Chain Reaction

Photo by Frank Bevans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the way the conversation with Robben began:

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

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

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

Connections are the currency of opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinging the Pros: Gil Griffith

From Harmonizers to Distressors and Beyond

Latest version of the legendary classic

I cold called Eventide in the early ’90s because I wanted my own Harmonizer in my portable producer rack, but its hefty price tag of $3000 was beyond my humble means. I was hoping that the company would grant me an artist accommodation price because I had recently recorded some hip Sub Pop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, all of whom were buzzing.

My call was directed to Gil Griffith, VP of Marketing (or something similar). Gil was somewhat of a legend: he came up with the idea for Steve Vai to create 48 presets for the H3000, which as a result became a required staple in every session guitarist’s refrigerator rack of doom and remorse. The presets were both twisted and beautiful, and they made a guitar sound like an otherworldly instrument that Shiva and Vishnu might play while destroying or creating life.

Gil was impressed that I had the balls to request a discount, given that my marquee credits were Seattle-centric as opposed to international. He was further impressed by the fact that I was prepared to actually purchase the H3000 when other cats from the Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Bolton camps shamelessly begged for freebies even though they could afford to pay.

Long story short, Gil asked me enough questions to determine that my profile was more street, less corporate, than that of a “typical” Harmonizer user. He saw a fresh marketing angle that could attract a different demographic to the product.  Gil planned to fly into Los Angeles the next week, and suggested that we meet in person to discuss various possibilities.

My wife Irina and I rode our mountain bikes 20-ish miles to Gil’s hotel, arriving in a glorious stew of Lycra and sweat. Fortunately we asked him in advance if he’d mind, and he was cool with the idea. He was getting into cycling back home in New Jersey, so he was curious to check out our machines.

Irina and I had state of the art race bikes, and we were wicked fit: she was an actress of renown and I was still ripped from racing at the UCI Pro MTB World Championships. For better or worse, there we were, flying our freak flags with only a thin veneer of spandex separating our flesh from the elements, taking a meeting with a tall charismatic VP in a well tailored suit. Talk about an indelible first impression!

Fortunately Gil bet on my character and enthusiasm. He singlehandedly positioned me, along with my colleague and mentor Keith Wechsler, to become perhaps the most in-demand preset developers (at the time) for not only Eventide, but also competitors Lexicon and TC Electronic.

As an aside, Keith and I took these preset gigs quite seriously, and our fees skyrocketed to $10,000 plus the product (times two) per project. Along the way, we became friends with the folks who hired us, so we eventually decided to completely forego our cash fees. Believe it or not, it was the right thing to do.  Even though we could have continued charging top dollar, we believed that our karma (or dharma?) was to be of service in a pure way. With hindsight it’s clear that we wanted to do the preset work for the good of humanity, not as a career path that might interfere with our true passion of making records in the studio.

Anyway, back to the story of Gil, and how he enriched my life and my business…

Gil arranged for Don Teolis and me to write 91 new and unique presets for the H3000 D/SE and D/SX units. The former was geared toward studio applications while the latter was all about crazy guitar effects, including some trippy “backwards” Hendrix/Beatles stuff. By that time, Gil, Don and I were genuine friends, so we did the job for love, not money. Help a brother out, right?  Don and I were on fire, and created all those presets in a single day! I distinctly recall writing a wish list of every cool idea we could fantasize, and then rolling up our sleeves and executing the plan. It was a helluva day, but not really a surprise because that’s the way it was when working with Gil. He attracts excitement and inspiration.

Eventually Gil exited Eventide to found his own company, Wave Distribution. The company launched coveted brands like Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Empirical Labs, Focal Professional, Kush Audio, Burl, SoundToys, Tonelux, Purple Audio, and others. Because of Gil’s high standard of excellence, I’ve relied on him to spec and supply much of the equipment in my mix room. He knows what I need, before I do. With that in mind, let’s get on with asking Gil a few questions in our first Pinging the Pros segment!

Ken Bogdanowicz (Harmonizer designer), Gil Griffith, Dave Derr (Distressor designer)
MJ: You always know what I need. How is that?
 
GG: I feel that the products I choose to represent tend to be designed by folks within the very market we sell to – they own or work or worked in recording studios as musicians, producers and/or engineers – and as such, came up with their product ideas from inside the studio – necessity being the mother of invention and all – so if they needed the very product they designed, you, as a recording engineer and producer, most likely need that product too. I’m not clairvoyant, it’s just easy for me to recognize symbiosis.
 
MJ: How do you decide which gear to represent?
 
GG: I actually look at the person behind the gear first. Dave Derr and I were friends and colleagues from the eight years we spent together at Eventide. I worked at his studio (Studio E in Garfield, NJ) after he left Eventide, recording demos for bands I was friendly with and trying to help promote. When he showed me the Distressor he had developed, and asked me to help him sell “a hundred or two”, it was a no-brainer. 
 
When I met Wade Goeke from Chandler Limited, he had one product (the LTD-1 EQ) and two dealers. He had recently left Brent Averill, and had all these ideas for a range of products based on Beatles-era EMI gear from Abbey Road. His enthusiasm for the pro audio market and his exuberant personality were contagious. I liked him right away and wanted to work with him to bring his vision and passion for classic analog signal processing to the market.
 
All the best stuff that we love in life typically comes from the mind of a creative individual, who bends the forces of business nature to his/her will and makes something cool and useful (and typically disruptive) against all odds. Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs. In our industry – Georg Neumann, Rupert Neve, Les Paul, Saul Walker, Colin Sanders, David Griesinger – were the forward-thinking pioneers who bucked trends and produced new products and markets with a determined singleness of vision. I have been blessed with woking with a few modern audio pioneers over the years, including Richard Factor, Ron Noonan, Ken Bogdanowicz and Dave Derr. From that experience, it became easier for me to recognize the people who possessed the right combination of creativity, passion and design chops to bring the next “gotta have” brand to the pro audio market.
 
Now, my very good friend Bobby DeNiro told me that it’s not cool to drop names ;-), but my story is not about me, it’s about the people I choose to work with because of what I saw in them and their potential. And here I’m speaking of not only Dave Derr, Ken Bogdanowicz and Wade Goeke, but all the brands I helped launch or promote – Greg St. Regis (Studio Electronics), Andrew Roberts (Purple Audio), Peter Frampton (Framptone), Paul Wolff (Tonelux), John Arbiter (Carillon), Jaques Mahul (Focal Pro), Chris Pelonis (Pelonis Speakers), Ruben Tilgner (Elysia GmbH) and Gregory Scott (Kush Audio).

 
MJYou do business in an enlightened manner. Every deal is a win-win, and you spread the wealth rather than hoarding it. When you were with Eventide, why did introduce me to Lexicon?

 
GG: I believe in healthy competition. If we didn’t have competitors, innovation might crawl to a snail’s pace. Good competitors keep designers and manufacturers on their toes. The best win-win for me is a friendly competitor, like Lexicon was to Eventide. A competitor whose products and design strategy you admire. I have owned Lexicon gear, have used it in the studio, and have been wowed by artists like Steve Morse who could do amazing things through a PCM 42. How do you not respect and admire a company like Lexicon? Plus, the man who ran it during my time at Eventide was Ron Noonan, who I had great respect for and almost went to work for in 1994. I got friendly with Lexicon’s Director of Sales Joel Silverman from seeing him at AES, NAB and NAMM shows – in Anaheim, Joel and his then-wife Kathy used to host a really nice Sushi dinner party every year during NAMM, and he invited me one year. I thought that was very big of him (and I *love* good Sushi!), and we kind of hit it off and started hanging out at trade shows, to the point that we even switched name badges as a joke at NAB and AES one year. Confused the hell out of people, but it was out little inside joke.
 
So since I knew the gear and liked the people, I was more than happy to share the love and introduce you to them, figuring if I liked and admired them and their products, you would too.
 

We all benefit when creative, clever, and passionate people bring cool products and brands to the market place – and there’s room for all of them – and it’s in all of our best interests that the pro audio industry be healthy and vital and alive and prosperous. 

MJ: What’s new for 2015? What’s on the horizon?
 
GG: I’ve set up a web portal for our dealers and distributors (store.wavedistribution.com) to bring the efficiency and ease of use of retail on-line shopping to wholesale distribution. I’m launching two new brands this year, and there’s a plug-in coming that is a real game changer. With the Euro weakening against the Dollar, I’ve opened distributors in India and China to expand our market reach and take advantage of those opportunities. I’m as optimistic as ever about the future of Pro Audio, and am looking forward to bringing the next Wave (pardon the pun) of cool, cutting edge products to market… and of course, as always – having Michael James be one of the early adopters!
 
I appreciate all the insight, advice and feedback you’ve shared with me, it’s certainly helped to further fine-tune the course and development of more than a few products over the years.
 

-Gil