As a kid, I'd spend hours listening to my favorite records and reading all those liner notes and musician credits. One name kept popping up on albums by everyone from Michael Jackson to James Taylor, Richard Marx, Steve Perry, Pink Floyd and more: Michael Landau, guitar.
Michael will appear at the along with the legendary Robben Ford in the all-star ensemble Renegade Creation, August 25th at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit laguitarfestival.com
By Al Rudis
The first time Michael Landau, Robben Ford and Jimmy Haslip got together in a band, it didn’t last long.
“We did around four or five dates on the West Coast in 1976,” Landau recalls. “It was Robben’s band.”
They took their time—34 years—before trying again, and this time it’s lasting longer. Renegade Creation, which also includes Gary Novak, recorded its first album in 2010 and has been doing shows, such as the one at the 2012 Los Angeles Guitar Festival, ever since.
If this were the 1970s, Renegade Creation would be a supergroup, along the lines of the “Super Session” musicians led by Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, Blind Faith, Humble Pie or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
But it’s a different century, and though guitar aficionados consider Landau and Ford among the greatest in the universe, the band’s four musicians don’t have any illusions. They are hoping for success but aren’t giving up the other parts of their careers that have made a good living for them.
Landau’s own trio sometimes sounded like Renegade before that group was formed. “Renegade is definitely more of a rock and roll band with vocals on 90 per cent of the music,” he said, “and my trio is half instrumental and half vocal songs. My band has more of an open improvising thing going on, almost more of a jam band. And it might be a little jazzy, with more open Bill Frisell kind of spacey stuff.”
Landau was talking on the phone from Denver, where he was involved in yet another of the varied ways he makes a living. “I tour with James Taylor,” he said. “I’m with him right now, and we’re in Denver for a Red Rocks concert. I’ve been with James off and on since 1991. He doesn’t tour that often. Every year and a half, he’ll do a six-week run or a couple months, so actually, it really works out perfect. I just love working with him. He’s a great artist in my opinion.”
Another artist Landau performs with is his wife of six years. “She goes by the name of Hazey Jane (the title of a Nick Drake song),” he said. “She plays guitar, and she’s actually a great songwriter in my opinion. It’s alternative folk with a little country twang. She has an album out called ‘Holy Ghost’ that we did at the studio in our house. We perform in LA at the Baked Potato.”
Of course, Landau is best known for none of the above. He’s the Babe Ruth of the recording studio. Babe hit 714 home runs, but Landau doesn’t know exactly how many albums he’s played on. His best guess is around 900 and counting.
“Quantity, not quality,” he said and gave a big laugh. “Some of the records I’m not proud of. It was part of the job. In the ’80s, there was a lot going on recording wise in the music industry in Los Angeles, and I was kind of right in the thick of it. So there was a good 15-year run when I was just playing on records all the time, all different kinds of stuff. And a lot of it was amazing, too. I got to play with everyone from Joni Mitchell to B.B. King.”
Landau remembers some unusual assignments, such as playing on Japanese pop recordings that called for a diminished chord in the middle of the song that sounded strange to the ears of the studio musicians. And he worked for a few memorable producers he’d rather forget.
“I’ll leave them unnamed,” he said. “A couple of them were just extremely arrogant and really cruel to the crew that was working. One guy I just kind of told him don’t call me anymore because I couldn’t be around him.
“But I could always deal with whatever music was there. It wasn’t all super fantastic, but generally the people were always nice and appreciative. I know that’s a boring answer, but there were never any really crazy situations.
“I actually missed the heyday of the big ’70s, when everyone was doing lots of drugs in the studio. I slipped in right after that, so it was a little bit boring.”
After playing with Ford early in his career, they often saw each other and in recent years began talking—“off and on maybe for 10 years”—about creating the band that became Renegade Creation. After a couple of albums, the discussions are still going on.
“We’re actually still working out this Renegade thing,” he said. “It’s starting to come together with songs that are all kind of on the same page. But the main thing we all wanted it to be is kind of a straight-up rock and roll band.
“We’re all fans of the Band and Levon Helm and that kind of stuff, and we wanted to make it honest, straight-up rhythm and blues and rock and roll, not too fancy.”
Renegade doesn’t sound anything like the Band, but that’s not Landau’s point. “We didn’t ever think of a model,” he said. “We both kind of do what we do, and it works for us.”
One thing that defines the band’s sound is the fact that the two lead guitarists don’t play on the same wavelength, so there’s tension created by how they find a way to fit together.
“It’s more of a sonic thing,” said Landau. “Robben covers more of the Gibson humbucker sound. It’s more of a blues sound, and he’s a great jazz player, too. I’ve always been more of a Stratocaster guy. It’s more rock and roll I guess, and it’s a thinner sound.”
So far, if Ford writes a song for the band, he sings it, and if Landau writes one, he sings it. “Originally, we were going to try to get a dedicated vocalist,” said Landau, “and we tried out a few guys. But it ended up that we just wanted to keep it a tight little quartet and do it ourselves in house.”
Reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, when Renegade Creation plays, it often seems that the vocals are accompanying the instrumentals rather than the other way around. “That’s a good way to look at it,” said Landau. “I don’t know if it’s planned that way. I don’t think either Robben or myself consider ourselves to be great singers. But the point for me has always been to get across a mood in a song and to have it be real.
“Oftentimes when bands hire a quote professional singer, to me it ends up sounding like a Budweiser commercial. It turns it into a generic thing.
“And for us, for better or worse, at least it’s a real attempt at conveying whatever mood we’re trying to get across in a song. I do spend time on my lyrics, and I know Robben does, too. So it’s not completely in the background, but for me, I guess it’s just all about a song and a mood.”
After 40 years of performing, Landau says he’s happy where he is. “I think I’m in a good place, because at this point, I’m still just completely addicted to playing the guitar and music. The session work definitely kind of consumed a lot of my time in the ’80s and ’90s, and there’s a lot less of that now because the music business has completely changed in the way records are made. There are not a lot of side musicians being used anymore.
“So it’s opened up, and I have a lot more time to do my own stuff and enjoy touring and traveling. I’m not trying to become a rock star here. The most important thing is playing good music live. It sounds schmaltzy, but that’s still a big thrill for me. I play guitar every day and still love it.”