JAMES MICHAEL OF SIXX:AM (INTERVIEW)

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When Motley Crue made the announcement early this year that they were going to cease being a band following a big farewell tour, some fans actually cheered because it meant that bass player Nikki Sixx would have more time to devote to Sixx:AM, the band he put together with vocalist James Michael and guitar player Dj Ashba in 2007. With an unmistakable hard rock vivacity and cut-to-the-bone lyrics, Sixx:AM stood out amongst their peers. Sixx had lived what they were actually singing about and the fans gravitated to songs such as “Life Is Beautiful,” “Pray For Me,” “Accidents Can Happen” and “Skin,” the music touching that raw nerve everyone has within them. But Sixx had Crue and Ashba has Guns N Roses so finding time to delve into another full-blown project wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.

But they did it. On October 7th Sixx:AM will drop Modern Vintage, their new opus born from their youthful admirations of the music that originally ignited their rock & roll fires. With the first single, “Gotta Get It Right,” a Queen/ELO-ish popper that catches on immediately, they are back with a sparkling vengeance. “It’s a very, very busy time,” Michael said with a smile. “But what a great thing to be busy with.” In Los Angeles rehearsing for a show they will play the day of the album’s release, the producer turned singer has found his vocal cords doing double duty. “Now that we’re in rehearsals and I’m having to sing a lot every day, the new songs are pretty demanding, what I’m noticing is that it’s actually the talking, the interviews, that are putting a big strain on my voice,” Michael explained with a laugh. Glide talked with the always bubbly James Michael a few days ago about the new album, songwriting, moving back to LA after five years in Nashville, and why he is and always will be a producer first.

The last time I talked to you a few years ago, you were in Nashville. But now you’ve moved back to Los Angeles?

Yes, I did actually. For the last five years I have been kind of bi-coastal. I’ve had a place in Nashville and a place out here in LA. I was spending most of my time in Nashville but I was really just missing the west coast a lot so at the beginning of this year, I decided to just move back here. I love Los Angeles. It’s always just felt like home to me. It’s a very soulful place.

I also heard it was your birthday last week so happy birthday.

(laughs) Thank you very much. It’s funny, I had completely forgotten and then I was doing a radio interview on the phone and the DJ actually wished me happy birthday. It was like so strange cause it’s the first time that I ever just completely forgot till about midway through the day. But I ended up having a great birthday. It was actually the first day of rehearsals for Sixx:AM so it was a perfect way to celebrate.

Did they get you something special or did they just make you sing all day?

(laughs) Yeah, I sang all day

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This is your third time creating a body of music with these two guys, Nikki and Dj. How has the writing process evolved for the three of you?

Well, it’s interesting because evolve is a great word. It definitely happens in any type of creative situation is that you transition through things and you find what I call the sweet spot and I feel like the three of us as songwriters have really found our sweet spot where we just communicate so well, not only as friends but also as musicians and songwriters. So the process has grown over the years but the one thing that stays consistent, that is very important to us, is that the three of us actually physically are together in one room writing songs for Sixx:AM. It’s always been very important to us because, number one, we just love spending time with each other, we love hanging out and just being pals. But also, the chemistry really comes through when the three of us are in a room together. That has stayed consistent through all three records.

But the process was different on this record because first and foremost, we intentionally did not have a peripheral thing like a book or a photography book to attach this record to. We wanted this one to kind of stand on its own and as a result we knew that what it would do is it would really not only reveal to our fans who we’ve turned into as a band but it revealed to us who we’ve become as a band after three records. So on this one what we tried to do was really look back at the music and the bands and the albums that had influenced us ever since we were kids. So what we did was we went back and looked at the albums of the late sixties and seventies, at bands like Queen and Elton John and ELO and David Bowie and T. Rex and all those incredible records that really took you on a journey and captured your imagination. That’s the type of record that we wanted to make with Modern Vintage. So it differs in the sense that rather than reacting to, for instance, Nikki’s diaries or photography or that type of stuff, we went back and kind of looked at the entire lineage of rock music and what made us love rock music in the first place. This album is really a reflection and celebration of that.

It doesn’t seem as dark.

Yeah, I think that at first listen that would definitely be a reaction and I think that there are a number of reasons for that. When you go back and listen to some of those bands that I was mentioning, there was a lot of, I guess, seventies pop influences in those records. People were writing hooks in songs that felt very uplifting and I think that the thing that Sixx:AM has always done, and I think we do it on this record, is we’ve always found that balance, that fine line between darkness and beauty. We even did it with songs like “Life Is Beautiful.” In fact, every song on all of our records has always kind of walked that fine line. Musically, there are a lot of, I would say, kind of seventies-type of pop rock influences that show through that may end up having a bit of a lighter feel to it but in actuality when you really dig in and look at the lyrics on Modern Vintage, it’s still that very kind of troubling, dark angle lyrically to things. And we’ve always loved that. When you listen to a song, for instance like “Gotta Get It Right,” which is our first single, at first listen it’s very pop-y, it has a real bounce to it and it feels very uplifting. But again in typical Sixx:AM fashion when you actually dig in and look at the lyrics, the message itself is a bit on the darker side. And I think we’ve always just naturally done that. And I think on this record there are definitely moments that feel maybe a little more hopeful than on our previous records, even though we’ve always tried to have a good strong sense of hope in all of our songs and maybe that just shows through a little bit more on this record.

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I don’t think you guys could write a fluffy pop song. There is always meaning in the songs.

Yeah, and we love that and sometimes the feel of the music doesn’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of the lyric and I think that is something we really love. We love that contrast.

Tell us about “Drive.” You overhauled and almost restructured that song to where it almost changes the whole context of it from the way the Cars did it.

That was a really exciting thing for us to do. Number one, we’ve never done a cover song before. When we chose that song, we chose it for a number of reasons but one of the real main focuses was the lyrics, cause when you listen to that lyric, even on the original version, it’s such a heavy, very isolating, very lonely lyric. It’s a very sad song when you really analyze what they’re talking about. Even the video that the Cars made originally was so sad and yet they had this kind of feel to the track which didn’t allow you to get too mired down in the sadness of the lyric. In the end, it just had this beautiful kind of hopeful feeling to it. You got the sense that this person was going to overcome this struggle that she was having.

When we did our version of it, we really wanted to shine a light on just how intense that lyric is and that’s why on our version we start off almost as a piano ballad. It’s very intimate, it’s very lonely sounding at the beginning and as the song progresses these moments of technology start to kind of trickle in and by the end it’s turned into this very elaborate, very beautiful vast sounding track. We wanted the listener to be reminded of what a beautiful lyric that was and what a beautiful story it was while at the same time celebrating the original version.

What about “Let It Haunt You.”

It’s a really cool song and what we ended up doing was we ended up putting that on the deluxe version of the record. It was not like we chose to leave it off of our record for any particular reason. We love the song. It’s almost a funk-type of song. It feels kind of like a seventies funk, almost disco type of feel, but it’s a very, very Sixx:AM type of song. The lyric is kind of like what we were talking about before. It has this beautiful contrast between pain and joy, and yet when you listen to the track it almost has, I would say, a Bee Gees or an ABBA type of funk/disco feel to it. As we were celebrating all these different genres of rock music that we all love so much, we couldn’t leave out that style, you know. I was a huge fan of bands like the Bee Gees and just those vocal arrangements and the backbeat and the danceability of those songs. It was pretty amazing when we went into the recording studio to record that one just how natural it came out. I was really amazed by just the soul which Dj and Nikki played the track. It’s a fun one and, like I said, the only reason that it didn’t end up on the record is just because we felt like with the main record we had told the story that we wanted to, and yet this was such an important track that we included it in the deluxe edition.

What was the so-called surprise song on this record, the one that almost didn’t make it on or turned out completely different from it’s original version?

It’s probably a tossup between two of them. There’s a song on the record called “Miracle,” which as we were just talking about, has this kind of funk, almost disco-type of seventies vibe to it which is really cool. I think that a lot of our fans will be pleasantly surprised by that one because it really kind of comes out of left field and yet it’s such a part of the music that we’ve always loved. So I think it will be a real surprise on the record for people.

Then the last song on the record, called “Before It’s Over,” is a really just beautiful song. It almost has a ragtime/vaudeville type feel to it which will be another real exciting and kind of shocking journey for the listener. But it’s another one of those songs where if you listen to the lyrics of it, the lyric of “Before It’s Over” is about this person who has lost somebody and has just not been able to let go, has not been able to move on with their life. Typically when somebody loses a loved one you go through this mourning or grieving period and then you eventually learn how to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all and move on. Yet the character in this song is unable to do that. He is unable to move on. He’s very lonely and isolated and he knows that he should be moving on but he can’t. So what we did was we took that character and we put him in this almost ragtime setting so there is this incredible contrast between the two. So it feels like it’s just a really uplifting, happy song and then as you listen to the lyric you realize that he wishes he could feel the way that the music sounds but he just can’t. It’s a real beautiful moment in the record.

Have you ever written a song that you felt like you opened up yourself too much? That maybe you shouldn’t put these feelings or truths into a song?

That’s a great question. I think that I probably have written that type of a song that maybe revealed a bit too much or exposed a bit too much but I think that when that has happened in my career, I typically have held on to it and maybe just kept it private or shared it with maybe the person I intended it to be heard by. I really have always used music as a form of communication and in a way it’s a safety net. It does allow me to say things and reveal things that typically in a normal conversation I might not be comfortable doing. But that’s one of the beautiful things about writing songs and about music in general. But I think that those would be very rare cases because to me having the opportunity to write a song and to share it with the world is, like I said, an opportunity to reveal something about you.

And I think if you have the courage to do that, it can reach a lot of people and I think that’s what’s been so special about Sixx:AM’s music is that we haven’t held back. We have always overcome that fear of being judged or being criticized and we’ve just shared what we felt was important to share and as a result our fans have been incredibly brave and come back to us and shared their stories about how their life has felt damaged or broken and is in need of repair and somehow our music has found it’s way into their lives and become a soundtrack of sorts to their struggles. So I think that while, yes, you can cross that line and maybe reveal a bit too much, I think that that’s part of the skill of being a songwriter is to know where that line is so that you can go right up to it and share as much as you possibly can without making yourself uncomfortable. A lot of times if you’re going to make yourself uncomfortable, you’re also going to make the listener uncomfortable and it becomes an unproductive experience and it tends to cross over into just maybe being a little bit too full of self-pities. So I think there is a fine line to walk and I think that Sixx:AM has found a natural way to do that.

What was the hardest part about getting this album done? Was it getting the three of you in a room together?

It was absolutely, yes, logistically getting it done. We started writing this record about two years ago. Then once the songs were done, the task of producing it and getting it recorded came to hand and that’s what took the longest. Because I was the producer on the record, it meant that I was having to do a lot of traveling. I would travel to Dj’s house in Las Vegas. I’d record him for a few days. Then I’d travel down to Los Angeles and record Nikki at his house. Then I’d fly back to Nashville to my recording studio there and I’d put things together. There was a better part of a year where I was traveling back and forth across the country, maybe two or three times a week. It was a pretty intense time but it just flew by because we were so focused on what we wanted to accomplish with this record that in a way, even though it sounds pretty grueling, it felt effortless because we were just so passionate about it.

The last time we talked you told me that you were kind of a perfectionist in the studio. What drives you crazy the most in a studio environment?

(laughs) You know what, it’s funny because I am a perfectionist by nature so nothing drives me crazy. I love being in the studio and I love being a perfectionist and I will literally work on something until it’s perfect in my mind and that’s just natural to me. What drives me absolutely crazy is the fact that in a live setting you throw perfection out the window and that’s the part that has really been a struggle for me. I remember when we first went out and did Crue Fest several years ago. We were doing all of these shows and “Life Is Beautiful” was a hit at the time and it was just such an electric and vibrant time and such a great tour. But I was struggling so much as a singer because I wanted every note to be perfect. Always.

And I remember we were doing a show in Los Angeles actually and I had gotten off the stage and it was an incredible show. There were like 15,000 people there. The crowd was electric. We got off stage and I know that both Nikki and Dj noticed that I just wasn’t myself and I went back to my dressing room and I was just kind of sitting there on the couch in a funk. And Dj came in and he said, “What’s wrong?” and I was like, “Man, my voice cracked.” I was so bummed because my voice had cracked ONCE through the entire set (laughs). And he just sat down next to me, and I’ll never forget this, he said, “Dude, it’s time you take your producer’s hat off. These people don’t want perfection. They want passion and that’s what you’re giving them.” From that moment on, it was a real eye-opener for me and I’m just grateful for both Nikki and Dj and all their touring experience because they really helped shed a light on the fact that the two things are very, very different. Being that perfectionist in the studio is very different than being that passionate person on stage. Once I learned that, it was so exhilarating. But it was a struggle for me at first.http://www.glidemagazine.com/glide/wp-admin/post-new.php#edit_timestamp

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So how do you separate yourself when you’re producing yourself? How easy is it for you to one minute be the singer and then the next minute to hop over to the other side of the glass and be the producer of yourself? Can you step back and make yourself a separate entity?

That’s a good question and you can and I will tell you how. I think it could be difficult for a lot of people. I’ve always been able to separate that and I think here’s why. I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer. At the very most, I would say that I’m a vocalist and I have a knack for telling a story vocally. But I’ve never thought of myself technically as a singer so what that does is it enables me to stay objective as a producer. I’m able to kind of step back and assess whether this song is being honored and whether the performance is telling the story properly. Because I really don’t have an ego when it comes to singing, I don’t even really like the way I sing, so I’m able to just kind of get past that, separate myself from any ego, and just stay focused on whether or not the message is coming across, whether or not I’ve done justice to the song. So I think that has helped me draw a separation between the two. I think that if I really took a lot of pride in my singing and felt like I was a good singer, I’d probably be way more critical of myself. I just kind of get through it and make sure that the lyric is being honored and that the passion and the emotion of the song is proper; and everything else, I just have to kind of tune out because, like I said, I’m not a real fan of my voice.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Ooh, I love that question. Let me think about that. You know, I think I would have to say, probably Nikki was one of the first that I actually met in the true sense of meeting somebody. I just thought about that right now. It’s kind of interesting that that friendship we forged has lasted this long and has bared so many amazing things. I remember meeting him when I signed my very first record deal. Motley Crue was in partnership with the label that I signed with and we just met in the halls of the label one day and we’d keep on meeting each other and he was just so larger than life but also so human and so kind and we just instantly became friends. I’ve met a lot of rock stars since then but when I really think about it, he was probably the first. It’s kind of neat to think of the fact that we’re such good friends to this day.

So do you believe that the friendship you have with both Nikki and Dj makes it easier to create songs together?

Yes, absolutely. The friendship plays a huge part in that and it’s because we trust each other and we make each other feel safe. So there is no judgment, there’s nothing that any of us can say that would be stupid or that would be held against the other person. So we dare to say anything, try anything, and we know we’re not going to be made fun of and I think that sometime in those moments of vulnerability and exposing something about yourself that you just wouldn’t dare to expose to anyone else, I think in those moments are where some of the most magical Sixx:AM things happen.

When all of this is done with Sixx:AM, are you going to do anything on your own again?

You know, I’m always producing other bands and writing for other bands, so I have a really, really wonderful career and Sixx:AM has absolutely been the icing on the cake for me. I’m a very, very lucky person in this music business. So yeah, I will. I’m always doing different projects and if you’re referring to any type of solo stuff, I would say that it just depends on how much time I have. I’m always writing songs, I’m always working with people, and if I come across something that feels like it’s just not right for any other project or maybe it would only be suitable for me, then I’ll get back in the studio and do some more stuff on my own. But right now I’m just loving where Sixx:AM has come to and the fact that as Motley Crue is beginning to wind down their incredible career there is going to actually be more time for all of us to actually bring Sixx:AM more to the forefront of our lives. So it’s a very, very exciting time. We’ve all, the three of us, have actually already started talking about a fourth record and stuff like that so in some respects even though we’re three albums in and we just built this beautiful thing that is Sixx:AM, we also feel like we’re just at the very beginning, just scratching the surface of what Sixx:AM is going to accomplish.