Want To Be A Super Pro? Behave Like One!

Dan Rothchild (left), with Beck, for whom he played bass.

My wife Irina and I were driving the car, enjoying a lovely California evening with the radio playing in the background, when suddenly we shut up, locked eyes, and together declared, “Dude, that sounds like Dan!”

We actually stopped the car so we could crank up the volume without distraction, our eyes riveted to the FM radio dial, anticipating each subsequent note that might offer a clue that the groovalicious bass line was performed by somebody other than our dear friend Dan Rothchild. The feel was sexy, the pocket was deep, and the tone articulate and round. The bass was the perfect pivot for Sheryl Crow’s visceral vocal performance of a song that would soon be a massive hit, “If It Makes You Happy.” Dan later told me that this overdub session took only 20 minutes of getting a tone, and 20 minutes of tracking. 

The thing that blows my mind is that Irina and I both instantly recognized Dan’s unique character just as easily as we did Sheryl’s identifiable voice. By virtue of countless recording sessions with Dan, I was intimately familiar with his musicality, but Irina only knew the finished recordings, which were merely a small fraction of her playlists that included Seal, Crowded House, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, et al. She had plenty of star power on her mix tapes, and no reason to pay any particular attention to our homeboy who rode mountain bikes and ate Thanksgiving dinners with us. Yet somehow Irina instantly recognized Dan’s unique musical DNA. 

I called up Dan to find out if it was indeed he who rocked the track. He modestly confirmed what I already knew in my bones. I was so happy for him! He was on another hit, one that was certain to raise his profile. Dan then told me that he was finally getting to really do what he loved. He was contributing on a creative level, live and in the studio, with many of his favorite artists.

I’m writing about Dan Rothchild today because there are so many things to learn from him about professional attitude and behavior, whether you’re on the way up or a veteran pro. Here’s one of the secrets to success, as exemplified by Dan: The right attitude attracts opportunities. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to spend your time doing what you love.

Dan was regularly getting called up to the bandstand by Jon Brion during Brion’s Largo residency, which was the equivalent of a master class in unrestrained creativity for us mere mortals. A quick glance at the audience would reveal a diverse crowd ranging from Aimee Mann and Michael Penn to Fiona Apple and Toad The Wet Sprocket. Everybody in the club hoped to catch a sprinkle of Brion’s mad genius, but Dan transcended that desire. He was actually adding to the strange brew without a net and in the moment, and he was loving it! 

So, how did he get to that place in his career where his professional and personal dreams so peacefully coexisted?

Dan’s initial success came from consistency, character and, perhaps most importantly, his positive “we’re all in this together” attitude. Whenever I called Dan for a job, I knew with confidence that we were going to have a good day. The mood would be fun, and the results would be super pro. Dan knew when to cut up and when to shut up & rock. He still does. That’s why he’s one of the top cats in the business.

Dan may be the ultimate team player. He is more than capable of running the show, as evidenced by his production of Better Than Ezra’s hit album Deluxe, but he respects the creative process enough that he is comfortable adapting to whatever role the situation requires. Even when I was the producer on various records, I knew that I would learn something new from the guy I hired. I distinctly recall Dan teaching me how to watch the lead singer’s lips to lock in the phrasing when doing background vocals. Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not…at least not until you think of doing it. I also remember him showing me two different bass guitar tuning strategies, one for ballads and the other for faster tempi. Strings tend to drop in pitch after the initial attack, so Dan tuned for the sustain on slow songs and for the attack on faster ones with lots of eighth notes.  

When you hired Dan for a gig, you got much more than a bass player. You got an encyclopedia of music history, who would happily share knowledge bequeathed to him from his rock royalty father, legendary producer Paul Rothchild, whose myriad credits include The Doors and Janis Joplin. No matter how fresh or unique you are, you will always benefit from having someone who learned from the Masters on your team. Dan is that guy, yet he is full of experimentation and serendipity. 

Dan always brings his A-Game to a session, regardless of the status of the artist. Major label or independent, it makes no difference to his performance or attitude. Watching him do his thing is a reminder to me of what is truly important to any artist who hires me: the artist wants me to make him/her feel good about the music.

Apropos of that, I recall working on the New Radicals album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too. Before cutting the song “Crying Like A Church On Monday”, the band (Dan on bass, Gregg Alexander on vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan McCarroll on drums, Danielle Brisebois on percussion, and yours truly on electric guitar) experimented with some arrangement ideas, and really began to gel into a tight unit. And then McCarroll, who was known for playing with Jellyfish alumni in The Grays, tells us that he needs to leave for another gig…before we even pressed the Record button. No need to worry, though, because Dan Rothchild was friends with virtually everybody in the record business. He suggested we call Matt Laug, who played drums on Alannis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. 

Soon enough, Matt was set up and ready to rock. Before recording, however, everybody in the room was so inspired by the new chemistry that we jammed on Police songs for an hour! Nobody was stressed about time because we were in the zone, living in the moment, loving the sheer joy of music. Finally we cut the song. It was so easy to fall into the perfect groove with that combination of cats who knew how to listen, and knew how to have fun.

As a treat to you, my beloved readers, before I wrap up this post, I’ll share a couple personal vignettes that I probably shouldn’t. Even if I get in trouble, these are too good to take to the grave.

1. For a brief time, Dan’s nickname was HinderHat. He was fearless on a mountain bike. Before a challenging race in 1990, my pro cycling colleagues and I warned him to watch out for the Rim Wrecker, a technical kamikaze jump over a concrete irrigation trench that could be safely avoided by pedaling around it. It was marked with a makeshift tombstone made of taco’ed rims. The detour, although safe, was a clusterfucked traffic jam. The fastest line was the straight airborne one—provided you had enough speed, skill and guts to clear the jump. After the race, Dan said he looked for the hazard each lap, but never saw it, even though he sailed right over it! Clearly he focused on the goal, and didn’t get hung up on the obstacles in his path.

The race bug bit him, so Dan began training with a small group of elite racers. One day he discovered that his tires were shot, so I left a pair of new skins for him at my home. My training partners and I pedaled the eleven miles to the trailhead while Dan drove to my place, picked up the tires, and then chased us by bike to the trail after he installed only one of the tires. He wrapped the other new one around his helmet, like a turban, and planned to change it at the designated meeting place. 

When he arrived, however, Dan was eager to hit the mountains, so he elected to wear the tire “hat.” The knobby turban, which understandably slowed him down a bit—and caused at least one spectacularly hilarious crash—became known as The Hat That Hinders Dan’s Progress. And Dan became affectionately known as HinderHat.  He didn’t seem to mind, though. If everybody else was happy, then so was Dan. 

2. Dan recorded Better Than Ezra’s electric guitar amplifier in a van, outside his West Hollywood apartment, by running mic and instrument cables out of the second story studio window to the parking lot. I guess the landlord didn’t want him to record loud music inside the apartment, so Dan did not record loud music inside the apartment. No worries. Problem solved? Check. Hit record? Check. 

Circling back to the theme of doing what you love, the takeaway is that we can create our fantasy life by behaving like the person who would actually live such a life. Across the 27 years I’ve known Dan, he has consistently behaved like the guy you want to have on your team; like the guy who would produce a hit record; like the guy who would play bass for Heart, Sheryl Crow, Shakira and Fiona Apple; like the guy who would get his friend a coveted A&R job at a major label. Because of his behavior, all of those things became reality. 

So, how does this story relate to the rest of us? Simply put, let’s behave like the people we want to be, to ensure we live the lives we want to live. 

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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.