan for a gig, you got much more than a bass player. You got an encyclopedia of music history, who would happily share knowledge bequeathed to him from his rock royalty father, legendary producer Paul Rothchild, whose myriad credits include The Doors and Janis Joplin. No matter how fresh or unique you are, you will always benefit from having someone who learned from the Masters on your team. Dan is that guy, yet he is full of experimentation and serendipity. 

Dan always brings his A-Game to a session, regardless of the status of the artist. Major label or independent, it makes no difference to his performance or attitude. Watching him do his thing is a reminder to me of what is truly important to any artist who hires me: the artist wants me to make him/her feel good about the music.

Apropos of that, I recall working on the New Radicals album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too. Before cutting the song “Crying Like A Church On Monday”, the band (Dan on bass, Gregg Alexander on vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan McCarroll on drums, Danielle Brisebois on percussion, and yours truly on electric guitar) experimented with some arrangement ideas, and really began to gel into a tight unit. And then McCarroll, who was known for playing with Jellyfish alumni in The Grays, tells us that he needs to leave for another gig…before we even pressed the Record button. No need to worry, though, because Dan Rothchild was friends with virtually everybody in the record business. He suggested we call Matt Laug, who played drums on Alannis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. 

Soon enough, Matt was set up and ready to rock. Before recording, however, everybody in the room was so inspired by the new chemistry that we jammed on Police songs for an hour! Nobody was stressed about time because we were in the zone, living in the moment, loving the sheer joy of music. Finally we cut the song. It was so easy to fall into the perfect groove with that combination of cats who knew how to listen, and knew how to have fun.

As a treat to you, my beloved readers, before I wrap up this post, I’ll share a couple personal vignettes that I probably shouldn’t. Even if I get in trouble, these are too good to take to the grave.

1. For a brief time, Dan’s nickname was HinderHat. He was fearless on a mountain bike. Before a challenging race in 1990, my pro cycling colleagues and I warned him to watch out for the Rim Wrecker, a technical kamikaze jump over a concrete irrigation trench that could be safely avoided by pedaling around it. It was marked with a makeshift tombstone made of taco’ed rims. The detour, although safe, was a clusterfucked traffic jam. The fastest line was the straight airborne one—provided you had enough speed, skill and guts to clear the jump. After the race, Dan said he looked for the hazard each lap, but never saw it, even though he sailed right over it! Clearly he focused on the goal, and didn’t get hung up on the obstacles in his path.

The race bug bit him, so Dan began training with a small group of elite racers. One day he discovered that his tires were shot, so I left a pair of new skins for him at my home. My training partners and I pedaled the eleven miles to the trailhead while Dan drove to my place, picked up the tires, and then chased us by bike to the trail after he installed only one of the tires. He wrapped the other new one around his helmet, like a turban, and planned to change it at the designated meeting place. 

When he arrived, however, Dan was eager to hit the mountains, so he elected to wear the tire “hat.” The knobby turban, which understandably slowed him down a bit—and caused at least one spectacularly hilarious crash—became known as The Hat That Hinders Dan’s Progress. And Dan became affectionately known as HinderHat.  He didn’t seem to mind, though. If everybody else was happy, then so was Dan. 

2. Dan recorded Better Than Ezra’s electric guitar amplifier in a van, outside his West Hollywood apartment, by running mic and instrument cables out of the second story studio window to the parking lot. I guess the landlord didn’t want him to record loud music inside the apartment, so Dan did not record loud music inside the apartment. No worries. Problem solved? Check. Hit record? Check. 

Circling back to the theme of doing what you love, the takeaway is that we can create our fantasy life by behaving like the person who would actually live such a life. Across the 27 years I’ve known Dan, he has consistently behaved like the guy you want to have on your team; like the guy who would produce a hit record; like the guy who would play bass for Heart, Sheryl Crow, Shakira and Fiona Apple; like the guy who would get his friend a coveted A&R job at a major label. Because of his behavior, all of those things became reality. 

So, how does this story relate to the rest of us? Simply put, let’s behave like the people we want to be, to ensure we live the lives we want to live.