Thanks to: Allen Kovac, Jeff Syndey, Randy Nicklaus, Barbara Bolan, Juile Du Brow, Phil Sandhaus, Justin Walker, Ashley Smith, Jason Whittington, Jon Bergen, Ed Thomas, Susan McEowen, Jack Satter, George Silva, Gina Iorillo-Coralles, Karen McLellan, Fred McFarlin, Tom Bobak, Patt Moriss, Kelly Wallace, Liz Healy, Damon Grossman, Suzanne Perl, Jim Kozmor, Sergio Silva, Dean Buckley, Jed Gordin, Jeff Varner, and the entire family of very talented and cool people at Beyond Music and Left Bank, Kenny Buvogel, Kristen Parker, Donna D’Errico, Mötley Crüe, Sammy Hagar, Nick & Tracy Brophy, Chris Pott, Beth Lovejoy, Ryan and Viktoria, The Cremin Family, Jenna Leigh and The Gig, Danielle Rushell, Marc and Michelle Burnstein, Gary Myrick, Mandy Hampton, Edward Colver, Mark Johnson, The Zendarskis, Janet Barbee, Rachel Reenstra, Bruce Ede, Aura, Shanti, Marcello and Jospehine Belasco, all of the kids in the Belasco Theatre Company, Bill Sare, Rob Lamothe, Thersea, Chrissy, Steve and Frankie Pavlick, Uncle Steve, Shiela Gentry, Collins New, Michael Rosen, Bill Rich, Jeff Martinez, Chris and Paul next door at Alameda, Dr.Richard Caplin, Kathy, Ted and Sara Keaton, Trisha Sep, Mark at Trademark, Cheryl Sale, Krishan Lal, Jagmeet Kaur, Kulbir, India Palace, JERRY ADAMS, Chris Bader, Amy Basler, Sandy Bean, Bob Bell, Ken Benson, Chris Bergen, Skip Bishop, Dusty Bowling, John Briscoe, Jimmu Calanchini, Stacy Christensen, Tom Cuddy, Sergio De Acha, Vince Deleon, Pat Doroff, John Fetto, Phil Fracassi, Jane Fredricks, Scott Freeman, Amy Gunnoe, David Hammula, Linda Hoffman, Greg Horne, Alan Hubbard, Steve Jacobs, Eddie Jorgensen, Jerry Kamiler, Wendy Kayland, Jim Kelly, Kevin Kiernan, Mark Kirklin, Paula Kopka, Matt Jervis, Dave Levesque, Juile, Link, Mariab Luttschwager, Lisa Macy, Lou Mann, Jim McDermott, Bill and Rose McGathy, John Michaels, Bob Morelli,Kevin Morrow, Eric Neese, Jim Nelson, Gus Pena, Courtney Proffitt, Kip Puiia, Scott Reich, George Saadi, Kim Sneed, Adam Somers, Chris Stephnson, Jim Sullivan, Bryan Townsend, Carrie Tucker, Maria Vasett, Danielle Wagner, Ken Walsh, Wendy Wiesberg, Dave Witzig, Guy Zapoleon, Tim Godwin at Line 6, Nau Engineering, Cameron Moline, Dave Pearson, Glenn Matejzel, Harvery Beck, Sean Davis and David Arambula at GMP Guitars, Greg Timmons at Ernie Ball.
"I’M IN LOVE WITH EVERYONE"
A Special Thanks to Dad (the true artist), Mom (the true writer), David, Kim and everyone in the Michael and Sare families. Mike Pavlick for being the only musician and friend to stick with me through all the shitty bands and still want to play my music (you are the ultimate friend!). Mark Keaton for your friendship and for lending your talents for this record. David Cremin for believing in me before and long after anyone else! Dan Barbee for your unwavering commitment. Nikki Sixx for your great friendship and for being one of the coolest guys I know (oh yeah, and for the ‘64 tele! I’ll never forget that!). Eddie Belasco for your deep soul and unconditional friendship. And last but not least, my dear Karen… You alone rebuild me.
”—James Michael (On who he thanks on/for the Inhale album)
Mötley Crüe Producer and Sixx:A.M. Vocalist James Michael Talks Shop
James Michael came to prominence in hard-rock circles as vocalist for Sixx:A.M., the trio assembled by bassist Nikki Sixx, with guitarist D.J. Ashba, to transform his memoir, The Heroin Diaries, into music. What was originally a recording project became a touring group as a result of the CD’s success. Sixx:A.M. is now working on a follow-up.
Michael has a lengthy history with Sixx, dating back to his writing and production work with the bass player and Mötley Crüe. What many fans don’t realize is that he also has a successful career as a multi-platinum engineer, producer, songwriter, musician and arranger, and that his background is rich in, but not limited to, hard rock and so-called heavy metal. In addition to tracking bands like the Crüe and the Scorpions, he has also worked with country artists, such as Deana Carter and Sara Evans.
In the following interview, James Michael discusses his studio techniques, his passion for making records and finding the pocket without a drummer.
How has your approach to working with Nikki changed over the years?
That’s a great question. It hasn’t changed at all. The day he showed up at my house to write the first song for New Tattoo — he’s the same person. That question excites me because I realize that our friendship has stayed consistent and we still have that good give-and-take and appreciation for what each other does.
Can you be too comfortable working with an artist?
I guess you could, but that would then make you not as effective as a producer. You always have to throw a fistful of nails in when things get too comfortable. For me, it’s instinctive to do that. The music-making process is about the discomfort, working through things, challenging yourself and discovering new things about yourself.
Nikki’s roots go back to analog and tape, what one might call the “old school” way of making records — “old school” now meaning anyone over 30. How does this impact what you do?
Mine are in analog and tape, too! I was very lucky to start engineering at 14 on large analog consoles and two-inch tape machines. I was always a tech geek, so as soon as the first Mac Classic came out, I was pushing it to the limit. I have that old-school style, but I’m also cutting-edge efficient on digital recording. I’m one of the handfuls of guys who cut his teeth on the cusp and can do both. Having the same recording experience as Nikki, we speak the same language and that’s very important. We appreciate the old and the new and can find the sweet spot between the two. We also know when we’ve gotten there. Being from the other era of recording gives us an advantage.
Are the “new school” producers missing out on that history?
I think that if I answer “yes” to that question, which I could, I would also have to say that some purists are missing out as well on some amazing new advances. From a personal standpoint, a new engineer who never sat in front of speakers and listened to a song on vinyl, yes, he’s missing out on the magic from the past. But a guy who has only mixed drums by cutting tape with a razor blade and who needs three days to edit a take when I can do it in ten minutes on Pro Tools is missing out, too. It’s important to find the hybrid, the common ground, to make the best music you can make.
Let’s talk about your gear.
On the Sixx:A.M. CD, all of the drums were programmed. I have an extensive drum sample library that I’ve built over the years. All of the amp simulation was done on [Digidesign] Eleven or the Line 6 Pod and other plug-ins. It was all recorded through a Neve API, with very, very high-quality analog mic pres: solid-state or tube. I used the Digidesign ICON console and mixed everything in the box, the same thing I did with the Mötley Crüe record [Saints ofLos Angeles].
What is your studio setup?
I started off with an analog studio many years ago, with a Fostex 16-track half-inch tape machine. I can’t remember which console I had at the time. Then I made the transition to ADAT, and at the time, it was incredible. When Alanis made Jagged Little Pill, that was the first record made on ADAT digital to get that notoriety. I loved that Glen Ballard had the balls to make that transition. With Saints of Los Angeles I wanted to push that envelope as hard as I could, and with amp emulation.
Anyway, I went from ADAT to Pro Tools twelve or fifteen years ago and I have constantly updated since. My studio in L.A., LBG — Lightning Bolt Garage — was designed with a feel for songwriters and the functionality of a full production and mixing facility. In this day and age, with record sales down, with the costs of going to a studio, you can come to a guy like me who can turnkey a record. I basically have a control room and a couple of live rooms. The Crüe album and the bulk of Sixx:A.M. were done there.
On Sixx:A.M., all the drums were programmed. On the Crüe album, they were all tracked in MIDI. It’s Tommy’s performance, but they were triggered and I accessed my sample library for sounds. It’s a cutting-edge way to make a rock record. The guys are all very experimental and it wasn’t hard to convince them to try this. Tommy was way into it. He loves technology as much as I do and hates spending all this time in the studio to get sounds and then being limited. That’s not to downplay the sound of a great drum kit and a live room, but it can be limiting in post-production. We could have changed every tone in his drums up to the final mix. The flexibility is incredible.
To a degree, I’ve cut down on outboard gear considerably. I still track with a strong signal chain: a Neve API, 1176s, LA-2As — everything you would expect in a world-class tracking studio.
In the box, I deal with the ICON console for mixing. Nothing is external anymore. I like that when you say that something is 100 percent recallable, it’s 100 percent and not 98 percent. I could recall Saints and make an adjustment of 1dB and a half if they wanted it. Any sacrifices going from analog to digital you make up for in cost and ability to recall.
What led you to production and engineering?
Frustration. The frustration of writing a song, giving it to an artist, and the producer either doesn’t get it or doesn’t produce it adequately. A number of times the songs weren’t interpreted the way they were intended, and sometimes it was a little issue — the way a note on the guitar rubbed with the melody line was overlooked by the producer and the magic was completely lost. Sometimes it wasn’t even in the ballpark.
As we talk, I realize I’m a complete control freak and maybe I need to go talk to someone! [laughs] I need to see things to completion, and I think what my colleagues know and appreciate about me is that I do it on time, within budget, and make it the best it possibly can be.
Who are your influences?
Good question. I would have to break my career down into parts. Artists: Freddie Mercury and Paul Rodgers are artists I love, who became my idols. Producers: Mike Clink’s work on Appetite For Destruction [Guns N’ Roses] excited me, and I had the good fortune to become friends with him and produce with him. The list would go on and on — any particular recording I loved, that producer would become a hero. Mixing: Chris Lord-Alge and Mike Shipley, who is a friend, colleague and hero. It’s always a moving target — tomorrow I may come across something on iTunes and have a new hero.
You also play a number of instruments. What led you to each and what’s in your arsenal now?
Necessity. I would learn out of necessity. I was 14, my dad was paying for sessions and the engineer was padding the bill by working slowly. I would think, I can do this quicker! Necessity was always behind me expanding my horizons. If I write something on piano, I don’t want to hire someone to play it on guitar; I’ll learn to play guitar. Again, it’s the control freak in me. I want things a certain way, and that’s another reason I love working with Nikki and DJ — it’s not “I can do it better,” it’s “I’d never have thought of that.”
I play guitar, keyboards — I love the Hammond B3; it’s one of my favorites, drums, bass. I would love to play harmonica. I taught myself sax for a while. Given enough time I’ll figure anything out.
Are you a collector? Do you endorse anyone in particular?
I don’t have endorsements. I’ve always stayed away from endorsements so that I’m not obligated and I’m free to change whenever I want. I am a huge Line 6 fan, and I love Eleven. I was one of the first to use it unabashedly. I have a Gibson ES-175, a jazz guitar that I love for its deep, rich, mellow sound. I have a large collection of guitars that I don’t play that often. I go to them for specific reasons, for that character or that tone, but there is no particular favorite.
We always hear about the bass and drums being in the pocket to create the backbone of a band. There’s no drummer in Sixx:A.M. How do you build that with bass and guitar?
In the studio, we build a bass track, and whether it’s programmed or real, there’s a drum track, and then we get the bass and drums locked in. It’s not a big challenge. What it comes down to is getting capable musicians, locking it in, and then finding the pocket is easy. If you don’t, it’s a battle.
Some of the songs on The Heroin Diaries were years old. How did you keep them modern and fresh? What was added, musically and technically, and how did you keep them from being just an experience of living in the past?
Those are great questions. First, an old song is an old song if it was released a long time ago, and none of those songs were ever released. I wrote four of the songs: “Dead Man’s Ballet”, “Van Nuys”, “Permission” and “Courtesy Call”. They were all written for my album and they happened to fit with The Heroin Diaries. That’s a heady answer, but it’s not a matter of keeping a song modern. If you wrote it ten years ago and release it now, then it becomes what modern is. You produce it with modern sounds, the way it sounds good now. You don’t take something you recorded ten years ago and try to mix it and give it a fresh sound. The fact that the record has done so well and established a sound for Sixx:A.M. means, I guess, that you can consider this a modern sound. But if it had tanked, people would listen to it and say it doesn’t seem relevant today.
Where ya gonna be tomorrow?
How ya gonna face the sorrow?
Where ya gonna be when you die?
‘Cause nothing’s gonna last forever
And things they change like the weather
They’re gone in the blink of an eye
And are you terrified by sadness
And have you given into madness
You’re running out of places to hide
‘Cause everybody’s got a reason
To justify how they’re feelin’
Maybe you should open your eyes
Are you waiting for the reason to change?
Are you waiting for the end, has it came?
Nothing’s gonna stand in your way…
Just look at yourself, do you like what you see?
Look at yourself, is this how it should be?
You’re gonna have to live with the things you say
You’ll have to cross bridges that you burned today
And everything you do, it’s coming back for you
You’ll never outrun what waits for you