Intricate layers of vocals and percussion. Finger snapping, foot stomping and clapping. Giggles. It’s Michael Jackson recording in the studio. Close your eyes and you are there, standing in the recording booth with MJ. You won’t get any closer to the King of Pop’s recording sessions than by following Brad Sundberg’s seminar ‘In The Studio With MJ’. It’s not just a blast from the past. It’s learning studio terminology. It’s hearing how Jackson wrote his songs and recorded them. It’s listening to the personal stories of the man who was Jackson’s technical director for nearly two decades. And if you’re lucky, he might bring his friends Brad Buxer and Michael Prince – another two studio legends who worked with Jackson.
Dieter Dierks’s studio
Sundberg selects the venues for his seminars carefully. In Germany, for example, the seminar is held in the legendary recording studio of Dieter Dierks. Located in a small village near Cologne, the studio looks rather inconspicuous at first sight. Red brick buildings, a small garden, and a hidden side-door. But once inside, the corridor walls reveal an impressive number of music albums of pop and rock icons who have recorded here: the Scorpions, Sting, U2, Ike and Tina Turner, Rory Gallagher, Die Toten Hosen, and Michael Jackson.
Dieter Dierks, the owner, clearly remembers when he got a phonecall in 1996, asking if he was the man running Dierks’s studio. Michael Jackson wanted to rent it for two days. Flying in from Moscow where he was on tour, Jackson worked quietly in the studio, recording the lead vocals and drum programming for ‘Ghosts’. “I have never seen someone like him, he got everything right, right away. He was incredibly concentrated and spot-on. What would take others a week, he would do in two days”, Dierks recalls.
Keeping Jackson’s work ethic in mind, Dierks’s studio is the perfect location for the four-day seminar that Sundberg jokingly dubs his ‘Camp MJ’. It’s an extended version of his usual one-day seminar, bringing in special guests Brad Buxer – Jackson’s longtime musical director – and Michael Prince – Jackson’s longtime studio engineer. Besides being a friendly get-together, the seminar is a golden opportunity to learn about Jackson’s songwriting and recording process, the creative ideas underlying his Neverland ranch, and his interactions with people who knew him as a professional recording artist inside-out.
“As crazy as it may sound, it’s a little bit cathartic, instead of just keeping it locked up in a drawer,” Sundberg explains his reason for organizing the seminars and sharing his memories. In 2012, a few years after Jackson’s unexpected death in 2009, Sundberg was asked by a group of French fans to share his recollections of working with Jackson. Before long, Sundberg was organizing seminars around the world for all those interested in Jackson’s creative process.
His seminars don’t suffer from a lack of interest. Dieter Dierks’s studio, for example, is packed to the roof. Studio technicians, writers, and fans of all ages have come together from the far corners of Europe. For the majority, it’s the second or third time attending. For others, it’s a new experience altogether. As soon as Sunberg opens the seminar with his multimedia remix of Jackson’s greatest hits, the crowd takes off to planet MJ.
Working at Westlake
Sundberg began working with Jackson in 1985. Starting off as a ‘runner’ at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles, Sundberg made coffee, got lunch, answered phones, rolled cables, opened the door to let people in, and ran all kinds of errands for those recording. That same year, he met Jackson’s team working on the soundtrack of Disney’s latest theme park addition ‘Captain EO’ – a 4D theatre experience, including a 3D science fiction film starring Jackson and Angelica Huston, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas.
Working at Westlake meant being part of a small team of about five people, Sundberg recalls. When Jackson came in, it was no different. Although Sundberg and Jackson both struggled with shyness at the time, they eventually got along well and developed a mutual trust. “We could talk about anything in the studio”, Sundberg remembers. Their professional relationship lasted, with Sundberg becoming part of Jackson’s recording team for nearly eighteen years. As such, Sundberg participated in the recording sessions of four of Jackson’s albums: BAD, Dangerous, HIStory, and Blood On The Dance Floor.
But that was not all Sundberg did. He also helped Jackson create a soundscape for Neverland. Having purchased the property in 1988, Jackson wanted to add music to the main house, the grounds, the zoo, and the theme park that he was creating. Sundberg, being in his early twenties, was asked to help out. First, he installed speakers in Jackson’s bedroom, so that Jackson could listen to his own choice of music in the privacy of his home. As the house and theme park further developed – with Jackson enthusiastically calling Sundberg in the middle of the night just to announce: “I got a new ride!” – Sundberg also helped to build 450 hidden speakers in fake rocks, birdhouses and bushes around the ranch.
The speakers Sundberg installed, however, were not just for music. Jackson loved bird sounds, but as his Californian ranch lacked an abundance of birds, he decided to create his own version of Mother Nature by playing a custom CD with non-local Connecticut bird sounds on the Neverland speakers. Being the perfectionist that he was, at night-time the recording would switch to night bird sounds – an anecdote to which Sundberg adds with a grin: “Whenever MJ was not on the ranch, the gardeners would yell ‘Shut if off!’”
Music at the gate
Another project on the ranch included music at the iconic Neverland archway and ornate gate, which was located between the outer gate and the main house. “Brad, I want tons of music around the gates. Enough to shake a bus”, Jackson said. Sundberg suggested dance music – as this was the home of the King of Pop – but that was not what Jackson had in mind. For some time, music that was more melancholic in nature welcomed those entering Jackson’s domain.
Besides bird sounds, Jackson’s choice of music for Neverland included classical music, film themes, and Disney tunes from the 1960s. The playlist would be put on an automatic loop, so that guests could enjoy the ranch in both its visual and audiosonic splendour. Yet although Jackson’s and Sundberg’s taste in music differed at times, it made no difference to Sundberg’s dedication to ‘the boss’. “He was a nut job, but he was my nut job”, he says affectionately.
Crafting his songs
Not long after Sundberg began working at Neverland, musical director Brad Buxer joined Jackson’s creative team in 1989. Having been part of the Stevie Wonder Band as a musician, Buxer was invited to help put Jackson’s music to tape. One of the places where Buxer helped Jackson record, was at the Neverland dance studio. Buxer – in later years joined by technical engineer Michael Prince – would bring in his own equipment to set up an impromptu studio where Jackson could create his demos. “He was hands on doing it, crafting his songs”, Buxer remembers.
Jackson’s craftsmanship is one of the topics covered by Sundberg’s seminar. Jackson would start his process of creation, for example, by beatboxing a certain rhythm. Buxer would then record his beatboxing with an emulator, cut Jackson’s sounds up into little pieces, and assign each piece to a key on a keyboard. Then Buxer would learn the rhythm and play it back to Jackson. “Michael was always challenging us with percussion sounds”, Buxer says. “He wasn’t into all that fluffy stuff. He liked sounds that hurt you, that were in your face.”
Dancing in his head
Sometimes Jackson already had a melody in his head. He would sing it to Buxer, who would then add piano and other instruments to create a demo. This creative process, though, worked in a slightly different way. First, Buxer would write Jackson’s melody down in four vocal parts, with each individual note re-played to and approved of by Jackson. Then percussion and other instruments were added to create a demo.
Normally, it would take Buxer only fifteen minutes to get an idea of what Jackson had in mind. At other times, though, he would have to dig longer for chords and harmonies matching Jackson’s melody. ‘Childhood’, for instance – which Jackson called his most autobiographical song – took two hours to see the light of day. It was up to Buxer to find a way to extract the song. “When MJ was beatboxing, he was dancing in his head. He didn’t have any rules, he just let you run. He wanted to let the creative process flow”, Buxer explains.
With Sundberg, Buxer and Prince enthusiastically going through Jackson’s songs during the seminar – explaining the technical side of recording, separating the various layers of instruments and vocals, and sharing their personal memories – there is no denying that Jackson’s absence is felt. Hearing his voice without instruments emphasizes Jackson’s perfect pitch and vast musical talent. A talent, however, that is forever gone. “What happened six years ago is tragic and unexpected. I miss the little guy”, Sundberg simply says.
Michael Prince, who was to be part of Jackson’s This Is It concerts at the O2 Arena in London, also briefly shares his memories of Jackson’s final days. “He was so excited. He really wanted his children to see what their dad did. They were old enough by then. He was excited about that.” Moreover, Jackson had told Prince that he wanted to aim high: “I could easily sit back and just do my greatest hits for the rest of my life. But I wanna beat the songs that I put out in the past”, Jackson told him.
Moreover, Jackson wanted to get back on top of the game strategically. “He didn’t want to put out an album anymore, but just singles. The music industry had changed, he was going to bring out singles so no one could compare them to Thriller or any of his other albums”, according to Prince. But on June 25, 2009, all of that suddenly changed. “There were gallons of tears, I was in a state of shock. I still miss him every day”, Prince adds quietly.
What it’s all about
Still, Jackson’s absence – although in his music never more present – does not diminish Sundberg’s seminar. Instead, for many participants the seminar creates a renewed appreciation for Jackson’s music, the technical perfection achieved by his coworkers, and the palpable camaraderie that has lasted throughout the years.
There are some lasting effects as well. Jackson’s music will never sound the same after hearing it through professional studio speakers. Jackson’s songs will never be just great compositions after learning how carefully Jackson and his studio team crafted each vocal, rhythm and sound. Jackson’s talent will never be just music, after realizing how much time, dedication and vision is required to get the results Jackson aimed for.
By being ‘In The Studio With MJ’ things change. Perceptions alter. Understanding grows. And by sharing this process with those open to it, Sundberg has created a concept that goes beyond a mere know-how. Friendships are born, professional ties are strengthened, the sadness of loss is healed, and new memories are created. In this way, Jackson’s music lives on at yet another level of appreciation. Isn’t that what music should be all about?
© Annemarie Latour