Michael discussed his music, session work and career with award winning journalist, Gyorgy Danev.
What was the reason you decided to create yet another MTB record – 22 years after the eponymous debut?
MT I thought that the time was right to do a new MTB album even though it had been 22 years since the last one. A lot of it had to do with finding a great singer and writing the kind of songs that I knew would work for a record like this. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of records but I wanted to return to my rock roots.
Why was MTB so short lived at the end of the '80s, when guitar driven AOR music was so popular? I mean, you got a major label deal with Geffen, got radio airplay, recieved great responses, etc...
MT The original MTB was so short lived because our whole deal revolved around a manager/producer that neither Moon Cahoun nor I wanted to continue working with. Before we got a deal and made that first record we were actually a band playing clubs around L.A. for about 5 years. The band was called Slang and the original singer was Billy Trudel.
What was your basic concept when you started writing the new tunes, what kind of record was in your head?
MT The basic concept with “Future Past” was to write songs that would fit in the “melodic rock” genre which only means that we set out to make a rock record as opposed to pop/r&b…I just write the way I write which is really no different than the types of things that I was writing in the 80s.
How was the writing process? Did you write everything all by yourself, even the lyrics?
MT I wrote all but two of the songs with singer Larry King. We just clicked from the first song which was “Can’t Be Right” and continued from there. Larry has a lyric writing partner named Joie Scott that lives in Nashville. She collaborated with us on all the songs after we came up with the initial track. She was fantastic at coming up with some really substantial lyrics. The process was me playing Larry a guitar riff or basic idea then he would start singing the first thing that came to him. Oftentimes these initial ideas would be the hooks for the final tune. Then I would arrange the songs and do all the guitars to a drum machine. I would then send all my tracks to Larry in Chicago where he would add real drums and bass at his studio. The drummer and bass player were his guys who I had never met! I loved what they did on the record though…
This time lead vocal duties were done by Larry King, who has a really impressive, powerful voice. How did you find him?
MT I met Larry over 10 years ago when he called me to play on his project Soliel Moon. He had been using Dann Huff but Dann had gotten too busy producing so he recommended me. It was a fortuitous meeting because I ended up working with Larry on many projects over the years that he was producing. I always loved his voice and when I decided to do this new MTB album his name was the only one that was on my list!
How is your current relationship with the original MTB vocalist Moon Calhoun? Didn't you try to bring back him for that new record?
MT I will always think of Moon Calhoun as one of my closest friends and one of my favorite singers ever. We actually had talked about doing another record together and maybe we still will. It was just that with Larry I had a co-writer that worked real hard at turning my song ideas into finished songs. Plus the fact that Larry has probably the strongest rock voices of anyone that I’ve ever heard and he can nail the high vocal melodies every time.
As I see the credits, Sahara Thompson sang background vocals on the song Can't Miss. Is she your daughter?
MT Yes, Sahara is my beautiful 20 year old daughter. She loves music – she sings and plays piano and guitar plus she writes her own songs and works Protools and records her own sessions. She and my son Zach ( he’s a drummer) are doing gigs around L.A. with their bands.
There are plenty of tasteful riffs and memorable solos on the album. Usually how do you build up the guitar parts? Do you have your own method for this activity?
MT Since being a session player has been my career for 30 years I’m very comfortable coming up with parts and creating arrangements – that’s what I do. I’ve learned a lot about putting a song together from working with the best people in the world. It all starts with the song but once I have a good song then the fun begins for me because I love to layer guitars and paint pictures with my music. I have always been a stickler for having great solos. I usually get a good opening phrase and take it from there.
What is the most important thing in a guitar solo for you as a musician?
MT You have to grab the listener with your solo. It must have sing-able melodies in it. It must be soulful and have a lot of feeling that leaps out of the speakers. I always try to construct solos that will stand the test of time – there can’t be anything about it that will bug me 5 or 10 years from now.
What is the biggest difference between recording your own stuff and working for somebody else as a hired gun?
MT There really isn’t much difference in how I approach playing on my own stuff as opposed to playing on other people’s music. In fact, the way I always think when I’m working on someone else’s track is: “What would I do if this was my song?”. If you take that approach to session playing you will be able to give the most of your own style to the record. From many years of playing on records I know the kind of things that people like to hear because it’s usually the same stuff I like to hear on a record. Of course when you’re working for someone you need to be aware of what they are envisioning for their music and you must make sure that you tune in to what they want.
Did you initially want to be a session guitarist rather than a rock star who is standing in the spotlight?
MT I always wanted to be a rock star (of course) but I got a chance to do some recording when I was a teenager in a real studio and I was in love with the whole process of recording. I also became fascinated with the guitar parts that I was hearing on songs on the radio and I dreamed of someday being the guy who would play those parts…I guess that I have gotten a chance to live that dream. This way I’ve gotten to contribute to a lot of people’s music while still maintaining a bit of my own identity…
Is it true that before Dann Huff moved to Nashville, he told all the producers he has worked with to call you instead of him?
MT It is true that Dann was very helpful to me by recommending me to a lot of producers that he was working with when he left L.A. to move back to Nashville to pursue his producing career. I had been in L.A. since ’79 working my way up the session ladder – clawing my way up the ladder. I had worked with a lot of people and done a fair amount of work and was kind of “bubbling under” ready to join the “A” team of studio players. The recommendations from Dann were like giving me his “seal of approval” that served as a confirmation of my abilities.
Do you know exactly how many records did you make as a session guy?
MT I have never counted the records that I’ve done…I do know that one week in ’96 I was on 5 of the Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart!!!
When you take a look at your career, which of your sessions were the most fun and where did you collect the most useful experiences?
MT I had many great recording experiences over the years. Ones that come to mind: Working with Mutt Lange on Shania Twain’s “Up” album. He was my idol and I ended up on 18 songs on that record – Mutt is a genius. I loved working with Quincy Jones on his “Q’s Juke Joint” album – there’s only one Quincy! Getting the call to be the guitarist for “Animal Logic”in ’88 was HUGE for me. The Police were my favorite band and I was a really big Stanley Clarke fan. It was definitely a thrill for me to do that record. Working with Michael Jackson on “Earth Song” was cool..I remember showing him how an ebow works. There were records that I did that weren’t huge hits but I did some of my best work on them like a couple of albums with Corey Hart and the first Coors album. I think the first big hit I played on was “When A Man Loves A Woman” for Michael Bolton. I loved being able to hear myself on the radio!!! A song that I was able to contribute a lot to was “The Power Of Love” for Celine Dion…she was fairly unknown then and that song really made people aware of her – and me! It was number one for eleven weeks. Getting a call from Babyface was also a huge thing for me. The first thing I did with him were the songs for “Waiting To Exhale” – we hit it off and he ended up call me to play on a lot of his productions including “Change The World” for Eric Clapton. I also did a DVD with him called “Live in NYC” that a lot of people love. The biggest thing in my recording career was working with producer David Foster. I started working with him in 1990 and for 20 years I’ve played on most of the records that he’s done including all the number 1 hits in the ‘90’s and beyond. I have learned from all these people and they might have learned a little bit from me.
Any session you have regretted and would forget?
MT I have no regrets. I think out of all the sessions there was 2 or 3 that I didn’t hit it off with the producer or artist – that’s just the way it is in life.
If somebody want to be a good session player, what advice could you give? What are the most important requirements?
MT The most important thing that you have to have going for you is CREATIVITY!!! Yes, you need to be likeable and easy to work with and you need to be on time and have your sound together but none of that means anything if you can’t deliver something that adds to the recording. You must be able to hear a track that you’ve never heard before and create a part that will add a vibe or a feeling to the record. Mutt Lange told me that” You’ve made my demos sound like records!” An exaggeration for sure but a high compliment nonetheless.
Back to the record: what kind of gear did you use during the recording process? I mean guitars, pickups, strings, amps, effects pedals, etc.
MT I used a lot of gear when recording the new MTB record. When I’m searching for the right sound while doing a record I’ll try everything at my disposal. For amps I have a couple of old Marshalls that I like. For some of the stuff I went direct with a Randall RM4 through a Carl Martin Rock Bug. I actually haven’t been mic’ing cabinets for years. All my amps go through a Radial JDX amp D.I. that I send through my rack. I still go through a speaker cab for a load but all my sound comes from the JDX. My rack has an Eventide H-3000 DSE that I’ve used on every record that I’ve done for 20 years and an Eventide Eclipse that I also use a lot. Guitar-wise I’ve been playing mostly guitars that have been made for me by my friend, Greg Back. I pretty much used his guitars exclusively on this record along with a Tele and my trusty old Strat. For pedals, I am the PEDAL KING!!! I used what ever fit the song. I actually don’t use that many pedals at the same time – mostly just to shape my tone. Strings are Ernie Ball 10-46 and picks are Snarling Dogs – the orange ones with the grit.
Just in brief – Strat or Les Paul?
MT I prefer Strat type guitars over Les Pauls. Mostly because that’s the body and neck scale that I’m used to. I love Gibsons too.
Humbuckers or single coils?
MT On the MTB album I used more humbuckers but in my session work I tend toward single coils more. The Greg Back that I used for most of the solos has Raw Vintage humbuckers that I think sound fantastic.
Low gain or high gain amps?
MT Definitely a fan of lower gain amps. I would rather add a pedal to get more overdrive than play through a saturated amp. I like the clarity that you can get when the amp isn’t too fuzzy.
British or American characteristic?
MT After 40 years of doing this there really are only two amp types for me – Fender and Marshall and I love them both equally.
Light or heavy strings/picks?
MT I like high action on my guitars and the 10-46 gauge feel great to me. I like heavy picks that I hold sideways and I like when they have some rough “grit” on them.
Rack stuff or stomp boxes?
MT I like pedals for what they do and rack stuff for the more “expensive” sounds…I use them both.
Floyd, vintage whammy, or fixed bridge?
MT I have had a Floyd on any of my guitars in many years. That’s one thing gear-wise that’s different from the first MTB record in ’88. I had a guitar with a Floyd back then and now I only use Vintage style trems.
Any chance to more MTB records in the future?
MT Larry King and I have already started writing for our next record. I think that if people like this one we will definitely make another one (or two)… I also would like to play some dates in Europe with the new MTB, possibly as a package tour with my friends Mitch Malloy and Jeff Paris.
A few years ago you released a great album with the TRW project, and also did an instrumental record. Will you ever continue these stories someday?
MT For now I don’t have any plans for any instrumental records. I feel that I’ve covered that side of me pretty well with “The World According To..” and “M.T. Speaks”. The singer for TRW (Mark Williamson) has been stricken with Parkinsons disease and it would be a hardship for him to do that band again.