Michael Landau Interview
Michael Landau is easily one of the most widely respected guitarists in the world.
An intense player with a fiery blues-meets-jazz style, his highly charged playing and mastery of killer guitar tones has made him a legend in the guitar community for years. As a first-call session musician and sideman, Landau has appeared on thousands of recordings, and shared the stage with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Seal, and countless others. That alone would make for a fine career, but Landau is also a solo artist with several critically acclaimed albums under his belt including The Michael Landau Group – Live (2006), The Star Spangled Banner (2001), and the instrumental guitar classic Tales From the Bulge (1990).
Landau has also led several great bands over the years including Burning Water and the Raging Honkies, and has joined forces with other west coast jazz luminaries in bands such as Karizma and Jazz Ministry. Landau is a stunning, highly dynamic live performer who can often be heard at the legendary North Hollywood jazz club The Baked Potato. In fact, Landau recently took part in the club’s two-day 40th anniversary jazz festival, performing with both his solo band, and with Jazz Ministry. He also sat in with Larry Carlton for a surprise jam that was a real treat for everyone in attendance. As someone who was there, I can tell you first-hand that Landau was fantastic both days, and came away as the de facto MVP of the festival.
For his latest venture, Landau teamed up with guitarist Robben Ford, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Gary Novak for a blues/rock band project entitled Renegade Creation. Their album was released in April through Blues Bureau International, and features great playing and exceptional guitar tones from both Landau and Ford. I asked Landau recently about the Renegade Creation album, how he got some of those amazing tones, and what he has in store for the future.
Abstract Logix: How did the Renegade Creation album come about?
Michael Landau: Robben and I have been wanting to do a Rock ‘n’ Roll band project for a long time. Originally we wanted to find a lead singer for the band, we considered a few singers but then ended up singing the songs ourselves. Jimmy Haslip produced the record and worked out the deal with Mike Varney at Blues Bureau Records.
AL: You’ve played live with Robben many times, but have you ever recorded together before this album?
ML: Only very briefly a long time ago. He was doing demos for his first record, it was just one day of recording, I don’t think anything can out from that session.
AL: Some readers may not know that you played in Robben’s band for a tour way back in the late 70s when you were still in your teens. How did you get that gig?
ML: To be honest I can’t remember! It must have been through Russell Ferrante or Jimmy Haslip, that was the band at the time. Good question, sorry I don’t have an answer for that one!
AL: You have four songs credited to you on Renegade Creation (not counting The Darkness which was written by the whole group). Did you write those songs specifically for this band? Or were some or all of them written prior to this project.
ML: All of my songs were written for this band. We knew we wanted to make a Rock ‘n’ Roll record, they came together pretty quickly while I was on the road with James Taylor. It was fun to write them with this band in mind.
AL: Do you have a particular process you go through when writing songs? For example, do you come up with riffs or chords first, then develop melodies to go over them? And do you have a different approach when writing instrumental stuff versus a vocal tune?
ML: It’s always a little different for me. Some of the instrumentals I write come out of just playing around the house, some of the vocal tunes I write are written in my head without the guitar. I wrote Where The Wind Blows while I was vacuuming the house one morning after I found out we needed a couple more tunes for the record. I try to hear it in my head first.
AL: You and Robben fit in great together on this record, both with the solos and the rhythm parts. For the songs that you brought in, would you give Robben specific rhythm parts to play? Or would you just give him the tune and let him come up with something.
ML: Thanks. We have a very natural give and take thing between us, we don’t really suggest parts for each other. He always comes up with great stuff.
AL: I think Peace is one of the best examples of the two of you working together for the greater good of the song, so to speak. It’s Robben’s tune, but your whammy bar work adds just the right touch to the song, which probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise since Robben’s not a whammy bar kind of guy. Did he ask you to add those whammy bar inflections or was that your idea?
ML: Robben described Peace as kind of a modern day Ventures tune. I just went for a Surf style on it, I did the solo on the basic track, its very live. Robben then overdubbed a second eighth-note guitar part later on. I think it’s a great tune.
AL: On Who Do You Think You Are, you and Robben do a lot of trading off. Did you record your solos separately on that one? Or did you actually trade off live in the studio.
ML: Yes, we did it live, trading on the basic track. We then did one more pass of trading together as an alternate take, but I think we used most of the original take though.
AL: Overall, the music on this album is pretty bluesy. Even songs that you wouldn’t call blues have strong bluesy vibes. Did you guys make a conscious decision to go in that direction for this album?
ML: Yea, we knew from the beginning we wanted to keep it in the Rock-Blues vein.
AL: You get some killer tones on this record. What gear did you use for recording?
ML: I used my ’63 Fiesta Red Stratocaster and my ’68 Gold Top Les Paul for all of the record except on Where The Wind Blows where I used my ’63 Gibson SG. I recorded the whole record using a Suhr Badger 18 watt head through a Kerry Wright open back 4×12 cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65 speakers. The effect pedals were: Love Pedal COT 50, Love Pedal FUSE, Maxon SD-9 and a Boss RT-20 rotary pedal. All the reverb and delay on the guitars was done later on during the mix.
AL: What are you using for your leads on God and Rock n’ Roll? Is that the VooDoo Vibe?
ML: It’s the Boss RT-20 Rotary pedal.
AL: I have to ask about your setup on The Darkness. That tone is just gorgeous. What were you using there?
ML: That’s the ’63 Strat straight into the Badger head; no pedals on that one.
AL: As a player who seems to have mastered the art of getting great tones, what general advice would you give to other players about getting a good tone from, say, a Strat?
ML: Less is more in my opinion. I would say always use single coils even if its a bit noisy, the single coils sound the most clear and open.
AL: One thing I’ve noticed about your playing, is though it’s always had a strong bluesy side, your blues vocabulary seems to have gotten more unique and free form over the years. I often hear you mixing major, minor and dominant blues ideas within the same solo; more so than you used to. And you seem to play off the 9th and major 6th more than you did years ago; say in the Burning Water days, for example. Is there some truth to that, or am I totally off base with this?
ML: No I think you’re right on. It all comes from trying to keep things moving and interesting. There are lots of melodies out there!
AL: Speaking of the blues, another recent release you were involved with is Kirk Fletcher’s new album, My Turn which you co-produced with Gary Novak. What can you tell me about that album?
ML: My whole thing is getting the sounds people want and creating a loose environment for them to play in. I became friends with Kirk a few years ago and we’ve always talked about recording at the house. He wanted to do something different from his last records and the timing was right so I set up some mics and he threw down as only Kirk Fletcher can! He wanted to do a more musically open, not as straight ahead a record as he’s done in the past, and he also wanted to sing a little which we all encouraged him to do. We had a great time making it.
AL: Another of your recent projects was the Hazey Jane album Holy Ghost with your wife Karen. I really dig that record – it’s cool to hear your chordal ideas applied in this other alt-country-folk sort of style that you don’t normally do. Will we be hearing more from that band in the future?
ML: Yes hopefully so. We play live a bit and Karen is always working on new songs. We might also do a covers record in the near future, still in the Alt-country vein.
AL: You’re obviously well known as an in-demand studio musician and sideman. How has the studio scene changed since your early days?
ML: The technology has changed the music business in a big way, some ways for the better, some for the worse, obviously there are less session/tracking sessions these days, most pop records are done these days by people with home studios, all in house. I miss the hang of the old days.
AL: You’ve recorded and toured with countless artists over the years. Not to put you on the spot, but do you have any favorites that you’ve worked with?
ML: Sure. Working with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Robben are definitely highlights of my career for me, the creative types.
AL: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
ML: Yes, I’m finally going to finish up a studio record of my own and hopefully a DVD in the near future.
AL: Will you be doing any touring this year with your own trio, or with the Renegade Creation band?
ML: Yes, both bands – I have a great agent now, I’m playing with my group at a Jazz Festival in Brazil coming up and also some west/east coast shows with Renegade Creation and my group as well in June. Renegade Creation is also going to Japan in August. All my live show info is on mikelandau.com
AL: I have one last question that you can probably answer better than anyone – You’ve been playing at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood for years now; I saw you there with Greg Mathieson’s Jazz Ministry band in 2008 and was blown away not only by everyone’s playing, but by the whole vibe of the evening as well. What is it about the Baked Potato that makes it so special compared to other clubs?
ML: It’s not too fancy! It really has a home style feeling to it, nice people!