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Michael James Flatters - 2001
By Andy Craven

Michael James Flatters is the current singer in the Byrd. I caught up with Michael for a chat about what he had been doing prior and what it was like to work on 'Flying Beyond The 9'.

Thanks for taking part in this interview Michael. Can you give us a little on your musical background and bands you have been in?
Well first off, Andy, thanks for the opportunity to tell everyone about myself and the making of "Flying Beyond The 9". As for my musical background, it started quite some time ago. When I was 7 years old, my mother found out about a new boy's choir that was being formed at our church. I'd always liked singing to the radio, so this seemed a logical step. Plus, music runs pretty heavily on my mom's side of the family. My grandfather and many of his brothers sang in choirs, and also won competitions singing barbershop quartet. One of my great uncles, Bernard Smith, was a wonderful opera singer. His Maestro said he had the talent to be one of the best, but money was hard to come by for more training, and he was needed on the farm, so he never got to take it to the next level.
I found I had a pretty natural talent for singing, and I was one of the first ones to do a solo. We recorded three albums while I was in the choir; and also did a month long tour of Europe in 1975. By the time I was 14, I was more interested in playing sports than singing, so I quit the choir and went on vocal hiatus for about ten years.

In mid 1988, a friend of mine named Ronn Chick was a guitarist in a local Portland band. (Portland, Oregon is where I've lived all my life.) I'd met Ronn through another friend named Steve Benito. They played together in a local band called "French Kiss". Eventually, Steve got an offer to front a band from Seattle, called "Heir Apparent"; so he quit FK and moved up north. Ronn and I became good friends, and I was basically his guitar tech. At one point, Ronn decided he wanted to form his own band that rocked a little harder than what he was currently doing, so we started going out to the clubs looking for players. We found some rhythm section guys that looked promising, but finding vocal talent proved to be a little more difficult. After a long, fruitless search, Ronn asked me if I'd like to give it a try. His parents paid for my first six vocal lessons, and I was on my way.

The band we formed was called HARDER! FASTER!, and it was not long before we had a co-publishing deal with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, our A&R rep at WB left to take a job at Polygram, and his replacement really didn't give a crap about us, so we just rotted on the vine. Eventually, Ronn got fed up with the lack of forward progress and quit. Even though we never got to make a record, it was a great experience for me, because I got quite a bit of studio time under my belt.

After HF, I played for a couple months with Earl Slick. He was living in Portland at the time, and we did some shows locally and up in Canada. We became really good friends, and stayed in touch after he left town. He's now back in Portland and working on a solo album, which I hope to sing on at least one track. And for those of you who don't know it, he's also back with David Bowie.

Next came another local band called "Celebrity Deadpool". We recorded a five song EP, and were starting to become a big local draw when the bass player decided he'd rather play in a band with his girlfriend. I was so upset that I basically quit singing for about 18 months. I was finding that it didn't matter how much you wanted to succeed, if your bandmates didn't share your dedication. It was at this point that I decided to treat my musical endeavors as a hobby, as opposed to trying to make a living at it. Which leads us directly into question number…

How did you hook up with James for 'Flying Beyond The 9'?
Well, as I said before, I was now on my second vocal hiatus of my career, when I ran into my old friend Steve Benito. He had long since left Heir Apparent, and was back in Portland working on a home studio, writing a musical, and going to school. He told me he had gotten a call from James Byrd; and that James wanted him to sing on his new album. Steve really wasn't interested, but told me I should call him and try out for the gig. James and I spoke on the phone a few times, and I sent him some demo tapes of my singing. He seemed to like what he heard, and told me I had the job.

Were you aware of Byrd's music prior to working with him?
Actually, yes. When I started singing again in '88, one of my favorite albums to sing along to was the first "Fifth Angel" record. And at that time, I was very much into all the 'shredder' guitarists, so I can remember seeing Shrapnel ads for the first "Atlantis Rising" record, but could never actually find it in the shops. I remember telling James this on the phone when we first spoke, and he said it was because the CD's sat in a warehouse for over a year before they were released. By then I'd outgrown all that fast guitar playing. (lol) Just kidding, James.

I hear quite a bit of Geoff Tate [Queensryche] in your vocals on certain phrases, who are some of your main vocal influences?
Good ear, mate. Actually, at one time I was a huge Tate fan. I'd still put 'Rage for Order' as one of my all-time faves. And, I also studied with the same vocal teacher as Tate did: Maestro David Kyle. Although it has been widely disputed as to just how much Geoff really got from him. When I first started out, like many of Kyle's students, I was on the road to becoming yet another Tate sound-a-like. It was Ronn who really worked me to find my own voice, and in time I adopted a dirtier, bluesier tone. However, I can still get operatic on your ass if I need to.

Many others have influenced me as well. Certainly Ronnie James Dio was a big one. Likewise the big Deep Purple trifecta of Gillan, Coverdale, and Hughes. Believe it or not, David Lee Roth was a huge influence. I think people nowadays only remember Roth after years of road abuse took their toll on his voice; but go back and listen to VH1 and tell me that man wasn't singing his ass off? Rob Halford was a big one, as well as Bruce Dickinson. I can do a pretty good 'Bruce' when I put my mind to it. And I'm sure I'm forgetting many others, but at least that's a solid start.

When you were hired for the 'FBT9' project what were you originally played by James?
He played me about four cuts from 'Crimes of Virtuosity', over the telephone. It sounded real good, and definitely sounded like something I could do well. I never heard anything from 'FBT9' until I went up to Seattle to track my vocals.

Were there any vocals on the demo tracks or were you involved from the start in this respect?
There never were any demo tracks. To the best of my recollection, James had intended for my original vocals to be for demo purposes. When I sang my tracks, the basics I sang over had scratch guitar tracks on them, (a few had no guitar as of yet) and didn’t have nearly the production as the finished record. That said, they still really sounded great, and from the beginning, James was working me pretty hard for good vocal takes. In time, I think he decided that we were getting 'keeper' vocal tracks all along, so those are the ones on the album.

Also, I was never sent any instrumental tapes to listen to. Whenever I would go up for a weekend to do vocals, normally James would give me lyrics, and sing me his melody over acoustic guitar. After I had a grasp on it, I'd usually head to bed for the night with a tape player, and work on it before I went to sleep.
The next day we'd head down to studio and lay it down. After we'd complete a song, we'd get some dinner, watch a little TV, and then start all over again on the next day's song. The first weekend I recorded three songs in three days. After that, we normally did two a trip.

What were your first impressions after hearing the album, in its original state?
Well, originally, all I had was rough mixes of all the songs (with the exception of W.T.O.) on CD over the original scratch tracks. When I heard 'FBT9' in all its glory, I was pretty blown away! James and Brian did a magnificent job, and really should be commended for it. Actually, I need to back up a minute here. It just occurred to me that when I sang my vocal tracks, there were NO guitars on anything! Yes, it's all coming back to me now. That was the really cool thing about it. After I would leave, James would lay guitar tracks, do a rough mix, and then mail me a CD-R. So it really was kind of like Christmas morning every time he'd send me a new CD. The songs were already excellent with only the keyboards, and his guitars were the icing on the cake! And that, in and of itself, speaks volumes about James Byrd as a songwriter. Whereas most so called guitar heroes rely on their chops to get by, and treat songwriting as an afterthought, James could have released 'FBT9' without a note of guitar on it, and it still would have stood on its own as a masterful work.

Were you told how to sing each track and then took it from there or did you have quite a bit of influence on vocal phrases etc?
Well, I think James had a really good idea how he wanted the vocals to sound, in his head. Usually, he'd give me a description of how he wanted me to sing the song, and then as we'd make early passes through it, he'd give me advice on phrasing and vibrato and the like. On one occasion he was trying to get a little more "Dio" out of me. I wasn't quite getting it right, so I just kind of did my own thing, and he'd told me it wasn't exactly what he wanted, but it was still really cool, and we kept it.

I was telling James the other night on the phone, that in a previous conversation I'd found myself referring to the vocals as "when we sang this, or we sang that", meaning he and I together. I think that really strikes at the heart of why we clicked so well in the making of this record, and became good friends along the way.
You see, I think what ultimately happens with a lot of singers in these types of sessions, is they can't put aside their own egos and preconceived notions of the music they're singing on, long enough to grasp the actual reason they've been asked to participate in the first place. My focus never wavered from the word go. In my mind, my job was to provide James Byrd with a voice. His voice. The one he hears in his head. (And I mean that in a good way) It wasn't to come in and try to put my stamp on the project, although in the end, he was kind enough to really give me a lot of space to be myself. If I was feeling it, he'd let me go. When I needed to be reined in, he'd let me know. It was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to doing the next one. I still remember telling him that I was going to be the first vocalist to be on two Byrd albums in a row; and that was after just one weekend at his house.

There is quite a bit of harmonised vocals on the album, whose idea was this?
James decided where all the harmonies would go. As far as what harmonies were sung, we used three methods. Sometimes he would tell me to just sing what came naturally, and away I would go. Many of the harmonies in the title track were done this way. Other times James would have specific ideas he wanted in the way of note selection. Sometimes he'd tell me to do what came naturally, and that would lead to me standing at the mic with a stupefied look on my face, and at that time the acoustic would come out, and we'd figure them out together. I think one of the coolest harmony ideas on the CD was one we collaborated on, and that is the really weird descending harmony near the end of 'Dark Heart'. It's the one right before the lyric "filled with strife and hate".

The number of vocal delivery's is quite varied from 'upbeat' on the title track to 'aggressive' on 'Dark Heart', to epic on 'W.T.O.', to haunting on 'All Of Me'. Was it exciting to work on these quite varied vocal parts?
YES!!! You've hit on what, for me, was the best part of making this album. I have a very versatile voice, and James was astute enough very early on to notice this, and use it to its fullest advantage. I've recorded everything from almost country, to full on metal, and for some reason I can pull it off. It's a blessing really, as I know there are many singers out there who can do one thing, and one thing only. And they might be the best in the world at the one thing they do, but put them in a situation where a little different style is called for and they're lost. I think we were able to record every vocal, as it's own entity, yet maintain the cohesion throughout the entire album that was so important to James. That has always been a big reason I love this record, and the fact that you picked up on it really makes my day.

'Unity [While You Were Sleeping] has quite a quirky verse, was this tricky to get the hang of?
It sure was. When Brian and James laid down the keyboards, they laid a melody over the top for me to listen to. James tried to explain how to count it out in my head, but when it comes to odd time signatures, I'd be hard pressed to count my way out of a wet paper bag! I just took it to bed with me, listened to it about 100 times, and then listened to it again before we started tracking. I'd like to tell you I whizzed through it no problem, but we did spend some time on that one. I just remember being relieved when we got to the chorus. Funny thing was, I remember James telling me that when he went to record the solo, at first he was counting it out in his head and trying to play along, but he just wasn't dialing into it. It wasn't until he stopped counting and just let the feel take over that he got the solo that's on the CD, and I think it's one of the best ones on the record.

Generally how many takes did you do per track?
Well that depends on what you mean by takes. As far as tracks, we did a lead and in all but two or three songs we doubled the lead vocal. Then usually three or four more tracks for harmonies. Some more, some less. As for actual takes, well I'll just say as many as it took to get the job done. I've been told from a speed standpoint, I'm better than average. It usually takes me a good half-hour of singing to get warm, so I rarely step up to the mic and belt out a keeper the first time out. On average, I'd say we spent from 5-6 hours per song to get all the vocals. 'Nevermore' was the first song we recorded, and that took nearly 10 hours to track. I think the quickest we ever got one done was about 4 hours.

Have you got any favourite vocal performances from the album?
I'm very proud of all the vocals on the album, but my favorite performance (as well as my favorite song) would have to be 'All Of Me'. That song pretty much shows you what I can do. When James described what he was looking for vocally on that song, I 'got it' immediately. I remember him saying that he wanted the voice at the beginning of the song to be very vulnerable, almost feeble. As the song went on, the confidence of the voice grew. When we hit the bridge at the end (I think it's a bridge, it might be the chorus. You'll have to ask James about that) it keeps building to a crescendo, so that by the end I'm nearly screaming. When we got done, he paid me the highest compliment when he said it was hard to believe that it was the same guy singing the song at the beginning as it was at the end. I still get a chill every time I listen to that song. And again, I think it took a lot of guts for James to put a song like that on his CD. Some people may listen to it and say, "where are the guitars?", but those people will have missed the point. We all know he is a guitarist of the highest order, but now step back and check out James Byrd the songwriter. Take a look at James Byrd the producer. That's not to say that he hasn't written great songs in the past, or had good production, but I've listened to most of his solo material, and I'm here to tell you, regardless of whether my vocals are on there or not, James has elevated his game to a whole new level, and there's no turning back.

Which track was the most fun to work on?
I'd probably have to say 'W.T.O.'. I think from a shear singing standpoint, my voice was probably the best on that track, and it was the last one we recorded. From a purely commercial standpoint, it's probably the most viable cut on the CD; not that I really give a rat's ass about that. But having said that, it would really make me happy to see James sell a boatload of records. He deserves it, and in my gut I believe this will really be a big album for him. Also, I'd say 'Nevermore' was a lot of fun because it was the first thing we recorded together, and I was excited to show James what I was capable of. Plus it jumps around a lot vocally, and it's got that funky hip-hop beat. James calls it 'Bach-hop'.

Did anything bizarre happen during the recording of 'FBT9' and what is your fondest memory of working on the album?
Well, a few things come to mind. The weekend I was to record "W.T.O.' I woke up Saturday morning with a migraine headache. As you can imagine, not very conducive to good singing (not to mention just standing upright). I was really upset that I wasn't able to sing, but James was totally cool about it. I went back to sleep for a couple of hours, and when I got up he gave me some pain pills, and I went home. The next weekend I came back, and the session was going great! As I said before, my voice felt and sounded great, and we were both really happy with what was going down to tape. We were just finishing up some harmonies when all of a sudden an error message came up on the ADAT machine, and it just quit working. James tried to get the tape out, but it wouldn't budge. We were in a complete panic. He tried to shine a light in the tape hole (not the technically correct term, I know) and thought he saw the tape spooled out inside. By now we're really having a fit. So James goes into his workroom and comes back with a screwdriver. We take it apart and find out that it's a small drive belt that's broken. Big relief, except that where are we going to find a drive belt for an ADAT machine in Totem Lake, WA. On a Sunday afternoon? And how much is something like this going to cost? James starts calling music stores, and of course nobody has anything in stock, and they'll need an arm and a leg to get one here within a week. Just when things are looking their bleakest, Byrd comes up with a great question. "Aren't ADATs basically just glorified VCRs? I wonder if a VCR repair shop would have a belt?" So back to the phone he goes. Within minutes he's got a guy on the phone that says he probably can help us; just bring in the old broken belt. We drive maybe ten minutes to some VCR repair shop, and $3.00 later we have our belt. Went back to the studio, installed it and finished within the hour!

My fondest memory of making the album? Well there are many…Going down every morning and getting all tanked up on coffee at the mocha stand. I thought I was a big coffee drinker until I met James. They keep special glasses (more like buckets really) just for him… Watching the 'Red Dwarf' marathon on PBS one weekend… Our mutual appreciation for 'Firesign Theater'…Making a new friend, and being shown how appreciative he was of my contribution…I really don't have anything but good memories.

What are your plans for the future?
Well, I'm just finishing up vocals on the new Takara CD called 'Perception of Reality'. I replaced longtime temporary member Jeff Scott Soto. It should be out in Europe and Japan by the end of the year. I'm also in a pretty heavy band called Plastic Bastard where I perform under the pseudonym "Peter Torque". Our CD 'Keeping The Master, The Master' should also be out by fall. As I said before, I hope to be recording a vocal on Earl Slick's new CD, and I have a feeling James will be chomping at the bit to get back in the studio pretty soon, so all in all, I'm keeping myself busy. The funny thing is, once I decided to start making music again for fun, instead of trying to "make it", I haven't had a minutes rest…and I LOVE IT!

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