If you think your life is crazy busy, then you haven’t spent a day in the shoes of Sixx:A.M. vocalist James Michael. Not only does he sing, play some guitar and help create songs with fellow bandmates Nikki Sixx and DJ Ashba, but he is also a producer, engineer and songwriter working with numerous other artists. Sometimes when he wakes up in the morning he doesn’t even know which city he is in. Thank goodness for planners, otherwise he would be running around in circles.
If you are not familiar with this man of many achievements, then you are missing out on a rare talent who is actually more comfortable turning knobs in the studio than standing on a stage in front of a few thousand people who are showering him with adulation. His songs touch the human soul. Just within Sixx:A.M. alone, he has helped Nikki Sixx give birth to a soundtrack to his horrible days as a drug-addicted superstar locked away in a closet, paranoia squeezing the life out of him, slowly but surely. Darkness was consuming the songs on what would become The Heroin Diaries, but with Michael, he helped pull out the hope in Sixx’s resurrection, which in turn has given hope to many listeners. With songs such as “Life Is Beautiful”, “Tomorrow” and “Accidents Can Happen” words have become powerful affirmations to a life that in reality can indeed be beautiful.
In May, the band released This Is Gonna Hurt to coincide with the publication of Sixx’s book of photography of the same name, and again the songs intertwine themselves into the very heartbeat of life. From the breathtaking melody and words of “Skin” to the easy peacefulness of “Sure Feels Right”, the almost bitter pill of “This Is Gonna Hurt” and the enchantment of “Smile”, Sixx:A.M. is fast becoming THE rock band of the new millennium. Why? Because guitar acrobatics and pulsating melodies are not the only things that make a rock band a rock band. There has to be a method to this madness and that comes from the lyrics.
Taking some time to chat with Glide on a typically busy Monday in Nashville, Michael laughs easily and shares his insights on his music, his creativity and his plan to one day actually take some time to play golf.
Hi James, I hope it’s not too early for you?
No, are you kidding (laughs). I’m in Nashville but I’m an early riser anyway. I’ve already been up working for six hours.
Oh wow, you ARE a workaholic. I didn’t realize that you have so much going on. Not only are you a great songwriter but you’re a producer, you’re an engineer, you play guitar and drums and you sing. Is there anything you DON’T do?
(laughs) I’m tired. I’ve been a real kind of one-stop shop as far as recording goes for quite a while and I just did that out of necessity back in the days when I was just starting to become a professional songwriter. You know, once you write a song you have to find someway to demo it. And I’d been a guitar player and a piano player and a drummer for a while but that’s when I really started kind of pushing myself to be able to do all that stuff myself so I wasn’t having to wait around and rely on other people to get things written and recorded. So that’s really where it started.
But then I found a passion for just all of the different facets of the music business. I love writing songs, and Nikki and I do a lot of writing together, but I also love engineering. I can easily spend eighteen hours in a studio just staring at knobs and pushing buttons and twisting things, you know (laughs). It’s just something that’s always excited me so it’s a real natural fit and works well in the Sixx:A.M. world because Nikki and DJ hate that kind of stuff, you know. So they’ve always loved the fact that I’ll be the guy in the cave, twisting the knobs and stuff. I mean, everyone brings something different to the table but I kind of have done that for many years just out of necessity.
You know being a producer and an engineer and having to get everything right, that almost seems like it would be a lot more stressful than singing and performing in front of thousands of people. But that doesn’t seem like the case with you.
That’s actually a great question and everything for me is stressful (laughs). Just in the sense, I’m a real perfectionist and I think that both Nikki and DJ would verify that. I just like to get things right and I’m obsessed about getting things right. So that’s a natural thing in the studio. You can spend as much time as you want in the studio trying to perfect something. But being out on stage means you get one shot. When we were all out on Cruefest, I was so frustrated at first just because, you know, if my voice would crack or if something wouldn’t be exactly the way I wanted it, I would just get so down on myself. And both Nikki and DJ kind of pulled me aside and said, “Look, man, you’ve got to leave your producer hat in the studio. Just get out there and have fun.” It was a real eye-opener for me as far as the vast difference between being in the studio where you can control the outcome of everything to being live where you can almost NOT control anything.
Reminds me of something that Bobby Schneck, who is in Slash’s band, told me, in that they’ll be beating themselves up over this and that, but then someone says, “that’s the best show I’ve ever seen you guys do”.
Right and it’s true. You keep on learning those types of lessons. And the audience wants to see you enjoying yourself and they want you to put on a great show, of course. But they’re not sitting there going, “Oh man, he was flat on that second note of the chorus”. That’s not why they’re there. So that’s not why you should be there either. And I think that that was something that was an adjustment for me. But I love it now. I love the two different worlds because they are so vastly different. I can spend eight months just locked away in a studio making records but then the great thing about having Sixx:A.M. is that I also get to get out and experience that side of it. Just see what’s happening with the music that I created in the studio. Go out and see how it is reacting with audiences. I’m a real lucky guy to be able to do both.
So tell me what is going on in your world right now.
Right now in my world, I have a couple of different projects that I’m pretty much right in the center of. I’ve got a band from St Louis [BROOKROYAL] that I just finished up producing six songs for. I literally just finished the mixes on that yesterday. Then I was out in LA writing with James Durbin, who was one of the American Idol guys. I think he was one of the rock kids, amazing singer. So I’ve been writing with him and we’re kind of looking at the possibility of making a record together. I was also writing with Brent Smith from Shinedown. So I’ve been doing a lot of writing stuff, but the thing I’m most excited about right now, I have this young female artist and her name is Shahnaz and she is the most incredible singer I’ve ever heard and we’re making a record right now. I’m producing her and writing her record with her. I’ve described it like Lady Gaga meets Marilyn Manson (laughs) but it’s incredibly hooky songs, real, real soulful pop stuff with some aggressive rock. I’m real excited about that record. I just always have a lot of things going on and with each of the projects that I have going on I try to make one like a production gig, one a mixing gig, one a writing gig, so that it just always stays fresh for me. I just love that. I wake up everyday and I get excited, it’s like going to Disneyland everyday cause its going to be something different.
Do you ever get confused? Like wake up and wonder what you’re supposed to do today or where you’re supposed to be?
(laughs) Absolutely. Yeah, you do end up having to live by your calendar because, well, the hard thing about it, no matter what it is, no matter what facet of the business I’m working on, whether it’s mixing or producing or whatever, you do take that home with you so to speak. It’s hard to shut your mind off from that. And so when your mind is just always going, yeah, sometimes when I wake up in the morning I literally have to look at my calendar and go, “Wait, am I producing today, am I writing, am I singing, am I engineering, what am I doing?” So, yeah, it gets a little nutty but that’s also what makes it exciting.
When you’re writing with different people, how difficult is that? I mean, they all have different types of music.
You mean from artist to artist to artist to artist (laughs)? Here’s the thing about that, and I think that a lot of people would be surprised to know, that it’s not that different from genre to genre. I mean, we’re all writing pop songs basically, and I use that expression as in songs that we hope are popular; songs that we hope will connect with the largest group of people. So whether we’re writing Motley Crue songs or Sixx:A.M. songs or whether I’m writing a country song or writing with a pop artist, we’re trying to say things that the masses will understand and relate to and want to embrace and connect with. So it’s not as different as you would think. It just depends on if you’re writing with a really heavy electric guitar or you’re writing with a piano. That can change but the agenda is still the same.
The agenda is just to connect with people with what you’re writing. Now, personality-wise is where every writing experience can be different. I’ve written with artists that bring a lot to the table, where they’re just flowing with ideas and they know exactly who they are as an artist. That’s always fun because then you’re just there bouncing ideas off of each other. I’ve also worked with artists that really aren’t clear on who they are and what direction they want to head. And that can be a little bit more difficult. Really, the personal side of it is what draws the distinction from one writing session to another.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I think I do. It was a song called “My Grandfather”. I think I was maybe fifteen years old and it was about the death of my Grandpa and it was the first time I actually sat down at a piano and written a song. A couple of years later I got the opportunity to sing it in front of my school. I was in this vocal group and they let me sing this song and it was at a concert we were putting on. And the reaction was really incredible and I think it was at that moment, just sitting there and I really had no idea what I was getting into and didn’t know if it was good or not, and I think I remember getting a standing ovation. Or at least that’s how I’ve rewritten it in my mind (laughs). But what I do know is that it connected with people and it was the first time I had ever experienced the power of connecting with people and bringing them into your heart and being able to then take them on a journey. It was an incredibly powerful thing for me. I think that that’s when I got my first taste and made the decision that that was what I wanted to do.
How different was it creating this body of songs for This Is Gonna Hurt compared with those on the first Sixx:A.M. album The Heroin Diaries? I read that with the first one you wanted to give hope within all these darker songs but with the new one it seems to be more positive from the get-go. But you’re looking at almost two different stories.
Right, you know what, here’s the thing. This record was much harder to make. It was much harder to write. I think there are many reasons for that. The first one is that we never really intended on making a second record. Sixx:A.M. was not supposed to be a band that was going to do that record cycle and that tour cycle stuff, so The Heroin Diaries soundtrack started off as just a one-time experiment. We had no idea that it was going to have the success that it did or that we’d end up with hit songs on it. And of course we were pleasantly surprised by that.
But once we finished that cycle and we got off the road and we all kind of started talking, it was just very clear that now that there had been some success with that record we were going to have to look into doing another record. We all kind of stared at each other and scratched our heads and go, “What do we write about? What is this actually going to be about? And what is our purpose for making another record?” We didn’t want it to be just business, we wanted it to be inspired. So there was a period of time there where we all kind of hibernated and didn’t really want to address it, didn’t really want to have to figure out what that was going to be.
And then I remember I was out at Funny Farm, which is Nikki’s photography studio, and we were just kind of sitting around, hanging out, we’re looking at some of his photography, and he already was on this very, very clear path to making amazing photographs; I mean, just stunning imagery. We were just sitting out there surrounded by all of these photos, some of them just taped to the wall, some of them in frames and some of them laying on the floor, and I think it just kind of consumed us and I was trying to convince him that he should definitely be showing these in galleries because he is a truly, truly gifted photographer. So I think at that point we started talking about it very similar to the way he and I sat with his diaries on the first record. “You know what would be cool is if we made a soundtrack to this”. And it was kind of that same thing but this time we were talking about imagery that already existed because he had started taking these really incredible photographs.
My reaction to those photographs was there are so many stories here; they’re not only the stories of the people, the subject matter, but just the stories that these photographs tell. So we both just kind of started tossing out, well, what if we kind of let one story inspire the other and let the other inspire, and that was the starting point. Once we kind of determined that was going to be something that motivated us, the challenge was then of course finding a way to make the subject matter of our songs relate to the subject matter of the photographs and vice-versa. So it was a long process. And it was a difficult process. We didn’t just want to make a record exclusively about these images. We wanted to make a record that was inspired by that but also inspired by just human nature.
I think I’ve said this before, I think that whereas The Heroin Diaries soundtrack was a record about Nikki and about us and the things we were experiencing in our lives, this record, I think we turned that around and we really done a lot of observing and this record is really about everyone’s story. To me, this record is everyone’s Heroin Diaries soundtrack. Because I think that every person can attach themselves to something in this new record. Whereas on the first one, people just knew, they were able to embrace, able to find something in the song that related to them, but they also clearly knew it was inspired by Nikki’s story. So this time around it was a much bigger task to take on. I’m really grateful we pushed because there is several times where it just didn’t feel like it was going to happen.
My personal favorite song on it is “Skin”. It is so beautiful and it literally gives me chills when I listen to it. But Nikki didn’t help write that one, correct? That’s primarily your song.
Yeah, that was interesting, that was me and my friend Blair Daly, who we’ve done a lot of writing together. It was the very last night of my recording of This Is Gonna Hurt and for months and months and months, Nikki and I had been going back and forth on lyrics and messages and stories and just really worked hard together crafting these lyrics and these messages. And at the same time he was putting together this documentary about the subject matters of his photography. It was really, all of this kind of cumulatively started to take on this real strong message of trying not to judge other people and looking deeper than at a person’s skin. So I was sitting here, I wasn’t even planning on writing another song for the record. I thought I was done. But I just sat down at the piano and I was so overwhelmed by all of the subject matter that we had been dealing with for the last eight months that that song just came out. I mean, we wrote that song in probably, maybe, thirty minutes. And it just came out.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with it but I just wrote it and sang it right there on the spot. And I just said, you know what, I’m going to send this to Nikki because I just want him to hear how this process inspired me. With no expectations it was going to be on the record or anything, he just immediately called me and said, “Wow, that song sums up this entire record.” So that’s how it ended up on the record and I’m really proud of that. I love that song. It’s probably one of my favorite moments in my career, was sitting there writing that song.
I really do love that song. I can’t even find the words to tell you what the lyrics mean to me.
Thank you, that means a lot. It’s been really amazing to see how people have reacted to that song especially. I’m so grateful that I was lucky enough to pull that one out of the air.
You did a solo album called Inhale several years ago. Any chance you’re going to do another one?
(laughs) You know what, I have been talking about that. I’ve been doing some writing and recording for it. So we’ll see. I don’t know what form it’s going to take on. Certainly my experience with Sixx:A.M. has been incredible and I love the band and I love the project. With all of these other kind of productions and things that I’m working on, the real thing is finding the time to do it. But little by little, I’m piecing a record together. Who knows, maybe it’ll end up being part of the next Sixx:A.M. record or maybe it’ll be a solo record. I don’t know, I got a lot of creating left to do.
But it’s so funny, I got to tell you about one of my reviews I got on that solo record several years ago. First off, the reviewer hated me and he hated my record but he said something that was so brilliant. He said, “his voice sounds like an annoying cross between Adam Duritz and Weird Al Yankovic (laughs)”, And I thought, wow, I’ve made it (laughs)
Last Question: So since you never seem to have any time to do anything, what does James like to do when you are not absorbed in music?
(laughs) You know what, that’s actually a great question because it has been a problem for me and I have made it my absolute goal this year to actually have an answer when somebody asks me that. So here’s my answer (laughs): I love golfing, I love motorcycle riding, I love eating, I love going out to dinner with friends and stuff and it’s just something I haven’t had time to do in the last several years. So this year, all of that is changing. So ask me again in six months and I’ll be like, I will have plenty of experience enjoying myself.
Any slim chance that Sixx:A.M. will do a little jaunt in the fall maybe?
You know what, there’s been a lot of questions about that and the fans are really, really pushing it. I think all three of us would absolutely love to do it. And I think that all three of us are definitely never saying never. It’s a matter, of course, with Nikki’s incredibly busy schedule with the radio show and the tours and all that stuff. And DJ has Guns N Roses. And me, I’m in my studio all the time. It’s hard to carve that out but I also think that just the reaction that we’ve been getting from this record so far and just the real sincere message from our fans that they DO want us out there touring, you can’t ignore that. And so it’s just a matter of us finding out how we can make that happen and then how we can bring this record to an audience live. We’ll see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I think we’re all keeping our fingers crossed.