From King's to Crooked:
The Michael Wagener Interview
Dr. Music talks with the legendary producer about ProTools, the music industry, and a couple of his X's
by Scott "Dr. Music" Itter
I sat on the CTA green monsters (Chicago’s less than elegant buses) day after day going to and from high school, tediously pushing rewind and fast forward on my cassette Walkman. Hard rock and metal is what usually found its way to the player, to make those days slightly more tolerable. One day it was Malice’s “In The Beginning,” and the next day it might have been Accept’s “Balls To The Wall,” but you could always bet your sweet patootie that the fillings in my teeth were rattling from the metallic sounds that were rocketing through my skull. All through those early 80’s I nurtured my love for melodic metal - Dokken, Raven, Great White, Stryper, Accept, W.A.S.P. - the list goes on and on. You could also say that I was a “student of the game,” reading every word of every liner note of every record I ever owned. One thing I saw consistently while exploring was the name Michael Wagener. His name, along with Double Trouble Productions, was branded upon so many of my favorite records. Since that time, I have continued to explore every liner note that crosses my path, and I can tell you that some things never change. I still see Michael Wagener’s name emblazoned upon a number of great records.
With hit records like Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears” and Skid Row’s self-titled debut album on his resume, Michael Wagener remains one of the most sought after producers in the world today. He has been involved with producing, recording, and/or mixing records that have sold in excess of 80 million copies, and that number continues to grow as fast as the price of gas.
Michael Wagener had become a different sort of “behind-the-scenes” hero to me while I was growing up. As teenagers, we all have musicians that we fancy and that demand our attention, but it's rare to find a producer that has the impact of that spotlighted "rock star." Michael Wagener is that producer. As a founding member of German metal band Accept, Wagener decided to leave the band early on to pursue a career on the recording side of the glass - and by doing so, he became a prominent figure in my musical life, as well as the lives of an entire generation of hard rockers. So, when I had the chance to talk to this hard rock crusader and maker of great metal, it was an enormous honor. On the morning of May 16th, 2008, from his home in Tennessee, Wagener was kind enough to talk to me on the phone before leaving for his studio. This is the conversation that followed......
Dr. Music: Hello Michael! Thanks so much for taking the time, it is truly an honor. Now tell me, what kind of producer is Michael Wagener? How involved in song structure will you get when producing a record? Will you suggest that the artist move a solo, or put in another verse, etc.?
Michael Wagener: “Absolutely. I think that’s part of producing. Arranging is part of producing. You know, you get in there, you hear the demos, and you contribute your ideas to it. Even sometimes there’s cases where I wrote the chorus and stuff like that. So yeah, I get very involved with every aspect of producing.”
Dr. Music: Do you have to “like” an artist to produce them?
Michael Wagener: “Absolutely.”
Dr. Music: Have you ever told an artist that you wouldn’t record something because you didn‘t like it?
Michael Wagener: “Absolutely. Foremost, I have to like the music. With five people in the band, sometimes there is somebody who is not quite along your wavelength, but the music is great and you still get along with them. But, the music is number one. If I like the music than I go and meet the people. If I think I can make a good record with them, than that‘s the second step. And I have to find out their way of what they want to do. If they want to do an over compressed, super loud record, than I’m probably the wrong guy. I like music. I like dynamics. I like melody. So, all that has to be part of it, otherwise I can‘t contribute to it.”
Dr. Music: What music did you listen to growing up in Germany?
Michael Wagener: “Well, everything rock pretty much. I grew up mostly with Deep Purple, Ten Years After, Hendrix, that kind of stuff."
Dr. Music: And you’ve stuck to that in your production, pretty much.
Michael Wagener: “Yeah, and I basically started the band Accept together with Udo [Dirkschneider], the singer; and that was exactly that kind of music.”
Dr. Music: Yes! Another of my favorites - “Restless & Wild.” One of my favorite moments in recording history is the beginning of “Fast As A Shark.”
Michael Wagener: “Yeah.” (laughs)
Dr. Music: How did that idea come up, with the record (in the beginning of the song)? Is that a traditional German record?
Michael Wagener: “Yeah, it’s actually a traditional song. The actual singer on that particular piece that we used is Dieter Dierks when he was a kid. Dieter produced the Scorpions and lots of other great bands. We found this tape at his studio, and then we sped it up a little bit and made it a little faster.”
Dr. Music: I just did a couple of interviews with longtime Heart guitarist Howard Leese, and he is preparing a solo album as we speak. He made it a point to mention that all of the guitar parts are played in only one pass. He has not pieced together any of them, and he was very proud of that. Now, you have worked with some really incredible players. Do you find that a lot of these great players end up doing their parts in one pass?
Michael Wagener: “Yes. The ticket is, bands like King’s X and Extreme, and also Accept, they would play everything in one go. The whole band would play at the same time. Okay, if there is a little mishap somewhere, you punch it in, no big deal; but they ‘swing’ together, and that to me makes a big difference. The more they play in one go the better it is. Unfortunately, that is becoming a lost art as I see it with the advent of DAW’s. People walk into the studio and expect you to fly in that part into all parts of the song, and to me that‘s just impossible. They could do that maybe in disco, or you can do it in electronic music. Yeah, that‘s made for that, but not in Rock.”
Dr. Music: How do you feel about the advent of ProTools and other disk-based software recording?
Michael Wagener: “Nothing wrong with it. I’m using Nuendo by Steinberg myself, just because I like the interface and I get along with it better. And, because people come to me because of me and not the gear that I’m using, I can pretty much use whatever I want. So I don’t have to adhere to what they call 'the industry standard' per say. I‘m still totally against a whole bunch of editing, and drum gridding, even auto tuning and sound replacing. I mean, music should be performed by the musician, not by a typist. We are selling emotions, there are no emotions in a grid.”
Dr. Music: Do you still record analog and if so, why?
Michael Wagener: “No. I haven’t been recording analog since the early 80’s. I’m not a big fan of analog tape. I do use a lot of analog outboard gear in the whole setup, but I got away from analog tape as soon as I could. That was, I think, in ‘81. If I remember it right, ‘Balls To The Wall’ [Accept] was digital already.”
Dr. Music: Are you producing the band Crooked X?
Michael Wagener: “Yes!”
Dr. Music: What is it like having a band that’s only 13 or 14 years old in the studio? Is it easier or more difficult?
Michael Wagener: “It’s……..both. It’s both - because they’re more open to everything, they’re not spoiled, but there’s still a little bit of experience for them to be learned in life. And, Rock and Roll is a pretty rough trade. So, in that case, it’s a little bit more involved. But I’ll tell you what, it’s a TON of fun. Those kids are so good, and they’re so determined with their music. It’s just wonderful. I think Crooked X is going to be one of the biggest bands of the 2000’s.”
Dr. Music: Are there ever any issues with parents interfering?
Michael Wagener: “No, the parents are great! The dad of the drummer sets up the drums and takes care of all that, and one of the other dads helps them with writing and arranging the stuff. They’re very much involved, in a very good way.”
Dr. Music: Are there any bands that you would refuse to work with because of a previous altercation?
Michael Wagener: “Well, I turned down the mix of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite For Destruction.’ It was because there was a lot of drugs involved at the time. Financially it was a big mistake, but, well, you know, I still kept my integrity. There’s situations where if bands are addicted to drugs then it’s just a waste of time. You know, it doesn’t make sense. If somebody smokes a little bit or drinks a beer or something like that is a whole different story than somebody being addicted to heavy drugs. I just wouldn’t do it.”
Dr. Music: What is the worst part about the music industry?
Michael Wagener: “The worst part is that it’s all about money, and not about music anymore. It’s all about sales, you know, and gimmicks. A band like The Stones, or The Beatles, or probably even Hendrix would never make it today - so would Elvis. Those bands would not exist. They would never get signed. So, that’s my problem with it; the quality of what’s being put out there.”
Dr. Music: How involved in your work do the record labels get? Are the larger major labels easier or harder to work with than the smaller independent labels?
Michael Wagener: “It depends. It totally depends on the A&R guy. In the early 80’s, mid-80’s, they got very much involved. But, at that time, you would talk to an ex-bass player, ex-guitar player, ex-drummer as an A&R guy. Later on, in the 90’s, you would be talking to an accountant, or to a lawyer running the show and those people just shouldn’t get involved in musical decisions. I’ve had a lot of time to defend the band from the label, actually. Nowadays, it’s more and more a different situation. I mean, there’s only what, three major labels left. So, the independent labels are different because they still care about the music a little bit more.
Now, on another basis, lately I do a lot of records that are self-financed. The bands have a sponsor. Because of labels not wanting to spend money on an album anymore. We had it that a record would cost about half a million dollars. But, for that half a million dollars you got one record where at least 9 of the 10 songs were really good; they were worked out; the band was cared about in terms of what they wear on stage and the rest of their image, and it was a whole buildup, it was a whole process. And that has gone away. Now the labels went, ‘Oh wow, half a million for a record. Why don‘t I make 10 bands for that, and I don‘t end up with 10 songs, I end up with 100 songs and my odds are much better.’ And that‘s wrong thinking.
Because, for the little money, the band would go into some garage, and at that point everybody basically could record, technically, but not artistically. So, there was a lot of stuff thrown on the market that wasn‘t very good, and the kids go, ‘Okay, out of 10 songs there‘s one good one, and they want $18 for that.’ Then Napster came out, and the kids went, ‘You know what? I‘m just gonna download it.’ So it‘s that way around. It‘s not like kids started downloading and the sales went down because of that. It‘s because labels put out crap, to say it that way, and the kids voted with their wallet. Look at bands like Evanescence, they put out amazing stuff and they still sell 9 million copies. I think that stuff is downloaded as well.”
Dr. Music: Do you feel there are certain styles of music that stand to benefit more than others from the 5.1 surround format? For example: Would a band like AC/DC utilize the capabilities as much as a band like Dream Theater might?
Michael Wagener: “Yes, I think it would. I think everything should be in surround. There is a few problems with it: 1) Who’s going to listen to it? You know, people listen when they’re walking, when they’re running, on their headphones….. Convenience is what counts, so downloading an MP3 is very convenient. We don’t have 5.1 headphones. If I could, I would do everything in 5.1; and, to me, the most important thing is that it’s produced and recorded that way, not just remixed from a stereo mix. A stereo mix is meant to be a stereo mix. If you take Eric Clapton out of the band picture and separate his playing from the same speaker that the bass and the drums are coming off, it sounds odd. It’s meant to come at you in one complete picture, and if you separate that out it doesn’t feel the same. But if you would record it that way and track it that way and then decide, okay, we now have a little hole on the rear right and let’s put something there to fill up the picture, then it’s a whole different story.
I did a whole record in surround. It was Titanium Black. That was produced in surround and it‘s just awesome, you know. It‘s just a medium that‘s really hard to sell. And it‘s involved, so people don‘t buy it. It‘s not convenient.”
Dr. Music: Out of all the artists that you’ve come in contact with in the studio, who came to the studio best prepared?
Michael Wagener: “Um………..(long pause)……..I don’t even know. The thing is, I am doing pre-production. I‘m still ‘old school.’ So once I get the demo I suggest my changes, and we do that in pre-production. By the time pre-production is over, the band is pretty much ready to record. There are bands who record brilliantly without being super prepared, like King‘s X. They‘re brilliant musicians, and you can do changes on the spot. They don‘t have to practice the changes, they just play them, it‘s crazy!”
Dr. Music: Is there one particular record that you have been involved with that holds a special place in your heart more than any other?
Michael Wagener: “There’s actually a few. I always refer to the first Skid Row album as the album that sticks in my memory the most. And that is because it was just such a good time, and I think you can hear that attitude and all the fun on the record. But I have to say, 99.9% of the records that I’ve done were a lot of fun. And, that whole attitude and the feeling you have while you’re doing the record is what’s going to end up on the record.”
Skid Row's debut album
Dr. Music: Now, you’ve been involved with recording some of the most notorious and controversial artists of all time, not including Guns ‘N’ Roses! That would’ve been one right on the top of the bunch there!
Michael Wagener: (laughs) “….Or Soundgarden, which I turned down, too.”
Dr. Music: Did you turn down a production or a mix?
Michael Wagener: “The whole thing.”
Dr. Music: Which album?
Michael Wagener: “The first one. The label played me the demo and even though I thought the music was good, what I heard I thought, well, no that’s not up my alley. Whomever did it, I think Michael Beinhorn ended up doing it, did a brilliant job. But after turning that down, I thought it was time to get a manager.” (laughs)
Dr. Music: Like I say, you’ve gotten some pretty notorious and controversial artists. You’ve got to have some war stories. I’m going to name an artist, and you give me your thought on them:
Dr. Music: Blackie has been known to be very difficult about everything in his career; hard to deal with but very professional. What was your view?
Michael Wagener: “I didn’t think he was very hard to deal with. He was very professional, and he had a strong idea of where he wanted to go with everything. I think that‘s great. I think he‘s a great guy.”
Dave Mustaine (Megadeth) --
Dr. Music: I know you only mixed that record [“So Far, So Good, So What”], and you might not have had too much contact, but he’s another one that’s said to be very difficult to deal with.
Michael Wagener: “Not at this end. When I was mixing it, at the time, I think there was still drugs involved. I didn’t see those guys much, except for Jeff Young, who was the guitar player in the band at that point, who pretty much hung around the studio a lot. But they came in for like, honestly, 5 -10 minutes, listened to the mix, go ‘Yeah! That’s cool! See you later!’ And that’s all I saw of them.”
Alice Cooper --
Michael Wagener: “Oh, Alice is absolutely great. He is a very hard worker. He is very involved in what he does, and he‘s just a great guy. He’s very very smart. And funny! Alice has to be funny because his stuff is so dark.”
Dr. Music: I got a chance to see him on the “Raise Your Fist And Yell” tour. Just an incredible show, what a showman.
Michael Wagener: “See?! That’s what’s missing now. The kid’s go up there, they stand in one spot singing about how their mom’s hate them, and they look at their shoes while they’re doing it. Alice……THAT’S a show, and Crooked X…..THAT’S a show; they kick butt up there.”
Motley Crue --
Michael Wagener: “Well, Motley Crue is Motley Crue. You’ve seen Motley Crue, you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the videos - that’s the band. I knew Mick Mars from before. I had done some demos with him from his previous band, Vendetta, and when I came back to America he goes, ‘Dude, you gotta mix our record.’ So, I went in their and mixed the record, and when I walked in the first thing I see is Tommy Lee laying on the floor lighting his farts on fire. So, that’s how I met Motley Crue, and it went downhill from there.” (laughs)
Ozzy Osbourne --
Michael Wagener: “Well, Ozzy is a very close idea to Alice. He’s got an amazing sense of humor. He’s very smart and does exactly what he wants to do. Now that TV show doesn’t portray him right. He’s WAY smarter than that. He’s also WAY funny! When Ozzy starts telling stories, the session is over. And man, does he have some stories; it’s just unbelievable.”
Dr. Music: Now what about Sharon [Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife and manager]? We see Sharon very involved, very commanding. Have you had any altercation of any kind with Sharon?
Michael Wagener: “No, absolutely not. I only had great meetings with her. I have absolutely no problem with Sharon. I got paid on time. Everything was always correct and very professional.”
Wendy O. Williams (The Plasmatics) --
Michael Wagener: “Wendy was just amazing because she would sing in the control room, standing right next to me at the console. When she was singing, I could not hear the music anymore because her voice was so loud that the speakers were gone.”
Dr. Music: Now Wendy’s known for drugs, and problems, and I believe she committed suicide, am I right?
Michael Wagener: “Yeah, she did in the end. But at the time when we did that record [“Coup D‘Etat”], no, none of that. She was very healthy, exercising and all that.”
And finally, the last question…..
Dr. Music: Who haven’t you worked with that you would like to work with?
Michael Wagener (responding immediately): “AC/DC. This is my way favorite band. They‘re coming out with one record after the other that‘s absolutely great. And they‘re sticking to their style. They never changed or did anything. I love their music. ‘Back In Black‘ is my all-time favorite album.”
Wagener is currently working out of his own superstudio, located on a lush 10-acre parcel just outside of Nashville, which he affectionately calls WireWorld. Wagener has implemented a host of new features within WireWorld, including production workshops and something called Ears-4-Hire, which is a “house calls”-type of program that allows an artist to hire Michael Wagener himself for a personal session at the artist’s studio. He explained, “It’s specifically to your studio, to your setup. We might want to re-wire some stuff, we might want to re-do some stuff. It’s a personal thing for those people to learn to work with their equipment.” Wagener also elaborated about the in-studio 9-day workshops he personally conducts, “We record and mix one song from top to bottom. It’s more for the technical side of it. I call it the propellor head stuff.” He continued, “You won‘t believe how much people can learn doing those sessions. Even people that have been in the business for 25 years sometimes; they walk out of there and you can tell, literally, that their heads are smoking.” Well, I know it’s not the first time Michael Wagener has started a head smoking, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
I would like to send extra special thanks to Michael for taking so much time to talk with me first thing in the morning. His knowledge and wisdom can only be eclipsed by his kindness and consideration. It was a true honor, Michael.
To find out more about Michael Wagener (including a partial discography) or WireWorld Studios you can visit: www.michaelwagener.com