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.

An Inside Story Behind The Real Men Wear Beige Soundtrack

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Don Alfredano turned a prison nightmare into a thing of beauty.

 

4:31 AM. January 17, 1994. The world must be coming to an abrupt end. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake is shaking Agoura Hills, California like a speed-addled Mariachi’s rattle. I jump out of bed and instinctively wrap Irina in the down comforter, pulling her safely away from the large window that could shatter at any moment. She, being a California native, groggily mutters, “Let me go back to sleep… It’s just another earthquake.” 

I should note that, contrary to what we’re told, doorways are not necessarily the safest place to be during a large earthquake. They may be structurally reinforced, but that does not prevent them from swinging wildly and unpredictably. They could have easily broken an arm or chopped one of our cats in half.

Meanwhile, Don Alfredano, newly relocated to the San Fernando Valley from Boston, was having the pleasure of experiencing his first earthquake. Don and I had recently completed a big project for an update to the Eventide Harmonizer. That job was focused on guitar tones, so we developed a bunch of presets using a stereo Mesa/Boogie Triaxis rig. Don had the rig, which included two separate 1×12 speaker cabinets, set up to the side of his bed so that he could play guitar until falling asleep. 

With a wall on the opposite side of the bed, and wall-mounted cabinets above it, Don was essentially sandwiched like a hotdog. So, at 4:31 AM, when the sound of Armageddon rudely awakened him, he jumped up and whacked his head on the cabinets, then spun around and fell backwards in the dark over one of the speakers. He stumbled outside to find that the swimming pool had bona fide waves. Welcome to California, baby!

A good story always has a price tag. I wish you could have heard Don tell the story first hand. He’s such a good story teller that Irina and I were in tears, and our abdomens literally hurt from “creasing” (being folded over as a result of profound laughter). As much as I despise the concept of Schadenfreude, I must admit that Don’s high-wire circus act during the quake evoked the vision of a ballet gone terribly wrong, as if it were danced on a seesaw. 

The thing about earthquakes is that you never see them coming, and they can change your life in an instant. They can be like a glassy smooth freeway: open road for miles with no obstacles—until you find yourself launching over the edge of a cliff. 

Don was cruising along in the diamond lane, destined for some exciting new chapters. He hung up his guitar and shifted his focus to writing. His first critically acclaimed book, Be Strong, Be Tough, Be Smart, was about raising his autistic son, who is now a renowned astrophysicist. He opened a resort in Portugal’s hip Algarve and eventually returned to the USA where he became a local government official. Life was looking bright!

And then one day, completely out of the blue, the road dropped out from underneath him. With the political environment and government oversight beginning to rain down on him, Don left the USA and took a teaching job in EuropeEventually, he got a call from his attorney who informed him that he was all over the news—and not in a good way.  The gravity of the ordeal was serious enough that when Don asked his attorney what to do, the attorney said, “You might want to consider staying overseas.”

Don made arrangements to fly back to the USA to voluntarily hand himself over to the authorities, and for him to meet his wife and her attorney at the airport before putting his affairs in order during the subsequent 48 hours. Instead he was immediately handcuffed upon landing, and hurled headfirst into a surreal WTF! odyssey. His gesture of good faith was not sufficient to keep him from serving time at the infamous Rikers Island.

I really can’t equate Don’s incarceration experience to anything in my life. Fortunately, not many of us can.  But I’d bet we all know something about bad choices and decisions. We’ve all made a few. Sometimes things that look, feel, or sound right at the time, turn out to be something entirely different when we look in the rear view mirror. Some call it 20/20 hindsight. It’s just a fact that in our daily lives and within the parameters of our careers, we are faced with choices. Some seem simple and obvious, and some have serious repercussions. On the other hand, some things are just accepted practice, “par for the course,” and are considered “a given.”  In other words, the lines are often blurred. Here’s an example:

I consider Don’s scenario to be a lot like the cross-collateralization that happens in the recording and publishing industries. It is “a given.” The mindset is that you do what you gotta do to get things done, and in the end, it will “all work itself out in the wash.”

Bureaucratic red tape is often the enemy of getting things done in a timely manner. That said, the law is the law, so public servants need to be especially diligent to remain beyond reproach and to withstand intense scrutiny. Don owns and accepts responsibility for his transgression. That’s why he flew back to New York to face the music and serve time in prison as a middle-aged man. Despite being a gentle, thoughtful, well-educated poet and musician, he chose to dwell behind bars with thugs and gang bangers rather than to live on the run, far away from his family and loved ones. 

Even the darkest day can have a silver lining, if you know where to look for it. Don channeled his angst into a new multimedia book and record album about his experience within the penal system so that the rest of us remember to pay attention to our choices and to avoid a pivotal indiscretion that can lead down a slippery slope. The book, Real Men Wear Beige, is a terrific and exciting read that I could not put down. A compelling story told in 142 pages, it was easy to digest in one sitting. I loved it because Don found humanity and love in between all of the adrenaline rushes.

The accompanying soundtrack music album is filled with top quality, catchy songs, and features guest appearances from notable luminaries such as Corey Glover from Living Color and Paul Pesco from Hall & Oates. Master craftsman Paul Orofino engineered it. I mixed it, and also had the pleasure of producing and playing gritty slide guitar on a “Swamp Mix” (see track #9 on the Spotify playlist) of the title track, this time sung by Alfredano instead of Glover. The soundtrack lyrics are woven throughout the book, so the music is integral to the story, rather than an afterthought. As an example, when I listen to the song “The Concrete Is My Only Friend,” I can almost feel the cold hard surface on which Don was finally able to fall sleep, his only escape from the incarceration nightmare that was fast becoming his new reality.

So many people believe that they are over the hill after a certain age. Don, however, seems to have tapped into his youth, revitalized his music, and gotten a new lease on life. We should all be so lucky to not flinch or bail out when life throws us a wicked curveball that looks like it’s coming straight at us. 

Hats off to Don Alfredano for rising above the destruction that could have defined the second half of his life. Just as he did after the ’94 Northridge earthquake, he sifted through the rubble and began rebuilding.

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The critically acclaimed book can be purchased as a bundle with its music soundtrack.

Keith Emerson’s Suicide & Artists’ High Need For Approval

 

ELP’s Keith Emerson, Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess and producer Keith Wechsler

 

Keith Emerson, virtuoso keyboardist of ELP, is no longer with us. It blows my mind to think that he believed suicide was his best option.

Because I am thankfully not prone to depression, I cannot comprehend the idea that not seeing tomorrow’s sunrise would be a better option than waking up to explore the vast horizon of endless possibilities potential in each and every day. Then again, I love a good mystery, so God forbid I were to get sucked into a daytime soap opera. Or to get started on Breaking Bad, because I would almost certainly binge-watch the entire series if it is truly as good as I am told.

I simply cannot wait to find out what happens next. Good or bad, it almost doesn’t matter. I suppose that’s because I find serendipity in tests and difficulties. I believe that they are the equivalent of the fire through which a sword must pass before it is ready for battle. When I broke ten bones in a state championship bicycle race in 2004, my friends were more bummed out than I was. They focused on what I could no longer do for the next two months: race. I, on the other hand, focused on the adventure of spicing up my life with some variety. I bought power tools so that I could make furniture during the 14 extra hours I would have every week. I ticked some long postponed projects off my To Do list. I hired other guitarists to do my recording sessions, and I learned a bunch of new chops in the process. I had a great time, even if I happened to be in pain. A few weeks later, I was back in the saddle again, invigorated by fresh perspective and new life experiences that raised my game both in the studio and at the races. What initially appeared to be devastating, eventually proved to be a blessing.

My dear friend and mentor, Keith Wechsler, worked closely with Keith Emerson as his producer. They became good friends. KW told me a few years ago that Emerson developed a physical ailment that severely handicapped his hands and his ability to perform. Rather than retiring, Emerson figured out how to make two or three fingers do the work of five. He played great, despite his misfortune. Given what I knew, I assumed that he adapted, so I was surprised to hear of his suicide. I guess he identified more with what he did physically than who he was as a spiritual being. Apparently if he couldn’t play piano like a madman or entertain his fans with wicked chops, life wasn’t worth living.

That concept is noteworthy because many artists have a very high need for approval from their fans and peers. Without approval (in the form of recognition, critical acclaim, financial success, etc.), artists often feel like their artistry lacks merit. In the record business, artists without recording contracts often feel like frauds because they do not have the validation of some self-proclaimed “arbiter of worthiness” who may not possess even the most basic hints of musical talent. I’m not saying that all A&R folks lack talent…I’m saying that we, by definition of our job descriptions, have an almost fiduciary responsibility to sign commercially viable entertainers, not necessarily great artists. It is tragic when a great band bails out because they took it too hard when some nonmusical bureaucrat in a suit rejected the band’s demo tape after eating bad sushi for lunch or getting dumped by a lover.

If you’re an up and coming artist looking for somebody in a position of power or influence to open a door for you, remember this: Do something because you love to do it, not because you hope somebody else will like you for it. This is the only way that your art will remain pure. Otherwise you’ll be chasing a moving target while creating “art by committee.”

This is where Emerson and I fundamentally differ. My attitude is to roll with a good thing while it lasts, and then be grateful for the past while I write a new adventurous chapter for the future. When he thinks it’s game over, I think we’re beginning Game 2 of a doubleheader. Did he ever consider the possibility that many fans would have loved to hear him speak about his music, or to take a master class from him, or to be mentored by him? His music was the soundtrack to many peoples lives. There’s a lot more he could have given if he was willing to adapt. Emerson’s music was cool, but it was by no means the only cool thing about him. In this article, Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess states, “Evidently [Emerson] was upset that he couldn’t play the same anymore due to physical issues; that he could not deliver for the fans. I will always think about that now. About the realities of what we do as players, and what I need to be aware of. In that respect, Keith Emerson will never stop teaching me.”

If there is anything that I hope you will take away from today’s blog post, it is the belief that a life well lived is its own reward. Don’t look to others for approval of your art; do it because you love it, regardless of how others react to it.

The second takeaway is to be open to serendipity. You may not always get what you want, but with hindsight, it becomes clear that you often get what you need.

The Hole Truth

I recall the conversation as if it were yesterday: “You really need to produce this band. They’re going to be HUGE!”

Bruce Pavitt, one of the two principals at SubPop Records, was calling me from Seattle, long-distance, back in the day when long-distance was enough of a big deal that folks jockeyed for position to be the recipient, not the originator, of the phone call. Long distance was expensive enough that I have a hazy recollection of budgeting $400/month for my phone bill–and a very clear recollection of asking record company execs to call me back if I was working outside California, so that they would pick up the tab after the conversation went beyond a few minutes.

“Michael, I love the work you did with L7–you really captured their soul and energy. Plus, you’ve proven that you can work well with girl groups.  You’ll be a perfect fit for these gals.  They’re heavy and arty. They call themselves Whole,” said Bruce.

“Right on, Bruce,” I responded. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m curious, though… How did you know that I’m a vegan, granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, yoga-practicing hippy at heart?” Man, did I totally misread the pitch! I thought Bruce was pitching me on an equality-of-the-sexes, self-realized New Age Metal group that perhaps sharpened their used razor blades under glass pyramids in the energy vortex of Sedona.

“Uh… I didn’t know that about you, MJ,” said Bruce. “Let’s start over. There’s nothing holistic about this band. It’s a grungy girl band, without a “W” in their name. It’s just Hole. It’s a girl band. Hole… Figure it out, buddy. Got it now?”

We made a deal. I was excited to begin working with the gals, and finally the first tracking date arrived. I had no idea that my world was about to change.

To fully understand this story, one must be aware of the context. In November 1990, we were still feeling the effects of the ’80s, which included big hair, Lycra Spandex pants, shoulder pads and knit leg warmers inappropriately sported outside the dance studio. In the recording studio, bigger was better: multi-tracked instrument overdubs, long vocal echoes, and perhaps most conspicuously, massive drum sounds with electronic Simmons drums to beef up the tom-toms, and “gated” reverb made famous on the Phil Collins hit “In The Air Tonight.

A typical way to record a commercial rock band would begin by striping a 2″ reel of magnetic analog tape with SMPTE (pronounced “simptee”) time code. SMPTE enabled us to synchronize multiple tape decks and computer based sequencers. (Anybody remember swapping a small stack of floppy disks to load Opcode Vision or MOTU Performer in a $4000 Macintosh SE with 1 MB RAM? That’s not a typo–one megabyte was state of the art!) The sequencer contained “sequences” of MIDI information, which was used in order to print to tape a click track (metronome pulse) and multiple keyboard tracks and drum samples that were performed and edited during preproduction. It was actually pretty cool to connect your Mac to a tall rack of synthesizer, sampler and drum machine modules, and listen to a dozen or more premixed and pre-panned stereo parts being triggered live to two tracks of a 24 track tape recorder! This was a huge time saver: we could do in five minutes what used to take days.

The good news is that we could then blow the entire savings on recording one musician at a time, in isolation, without the other band members. (Yes, you do detect more than a hint of sarcasm.) The pinnacle of this practice was to record one drum at a time. No, not one drummer–one drum! It should be easy to find video of Mick Fleetwood in the studio, recording a kick drum to the click track, before moving on to the other elements of the drum set, one piece at a time. I guess the thought was that isolation would allow us to surgically deploy the gated reverb effect to specific elements like kick, snare and toms, while avoiding the cymbals. Or perhaps it was to get the best possible performance of each part and subpart of the record. Or to sound like a precise machine, devoid of human imperfections…and feel. The (real, not sarcastic) good news was that we had a new benchmark for sonic clarity; the bad news was that we had no idea if our record would feel good until we heard all the overdubs together, which might require several days per song.

The previous old-school way to record a band was to have the musicians perform live together in the same room, or at least in isolation booths with line of sight to one another. Even if we might want to add copious overdubs later, we knew immediately if the we had a record that felt good. If the basic tracks–the foundation–got everybody excited, we could proceed to the next task.  If not, we would simply record additional takes until we got one that we liked, or a few partials that we could edit together into a righteous composite take.

Enter Hole. Four musicians, three of them women. I introduced myself and asked them about their music so that I could determine where to set them up in the studio. Radio Tokyo Studio was a small cottage in Venice Beach, California, converted to a carpet cave den of musical discovery. Due to SubPop’s limited budget, I already knew that I had to capture the band as “live” as possible, without resorting to tedious overdubs, so inspiration was the name of the game. And I knew that we needed to get the band into the inspiration zone quickly.

Hole’s excellent guitarist, Eric Erlandson, had a couple surprises for me. First, he was a guy. Not that it mattered, but Bruce Pavitt repeatedly referred to the group as a girl band. Second, and more important, was the fact that he was a sonic sculptor with a vision. He showed me his rat’s nest of stompbox pedal FX at his feet, precariously DIY connected, without regard for impedance or noise issues. My first thought was, “Uh oh,” and the second was, “We better tidy up the mess of cables before somebody trips on them and sues the studio.”

Eric then asked one of the most pivotal, game-changer questions I’ve ever heard: “Should I use my cheap FX, or shall I unplug them and use your expensive, hi-fi, rack-mounted studio effects?”

I asked, “Do you like your tone? Is there a reason you want to change your sound?” As enlightened as my reply seems, it was in large part the result of a pragmatic consideration. Eric had a dozen pedals connected in series. Delays, reverb, fuzz, distortion, overdrive, chorus, flanger, tremolo, etc. Frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start, and I could imagine us slipping down the rabbit hole in pursuit of an artistic (as opposed to traditional) effects-laden guitar tone. We simply didn’t have the budget to risk going there.

Fortunately, Eric said, “I love my tone!”

MJ: “Okay, let’s hear it.”

EE: (Plays some riffs that are nearly indecipherable through the wall of art-noise.) “What do you think?”

MJ: “I think that your tone is unique, and I’m not convinced that I could beat it with the expensive studio stuff. Let’s start with your pedals. When I hear your sound in the context of the band, I’ll tell you if I have any suggestions for improvement. Cool?”

EE: “Wow, that’s awesome! You’re the first person who has ever allowed me to record with my sound. Thank you!”

Although I didn’t understand Eric’s textural sound in a vacuum, I must say that in context it truly enhanced the emotional impact of the songs. It beautifully complemented Courtney Love’s urgent rhythmic drive. My world changed in an instant. No longer would I complicate the process simply because it was expected. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would henceforth take the path of least resistance and be open to serendipity.

So… What about Courtney? Is she talented, or did all the good stuff come from Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan? I’ve been asked those questions for years.

I still remember the day I met Ms. Love. She had a sense of style, perhaps one that could be called Thrift Store Chic. Green crushed velvet sundress over a white T-shirt, paired with white bobby socks and black Doc Martin oxford shoes, not the logger’s boots, nor the flannel shirt, that would soon become de regeur for Seattle’s music scene.

While we were setting up the band’s equipment, Courtney’s conversation was mostly quiet and understated, and had little to do with music. She talked about how she was being portrayed on Page 3 of the British tabloids, thanks to her celebrity status gained from her acting role in the film Sid and Nancy. And then I heard her sing.  Holy cow!

SubPop didn’t mail me any demo tapes before the recording sessions, so I had no idea what to expect, other than the band was a gritty Hole, not a New Age, bliss-ninny, colon-cleansed Whole. I knew that this band was important to Mr. Pavitt, so I signed up for the job. Anyway, I pressed Record, and the band fell into a trancelike atmospheric mood piece with quiet vocals. The sonic texture was so hypnotic that I became totally relaxed, at one with my studio chair behind the console. I wondered if this was similar to the experience of ingesting magic mushrooms or other hallucinogens. I became the chair–with a human head. Whoa… what a trip!

And then the SCREEEEAAAAMMMM happened, completely without warning! I swear to you that I nearly launched like a rocket from my chair-body-thing. Felt like I was lucky to have not cracked open my skull on the carpeted ceiling. Almost had a heart attack.  I heard myself say, “This is truly epic!” And it was. Courtney’s intense delivery made me actually feel something from the band’s music. (I find it interesting that, 25 years later, Adele’s “Hello” is the current poster child for vocal performances with conviction. Super Producer Michael Beinhorn, who produced Hole’s successful Celebrity Skin and is a beacon of truth about the current state of the record business, might have some intriguing then vs. now thoughts. Check out his excellent blog, How To Save Popular Music.)

Courtney definitely had talent. As I wrote earlier, her rhythm guitar playing drove the band. Not fancy, but visceral. Her vocal performance got my body moving, quite literally. She and Eric were writing about rape, incest, child molestation and women taking the blame despite being the victims. I knew she was going to be a rockstar the moment we met. Frankly, she already was a rockstar, only the world didn’t yet know it.

As a postscript, I’ll mention the sad news that sometimes there is a hefty price tag attached to talent. Artists often see our world from a different perspective than the mainstream populace. According to the media, Courtney had her demons, which she attempted to vanquish with chemical assistance. I cannot personally confirm this because she wasn’t high during the “Dicknail” and “Burnblack” recording sessions, but I can say that her one of her husbands, who was a VP of A&R at Geffen Records, personally told me that there was a five year period of the ’90s that had become “a blank” for Courtney, completely erased from her memory. The guy was still happily married to her at the time, so he wasn’t bashing his wife. We shared a rare moment of silence (well, rare in the context of an A&R meeting) contemplating how sad it was for someone so young to flush such a big percentage of life experience down the chute. Fame ain’t easy.

MJ Puerto Rico guitar 1986
The ’80s were good to me. Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 1986.

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.

Friend-Sourcing, Part 2: Good Press and Brand Building 

Full page feature in Pro Sound News, courtesy of good karma.


What a wild ride the summer of 2015 was! Great music, great bicycling, and great press. My life was in the groove. Plus, thanks to the #1 record, the time was ripe to ask my friends to help me further build the Michael James brand.

In the “new” record business, many folks believe that you don’t make money from record sales, but rather from “building your brand.” For the sake of this post, let’s not worry about what to actually do with said built brand after you build it. Instead we’ll focus on one specific way to raise awareness of your brand: “friend-sourcing.”

In my case, I made a point of engaging with my fans and clients since my first day on the job. I like to think I have some good karma and good will in the bank. Maybe enough to cash in, in the form of enlisting the help of my friends…

My plan? Mobilize the troops to create a renewed buzz about my current success stories, with the goal of expanding my client base.

When one attempts to do this beyond the local grassroots level, one typically (and wisely) hires a publicist and a street team. I, however, decided to friend-source. I called my friends directly to ask for their help.

This decision was not motivated by financial considerations as much as instinct. My gut told me that folks who knew me would be happy to treat me with the same enthusiasm, kindness and generosity that I showed them. Plus their efforts would be genuine, not manufactured.

I was right. Everybody I asked delivered…and there’s a reason.

I’ve always believed that healthy relationships are balanced with respect to both giving and receiving. I strive for this equilibrium.

As an example, Wade Goeke of Chandler Limited made it (relatively) easy for me to buy his products. After each purchase, I inevitably needed support in the form of consultation to ensure that I was able to get the most from his pro audio and guitar products. As we became more familiar with each other, we became professional friends. Not only would I provide real world feedback from the front lines, I would also take a genuine interest in his life—and he in mine. I recall sending him an emotionally uplifting song, Light On The Horizon, when he was facing a difficult challenge. He was very appreciative, and sent a heartfelt note to me, explaining that the simple act of reaching out was exactly what he needed to remember that he was not alone.

So, Wade was happy to help when I asked him if his social media maven could spread the word about my scene in a mutually beneficial manner. By publishing a feature about the role of his products in my workflow, he would be attached to a current hit while I would tap into his network of fans and customers. Win-win.

Several other pro audio sponsors followed suit, including Dangerous Music, Manley Labs, and Glyph Technologies. Their efforts, in turn, led to features with SonicScoop and other prestigious publications.

Meanwhile, I pondered who among my journalist acquaintances might have a reason to pitch a story to their editors. Clive Young, of Pro Sound News, used to publish a fanzine, Joy Buzzer, that was devoted to NY rockers Too Much Joy. Clive interviewed me a couple times about my role as Producer of TMJ’s major label debut album, Son Of Sam I Am. To this day, he and I remain devoted fans and friends of the band, so we share a bond that only TMJ devotees would understand. Long story short, I pitched him a story. Because Clive is a really good guy who genuinely enjoys helping others, he found a way to turn the idea into something even bigger and better.  He determined that we could break it apart into five separate features that would dose the Michael James story across several months instead of a one shot deal. Win-win again…and again.

Friend-sourcing ensured that everybody had a reason to help me. All my friends genuinely want me to succeed in my endeavors. By the end of the summer, I had been featured in around a dozen new, unique, significant publications, both physical and digital. The exposure was huge, and it opened new doors to opportunity.

I highly recommend friend-sourcing to anyone who is serious about pursuing or maintaining a career in today’s record business.  For it to work, however, it is imperative that you give at least as much as you take. Remember: people will want to help you if you demonstrate that you want to help them.

* If you’d like to read Friend-Sourcing, Part 1: Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends, click on the link. And stay tuned for Friend-Sourcing, Part 3, which will be here sooner than you’d expect!

I was a customer at Dalbir Sidhu’s restaurant, and now we’re friends. He’s become an evangelist for my mixing services.

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.