In The Studio

After performing with Witness for years in the clubs, it was time to look into branching out into other areas of the music business. I love all kinds of music so it didn’t matter to me what I got myself into. I had offers to write everything from commercial jingles to country music to movie soundtracks. Gotta tell you…I loved it all! I had written a lot of Rock ballads along the way, so writing country wasn’t really that foreign to me.

First person I got together with to record some country music I had written I met before even leaving New Jersey. He was a Nashville transplant who had worked with everyone from Joe Diffy to Brad Paisley. His name was Jim Heffernan.  He was a great pedal steel guitar player and one of the best Dobro guitarists on the planet. After working in my studio for a few sessions, we both decided to head down to Nashville to put something together in a bigger studio. Jim knew a lot of players, but it was a thrill to work especially with guitar great Danny Parks, and to get to sing with background singer Wes Hightower. Wes had just come from doing shows with George Strait.

More and more interest was being shown in my material so I was sent to meet with Richard Marx. He was just getting into producing some country artists but I was excited because of his 80′s rock career. I also respected him as a songwriter and just hoped for a critique of the material. It wasn’t to be with Marx, who had a lot on his plate at the time, but it definitely wasn’t a wasted trip. Interest was shown by the keyboard player performing with Richard that night. He also had one of the most beautiful background voices I’d ever heard. His name was Steve Hornbeak. He was actually living in Nashville and had once been the keyboard player for Faith Hill as well as a string of other famous artists. I think what was the thing for me with Steve is that we both kinda came up the same way. Rock bands, writers, singers, and both loved creating. Meeting him that night would turn out to be one of highlights of my music and recording career.

Not only did Steve own and operate a studio in Nashville, but he had a roommate named Tom Hoey who was an extremely gifted studio drummer who had also worked with a slew of professional artists. This was getting better and better! Two other players Steve worked with regularly were Kevin Marks on the guitar and bassist Dow Tomlin. These four guys would not only become friends, but would turn out to be the creative and driving force behind all the music I would record in the future. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to work with.

Steve was incredible as not only a producer and engineer, but his keyboards were great and background vocals were to die for. Dow Tomlin was so good playing bass in the studio it was almost scary. These guys knew my music better than I did! Tom Hoey would listen to what I put together back in Jersey, and somehow came up with exactly what I wanted…..EVERY… TIME! He always seemed to care so much about what he was doing in every one of my songs. It was almost as though he just didn’t want to let me down. Let me tell you….he never did. Kevin Marks was just right up my alley as far as guitar players go. Both of us grew up loving’ the same bands, learning those licks everybody wanted to play (you know…Aerosmith…AC/DC…ZZ Top…etc..) Kevin was mellow but you’d never know that listening to the sounds that came out of his amp. I think I loved working with Kevin because he would come up with great parts, but if there was something there already that I played on guitar that he liked, he’d keep it and just make it better! Some studio players want to change everything just to change it. Kevin had no ego from what I saw and if he did it never got in my way. I’ll never forget Kevin and if ever there’s a chance to work with him or the rest of these guys… I’ll take it!

One last thing I just want to mention. Steve Hornbeak is one of the most talented people in the music business. So is Dow. So are Tom and Kevin. It’s sad that we all know the names of some not-so-talented people in music and not theirs.  I remember heading for Nashville with some new stuff how excited I would be, but I think after a while those guys, especially Tom, would be excited when I came to town, ready to sink their teeth into what new thing I’d written. Thanks for that Tom!

On To Rock and Roll

After several years of writing country tunes (and don’t forget that at this time, it was like writing rock with a twist of country) I just had to get back to the love of my life…Rock and Roll! I started singing in my old Witness voice just goofing’ around, mixing up my Phil Collins and my alternative Green Day voice and I don’t know…it just seemed to take over what I was writing. I put together a couple of tunes that sounded like some of what I was listening to at the time..I think it was like..All American Rejects…maybe a little Train influence…some Bon Jovi… I was liking the drive of bands like The Killers and Coldplay… and kind of liked the commercial stuff Daughtry had out.

Pete Salerno, who has been my personal manager for most of my music career, thought it was a great idea to get some of the new songs recorded. Didn’t even think of not including my team down in Nashville, although I knew it would be a new challenge for the guys. When I think back now, to me it was like an unexpected treat for them all! Living in Nashville didn’t mean a lot of Rock recording for those guys. But when you’re as talented in the studio as they are, I don’t think the genre of music even matters.

It was cool for me because it seemed like I was in almost full control of the producing. Steve loved all kinds of music (his true love was actually Gospel and Christian music) but I think he felt comfortable letting me take over the rock stuff. Almost all of the ideas and parts I had recorded back in my studio found their way into the final mixes and eventually on the mixed CD. Things were going and sounding so good, that within a year of starting the rock project, I wrote enough music to record a second CD. It was all recorded and sounded really good….. but I felt there was just one more thing that needed to be done. That would all happen in a little town called Los Angeles.

On The Left Side

Steve and the guys in Nashville did an incredible job recording all the songs. It all sounded good, but something to me seemed to be lacking. I don’t know if it was more punch I was looking for or maybe even a bit more post production, but it just sounded a little flat. Sometimes when you record songs, they never seem good enough to the artist or writer. It can be frustrating. You just can’t go back over and over and keep making changes. But an artist, whether it be music or any other art form, always sees flaws. Always says, “I could’ve done this or that better.”

I had been spending time in L.A. for years and knew a bunch of guys in different areas of the music industry. But both my manager Pete and myself felt we had to try something different. He was checking out a few engineers thinking we might just try to remix the CD in a bigger studio. That can get really expensive in a hurry. A few names were given to Pete to check out but a lot of the big time guys had very little time or were extremely busy. One of the best in the mixing business was a guy named Chris Lord-Alge. This guy, if you don’t read the back of a lot of CD’s, is like the Holy Grail of mixers. He’s done everybody who’s anybody. I mean HUGE! I knew there would be little chance of getting him on the project, but Pete said, “Hey, you never know, and besides… he’s from Jersey!”

No such luck. As a matter of fact, Pete couldn’t even get him on the phone. But one thing about guys who are the real deal. They usually have excellent people working for them. The guy who took Pete’s call, Andrew Shubert, couldn’t have been nicer. He probably screens a lot of Chris’ calls, but for some reason, instead of just not wanting to be bothered like a lot of music industry assistants, he said, “I may have a couple of guys that can help you.” He said that Chris Lord-Alge had two assistant engineers who did a bit of mixing of their own.

A few days later, I met with Keith Armstrong. He was a USC music/engineering grad who was also Chris Lord-Alge’s number one assistant engineer. He didn’t come off like a big shot who worked on the music of some of the biggest stars in rock. He was just a really cool guy with a hell of a funny sense of humor. He said he had a friend who also worked with Chris. His name was Nik Karpen. He said that they’d both be interested in doing the project. That they split shifts at Mix LA where some of the biggest records were mixed. If Keith had to work with Chris, then Nik would be working with me and visa-versa. After that meeting, just feeling good about Keith, seeing the gear he was using,( a wall of incredible stuff connected to and amazing Pro Tools HD rig), I said in my head…..These are the guys!

Nik turned out to be just an amazingly gracious and extremely gifted engineer. He and Keith were a great team! And these guys were flat-out the most incredible thing to watch in the studio. They were certainly the best that I’d ever seen. Both had incredible ears and did things I just couldn’t even keep up with. I felt like a little-leaguer with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodrigues on my team. Things were coming along great. And even though Steve Hornbeak had a pretty good mix on the stuff, it now was getting that punch and wall of sound I was missing. After the first batch of songs, we all got real comfortable working with each other and Keith and Nik suggested with a few of the next songs, that maybe a couple more parts wouldn’t hurt. Keith took the ball and had a guitar player buddy of his come in to work with me. His name was Dave Hemann.

Just another hell-of-a-nice guy! Dave was an LA based studio player and guitar teacher. In just half an afternoon Keith, Dave and I put a bunch of new guitar parts on several songs. They added punch. They added power. They added the missing pieces. We also added some background vocals parts I sang, and last but not least, Andrew Shubert joined me, Nik and Keith and we added the “FREAK” to the song Freak. ( To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to even keep the part and now I can’t imagine the track without it.)

The last element to be added to the project were a few keyboard ideas Pete and I had. Pete was knocked out by a band called Muse and wondered if we could get something to that effect on the track “Hurts Me Loving You”. I also wanted a dance remix of the song “Maybe It’s You”. I had written the commercial pop song based on a keyboard riff I thought sounded like something from the 80′s.

Keith said he knew a great creative keyboard player who would love to do it. His name was Koichi Sanchez. We sent over the file of the track to see if he’d be interested and I think he might have finished the project that night. He also worked on that Muse thing for “Hurts Me”. It sounded amazing to me. Just what it needed.

The Final Piece

Everything had been recorded and mixed and tweaked and tweaked, and tweaked again. Nik and Keith were amazing dealing with “the artist”. We’re never happy. We always find fault. Not this time though. I loved everything. Then Keith threw in the final wrench and said, “Man, wait till you hear this mastered!” Lucky for us, Keith worked a whole bunch of times with another gifted engineer. His name was Joe Bozzi and he worked with the great Bernie Grundman of Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood. One more guy who couldn’t have been nicer. With an extremely busy schedule, he still took the time, showed a lot of interest, and did a beautiful job mastering the CD. What a class guy too. He actually thanked me for letting him be part of my project and my music.

Just want to take this moment to say how lucky I feel, getting to work with these extremely gifted and professional people in the Los Angeles music industry. They will never know how they brought back the excitement of creating music to a guy who’s been “at it” for a long, long time. Thank you Keith and Nik. Thanks Dave and Koichi. Thank you Joe Bozzi. And thanks to Andrew Shubert. A guy who answered a phone and didn’t just hang up. Couldn’t have done it without you.