I N T E R V I E W S
GUITARIST July 1995UK Magazine
One of my turns... Michael Landau
When you´ve taken a spin around the session circut as many times as Michael Landau, the only way to stop getting dizzy is to step out with your own band. Jordan McLachlan lets him take the lead.
Unless you are a card carrying member of the Association Of Musical Snobbery and are of the opinion that session players are nothing more than musical whores selling out to whoever pays a fat fee, then an air of romanticism surrounds the idea of being, in essence, a hired gun, a maverick brought in to assist with a project when that little extra je ne sais quoi is needed. Guys that can come in and come up with the goods at the drop of a hat, whether on a rhythm track or a solo and have the musicality coursing through their veins to the extent that they run the gamut of stylistic variety without becoming short of breath always deserve our respect and are often worthy of more exposure than they are ever likely to receive.
The scope of the music scene in America and the number of artists employing such "studio" musicians means it´s rather more common for players to be called to "do their thing" on a session, as opposed to churning out carbon copies or stylistic pastiches of others, than it is in the UK. As a result the session scene over there has brought to light some of the biggest guitar talents in the world over the last two decades, all of whom seem to share one thing in common - they all rate extraordinarily highly in the taste stakes. The discipline of playing strictly for the song results in players who think about note choice and phrasing a great deal more than your average rocker who treats every eight bar solo as his last chance to show the world that he can play faster than the mighty yng, whammy better than Vai and play further outside than Sco. It is no surprise then that as and when these guys deceide to strike out on their own they tend to make infinitely more listenable albums than the majority of their shredhead counterparts.
Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Steve Lukather have all enjoyed life in the rarified atmosphere at the top of the session ladder of course, subsequently becoming solo artists in their own right and bestowing such gems as "Larry Carlton", "Captain Fingers" and "Candyman" on the world respectively.
Now it is the turn of another...
Michael Landau will be a name familiar to anyone who scans album credits in an anorakular fashion; not just anyone´s albums though, just those of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd and the like. Mr. Landau´s taste and touch have been much in demand since he turned pro in his late teens, with a little help from one of his mates...
"Well I grew up with Lukather (Yes, that´s Steve Lukather for those of us not on surname terms Protocal Ed), we grew up playing in bands together and right after he joined Toto I auditioned for Boz Scaggs, because he recommended me for that. Steve actually helped me a lot in terms of getting into studio work and getting into all that stuff. I went out on the road with Boz for a few months, I just have been about 19 or something, and when I came back I started to do sessions in town, people started to call for demos and things and that turned into regular session work, so Luke really helped me a lot."
Ho hum, if only we were all best friends with hotshot young guitarists who go and form bands with the greatest sessioneers in the world and put us forward for the gig which will essentially launch our career. Still, Mike started as we all invariably do though...
"I started playing when I was about 11 I guess and got an electric guitar when I was about 13 or 14 and basically grew up on Hendrix and the Beatles, y´know, the same old story! I was very serious about it right from the start though, it was all I wanted to do, I just wanted to be in a band so I worked hard at it and just played with other people. To be honest the session thing just came by, and at the start I didn´t even know what it was really, but the money was good so I started doing sessions kind of regulary."
As Mike´s solid gold reputation as a player of supreme feel´n´groove was gradually refined and burnished, he found himself in the employ of some of America´s and the world´s, most famous musical turns. The distance between jobbing guitarist and six string hit man is not inconsiderable, and the luxury of being able to choose which projects you get involved with is clearly not lost on Mike.
"Yeah, it´s been great," he agrees, "I´ve worked with some great artists, to the point that the regular, run of the mill stuff I don´t really do anymore and haven´t done for the last four or five years. I´ve been very lucky in that, because I don´t really enjoy it. I never did a whole lot of jingles, I always managed to stay and just do the record thing, which was fine by me, cos I´m not a real good reader and I couldn´t do the movie dates!"
"There are loads of differnt cliques of players who just do the movie thing; those guys are the real monster readers. I think I´m a bit too rock´n´roll for that; I never really wanted to be a studio musician, I just kind of fell into it and it worked out and I must admit I´m not complaining."
It would indeed be an ungrateful sort who would find reason to whinge given the opportunities that Mike´s had to do this thing with such high profile pop rockers as Michael Bolton and Richard Marx for example. There have been many others who have called on his expertise though, and one might assume that the old dodgy hair brothers don´t necessarily represent the absolute pinnacle of Mike´s career, no disrespect intended. So who is the most fun to work with, Mike ? Go on, tell us, tell us.
"Joni Mitchell was definitly one of the funnest projects that I´ve done, and I got to tour with her as well, that was definitly a highlight. I like working with Rod Stewart, he´s a blast. Usually I start out working with an artist in the studio and as a result I get asked out to tour pretty often. James Taylor was an exception, in that I toured with him first and then did an album, but usually I get introduced to them by working on the record and then we go on the road, or not!"
"I suppose over the years I´ve turned a few people off. I went through a period of being pretty burnt out and I had kind of nasty attitude at times I guess, and now it´s got to the point where I´m actually trying to be a little more selective."
So who´s busy working the scene at the moment, now that Mike and Steve are doing other things?
"Well I guess Mike Thompson is the guy at the moment, he´s a really great player and for me Dean Parks (Haitian Divorce by Steely Dan anymore? And he´s also just done Aaron Neville´s new album) is right up there, he´s done it for so long and he can do anything. I´ve seen him do this intense fly-shit reading on movie dates and then he´ll be on a Lyle Lovett album the same afternoon, so to me he´s the perfect studio musician, he´s just a brilliant player."
"As far as reading goes, my reading´s definitly not as good as most people probably think it is, but i can usally fake it! In terms of style I can pretty much get by, I feel pretty much get by, I feel pretty confident playing in different styles and stuff but if it gets to the stage where I´m not comfortable with something I´d rather be honest and suggest they get someone else."
"I´m lucky though, 99 % of the time they´re familiar with what´s going on and I get called because they like what I do I don´t often get calls to come and do an Eddie Van Halen or whatever. I mean if that´s what somebody wants that´s all right; if someone needs something that´s stylistically accurate, it´s cool. But lately I´ve been freed up to be a bit more creative, it´s just a bit more open, which I enjoy."
Given his extensive experience in close proximity to the mixing desk, it comes as a little bit of a surprise that production is not something that wiggles Mike´s whammy bar...
"Nah," he shrugs. "I´ve just recently produced my girlfriend, Vonda Shepherd, but outside of that I´ve only really wanted to do my own thing, with my own bands and projects and stuff, I never wanted to produce other people, I still don´t, I´m not really interested."
However, just as Lukather freely admits to being a total gear freak, equipment is something that does Mike´s strings...
"Yeah I´m definitly a gear junkie," he laughs. "I just have everything. I collect guitars and I´ve collected amps over the years, so I have a nice collection of both to choose from. I still bring my rack to most things, with the usual delays and stuff in but I find myself bringing old amps to things now too. I´ve got quite a few old plexi Marshalls, some nice old Fenders and some Vox things. Depending on the gig I´ll just bring the extra stuff and a whole bag of funky pedals. People seem to be more open to weird sounds at the moment, things are definitly moving in that direction. But I still bring everything."
"I have a few guitars that I tend to use a lot more than anything else. I have a couple of Jim Tyler guitars that I use all the time for sessions, which are like custom Strats with a humbucker at the bridge and I have a les Paul that I use. With the Raging Honkies I´ll go for either an old strat or one of the Tylers."
Much of Mike´s time and effort at the moment is taken up with indulging himself with his own band, the most fabulous Raging Honkies. Featuring the considerable talents of the totally funky and hard hitting Abe laboriel Jr (son of session monster Abraham Laboriel of course) on drums and another Landau, Teddy, who supplies suitably low down and dirty bass lines, the Honkies sound something like the Jimi Hendrix Experience jamming with Alive In Chains in a rather suspect and dingy rehearsal room. In Bradford perhaps.
Given the glitz afforded most session players´ solo efforts, ´We Are The Best Band´, the Honkies´ debut, is refreshing in its lack of gloss. It´s a raw, stripped for action affair one to which the word grunge would most definitly apply were it not now bereft of real meaning in the wake of Seattle saturation. The Honkies are not about wearing flannel and scorning musical ability, they can play and they play hard they groove because they clearly believe completely in what they´re doing. But just what they are doing has caused confusion in certain quarters...
"People do get thrown by the Raging Honkies thing, and I just have to explain, Well that´s the way I grew up playing," Mike confirms. "The studio thing actually is the sidetrack, it´s not like I´m trying to change my style to fit something that´s going on today. This is the music that I enjoy playing and almost all of my spare time is taken up with the Honkies, we´re trying to put a lot of effort into it, we want to tour and do the independent thing and we´re trying to get on a college tour in America right now."
"There are a ton of places to play, but getting people out is a different story. Getting kind of a buzz going, whatever state you´re in, is hard; you´ve got to keep going back and keep repeating. Yeah you got to eat shit for a while which we´re kinda doing at the moment because the CD´s only been out about three weeks. But we would love to come over and play England at some stage as well."
It sounds like the Honkies are ready to take over, but when time allows Mike is still to be found earning a living...
"I just did a little more on Rod´s new album (Rod? Rod who? McKenzie? Stewart? Hullandemu? Who? Finger on the pulse Ed) Actually I´ve been doing a lot of foreign projects recently, with Japanese and Spanish artists for example. A lot of outside projects seem to be coming up at the moment for some reason. It´s cool, y´know it´s the same as working with anybody else the foreign projects that I work on we generally do in the States and whatever the artist needs we talk about on the day."
Without wishing to cast aspersions on the quality of Mike´s recent employers´ work, it surely can´t be easy to be inspired on every session that you turn up for, particularly if you´re as busy as he has been. I mean, what if you turn up and they want you to play country on a cover of Everything I Do...? Yeuuch.
"The problem doesn´t tend to be the amount of work that you´re doing, but things can get difficult if the music is really, really lame," Mike laughs. "I can usually think of something to play, thank God, but sometimes it´s a little shaky! If you´re dealing with crap though, no matter how you approach things it´s kinda hard to be inspired and sound real good.
Knowing how competitive the session scene is and how us guitarists seem less able than most to resist the temptation to play faster and harder than the next man all the time, does Mike still strive for greater technical excellence?
"Yeah, in a different way from someone like Dann Huff I guess though," he explains. "It´s more of an overall thing for me I think; technique-wise I don´t strive as much to do the fast things anymore. I just try to get more out of the less notes type of thing, if that makes any sense!"
"I think part of that is growing up on Hendrix and stuff that whole feel thing. I was maybe 10 or something when I first heard him and he kind of blew me away and I started learning right away off the records, so it was kind of ingrained from then. I went through a pretty big blues thing in the last five years, I started collecting a lot of blues records. I guess I always go back to the older stuff I used to listen to, I don´t have a lot of current favourites, so if I´m listening to stuff at home I´ll dig out something from years back usually. Nirvana was the last thing I really loved, I just loved the vibe that those guys were into. It´s not just the rock thing though, I´m like a huge Jaco Pastorius fan as well and I love Wayne Shorter so it spreads out pretty far, to me if it´s great music, it´s great music, no matter what. I´ve yet to find a country artists that I´ve really freaked over, but there´s a lot of great guitar players in that whole thing. I think it´s just a matter of being open to everything when you´re doing sessions it really pays off to have listened to everything and be absolutely as versatile as you can be."
Jordan McLachlan 1995