Sunday, December 31, 2000

Assembling the Machine Head Dream Team

I spent nearly two jet set years operating as the Executive Producer and Creative Director of Machine Head, New York – and was charged with leading bicoastal operations for the legendary sound designer, Stephen Dewey.

I spent a week of nearly every month in LA, which I loved, enjoying creative work, tacos, daiquiris and KCRW with both Stephen and Patty Chow, both of whom I really liked. The trips out west also provided me some some surreal professional moments whereby I found myself taking meetings with The Dust Brothers and Anton Fier of The Golden Palominos; or producing the likes of Ralph Schuckett.–who co-produced Sophie B. Hawkins hit ‘Damn I wish I Was Your Lover’ with Rick Chertoff; and David Baerwald, an original member of the Tuesday Night Music Club. But here’s the deal with producing guys like that: They don’t need another expert in their lives; what they require is another expert ear to bounce ideas off of. If there's anything I know, it's how music should work with picture.

Machine Head hired me to extend the west coast presence to New York, but once he did so I wanted to kick down the doors, storm the Big Apple, and show him we could be also be kings.

Back in New York, I assembled a crack team of young composers, each possessing an amazing core competency in a different arena from the others, a formula that lent itself to collaboration; and none of them yet possessed a wide reputation in the industry.

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Deniz Hughes
had worked as an arranger for the feature film composer, Elliot Goldenthal. Her own music was playful, passionate and always wonderfully emotive. The first project we worked on together went straight to the Super Bowl and proved to be the highlight of the year.

Michael Sweet, a graduate of Berklee’s film composition department, started his career as an engineer for Jonathan Elias before emerging as the company’s technology guru. He left Elias at roughly the same time I did, in 1996, in order to become a free agent and did business composing music for electronic games as ‘Building Hal’.

Valerie Wilson Morris and Chris Botti recommended Georg Brandl Egloff to me, some years before, when I mentioned that I was looking for a lyricist. I’ve long forgotten what happened to the lyric project, but Georg’s music was super-contagious. Few swing like Egloff: Stick him in a room with a jazz trio and wait for the roof to blow off. I still owe Clinton Recording Studios damages to the ceiling in studio A.

My go-to rock guys were Eric Schermerhorn and Hal Cragin, whom I hired as a team on several spots. Representing two thirds of Iggy Pop’s former rhythm section, there was nothing the three of us couldn’t work out, lugging equipment, tape, guitars and chord charts all over New York and from disparate home grown analog studios in the East Village and Chelsea.

I hired other people along the way, too, for specific projects –notably Shari Feder, who always delivered world class goods, on time, on budget, and her work always sounded ready for broadcast. She came recommended by Mike Davis, who is perhaps most know for playing bone with The Rolling Stones. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mike and Shari are husband and wife. Whatever, the nepotism worked out great, so keep it coming. You got any kids, Mike? Do they play an instrument yet? Cause I got a project that needs a kid…

Rounding out the East Coast contingent was Bill Chesley, an artisan and a meticulous sound designer who was the only one of the bunch who had already carved out a reputation and had a fan base.

We made a big initial impression on several major advertising agencies, and thereafter it seemed like The Gods on Madison Avenue constantly fed us projects. For the first time in my career it seemed like I consistently had my finger exactly placed on the pulse of popular taste.

I usually pitched musical ideas by myself based on an initial review of sketches or storyboards. If I could get our clients invested in an idea, then I knew we’d have an easier time of it, if only because then everyone would be on the same page.

Then, during development I’d work with each individual composer on their presentation –as a record producer works with an artist– until I was no less than greatly enthusiastic about his or her work. Sell it to me and I'll sell it to America. Some clients thought I was being disingenuous when they asked me, which was my favorite demo, and I’d reply that I liked ‘All of them’.

But it was true: I never let myself walk into a meeting without a pocket full of hit tracks. I really believed that if I loved the work I was presenting, all of America would have to love it, too. Fortunately for me, this belief was confirmed by our frequent success.

Yes, I suffered a few miserable failures, too. One client asked for a ‘modern’, ‘edgy’ track making it perfectly clear that the agency would not accept an orchestral score. In my gut I knew the boards demanded a symphonic tonality. Nevertheless I gave him what he thought he wanted. He took the job to another house who of course delivered the orchestral track that I knew we should have given him in the first place. I still beat myself up over that one, but you live and learn: Give them what they want, but also give them what they need, and while you’re at it –and if you have the time– why not have some fun and give them what you want, too.

For a brief while in 1997 though 1998 my hand picked crew shone with the brightest of the bright, and they made me proud to be a member of their team.

It was –I think you can tell– a lot of fun while it lasted.

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(Hey, was that possibly the first musical cue for a blog?)

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