Requiem for a Lucky Man: Greg Lake RIP

Two of MJ’s Tom Anderson guitars with James Zota Baker’s hand painted Strat and a stack of Mesa Boogie amps. Greg Lake loved his “Andys” and Boogies!
I began my day by composing the following email to my friend Tom Anderson:

In case you haven’t heard yet, one of our extended family of Anderson-playing brethren, Greg Lake, passed away yesterday at age 69 after a battle with cancer.

I clearly recall Greg telling me how much he loved his blue Drop Top. You and I later talked about it, and you said, “I don’t know why he likes it so much. It’s an experiment that was never intended to be seen in public. The top is nondescript, and the guitar is a B-flat at best.” Greg had an usual relationship with equipment. When he dug something, he was totally into it, but when he couldn’t figure it out, he simply gave up on it. He practically *gave* me his original Matchless DC30 after I was able to coax righteous tones out of it that he was not. Said it would be better in my hands than his. 

I have fond memories of him. RIP Greg.

Everybody knew Greg Lake as the legendary singer/ bassist of Emerson Lake & Palmer, whose hit “Lucky Man” remains a Classic Rock radio staple 40 years later. Fewer knew he was the voice of King Crimson for a while. I knew him as the generous gear geek whose quest was the perfect note played with the perfect tone.

When my mentor and chosen-brother Keith Wechsler brought me into the ELP fold as a “tone consultant” during rehearsals for a tour, Greg and I immediately bonded via our mutual affinity for Anderson guitars and Mesa amplifiers. Greg had recently obtained a new prized possession, a not-for-sale, in-house “tester” Anderson Drop Top guitar that he borrowed from Tom. To Tom’s surprise, Greg refused to return the guitar, despite reassurances that a non-tester finished product would be more satisfying and certainly better looking.

As the owner of several stunning showroom-quality “Andys” with AAA+++ quilted maple tops, I was acutely aware of the fact that Tom never intended to sell Greg’s guitar because its top had no sex appeal. Its grain pattern was so plain that it deserved to be painted, not stained. Nonetheless, Greg said the instrument gave him inspiration, and that he couldn’t put it down. “When you find something that inspires you,” he said, “you don’t let go of it.”

Greg plugged in to his Mesa TriAxis preamp & Simul-Class 2:90 power amp and treated me to an inspired solo rendition of his 1972 hit “From The Beginning” from ELP’s Trilogy album. The guitar clearly was Greg’s Holy Grail instrument, obviously giving him tremendous joy to play. Afterward, he presented the axe to me with the reverence of a diplomat bestowing a rare artifact upon a head of state after signing a historic treaty. I caressed the fretboard with a few expensive-sounding Steely Dan chords before returning the crown jewel to its smitten owner.

I then programmed some custom presets into Greg’s Mesa/Boogie rig, fine tuning them to his unique “touch” and style. He loved that rig, and was happy to have a few new colors on his tonal palette.

Greg then asked me if I could help him with his new Matchless DC30 because he “couldn’t get a tone” from it. Matchless was, at the time, the new boutique kid in town. The flagship DC30 was intended to be a roadworthy Vox AC30-inspired amp with two separate channels and attitudes. I was already familiar with the amp because Rusty Anderson walked me through his DC30 before a recording session at A&M Studio A. I showed Greg some tips and settings, but he wasn’t feeling the amp. He was simply uninspired by the amp, and it showed. Greg handed me the guitar, and all of a sudden music began pouring by the bucket from the speakers. Horses for courses. I guess there’s no true one-size-fits-all.

Greg’s generosity found its way to me. He believed that I would put the DC30 to better use than he, so he offered to give me the amp–which he knew was valued at $2500! I politely declined, saying that I would be willing to buy it from him rather than accept it as a gift. He asked if I had any cash in my wallet. I said, “Not enough.” He asked how much. I replied, “Only $600.” Greg said, “If you insist on paying for my gift to you, I insist you fork over that $600 right now.” With a wink and a big smile, he happily took my money. I took home a piece of Rock & Roll history.

In the spirit of passing the gift of tone to those more worthy of carrying the torch, I ultimately placed the amp with six-string phenom David Weiss of Travis Whitelaw, Trailer Radio, Slackjaw and Steve Conte’s band. Dave is a solid friend whose fiery-yet-tasty playing never ceases to amaze me. Dave also appreciates his DC30’s provenance and its fabled “green transformer” mystique.

Circling back to Greg Lake, another anecdote worth sharing is my recollection of a lovely “family day” in the park. FM radio giants Kansas and Tower Of Power were headlining an afternoon outdoor concert with Greg at Balboa Park in Los Angeles. Greg, a legend among rock’s royalty, was totally relaxed, low key, savoring the lovely weather and the company of his friends and colleagues. He was just another regular guy who was happy to share sandwiches, cheese and apples with the rest of us mere mortals, both before and after switching to the Rock Deity persona only while he was on stage. There was no isolated backstage cloistering on that day. Greg Lake, legendary rockstar, was unassumingly enjoying his picnic among a thousand diverse Angelenos from all walks of life. I don’t think anyone noticed him until he took the stage.

If I recall, the closest Greg came to playing the rockstar card while off stage was when he and Wechsler, who played drums that day for Greg wearing a cast on his broken ankle (!), introduced me to TOP’s drummer Dave Garibaldi, because I mentioned that it would be really cool to sit behind Garibaldi during his set. Mission accomplished. Cherished memory cast in stone. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. Lucky man indeed.

MJ: “This song’s for you, old friend. Rest in peace.”
 
David Weiss playing his Matchless DC30 that I got from Greg Lake.
 

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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.