A&M Chapter Nineteen

I’m out of the loop to the current culture of music production.  All I know is that it’s different in most ways.  Fair enough.  When I was in it, far too many records were made for way too much.  There were very few reasons to spend more than a quarter million.  Orchestras were expensive and so were choirs.  Know what you’re doing and orchestras and choirs should be around just long enough to wipe out the refreshments.

We never spent more than $100k.  Studio musicians could be expensive but not if with some planning and discretion.  We hired Josh Freeze once for a demo but he came to rehearsal, he was in and out in a few hours and he wasn’t cheap back then.  I think I remember his socks didn’t match.  I can’t believe that despite how much the business has changed, pre-production doesn’t still save dollars like nothing else.  Rehearsal time with your producer and engineer saves serious cash and gives you the best chance at being on the same page.

The band needs to understand the producer(s) and the producer(s) must understand the band.  Playing ability or chops, vision, direction, nuance etc, must all be a shared as completely and honestly as possible.

It always occurred to me to be stupid when big dickhead bands showed up with a semi full of gear or spent three days auditioning pianos tuned down an octave because Axl couldn’t transpose.  When they piled mountains of gear and spent six months mixing.  If I spent three months mixing a record I’d only be there two hours a day.  How can you have perspective after that long?  I had an engineering teacher tell me once to not fall prey to the “fiddle factor”.  By the time an artist or band arrives in the studio, 75% percent of the work should be complete.  It’s not only the most economical way to make a record but the most common sense methodology.

The goal is to arrive in the high dollar environment prepared.  Like Boy Scouts or NASA.

We made a record in about two weeks over Christmas once.  We spent around $25k, we had songs on two big soundtracks, the president of A&M, Al Calfaro, dancing and playing air guitar, a really good, raw, honest pop record and nothing happened.  A handful of excellent pop songs and a completely entertaining record.  Nothing at all, not a fucking nickel spent on promotion despite positive reviews.  What did they have to lose?  It didn’t cost shit to make, it was a good record and lives and careers hung in the balance.

Really stupid.  Heartbreaking.

This shit took place at a record company like A&M, where you walked forty feet out the studio door to see the A&R guy or sixty feet to the art department or the radio promotion suits.  Ninety feet to bullshit with guards at the front gate or seventy five feet to drop in on David Anderle.

A week later I find myself on some Metallica or Motley Crue gig, where they’re spending a million bucks on production alone.  Not advertising, promotion or tour support.  But production.  The band are pricks, Hetfield is a racist, shut up James, I have stories.  True ones.  The hours are long and nobody gets album credit.  Lars is pompous.  Lars was the guy to announce that no one would be credited on the Black Record.  The guys in The Crue are actually nice. But I think about how many records by worthy artists could be made for that budget.  Too big.  Ridiculous.  Too little artist development and too much money spent all the way around.  A&M was really one of the last labels practicing any sort of artist development.

We made records for between $15k and $100k.  I did one for about $37k that sold around a hundred thousand copies and me & Al got royalty checks, some fat ones, for five years.  We did another one that was the LA Times Orange County Edition record of the year.  A few years later it was in the top ten for the decade.  Couldn’t get them signed.  Too old they said.  Dusty Wakeman from Dwight Yoakam’s band and owner of Mad Dog Studios where I was a client, told me to my face that the record was excellent but the band was too old.  They were in their early forties and could play and sing like nobody’s business.

The $100k budget went to a record that sold some 3.5 million copies.  You may have heard of them.  They were called Everclear.

When in doubt, use a big diaphragm condenser with it’s own pad.  I faked my way through lots of stuff with big diaphragm condensers.  If that doesn’t work, throw up a cheap dynamic like a 57, 58, or a 421.  Try squashing the crap out of it with a 160 or an 1176.  Watch the attack, especially on the 160.  You never know.

That Probably dated me.  Who knows what the kids are using these days.

We recorded Johnny Angel Wendell, now a somewhat famous radio personality on Air America with his band Creeps In Exile.  One day a year or two later I was wandering the financial district in San Francisco with my good friend Chris Faris and some bike messenger pulls up and uses my full name.  Turns out he was in Johnny’s band and was pretty glad to see me.  I think he was the bass player but I can’t remember for sure.

Dave Smalley confided in me once that they all thought Johnny Angel was a joke back in the day.  I don’t know or care.  With the exception of Johnny’s radio and writing career, they were all bit players.  I believe the first Down By Law record we did was by far their best selling one ever.

I was the last person to record Don Cherry before he died on a project with the Watt’s Prophets.  I recorded Mel Torme and he called us “cats” the entire time.  I worked with Bowie and Stan Getz, Alice Cooper, Peter Criss, Solomon Burke, Benmont Tench, Roy Bittan, Mike Campbell, Roy Orbison, Tina Turner and one of my favs was Stan Lynch.

Not so famous but way talented and very funny.

Once upon a time there was a band named Dumpster.  A Brian Huttenhower project.  Famous A&R guy who signed Soundgarden and then succumbed to crack.  The lead singer was named Robert.  A surly prick with brilliant blues eyes, a menacing chipped front tooth and a bald head.  I can’t remember how big he was but he wasn’t small.  Like a pirate somehow.  His girlfriend was a B level porn star and he was a heroin junkie.  He got cranky when he didn’t have his medicine.  He was cranky anyway but I liked him.  Very smart and very funny.  Tons of dark charisma.  A little Anton La Vay.  He showed up one morning with an eyebrow missing.  When we asked about it, he smiled and said he’d woken up with the eyebrow resting perfectly on his pillow.  He said he decided to leave it there, just as he found it.  I wondered out loud if there was maybe a radiation leak nearby.

His was an angry band.  Furious punk rock with excellent pop hooks.  Kelly, the drummer once told me that Robert’s girlfriend had the ugliest pussy he’d ever seen.  I didn’t understand until he popped in a VHS one day.  It was an incredibly ugly pussy.  The color was wrong.  Like one of those old back lit photos of menu items in cheesy ethnic food palaces.  Garish and overly greasy.

We took a break everyday around six p.m. when said girlfriend showed up with Robert’s evening fix.  She brought his works in a small tin.  He didn’t want it around otherwise because he was pretty serious about what we were doing.  It was far from my first experience with a drug addicted musician but something about Robert intrigued me beyond the norm.

He told me a story about getting hit in the face with a full can of beer while walking along side a highway in one of the Carolinas on a hot summer day.  He said he figured he deserved it because he was just some fucking punk and that was how his front tooth was chipped.  He said it didn’t hurt much.  Fifty fifty chance he was lying to me.

Ever been amazed at how a cat can just stand and stare at you?  Tail barely flickering.  Sizing you up and down.  That was Robert.  I wonder if he had one of those brains that just didn’t understand the rest of us.  As much as we didn’t understand him.  Until we did smack together, he was some bird on a wire to me.

We began to talk about it.  I did my best to lure him into conversations about it.  At the end of the day, he was a pretty forthright guy.  He knew right away what I was getting at.  Heroin was pretty much the only drug I’d never experimented with.  I was more than curious, I was fascinated, and I knew full well the hold it took on people.  I’d already seen people die from it.  Crazy, but I was young and reckless.

Eventually he agreed to let me try it, with a firm disclaimer that he was not about to be responsible for what came of it.  He warned me with candor about what we were going to do.  He said no way would he have anything to do with me shooting it.  He had just enough evil and curiosity in him to wonder would happen.  We waited until we were finished one night and we chased the dragon.  We smoked it off foil using a glass tube.  It was like bubbling brown sugar running down chrome as we chased it with the flame of a lighter from underneath.

He coached me the entire time.  He was making sure I got a good hit and didn’t waste his junk.

It was pungent but sweet.

The high was ridiculous.  Warm.  Molasses in my head.  I couldn’t believe how comfortable I was.  We drank some beers and talked about what we were working on.  We had another hit.  He walked me through it again.  Then we talked about life.  I didn’t understand how such an angry man could succumb to this flowery, fresh baked pastry influence.  Syrupy peace.  Maybe he would be homicidal without it.

Some people need to be medicated.  I’ve known many and I think Robert was one of them.

The very next night, we finished and waited for the band to leave.  We took a plate from the kitchen/runner’s closet and I snorted the brown sugar into each nostril.  Robert did too.  His lines were longer and fatter than mine.  I took comfort in that.  He suggested we take a walk.  I told Eric the guard we’d be back on the way through the front gates.  Eric usually opened a gate for me but I didn’t like that.  I wondered about it.  He was being respectful and generous.  We were friends, we were nice to each other.  All he really had to do was keep track of my coming and going.

I still have a key to the front door of A&M Studios.  They took my tool kit and my pager.  Bet they’ve changed the locks though.

Up La Brea and onto Sunset.  We walked for at least an hour without saying much.  The lights and neon were gorgeous and the smells of exhaust and fast food coated me in a way so pleasant but so impossible to describe. A country boy enveloped in the city.  Glazed like a doughnut and nestled in soft natural fiber.  I asked him about his angry nature and whether heroin might be an effective mitigator for him.  He thought about it and after some time he imagined out loud there were better things out there for him but he didn’t know what they were.

He asked me if I was having fun and I told him I was floating in bliss.  I said to him I can never do this again and he smiled a little and whispered he hoped not.

I never did.  I knew I couldn’t.  If I live to be eighty, I might try to get some.

” don’t doubt that the randomness of life is in some
way synchronized with all the things that we don’t
understand about the universe. It’s what we do know
that confounds us. All the while, what we don’t know
blows us along. ” -I wrote that

Drinks for my friends.

11 Responses to “A&M Chapter Nineteen”

  • reiyalight1:

    Excellent character development. Was wanting that back a chapter or two when you refer to female lead singers. Let us hear what you were hearing a little more, would ya? It’s no wonder Cobain and many other Rock legends offed themselves. What a crappy buisness plan, that industry indulges in. Oh and You got a good load of Taco n’ yo mouth or vise versa.

  • admin:

    It’s not so much character development as it is a true story. Given that this work is auto bigraphical, there’s not always apporpriate opportunity for that. Check out the chapters about the Canadians if you’re looking for more of that.

  • Gary:

    I forget if I mentioned to you that that Everclear album was my favorite for about 5 years. I remember reading the liner notes and seeing your name. I thought, no, couldn’t be. Glad to find out it was actually you Michael! How cool. One of my desert island discs was produced by somebody I knew in high school…

  • admin:

    It is pretty cool and this pretty much made my day. I’m quite proud of that record, it’s very solid. I knew we had something when Art first gave me a tape of some demos right after Everclear was signed to Capitol. It’s a good story and I’ll be telling it soon.

    I was on my way to Seattle one day after I’d finished recording it and had some rough mixes on cassette. I played it for my colleagues while we drove to the airport.

    They were stunned and told me they knew I had at least one top ten single. Pretty cool.

    First time I heard it on the radio I was in Nevada returning to my parent’s house after Christmas shopping. I left the car door open and ran inside to get them.

    I was able a year later to give my mother a gold record for mother’s day.

  • Hunter:

    I do recall that you were thee only person I confided in when I first went on a ride.

    You undoubtedly out-earned me in our 1st adventure. Fuck you if you think we’ve done our last.

    xo

  • admin:

    I sincerely hope that we’ll share more adventures my old friend.

  • reiyalight1:

    Runner Rick…,Even though I was with two male compadre’s, going around nude, or with nothing but a tiny bikini became the norm for me. Dolphkim. Such a warm tame body of water the beaches presented. Sticky in the summer, wet, misty caliente. Mi Vida Loca, no not me Rick. He became strange, after he started doing drugs, down in Dade County. The other muskateer, Robin Kludt, and I constantly got fed and tended to by bored wealthy retirees, tough little Rick Robinson would have none of that. He made quick friends with the slick swingers that populated the pale yellow sanded beach town, of Miami. Cash was King, rolling in seaweed green waves. At first he got money working on their cars. An expert mechanic he served well, as we sped down thru Kentucky towards “Geoaga” in an old slant 6, Grey colored Dodge Dart. It was like flying, Rick never went the speed limit. “These cars aren’t built to crawl he said, you gotta burn the gunk off the engine manifold”. We would just trip eyeing all the really old cars in Memphis,Tennessee. He would spew out names Barracuda, Javilen.., I don’t know, my dream was a 68’candy apple red Camero. Red, like the little girl wearing the Red Jacket in “Schindlers List”. So obvious that nobody notices. I love that.

  • reiyalight1:

    From across an alien time zone, vibrations were jarring me into a new reality. “Why is this happening;” was what I would wonder when I would glance over at Terry’s brother Rick.
    Literally I would tremble to glance, him at the bus stop, or in the halls at school. Soul mates; more like Soul travel. I had to struggle to keep my F..ing feet planted on the ground.
    Man-of-war Jellyfish eyes, stinging and piercing right through me. I had no courage, I was lost in his presence. Nothing else mattered.
    He coveted me and I could feel it.
    I was his escape door, the ever happy twirling girl. A bouncing, laughing majorette. Misery & shame, worn subtly in his body language, and on his face.

    Rusted out Mustangs, and broken down old Impala’s wanting to run free. My familia were the Red Corvettes. Everyone wanted to be me.

    But we are so lonely in this tiny little place. Playing in the shifting sand. Gigantic heavy wet dunes, caving in and suffocating me. There is no air, anymore. Innocent dreaming sparrow die away so easily.

    I had to act fast. Rick had been missing for over a month.

  • Pamela Veselinovic:

    That’s a great story, Mike. You have rare character to do heroin once. That in itself is incredible.

  • Hey, I remember listening to that Everclear album in what was it? Studio C? Man that sounded amazing!
    Sue and I were visiting LA and we got the A&M tour that night. Might have been the same trip as the Hollywood parties with your old friend Patrick…
    Anyway, Mike, these are great and I always enjoy a new hit, almost as much as hearing the stories in person due to your mellifluous character. Sounds like you yarning it up in person, which is great because you’re a gifted storyteller and wicked funny, which I’ve begun to theorize is partially attributable to your ridiculously entertaining Dad.
    Your enemy,
    Carp Gable

  • Ari:

    Congratulations, Cindy! I know the feeling all too well. Only it took me until I was 53, had ruenid one marriage, almost ruenid a second, had more jobs than I can remember, lost most of my friends, and still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Yes, indeed. Peter Pan. The puer aeternus. At the end of my drinking I felt like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life when his life. The difference is that I had no Clarence coming down from on high to show me that I wasn’t a worthless failure. That didn’t happen until I decided to take the first of those 12 Steps. It’s changed my life. Believe it or not, today I’m an interfaith minister working with a small Unitarian Universalist congregation who actually called me to be their minister! Who’da thunk it? Thanks for a great post! One day at a time.

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