As a talented teenage guitar player Michael Landau found himself playing the LA club scene and touring with guitarist friend Robben Ford and vibrant young bassist Jimmy Haslip. Little did they all know then, that in 2011 the same three guys, with the addition of drummer Gary Novak, would be touring the world together as Renegade Creation, but this time under the label of musician’s supergroup. For Landau, the four decades in between has been filled with prestigious gigs with artists such as Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, BB King, Ray Charles and James Taylor to mention just a few. In 1993, he won Guitar Player magazine’s readers poll as Best Studio Guitarist in the world. Make no mistake, Michael Landau is a guitar player of great significance. Australian guitarist and long-time Landau fan SIMON PATTERSON had the rare opportunity to catch up with Mike Landau prior to the October Australian tour by Renegade Creation.
Simon: What were the halcyon days of the of the 80s session scene in LA like? Did you find yourself working on one session whilst cartage were delivering your rack to the next session booked?
Michael: It was crazy back then, a lot of running around to different studios, different artists. It was a good time for me to really learn the recording process and develop sounds and recording techniques. Bob Bradshaw and I were always working on things, finding new ways to interface with all the different line level rack processors that were coming out so that the guitar sound stayed as natural as possible.
What prepared you for session work in the late 70s? Did you have formal training such as the study of jazz, or was it a case of playing in numerous situations and developing on the bandstand so to speak? I believe you had a lesson with Jazz great Joe Pass too?
I was fortunate enough to grow up with Steve Porcaro in High School. We would rehearse at his house after school. Jeff, Mike and Joe Porcaro were always around, I learned a lot from all of them, it was a schooling in itself. I did take one Improvisation and sight reading course in a small music school in Los Angeles, and yes, I took one private lesson from Joe Pass when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was too young for that though, not really able to take in all that Joe was teaching me at the time. I wish I could sit down with him for a minute now, he was a master.
Being born and raised in LA, did the prominence of the West Coast sound and guys such as Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Jay Graydon have an influence on you? I know Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are evident as influences in some of the recordings by your earlier band Burning Water.
I guess Lukather and I were some of the next generation of studio players. We were different from Larry, Lee and Jay style wise and sound wise. We were coming from more of a rock ‘n’ roll background. I grew up listening to Cream, Hendrix, The Beatles and Zeppelin, and I always pictured myself being in a band. I fell into studio work after Lukather, joined Toto and things snowballed from there. A few years later I started getting calls from some of my musical heroes … it was a good time.
Your first solo CD “Tales from the Bulge”, is widely regarded as a seminal guitar recording. Would you care to talk about some of the gear, musicians and concepts that went with that CD?
That was my first record that came out in ‘89. I had all these instrumental tunes that I had been working on and I needed to play all the things that I could not play on other artists records. My compositions have always been important to me and I wanted to make a guitar album that was musical with a lot of different sounds, moods and textures. The gear I used was a little bit of everything, I used all the gear I had at the time which was a lot, some of it rack mount gear … Eventide and Lexicon, and some of it pedals. I mainly used 60s Marshall amps and Fender Blackface amps. I was fortunate to have all my pals at the time play on the record, we even were able to get Wayne Shorter to come by and play on a song called Judy. I had met Wayne while working with Joni Mitchell, that was quite an honour.
I believe you have another solo CD along the lines of “Tales from the Bulge”in the works? How’s that coming along?
Its coming out good and I’m almost finished with it. The record will be all instrumentals, it should be out by the end of this year.
What inspired the formation of the group Renegade Creation? It really befits the moniker of a super group with yourself, Robben Ford, Jimmy Haslip and Gary Novak. Could you talk a bit about your equally amazing band members?
I have always been a huge fan of Robben. To me, he truly has his own voice on the guitar. We had been talking about doing something together for several years and I’m so glad its finally happening. Jimmy Haslip got us all together, we recorded at my place and did all the tracks in a few days, not too many overdubs on that one. We’ll be recording some new material in August along with several live dates including Australia in October. I’m looking forward to going back to Australia and its a huge honour to be able to say I’m in a band with those guys.
You and Robben Ford have such distinct playing and writing styles, yet the blend works wonderfully on the CD (and live footage viewed on Youtube). Has this blend been a natural occurance or something you’ve both had to discuss?
We have always had an unspoken thing musically, it’s about listening to what everyone else is playing and adding to what’s going on around you. I have always been mainly a Strat guy, so there’s a big sonic difference between us already. With two guitars, it’s all about playing different parts that fit well together. He’s very inspiring to play with. It comes naturally to compliment what he’s doing.
What guitars and pedals did you use on the Renegade Creation CD?
I used my ‘63 Fiesta Red Stratocaster and my ‘68 Gold Top Les Paul for all of the record except on “Where The Wind Blows” and “Who Do You Think You Are” where I used my ‘63 SG. I recorded the whole record using a Suhr “Badger” 18 watt head through a Kerry Wright open back 4×12 cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65 speakers. The pedals were a Love Pedal COT 50, Love Pedal “FUSE”, Maxon SD-9 and a Boss RT-20 rotary pedal. All the reverb and delay on the guitars was done later on during the mix.
Any fave guitars, pickups or other bits at the moment?
I recently got my first Jazzmaster. I think its a 1975, it has a real woody tone to it and I’m loving it, I’m not sure why it took me so long to get one. I try new pedals every now and then but I always go back to the Cot 50, SD9 and Voodoo-1 for distortion pedals. There is a new pedal company called Strymon. They have a delay pedal called the “El Capistan”… good stuff!
What are the qualities that you look for that constitute a great guitar sound? Is live very different for you as opposed to the studio?
No, I always go for a big fat tone, the difference usually only being how wet or dry the sound is … the song usually dictates that part of it.
So it was the Suhr Badger 18 Amplifier with a Kerry Wright 4×12 speaker cab for the recording. You’ve been sighted using the Fender series III Hotrod Devilles on stage. Would you care to discuss your evolving “take” on amplifiers … have you come full circle back to an amp and pedals after all the rack orientated gear of the 80s and early 90s?
I went back to just using pedals and amps in ‘91 with the band Burning Water. The Hot Rod Deville’s work well for me live, we’re not always able to bring all of our favourite gear with us. With the Devilles I use the clean channel only, I set it to where it starts to get a little crunchy and do the rest with the Cot 50 or SD9. I’m also constantly adjusting the volume on the guitar.
I read that you were about to take delivery (about a year ago) of a new Dumble amp. Has that been a fixture in the overall mix of gear you use?
Yes, I have a Dumble 100 watt Overdrive Special and a 50 watt Dumble Slide Winder. The Slide Winder is a 4 input Fender style amp. I also have a few Blackface Fender amps that he’s done his Ultra Phonix mod to. I’ve been using the Overdrive Special for almost all the recordings I’ve done recently. The notes have a big full sound, lots of sensitivity… its a great amp.
Another feature of your musical personality has been your engineering and mixing in the studio. You tracked the Renegade Creation CD (and it’s wonderful). What approach did you take … 2 inch tape, API/Neve desk, juicy vintage Neumann microphones?
For the Renegade Creation record we recorded to Pro Tools at 96K. I’ve always used Pro Tools like a tape recorder though, recording and mixing through my API console. We used API and Neve 1066, 1272 mic preamps and I always mix down to an ATR 1/2 inch recorder. Most of the mics are pretty standard, Shure 57’s on guitar, on Robben’s we used a 57 and a Royer 121 ribbon mic. Sorry to say no vintage Neuman’s, the fanciest mics I have are a pair of Schoeps small pencil type condenser mics, I use those for drum overheads and a Sound Deluxe 47 for vocals.
Where do you see things heading for the music industry? I take it that there aren’t the sessions there once was in LA?
Things are very different now. I’m at a good place though. I’m touring a lot more with my group and the Renegade Creation band with Robben Ford which is good for my soul. I love playing live, the improvising keeps it fresh all the time from night to night. There were some good record labels in the past but for the most part record labels were fuelled by greed and run by morons. I’m glad to see that cheesy side of the business dying out. On to the future…
If you were a young up and coming guitar player, what would you advise as important things to take into consideration, both musically and professionally?
My humble advice would be to focus on your own music, do what you love, and don’t let anyone tell you how or what to play, it’s as simple as that. All the great artists broke the rules and did their own thing. Do what inspires you and things will take course accordingly.
Are there plans for a follow up Renegade Creation CD?
Yes, we’re going in with Ed Cherney in a few weeks to record in a studio in Los Angeles, not sure where yet, I think we might have these songs available for download only. There is also talk of a DVD with Renegade and I plan do shoot a DVD with my group by the end of this year with Gary Novak and Andy Hess.