From writing and producing platinum selling albums to touring the world with some of music’s biggest names, Michael Bradford has done it all throughout his career. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael about his storied career.
Read on as we discuss his musical inspirations, recording process and more.
Audio-Technica: When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to music?
Michael Bradford: I have wanted to be a musician since before I got my first guitar, at age 6. Watching all those great bands on TV was really magical. Before I had a guitar, I pretended with a broom like all normal American kids did.
A-T: I think a lot of musicians spent their childhoods the same way! You started playing guitar at a young age, what drew you to the instrument?
Michael: The coolest things out there were guitar-based bands, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and of course, Jimi Hendrix. They looked cool, they acted cool, and they seemed like they were from another planet. I wanted to go to that planet.
A-T: How did growing up in Detroit at the height of the Motown craze inspire you?
Michael: Detroit was a cool town back then. There were lots of great local bands. The clubs were full of live music, with audiences as musically savvy as the entertainers.
Motown was awesome. The artists could sing, dance, they dressed sharp and the songs were unbeatable. We had our own Beatles. But having all that happen in my hometown made me feel like I could do it too. Every bass player wanted to play like James Jamerson. Even Sir Paul McCartney!
A-T: You’ve worked with a wide range of artists including Ringo Star, Stevie Nicks, Madonna and Kid Rock. How do you adapt to a variety of musical genres?
Michael: It’s all in my upbringing. Musically, it was great growing up in Detroit in the Sixties. The best thing was the concept of Free-Form Radio. Back then, the radio stations had DJs who picked their own songs. The variety was amazing. You could listen to one station all day and hear Miles Davis, the MC5, Yes, Hendrix, Rare Earth, The James Gang, Funkadelic…I think you see my point.
Having all that variety made me think of it as all just “music”, instead of rock, jazz, R&B or some other style. Today, all forms of entertainment are so formatted and divided. I think that people getting started today have to work harder to discover a wide variety of music, because of the narrowness of formatting. If you only want to listen to red-headed, left handed metal guitarists, there’s probably a channel out there with that.
A-T: How do you juggle being a touring musician, producer, writer, and solo artist?
Michael: It’s fun for me because I like it all so much. It helps me stay creative when I can move between situations. Being on tour makes it possible to meet people and rock out. I’m a performer at heart. Producing is something I enjoy, because it gives me the chance to help artists find their true voice. Writing is what I always wanted to do. When I was a kid, I could hear music in my head, and I spent my early life learning how to play and engineer and produce, just so I could make good demos and get my songs cut. Some songs are good for other people, but other songs are so personal, only the writer makes sense singing them. That’s when I started thinking about doing my own music.
A-T: As a producer you’re known for taking an old school approach in the recording studio. Tell us a little bit about your process and the reason behind it.
Michael: I just go into a situation, try to get into the artist’s world and take it from there.
I do prioritize the songs, though. I sit with the artist and work through the lyrics and the song form. Before recording, I want to rehearse if there’s a band, or work it out one-on-one if it’s a solo artist. I want to be sure everything is working well before we start recording.
Record companies don’t really do A&R the way they used to. But I remember back when they did. So I apply what I learned in the good old days regarding matching songs with artists, working through the material and getting things happening. I just want to help the artist get their message out.
Technically speaking, I like cutting to tape whenever possible. I like using real instruments instead of samples or virtual stuff. I love the sound of great amps and analog synths. I mix as I record, shaping the sound while the song is fresh. And I’m never afraid to deliver constructive criticism. I want to troubleshoot the project before it gets out into the cold, cruel world.
A-T: What’s your must-have gear for touring?
Michael: When I’m playing the bass, I always use Gibson basses. My favorite is the 335 Bass. Probably the best one I’ve ever had. I also use the Thunderbird 5-String Bass. Amp-wise, I insist on the Ampeg SVT-VR and the AV-810 cabinet. With that bass and amp combo, I can cause an earthquake.
I also use a pedalboard with a classic ADA Flanger, a Foxx Tone Machine, an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, a MXR Envelope Pedal and my A-T System 10 Stompbox Wireless System.
A-T: You’re currently touring the world with Richie Sambora, how does the System 10 Stompbox help you on stage?
Michael: Having it on the Pedalboard means that I never have to deal with distance issues. I played with this system at the Hollywood Bowl, and never once had a problem. I just got back from South America, and it worked like a charm. It works in TV studios, on stages and surrounded by tons of other wireless equipment with never a dropout.
I just love stuff that works. And this system works.
A-T: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
Michael: Don’t be the problem, be the solution. And if you can’t be the solution, at least don’t be the problem. Aside from that, be on time, be dependable and do your job.
A-T: Do you have any advice for those looking to break into the music business?
Michael: First of all, I think it’s important to spend the necessary time getting good at whatever it is you want to do. It’s not enough that your friends or your parents like what you’re doing. Your competition is everyone who has already made it. That is your measuring stick. So be honest with yourself when you assess your work. Because it’s going into the hands of a world that will cut you zero slack.
In some ways, there are more opportunities than there used to be, due to the various forms of self-promotion that exist today. Many of the services that used to be only available through major labels or large promo companies can now be accessed on an a la carte basis. And with social media, YouTube and Instagram, self-publication and self-promotion are now realistic and within the reach of everyday people. Independent labels, web-based distribution and the resurgence of vinyl all add up to interesting opportunities for creative artists who are willing to do their own spadework.
However, it is a rough business. Don’t pursue it for money or fame, because you will probably either be disappointed or worse yet, get famous doing something you hate. Also, be realistic about time frames. Things don’t always happen overnight, but they do happen. The winner is usually the one who didn’t give up.
Photo courtesy of Michael Bradford