“Michael Landau is an undiscovered gem… one of God’s guitar players,” were the quiet words of praise by noted producer/guitarist Steve Lukather. “Hell, I grew up playing with him, and he’s really inspired me. Michael is absolutely one of my favorite guitar players in the world.”
Meeting a famous studio guitarist face-to-face can be a challenge for any interviewer – wondering which sessions to talk about, what road stories to coax out of him, how much to dwell on his equipment. But Michael is an unusual guy, and none of the above applies. A veteran of the competitive Los Angeles music scene, he has built an impressive discography, recording with such greats as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Miles Davis. Despite his mastery of the guitar and breadth of technique displayed on other people’s records, the real Michael is a dedicated rocker whose solo career breathes fire with every guitar line he plays. His albums are diamonds in the rough, with a precise focus on the blues-based rock and roll he was raised on. His forays into the slower, more lyrical vein of guitar are passionate and innovative, reminiscent of the early brilliance of Jimi Hendrix.
From the guitar work on Michael’s solo albums to his performances with Burning Water (a monster band featuring brother Teddy on bass and Carlos Vega on drums), and his current band, The Raging Honkies (a bluesy trio that showcases not only his fretwork, but his singing), Landau has built a formidable body of work that is intense and moving. His studio arsenal of effects is cast aside for the live playing, so there is no monster rack to speak of, and when it comes to self-promotion and sleazy road stories, Michael’s just a nice guy who loves music more than anything, and pretty much lets the music speak for him. We met in VG‘s West Coast offices one cool March evening, and the following interview took place.
Vintage Guitar: You’ve been doing studio work here in L.A. since you were a teenager, working with Pink Floyd, Jon Anderson, and Roger Daltrey. How did all that come about?
Michael Landau: I was born in 1958, right here in Los Angeles. Actually, in Van Nuys. My guitar playing began when I was 11 years old. During the swing era, my grandfather was an alto sax player in Benny Goodman’s band. He was also an arranger, and spent most of his life doing music. He’s still alive and playing, at 84 years old! He survived a massive heart attack recently and just took up where he left off. My uncle played music, and my mom played piano. My uncle let me use his guitar until I got my first cheap nylon-string. I didn’t get an electric until a couple years later, when Hendrix and the Beatles hit. I just missed seeing Hendrix on tour…
Jimi Hendrix was on tour the same time as The Who, in the ’60s, and I saw The Who on a Friday night in Baltimore and Jimi the next night in Washington at a small ballroom. Pete Townshend was standing next to me, jumping up and down like a little kid. He was more excited than I was!
Yeah, I’m really sorry I missed those tours. They didn’t have great PAs then, did they? The sound just washed out. But I’ll bet the guitars were loud.
So the guitar bug bit you pretty early?
I was pretty intense about guitar from that point on. I didn’t play in my first band until junior high school, and I did stop for a bit to play hockey. But the music and playing guitar for me was a strong desire I couldn’t put down. My first guitar was a Harmony, actually a good guitar I wish I still had. The first Fender guitar I got was a Telecaster, from the mid ’60s. I remember it squealed badly when I turned it up or got too close to the amp…and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Probably something that could’ve been fixed by vacuum-potting the pickups?
Right! My friend Seymour Duncan is a genius at that stuff, but back then I didn’t know what to do. I had Fender amps, a blond Bassman, and Pro Reverb. I spent a lot of time practicing, playing high school proms and other events. That’s when I was playing in a band with Steve Lukather, and I was thinking, “I want to do this for a living.” My family was extremely supportive, especially my mom. I didn’t intentionally go into studio work, but things just steered me in that direction. I had an easy segue, because Steve was phasing out his session work and forming Toto, and I just slid right in. Right now, it’s really hard to get studio work.
What was your first experience on the road?
I did some touring with Boz Scaggs when I was 19, and that was a lot of fun (laughs). Plus it led to more work! This was right after the Silk Degrees album, and Boz was really popular then. We would play to full arenas – a great experience for me. The band itself was terrific, and we had a good time together. There was a bit of separation at that time between the road band and the recording band; I didn’t record with Boz until two albums later.
You’ve had an amazing career so far, dipping into blues, jazz, and rock. Any favorites?
Some of the recording that was, for me, the most memorable was my work with Joni Mitchell. I did three albums with Joni, and they were some of the best times I ever had. We toured together in 1983, just Joni, with me on guitar, Russ Ferrante on keyboards, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and her husband, Larry Klein, on bass. There were some great times on the road. She was very inspiring.
Did some of the audiences intimidate Joni? I heard that in the early days, her stage fright was so out of control she had to be literally pushed onstage.
Nah…she had rough nights like anybody, but she had learned how to handle the crowd. She wasn’t at all shy when I played with her…she was downright assertive at times! And musically, she’s really in her own league. It was a particularly good gig for me; I could get inventive and we’d play around with the arrangements. Some of my favorite material she’d done was the stuff with Jaco, and I liked the creativity. And I guess she picked up on that.
You’ve played in the past with a wonderful bassist, Mr. Jimmy Johnson, doing your own material plus some work with songwriter Michael Ruff. How was it, working with Jimmy in James Taylor’s band?
They were some special people in that band, and I enjoyed making those albums. Now there was a group that was the same touring as on the record, and we really worked well together. I love playing with Jimmy Johnson, he’s such a soulful guy. A lot of the tunes for Copper Line were worked up on the road, and we did track live, which is what gave the material that nice feel. James is a helluva guitar player, and he left me room for some sweet guitar parts. That was a long tour, actually about six months, and we cut the live album in about three weeks. All small colleges we played, mainly on the East Coast.
What was it like being onstage with JT and that incredible band, knowing you’re about to make history and record the first live James Taylor album. Any nervousness?
Not for me, not consciously anyway. Sometimes in the bigger cities our nerves would act up, but taping live wasn’t so much of a strain. It was mostly wondering, “How is this going to turn out?” The band had played together for so long by that time that it was more a question of how well would we play together that night.
You’ve sat in for some pretty heavy guitar cats in your day. One of them was Snuffy Walden (Texas blues monster, former guitarist for The Nazz, Michael Ruff’s rotating supergroup, and craftsman of the music for “Thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years”). Any comments?
Snuffy is a really good guy, and an incredible blues player. I don’t hear him much these days He’s locked up in his studio most of the time now, doing his television work. He should make some Snuffy records…
Any other high points for you?
I worked for a bit with Rod Stewart, during the Camoflauge/Out of Order time, and that was a trip. This was before Jeff Golub was working with Rod. A good learning experience for me. And of course I met Jeff Beck recently – he’s a real hero of mine – when he was working with Lukather.
Let’s talk for a bit about your personal music. Tales From the Bulge is pretty impressive.
My recordings have gone through lots of phases…the instrumental album was the first one I did on my own, in 1989. It was mostly recorded at my place, using friends like Vinnie Colaiutta and Jimmy Johnson on bass. And out of that came the band Burning Water. That was a real band, with a lead singer, and everybody pitching in. Carlos Vega was on drums, and my brother Teddy played bass. It really grew out of just jamming together a couple times a week. Slowly, some songs started to form out of that, and the band came together. This one you don’t need to have (he grabs playfully at a red CD labeled Live and Lit). It was done live to DAT to fulfill a contractual obligation…a handheld mic in a club…it’s like a super-bootleg (the seven-song CD demonstrates power rock at its finest, with slashing guitar lines, terrific, artful arrangements, and a virtuosity seldom seen on the guitar, least of all recorded live. And he’s ashamed of this?).
Burning Water lasted awhile, maybe four to five years. We played a lot in L.A. and also toured in Texas, where we had some distribution. We also did a week or so in Japan, where I have a bit of a following, mostly from working with other people. When we played the clubs they were pretty packed.
Burning Water had a distinctive sound, with some superb material. The Burning Water album and Mood Elevator rock really hard, used odd meters, unpredictable changes, and kicked some major butt. What else was going on then, musically, and where did your new group, Raging Honkies, come from?
Burning Water began around 1990, when the alternative stuff was getting big. I guess we were blues/alternative. I poured everything I had into that group. I continued to do studio work, but less since we were really trying to make a go of it. I like all the records I’ve done, but the newer stuff with the Raging Honkies was done in different studios around town, not at my place, and it’s better, in a way. At the point the Raging Honkies began, Teddy and I wanted to try doing a trio, and everyone else’s schedules were a problem. Carlos ended up touring a lot with James [Taylor], which took him out of the picture. The singer had a day job he couldn’t give up…so I started singing. Abe Laboriel holds down drums.
It can be a scary thing for a guitarist to become a singer.
Yeah! If you’ve heard the new album, then you know my style (Michael’s vocal excursions, much like his searing guitar work, are focused and resonant, sounding a bit like Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker).
Can we talk about your philosophy of guitar…what it’s like to go into the studio and be the number one session man on guitar, and then do your own stuff, which is so intense, so different? You modulate unexpectedly, change keys, and the music is verging on aggressive…
You’ve hit it! With the studio stuff, I know going in what they want, and what I’m going to play. There’s not a whole lot of stretching out, at least on the sessions I’ve been doing. I hate to put it this way, but it’s a definite style and a definite job that they want you to do. There’s not a whole lot of improvising going on. For me, this work with the Raging Honkies is more like the music I grew up playing. It’s natural to me.
Is there a big change in your gear when you go from the studio to your own band?
Yeah, reality strikes! The rack in the studio is a bit heavy. I usually bring amps and some effects, but with the band it is completely different. I use a very basic amp setup.
You know, I’ve gotten quite a bit of communication from our readers about secrets some players have to get their special guitar tone – effects boxes that may not be well-known, or Clapton’s old trick of having an old Fender on the side of the stage that was mic’ed, and all those Marshalls just for show. Do you have a secret weapon you use to get your sound?
(Michael snorts, then asks, in his best Arte Johnson imitation…) Why would I tell you? Then there would be no secrets!
I used to play through my old Fender Pro Reverb, amp switching to a 100-watt Plexi Marshall. The problem was, a lot of times we’d play these small clubs that would have three or four bands a night, and we’d have five minutes to set up. There was just no way! We had to scale our stuff down. I’m currently using a Custom Audio amp by Bob Bradshaw, similar to a 100-watt Marshall, with channel switching, through a half-stack 4 X 12 speaker box. The pedals are also real basic: a tube screamer, one of Roger Meyer’s Voodoo pedals, a Univibe, a Wah-Wah. Everything is strung with D’Addarios, .009 through .49.
I know that besides the custom Tylers you use, you’re a big Strat fan. Any noise problems onstage with using the single-coils?
For this band, I’m using a Strat with the Seymour Duncan Stacked humbuckers, really very quiet. He knows what he’s doing, ’cause the classic Strat sound is there without any of the noise. I do bring along my vintage Strat, which I’d sometimes rather play, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I can’t find the right spot onstage.
I recently saw you onstage at Billboard Live, with The Raging Honkies, when Fender celebrated their new CD release. Delaney Bramlett, Richie Sambora, and a ton of other talented people were there. Your playing was pretty phenomenal that night. What was that like for you?
What was cool was that they gave us our own little set. We had a good time, but we were literally thrown onstage, so there was no way to check if the sound was working. I love playing with these guys, and we did have some fun.
Any guitarists you’re particularly fond of?
I love Jimmy Vaughan, Alan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck. It may sound funny, but I love the way Kurt Cobain played guitar. He was so intense about it…
And the future will bring?
I’m about to begin another instrumental record, some psychedelic stuff. That should be done in six months or so. I’m doing it in my spare time, so there’s no real hurry. And I’m looking forward to touring in Europe with The Raging Honkies.
For now…(Michael yawns, and we head for the door).
Michael Landau is dedicated – 100 percent, seven days a week, 24 hours a day – to his music, and he lets the music speak for itself. He has a refreshing attitude toward the commercial aspect of the music business. The session work, no matter how lucrative, is a tool that lets him pour his soul and prodigious chops into his own brand of incendiary rock and roll. We hope Michael and his Raging Honkies keep that flame lit for a long time.
Michael Landau’s guitarwork can be heard on Burning Water, Mood Elevator, Tales from the Bulge, and The Raging Honkies – We Are the Best Band. His newest is The Raging Honkies – Boner, produced by Chris Lord-Alge and the Honkies, and there may be a few copies left of his least favorite, the red hot Live and Lit album. All are available through record stores and LCM, 12826 Martha St, North Hollywood, CA 91607.
Michael in a passionate moment with his beloved Tyler electric guitar. Photo courtesy of Michael Landau.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.