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Interviews   

James Michael: « Sixx: A.M. has changed my life! »


James Michael – producer, mixer, composer and storyteller, as he likes to define himself – is a happy man. You can see it in his radiant smile and sparkling eyes, hear it in the way he talks about the sun that’s shining outside as an introduction to our interview. The man has already made a name for himself as a “studio magician”, like a new Desmond Child – but although he confesses to being a follower of Child’s, he’s too humble to claim he’s reached his level. Now he’s got his very own band, with which everything seems to be great in the world. Sixx: A.M. started out as a side-project that would allow Mötley Crüe’s bassist Nikki Sixx to write a soundtrack to his autobiography, The Heroin Diaries: A Year In The Life Of A Shattered Rock Star. Step by step, with chemistry and success acting as catalysts, the initial collaboration became a rock band in its own right. And now that Mötley Crüe’s career is drawing to a close, the future looks bright for Sixx: A.M.

From a creative point of view, the raison d’être of the band’s third album, Modern Vintage, was to find the freedom that rock bands enjoyed several decades ago, and which seems to have been lost along the way. But it would be better to let James Michael tell you this in his own words in the following interview, where we strived to better understand the singer, his artistic vision, his background, his aspirations, etc.

« When people say “Oh, if it doesn’t have this or doesn’t have that, well, then it’s not a rock song”, it’s such a sad commentary on where we are »

Radio Metal: The first two albums were each a companion to a book by Nikki Sixx, but it doesn’t seem to be the case this time. Is this new album based on anything or does it stand on its own this time?

James Michael (vocals): It’s interesting because, obviously, we wrote songs inspired by the Heroin Diaries for the first record and on the second record Nikki had done a bunch of photography – it was just fantastic photography, the images were very kind of dark and yet beautiful at the same time, which really is what Sixx: A.M. is all about: the contrast between beauty and darkness, beauty and ugliness… So when it came time to make this record, we intentionally did not want to have a book or any type of parameters to deal with. What we wanted to do instead, was really find out who Sixx: A.M. is. So what we started doing is looking back at the music that have influenced us over the years, whether it’d be Queen, ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) or David Bowie or anything that’s on the long list that has inspired all of us. So this record kind of became a celebration of that, and in a way, as we dug into these influences, the history of music kind of became the book. So we found ourselves actually having a book to create to, but it was just this incredible lineage of music that has inspired us over the years. So that’s what we set out to do on this record: really boldly and obviously allow ourselves to be influenced by those types of records from the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s. As you listen to Modern Vintage, from beginning to end, you’ll go on a journey. There will moment where you’ll be able to go: “Oh, that’s sounds like a Queen influence there” or “That background vocal sounds like ELO”, things like that. We wanted to be very blatant about that.

And another thing about this record that was fun because we didn’t actually have some confining book or story to stick to, is that we were able to kind of really dissect what rock music has become. If you think about records from back in the day, take a Queen record for example, from one song to the next, it’s a three sixty degree turn! You never have five or six songs that sound the same or has similar tempos and stuff. And yet we call those rock records! Nowadays, the perception of rock music has become very narrow. There’s a number of reasons why that has happened, but when people say “Oh, if it doesn’t have this or doesn’t have that, well, then it’s not a rock song”, it’s such a sad commentary on where we are. We wanted to kind of break that down. We wanted to remind ourselves and people that there are a lot of different kind of rock music and when you look back at those times of records that were very diverse and went on a totally different journey, we still call those rock records. That’s the kind of record we wanted to make. We wanted to kind of break those walls down and not be narrow in our thinking.

You wanted to put the freedom back in rock…

Yeah, I think so. We wanted to put the freedom, the rebellion… All of that. Because that’s what rock music is. We’ve always been a band that has really not abided by too many rules, but with this record in particular, I think that we really pushed the envelope. You have songs like “Gotta Get It Right”, which a lot of people were kind of shocked with when they first heard it, but it’s a rock song, it’s just leaning on a different type of influence.

Actually there’s been a trend lately where we heard more and more artists trying to sound vintage, trying to reproduce the sound of the 70s or even the early 80s. Are you proving with this album that we don’t necessarily have to try to sound “old” to sound “classic”?

I’m so glad that you have asked me that question! That’s great question! Yes! There are moments on the record where sonically we kind of leaned on the past and kind of went for that type of sound… But, to your point, a lot of band have done that, a lot of band’s have tried to use old tools and gears, record on analog tape, etc. and that’s fine, sonically that’s fine, that’s great, but it’s the vintage musical experience that we’re tapping into. So it’s kind of a hybrid of those. When we say Modern Vintage, the vintage part of that was the mindset of the music, it was how the songs were written, it was the flamboyance of it, the experience that the listener was going to have, and it was less about “Does that sound like it was recorded with an old guitar amp?” or “Does that snare sound sound like it was recorded on analog tape?” It’s less about that, even though there are moments that do celebrate that as well because that’s part of it. But the vintage part is really more about the spirit of it and the concept of record: “What did it feel like to listen to a rock record back then?” It was a real musical journey and that’s what this record is.

The album features a cover version of the song “Drive” by The Cars, and this version really seem to embody the concept of Modern Vintage by putting a really modern twist, including electronic sounds, to an old song that actually sounds dated in its original form. Was that the whole point?

It kind of became the point. We knew we wanted to do a cover song and one day Nikki sang the first line to that song and said: “Oh man, that’s the song we should do!” For a number of reasons. But ironically, to your point, it’s probably the most “modern vintage” moment on the record because it is a song from back then that was so successful and so fantastic but we’ve brought it in the future. What I love about the production on that song is that we wanted to really shift the focus of the listener, we wanted to shift the focus back to what the message and the lyrics of that song were. That’s why we start it off very, very intimately with the piano and very simple vocal, and then, as you mentioned, the technologic parts start trickling in. I actually used a vocoder on my voice on the chorus of that song, and I did that for very specific reasons. A lot of people today in the pop music world are starting to use vocoder again, so to them it has a very modern sound to it. The reality is that the vocoder is a very old instrument; it’s been around since a long, long time! And that’s what I loved about it. So that song in particular is really doing that beautiful dance between the new and the old. I think that’s where you start not knowing what’s new and what’s old and that’s what I love about it. Ultimately, ironically, it’s the one song that we didn’t write on the record but in some ways it sums up Modern Vintage better than any other song on the record!

« I’m not a big fan of my voice to be honest with you but I’ve gotten used to it. »

The closing song “Before It’s Over” is probably the most vintage one in the album. Was it made on purpose to end the album with an opposite to the very modern opener “Stars”?

Yeah, you know, I think that we didn’t make the decision to end the record with that song until all the songs were mixed. We knew it was kind of going to be at the back end of the record. But, yeah, I think it was a really perfect way to close out the record. I refer to Modern Vintage as being a musical journey, and in a way, “Before It’s Over”, if you listen to lyric on that song, it’s a very painful song, it’s a very sad song about not being able to let go and kind of living your whole life stuck in this one place because you’ve lost somebody. It’s such a sad concept, but in typical Sixx: A.M. fashion, we set that to the backdrop of this very vaudeville ragtime thing, which just added to the drama or maybe the melodrama of it. And so it was a real perfect way for Sixx: A.M. to wrap up the record. On the deluxe digital version of this album – so if somebody buys that online, they’re gonna get four extra tracks –the four extra tracks are not your typical stripped down acoustic tracks ; they’re completely reworked. So as soon as we finished making the record, we went back into the studio and took these lyrics and took these songs and shifted those. So there’s a version of “Before It’s Over” which will blow your mind: it’s more of a piano ballad and it highlights that dark message that I was talking about. It’s an incredibly painful moment to listen to but it’s basically surrounded by beauty. This alternate version of this one song ended being one of my favorite moments on the entire recording of Modern Vintage.

You mentioned influences like Queen and ELO, and actually the song “Miracle” has this funky kind of vibe that can remind a bit of a song that Queen could have done, like “Another One Bites The Dust” or on the Hot Space album…

Yeah, absolutely! When we did that song we were really, really leaning on the Bee Gees for just the feel in the vocal arrangement and stuff like that. But I think that’s a great point, because, yeah, a band like Queen would have absolutely gone there and done something completely different. I think that stays very true to the concept of Modern Vintage. I love that song. We also have another song that’s kind of the sister song to that, which is part of the bonus tracks on the deluxe version, it’s a real funk song and it’s called “Let It Haunt You”. So they kind of held that funk, almost disco type of vibe, but I think in the typical Sixx: A.M. spirit. Again, you listen to the lyrics on that one, on “Miracle”, those verses are really grim! It’s talking about somebody who’s very, very broken and nothing seems to be going right in his world, and it reaches a point in the chorus where it just simply says that we need a miracle, we need something beautiful to get ourselves through this. I think that people are really going to be able to relate to that song for that reason.

Some songs on the album sometimes have a kind of Muse feeling…

Oh, cool!

Especially in your vocals actually, you know, when you’re going up…

Awesome!

Do you have any affinities with this band?

I love Muse! I love them! I think that I love Muse because Muse clearly loves a lot of the same type of bands that we love. I mean, obviously there’s a Queen influence again with Muse. I think there might an ELO influence with Muse, if not I’d be surprised. I’m a huge ELO fan. I think that you can notice on “Gotta Get It Right” that the background vocal arrangement has a very Jeff Lynne ELO type of sound to it, and that was very intentional. I think that’s probably what you’re referring to as the Muse type of sound: really, really high, almost unnatural high harmonies and vocals that almost sound like it could be a string line or something. Yeah, I love that kind of stuff and I was excited that we were able to work that into that song.

This Is Gonna Hurt was different from The Heroin Diaries and this new one sounds pretty different from the two previous albums. Is it important to not limit yourselves and try to make albums that have each a distinctive personality?

Absolutely! Absolutely it is. We see no point in making the same record over and over and over and over. It doesn’t make sense to us why any band would want to do that. We understand why some bands do and that’s worked for them, but for Sixx: A.M., we are constantly reinventing ourselves and that’s at the core of what we do.

So you couldn’t be like a kind of AC/DC?

No and I love AC/DC. I thank god for them and for all of their records. You know what you’re gonna get when you get an AC/DC record, and that’s fantastic. I‘ve always just leaned towards more of kind of the Queen type of thinking where every single record is very, very different and risks are taken. Sometimes those risks have huge rewards and other times they confuse people, but when you look at the whole body of work, it’s just magnificent.

All three of you in Sixx: A.M. surely have good job and don’t need that band to make a living. So does that actually allow you a special freedom with that band?

Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! And think that that freedom , that risk taking, is where some of our most special moments come. Yeah, without a doubt, we’re in a very luxurious position of not having to depend on Sixx: A.M. for anything other than being a fantastic outlet for our creative expression.

« We’re willing to fall flat on our faces in Sixx: A.M. if that is what is necessary to get to the next stage »


Apparently when Sixx: A.M. was started you didn’t really have the intention to start a band. Were you taken by surprise with the success of the band?

Very! It’s so strange, because when we made the Heroin Diary soundtrack we were just making songs to kind of fit with the concept of a book. I didn’t even know that it was being sent to radios, to be honest with you. Then one day we got a call saying: “God ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is climbing the charts! It’s doing really well!” And we were like: “Oh wow! You mean, this is a real album? We’re actually a real band?” We didn’t even have a name for that until well into the process. When we were creating stuff we always said: “Well, the great thing is that we’re not a band. So it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to abide by that rule, we don’t have to do this, etc. because we’re not a band!” That was our freedom! So on the second record, This Is Gonna Hurt, even though by then we were kind of a band – you know, we’ve done some touring and stuff -, we still kept that same mentality: “Eh, you know, we’re not really a band, so we can break all the rules again.” By the time it came to Modern Vintage it was like: “We can’t lie to ourselves, we’re a band!” [Laughs] And that became the freedom, because by then we had identified what Sixx: A.M. was. That’s why making Modern Vintage was so exciting: because now, we knew what would Sixx: A.M. do and what would not Sixx: A.M. do. Whereas we didn’t have a book or anything, we had a band now. So it was a really exciting shift for us. Actually, by half way through this record, we started talking about making a fourth record, so we’re already kind of thinking that way. We’re talking about tour, we’re talking about everything that a real band does! [Laughs] So it’s really exciting for us!

Sixx: A.M. is DJ Ashba, Nikki Sixx and you and you usually include a session drummer for live shows. But have you discussed about adding a permanent drummer in the band?

We haven’t really discussed it. I’m not opposed to it, but I think that Sixx: A.M. is a unique team. Sixx: A.M. is three very close friends that happened to make music together. Music is what brought us together but it’s not what keeps us together. I think that we would have to see. I don’t think there’s any need for the creative process, because we’re all such creative people ourselves and we feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. But I love the camaraderie of… Jeff Fabb played the drums on this record; he’s from Black Label Society, he’s out with them right now. He’s a fantastic drummer, I love him to death and he would fit perfectly as a member of Sixx: A.M.. We’ll just have to see what happens when we get out on tour, how that goes and what we’re feeling like when it’s time to make the fourth record.

You attempted a solo career at some point but it didn’t seem to have worked out the way you wanted. What are you thought about that retrospectively? What was your feeling about the fact that the work you did for other artists had more success than your own stuff?

Yeah, I did a solo record in 2000 called Inhale. At that time I was also working with all of these other bands and, to your point, my record sold almost nothing but it was critically acclaimed. So I started getting attention from a lot of these other bands, and they came to me because of that record. And then when I started writing for other bands, they would go out and tour those songs and all of a sudden the checks started coming in and I was like: “Wow! I can make a way better living by writing and producing for other people than doing it for myself, making a record and spending two years promoting it! Hmm, it makes a little more sense for me to stay in a studio, bring bands in and express myself through those experiences.” So it was a pretty natural transition, it wasn’t hard for me to say: “Ah, I don’t wanna be a solo artist anymore, because I can create so much music if I’m doing this studio thing! I can write a hundred songs a year instead of ten songs a year!” So that became very appealing to me. When Sixx: A.M. came along, I had already become very comfortable as a behind the scenes type of guy but there was still that desire somewhere deep inside of me. I pinch myself every day, because now I have the best of both worlds. I get to go out and sing songs for lots and lots of people and have them hear my music with my two band mates; I get to live out that fantasy a bit.

Actually you really got into the spotlight as a singer with Sixx: A.M.. Did Sixx: A.M. change your perception of yourself or your career?

[Thinking] Yeah, I think it did. I think it proved to me that I could do what I knew I wanted to do, what I thought I could do as a younger kid; it proved to me that I could accomplish all of these things: I could be a producer, I could be a mixer, I could be a songwriter and I could be an artist. It proved to me that I could do that. I think that had Sixx: A.M. happened when I was in my twenties, I wouldn’t have been prepared for it, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it and it probably wouldn’t have lasted. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to do exactly what I wanted to do, when I want to do it. What else can I say? Yes, Sixx: A.M. has changed my life!

Did that give you confidence as a singer also?

[Take a deep breath] I don’t really think of myself as a singer, which is funny! I think of myself, I guess, as a vocalist. I’m not a big fan of my voice to be honest with you but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s my paint brush, you know. It’s what I use to express my feelings. There are plenty of people out there that are way, way better singers. So, confidence? [Thinking] Yeah, I guess it reconfirmed that this sound that I had coming out of me and these words that I was saying were important. So from that perspective, the fact that people actually can tolerate my voice [laughs] and maybe enjoy it is the icing on the cake to me, it’s something I didn’t really know if that was gonna be the case. So, yeah, I guess there would be some confidence in there, although I never really thought of myself as being unconfident about it, I’ve never really cared if I was a good singer or not.

You just said that you considered yourself more as a vocalist than a singer but what’s the difference actually?

Well I could name a thousand people that are really, really great singers, and I’m not nearly as good as any of them, but I think that I can probably tell a story better than most of them. So I vocalize my stories. I guess that’s the difference. Technically, I don’t think myself as a singer, I think myself as a storyteller.

« What I love about metal: it’s got fuckin’ staying power! It doesn’t seem to blink as everything else changes around it, and that’s a really cool thing. »

You wrote many hit songs for other bands. Would you consider yourself as a kind of new Desmond Child, as he’s also a producer, songwriter and musicians who’s responsible for many hits done by other artists and did one solo album? Or at least do you feel close to him because of your common grounds with him?

I’ve never thought of myself as a Desmond Child: he’s a master. He’s a dear friend of mine, I love him to death and we’ve made some great, great music together but he’s the master and I’m the student, and I always will be. I love the comparison, just to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I’ve learned so much from him. I’ve learned more from him than probably any other person in the music business; I probably learned as much from Nikki as well. But I don’t see myself as that, no. I always see myself as somebody that is striving to just be as good as I can be but have no expectations ever to be as good as they can be.

And what is the best thing that you have learned with Desmond Child?

He’s brilliant, he’s thoughtful, his talent is immense, he’s caring and he took me under his wing, he gave me a chance, he trusted me. I don’t know why, but he felt like he could trust me and I did everything I could to prove him right. We’re very emotional people, we’re very insecure people, we all have skill and we all have talents, and from him I learned how to compartmentalize all of those so they can be the most effective. Every day when I go into the studio, when I go to work with a band, I draw on thing that I’ve learned from just observing Desmond. And the same goes for Nikki. Those guys are superstars! I’m not a superstar! And I mean that very respectfully. I’m proud not to be, but to me the difference between somebody that has talent and a superstar is that somebody that has talent just does what they do, they have talent, but a superstar has a talent for having talent. Does that make sense? They’re very good at being them, and they’re very good at being talented, and they’re very good at using that talent to make huge changes. I’m pretty content with just having talent [laughs] and continuing to learn from people like that.

Do you approach songwriting differently in Sixx: A.M. compared to when you write or co-write a song for other artists?

I think so. We’re able to get away with a lot more in Sixx: A.M. because we typically can avoid a lot of the expectations and rules that do apply in music. We don’t have to answer to as many people in Sixx: A.M., which is a nice luxury to have. We’re willing to fall flat on our faces in Sixx: A.M. if that is what is necessary to get to the next stage, while that’s too scary of a prospect when you’re working with other people – I don’t have that luxury when I’m producing or writing for other people. So it’s a bit of a different process, but at its core it’s always the same, which is creating an honest moment in music.

As a songwriter, what do you focus on when writing a song? What are the main elements you keep in mind?

Honesty. I’m a real observer of life. I watch how people go through heartache, how they deal with depression and how they celebrate happiness. I observe myself doing that but I’m always so fascinated with other people’s stories as well. So I think that in songwriting, I have to be telling somebody’s story. Often it’s mine but often it’s other people’s stories as well. It’s very important to me to tell an honest story, as painful as it can be.

Mötley Crüe has decided to stop. So does that mean more focus on Sixx: A.M.?

I think it does! We’re gonna release our record Modern Vintage in America on October 7 and on that day we’re going to do a live performance in Los Angeles. It’s going to be a very theatrical and cool live performance to celebrate to release of the record on that day. We’re gonna make a big announcement for Sixx: A.M. that’s gonna have everyone talking… So yeah, we’ve got some new plans coming up.

And, by the way, what are your thoughts actually about Mötley Crüe’s decision?

I think it’s the right decision. This is a band that has had an incredible career, creating an amazing legacy, and I respect them for wanting to go out on top. I respect them for knowing when it’ time to call it quits. All four members have made such an impact on music. It’s no secret that there been a lot of tension in that camp over the year, but these guys started out as four friends and what I love about this tour is that it’s like that again. They really are each, individually, celebrating this amazing legacy that they’ve created and they’re doing it as four friends. It’s a really neat thing to watch and it just gives me goose bumps to think of them being able to successfully have this incredible journey and put a big exclamation mark on it at the end and celebrate its ending.

You worked on the vocals with the heavy metal band Hammerfall recently…

Yes! I love those guys! They’re dear friends of mine, yeah.

Can you tell me more about your work with them?

On their last record, I produced their vocals and I mixed the record and that was the first time I’d ever met them. They came to my recording studio in Nashville and I just instantly fell in love with these guys. Like I said, they’re dear friends, I love them to death and I love how much they love music. They talk about celebrating music and they do it in true metal fashion, you know. So it was a lot of fun for me because it’s not typically the kind of music that I listen to, but, again going back to the honesty of it, they’re so dedicated and sincere about what they do, that you get help it, you just love it! They had done a lot of the tracking at their home studio and when they Nashville we tracked the vocals, I think we made some more guitars maybe, and then I mixed the record. So then, this time around, they went back to their original producer for the record and they just came out to my studio in Los Angeles to do the vocal. It was like a family reunion! We had so much fun! They’re just so talented and what can I say? It’s something that I just absolutely love!

And are you a heavy metal fan?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a heavy metal fan but I certainly have a great appreciation for it and certainly been influenced by it. Honestly, I don’t feel that I know enough about the true craft of heavy metal to be any type of authority on it. I’m more of just fascinated by it, as I am with any time of music that is so sincere and that has such staying power. I mean, what I love about metal: it’s got fuckin’ staying power! It doesn’t seem to blink as everything else changes around it, and that’s a really cool thing. That’s a cool genre of music.

Interview conducted 29th, august 2014 by Spaceman.
Retranscription, traduction and introduction: Spaceman.
Promo pics: Paul Brown.

Sixx: A.M. official website: sixxammusic.com.



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