Interview With Jennifer Batten
We all know the name Jennifer Batten as the phenomenal guitarist who worked with Michael over many years. Her first tour with Michael was the ‘Bad’ tour. She later went onto perform with him throughout his ‘Dangerous’ and ‘HIStory’ tours, not forgetting the ‘Superbowl,’ therefore you can imagine the delight I felt, being a lead guitarist myself, when she agreed to an interview for MJWN in Glasgow where she was performing with Navi in his ‘King of Pop’ show.
I was shown into Jennifer’s dressing room and my first impression was that it felt homely. She was busy stringing one of her guitars so I introduced myself and thanked her for agreeing to talk to us.
Jennifer: It’s fun to be back in Scotland. I haven’t been here in quite a while.
Callum: What was your first guitar and the first song you ever learnt?
Jennifer: My first guitar was an off brand thing from a department store that my dad got me when I was eight years old. The Beatles were pretty big and it was quite unusual at that time. I got an electric guitar for my first guitar. I just remember it was red black and blue and you can see a picture of it on the cover of my ‘Momentum’ CD. The first song was by a drummer that was a band leader named Chicco Hamilton. He was a jazz guy and my dad taught me the melody from one of his songs called ‘Florist Flower.’ Just a simple melody.
Callum: Apart from Jeff Beck, who else has inspired you with the guitar?
Jennifer: In the beginning my dad had a guitar, so that was being played in the house. The Beatles were huge and the Stones at that time, so I guess that was the beginning of the guitar consciousness. Everyone wanted to have a guitar in my family. My sister had a guitar and I didn’t, of course that made me jealous, so the next birthday or Christmas I requested one and my dad started us off on lessons straight away.
Callum: You were in quite a few bands in Los Angeles weren’t you?
Jennifer: Tons, yes. By the time I got the Jackson gig, I was in six different bands and most of them were original bands and original bands don’t play every night, or even three days a week, so being six bands would ensure that I play four or five times a month.
Callum: What sort of styles of music did your bands play?
Jennifer: One was like Chili Peppers, kind of rap funk because nobody could sing (laughs). There was one that was like Bruce Springsteen, the leader was an actor and doing some singing on the side. I had my band that was instrumental fusion, the band called Daktari Punk – funk kind of band. There was a little bit of everything. There was a heavy metal cover band. A little bit of variety, that was what I like.
Callum: I know a little bit about the MJ audition. Would you mind explaining how that came about for those who don’t know?
Jennifer: One of his guys, Nelson Hayes, who had been with him for many years helping out starting with The Jacksons, was the guy in charge of finding people. He called Musician’s Institute where I was teaching at the time and asked them to send down two people to audition. That was a lucky break right there, a chance to audition. There was about one hundred people. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want to jinx it. I asked when the last possible day would be so I could stay at home. I cancelled everything and worked on tunes for a couple days. When I went in I was surprised there was no band, just me and a video camera. Michael would see all the video tape later.
Callum: Did he want you to play one of his songs or did he want you to do something else?
Jennifer: As it turned out, in all the stuff I learnt of his, the only thing I played was ‘Beat It’ because I knew that solo from playing it in the cover band for a couple of years and I thought he might find that quite useful! The only guidance I was given once I was there, was to play some funky rhythm stuff, because that would be most of what was required of me. I just improvised something and then improvised a solo which ended up tipping and tapping. I included that on my first record called ‘Giant Steps.’ I finished with the ‘Beat It’ solo. The whole thing wasn’t more than five or six minutes. Then he wanted me to talk into the video camera so he would get an idea of my personality. That was the most stressful part because I didn’t know what to say. I can’t even begin to tell you what I said because it was so long ago. He was the biggest act in the world! It was 1987 for the ‘Bad’ tour.
Callum: You obviously got called back and got an answer machine message. Then you were off to Japan. Is that right?
Jennifer: Well after two months of rehearsal. We rehearsed as one band in a room, singers in another, dancers in another room. We worked on all the live versions of things that he did on the ‘Victory’ tour. We didn’t even meet him for a solid month. I think he saw video tapes of us rehearsing. We had heard if he was happy with what he was hearing when he walked in, he would start dancing, and that’s exactly what he did, so it seem like things were going well They never told me I had the gig, it’s just I kept going back day after day and eventually I got a ticket to Tokyo and a passport.
Callum: How did the first show go in Tokyo?
Jennifer: It was great! I was really nervous about it because I know in the past it’s sound checked or at rehearsals, I could feel really comfortable. All of a sudden when there’s an audience, you can get nervous and the thing is, the big takeaway was, we rehearsed so much and had that down material so well, that there was no question about what the next tune was, what the next chord was so that’s my big takeaway. I really am a believer in rehearsal. The more repetitions you do, the more it stays solid in your grey matter.
Jennifer: He didn’t have to. We rehearsed two months solid before we took off. Nobody was shaky at all. Ever!
Callum: What guitars did you use back then?
Jennifer: Back in the day, when I joined Jackson, I joined Ibanez at the same time and so over the course of seven years I had seven different guitars and I had a problem with every single neck warping. I finally gave up on them and went to Washburn and I’ve been with them pretty much ever since. I took a couple of years off and went to Line 6 because they have a guitar called the Variax that has a lot of different outputs which can make you have the sound of many different guitars. I thought that would be good for the road, to have access to a lot more sounds than any single guitar can give you.
Callum: That’s the one with the built-in selector isn’t it? You change the selector and it gives you a different tuning.
Jennifer: Yes but it also has magnetic pick-ups too.
Callum: So back then and still to do this day you use a Washburn JB 100?
Jennifer: Yes we had two models. One had a synthesizer capability, the other was just straight guitar
Callum: You used the same guitars for all the tours didn’t you or similar?
Jennifer: I had several different guitars. When we did ‘Beat It’ we had a special guitar. Any guitar you’ve got to have a backup too, so there were guitars that would turned down to C which was just crazy because I’d been playing one set all night and all of the sudden, I’d have a completely Frankenstein guitar to play ‘Beat It’ with. I can’t even remember all the guitars. A lot of them are at the hard rock cafes around the world now. Some in Tokyo, some in East Coast America.
Callum: Your amplification..what was that usually back on tour with Michael?
Jennifer: I started with Boogies. I had a Boogie Mark III. I had two of them in rack, it was a ridiculous amount of equipment, ridiculous weight anyway. One Boogie Mark III was set up for clean sound, one setup for dirt sound and they both went through a Strategy 400 power amp. That weighed a ridiculous amount and lovely I didn’t have to lift any of it, but I’m sure it gave someone a hernia back then! The effects. You couldn’t buy multi effects. It was before it was available, so I had a single rack space for reverb, another one for delay and another one for chorus.
Callum: So, it was rack effects. I suppose you couldn’t really have pedals on stage when Michael was running around.
Jennifer: Well I had a midi switcher so I could switch effects.
Callum: Did Michael have any input in how he wanted things to sound?
Jennifer: He expected it to sound like the record, so there was a lot of effort that went into drums guitar and keyboards. We would spend a lot of time listening to the original track trying to match exactly what it was, so even the drummer has a whole rack of effects, trigger sounds and samples that were on the record.
Callum: Do you have a funniest moment that involves Michael?
Jennifer: When we went to Japan, he shut down the Tokyo Disneyland so we could hang out together without the riff-raff so to speak (laughs). Sheryl Crow and I were in a shop, looking at a Daffy Duck toothbrush holder, which I ended up buying of course! You would push down on Daffy’s head, and the eyes would roll back and forth for as long as you’re supposed to brush your teeth So, I was totally fascinated by that and I didn’t know Michael was anywhere around. He came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I really like how you play the ‘Beat It’ solo.” That was the first real feedback I got after all that rehearsing. I figured, I’m going to Japan, I don’t know if I’m going anywhere else. Once I got that kind of feedback, I thought great! It felt incredible! I still remember that very well, all these years later.
Callum: Do you have a most memorable concert or a particular occasion you performed with Michael that is prominent in your memory?
Jennifer: Yes. An amphitheater south of LA. At that time it was called Irvine Meadow but I think they’ve changed the name and sold it since then, but it was the best sounding big venue I’ve ever played. So that really and then the ‘Superbowl’ was super fun! I knew it was only going to be a one time thing that was the most watched television in history with Michael, so there was a lot of excitement around that. Very, very, memorable.
Callum: If I were to audition for Michael, obviously if he were still here, what advice would you give me?
Jennifer: Spend all the time that you can learning his material, just so he could call any tune and you’d know it
Callum: Did he try to catch people out?
Jennifer: Not really, but you are going to be nervous anyway. You’ve got to put that nervous energy somewhere so you may as well put that into learning his material. Aside from that, I would say do a lot of listening of that kind of music, funky stuff, and not just the guitar but all the instruments. Learn what the bass is doing, and how that fits in with the drums.
Callum: What is your happiest or most gratifying moment from working with Michael?
Jennifer: It’s not any individual event. I would say the ‘Bad’ tour was the happiest for everybody. It was for everybody who was on multiple tours. That was the most fun. It was the first time and he was on top of the world! Everywhere sold out around the world. Once I did the ‘Dangerous’ tour we did a lot of the same songs and I had been around the world already, so the first time is always the most amazing!
Callum: Obviously we know that you’ve had quite a few interesting stage outfits. What was your favourite outfit?
Jennifer: The outfits on the ‘Dangerous’ tour were the most comfortable. They are cold though in the winter. It wasn’t even winter when we started off, but I remember just being really cold at one point, we put out hair-dryers so we could warm our hands between songs. We then found out it drew so much electricity, it was shutting down our amps, so we couldn’t do that and we would just have to put our hands in our armpits between songs.
Callum: Worst outfit?
Jennifer: That has to be ‘HIStory,’ that leather mask. I was not fond of that, but that was the first time I had a wig, so it was really fast to get ready for the show. There’s always a ying and yang.
Callum: I remember as a child watching the Bucharest ‘Dangerous’ concert and I’m sure it was in ‘Beat It,’ you had that massive fibre optic suit on. It must have taken up twenty feet. Was that not heavy?
Jennifer: That might have been one hundred feet! The guy that was controlling the colours ran a computer behind our amps and I had to be able to run all over the stage.
Callum: Was that not heavy?
Jennifer: No. That was a leather headdress that had two leather piece across the top of my head and a headband. It was pretty lightweight and the fibre optics themselves are lightweight. The thing that was heavy on the ‘Dangerous’ tour…for a few shows, they had me wear a dragon that was custom fitted on my shoulders. That was just so heavy. People said “man you look so unhappy.” (laughs) I thought my back was going to break!
Callum: How many guitars do you think you’ve owned?
Jennifer: Maybe twenty five. I’m not a collector. I don’t like to change strings. I like my main ones that work and that’s it!
Callum: What are you currently running right now? What’s your current rig?
Jennifer: I joined Fishman and they’ve got a wireless mini system, so this is the frame for it. (She shows me the frame). The mini system is in the guitar case which I don’t use for The Jackson Show. I’m going to the Czech Republic after this to do my own show and I’ll be triggering all kinds of wacky sounds. It’s really cool when I was playing with Jeff Beck. I have a whole rack full of gear for just for guitar synthesizer and now all the sounds are in the Macbook Air or even an iPad.
Callum: That’s madness really, considering where you were in the 80s.
Jennifer: Night and day difference.
I looked at the guitar she’d been stringing and asked her to tell me about the artwork featured on it along with the autographs.
Jennifer: Her (the artist) name is Pam Alina. She’s done a lot of paintings for Fender. The Hendrick’s series, there was a Marilyn Monroe series. She’s really talented. I have three of her paintings at home on the wall. I had her do my first album cover which has incredible airbrush detail. She did the second album cover as well and I’ve had her do a bunch of jackets and guitars. Her best work is on a guitar that didn’t end up sounding that good, so I sold it to the Hard Rock. It was a Ibanez. It had King Tut all the way across it and it had gold leaf material. The entire thing was King Tut’s head. It’s pretty phenomenal and it was such a shame it didn’t sound good, but the painting was done before the guitar was finished, so you never know how they sound.
Callum: And the autographs…who’ve you got on there?
Jennifer: Most of them have gone and been rubbed off. My favourite one was Les Paul that went across the horn, but as I put it in and out the case and was running around the world, it disappeared! I’ve got Jimmy Page here, John McLaughlin, Steve Cropper, British comedian Vic Reeves. The last one was Brad Paisley. He’s a great country player.
Callum: Have you got a favourite place to perform over here in the UK?
Jennifer: Just about everything we’ve done so far with Navi has been beautiful venues. Really beautiful. Theatres are great! This one is beautiful. Yeah it’s very nice. No I don’t have a favourite.
Callum: Is there anything you’d like Michael’s fans to know about you?
Jennifer: Yeah, I’ve got records (laughs) if you want to hear more guitar. In fact on the first record I did ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’ I did an instrumental version of that. I do a solo multimedia show with film. Yes, I have done it in the UK but it’s been quite a few years. I usually do a Michael Jackson tribute or at least a Jackson song during the show. I also put together a film for ‘Liberian Girl’ that’s a really pretty one. Sometimes I’ll do individual songs, or a medley. Everything else is available online.
Callum: Do you have a message for the fans?
Jennifer: Keep his legacy alive. His music resonates with so many people. It’s such a joy to see little kids coming to the show dressed like him. Keep that magic that resonated with millions, going through the generations.
Callum: They’ll never be another one like him.
Jennifer: No, never!
As I end the interview, Jennifer plays a few chords of ‘Beat It’ which takes me back to a wonderful time, even though I was a child, when we were all there watching Mr Michael Jackson on stage – What a spectacular memory that is.
For more information or to book tickets for Navi’s King of Pop Tour please visit kingofpoptour.com
For more information on Jennifer Batten please go to batten.com
Callum is lead guitarist for UNF. You can find out more about them at unfonline.com.
Source: Callum Ross on behalf of MJWN with special thanks to Jennifer Batten, Navi and John Patrick of elitetributes.com.