MJJC: What exactly is the job of a technical director and what did this position entail, as you worked in this role on some of the MJ albums?
Brad Sundberg: There is the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is “be ready for anything.” The long answer would go something like this: My responsibility was to have whatever recording studio we worked in, anywhere in the world, be up to Michael Jackson quality. I worked very closely with Bruce Swedien (not just on MJ albums, but also Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, among others), and his attention to detail is second-to-none. Every microphone, every patch-point, every machine and device in the studio had to tested and (if possible) calibrated to perfection. It was not uncommon for this process alone to take 1-2 weeks before the projecting would even start. The funny thing is that so few production teams do this, yet it is a vital part of the reason our projects sounded so good.
Additionally, I would be involved in day-to-day recording, setting up microphones, headphones, booking studios, keeping tapes organized, getting Michael’s hot water ready for his vocals, transcribing Michael’s lyrics for the liner notes, even making coffee! With various production teams working on the same project, it made for long yet very rewarding days. The hard work and dedication was also very rewarding in that I was privileged to see and be a part of so much musical history being created.
MJJC: Were you a fan of Michael’s before you started working on his team back in the Captain EO days?
Brad Sundberg: As I kid growing up in Santa Cruz, CA in the 70s, I listened to a lot of music: Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, etc., but I also loved dance music like Abba, The BeeGees, Gloria Gaynor, Blondie, Donna Summer and of course Michael Jackson. I found myself sort of “dissecting” songs as I listened to them, because I wanted to understand every sound, every reverb and effect. I played the “Thriller” album until it was scratched and worn out, so I bought another copy. The depth of sound blew me away, even before I understood recording. Yes, I was a fan.
MJJC: What are your top 3 favorite songs from Michael and why?
Brad Sundberg: That’s a tough one, but here goes:
1) Human Nature. I have always loved that song, and my friend Steve Porcaro knows it. We recorded a follow-up to it called “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” but it didn’t quite make the “Dangerous” album.
2) Smooth Criminal. The bass line, the groove, David Williams insane rhythm guitar, Jerry Hey’s horn section, Quincy directing this who’s-who of musicians and Michael front and center… it’s an amazing piece of work! I wish you could have been there.
3) Lady In My Life. It was never a single, but what a record. Speaking from a technical standpoint, it is like a 5-minute recording class. Every sound is pure and simple. From a musical standpoint, I am a huge fan of Rod Temperton. I have worked with Rod for years, and he is pure genius. Beautiful song.
4) I know, you only asked for 3, but I’m feeling generous. Streetwalker. This is the little engine that could. That song blew me away every time I heard it, but Quincy didn’t like it. I remember driving home from the studio one night after Michael recorded the lead vocal, and I was listening to it in my car, with the sunroof open at like 3 in the morning. I nearly blew the speakers out, singing along at the top of my lungs. It may not be the most well-crafted songwriting, but that groove grabs you and will not let you go.
It isn’t fair to have a list than doesn’t include Will You Be There, Who Is It, Earth Song, Stranger In Moscow, Billie Jean, Startin’ Something, She’s Out Of My Life, Jam, etc. I never was good at following the rules.
MJJC: You said Michael commissioned you to bring music to virtually every corner of Neverland. What kind of music was played on the grounds of Neverland? What types of music was on the playlists that Michael created for those particular areas of the ranch?
Brad Sundberg: I don’t want to give too much away, but there was one unbreakable rule at Neverland: Michael would not allow his music to be played, despite my protests. But he was the boss, so his vote was stronger than mine.
The grounds (around the lake, main house, guest houses, etc.) played a custom playlist of classical and Disney favorites. In the amusement park he selected songs by Janet, Yes and Joe Satriani. Seriously. Even some Van Halen and Led Zeppelin was selected on certain rides. In the horse area and petting zoo behind the amusement park we went with more traditional cowboy music. The trains also played primarily classical music.
MJJC: Of all the songs that you worked on with MJ in the studio, what was your favorite? Or what song had a creative process, from the demos to the finished song, that was impressive and just blew you away?
Brad Sundberg: Another tough one, because there are so many. I think I will go with Man In The Mirror. I was still learning my way around the studio, and it was an honor to be asked to sit in and watch, learn and help on the Bad album.
Man in the Mirror was such a big song, such a huge production we all knew it was unstoppable. I was able to see the initial track being recorded, the various musicians bringing their talents, the layers of vocal harmonies, the Andre Crouch choir, and finally the commanding lead vocals with Siedah and Michael. There was so much talent in Westlake Studio D during that time that it was mind-blowing. Bruce and Michael would play that song at full, and I mean full volume (118 db) to any guest that stopped by. People would be speechless, sometimes teary, when the final note rung out.
MJJC: Can you tell us in detail exactly how the demo process was? What would MJ say to you after playing his ideas and how involved were the rest of you besides MJ; did you just do everything he said or was it collaboration with him listening to your input ideas with the arrangements?
Brad Sundberg: There was no regular or exact way the demos came to be, but it was not uncommon for Michael to ask one of us to work with him after a session on a new song.
We would bring in a keyboard player/programmer (John Barnes, Michael Boddicker, Larry Williams, Rhett Lawrence, Brad Buxer) and Michael would sing the groove and rhythm tracks to us. The programmer would translate Michael’s request into the drum machine. The bass and melody line would be added. Usually we would record a scratch vocal, and some harmony vocals, just for reference. The whole process might take 3 or 4 hours, and the song was born. It was very collaborative, and many ideas were accepted and recorded. Not every idea was kept and used, but it was very much a group effort of kicking around ideas and trying them out.
MJJC: If you could describe the most difficult aspect on working as part of the production team on a Michael Jackson album – what would it be?
Brad Sundberg: SLEEP!!! The hours were rough, as I would typically be at the studio 2 hours before anyone else, and quite often 2-3 hours after everyone left. My day usually started around 9-10 am, and often lasted until 2 am, and I lived about 40 minutes from the studio. That’s not bad for a few days, but try it for 10 -14 months. Still, I honestly loved going to work. Once in the studio, the teams were great to work with. Good food, beautiful studios, great music, incredible talent – I didn’t have a lot to complain about.
MJJC: Which project during your time working with Michael, would you say has impacted your career the most?
Brad Sundberg: Dangerous. It was a transitional time for me. I was running my installation business BSUN Media Systems (which I really enjoy), and working in the studio at the same time. Quincy was not part of the project, which felt odd. The music industry and what the public was listening to was changing, so Michael used three production teams on the project, which was brilliant.
On a technical level, we were making and breaking all of the rules with more tracks, more studios, bigger mixes, etc. I think the song Jam was something like 160 tracks on 4-tape machines, which had to mixed on 2 consoles in 2 studios at the same time. It was nuts, but we made it happen. I suppose I would say it impacted my career (both in and out of the studio) in terms of not being afraid to try anything, and push for perfection all the time.
MJJC: Over the years, working on the albums from Bad to Blood on the Dance Floor, how did MJ mature or change? How did he improve?
Brad Sundberg: During Captain EO he was still almost a kid, just 5 years older than me. I can honestly say that his humor, his level of trust, his commitment to excellence, and his love of performing and creating didn’t change or diminish, if anything it blossomed with age. I think in the later albums he started experimenting with songs and sounds like Morphine and Ghosts. Darker themes, but great grooves.
MJJC: How did MJ work in the album selection stages, how did he choose the songs for his albums? Do you have some inside info about what and why the songs we know got chosen and not the ones that weren’t? And are there any good examples of songs that almost made the cut on any album that we haven`t heard that you thought could have been a super hit today?
Brad Sundberg: The infamous cork board!! On every album I recall, he would have a cork-board on an easel in his lounge/office. Every song title was written on a 3 x 5 index card, and they would be tacked to the board, in order of strongest to weakest. These would move around on the board as new parts were added, new songs recorded, etc. Generally, depending on the project, this was Quincy/Michael/Bruce driven. Once the 15 or songs would be chosen, the board was used more for song-order on the album.
As for songs that almost made it: My personal favorites were Streetwalker, Someone Put Your Hand Out, and Monkey Business.
MJJC: Do you remember any of Michael’s songs that remain unreleased to this day and if yes, which ones are your favorites? Can you tell us a little about these unreleased songs?
Brad Sundberg: Sorry – I know many songs, but I am going to pass on that one.
MJJC: How good was Michael at operating the buttons and stuff in the studio, would he get more into that after you worked with him for some years?
Brad Sundberg: Michael was not technical at all. Zero! He might nudge a fader now and then, but he was not adjusting EQs or reverb settings. That said, I do think the studio was so comfortable for him, almost like going home. It was very safe and a place he could just work, laugh and be himself.
MJJC: How many instruments could MJ really play? Which instruments were those and how good was he? (Honestly)
Brad Sundberg: He could play melodies on a keyboard, but I wouldn’t call him a great player. Keep in mind when you have Greg Phillinganes and Randy Kerber on speed-dial, you don’t really need much more. Before my time he played the bottle-sound percussion on “Don’t Stop.” Michael’s instrument was his voice – we had plenty of talent to handle everything else.
MJJC: What did your tour prep for MJ’s tours consist of?
Brad Sundberg: Tour prep was the time after the album was released (or in pressing), and the band was in rehearsals. Essentially we had to re-work the songs to make them easier for Michael to sing and perform them show after show. This is something I go into considerable detail discussing in my seminars.
MJJC: Please tell us more about “Keep the Faith” and how you had to scrap the original version and re-record a new version in an all-night session?
Brad Sundberg: Sorry I need to pass on that one for now, as it is one that I dig into in the seminar. I can’t give too much away! : )
MJJC: We would love to hear a story based on personal experience working with MJ. What is one of your most memorable?
Brad Sundberg: He was remarkably curious, and loved my daughters. When my daughter Amanda was just a toddler, my wife Debbie would bring her into the studio (during Dangerous) so we could see each other once in a while. Michael would be on the floor with Amanda, on her blanket, playing with toys and characters. He would say, “She’s in her own little world isn’t she?”
Another time we delivered one of the trains to the ranch. I had been installing a huge music system on the train, so it would be ready when Michael first saw it. He was beyond excited, laughing and smiling as we got it fired up. Deb and Amanda were at the ranch that day, and he held Amanda’s hand as the train made its inaugural circle around the ranch. He could not stop smiling.
MJJC: What is the fondest memory that you have of Michael (as a human being, not as an artist?)
Brad Sundberg: Make-A-Wish Foundation. When Neverland was ready for guests, we would start seeing guests from all over the world, who wanted to spend time with Michael. Many of these young guests were part of the Make-A-Wish program, and they were gravely ill. For Michael to take them on a tour a ranch, let them touch a giraffe or ride on the Ferris Wheel goes way beyond what many people are willing to do. This was their final wish, and he was making it happen. I remember their faces, their grateful parents, and knowing that there would be immeasurable grief in their future. Michael was giving of his time, which was a huge gift.
MJJC: Did Michael play some pranks on you? Any funny story that you can tell us?
Brad Sundberg: It isn’t really a prank, but there is a funny memory I sometimes share. I have zero dance skills, yet I love dance music. It was very common for us to be working on a song like The Way You Make Me Feel, Jam, Bad, Streetwalker, etc., and I would be doing a head-bob to the beat. Michael would burst out laughing, saying “Brad is groovin’!,” I couldn’t’ help it… the music was so strong! This was part of the reason he started calling me “Really Really Brad.” I loved his teasing, because he was so good-natured and light-hearted.
MJJC: In your memoir you say, “I could write page after page of simple acts of kindness I have seen firsthand.” Can you remember a few? It’s always warms fans’ hearts to hear such stories.
Brad Sundberg: I already mentioned the Make-A-Wish visits on the ranch, but we also had visits in the studio from his friends and fans. We had some fans outside of the studio in New York during HIStory, and he brought them in a for a tour and some autographs. During the recording of a kid’s choir in New York, he had me dress as Santa and we gave them all Christmas gifts. When one of our assistant engineers was going in major surgery, we had a huge family dinner in the studio in his honor, and Michael showered him with gifts and movies. But again, he did these things in person, which made it all the more meaningful.
MJJC: How did Michael change over the years, according to your impression? (I don’t mean physically, or his alleged “eccentricities”. I mean in your personal communication with him what kind of changes in his character did you feel?)
Brad Sundberg: I was not his best friend, but I like to think I was a trusted friend. During those years I did not see any change in his character, in his child-like love of music, movies, fantasy, architecture, paintings, games, laughter, nature, etc. I don’t remember a single time of him walking into the studio or seeing him at the ranch or on stage at Radio City Music Hall where he didn’t greet me with a hug. The Michael I knew didn’t change, even as the world did.
MJJC: What has inspired you to come forward and share your experiences working with Michael, with his fans?
Brad Sundberg: After Michael died, I read an article in a magazine about how crazy it was working with Michael: Chimps and Elephant-Man bones and snakes and so on. I didn’t know the author, nor had he ever been to the studio or the ranch. It was always un-named sources and tabloid vomit. I got tired of the press and people who wanted to make a quick buck saying and writing whatever they wanted, with no shred of truth behind their words. I wrote a few articles about my years with Michael, and they were well-received.
A group of fans in Paris approached me and asked me to put together a seminar and really explore our years in the studio and at the ranch. I began writing a book (currently in the works), which tries to recap a story that took 18 years to live. Being totally honest, I want to try to document what it was like to work with one of the most unique entertainers in modern history. No speculation, no deep theories, just an introduction to someone I had great respect for and considered a friend. Yes, it might be for the fans, but it is also for my kids, and maybe Michael’s kids. I want them to know what it was like to be there, and to be part of such an amazing journey.
MJJC: What can fans hope to walk away with from your “In the Studio with Michael Jackson” seminars? What will be the highlights of the seminars in NYC and in Paris?
Brad Sundberg: I am hoping the above answers give you a clue. I was part of something very special. I wasn’t special, I was just part of an amazing team, at an amazing time. No two seminars are exactly alike. New memories surface, new stories are told. I hope when someone leaves the room after the seminar, they feel as though I have introduced them to a friend.
MJJC: Michael has fans in everywhere and unfortunately despite the desire to attend, many fans will not be able going to seminar because of the distance, are there plans to share the content in a book or do other seminars at different locations around the world?
Brad Sundberg: Yes, and yes! The book is in the works, but the crazy thing is that the seminars actually help bring those memories back into focus, so I want to do a few more before the book is finished. We are offering seminars in New York and Paris this year, with groups in Germany, Norway and the UK also expressing great interest. I hope to have a really cool one in LA in January, at Westlake, where it all started.
MJJC: Do you have anything you want to say to the members of MJJCommunity or Michael Jackson fans in general?
Brad Sundberg: Michael truly loved his fans. There is no tribute show or seminar or movie that can replace the talent that he was born with. I was blessed to have known him, and I cherish the memories of watching him practice a circular moonwalk in the studio, or singing scales with Seth, or watching him from the wings on stage in front of 100,000 screaming fans. I can hear his laughter as if he were sitting across the room from me. He was a professional, a perfectionist, an entertainer, a singer, a dancer, a dad and a friend. I miss him, and I know you do also. Thanks for letting me share a few memories with you.