‘IN THE STUDIO WITH MJ’
June 23rd, 2014, was a very special day for me and one of the highlights of my trip to Los Angeles this year. In fact, the whole trip was based around it. It was the day I got to spend with Brad Sundberg and his guests at West Lake Recording Studio for one of his seminars, ‘In The Studio With MJ.’ It was in this very studio that Michael recorded songs like ‘Man In The Mirror’ and ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ for his ‘Bad’ album. It was certainly be a day I will remember!
Brad Sundberg first met Michael during the production of ‘Captain EO’ in 1985 and remained with Michael as one of his Engineers and Technical Director for nearly 18 years, much of it at Westlake Studios. On this day, he shared some priceless memories of his time with Michael, music and amazing remixes of Michael’s songs, as well as some very rare footage. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was more than impressed with what Brad had prepared for us.
The day started off with us being allowed to have a bit of a wander through the Studio, soak in the atmosphere and take some photos. I took full opportunity going from room to room and just trying to imagine Michael in the different areas of the studio. Pictures of Michael adorned the walls of the hallways and you could almost sense his presence there. It was an amazing feeling being in the sound engineer room, even taking a seat and pretending to take control of the buttons in front of me, pretending that I was helping with the finished product of one of Michael’s songs. Just as awesome a feeling was taking a seat in one of the sofas in what we were told was Bubbles room. Michael had a room especially for Bubbles to entertain himself and keep out of mischief while Michael was busy recording. The room had several photos of Michael and Bubbles on display with even a Bubbles plush toy resting comfortably on a ledge. What fun must have been had in that room!
It was soon time to return to the main recording room where the seminar began with Michael’s ‘Thriller’ short film, but with a sound I had never heard it with before. Its clarity and with the volume turned up way loud, it blew me away. In fact, it made the whole studio shake. The video soon turned into a remix of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Jam’ with more of Michael’s iconic songs such as ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ added into the mix. Truly something special to listen to. I’ve heard a lot of Michael’s songs mixed together, but not like this. It’s easy to see or rather hear why Michael worked with Brad, he only worked with the best!
Brad went on to share with us a few of his special memories with Michael. One such memory was how Michael use to lose everything. He stated that if you wanted to find something later, never give it to Michael. He was with Michael during the recording of ‘Scared Of The Moon’ and recalls; “We used to record on tape, big two-inch, 24-track tapes.” He explained how Matt Forger, another of Michael’s long time collaborators and studio engineers, recorded the original demo to ‘Scared Of The Moon’ at Westlake Studios. Michael had just laid down all the vocals in a single session. “They just did the background vocals, the lead vocal and the piano. That was it! Then Matt broke the number one rule that you never break – he gave Michael the master tape and once you hand anything to Michael you’re never ever going to see it again,” added Brad. A couple of months had passed by after recording Michael’s ‘Scared Of The Moon’ vocals, before Forger got a call from the engineer at Evergreen Studios. “The engineer was there at Evergreen, calling Matt, saying; ‘Hey I’ve got this Michael Jackson session for ‘Scared Of The Moon.’ Michael is here and the string players are here but we don’t have a tape. Can you run the tape over?’ And Matt’s like, ‘I don’t have the tape…I gave it to Michael!’ Luckily, Matt still had a cassette copy of the original session, so he drove the cassette over to Evergreen. It wasn’t the original multitrack, but at least they had something. They then proceeded to transfer the cassette tape onto the new multitrack, recorded the strings onto the multitrack, and then mixed it down. Now, from a recording engineer’s standpoint that’s just breaking every rule in the book,” Brad said. “You cannot take a vocal from a cassette and then put it back onto a multitrack and have it still sound that good.” Brad just couldn’t believe that they could still end up with something sounding so amazing by working from a mere cassette tape. But then again, we are talking about Michael’s voice!
Another memory shared was of how Michael loved his music very, very loud. He used to come into the studio and say to Brad; “Hurt me! Hurt me Brad!” Bruce and Quincy would leave when Michael walked into the studio as that’s how loud Michael would turn up the volume. “It was ridiculous!” Brad said as he went on to explain that out of courtesy he stayed with Michael, but you just couldn’t stay there for too long or you would go deaf.
Brad then told us about the Zuccarelli microphone that Michael used during the recording of the ‘Pillow Talk’ intro for ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’ If using a microphone in the shape of a head wasn’t enough for Michael, he wanted the whole bed set-up thing. He actually asked for a bed and a pillow. “But that was Michael,” Brad went on to say. He laid the head on the pillow and then crawled into the bed next to the head and the result is the spoken words at the beginning of ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’ The pillow talk was on the original ‘Bad’ album release but was later cut off due to differences about it.
Now most of us would have already seen footage of Michael throwing water balloons from his hotel room to fans below, but Brad told us that he also used to do the same by opening up the windows at the recording studio and throwing water balloons at the paparazzi and camera men outside, only to be told off by the owner. I could just picture Michael doing that.
There was also the story shared about how Michael absolutely loved ‘Street Walker,’ but Quincy didn’t, so while they were recording ‘Another Part Of Me,’ Michael had rented out Studio C without Quincy knowing and he would continually sneak out in between breaks and go and work on ‘Street Walker.’ They would lose him for spells and didn’t know where he had gone.
Brad mentioned how he had never ever worked with another artist that worked as hard at his art as Michael did. He went on to say how Michael, Seth and Brad were usually the first ones to arrive at the studio. While they were waiting for the rest to arrive, Michael would start practicing. He remembers how Michael would practice his moonwalk all the time. He would moonwalk in circles, over and over again, circle over circle. That was the perfectionist that he was. Even at the level he was at the time, he still thought that he could improve and learn.
We also had the opportunity to listen to some incredible demos that Michael had recorded. They were only demos, but sounded more finished and better than most released recordings of other artists. Brad also explained how most of the vocals on every song were Michael and how there were songs with 4 different vocal parts all sung by Michael, even using 16 voices, layer over layer on ‘The Way You Make Me Feel,’ with all the vocals to the intro recorded from a hotel room. There’d be times that Michael would come to the studio to record, but there were also times when the studio in the way of a truck outside the hotel, would have to go to him when he wanted to stay in. He went on to say that Michael generally wrote all the harmonies. “He just heard the whole song,” Brad stated. When he would ask Michael “Where does it come from?” Michael’s reply was always “From God.”
On Michael himself, Brad had to say that he was one of the nicest, kindest and sweetest people he knew. He remembered how at the end of each days recording, Michael would go up to him and give him a hug and thank him. “No one else ever did that!” He added.
A very special moment was when Brad showed us a rare and beautiful video of Michael recording ‘Smile’ and then of him recording ‘Childhood’ later that night. This was indeed a rare treat and left us all speechless and some in tears, as it was footage none of us had seen before and showed Michael happy and doing what he loved the most. Michael seemed more excited to be singing with a live orchestra than they were with him, even thanking them personally at the end of the recording.
One of Brad’s special guests was Brian Vibberts, Grammy Award Winning Recording and Mixing Engineer, who spent an entire year working with Michael on the ‘History’ album. He shared a little of his time working with Michael with us as well. The statement by him that touched me the most was how he said that the gratefulness that Michael showed and at the level he showed it, was very, very rare. When asked what he took away with him from working with Michael, his reply was “Work ethic, and to always do your best.”
Towards the end of the day we were also treated to a meal by the Slam Dunk Sisters who prepared meals for Michael and the crew and who also had a story or two on Michael to tell us. Now, I won’t quote word by word, but a special one told by one of the sisters was how at one time while she was working with Michael, she was looked down on by a certain two people who were part of Michael’s entourage then, where one said to the other who had a question to ask; “Don’t ask her, she’s nobody.” She went on to say how Michael was standing right next to her and heard every word spoken. Though he didn’t say anything back to them at the time, he did turn to her and told her not to take any notice of them. He may not have said anything to them at that moment, but he certainly did take notice, because on their next stop while on tour in Japan, as soon as she stepped off the plane, there was a big sign with her name waiting for her and a limousine to hand. She received VIP and first class treatment during the rest of the Japan tour. Now, the two that had looked down on her also took notice of that as they didn’t get that same treatment. She asked Michael later, “Michael, what did you do?” Only to get told by him, “Oh nothing!” That was Michael’s way of showing her and them that she was not a ‘nobody’ to him, she was important and did matter! Again, Michael being the Michael we all know and love.
After what was a delicious meal, the night ended with another special guest who had also worked with Michael, this time Steve Porcaro, who some may know from the group Toto. What he remembers the most about Michael was Michael’s work ethics as well. He stated that even at the peak of his career with ‘Thriller,’ Michael was still having vocal lessons with Seth Riggs everyday for six days a week, always wanting to do better with what was already perfect.
Steve worked on writing a few songs for Michael, with ‘Human Nature’ and ‘For All Time’ being two of them. He shared the story behind ‘Human Nature’ with us. It came about when Steve’s young daughter fell at school and then had a boy come up to her and hit her. When she got home she asked her dad; “Dad, why did he hit me?” Steve tried to explain to her that it was just part of human nature. Not long after that while playing at the keyboards, the ‘Human Nature’ song came about.
He also had a funny story to share on Michael and had us in laughter when he went on to tell us how Michael would always play this certain video of Prince. It was a video with footage of Prince on stage, where Prince takes off his shirt and throws it into the audience only to get it thrown straight back at him. Michael thought it was hilarious and used to want to show it to Steve and the other guys all the time saying, “Wait! Wait! It’s coming!” You could just imagine Michael saying this, over excited like a small child. Michael thought it just as funny where in some other footage that he also used to show to them, Prince strikes a pose next to a pillar and makes the pillar fall right over. He would show them this footage every time they met in the studio.
The day came to an end after Steve, with a little more time for photos and a chance to chat to Brad, Brian and Steve, but not before having a ride back to my hotel with one of the Slam Dunk Sisters, who had kindly offered the gesture. There is something to be said about the people that worked for and with Michael, they all seem to be so nice and caring. I guess that’s why he had them with him for as long as he did.
A truly wonderful day and experience and an event I would recommend to every Michael Jackson fan. A huge thank you and commendation to Brad Sundberg and his ‘In The Studio With Michael’ and to his special guests.
Paula Katsikas on behalf of MJWN
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