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INTERVIEW: Andy Jones Talks Working W/ Michael Jackson, New Album and More

Hi Andy, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thanks for talking with me! I’ve been busy preparing for the album release and some other projects, but that’s good. Busy is good right now.

So what was like to work with Michael Jackson on his last days?
This is a surreal and weird story for me. I’ve only recently begun to be more open about it. For several years, only two or three people knew I was part of a team that was developing material for what would have been Michael Jackson’s comeback album. This was a year before he died. I had just left a group I was in that was based in Los Angeles, though I was living in Colorado at the time. We had just finished recording our debut and played our first show. It was sold out and we were talking to three different labels, but it wasn’t for me anymore, so I left. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and was really back and forth about performing again, or if I wanted to continue writing music. I would have been happy just being a session player at that point, just stay behind the scenes but be a part of recording and spend time in studios, which I love.

So I’m back in Colorado and the producer of the album I just wrapped up with the group calls me and tells me Steve Porcaro reached out to him about writing for Michael Jackson. I thought he was just telling me about this incredible thing that happened to him, because that kind of thing happens a lot in music and particularly in the area of LA I was in at the time. You share something because you’re excited, but it’s just an excuse to brag. But it turned out he wanted me to write stuff too. Of course I was all in. It was what I was looking to do, less performing, no touring, just really get into my own head with composing, and getting to collaborate with great writers and players. This was it! Plus Steve Porcaro, oh my god, Toto, “The Girl is Mine,” “Human Nature,” he did a ton of stuff on the first three Michael Jackson records, this was too much. And I was just sitting in my room in Colorado working on this stuff that was moving up the chain to Michael Jackson.

I never met him, though that was my goal. The deal was that even if it was a seedling of an idea that got Michael inspired, it was a co-write. I can’t stress enough how crazy this was for me. I was in my early 20s, grew up playing punk and metal with a closeted love for most pop, just a Michael Jackson superfan for such a long time. I never met Steve either, and at the time I accepted this as normal. My experience in LA at the time was really similar among the people I was around, kinda gatekeeping going on. “You can meet this person and go here, but not these people, and you can’t go here,” kinda thing. I came to learn this way of developing relationships and shuffling people around is bullshit, but I was young and blinded by this chance at writing for a legend, so I believed anything.

So I’m writing and sending tracks, emailing with my former producer, then I see on the news that a sheikh is suing Michael Jackson for taking a ton of money for a comeback and not doing anything with it. This transpired long before he asked Steve Porcaro to start writing for him again, so who knows where the money went. And now that I mention Steve writing for him: Michael wanted songs like those on Thriller, less club jams like what he had done on Invincible, more “songs,” whatever that meant. I think I knew what he was talking about though, and my feelings were confirmed by an excerpt that Paste released from a book or something written by his former bodyguards. They were saying he would have hated Xscape, and did not want to be making that sound anymore.

So he was being sued and everything just stopped. No one emailed or called anyone to make that happen, at least on my end, it was like we all just knew. That was November, I think, 2008. It wasn’t long after that when he died. I went from being on this creative high to a personal depression. I stopped writing and playing. I straight up quit music for a few years, didn’t play a note. It was sad that he was gone as a musical presence, and then in my own life, this massive opportunity was gone and never realized. It also made me doubt the experience as a whole, like I somehow imagined that I was actually doing that because I never talked directly to or met Steve, never came close to Michael Jackson, just writing and sending it up through stages of approval. It was too weird for me to really process at the time, so I just quit and had to figure my shit out.

What did you learn from that experience?
Technically, I got pretty good at recording considering I knew nothing about it before I began. I’m a ton better now, but looking at beginners now and comparing them to myself then, I got fairly good much faster than others because I had a fire under me. If anyone is reading this and wants to get good at something, make a commitment to deliver something to someone important so you have to learn the skill and be serious about it, there’s no education like that.

Personally, though, I learned what I really wanted out of life and the true reasons behind why I write songs. These were lessons that it took several years to learn. I had to get a master’s degree, severely damage personal relationships, go to therapy for performance anxiety, reconcile with people, and earnestly study jazz for a few months to figure it all out. It’s a complex, long story, but I realized you just have to be you, like, in the truest sense, be you, commit to that, and put it out there. But be a good person. Help others. If people don’t like it, that’s not on you. It’s not your job to make things people like. I could toil in obscurity forever and I’ll still feel successful. Very weird to come from associating myself with Michael Jackson to just being some guy who releases music online, but that was the journey and I love it.

What draw you back to the stages?
I think I was fine with never playing music again for maybe a year. Then I began teaching English literature and writing and the students I met were really open with me about their interests because I was young, I guess. They introduced me to bands, I’d share some stuff with them, there was this exchange that was really pure. They didn’t know I played music, it was just people sharing stuff they loved. I had completely forgotten that for a long time. It was like, you have to write a hit, you have to get that co-write, you’ve gotta do something good for you and get people to think you’re a talented dude. I had forgotten what I loved about music. So those kids sharing their stuff with me was huge.

This one student told me to check out Phoenix, and I had heard the name before but refused it because of their look. Like they look really cool, and I shunned cool after LA. It was toxic to me. But I gave it a shot and, though that genre has historically been something I don’t like, I fell in love. I consumed everything about the album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. There are these making-of videos where their producer talks about the vibe behind it and it was like, you can actually have an album be fun and low stakes. Just make the damn thing and put it out there. If it’s real, it will connect. To me, it doesn’t matter on what level that connection takes place, you just have to connect somehow. But they obviously achieved great success with that album, and that was inspiring. They tapped into who they were and never wavered. I began thinking about how I could do that, what it might sound like. The appeal of writing without thinking about success was a big motivator. I was just about to start applying to PhD programs when I decided to study jazz to force myself back into playing guitar regularly. While I did that, I started writing. I lived in this little one-bedroom apartment and would just go to class and go home and practice and write. I realize now that I was severely depressed but had this distraction in music to keep me from getting too deep into it. All but two songs on No came from that time in my life.

Can you tell us more about “You’re Doing It Wrong”?
I’m glad you asked about that one, it’s my favorite on the album, I think. At least for at the moment it is. I love the production on it. Lots of guitars.

I mentioned earlier that I was kind of destroying relationships I had and that’s where that song comes from. The way No started was I wanted to have this debut album that was the foundation for the rest of my songwriting career, and I developed a theme around the direction I wanted to take. So I developed all these titles before I wrote the music or lyrics, and this was one of them. Turned out I actually had a ton of experiences to help me write a song called “You’re Doing It Wrong.” Musically, I think the guitar is pretty interesting. Overall, it’s really simple, the verses sound like they’re moving around but it’s really simple harmonically. At its core, it’s just two chords but I played around with the voicings and gave it this deceptive sense of musicality. I love the bridge, it takes the song in a totally different direction.

A good friend of mine played bass on that one, Mike Vunovich. He’s incredible. The drummer on that track is phenomenal too, Peter Gregory. He’s got such a great snare sound on that track, everything came together nicely in the studio for that one.

The single comes off your new album No – what’s the story behind the title?
I guess you could say this is kind of a concept album. I wanted to start my solo releases with a stark expression, and after the Michael Jackson thing, I felt like I had to make a stand, or commit to myself to not write for other people anymore, or at least right now. I’d be fine writing with others for more commercial projects, but if it’s just my name on it, I can’t think about if people will like it or not anymore. From the looks of my analytics for the singles on No so far, I am definitely not appealing to people. That’s actually kind of satisfying.

But that’s where the title came from. I’m simply saying “No” to what musicians are expected to do anymore. You’ve got to sound like right now, which is becoming increasingly like the 80s. I love music from that time, but that’s not me. I am as much a product of bands like Decapitated as I am Oingo Boingo or Tears for Fears or whatever is cool right now. I doubt this 80s thing is fully exactly who a lot of writers are now too. Who are you right now in the moment of capturing the song in the studio? And who are you as you write? You can’t get in the way of those things. That’s what makes you and the recording and the song unique. Yet the things that make the mystique of a recording artist or a songwriter in 2016 are all of the barriers that tend to block a true individual expression. I’m saying “No” with this, but it’s not entirely negative actually. By saying no to all that stuff, I’m saying yes to being myself and feeling good about that, saying yes to enjoying music again, and I hope that story resonates with artists who want to be themselves but are in a battle of expression versus marketability. Say “No” and do your thing. I firmly believe No will be considered a flop because it doesn’t have a contemporary appeal, and when something doesn’t sound like “today” to people, they’ll skip it. The audience for this is pretty slim, and I don’t know if they would even find out about it. But that only means I’ve succeeded in committing to my expression and still have the freedom to do whatever I want as an artist.

How was the recording and writing process?
Writing was good for me. It was therapy. It was also a way for me to get my legs back under me and feel like a guitarist and songwriter again. I got into drumming more seriously, it was a great experience to write apart from the LA scene I was in, just do whatever the hell I felt like. You can hear that freedom on the album. I like those moments. The times where it gets weird or questionable. Where you feel the song should go one way or when you feel like it should groove more but the song won’t give it to you. These were deliberate choices. That was the “No” concept at work. That was a ton of fun to short change expectations like that.

But recording, oh my god, it was the worst. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it when I was doing it, it was a blast, but when I take a comprehensive look at it, it was a nightmare. It took a little over 4 years to make. You wouldn’t think that listening to it. It’s a pretty straightforward album, I think. No acrobatic production, nothing too fancy. But budget, schedules, everything got so fucked up. I would take these long breaks too because when I’d hit a hurdle in tracking or mixing, I’d have all this time to think about if it was even worth finishing. So I’d drag my feet on getting back into the studio even when I could because I had such doubt. Then I’d have a month of being all about it, then three where I hated it. The vibe of the album’s concept was very much a thing. It was alive and it wreaked havoc. Before we went into tracking on the first day, the bassist was in the early stages of a bad end to a long, serious relationship. I was about to move away from all my friends and family and was nervous about that, but I had just gotten married so I was also looking forward to this new time in my life, so there was some real bittersweetness going on in that first recording session. That was with a great engineer out of Colorado, Jesse O’Brien. He’s done stuff with Natasha Bedingfield and TV on the Radio, he’s got a great ear for drums. Then I finished production in Texas with Bob Parr, who used to play bass for Cher and Brian Setzer Orchestra. Halfway through mixing, which took forever, like more than a year, the engineer began going through a divorce. That fucked with him obviously, delayed things further, made me question things again. It was a long series of delays and drama with bursts of productivity. I think the album ended up working against me eventually, it was weird.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
Like I said about where the album title came from, the song titles came first and I made myself work around that as a kind of writing prompt. There are several songs that didn’t make it to the album, so there was a lot of drafting, editing things like that. I was inspired to write after not writing for so long. Just the act became fun again. The lyrics came from my experiences in and after a lot of major events in my life. The band I left, my brief, intense experience with Michael Jackson in the background, personal stuff, it was all stuff that needed to be exorcised, so it was perfect timing to get it out there. A couple songs are actually to myself, like reminders to stick to my guns. The last track, “Surrender,” is like that. I’m really talking to myself in that song, but I only realized that after I wrote and recorded it.

Any plans to hit the road?
I’m playing with that idea right now. I’ve performed a couple times in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after not playing for about six years. But that was just testing the songs. If the album gets enough of an audience, I’ll go out. I’d love to play in Colorado where I’m from again, it’s been too long.

What else is happening next in Andy Jones’ world?
Before the album is released on April 8, I’ll be re-releasing two songs I recorded with Pete Parada of The Offspring. They’ll be remixed and remastered, and the sales will continue to go to the Pueblo Hispanic Education Fund out of Pueblo, Colorado, and the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.

You can hear those on andrewjones.bandcamp.com or HearAndrewJones.com. You can pre-order No now on my Bandcamp and get the first track free, and two other tracks are available for free right now. Once the album is out, you can hear it on iTunes and Spotify, all the places people go online for music, but I encourage people to get it straight from me on Bandcamp.

After that, I’ll be able to dedicate time to really get into finding where I’m going next creatively. I don’t want to make the same album twice. I’ve played with the idea of exploring alien abduction narratives in song, or just devoting more time to composing for video games and TV, which I’ve begun doing on the side to help expand my studio.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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