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.

P1050803
MJ with studio boss, Rosie.
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Chain Reaction

Photo by Frank Bevans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the way the conversation with Robben began:

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

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

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

Connections are the currency of opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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