Stoking the Star-maker Machinery in Los Angeles
For those working behind the scenes to break new artists, technology, television, and the Internet play an increasingly larger role.
|Clockwise rom the left: House Band members Shasha Krivtsov, Jim McGorman '95, Nate Morton '94, Rafael Moreira, and Paul Mirkovich|
|Photo by Danny Moloshok|
Rock Star Rising
"If someone told me two years ago that I would be on a TV show hosted by Brooke Burke and hanging out with Tommy Lee, I would have laughed," says drummer Nate Morton '94. Morton and guitarist Jim McGorman '95 are grabbing a quick bite at a café across the street from CBS Studios in West Hollywood before the morning taping of an episode of Rock Star: Supernova. The popular reality show is now in its second season, featuring Morton and McGorman as part of the house band.
Last season's winner, J.D. Fortune, is now on the road with INXS and living the life of a rock star. For this season, the show's producers assembled a new crop with a different musical aesthetic. "Unlike American Idol, this show has more of a rock bent to it," says Morton. Rock Star Supernova features alumni of three major rock acts: drummer Tommy Lee, formerly of Mötley Crüe; guitarist Gilby Clarke, formerly of Guns N' Roses; and bassist Jason Newsted, formerly of Metallica. Throughout the 15-week season, the three musicians, along with host Dave Navarro (onetime Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist), critique the contestants in search of a well-matched lead singer for the group's upcoming tour and album.
McGorman, Morton, and other members of the house band appear each week backing up the contestants, who are known collectively as "the rockers." At the season's outset, 15 rockers compete, hoping to be chosen for an upcoming tour and recording with Supernova.
Like American Idol, the show can create stars by doing market testing in advance. In essence, it's a sometimes successful end run around the traditional marketing strategies of the music business. The immense power of television and the Internet enables audience members to select which of the rockers progress and which get sent home and allows musicians to become well known before a record label spends a dollar on studio time.
McGorman says the group is essentially a high-profile cover band, but that by no means implies that it's an easy gig. Throughout the 15-week season, the band is on the clock for rehearsals and tapings eight or nine hours a day, five days a week. On days off, they spend time individually learning the songs for the next show. The show's executive producers select the repertoire from the songbooks of new and classic-rock artists such as the Who, Nirvana, Radiohead, Deep Purple, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M.
"There is a lot of prep work for this show," says McGorman. "We do a fair amount of rehearsing, but we have to come in knowing our parts. Together, we work out arrangements that differ from the original versions. We'll have to shorten songs to fit the show's time frame; work out beginnings, endings, and transitions; and incorporate the ideas of the rockers." Since this is a live TV show, the band has to have the songs down cold so that every aspect of the performance highly polished.
As McGorman explains, each of the rockers had to some extent established a professional career before joining the show. "There is a lot of talent there," he says, "But this being a TV show, the producers want ratings, so it's not always about the music. There are arrangement and song choices that I would never make, but it's not my call."
And Morton adds, "Some rockers have a clear conception of how they want the song to go, and they can tell you specifically what they want. Others come in and can only tell you that they don't want it to sound like it does as we rehearse it. We have to make choices that help the singers sound good; that's our job."
"Sometimes the songs on a given week will be amazing, iconic songs that translate really well to a live setting," says McGorman. "Others don't, and we have to figure out how to make them rock. Supernova doesn't want a pop star, they want a real rock singer. For this season, it was made clear that there had to be a certain amount of rock-and-roll energy brought to the table or it wouldn't work for the guys in Supernova." Morton adds, "This season, the level of 'rockittude' had to be considerably higher than last season."
With 15 rockers at the season's start and a show that airs twice weekly, McGorman, Morton, and company had a lot of music to learn. The first episode is a concert of sorts, where each rocker performs. After the show, TV viewers are invited to vote for contestants. In the second episode, an elimination show, the rockers with the lowest number of votes get another chance to sing. They either redeem themselves or get sent home. Long rehearsals precede each show.
"Each rocker is allotted a half-hour on two consecutive days prior to the performance show to rehearse their song," says Morton. "Then each contestant gets a run-through on the day before the taping of the elimination show." McGorman adds, "There is a run-through on the day of the taping where we play each contestant's song twice: once for sound and once for the cameras."
House band members are all veteran Los Angeles-area musicians who were handpicked for the gig. Morton has drummed with Missing Persons, Vanessa Carlton, Natalie Cole, Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, Chaka Khan, Mandy Moore, and others. He was doing sessions in Los Angeles when the Rock Star: Supernova gig came up. And McGorman has been touring and making records for the past decade. For a few years, he served as the musical director for Michelle Branch as well as for Cher on her farewell tour. He has played guitar with the New Radicals, Tal Bachman, and Poison, among others.
After season one ended, Morton and McGorman pursued their own artistic goals. "I worked on a new CD with my band Jamestown," says McGorman. "I've been writing songs for 17 years and have made a lot of demos, but I'd never made a record. I decided this was the time for me to put one out. The show gave me the money and the time during the off-season to do it. The music is basically pop-rock with an English flavor, but there's a little bit of soul in there because I'm originally from Philly." (Visit www.jimmcgorman.com.)
Morton also completed a record that he says isn't in the mainstream. "It's a combination of rapping and singing," he says. "It's the result of spending many years as a sideman helping other people's songs come together. The CD is a collection of 11 songs that represent whatever came out-it's all over the map. There's reggae, hip-hop, and rock. Since I'm not on any label, I had no constraints." (Visit www.natemorton.com.)
Working as a key player on a music reality show and recording as an independent artist represent two different ends of the current music industry spectrum. "I'm a bit torn when it comes to the idea of music reality television existing as a format," says McGorman. "There is potential to make someone a star who may not necessarily be a musician. After 10 years in this business, I understand the difference between a musician and an entertainer, and I'm fine with that. But to me, the greatest rock stars write and perform original material and give you something you haven't seen before. The good news is that the music industry is turning back to independent artists. Anyone can put out a record. It's up to us to find the ones we like."
More Than a Keyboard Player
After completing his Berklee degree in contemporary writing and production, Argentine-born Cheche Alara '94 went to Los Angeles to pursue as master's degree in composition at the University of Southern California. Six months after completing the program in 1997, Alara had made enough contacts around town from playing keyboards in wedding bands and salsa groups to work with well-known touring and recording acts. Since that time, opportunities have really have opened up for Alara. His current résumé lists performance credits with Pink, Destiny's Child, Marc Anthony, Eric Benét, Mya, and scores of others. He is also in heavy demand as an arranger and musical director. Alara's musical direction highlights include work on the Grammy-winning MTV Unplugged CD by Alejandro Sanz, two seasons of the American Idols Live tour, assistant music direction for Christina Aguilera, and much more.
Back in 1998, Alara was hired to play keyboards with the then-unknown Aguilera. From that connection, opportunities emerged for him to prove his other skills. "Whenever Christina's band would get to play with a string section or additional players, I would ask if I could write the charts," says Alara. "Alex Alessandroni was the music director at the time, and he would have me take care of those things. Christina also came out with a Latin album, and for me, it was easy to arrange that music. From the get-go, I realized that there were more opportunities beyond just being a keyboard player."
The next big project to come Alara's way was the MTV Unplugged show with Alejandro Sanz. "I was the musical director for the show and arranged all of the music," Alara says. "Alejandro is a great singer, and the players were great too. It's a project I look back on proudly. My name started spreading by word of mouth, and I got more calls. Labels and managers generally call, but the artists may also request you if they have seen you on TV with someone else. They track you down. In a way, L.A. is kind of a small town. Everyone knows everyone in my end of the business."
The Twenty-First-Century MD
Among the calls Alara gets these days are requests for him to serve as the musical director for an artist with a new CD and set of television appearances to promote it. Typically the TV promo appearances test audience reactions to certain songs and precede a major tour. Performed live before millions of TV viewers, the promos are high-pressure affairs.
"When you work with a big act preparing for TV promo appearances, it is not unusual to rehearse for a few days even if you are only going to play one song," says Alara. "Coming from a jazz background, at first I wondered what we would do for eight hours a day working on one song. Not only was there just one song, but there was almost no improvisation. You'd be playing the same part over and over again. Then it began to make sense. There is a difference between feeling that the band is sounding good, and that we own the song. After that kind of preparation, during a taping it won't matter if the lights go off or the cymbal falls over. No matter what happens, the song will still sound good."
Make It Realistic
Alara says that when you see a band performing these days-whether on TV or in concert-odds are it is playing along with tracks from the studio recording to enable the artist to come closer to reproducing the recorded version. The trend poses new challenges for today's music director.
Last summer, Alara worked on the TV promos for Spanish singer Paulina Rubio and American Idol contestant Clay Aiken to support their new albums. In addition to the long hours spent writing charts, he had to take the Pro Tools tracks and determine which parts would be played live and which he would thin out. "If I have a session from the album and there are 100 tracks, I have to figure out how we can do it live," Alara says. "If there are 18 tracks of guitar and I have only one guitarist in the band, I have to figure out what tracks to mute and what parts will be played. If there are lots of background vocals in the tracks but just one female singer onstage, I might have the band members sing some of the background vocals and switch some of the other tracks off. I have to figure out how to make it realistic so the performance will look believable to the audience. Every time I do this, it's like opening up Pandora's box, but I love it. It is a challenge and keeps me on my toes."
Pervasive use of computers for live performances and increased use of home studios has enabled many of today's artists to produce recorded and live music with high production values. Alara acknowledges that there are advantages to both the new and the traditional way of recording.
"I was not in the business at the time when there were a lot of musicians playing together in big studios," Alara says. "Now, everyone has a home studio, so you send files off so someone can put guitar parts on and then send the tracks back. Then you send it to the bass player or keyboardist to do the same thing. Most likely, it will sound fine if you are using good players, but sometimes I feel there is something missing. I just did a session with John Robinson and bassist Neil Stubenhaus where we tracked a whole album live over two days. I felt a world of difference doing it that way. The challenge is to continue being a real musician working in this scene that has changed so much with technology.
"The business is very fluid, and everything is still changing. I think about the difference between music as an art and music as part of entertainment. I don't think going to see Gary Burton and his quintet has much in common with going to see the Black Eyed Peas. Both are making music, but it's like comparing the food at McDonald's to that of a bistro in Bordeaux, France. Sometimes music is only a part of the entertainment, but what I consider more artistic music is different. Here in Los Angeles, the difference is clear."
On a Burbank, California, soundstage, Rob Lewis '94 is rehearsing with his Movement Orchestra (M.O.), a large ensemble with strings and horns, three background singers, and a five-piece rhythm section. Many of the musicians in the M.O. lineup work with Lewis backing Christina Aguilera, Babyface, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, and others for whom he has served as the musical director or producer. But tonight, it's a different gig. It's Lewis's turn to emerge from behind the scenes and take the spotlight. In a few hours, M.O. will perform a set of originals and classic tunes sung by Lewis in a showcase before a live audience and cameras for a webcast.
In an era when the music industry is creating new songs from samples of past hits and integrating live musicians with prerecorded Pro Tools tracks on tour, Lewis is bucking the trend. He's on a mission to reintroduce audiences to the power of completely live performances by top-shelf players and has converted a number of his high-profile clients to his philosophy. "I want to have as many musicians onstage as possible and bring live playing and real musicianship back to the forefront," Lewis says.
A multitalented musician, Lewis is in demand to arrange, produce, and/or provide keyboards, guitar, and vocal tracks for some of the biggest names in r&b, pop, and urban music. (Visit www.movementorchestra.com to see the range of his work.) Recent projects include writing horn charts for Diddy's new album, helping out in the studio for Jamie Foxx's new CD, Unpredictable, and Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics double CD. Not coincidentally, Lewis and M.O. were in the United Kingdom last July backing Aguilera in promo appearances for the new record.
As the CEO of his own production company, Blacktrak Entertainment, Inc., Lewis is also creating a database of professional musicians who live in musical centers. "Most of the music comes out of New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville," says Lewis. "But there are also great scenes in Atlanta, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Las Vegas, and elsewhere. We are building a network of players in those cities too." The night before the Burbank showcase, Lewis was in Las Vegas prepping a band he'd contracted to back up Toni Braxton for her engagement at the Flamingo Showroom. "Toni, Christina, Babyface, and Patti LaBelle are my main clients," says Lewis. "I try to be available for their tours or promo appearances, but Toni's gig is going to run for six months. My group couldn't do the whole thing, so I put another band together for her and chose a junior music director to be the leader."
After the members of the seven-piece M.O. string section are tuned up and their mics are in place on the Burbank stage, Lewis passes out the parts and focuses on key sections. He works without a conductor's score, and at first glance he resembles an acrobat without a net. But he never stumbles. Lewis knows the music thoroughly and moves through each tune calling out bar numbers, singing cello lines, and playing the string voicings on the piano as though the score were in front of him. No doubt, Lewis's ability to maintain a grasp of the small details as well as the big picture has been duly noted by those who hire him to direct their shows.
Lewis has spent a lot of time in front of bands. He got his foot in the door of the music business after making contact with Brian McKnight. "I was just 18 and was in Boston going to Berklee when Brian came to do a clinic," Lewis says. "I was such a huge fan that it was like a dream to make contact with him." McKnight recognized Lewis's abilities and a short time later hired him as his keyboardist and musical director. From there, one door after another has opened for Lewis. His résumé lists arranging and production credits such as producing Christina Aguilera's vocals for her Grammy-nominated collaboration with Herbie Hancock, "A Song for You" from Hancock's Possibilities CD, film composing credits, conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra behind Patti LaBelle at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and appearing in Diddy's Making the Band show on MTV.
Lewis is the kind of musician who has the ears of an artist as well as those of an artist's business team. If anyone can make the case for getting more live players in front of concertgoers, he can. Lewis also wants to fulfill other aspirations with various business initiatives. "I'm looking forward to branching out in different directions as a musician and a businessman," he says. "I want to continue to make quality records, to be innovative and forward-moving." Lewis hopes the opportunities at the level of his current work will continue not just for his own sake, but for the benefit of his peers whom he believes deserve a shot. "Overall," he says, "I'm looking for the M.O. to succeed at the game of life as well as music and for the Movement Musician's Agency to help define the future of music. Ultimately, I hope the Movement might change the game."