Simultaneously Blown Away, Humbled and Inspired

I do not remember exactly how I met David Baerwald. He was one half of the duo David + David, whose sole album yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Even though the 1986 release went Platinum, I did not pay much attention to it at the time because my bandwidth was full with my obsession for Peter Gabriel’s So, Crowded House’s eponymous debut (featuring “Don’t Dream It’s Over“), and Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola. Nonetheless, seven years later, David, whose album Triage had just been released, was sitting across from me, jamming on the sofa in my living room. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous Knopfler-esque riffs he coaxed from my Taylor 812c acoustic guitar, even though his performance was punctuated by the sound of flying lawnmowers—which were in reality propeller driven small planes on approach vectors, just about to land across the street at Clover Field, aka Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

David generously offered to network with me, probably because I had recently cowritten a couple songs with John Lang, who wrote the #1 hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” for his cousin’s band, Mr. Mister. Lang, a brilliant lyricist who was understandably tough to impress, admired Baerwald’s lyrics and his singing. A few sprinkles of Lang’s credibility landed on me by association—plus I had recently produced my first major label hit for Irving Azoff’s fledgling Giant (Warner) Records—so the door of opportunity to the Big Leagues was flung wide open for the first time in my young career. This was terrific…until David asked me to play guitar.

Wait, what? If I’m a pro, that’s a chance to shine, right? Yes, but it’s also a sure-fire way to blow the all-important first impression if your chops are rusty. In 1993 I was infrequently playing guitar, and when I did pick up the instrument, I played ensemble parts that worked in the the context of a recording, but made no sense without the support of a full band arrangement. As an example, try to imagine how the guitar parts from “Broken Wings” (during the third verse at 3:14) or Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” would sound without the bass line to define the song’s harmonic structure, or without the drums to let you know where the downbeat is. My point is that “earcandy” parts (which were pretty much all that I played at the time) were simply unable to tell the story of a song by themselves. And they certainly would not impress my guest of honor, Mr. Baerwald, without a point of reference to show him how nicely and precisely they would fit into an arrangement.

So I instead decided to show David a complex solo acoustic guitar piece that I began composing the day before. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and the jazzy chords were of the “expensive” variety whose pedigree might be from the epic Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, Porgy and Bess. The bass line was simple enough, but the sound in my head required the listener to hear all three layers of harmonic content: melody, chords and bass. Therefore, I had to play all three at the same time, on one guitar…and I couldn’t do it. To describe the attempted recital as a “train wreck” would be far too kind. David, who by contrast is a real player’s player, let me off easy, stating that he understood where I was going with the tune, and he wished me luck in developing it.

Despite the fact that I blew it, David invited me to his loft behind Hal’s Restaurant (Cafe?) on Abbot Kinney in Venice, just a short walk from the infamous Radio Tokyo Studios where I became a recording engineer back in, coincidentally, 1986. David’s loft was super cool, with a vibe that begged you to get the creative juices flowing. Downstairs was home to a fully equipped recording studio, while upstairs housed various artifacts that may or may not have been related to certain CIA exploits that may or may not have involved David’s father, a political scientist.

David played me recordings of a new, as yet unreleased, project that he was “playing around with” on Tuesday nights with his friends Bill Bottrell, David Ricketts, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert. They were writing songs with a background vocalist who did some work with Michael Jackson. As David was humbly asking me what I thought of the songs, I was amazed by the work! The recording technique was exemplary, with sonic detail and clarity so crisply defined that I could close my eyes and see the spaces between the instrumentalists! The players were all spot-on, but the virtuosity never overshadowed the organic soul of the songs, which told stories ranging from leaving Las Vegas to having fun on Santa Monica Boulevard, three short miles away from where we sat listening. And that singer! She had a compelling delivery that brought the words to life. I was simultaneously blown away by the sound, humbled by the virtuosity and inspired to elevate my game. I already had a Top 5 MTV hit with Too Much Joy’s cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie!” and I made some seminal SubPop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, plus I was having one of my flavor-of-the-month moments in the A&R community, but my records couldn’t hold a candle to David’s side project. His recordings were marvelous and impressive on so many different levels, but remarkably they remained free of pretense. They sounded timeless, they sounded easy, and they sounded live. At that moment, I became determined to become a lifelong student of the craft of making honest records that would serve the songs, not the ephemeral trends.

Sometime thereafter, I drove onto the lot at A&M Records for a meeting with A&R VP Teresa Ensenat to pitch Brian Charles’ Boston based, Beatles-inspired band, Sidewalk Gallery. I recall three things from the meeting:

1) The pitch was successful, so Brian and I would soon be recording at the historic studio where we would eventually meet Crowded House and Rusty Anderson, who would turn me on to Matchless guitar amps long before hitting the road with Paul McCartney.

2) There were several guitar cases in Teresa’s office stenciled withe the name of Steve Earle. I pointed as if to ask, “What’s the story behind them?” Teresa volunteered, “I was married to Satan.” I changed the subject to the gorgeous SoCal weather.

3) I asked Teresa about the giant painting on the side of the recording studio. The fresh faced new artist, Sheryl Crow, was a priority for the label, and I should listen and let Theresa know my thoughts. She handed me a promo copy of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I spun in the car on my way to my session. I instantly recognized the euphonic gloriousness that mesmerized me at David Baerwald’s loft. “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Run Baby Run” and “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” were so memorable that I was able to sing along with the catchy hooks weeks after initially hearing them. I was happy to know that David was likely to enjoy another well deserved hit.

Less than two years later, I was head of A&R and staff Producer at Jac Holzman’s Warner Music Discovery label, which was on the front line of the WEA distribution hierarchy. Jac, who was Time Warner’s CTO if I recall correctly, had autonomy with respect to signing and prioritizing artists. He did not have to go through layers of middlemen like subsidiary labels did. For example, Madonna’s imprint Maverick had to answer to Reprise, who in turn had to answer to Warner Bros. As one moved higher up the totem pole, each entity took a slice of revenue and creative control of its subsidiaries, who sometimes had to fight hard to sign acts they loved. Because Jac was on equal footing with WEA’s big three (effectively big four, or anecdotally WEAD, at the time) I had the freedom and support to sign quality talent in whom I believed. At SXSW (South By Southwest) festival, I walked into a nearly empty club on Austin’s Sixth Street to hang out with a couple guys I met earlier in the day, mastering engineer Dave McNair and entertainment attorney Wofford Denius.

In that empty room, over the course of 45 minutes, my mind was once again blown, I was artistically humbled, and I was creatively inspired. A tall handsome lad, clad in gas station attendant coveralls, work boots and a Fender bass, sang his ass off while fronting a crack band of pros who were equally comfortable performing tender ballads or bombastic, odd time signature, Prog Rock opuses. His gorgeous ballad “Tea For One” was a heart-wrenching story of a shy guy who finally gets the courage to ask out the object of his desire a day too late, to find her in the embrace of a new lover. Another song, “Certifiable #1 Smash”, was appropriately titled because it indeed sounded like one during that live performance. I introduced myself to the artist, Kevin Gilbert, and offered him and his manager a record deal on the spot. Kevin handed me a CD of Thud, which I promptly marked with a Sharpie to indicate the three potential hits. My wife and I cherish that CD 22 years later for its excellent artistry, as well as the fact that it is a memento given to me shortly before Kevin tragically died far too young.

It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I connected the dots and realized that Kevin was already an accomplished musical force of nature. He was the vocalist of Toy Matinee, whose two hits “Last Plane Out” and “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge” always compelled me to crank up the volume whenever I heard them being spun (physical LPs and CDs, unlike mp3s, actually spun under a turnable stylus or CD laser back in the day) on FM radio. Further, he was also an integral part of David’s mind blowing Tuesday Night Music Club project!

By the time I met Kevin Gilbert, I had learned from my earlier experiences with David Baerwald. I learned that no matter how talented I already was, or who I was destined to become, there was always somebody more accomplished or talented. That knowledge allowed me to be realistic about how I might best serve, and integrate with, top-shelf artists and projects. The life lessons for me were to be open to awesomeness and serendipity, and to appropriately behave in environments conducive to success. In hindsight, the Gilbert working relationship got off on the right foot because I offered to serve in such a way that I could confidently deliver the goods at the highest level. By contrast, I ultimately never worked with Baerwald because I showed him my weak link instead of my true strength. It’s cool, though, because that’s how you learn—and in my case the lessons stuck.

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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.

“Friend Sourcing” part 1: Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends 

It’s true what they say: business is all about relationships. Despite the fact that I paid some serious dues and did a ton of woodshedding on my own, I can definitively say that nearly all of my achievements inside and outside of the studio have been affected by my relationships. It’s better to have friends than enemies. Even better is to have friends who are eager to help you because you have proven that you are willing to help them.

Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records and WEA, once told me that one’s success in business was directly limited by one’s success in home life or marriage. Even the most impressive macho empire could be toppled by a woman scorned. I’ve seen very expensive recording sessions be canceled due to lovers’ quarrels.

Both personal and business relationships require nurturing and maintenance. I can’t imagine a way to be successful in business without building strong teams and strategic alliances. In my experience, developing a rapport and finding common interests beyond the task at hand are key in developing lasting relationships. That’s how I’ve become true friends with many of my vendors, clients and artists. The deeper the connection, the more likely we are to succeed at seemingly impossible endeavors. Two people working together for a common goal are 1000 people strong.

Consultation is a huge part of my spiritual practice. Trust me when I tell you that I am quite capable of making decisions quickly, with conviction. That said, I find that consulting with a group of proven friends (who can leave their personal baggage at the door and evaluate the facts without prejudice) is an effective way to create a solid game plan.

About 10 years into my career in the music business, I made the jump from working at a carpet cave (Radio Tokyo Studios) to a world-class recording studio (Westlake Audio). I already produced a few hit records, but I had absolutely no idea how half the gear at Westlake even worked. “Famous Manager” phoned me in a panic because “Famous Producer & Engineer” walked out on day one of tracking an album. They zeroed out the Neve console before splitting. I guess there was a problem with the deposit check.

I had to finish my recording session in Venice Beach before driving over to West Hollywood at midnight to begin recording the band. They were patient – all 12 of them – even after waiting seven or eight hours for me to arrive. Luckily they did not add to my stress level despite the fact that they were clearly disappointed by the events that transpired earlier in the day.

Westlake Audio had a reputation for training terrific assistant engineers, and the guy they assigned to me was no exception. Chris Fogel eventually went on to become Alannis Morissette’s engineer, but on that night he was simply Chris, the guy who could either make or break me during my first at-bat in the big leagues. I quickly realized that I was in over my head, so I asked Chris to take a more active role than an assistant typically would do. He knew all the equipment and I knew how to inspire a great performance and make a record, so we were a good team. Chris knew that I appreciated his contributions, so he felt valued. He got me through the night and helped me to learn a lot of technical stuff that was previously beyond me. I, on the other hand, was able to encourage him to abuse perfectly good equipment in the quest to coax the best out of an artist. Neither one of us was too proud to ask the other for perspective and knowledge. We friend-sourced each other.

I’m chuckling as I type this blog post because I distinctly remember one day when I was working in studio C with a client while Chris was woodshedding without a client in studio D. He had a mix set up on the desk that technically sounded terrific, but he felt compelled to ask my opinion. I’m glad he did because his work was too clean, and was not emotionally resonating with me. It sounded beautiful, but I wasn’t feeling anything from it. We talked about the importance of getting things right without overly laboring them. Polishing away all of the rough edges can also take away some of the soul or mojo of a record. He said something to the effect of, “These guys are paying me $2000 a mix, and I don’t even know what I’m doing.”  Being a consummate professional, Chris was of course being humble and modest, but he truly cared. That’s why he was putting in the extra hours to develop his craft, and that’s also why he was not too timid or shy to ask for a friend’s help.  Needless to say, Chris went on to become one of the best of the best, but he, like all of us, had to start somewhere.

To this day, I continue the practice of consultation and friend sourcing.  I do as many favors as I can, and I consequently get a lot of help from my friends.  As abundance came into my life and I became the guy who was able to help others, I learned that it is a pleasure to help someone in need, someone who is willing to work to earn your support.  I now realize that when I was homeless, I probably did not need to spend nearly as many nights outdoors as I actually did. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, because if it rained, I wanted to have better odds of finding shelter. When my friends took me out to dinner, I would order the cheapest item on the menu, typically a grilled cheese sandwich for three dollars while they were having $12 roast beef sandwiches. I eventually understood that good people want to help other good people who need a break. They are happy to help somebody who is willing to help himself.  And we all need a break every once in a while.

The moral of the story is to be as helpful to others as you can, and to be willing to ask for their help.  Friends enjoy helping other friends.  Teamwork ensures success when individuals fail due to scarcity of resources. Plus it’s more fun to share success with your friends and loved ones than it is to sit alone in silence, admiring your trophies.  “Party” sounds so much more enticing than “party of one.”  That’s why I will continue to get by with a little help from my friends.