By Carol Anne Szel
He is nothing if not diverse, both in his musical style, influences and the range of artists he has worked with. James Michael is not only the lead singer of the rock band Sixx:A.M., (founded by Motley Crue rocker Nikki Sixx) but his career as a songwriter, mixer and producer have brought him into projects in some capacity with the likes of Meat Loaf, Alanis Morrissette, Kelly Clarkson, Volbeat and more. The fans, he said, “crave musical diversity just like I do!”
With a second Sixx:A.M. album and national tour under his belt, Goldmine had the chance to catch up with James to go over his well-thought-out and, in fact, very diverse list of the albums that have changed his life both musically and personally.
“This is fun, because when you get to be my age and you’ve had so many musical moments piled up on you, it’s easy to forget some of those things! These records are really the cornerstones for me.”
1. Queen, “News of the World”
It’s very hard for me to pick out my favorite moments in Queen’s career because they were all so impactful. From the first minute I heard Freddie Mercury sing, I felt like he had discovered what I wanted to discover in music. He had figured out, to me, how to tap into emotions. While he was very sensitive and he had no trouble revealing his deepest darkest secrets, he also just made it so cool, you know? He was such a cool guy and I think that that is why he had such an impact on me, like it did on a lot of musicians. When he came out and it was revealed he was gay, it was at a time when that was just not expected and not cool, and who knew how that was going to go over in the rock 'n' roll world. It was such a brave thing for him to do that. And then we all accepted that and embraced it. He is the coolest guy in rock 'n' roll. I mean, it threw everyone into kind of a tailspin, but then we realized kind of ‘why?’ This is the most brilliant mind in music, and rock music is all about being rebellious and it’s also about being able to dig deep into what really matters in life and expressing it. So he’s always spoken to me and it was that record where it all came together for me. "News of the World" was the moment when I really sat down and listened to the entire record, loved it and was so taken by Freddie’s performances. And I’ve been trying to recreate that record ever since. That was a huge one for me.
2. Electric Light Orchestra, “Discovery”
Jeff Lynn is just such a master of everything he does. The records he produces, the songs that he writes and sings. When I first heard ELO, it was kind of the same reaction as when I first heard Queen. It was something that I didn’t even think it was possible to capture that much sound and that much energy on a recording. Because at the time we knew about the limitations of recording. At the time we’re talking about, the most,16-tracks. Maybe a 24-track recording. But technology was nowhere near where it is now. And yet that didn’t stop Jeff from creating some of the most magnificent sonic journeys that any of us had ever been on. These multi-track vocals and harmonies and background vocals that would just swim all over the place, that was like orchestral arrangements in and of themselves. And when you sit and listen to those records, I was just always taken by how fast they sounded. I was like no way that all of this sound and all of this emotion and all of these stories can be coming off just 24-tracks of recording on analog tape. It didn’t even make sense to me. So when I started digging into how they were making those records and the process of multi-track recording, it just opened up this whole world to me. And as a kid, I grew up with a father who was very creative; he was a painter, an artist. And I would go down to his studio and watch him take a canvas and just start slopping paint on this canvas like a kid. I would watch him for hours just putting different colors and different shapes and different energy on the canvas. And I was so taken by that. That was how my dad expressed himself. Then I was right about that time discovering bands like Queen and ELO.
3) Meatloaf, “Bat Out of Hell”
When I was younger, my brother who is three years older than me, he came home one day and he was so excited and he said ‘James, you’ve got to look at this.’ And he pulls out the vinyl album of "Bat Out Of Hell." And it was the one where the artwork was actually imprinted on the vinyl. The artwork from the album cover was actually on the vinyl so he pulled this record out and it had all these colors and imagery of the cover on it and I couldn’t believe my eyes! And when he put it on and we went through that journey together with his record player, it was life changing for me. I thought I didn’t even know this could be done in music. I almost felt like I was getting away with something, like I was breaking all the rules. It was a real landmark record.
4. Queen, “The Game”
It was another turning point and I’ll tell you why. And I think this plays into what I do with Sixx:A.M. It was such a dramatic change for them. This one in particular took them to a new place. The songs on it were very, very radio-friendly, but it also represented a real shift in Sonics for that band. I couldn’t believe I was hearing Freddie sing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It couldn’t possibly be the same guy that was singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” just a few years prior. What that told me is that you can’t be and shouldn’t be repeating yourself. You should always be looking at new territory. It was in the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Being rebellious and doing things that nobody would expect you to do.
5. The Pretenders, “The Pretenders”
As a kid, Chrissie Hynde, that voice was almost parental to me. I relied so heavily on what she said musically and what she did musically to know that it was okay to go there. So here was this woman who was such a strong persona and was so punk rock and so dangerous. Dressed in black leather and just represented everything that rock was! She kind of introduced me to that punk side of rock 'n' roll. When you look at the songs on that record they were so raw and raucous and aggressive and unapologetic and dirty-sounding, and yet there was a beauty in it.
6. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome”
From a production standpoint, it was a masterpiece. When you listen to that record, again, it broke every single rule that we felt was in place at the time. It was so over-the-top and absurdly flamboyant and beautiful. And sonically it was just bombastic. It captures the raucousness of rock 'n' roll, the flamboyance of British pop music of the time, the melodies were stunning. The attitude of it was just incredible. I’ve been trying to capture that kind of three-dimensional music in production ever since I heard that record.
7. Rush, “Moving Pictures”
Then, I would be remiss to not have Rush on my Top-10 list. Because, to me, lyrically, Rush was such an amazing band. But musically, it was three guys that were so far advanced musically. Even when you go back to “2112” and some of the early Rush records, there were things going on there musically that were genius, incredibly smart. And yes it was a rock band with heavy rock guitars but it was also this voice that was so unusual and an instrument in and of itself. It was when I learned that the voice was really an instrument. If used properly, it really does have a place in rock music as an instrument. To me, when I would listen to Rush records I was in a stadium. I love “Moving Pictures” because they started working in synthesizers and electronics and keyboards, and because of my love for European pop and rock music I always loved that.
8. The Police, “Outlandos d’Amour”
The Police were one of the first bands that I really became a real fan of. I followed everything they did. I was so fascinated by the fact that it was these three guys and it was such an unusual sound. Of course it had “Roxanne” and it had those amazing songs that walked that fine line between punk and pop, and I think it spoke to me for that reason. You couldn’t really identify it. One minute you were listening to this crazy young punk band and the next minute you felt like you were almost listening to a jazz trio. Again, just like Rush, I was taken with the incredible musicianship. It made rock 'n' roll smarter.
9. The Cars, “The Cars”
Their use of keyboards and synthesizers along with these very simple, simple songs but with a lyrical content that was a little bit f***ed up for lack of a better way to describe it. The lyrics were unusual and a little bit twisted, and a little bit jaded in a sense. I like the fact that you could have multiple layers to a message in a song. That comes back to Sixx:A.M. and what we’ve always tried to do was to have our lyrics be multi-layered so that there was never just one definition. “The Cars” self-titled album was the one that really captured my imagination and really made me want to go out and buy synthesizers and mess around on keyboards. The Cars were probably one of the first bands that I started learning their songs.
10. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”
I left this one to the last because when I listen to David Bowie, and that record in particular, it’s almost as though it’s everything I love in all the other bands I mentioned. It’s got all of that. It’s got the drama, the attitude. Nobody has more attitude in his vocals than David Bowie. He had come off the “Ziggy” stuff and the “Spiders from Mars” and all this crazy, crazy over-the-top stuff. And then he makes this record that is so palatable and so pop, and again I love the fact that he made a choice. We already knew that he could go in all these bizarre and unusual places, but then to have him sit down and make a masterpiece like “Let’s Dance.” It was a turning point for me in realizing that you can walk that fine line between completely abstract and completely commercial. And I’ve tried to do that my entire career. What you do in that balancing act is you’ve given your audience the opportunity to go on a journey. And that’s what rock 'n' roll has always been for me.