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Michael Chaves might not be a household name, but chances are you've heard his playing. A veteran player on the L.A. scene, Chaves has played on albums by and toured with artists like John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, Sarah McLachlan, Iggy Pop, and many more. Now a member of Low Millions, Chaves is putting most of his energy into taking the band to the big time. We spoke with Michael recently on a number of subjects, including his beginnings, his gear, and his influences.
Musician's Friend: Tell us about your first experiences with playing music.
Michael Chaves: I'll tell you exactly how it happened. When I was maybe seven or eight, I think one of the first songs I played on a '66 Fender Mustang, which belonged to my older brother. I still have it—it's a beautiful guitar. It's the red one with the racing stripes on it. I think I played "Day Tripper" by the Beatles on it and slowly, I tried to teach myself. I think there was a turning point in 1980 when my older brothers brought the first U2 record into the house, Boy. When I heard it, I was a 10-year-old kid, but it really, really changed my life. I learned that entire record; not only on the guitar, I learned the drums, I learned the bass, I was singing along to it. I knew that record backward and forward as a 10-year-old. And from there on, it's kind of obvious in the tones I go for. I really, really like what the Edge does with things, you know?
MF: Did getting into bands and playing with other people come easily?
MC: I think when I was 12 I was in a classic rock cover band doing that whole bit of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," "Purple Haze," and Zeppelin tunes. That was 1982.
MF: You mentioned you were playing the Mustang. What did you have for an amp in those days?
MC: I owe my brothers so much when it comes to gear. They both had guitars and amps in the house. There was a mid-70's Silverface Deluxe Reverb, which they bought brand new. That was the amp at that time.
MF: Do you remember the name of your first band?
MC: I think it was called Stonehenge.
MF: You mentioned what a big influence The Edge has been on you. What other players do you admire and pick things up from?
MC: There's a guy out there, a producer and player, named Daniel Lanois, who is my all-time hero, right down to the tone, the finger-picking. I've had the pleasure to meet him. I ran into him in LA and worked in his studios. Not directly with him, but I've been there, and played his guitars and played his amps. I feel so fortunate to run in the circle of musicians that he knows. I can't say enough that I'm a fan of music first, then a musician. When I was in high school, I didn't even know what a producer was. And whether it was Peter Gabriel's So in 1986, or (U2's) The Joshua Tree and Unforgettable Fire, he was the one constant name on these great records that I was loving at the time. I would see "Daniel Lanois" and think, "Who is this guy?" As a teenager I discovered what a producer was and I followed his career from then on.
MC: During the making of the record, he becomes an unofficial member of the band. He is just as important as the drummer, the bass player, and the singer. He needs to grasp the vision and help the band sort it out. There are a lot of ideas from a lot of people, so somebody's gotta call the shots. He helps synthesize the positions of many people into one. It's not an easy thing to do, especially in a band where you've got four or five great musicians who bring so much to the table.
MF: Tell us about how you adjust your playing when you play with John Mayer.
MC: It's such an interesting dichotomy. We are completely different players, and I think that's why he liked me and why we worked together so well. I can create a foundation for him to just do his thing. A lot of times there were sounds coming out of my amps where you'd think it was a keyboard player, and that lays down a really good foundation for him to just go and do his thing.
MF: It seems like a lot of players can play good leads but have trouble backing someone up.
MC: You're right. The average concert-goer, they're gonna notice that guy who's out front doing his thing, but I agree, sometimes the rhythm section completely gets overlooked. It could be Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan playing in the band and someone at the show probably won't even remember what they looked like.[laughs]
MF: Do you think less-experienced guitarists underestimate the importance of rhythm playing?
MC: Absolutely. I think it's important for anybody who's coming up and learning to fill some space first before you get into that "look at me" phase.
MF: How did you learn those skills?
MC: When I started to form bands in high school and write my own music, I was the only guitar player, so I really tried to fill a lot of space. And that's how I learned to mimic some keyboard sounds, you know, getting some crazy sounds out of the pedals to fill some space. I've always been a fan of the pad, a long sustaining chord coming out of the guitar that just sounds haunting. People look around—"Where is that coming from? There's no keyboard player up there!" [laughs]
MF: Do you get to play a lot of lead in Low Millions?
MC: Oh yeah. In Low Millions I definitely step out a bit.
MF: What was the first major break for you? How did you kind of slip into what you're doing now? How'd you hook up with John?
MC: My first big tour was with a guy named Duncan Sheik.That steamrolled into meeting a lot of different people and a lot of different musicians. It was my mid-20s, and I was just starting to meet people. I had done some records with Iggy Pop (1999's Avenue B), Marianne Faithfull (1999's Vagabond Ways)—all through Lanois's circle of people. There was a Rufus Wainwright record in there (2001's Poses), and I think that might have had a little bit to do with John Mayer's gig. John really loved that record.
MF: So did John call you up for an audition?
MC: I have a funny story about meeting John Mayer. It was an audition in Los Angeles, and literally the same day I had an audition with the Wallflowers—they were looking for a guitar player. When it rains it pours. [laughs] The funny thing is, I had scheduled the Wallflowers audition a week in advance. I had learned the material. I was ready to go. I was excited about it. I mean, "One Headlight" was a huge tune. To go learn that and play that with Jakob (Dylan) and the boys—I was excited. And then, the night before—it's kinda late—I get a call saying, "Hey, can you come down and audition for John Mayer, he's in town." At this time I didn't know who he was. I almost hesitated because of my schedule. I didn't think I could do it. Plus, I didn't have time to learn the material. So, I said yes and that night I went and picked up the CD. I was instructed to learn three songs, but I was so tired that I only learned two. I just couldn't do it, it was late at night. So I got up in the morning. I had about an hour to actually run some more material, and I ran over "One Headlight" and the Wallflowers material. [laughs]
MF: Because you figured that was more important at that point?
MC: It was just the fact that there's so little time, I'm never gonna learn John's stuff, no way. I need to dedicate a few more hours to that, not one hour. So I brushed up on the Wallflowers stuff. I went to the audition, and I killed it. I walked out of there and thought, "I'm a Wallflower. This is amazing." It felt so good; everything about it was right. Then I go to John's audition and we play, and we play. I even told him that I couldn't learn all three songs. I really didn't wanna half-ass three songs, so I got two of them. So we played the two songs, and he wanted to jam a little more. The gig was offered on the spot, which never happens. You usually go home and get called later, if at all. But, it was offered on the spot. I had to say yes, of course. He was obviously a special cat. Hearing the songs, his melodies—he's a great songwriter. And on top of that, he's an incredible guitar player. He takes some time to really, really get a song together. He's hands-down one of the great songwriters out there. He can write great pop songs, and he connects like no other. I have the fondest memories of playing with John. Just seeing John looking at the crowd and seeing them connect was amazing.
MF: Are you guys still working together at all?
MC: We stay in touch, absolutely. We email and we talk from time to time if we're in the same city. You know he came out to our New York show when we were there. But he's taking time off, and he's making new records. I know he's doing what he has been dying to do—he's gonna go out with a blues trio. He needs to do it, and he should. He's in a position where he can. He can just set the pop thing aside for a minute and go play some guitar.
MF: Have you had the opportunity to work with any of your other heroes?
MC: I can think of a session that I did with Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz—you know, big-time L.A. session cats. And a bass player called Daryl Johnson. He's worked a lot with Daniel (Lanois) and Emmylou Harris. These guys to me have made some of the most influential records of all time, and for me to be in the same room with them was a little scary. It was pretty damn intimidating. There's a producer in L.A. called Mark Howard and he, like Daniel, likes live-in-the-studio recording. When we make records, the whole band sets up and we cut. Run it down a few times and grab the best take. We're looking at each other, we're nodding our heads—it's making music how it's supposed to be made.
MF: When Low Millions performs live, do you stick to the album versions of the songs or do you experiment a bit?
MC: I think it depends on the song. For instance, we've had some success with our first single, "Eleanor," and we stay really close to the record on that because some fans don't really wanna hear what they're familiar with all twisted and bent.
MF: Are you ever surprised at how the audience reacts to what you consider an off night?
MC: Yeah, that's happened so many nights with John. I mean, we're talking over 200 shows a year for three years that I've done with John. By the end there were eight people in the band. With eight people in the band, not everyone is gonna have a good night every night. The thing that blew me away was we would walk off the stage and four, maybe five of us would look at each other and go, "Wow, what was that? It was just one of those off nights, right?" Then I would go to the sound guy, listen to the playback of the previous evening, and say, "Wait a second, are you playing me the right date? Because it sounds great!" [laughs] I don't think you can ever tell from the stage. It might not feel right but it probably sounds OK.
MF: Have you had many of those those magic nights when everybody's on?
MC: Oh, there are a lot of those, man. I can cite instances, or cities at least. I know that has happened in Chicago. I know when we sold out Madison Square Garden with Mayer it was magical, absolutely magical. Everyone was on. The thing is, you know, we're all professionals so we know our bad shows aren't bad, but our good shows are great. [laughs]
MF: How did Low Millions come together?
MC: It's funny because Adam Cohen and I have been writing and recording demos for about five years, since before I met John (Mayer). Some of the demos that we did happened to have gotten a deal while I was out on the road with John. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The Low Millions record was released last fall when John decided to take a break. I literally left John, I think in Atlanta, got on a plane, and met up with Low Millions in Nashville, and here we are, man. We've been on the road ever since. I actually juggled gigs between Low Millions and John last fall because I was still committed to John for the rest of the year. There were a few gigs here and there. I made half of this Low Millions record in hotel rooms around the world while touring with John.
MF: How did you do that? Somebody sends you tracks?
MC: Adam would send me an mp3 of a song, and I would load it in my Pro Tools. I've got my MBox, a bunch of pedals and goodies, and some Line 6 stuff to try to do the best I can to make it sound good. Sometimes I would have my Champ in the room and I would mic it up.
MF: A Fender Champ?
MC: Yeah, which is a great recording amp by the way. To anybody out there getting into the game, an old Fender Champ is incredible. So, I've literally recorded these tracks, and I would do 10, 11 different ideas and then send them back. Because I wasn't home, and I had to make the record. [laughs] But yeah, he would email me mp3s and I would do my thing and send them back.
MF: But you weren't laying down tracks in mp3, right?
MC: I didn't send him mp3s back. He would send me an mp3 of the rough track, I would import it into Pro Tools, put it on a grid, and because I knew the BPM, I would play exactly to it. Say I did eight different ideas, and I got eight tracks going. Then, I would bounce those down to wav files, you know, huge files that I can't email. So I would either post them on a server for him to download or burn them all to a CD and FedEx it.
MC: Yep. He would import it into the session, and they now have eight guitar tracks to work with.
MF: Amazing technology these days, isn't it?
MC: I know.
MF: 10-15 years ago, we couldn't come close to what we can do today.
MC: No way. I'd just spend a fortune in flights on my day off! [laugh]
MF: What's your main amp onstage?
MC: It's a 1961 Vox AC30.
MF: How about guitars?
MC: Right now I'm just traveling with a couple of Les Paul Standards with P90s.
MF: What effects do you use on a nightly basis?
MC: Oh, it's pretty outrageous, man. [laugh] You should see us trying to check in a flight with my pedalboards! [laughs]
MF: Which Line 6 stompbox modelers do you use?
MC: I use all of those. I think they're great; they have everything in them and they're programmable. For instance, the different types of delay in the delay unit (DL4), or all the modulation units in the blue pedal (MM4). It's so convenient and they do a good job. I also use the original DigiTech Whammy and the original Ibanez Tube Screamer. I love the Voodoo Lab stuff a lot too. The Sparkle Drive is great.
MF: Do you have any rack gear or do you stick mostly with pedals?
MC: Both. My rack has pedals in it. [laughs]
MF: How do you switch them all?
MC: I use the Ground Control by Voodoo Lab. It sends MIDI signals, it programs. It's a nightmare when it goes down, it's hilarious. When something goes down, it's really funny because I show up the next day, it's like I'm under the hood of my car or something. I'm in there just going, "OK, what happened last night?"
MF: Do you have a backup in case something goes out in the middle of a show?
MC: Yeah, I do have backup plans in place. There's a button I can hit to just go direct to the amp and bypass everything. If all else fails, I can just go into my reissue AC30, which I also have up there.
MF: What is success to you?
MC: I think I measure success by how I feel night to night. If I'm ever out there and not having fun onstage, if my head's not in it, if I'm not thinking about the show and the music, and having a good time, or if I ever come off and think, "That was work," then I think it might be time to go home. If I had a good night, we made some good friends and good fans, and we had a good show, that's success for that evening. Let's move on to tomorrow. Put it this way—last fall when I was juggling Low Millions and John Mayer gigs, literally in a 24-hour period I would be on a charter plane to Aruba, playing a gig in front of 20,000 people and then hours later I'm back in a van with six guys playing to 20 people. [laughs] It's all fun for me, man.
MF: You have a great attitude Michael, and I'm sure that's had a lot to do with your success in the music industry. Thanks for talking with us today!
MC: No problem! Take care.