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.