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

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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.

Artist Endorsements: To Free or Not To Free?



People frequently ask me how to get artist endorsement deals. My answer typically begins with the question, “Are you sure you want one?” Two clichés come to mind. 

  1. Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. 
  2. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

That said, I’ve been very happy with my various artist deals over the years. The reason is that I only endorse products and people in whom I believe. Further, they believe in me, in part because I’ve proven that the relationship is a two way street. 

I’m willing to pay for everything I endorse. Guess what: I do! Frankly my artist accommodation prices are discounted, but the only time I get free stuff is when the manufacturer feels that I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. Even then, I still offer to pay because I need the flexibility to use whatever I want, whenever I want. 

In the photo above, my friend Shawn Wayland (left) and I are in full Serious Cycling regalia, representing our race team from 2014. We believe in the sponsors and we feel that they, in turn, represent who we are as racers and members of society. Kitting up in the team colors made us perform at our best, and reminded us that we were part something bigger. We were in fact ambassadors, evangelists and rolling billboards. 

That’s great news if you believe in what you represent. It’s why we look so genuinely happy. 

Imagine for a moment that we were wearing free clothing plastered with something that is the opposite of what we’re about. Let’s say cigarettes. Wait…how about trophy/sport hunting of wildlife on safari? It sounds outlandish, but it’s entirely plausible when you add a large pile of cash to the equation. 

Okay, let’s tone it down and use a couple more realistic examples: guitar amps and lifestyle apparel. How would you feel if Peavy (nothing wrong with the brand—just using it as an example of a non-boutique manufacturer) was paying you consistently for exclusively playing their amps when your heart was into Mesa/Boogie or Fender? Remember that the amp is a reflection of you and your values. Or what if you licensed your artist brand to a clothing company or designer who expected you to rock the socks pictured below at all your photo ops?



Nice, right? Dress for success, baby! In case you’re wondering, no, I did not lose a bet. I did this in service to you, my faithfully devoted readers, to illustrate the point that you better believe in whatever is attached to your name. Plus, I’m always up for a good laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at anyone else!

Anyway… the best artist deals for me are the ones that are mutually beneficial. They encourage both parties to actively engage in bettering the other guy’s life. Over the past ten years I’ve become good friends with Bob Muller of Dangerous Music. We’ve never signed a piece of paper, nor discussed an artist deal, but we are allies. Whatever you want to call our relationship, it works for both of us. We both help each other on myriad levels. Bob solves problems for me before I know that they exist. I’ve called him to ask if he knows how to deal with a new issue, and he’s literally said, “Yeah, just press this button and you’re good to go.”

Bob knows he can count on me for honest feedback and sometimes manual labor. I’ve been the talent at several events/workshops/seminars to demonstrate how I use his products on a daily basis, and how they improve the quality of my life. Even though he’s offered appearance fees, I will never accept them. That’s how powerful our symbiotic relationship is. 

Edit

I have the same attitude toward Manley Labs, Chandler Limited and anything that involves Paul Wolff. These guys step up for me, so I do the same for them. Some folks forget that companies are not faceless entities, and that they are in fact collections of individual people who have the same basic needs as you and I. 

The upshot is that it’s important to represent products that represent you. Do you really want to eat, sleep, drink and breathe [brand x] in exchange for a few dollars? That is the question.  When you get past the financial perquisites and focus on the ways that you can be of service, the right endorsements will organically find their way to you.