Life Lessons: New Perspectives 

 

Robben Ford’s excellent Concord debut, Blue Moon

 

My previous blog post was initially going to be about a life lesson that I learned when I first worked with Robben Ford. Instead I took a tangent and wrote about the serendipitous chain of events that led to meeting him. Cool story, but I never got around to the life lesson. Without further ado, here’s the intended story.

On second thought, let’s roll with a little bit more ado to set up the story.

Around Y2K, or the Millennium that was going to crash the world’s financial institutions, I had a room at Goodnight LA, formerly Keith Olsen’s studio featured in Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary film. By then, both facilities were well beyond their heyday, but there was still vibrant music being recorded in the compound.

I chose the word “compound” because the two buildings shared a parking lot and were situated such that they reminded me of a fortress. The compound was an outpost of vital rock music in a sunbleached industrial area known for a scuttled brewery garden and a Ford dealership large enough to justify having its own cafeteria.

Sheltered from the outside world, but cloistered in “studio dusk”, I had a daily ritual of taking a “daylight break” in the late afternoon. I’d occasionally run into producer Ross Robinson, who was recording Slipknot’s Iowa.  We’d shoot the shit for a while before returning to our respective sessions.  One day Ross looked dazed, so I asked if he was doing well. He said, “I don’t know…today I threw a potted plant at my band.” When I asked why, he said it was the only way he could get the guys to play with feeling.

I’ve deployed some unusual techniques to inspire a sublime performance, but I have yet to hurl flora, fauna or insults at a drummer. I did, however, allow a singer (Dusty from Siezure Salad, who introduced me to L7) to duct tape headphones to his noggin. I could have talked some sense into him, but he was so far off his game that a major “pattern interruption” was indicated. The guy transformed from the “I’m flailing” dude to the “Look at me and my long hair and my duct tape!”, life of the party, superhero. His band and I cheered him on, with complete disregard for the fact that Dusty would eventually have to remove the industrial strength sticky stuff FROM HIS HAIR! He became a cartoon character and proceeded to sing his ass off.

Five epic songs later he pulled a bunch of hair out of his scalp, and he may have also lost an eyebrow if I recall correctly.

Although I personally wouldn’t respond well to flying plants or adhesive headphones, I do appreciate the fact that a change of perspective can be a powerful tool. We all tend to engage autopilot mode when we remain in comfortable familiar environments too long. A new stimulus at the right time can be a catalyst for growth.

My comfort zone was for a short period Goodnight LA. Ironically, I couldn’t stand the way the control room sounded. The mixing console was an extremely rare Trident Di-An, a digitally controlled analog mixing desk. Because it had very few control knobs to diffuse the early reflections off its large surface, it contributed to sonic havoc. It worked for Keith Olsen, but not for me.

Rather than being a martyr, I decided to change my environment to gain some fresh perspective and, hopefully, inspiration. I liked the sound of the live room, so I moved all of my producer racks from the control room to the live room. (In case you don’t know, a producer rack is typically a portable road case containing specialized pro audio recording equipment that supplements a studio’s in-house gear.) I added a groovy writing desk, a bank of faders, a comfy sofa and some speakers on stands, and all of a sudden had a terrific control room! I recall thinking how funny it was to set up guitar amps, drum kits and expensive German tube microphones in the relatively cramped space in front of the Trident desk, while I enjoyed an expansive posh environment designed exactly for the opposite of what I was doing.

An example of producer racks to the right of the console

I quickly adjusted to my new surroundings, and began thriving. My ears were good and my confidence was high. I was the king of my castle.

One day Robben Ford came by to listen to the first mix I ever did for him. Little did I know that four sentences, with a total of seventeen words, would become game changers for me.

I greet Robben in the reception area and walk him past the control room, into the studio’s live room. He wasn’t expecting that, but he embraced the unorthodox setup. Upon seeing six 20-space racks filled with coveted and storied boutique analog outboard gear, Robben turns to me with a smile, and says sentence number one: “Nice axe!”

Axe is a common euphemism among musicians for instrument. My immediate reaction was to think, “Wait…what? My guitars and amps are on the other side of the room.” Fortunately that thought remained holstered, courtesy of my inside voice, and the only word that made it past my lips was, “Thanks.”

I quickly understood that Robben’s perception of me was as a mix engineer, not as a guitarist. He didn’t need a guitarist — he is, after all, Robben Ford, one of the most revered guitarists of all time. But he did need a mixer, so that’s who I was in his mind.

Lesson #1: no matter who we believe we are, we are to others the person they perceive us to be.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is, so be aware of it and make it work for you.

After geeking out on gear, we listened to my mix of an early version of Riley B King, a song that later surfaced as a duet with Keb Mo. I love that song. It was a tribute and love letter to BB King. There were many layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards. Somehow I managed to fit everything into the mix. I knew that I knocked it out of the park.

I’m standing behind Robben as he listens, and I see him sway in time with the music. The mix is moving him, quite literally. This is a very good sign! He turns around with a big Cheshire cat smile, and asks, “May I hear it again? Can we turn it up?” Of course we can!

We listen to the playback at a nice loud volume, and Robben is clearly into the mix. He’s rocking, nodding his head, turning around and flashing a grin of pleasure every few moments. I’m very excited about this, especially given that he is one of my favorite recording artists of all time. I feel great about making him feel great!

The song ends and he turns around, with his huge charismatic and warm smile, and says, “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything.”

My brain momentarily paused there, basking in the afterglow of hitting a walk off home run. And then…I realized he was still talking. The full statement was. “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything. I don’t know what to listen to.”

Uh oh. Brain.Must.Process. What just happened?!

Fortunately, as a pro I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone, all the time. Rather than panic, I simply and matter-of-factly asked if he could tell me a little bit more about his thoughts so that I could decode them and give him a mix that he would love. He said, “I forgot I played all those parts, so my ears are attracted to them instead of the important stars of the show: my singing and my guitar soloing.”

I responded, “Let’s start by simply making those two elements a little bit louder, and take a listen.” I turned them both up just one decibel, and Robben enthusiastically approved the mix. His words: “There it is! We’re good to go. Thank you.”

Lesson #2: no matter what we know to be true, our definition of true is not always the same as someone else’s.

In this case, I had previously thought that the definition of a good mix was one in which you could hear everything clearly. The instant that I heard Robben say that he didn’t know what to listen to, was the moment of a major paradigm shift. My approach to mixing immediately shifted from technical aesthetic considerations (“it’s punchy and I can hear everything!) to visceral emotional resonance (“This song makes me feel something!”)

The rules of the game had officially changed, and the goalpost had been irreversibly moved. Never again would I mix to impress my engineer friends; I would only mix to make my artists feel whatever they wanted their listeners to feel. That was the catalyst that made my career as a mix engineer take off.

So there you have it. Seventeen little words changed the way that I approached my interactions with other people. See things from their perspective, not just mine. One can learn a lot by crawling into someone else’s head.

As a related parting thought, I’ll share some of the best advice that my attorney gave me before entering an important meeting with a major label president: “There’s a reason that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth.” Think about it…a lot!

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Chain Reaction

Photo by Frank Bevans

Boom! At first, you see nothing special. Then you open your mind and see that everything is connected, perfectly balanced, ripe with endless possibilities.

I sat down to write a post about a valuable life lesson that I learned from Robben Ford while mixing a tune for him.  In order to put myself back in that moment, which took place approximately 15 years ago, I thought about the chain reaction that brought us together.  It’s inherently interesting enough to deserve its own post, independent of the lesson, so here we go!

The genesis of the chain reaction was simple enough.  It’s similar to the “begats” of the Old Testament: someone begat somebody, who begat more children who begat even more kids. In my case, I can connect the dots all the way back to 1993–and they’ve come full circle in 2015. I was in a meeting with music publisher Jan Seedman, who played me a demo from an indie rock band out of Boston.  I was immediately smitten with the band, who were known as Sidewalk Gallery.  They were influenced by The Beatles, they had a cellist, and they were fronted by twin brothers David and Brian Charles.  I asked Jan to make an introduction because I was convinced that I could develop the band and get them signed to a major label.  Brian, was–and is–a musical genius who inspired me to hop on several redeye flights from Los Angeles to work with him.  I could write a book about our exploits in the studio, about getting deals with A&M and Interscope, about getting backstabbed by duplicitous management, about accidentally being “invited” to dine with the mob in Boston’s North End, etc., but I’ll try to remain on the chain reaction track.

Having shared a wealth of experiences in a relatively short time, Brian and I became good friends.  We decided to produce Zen Lunatic’s Eleven Days In May album at Charles’ Zippah Recording studio in 1997.  During the recording sessions, the band’s publicist Elissa Rogovin visited the studio to facilitate an interview with The Boston Globe.  Seizing the opportunity to leverage my discography to increase the buzz, Elissa convinced The Globe to interview me for a special sidebar feature about being a hotshot “L.A. record producer” working with Boston’s local heroes.  Needless to say, I was grateful to Elissa for generating the good press.

Elissa was friends with an L.A. manager named Mark Lampe, so she introduced us.  Mark was representing A.J. Croce, son of the legendary Jim Croce.  A.J. was a Blues and Americana critical darling, but still hadn’t scored the elusive Pop or Rock hit.  His new label, Higher Octave, was a joint venture with Virgin Records, who had the infrastructure to support a hit.  A.J. and I were confident that we could credibly expand his horizons to incorporate a tip of the hat to his influences: The Beatles, Zombies, Elvis Costello, et al. We cowrote some new songs (that still to this day generate royalty revenue!), made a terrific album titled Transit, and became friends.

One day I asked A.J. how it was to work with his previous studio guitarist, Robben Ford, who happened to be one of may all-time favorite blues/jazz artists.  Michael Bizar (Croce’s fantastic live guitarist) and I (a producer who happens to play guitar) had the intimidating privilege of filling Ford’s unfillable shoes, so we wisely chose to sound good doing our own thing instead of struggling to emulate the living legend.  Anyway… A.J. tells me, “Robben is great! You should call him–you guys are two peas in a pod. He’s a spiritual cat who practices his beliefs.  You’ll love each other!”

Meanwhile… A&R man Jed Ojeda and I are in a meeting at Hollywood Records.  He plays me a demo tape (that’s right, tape, as in cassette) of a San Diego band named Everyday Joe.  Although the recordings sound spectacular, the label wants the insurance of having a “name” producer attached to the album.  As much as I dig the music, I honestly believe that the demo producer nailed it–plus he was able to manage Joe’s idiosyncratic personality, which is a big deal, given that Joe chooses to be homeless because he enjoys the pure, surf-infused lifestyle!  I tell Ojeda that the demo producer should keep the gig, and that the guy (the producer) was so talented that I’d like to meet him.  Ojeda then tells me that I confirmed his own feelings, and that he would pass on the compliment to the producer, who happens to be Nicklas Sample, son of one of my musical heroes, Joe Sample of the funky jazz unit, Crusaders.  As the meeting ends, Ojeda invites me to be his guest at a Robben Ford & Larry Carlton gig, where my wife and I ultimately shared a table–and a good rapport–with Robben’s wife, Anne Kerry Ford.

Fast forward a year or so… Tim Torgerson, frontman of The Invisible Man, and I take a drive and listen to Ford’s Supernatural album.  Tim, who’s a total Ford geek, says, “Man, Robben had a heavy spiritual thing happening!”  The album resonates with both of us, and we imagine how awesome it would be to work with the master.  The next day, I’m searching for a contact in the “F” section of my phone book, and I see “Robben Ford” and his phone number.  I’m just about to erase it because there’s really no reason for me to call him, but instead I dial the number.  I leave a voice message, saying, “Hey, this is Michael James, A.J. Croce’s new guitarist… A.J. told me to phone you because we’re apparently two peas in a pod… I love Supernatural, so give me a shout if you want to hear why… I promise I won’t stalk you.”  I don’t expect to hear from Ford.

A few hours later, Tim and I are at FedEx picking up my four new Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors. My hands are full when my cell phone rings, so I ask Tim to check the caller ID. He says, “Dude, it’s Robben Ford!” I said, “Dude, gimme that!”

Here’s the way the conversation with Robben began:

MJ: Hello.  RF: Hi, may I speak with Michael James?  MJ: This is Michael.  RF:  This is Robben Ford.  MJ: Cool. (More accurately, “Coooooooool!”)

After I switched away from fanboy mode, the conversation got real, and we booked some writing and mixing sessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Re: this story, it interests me not only because the genesis of the relationship was a mundane moment, but also because of all the many tangential serendipities and connections.  Jan Seedman became one of my A&R reps at Warner Music Discovery before getting me the gig that led to my work with New Radicals; he later founded Cadium Music and, in 2015, became my manager.  Mark Lampe, along with Interscope VP of A&R Tony Ferguson (who introduced me to Gwen Stefani and No Doubt with the goal of having me produce the first album before he signed the aforementioned Sidewalk Gallery), jointly managed me in the early 2000’s. Nicklas Sample brought me in to cowrite and produce Monroe, Alison Sudol’s predecessor to A Fine Frenzy, and he later toured the world with his father.  Coincidentally, I happen to love the song “Chain Reaction”, which was written by Joe Sample.

Connections are the currency of opportunity.

While none of this may seem earth shattering, the truth is that connections are the currency of opportunity.  If folks don’t become aware of you, they won’t have the chance to witness your talents.  There’s a good chance that none of these events would have happened if I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.  You never know when an ordinary everyday moment might become pivotal, so I guess it’s important to be in the right place enough times to get lucky.

As a postscript, I will share another moment of beauty that arose from that business-as-usual meeting in ’93 with Jan. Around 2002, shortly after the release of Transit, A.J. and I were dining at his mother’s restaurant, Croce’s, in the historic gaslight district of San Diego. We shared our table with Waylon Jennings and his ex-wife, but steadfast companion, Jessi Colter. Waylon told us all the reasons that he loved Transit, that he thought we made an excellent team, and that he would like us to produce his next album. His words resonated with us. We were blown away.

That alone would have made the evening memorable, but the true beauty was in what happened next. Sure, the thumbs-up from the big guy was a nice pat on the back and it had the potential to put some more dollars into my bank account, but the real reward was witnessing a moment of tenderness that would remain with me for the rest of my life.

Waylon had a habit of calling everyone “Hoss”, presumably inspired by Dan Blocker’s character from the old school TV Western show, Bonanza. On the surface it was both amusing and pretty cool because, if you think about it, Hoss was a great wingman, exactly the type of person you could count on if you needed some mojo on the Ponderosa. To me, it was a term of endearment, but when Waylon slipped up and called Jessi “Hoss”, she sternly replied, “Hey! I’m not Hoss, I’m your wife!” She then smiled, kissed him, and cut his food into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Jessi was a force of nature in her own right, but there she was, regal and elegant in her role as caretaker for the legendary but feeble country music Outlaw, who unbeknownst to the rest of us, would die shortly thereafter. She was a country music star, but her higher purpose, her servitude, is what resonated with me.

Sometimes these seemingly ordinary, mundane moments ultimately prove to be pivotal, and can set in motion a chain reaction that can change your life. In spending just a couple hours with Waylon and Jessi, I got a glimpse into the true meaning of life. It all comes down to the connections we make and the bonds we forge with our loved ones. At the end of the day, the importance of your trophy case pales in comparison to the importance of love. All the money in the world cannot buy you another minute when your time is up, but love can make a single moment feel like an eternity.