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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Hidden Gems: The Building Blocks of a Good Story

  

Life is full of surprises. Some are profound, while others are merely amusing. You almost certainly encounter both types over the course of recording an entire album.

Good stories almost never come without a price tag. Legendary ancestors of whom we sing songs of trials, tribulations and conquests, paid a heavy price. If they didn’t have to earn their status, their stories would not be compelling.

Fortunately we’re talking about the art of making records, not giving birth to nations or winning wars, so the stakes aren’t as high. Nonetheless, musicians can be colorful characters who have a knack for finding themselves right smack in the middle of a good story. 

Producing a record is a very intimate experience. The producer and artist cannot help but become very close to each other. Each goes pretty far upstream, or should I say down the rabbit hole, into the other one’s artistic fantasy world. For several weeks or months, you become each other’s confidantes and BFFs. Needless to say, you end up truly caring for the other person, even if at times you want to beat some sense into him.

Roy Ashen, pictured above, is the founder of a music licensing company named Triple Scoop Music. Prior to that, however, he was a wunderkind prodigy who pioneered eight-finger tapping technique and wrote columns for various guitar magazines. He was poised to rule the recording industry, with multiple labels clamoring for a piece of him. 

Before I go any farther, perhaps I should explain the presence of Amy’s Kitchen Pad Thai lurking behind the CD package in the photograph. 

Outsiders have the illusion that recording music is a very mysterious process, fraught with tortured artistry and constant struggles to tap into fleeting moments of inspiration. While this is sometimes true, the other part of the reality is that the entire team has a series of pragmatic milestones that must be reached. Everybody is always looking out for each other to ensure that the entire team is operating at maximum productivity. The photo symbolizes the goal of the finished product, along with the hidden gems we find along the way. (In reality, the hidden “gem” of the next part of the story is a leftover burrito, not a sweet and sour noodle dish.)

Roy and I arrived separately at Westlake Audio Studios for a 10 AM downbeat. Before engaging in the ritual bro-hug, I placed my keys, sunglasses and grilled vegetarian burrito on the credenza adjacent to the console. Roy pointed to the burrito, and asked, “You went to Baja Fresh this morning?” 

“No,” I replied. 

“Huh… Then where’d you get the burrito?”

“I found it.” 

“You found it? Wait a minute! Put it down right now!! What do you mean, you found it? Where did you find it?”

“In my car. Under the LA Weekly.”

“Whoa, MJ, you can’t eat that thing just because you found it under a magazine in your car. How did it get there? When did it get there? Who put it there? You can’t just go around eating found food without knowing the answers to these questions. You could die from food poisoning, dude!”

“Stop worrying, Roy. Irina (my wife) and her mother probably went out for dinner last night, and picked up an extra burrito for me. The temperature was cool (it was winter… in Los Angeles!), so I’m not worried about it not being refrigerated overnight. I appreciate your concern, but you’re making a big deal over nothing. I’ll call Irina to confirm, if it’ll make you feel better, so that we can get on with making rock ‘n’ roll history.”

I’m pretty sure that Roy’s concern kept me out of the hospital. At first, my wife didn’t know what I was talking about. She had forgotten all about the burrito because she left it under the magazine about a week earlier. I never noticed it because the cool weather must have prevented any aroma from being apparent. This isn’t the most compelling story ever told, but we were both amused by it, as was the staff of Westlake Audio, for months afterwards. Plus it is very comforting to know that your friends have your back. Temporary nickname: Burrito Guy. Love is welcome in any form that it takes.

Anyway… A few days later, we overdubbed some keyboard parts and did some mix preparation at my private studio. I was playing a Wurlitzer electric piano part on a MIDI controller, using a Pro Tools virtual instrument named Velvet. The MIDI controller doesn’t make any sound on it’s own; it merely controls the software, which produces sound within the Pro Tools application. If it’s not connected to a sound generator, all you can hear when playing the keyboard is the click made from physically depressing the plastic keys. No music, just percussive hammering of fingertips.

About halfway through the song, ironically titled “Goodbye,” Roy stepped out of the control room to grab a glass of water from the kitchen. When he came back, there was no audible music playing through the speakers, but I was still banging out the keyboard part in perfect tempo with the song. He asked what I was doing and why I looked so focused.  I told him to stand by because I was finishing the overdub performance. There was literally no music playing – the only sound was the aforementioned percussive banging of my fingers on the keyboard. The surreal moment reminded me of the scene in the Mozart movie, Amadeus, in which the ballet dancers were performing without music after the emperor censored part of an opera. The emperor walked into rehearsal hoping to witness something sublime, but was instead bewildered. (Spoiler alert, in case you haven’t gotten around to seeing the film in the past 30 years: the emperor uncensored the music so that the opera would make sense and he could enjoy it. Very funny scene!)

About a minute later, I finished the part and suggested we take a listen. Roy was laughing his ass off because he thought I had lost my mind. I explained that I forgot to remove the fade-out automation from the master fader. The song continued for a minute or so beyond the time that I could no longer hear it. I was in the groove, so I elected to continue playing the keyboard part. Next, I made sure that the automation was turned off when we listened to playback to evaluate the new keyboard part. Lo and behold, by a stroke of either genius or sheer dumb luck, I did indeed perform the part flawlessly, in perfect sync and pocket with the track and the metronome! Revised temporary nickname: Groove Master MJ. Much better. 

That same day, Roy squinted at my Apple Display, which gave him a headache, and remarked that it was inhumane for me to work with it. Apparently it was too small for his liking.

A few days later we returned to Westlake Audio to begin mixing the album. Roy asked if I would like to go out for lunch with him. I accepted the invitation, and he told me that he needed to quickly stop by the Grove, an upscale marketplace off Fairfax. The grove was the home of the first Apple store in the Los Angeles area. It was my first time visiting Mecca. The store featured an enormous poster of a Gibson ES335 semi-hollowbody guitar. I was drawn to it like a moth to flame. 

Roy asked, “Do you like that computer?” I told him that I did. He said, “Dude it’s yours! You’ve earned it. Go get your truck and let’s load it up.” I interpreted the statement to mean that he was pressuring me into buying the latest Mac tower and a larger display. Man, did I misinterpret that one by a mile! We were in fact at the Apple store for Roy to pick up a new Mac and cinema display that he already purchased for me as a gift. Holy cow, I was surprised!

I did the obligatory attempt to say that I could not accept such a generous ($4000-ish) gift, but in the end Roy prevailed, saying that I had been his only constant and unflappable advocate and champion, plus he reminded me that I got him an $80,000 part time consulting gig a few weeks earlier. He refused to allow me to deprive him of the joy of giving me that gift. I understood what he meant. There are many people who are good at giving, but not at receiving. I’m not talking about moochers and con artists; I’m talking about good people with good souls. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with giving and with receiving other people’s generosity. Win-win. 

Remember the beginning of this piece, when I stated no good story comes without a price tag? Roy and I both believed strongly in his artistry, so we bootstrapped the making of his album, Sugar and Gasoline. As expected, the major labels came around and offered record deals. Although we had options, we really wanted to make a deal with Tony Ferguson at Interscope Records. Tony and I had a solid, proven working relationship, and we had become pretty good friends. Plus Tony goes way back with Jimmy Iovine, who at the time ran the label. Everything added up to success.

I introduced Roy to my entertainment attorney, Seth Lichtenstein. They made a deal, and then Seth helped us through the process of finding the right management. We settled on Dandy Fooled (name changed as a professional courtesy), who was at the time managing __________ …oops, I mean Robbie Zombotomy…yeah, that’s the guy’s name. Best to change it so you can’t connect the dots and learn Dandy Fooled’s true identity.  

Before I write something I probably shouldn’t, i.e. the truth, I must say that Dandy had the reputation of being terrific manager. If you are guessing that I’m about to describe a major fuckup, you are correct. I generally make it a rule to either say something positive or nothing at all when I’m talking about other people, but I’m breaking the rule in this case for educational purposes. You may arguably be the best recording artist ever to walk the face of the earth, but you’re still going to have to deal with other people. Humans, even the good ones, can make mistakes. And they do. We all do. So, if you want to be in the record business, you better grow some super thick skin very quickly and be willing to immediately bounce back from setbacks without dwelling on them.

We took a meeting at Dandy’s office, where he sat us at the conference table with his entire staff. They showered us with praise and painted a picture of how rosey Roy’s future was. During the meeting, Tony Ferguson happened to phone in, and Dandy took the call on speakerphone, indicating that we should be quiet while he talked. I guess he was trying to impress us with his power because this is what happened:

TF: “Congratulations, Dandy, on signing Roy Ashen! I want to formally offer you a deal because all the pieces have fallen into place. You were the missing piece of the puzzle. We like Roy, we like Michael, and we like you. The whole company is excited, and we are ready to move on this right away.”

AG: “Thanks for the offer, Tony, but with all due respect, you know I need to go over your head on this. I need to make the deal directly with Jimmy. The stakes have gotten higher, and there is more competition involved.”

TF: “I understand. No offense taken. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help expedite the process.”

Afterward, we reminded Dandy that we in fact wanted to make a deal with Tony because we liked him and wanted him personally to be the A&R guy. Dandy assured us that he had a plan, that everything was under control, and that he needed Roy to burn 100 CDs for him ASAP. This was in the early 2000s, when burning CDs meant that Roy stayed up all night with a couple slow, cumbersome machines that occasionally worked, if he was lucky. Every time Dandy sent an email requesting documents or products, Roy responded and delivered within 24 hours.

The flipside of this apparent enthusiasm is that Dandy completely dropped the ball. Never returned a single one of Roy’s calls. Blew at least two legitimate major-label offers that were exciting to us. He took a couple of my calls and asked me to let Roy know that he would return his calls soon. 

Baffled and disappointed, Seth tried to make sense of it. He called Dandy “El Schmucko.” Roy and I liked hearing that nickname because it was the first time we laughed out loud since signing with the guy. Unfortunately Dandy killed all of Roy’s momentum, and tied him up for over a year. 

Lesson learned: When good news becomes old news, the ship has sailed. You only have one chance to make a first impression. 

Unless he were to reinvent himself by forming a new band or changing his name and his sound, Roy’s major label career as a solo artist would be over, just when it was about to begin. It’s not fair, but hey, whoever said life was fair? It simply is what it is.

Life may not be fair, but it has a way of giving us what we need, when we need it. Although Roy had dreams of being a rockstar, he has gotten far more satisfaction from being a father to his robot-infatuated son, who just may be the reincarnation of the astronomer Carl Sagan. Plus Roy’s independently released music, which is truly some of the best rock and singer-songwriter stuff I have ever heard, continues to have a positive impact on the lives of many listeners. 

I recall one particularly heavy, yet heartwarming, story about “Goodbye.”  Roy initially had no plans to include it on the album, but I lobbied for it because it resonated with some of my personal experiences. After the album was released, somebody on the other side of the planet was about to commit suicide, and wanted to hear that song one more time before pulling the trigger. “One more time” led to another listen… And another listen… And yet another listen. 

The person emailed Roy, thanking him for saving her life. She said the song gave her hope, and she wanted to wake up another day to hear it again. I saw the email. It was heavy. Roy said that it was much more profound, rewarding and meaningful than selling a million albums. I feel the same. Hidden gems, where you least expect to find them. 

How To Prepare Pro Tools Sessions For Upload To Mix Engineers (Video Tutorial)

I frequently get asked how to prepare and clean up audio files and Pro Tools HD sessions for efficient uploading to online remote mixing service providers like IndieProMix.  This home-brewed video shows how to create alternate playlists, delete unused playlists and audio clips, consolidate/merge files, save a lean & mean session/project instead of an unruly beast, and more.

If you have not done this process before, or simply need a refresher, watch this thing twice. Watch it all the way through the first time, then be ready to pause it every few seconds the second time while you follow along in your DAW.

Alternatively, you can click on http://www.indiepromix.com/guidelines.html and navigate to a printer friendly description of the process.

Following these guidelines will ensure that your FTP upload will be as fast and efficient as possible, and that your mix engineer won’t waste precious creative time in housekeeping mode.  Better preparation = better mix…faster!

Feel free to share the video and this post with anybody who can benefit from it.  Let me know if you have any questions or related tips and tricks of your own.