An Inside Story Behind The Real Men Wear Beige Soundtrack

RMWB who is who 2
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.

rmwb square cover 2
The critically acclaimed book can be purchased as a bundle with its music soundtrack.
Advertisements

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.

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. 

Hidden Gems: The Building Blocks of a Good Story

  

Life is full of surprises. Some are profound, while others are merely amusing. You almost certainly encounter both types over the course of recording an entire album.

Good stories almost never come without a price tag. Legendary ancestors of whom we sing songs of trials, tribulations and conquests, paid a heavy price. If they didn’t have to earn their status, their stories would not be compelling.

Fortunately we’re talking about the art of making records, not giving birth to nations or winning wars, so the stakes aren’t as high. Nonetheless, musicians can be colorful characters who have a knack for finding themselves right smack in the middle of a good story. 

Producing a record is a very intimate experience. The producer and artist cannot help but become very close to each other. Each goes pretty far upstream, or should I say down the rabbit hole, into the other one’s artistic fantasy world. For several weeks or months, you become each other’s confidantes and BFFs. Needless to say, you end up truly caring for the other person, even if at times you want to beat some sense into him.

Roy Ashen, pictured above, is the founder of a music licensing company named Triple Scoop Music. Prior to that, however, he was a wunderkind prodigy who pioneered eight-finger tapping technique and wrote columns for various guitar magazines. He was poised to rule the recording industry, with multiple labels clamoring for a piece of him. 

Before I go any farther, perhaps I should explain the presence of Amy’s Kitchen Pad Thai lurking behind the CD package in the photograph. 

Outsiders have the illusion that recording music is a very mysterious process, fraught with tortured artistry and constant struggles to tap into fleeting moments of inspiration. While this is sometimes true, the other part of the reality is that the entire team has a series of pragmatic milestones that must be reached. Everybody is always looking out for each other to ensure that the entire team is operating at maximum productivity. The photo symbolizes the goal of the finished product, along with the hidden gems we find along the way. (In reality, the hidden “gem” of the next part of the story is a leftover burrito, not a sweet and sour noodle dish.)

Roy and I arrived separately at Westlake Audio Studios for a 10 AM downbeat. Before engaging in the ritual bro-hug, I placed my keys, sunglasses and grilled vegetarian burrito on the credenza adjacent to the console. Roy pointed to the burrito, and asked, “You went to Baja Fresh this morning?” 

“No,” I replied. 

“Huh… Then where’d you get the burrito?”

“I found it.” 

“You found it? Wait a minute! Put it down right now!! What do you mean, you found it? Where did you find it?”

“In my car. Under the LA Weekly.”

“Whoa, MJ, you can’t eat that thing just because you found it under a magazine in your car. How did it get there? When did it get there? Who put it there? You can’t just go around eating found food without knowing the answers to these questions. You could die from food poisoning, dude!”

“Stop worrying, Roy. Irina (my wife) and her mother probably went out for dinner last night, and picked up an extra burrito for me. The temperature was cool (it was winter… in Los Angeles!), so I’m not worried about it not being refrigerated overnight. I appreciate your concern, but you’re making a big deal over nothing. I’ll call Irina to confirm, if it’ll make you feel better, so that we can get on with making rock ‘n’ roll history.”

I’m pretty sure that Roy’s concern kept me out of the hospital. At first, my wife didn’t know what I was talking about. She had forgotten all about the burrito because she left it under the magazine about a week earlier. I never noticed it because the cool weather must have prevented any aroma from being apparent. This isn’t the most compelling story ever told, but we were both amused by it, as was the staff of Westlake Audio, for months afterwards. Plus it is very comforting to know that your friends have your back. Temporary nickname: Burrito Guy. Love is welcome in any form that it takes.

Anyway… A few days later, we overdubbed some keyboard parts and did some mix preparation at my private studio. I was playing a Wurlitzer electric piano part on a MIDI controller, using a Pro Tools virtual instrument named Velvet. The MIDI controller doesn’t make any sound on it’s own; it merely controls the software, which produces sound within the Pro Tools application. If it’s not connected to a sound generator, all you can hear when playing the keyboard is the click made from physically depressing the plastic keys. No music, just percussive hammering of fingertips.

About halfway through the song, ironically titled “Goodbye,” Roy stepped out of the control room to grab a glass of water from the kitchen. When he came back, there was no audible music playing through the speakers, but I was still banging out the keyboard part in perfect tempo with the song. He asked what I was doing and why I looked so focused.  I told him to stand by because I was finishing the overdub performance. There was literally no music playing – the only sound was the aforementioned percussive banging of my fingers on the keyboard. The surreal moment reminded me of the scene in the Mozart movie, Amadeus, in which the ballet dancers were performing without music after the emperor censored part of an opera. The emperor walked into rehearsal hoping to witness something sublime, but was instead bewildered. (Spoiler alert, in case you haven’t gotten around to seeing the film in the past 30 years: the emperor uncensored the music so that the opera would make sense and he could enjoy it. Very funny scene!)

About a minute later, I finished the part and suggested we take a listen. Roy was laughing his ass off because he thought I had lost my mind. I explained that I forgot to remove the fade-out automation from the master fader. The song continued for a minute or so beyond the time that I could no longer hear it. I was in the groove, so I elected to continue playing the keyboard part. Next, I made sure that the automation was turned off when we listened to playback to evaluate the new keyboard part. Lo and behold, by a stroke of either genius or sheer dumb luck, I did indeed perform the part flawlessly, in perfect sync and pocket with the track and the metronome! Revised temporary nickname: Groove Master MJ. Much better. 

That same day, Roy squinted at my Apple Display, which gave him a headache, and remarked that it was inhumane for me to work with it. Apparently it was too small for his liking.

A few days later we returned to Westlake Audio to begin mixing the album. Roy asked if I would like to go out for lunch with him. I accepted the invitation, and he told me that he needed to quickly stop by the Grove, an upscale marketplace off Fairfax. The grove was the home of the first Apple store in the Los Angeles area. It was my first time visiting Mecca. The store featured an enormous poster of a Gibson ES335 semi-hollowbody guitar. I was drawn to it like a moth to flame. 

Roy asked, “Do you like that computer?” I told him that I did. He said, “Dude it’s yours! You’ve earned it. Go get your truck and let’s load it up.” I interpreted the statement to mean that he was pressuring me into buying the latest Mac tower and a larger display. Man, did I misinterpret that one by a mile! We were in fact at the Apple store for Roy to pick up a new Mac and cinema display that he already purchased for me as a gift. Holy cow, I was surprised!

I did the obligatory attempt to say that I could not accept such a generous ($4000-ish) gift, but in the end Roy prevailed, saying that I had been his only constant and unflappable advocate and champion, plus he reminded me that I got him an $80,000 part time consulting gig a few weeks earlier. He refused to allow me to deprive him of the joy of giving me that gift. I understood what he meant. There are many people who are good at giving, but not at receiving. I’m not talking about moochers and con artists; I’m talking about good people with good souls. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with giving and with receiving other people’s generosity. Win-win. 

Remember the beginning of this piece, when I stated no good story comes without a price tag? Roy and I both believed strongly in his artistry, so we bootstrapped the making of his album, Sugar and Gasoline. As expected, the major labels came around and offered record deals. Although we had options, we really wanted to make a deal with Tony Ferguson at Interscope Records. Tony and I had a solid, proven working relationship, and we had become pretty good friends. Plus Tony goes way back with Jimmy Iovine, who at the time ran the label. Everything added up to success.

I introduced Roy to my entertainment attorney, Seth Lichtenstein. They made a deal, and then Seth helped us through the process of finding the right management. We settled on Dandy Fooled (name changed as a professional courtesy), who was at the time managing __________ …oops, I mean Robbie Zombotomy…yeah, that’s the guy’s name. Best to change it so you can’t connect the dots and learn Dandy Fooled’s true identity.  

Before I write something I probably shouldn’t, i.e. the truth, I must say that Dandy had the reputation of being terrific manager. If you are guessing that I’m about to describe a major fuckup, you are correct. I generally make it a rule to either say something positive or nothing at all when I’m talking about other people, but I’m breaking the rule in this case for educational purposes. You may arguably be the best recording artist ever to walk the face of the earth, but you’re still going to have to deal with other people. Humans, even the good ones, can make mistakes. And they do. We all do. So, if you want to be in the record business, you better grow some super thick skin very quickly and be willing to immediately bounce back from setbacks without dwelling on them.

We took a meeting at Dandy’s office, where he sat us at the conference table with his entire staff. They showered us with praise and painted a picture of how rosey Roy’s future was. During the meeting, Tony Ferguson happened to phone in, and Dandy took the call on speakerphone, indicating that we should be quiet while he talked. I guess he was trying to impress us with his power because this is what happened:

TF: “Congratulations, Dandy, on signing Roy Ashen! I want to formally offer you a deal because all the pieces have fallen into place. You were the missing piece of the puzzle. We like Roy, we like Michael, and we like you. The whole company is excited, and we are ready to move on this right away.”

AG: “Thanks for the offer, Tony, but with all due respect, you know I need to go over your head on this. I need to make the deal directly with Jimmy. The stakes have gotten higher, and there is more competition involved.”

TF: “I understand. No offense taken. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help expedite the process.”

Afterward, we reminded Dandy that we in fact wanted to make a deal with Tony because we liked him and wanted him personally to be the A&R guy. Dandy assured us that he had a plan, that everything was under control, and that he needed Roy to burn 100 CDs for him ASAP. This was in the early 2000s, when burning CDs meant that Roy stayed up all night with a couple slow, cumbersome machines that occasionally worked, if he was lucky. Every time Dandy sent an email requesting documents or products, Roy responded and delivered within 24 hours.

The flipside of this apparent enthusiasm is that Dandy completely dropped the ball. Never returned a single one of Roy’s calls. Blew at least two legitimate major-label offers that were exciting to us. He took a couple of my calls and asked me to let Roy know that he would return his calls soon. 

Baffled and disappointed, Seth tried to make sense of it. He called Dandy “El Schmucko.” Roy and I liked hearing that nickname because it was the first time we laughed out loud since signing with the guy. Unfortunately Dandy killed all of Roy’s momentum, and tied him up for over a year. 

Lesson learned: When good news becomes old news, the ship has sailed. You only have one chance to make a first impression. 

Unless he were to reinvent himself by forming a new band or changing his name and his sound, Roy’s major label career as a solo artist would be over, just when it was about to begin. It’s not fair, but hey, whoever said life was fair? It simply is what it is.

Life may not be fair, but it has a way of giving us what we need, when we need it. Although Roy had dreams of being a rockstar, he has gotten far more satisfaction from being a father to his robot-infatuated son, who just may be the reincarnation of the astronomer Carl Sagan. Plus Roy’s independently released music, which is truly some of the best rock and singer-songwriter stuff I have ever heard, continues to have a positive impact on the lives of many listeners. 

I recall one particularly heavy, yet heartwarming, story about “Goodbye.”  Roy initially had no plans to include it on the album, but I lobbied for it because it resonated with some of my personal experiences. After the album was released, somebody on the other side of the planet was about to commit suicide, and wanted to hear that song one more time before pulling the trigger. “One more time” led to another listen… And another listen… And yet another listen. 

The person emailed Roy, thanking him for saving her life. She said the song gave her hope, and she wanted to wake up another day to hear it again. I saw the email. It was heavy. Roy said that it was much more profound, rewarding and meaningful than selling a million albums. I feel the same. Hidden gems, where you least expect to find them. 

So You Want To Be A Rekkid Producah!

Part 1: Yesterday 

I’m living the dream. My screen shot looks like a jet-setter’s dessert menu, a collection of exotic treats to be consumed with enthusiasm and moderation.

Ever wonder what the dream looks like? Let’s pull back the curtain to see what the Wiz is up to.

Today’s workload was relatively light and pressure free. Got up 6 AM to exercise on my bike…and still hadn’t ridden nearly 19 hours later. New York is three hours ahead, so I decided to have a quick chat with my web designer before she’d get buried beneath the pile of other duties on her desk.

My next task was pitching another New Yorker an article for Pro Sound News. There are multiple plates spinning, so I memorialized the chat in a detailed email to remind us where we left off. Before I knew it, a couple hours passed. I thought, “I better get outside before it’s too late.”

I step into the garage to prep my bicycle and right away I receive an email from my client, Rotimikeys, telling me that he’s having trouble uploading audio files. I went back inside to check my server, and learned that the problem was on his end. He’s eight hours ahead, in Lagos, Nigeria. We sort out the problem just as the phone rings.

I take the call from David Demeter of Drum Lab. We have a detailed discussion about an upcoming workshop related to drum mic’ing and mixing. Lunchtime rolls around and I still haven’t ridden or mixed a single note.

Fast forward to a dinner meeting. Delicious vegetarian Indian curry with an interesting, talented and charming recording engineer… Had fun, returned to studio, figured out why Rotimikeys’ files weren’t downloading from wetransfer. It’s after midnight for me, and a brand new day in Lagos.

The files get here a few minutes later. I load them into Pro Tools to make sure that they are in good shape. I email Rotimikeys to confirm that I’ll be able to hit the ground running in 12-ish hours.

I’m living the dream. It’s going to be a long day.

Part 2: Today


It feels like it’s still yesterday. Woke early again to do east coast biz. Rode bike for 90 minutes. Did a conference call with a boutique pro audio manufacturer regarding a three-part press feature connected to the upcoming release of my album.

1:30 PM rolls around and I’m finally mixing a record. It’s a Gospel tune with great musicians…and nearly 100 audio tracks. Plus it’s over five minutes long. Eight hours later, I upload an MP3 of the mix for comments.

If the producer, artist and label approve it, I’m done. I already printed instrumental and a capella stems (submixes), just in case it’s a wrap. If not, I will receive an email with comments, and I’ll print a revision.

Waiting for comments is the toughest part of international jobs. I’m not thrilled about making minuscule subjective changes at midnight, and I’ll bet that the Nigerians are not jumping for joy at the prospect of critical listening and note-taking before sucking down their morning cup o’ java.

Even though the workdays are long and I need to be “on” the entire time, this is the best job on the planet for my personality type.  I’m grateful that there are folks in this world who are willing to go the extra mile to work together. As long as they are not complaining about the late nights and early mornings, neither will I.

I’m reminded of the cliche: “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”

So you want to be a record producer? I do.