A&M Chapter Sixteen

I had my guinea pigs.

Bands and artists that suffered my inexperience.  I made more than a few really shitty recordings.  Sometimes there was some attitude there but I made some egregious sonic messes.  I’m as embarrassed over those recordings as I am over my contributions to my high school paper.  It’s true.  I was a dickhead.

There was a guy named Scott Thomas.  Huge talent but kind of a prick so I don’t feel so bad.  Jesse Montague, I got some of it right but some of it wrong.  The percussionist’s name was Jagoda (sp?), he spilled a bong into the console and smoked the power supplies but we did make some cool recordings.  She played and sang an entire chorus out of time without me realizing it.  Duck Duck Goose, I think I did okay by them, the guitar player had this tiny little 15 watt vintage amp that he got the coolest sound from.  Hard as fuck to record because I had to isolate the hell out of it.  It broke up as beautifully as a cameo broach and he had a lisp.  The gayest straight guys I ever met.

A band called Dumpster; have I told the story about experimenting with heroin with the singer?  A band called Eleventeen who would later become Eve Six.  My lawyer got me home early from vacation for that one.  Found me in Tahoe somehow when I’m not sure my parent’s  knew I was there.  Before cell phones.  Neverland with Pat Sugg, the best I’d ever heard a guitar player sound through Peavey amps.  Bill Kennedy was building the coolest record with them and it just never happened.

I’ve got to go through my DATs as I have thousands of hours of the best LA had to offer.  Before it was over, we were out scouting them and bringing them in.

Salad days.  Golden.

Along came a band called Rat Bat Blue.  Dabro, Ace, Fraulein Sniffy, Alan the genius and Teddy on bass.  Dabro, Dave Abrahams, was the guitar player and the archivist for A&M’s mastering department.  We became friends because he was so damn friendly.  One of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  It was a bad day when Dabro wasn’t smiling.  They were all sweethearts.

We had fun and worked way very hard to render their vision.  All night long whenever we could.  Must have done at least twenty songs together.  Songs don’t happen in a day you know.  Sometimes not in a week.  They could play, all good musicians, with Alan on keyboards being a bit of a stand out.  Alan and I seemed to understand each other right away.  I can’t explain it but we connected.  He was a sorcerer with a grand piano.  Funny and smart.  That actually describes the band as a whole if I toss in the words talented and dedicated.

They were a stalwart team.  They were to be my first experience and example of such a dynamic in many ways.  I was to work with many famous ones that didn’t share a similar ethic and it’s absence was always a hole in the process as much as it was an indicator of an obvious expiration date to come.

Professional.   They never bitched about or maligned each other.  They were confident in their abilities and never failed to share encouragement and support.  They were very sensitive in that way with me as well.  They treated me like a member and often left a few hundred dollars on the console after we’d worked all night and I was the only one who had to get up to clean toilets and fetch fruit in an hour.

I was mixing them the night of the ’92 Northridge quake and had just gotten home to fall asleep with a beer between my legs.  So tired.  Still on the couch.  A 6.9, and I slept through it.  What woke me was the arcing of the transformers.  Not the sound and crunch, but the blinding flashes.

My ears shut down to this day when I sleep.  I hear them turn on right before I’m completely conscious.  They click and work with my eyes.  Weird, huh?

I wasn’t sure what to do but understood something big had happened.  I put on my shoes and wandered out to find a community on the sidewalk.  Battery powered transistor radios, blankets and candles.  Some woman remarked at the irony of such tragedy on a so beautiful a night.  She gestured at the stars.  It was then I realized it had been a quake serious enough to knock out all the power of the entire LA Basin.  A celestial show like that hadn’t been possible in Los Angeles for a hundred years.

I was in bed asleep inside half an hour and slept through all the aftershocks.

I’m an agnostic, yet I can’t help but say, God love you guys for your patience.  Thank you.  Rat Bat Blue certainly wasn’t my first but we lasted, I learned and together we grew.  The first female drummer I’d ever worked with, Fraulein Sniffy, Jeanne Thomason, she could play, she had pocket and she could tune her own drums.  I almost always asked drummers to hit harder and Jeanne was no exception, but neither was it a problem.  She was very solid.  Always there’d be a message on my machine from Jeanne thanking and praising me after we’d finished a batch of songs.

“Magicfingers” she called me.

Dabro on the lot, spreading the word about what a good job I’d done.  Smiling and telling everyone.  This band was instrumental, pun intended, in earning me respect and legitamacy.

The band’s style was pretty eclectic and they seemed to go wherever they wanted musically because they had the vision and talent to afford and accommodate it.  Ace, Michael Baker, was a larger than life front man with charisma, chops and style.  A funny motherfucker, with serious lyrical and melodic ability.  He had an informed and clever grip on humor and pathos.  I was often in awe of him.  He was the real deal.

Exceptionally good live.  Always a function of the band’s ability to play and a front man’s ability to deliver.

When Dabro first approached me, I was still green enough to be leery, but I accepted.  Understand these transactions had nothing to do with money.  It was about us helping each other.  One of the reasons I was grateful is they could play far better than I could engineer.  Like I said, they were patient and I can’t help but know they were grooming me for their needs.  I had no problem with that then and I don’t now.

Before we were done with each other, about a year and a half in, they were being courted by labels and the fish in my pan had gotten considerably larger and a little more supine.  We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do, we’d helped each other and I was glad to have held up my end of the deal.  They signed to Atlantic and Rupert Hine produced.  Rupert Hine picked up where I left off.

It always broke my heart a little when a band I’d helped for free got a deal and never even threw some overdubs my way but I loved these guys.  My heart holds nothing but fondness for them.  We had shared with and nurtured each other in a musical equivalent of graduate school.  They did at least as much for me as I did for them and it was without regret on my part.  We had a good time doing it.  They didn’t owe me a goddamn thing.

As is often the case, they got lost in a shuffle.  Atlantic just happened to go through a “consolidation” and they were never really heard from again.  I never heard the record they made and I can’t help but be curious to this day.  They were exceptional.

The thing is this, when you work with a band for that long and that hard with a common goal, you share something beyond friendship, it becomes a partnership that approaches family.  You get to know each other pretty goddamn well.  I was to join many bands in the years to come but this was my first.  I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  My heart swells when I think about it.  Good people.  Good times.  A lot of honest talent and sincere friendship.

Here’s an epilogue for ya:

I’m not sure how, but word got out at one point about a batch of three songs I’d completed mixes on with Rat Bat Blue.  Mark Harvey, the Harvinator hisself, studio manager and boss hog, approached me to say he was impressed and  asked me to engineer for him that very weekend.  Again, I found myself flattered and intimidated.  A piano vocal session with Astrid Young, sister of Neil Young.  I accepted.  There was no way I could let this man down.

I was nervous but Mark was cool and It went well.  So much different than my hard ass boss.  We had a pleasant afternoon.  I documented everything I did.  Brian Schueble was to follow up on what I’d done and told me later that when he first looked at my signal chain he thought I was out of my fucking mind but it sounded pretty good.  Brian was one of the good ones still much to my senior.  One of the best engineers to ever walk the planet and as humble as  pornstar with a tiny dick.  He would later spend time with me sharing his micing technique on grand piano with emphasis on phase and right left balance.

Brian is another one I owe.  Damn he was good.  He showed me how to make a piano sound like God.  He handed me the keys.  He taught me to fish.  Listen to Fiona Apple’s first record, that’s Brian.

So the buzz about these Rat Bat Blue songs somehow continued to escalate.  Some of the techs were even talking about it.  I know Dabro was raving all over the lot.

It’s weird being under the microscope all the sudden in the most famous and renowned recording studio in the world.  Discomfiting and confusing.  I’d had the light shined on me before for other reasons and this felt the same.  It itched.  It was sore.  I wanted a vacation.  Given the chance, I might have run for it.

But I knew the songs were good.  I knew my production and engineering was good.  It sounded almost the same as it did in my head so I knew.  If I was wrong I was wrong and so be it, I would never be right.  My colleagues and contemporaries listened and smiled.  It was good.  Nine out of ten dentists agreed.

One day, in the middle of my session, I forget who I was working with, Shelly Yakus, President of Recording, the big cheese, in his inimitable style, walks into my control room, folds his arms on the meter bridge, looks at me and waits for me to stop tape.

I stop tape.  He tells me he heard I did something special.  I tell him I think I know what he’s talking about.  He tells me he wants to hear it.  I say as soon as I’m done here I’ll play it for you.  He smiles evil and says take a break, then tells me to meet him in studio B and exits stage right.  I tell the band I’ll be back in fifteen minutes and head across the hall with my DAT.  I sweat making the easiest patch in the world and bring the DAT up on “stereo A”.  I crack the gain to twelve o’clock.  I’m not sure where to stand so I lean against the multitracks in the back.

His head curly gray head dances without rhythm and he doesn’t say a word or open his eyes for all three songs.

I hear it through his ears with all the flaws and mistakes.  It’s amateur hour.  We didn’t have automation.  It’s overdone.  Too ambitious.  The effects are out of control and I’m positive he flinches where I cut the half inch.  The band helped and did mutes and fader rides and everything because we didn’t have automation.  I can’t tell anything because there’s no meter to his bobbing head.  It’s like he’s listening to a disco version.  But I know he knows.  He may be a sonafabitch but Shelly Yakus is an icon and he knows.

I hate his dancing head.  He’s going to mock me.

I’m thinking about being grateful for his inevitable criticism.  How I’ll be gracious and humble as he points out the flaws.  He’s going to have constructive things to say.  It will be helpful.  I’ll be ok.  He’ll tell me how far I have to go and the bottom sounds disconnected from the rest of the mix.  The mid range is skinny and my balances are off.

The last song ends.  The silence is deafening.  His hands are folded and he’s rubbing his nose with both index fingers.  I hope he encourages me.  That would be nice.  Tell me it’s a good effort and to keep working because I’m onto something.

I don’t know what to do so I pull the patch cords, step close to him to mute the console and sit down next to him for my lumps.

Well, well, well he says.  I can’t help but look him in the eye, you gotta pick one, so I do, and I want it straight.  I pick his right eye.  I’m ready to own what he has to say.

“Congratulations”, he says.  He grins wide and kind, “You’ve figured it out”.  “I’m impressed”.

I really don’t remember what happened next.  Free beer to whomever was assisting me that day or anyone that can tell me who was.

I had just earned myself a whole mess of trouble but I didn’t care.

This chapter is dedicated to Keith Woods, may his soul and consciousness rest in peace.

Drinks for my friends.

6 Responses to “A&M Chapter Sixteen”

  • Alex Reed:

    Excellent chapter my friend. It sure takes me back…Remember that acoustic song we recorded for Shelly in C and the tracks sounded so great that I insisted we mix it right then and there? Shelly spent however long trying to beat our mix and they ended up using ours for the record. That was one of the good days…

  • admin:

    Steve Lowe.

    Yep, I remember the phone calls from Robbie Jacobs all afternoon a few days later. I told him everything we did including “floating the the reverb” – subtracting the original signal from the stereo buss and just using the effect return. Robbie didn’t understand at first. I have to admit that part of what they were battling was the sound of the API vs. the sound of an SSL.


    Whenever you & I did anything on an SSL we went to great lengths to bypass as much of it’s electronics as possible to avoid what you called “The Big Freeze”.

    They spent two days trying to recreate a mix you & I did in an hour. Just one example of the hundreds of good calls you made. Always making me pull back the kick or the snare and 95% of the time you were right.

    That song was 100% produced, recorded and mixed by you and I. Not even a mention of us in the credits.

    I remember you turning to me and saying if we had any balls we’d go straight to half inch with the mix for the last song on the the Ape Hangers record (the acoustic one). Genius.

    Sometimes I think we should get together on world peace or something.

    Much love my old friend.

  • Jonathan:

    Great writing as usual Michael, but when you start praising Brian Scheuble???? “Brian was one of the good ones still much to my senior. One of the best engineers to ever walk the planet and as humble as pornstar with a tiny dick.” I want to puke, humble??. Brian was a runner at Cherokee when I was a senior tech there in 1982, and I brought him to A&M years later, we were very good friends. The shit that prick pulled behind my back, and this was not only the fuckin the wife dirty laundry shit, he of all the people who I have been close with in my life, is, was, will always be, the shiftiest lying selfish piece of shit person I have ever met. I was thankful that both Shelly and Mark had my back on that prick and fired him. Hitler might have had talents too, but please, he might not have gassed your relatives, but he still is a complete piece of shit. Let’s call a spade a spade. Sorry that one got my feathers ruffled. Fuck that guy! We had two many other great people to praise at A&M, don’t waste ink on that slime ball.

  • admin:

    I appreciate your sentiments Johnny and that’s why you’re welcome to post here. But Brian did do a lot to help me me and he was a great engineer. If you’ll remember I did sever all ties with Jay Carny and Undercity over that embroglio.

    And I thought you two had mended fences?

  • Jonathan:

    Funny I’m quite good friends now with Jay and Carol, but as I said, there was a lot more to the Brian thing than the fucking the wife bull shit. I can honestly say I have never done more for a person that turned on me in a truly evil manner, sure he was/is a great engineer. He comes across as humble but he is the most self absorbed, racist, cock sucking deviant (and he calls himself a Christian) I have ever known in my life. One day we’ll sit down with a bottle and I’ll tell you some stories. I’ve known a few assholes and even during the whole A&M era I had my differences with a few folks there, but I have mended fences with all of them. I would never let my children alone or even my dog alone with that guy, and I’m serious. I’m basically an atheist but sometimes I hope Hell does exist so he can have a long slow burn one day. HA HA sorry for being so dramatic but …Love YA Michael!

  • admin:

    Oh Jonathan, I love you too. And I know what it is to be betrayed. It’s the most unbelievably painful thing there is. I’m an agnostic but we’re on the same page here. I hope you know and own the respect and affection I have for you. You and Berg and Tindle helped me through some awfully dark times and I will never forget it. Ever. I know I was championed behind the scenes.

    This will be a book and I hope to include all comments. I want it to be as fair and sincere picture as I can present.

    You would be in my top five people to share a bottle with. You’ve never been anything but good to me Johnnie.

    This is my story Jonathan.

    You have my love, respect and loyalty, I think you know that.

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