An Interesting Interview From 2015

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

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

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

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



 By Rebecca Ebhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did You Have Any Doubts That You Would Be Successful?

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

 

How Did You Build Contacts And/Or Clients?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MJ with studio boss, Rosie.
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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.

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

Pinging the Pros: Vintage King’s Chris Bolitho

 

Michael James, Rob Chiarelli, Jeff Ehrenberg and Chris Bolitho at ASCAP Expo 2015

Many years ago my friend David Zeman, keyboardist for the Rembrandts, AJ Croce and Parliament, asked for my help in upgrading his basic vanilla Pro Tools system to a premium HD4 Accel system. I had already done several HD upgrades to my rig, so I was intimately familiar with many of the obstacles he would face in his quest for the Holy Grail of digital audio workstation power. As I began to help him, I realized that the process would take much more time than I was able to provide.

Because there were so many variables to his equation, I decided to refer David to a professional. Pro audio guru Chris Bolitho and I had spoken several times, and he impressed me as someone who “gets it.” Chris saved David and me many hours of research, and quickly and painlessly got Dave into his new rig. We were so impressed with Chris that I became a source for referrals for him for about 10 years, even though we had not yet met face-to-face. Every report about him was glowing. 100% satisfaction rating!

Fast forward to 2014. Thanks to my status in the record business, I had become accustomed to purchasing pro audio equipment directly from manufacturers or their reps. My ability to purchase at cost was one of the perks of having healthy nurturing relationships with the folks who design the recording equipment that I use. This is quite a delicate thing because manufacturers absolutely need to protect their retailers, but it makes sense to have a few direct relationships with celebrities and industry leaders. Indiscretions and loose lips can topple empires, so there’s an understanding that artist accommodation prices remain discreet, if not confidential.

On the rare occasion that I needed to buy something from a retailer, I would go to the “Pro” division of a specific large corporate chain with whom I had a relationship, who would sell to me at dead cost. I had no incentive to look any further until my superhero point person decided to change careers and leave the company. He set me up with The New Guy, who was pretty cool, but was unable to accommodate my needs in a timely manner. Things can happen pretty quickly in my world, so I surround myself with a team of experts who are nimble and attentive. New Guy always had a 72-96 hour delay, so he missed the boat several times.

I was in the market for a Sterling Modular “Plan B” mastering console, so I called The New Guy again to find out if he could help me. The New Guy quoted me a price that was 20% less than I knew he was permitted. Some manufacturers protect their dealers by prohibiting discounts beyond a certain percentage, a practice that ensures the product does not become devalued. Violation of the minimum price covenant often results in having the dealership revoked. There was literally no profit on this particular deal, only marketshare for the company. Good for me, but not good for the retailer. Something didn’t feel right. It felt unenlightened, almost like turning a blind eye to global climate change, a scenario in which instant gratification can result in long-term holistic problems.

My instinct told me to call Chris Bolitho. Why? He gets it. He’ll find a win-win. Always does. I’ll get my console, and Chris will ensure that the world continues to have access to a brick and mortar pro audio store that provides actual services performed by real human beings. High quality recordings will continue to exist. The future looks bright!

So… I phoned Chris. He quoted me a fair price that I knew was indeed a win-win. Then I asked if he could explore a deal that would involve trading some equipment that I no longer used. He examined my list, then advised me how to get the most bang for the buck. I gave him the green light. Zero dollars cash out of pocket, console acquired, orphaned gear off to a new home. Everybody wins, as it should be.

There’s a common misconception about artist deals. You might think that we get the least expensive accommodation price directly from the manufacturer, but that’s not always true. Further, there’s a lot of value added by running an artist deal through a credible reseller like Vintage King. Due to its purchasing power as a result of a large economy of scale, VK may get a better price from the manufacturer than the artist can. Remember that the manufacturer wants to protect the retailer, plus it wants distinguished professionals to have the equipment at a price that makes us feel special and motivated to spend. By running the deal through VK, it can fulfill both needs by both subsidizing the retailer and reducing the accommodation price.

That, however, is not the best part for an artist in my position. Much more important than a sexy price is Vintage King’s marketing clout. VK has transcended the traditional role of the retailer, and has evolved into a partner with artists like me. VK’s marketing mavens have contributed to my continuing visibility in the press. I cannot even begin to describe how important this is for a behind-the-scenes craftsman like me–I may be doing my best artistic work ever, but if the outside world were unaware of my talents and relevance, I would be unable to thrive in such a competitive industry that is reeling from an accelerating race to the bottom.

You may be wondering where is the value of Vintage King for you if you’re not a celebrity. The most obvious answer is that the showroom is well endowed with all the good stuff that the hit makers are using on their recordings. You can roll up your sleeves and get hands-on with a mountain of gear, you can do side-by-side listening comparisons, and you can get valuable consultation from the VK’s sales team. Chris and his colleagues work with many, if not most, of the top pros in the recording industry. They know who is using what, and they aggregate that information for their customers.

And if you’re selling or trading used recording equipment? Unless you want to spend the precious hours of your day hoping for a few more bucks by industriously vetting prospective buyers on eBay or Craigslist, you’re in the right place. I personally have no interest in dealing with that headache; Vintage King, however, is in business to do exactly that. In my experience, Vintage King pays a modestly higher wholesale price than other retailers do. Then they test and refurbish your old gear before selling it, which they do with both a warranty and a return policy. Good karma.

Fast forward to 2015… I am honored to call Chris one of my friends. Yes, we’ve dined together, we’ve done several special events together, and we’ve had our share of deep conversations about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. And cats! We send each other photos of our cats creating music and destroying Christmas tree ornaments.

Before signing off and passing the baton to Chris for his thoughts, I must say that he does much more than acquire equipment for my studio. He’s a super smart team-building guy who knows that a deal is only a good deal if it’s good for everyone. He looks at the big picture, and helps define a strategic game plan for upgrades and purchases, based on my needs, not his commission. He even identified a couple untapped revenue streams in my business, both of which I’m now nurturing!
Plus, let’s not forget to mention that Chris’ sexy British accent makes him sound impossibly interesting at all times, even when he’s merely giving directions to Vintage King’s impressive Los Angeles showroom.

Without further ado, here’s my brief interview with Chris Bolitho.

MJ: I’ve never known you to compete on price, only on service. That seems like it would be very difficult to do in the age of virtual storefront online shopping, yet you seem to be as busy as ever. Tell me more about that.

CB
: Choosing a piece of recording studio equipment is a big purchase in terms of the financial and emotional investment for most people. That’s not the kind of life moment many of us would trust to a stranger or catalog style website even in today’s hyper connected culture. Audio consultants at Vintage King spend a lot of time personally training on and checking out gear, but perhaps more importantly speak with people using the equipment we sell, and can help to aggregate end-user feedback and anecdotes. A quick phone call to a trusted audio consultant can help make sure that you are making the right decision, see what others have chosen in the same situation, and help make sure you have considered all the alternatives. We have new, used and vintage equipment on hand, and plenty of experience deploying it! Of course price is important to everyone, and as one of, or the, largest dealer for most high quality equipment we’re lucky enough to have all the price breaks to be able to get the best deal every time for our clients.

MJ: What motivates you to continue working in this career with so much enthusiasm?

CB
: Some things move quickly in our industry, yet others stay the same. Some of the very best, most inspirational pieces of gear and recording techniques date back to even before the 50s and new ones come out every day. Our amazingly talented manufacturing partners are always pushing the boundaries and innovating, and we get to help our clients combine the best technology of today with the classic gear of yesterday. It’s this feeling of excitement and innovation coupled with the feeling of constants that makes recording equipment so inspirational for us all. Not to mention the wide variety of interesting and exciting people we get to work with every day from the home enthusiast, through the new hot song-writer, to the grammy winning producer or oscar winning composer.

MJ: I’m curious about your perspective on working with individuals or small businesses versus large corporate entities who spend truckloads of money. In my case, you’ve held my hand through some long incubation periods, like my recent Pro Tools HD 12 upgrade, which was a small purchase that we discussed six months ago. At the time, you recommended that my needs prescribed waiting until December before making the purchase. As usual, your recommendation proved to be right. It fascinates me that you always take the time to ensure that we make the right decision, whether we are dealing with a $600 or $6000 purchase. You make me, a small business individual, feel just as important as Skywalker Sound. How do you manage to do that when you have so many other clients needing your services at the same time?

CB
: We get excited by helping people find solutions that accelerate and fine-tune their creativity. Whether that’s a multi-operator control surface at a movie lot, or an impedance matching box for a musician doesn’t really matter – the professional satisfaction is in contributing in our way to the creative process. If you do things in the right way, for the right reasons every time, everything else sorts itself out.

MJ:
Is there anything you’d like to add that may be helpful to my readers?


CB
: Thanks for being a great friend and loyal champion for many years, Michael. Looking forward to working on events, upgrades, meals and phone calls together for years to come!

MJ
: Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to provide your insights!

 

Chris’ official mug shot.

 

The charming, thoughtful family man and pet lover I’ve come to know.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: “George, meet Peter and Michael.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recording Studio Tip: Discovering Your Unique Guitar Tone with Chandler Limited Pedals

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to whisper instead of scream. Similarly, many of the most compelling recorded guitar tones in history are all about subtlety instead of bombast.

Over the years I’ve learned that lowering the gain of guitar amps in the recording studio (relative to the extreme high gain settings preferred by live shredders) will make heavy tones more articulate, and therefore more expressive. Diming the gain provides sustain, but destroys dynamics.

The trick to unlocking your unique tone is to find the amp’s sweet spot that allows you to clean up your tone when lowering the guitar’s volume knob and/or playing with a soft touch, and, with the same amp settings, enabling the amp to growl, sing and bark as you turn up or play harder. When that happens, listeners will be able to identify you by your unique dynamic touch, stylistic nuances and technique, regardless of your choice of amplifier or guitar. Chances are good that you will immediately sound like a more expressive player if you’re typically a high gain junkie.

Today’s tone tip is about how I use Chandler Limited’s two hand-wired boutique guitar pedals, the Little Devil Colored Boost and the Germainium Drive, to enhance my tone. Both are capable of screaming, but I prefer to use them more subtly. Because I already have, in my opinion, great tone that balances the fine line of crystalline chime vs ballsy growl, I don’t want to radically alter my tone. Sometimes I want just a little bit more of what I already have. A little bit more sustain, girth, drive… with a small bit of coloration to make the sound bloom with more character when I step on the pedal.

Although the Chandler pedals are designed to respond differently to each player, guitar and amp combination, I seem to always end up in the vicinity of my personal default settings, regardless of my amp and guitar choices. If you already love the sound of your rig, try my settings and let me know what you think.

From left to right, here they are.

Germanium Drive:

Highs – very bright

Germ Drive – 4.5

Feedback – 4

Boost Range – full

You’ll notice that my settings of Highs vs Boost Range meet in the middle ground, complementing each other to provide a nicely balanced tone.

Little Devil Colored Boost:

Boost Range – mids

Color Boost – 4

Feedback & Bias – 6 (or 5 for more bite)

Highs – very bright

As a subtle alternative, I sometimes switch the Boost Range to full and lower the Color Boost to 2.

I find that these settings tend to work on both my clean and crunch tones. Although similar in aesthetics, the Germanium Drive configured in this manner is a bit more dynamic and clear, while the Little Devil sounds relatively thicker and more macho. If the former is the equivalent of adding a tasteful rhinoplasty to your tone, the latter would be like adding a butt lift to it. Pardon the metaphor—it gets the point across.

I do in fact use other pedals with more extreme settings to create contrast in my palette of tones. Needless to say, you can, too – you don’t need to throw away all your other beloved pedals in pursuit of an idealistic, boutique, hi-fi tone. That said, it really is worth the effort to go down this road and find a pedal that allows you to retain your unique sound, while tastefully enhancing it. You can be even more of what you already are!

If I find some extra time this week, I may bang out a quick home-brewed video to let you hear what I’m describing. If so, I’ll update this post.

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.