While Michael is probably best known for his guitar playing, his hands are ever-increasingly involved in the production of Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship’s multi-platinum recordings. Through his session work for Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Dashboard Confessional, Pink, Taylor Swift, and Train) Michael was able to watch how one of the most respected producers in the business turned tracks into magic. Whether you’re an aspiring guitarist, producer, or both, Michael’s story is a great read. So much so that we opted to split his interview into two issues rather than edit it down. Be sure to tune in next month to hear how the song “Oceans” almost got dropped before ever leaving the recording studio.
[Michael Guy Chislett] I was eight years old.
[WM] Who were some of your early influences?
[Michael] Stray Cats. That’s why I started playing the Gretsch guitars. My older brother used to play a lot of Stray Cats, as well as an Australian band called Cold Chisel, who were a big influence when I was young. And I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix, and then after my parents got divorced I was able to listen to any music I wanted, and that’s when I discovered The Beatles. That was when I was about thirteen. I guess I’ve been on quite a big musical journey while growing up. I was very obsessed with music.
[WM] What were some of the iconic guitar records that really shaped your guitar playing?
[Michael] Me and my friends were always into the U2 albums, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. That would be where I got a lot of my delay ideas from. Other than that, it would have been OK Computer by Radiohead. That album came out when I was fifteen, along with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? from Oasis, and The Colour and the Shape by Foo Fighters. I feel like that was a really big year for music. Also, Weezer came out with an album called Pinkerton. All of those albums were sort of “post-grunge”, and I think I was at the perfect age to really understand those kind of albums, and they were a big influence on me.
[WM] Are you a total gearhead? Do you sell anything, or do you just hoard it and keep it all in a room somewhere?
[Michael] I don’t sell stuff because I’m not really organized enough. I always have a fear of wishing that I had a certain piece of gear that I may have let go. I feel like every piece of gear has a particular vibe and a particular sound. Sometimes I just fall in love with stuff, and I’ll always come back to it if I need that vibe.
[WM] Are there any pieces that you sold, or one that you saw in a shop but didn’t buy, that you feel like was the “one that got away”?
[Michael] I don’t think so. I think I’ve always been pretty lucky with stuff. I came from a pretty poor family, so if there was ever anything that I wanted I had to really get creative with how to get it. I used to borrow a lot of money and work crazy long hours to pay for stuff. I feel like I try not to be too materialistic with stuff as well. I feel like, if I have it then I’m lucky, and if I don’t, then it is what it is.
[WM] You are in the producer’s seat for Hillsong United and for the last four albums for Hillsong Worship. How much would you tether that to your experience in L.A. working with people like producer Butch Walker?
[Michael] Butch Walker was a huge influence on me as a producer, because he is like no one else I’ve ever met before. He’s unbelievable. He can pretty much play any instrument, which I envy because I can’t play keyboards and many other things I’m not as good at. But he can play just about anything, as well as being an amazing singer.
When I was young, we would make live albums. We would just push record and then the next day we would go into the studio and try and put the album back together again. Butch Walker’s approach was to get the songs and the parts right, and then push record, which obviously makes sense now, but at the time we were doing it backwards.
That’s how I stepped in with Hillsong United and Hillsong Worship. I’d been working with Butch and I suddenly realized that we’ve got the talent for it, we just need to re-position how we’re doing it and try to spend more time working on some of these songs and getting the vibes early rather than trying to get the vibe after the album’s been recorded.
[WM] One of my favorite things about the early records is that it feels like you’re just the guy with a Gretsch and an AC30 or two, just banging away. I love that about your playing. That hasn’t disappeared as you’ve matured, but at the same time your approach, as a band, at making records is crazy interesting. Matt Crocker posted a thing from when you guys were doing Empires, with just this kind of blank slate as you were at the recording studio. And basically, the songs just kind of happened, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, and you just sat there and worked things out and it just happened in the studio. That being said, quite often your guitar parts will exist before these amazing lyrics that these guys are writing are layered on top of them. Do you find yourself, as the lyrics evolve, needing to change your parts? Or is it that the parts were the bed upon which those lyrics rested?
[Michael] It’s easily both ways because a lot of the time the music inspires the lyrics. There’s been situations where we’ve tried to create a soundscape that is like a bright, sunny afternoon, and then once you get the lyrics it’s darker and colder. I would say that, guitar-wise, maybe thirty or forty percent of what we record actually gets heard, so we really go to town and try to explore every avenue. A lot of the time, in the mix, Joel will say, “I wish we had a brighter guitar part here,” and I’ll say, “Well, you’re in luck because we’ve got three of them just sitting there doing nothing.” And then we’ll sift through and find one that fits. This is what makes Joel Houston really good to work with, is that at the last minute he will fall in love with a guitar part. Whereas with me, I get to a point where I think the three that I’ve got are good, but I’ve had them for a while and I’m not sure which one is the best. But he can usually pull stuff out and make it the main thing, and it usually ends up really good.
So, my job is really to facilitate a situation where he’s going to be able to do that. Mix wise, we’ve done the last four albums the same way. We try to give enough space where we can start with an acoustic guitar, or a piano, or an electric guitar, there’s really quite a few options that we can do. It really does start to take shape once we’ve got the lyrics. That’s the part that people remember five years from now, not necessarily the guitar part.
[WM] Unless you’re a guitar player! As a producer, does that kind of feel like working in insanity? Does that organic approach work the same way you would work with another band, or are you just flexible as a producer and you’re willing to just let the music evolve naturally?
[Michael] Working with Joel, I feel like the chaos usually brings a lot of really good vibes. We usually get good songs while working with the chaos. I could see how other people wouldn’t enjoy the process. A lot of the time, we’ll spend two weeks working and not have gotten a song. Some people would go crazy doing it that way. But then usually after that point, if you push on through, that’s when the good stuff happens. You’ve really got to like the people you’re working with and respect the process to be able to work that way, which I think these guys do.
We spent four months on this last album, which is a lot faster than Empires, which we spent about nine months on. And I would say that quality wise, it’s not any different. It was just the journey of trying to catch the songs that was different. If I was to work with another band, I would try to figure out who the main songwriter was and then try to figure out the best way to get the best out of that writer. Some people work really well nine to five. Other people want to go away and work for twenty hours in a cabin in the woods. It really depends.
[WM] In terms of success, you guys have had a bunch. How do you keep yourselves humble?
[Michael] We travel all the time, and everyone asks who we are because we have so many guitar cases and equipment and stuff. And we say, “Hillsong United”, and most people don’t really know who that is. There’s been situations where we’ve won awards and stuff, but it doesn’t really stick in the forefront of what we do. It’s very easy to stay humble. I feel like at church especially, there are a lot of people who are very talented musicians and great songwriters. Legitimately, there are at least five other guitar players who are as good as I am, if not better, so it’s easy to stay humble in the situation that we’re in.
[WM] Let’s talk guitars for a second. If you were to describe the sonic identity of a Telecaster, a Jazzmaster, and a Gretsch, and you think of a certain sound that you’re going for, describe the psychology of why you reach for a certain instrument, whether it’s tone, feel, or texture. Describe how you think of them in those circumstances.
[Michael] It’s funny, because a lot of people will wonder why I have the different guitars. Even the guys we tour with will ask if we can’t just travel with one guitar, because it would be so much easier. It’s crazy, but they are so different, sonically. The White Falcon, it’s a hard guitar to play, but once you get used to it, it’s like driving a really old car. You have to be really careful, and you’re really going to hear it if you drive too fast around a corner. There’s something about that sound that I really like. I like it brighter. Some people think that they’re too harsh, and then too tubby if it’s on the neck pickup. But I feel like it’s the perfect range, especially if you’re doing riffs and stuff. It’s my “go to” for two-note or three-note riffs. And then something like the Telecaster is so even and clean and quite snappy sounding. It’s great for rhythm playing and it’s good for a lot of overdriven stuff, whereas the White Falcon doesn’t handle the overdriven stuff too well. And then, with the Jazzmaster, I love how the top end is really harsh, but if you play it not too heavy, it’s really sweet. If you pick it a bit too much, it almost feels like it’s over-compressed as a natural sound out of the guitar, which is a really interesting sound. Over the last 8 or 9 years I’ve really gotten into the Jazzmaster sound just because it has a glassy, chimey sound to it. If you put that with an old Vox or a Matchless amp it really cuts through the PA, that’s for sure.
[WM] Do you have a preference on guitar amp mics?
[Michael] For as long as I can remember, when playing live, we always have used the Shure SM57’s. I think it’s easier for them to make it fit in the PA. Now, I usually use the Royer 121 and the SM57 mics in combo in the studio, which I think is a pretty standard thing to do these days. It’s hard to travel with the 121’s though, because they’re ribbon mics, and if you bust a ribbon on tour, it’s not good.
One of the big secrets that I do when recording guitars is to put a ribbon microphone on the cone of the amp. Everyone knows that you don’t want to put an SM57 on the cone because it sounds terrible. It’s the harshest part of the amp. But if you put a Royer 121 on the cone, it picks up the harshest part, but the Royer is quite a dull sounding microphone so it makes it sound quite sweet. But then if you put that through an API EQ, like a 550a EQ, and you boost 7k or 10k, that’s basically my secret. Sometimes I’ll boost about 8db of 10k, because amps really do that very smoothly.
[WM] So you’re an API guy and not a Neve guy? Or does it depend on what you’re doing?
[Michael] I pretty much use API EQ’s for everything. Maybe Neve stuff for drums. I use a lot of Neve pre-amps depending on the situation. Those and the Chandler 500 series pre-amps. If you have a bright sounding guitar and you want to make it brighter, I feel like the API EQ is the perfect thing for it.
[WM] Any other favorite studio guitar tricks, while we’re on the subject?
[Michael] I’ve been re-amping a lot of stuff lately, which is a lot of fun. I’ll record the direct input of the guitar, maybe while listening to my amp, but I’ll get the original DI signal that I’ve recorded and I’ll run it through four or five different effects and pick and choose between effects. It’s like running parallel effects. It’s the one guitar performance, but you can do a lot of things with it. I’ve been doing that now for the last two years, and it’s been awesome.
[WM] Do you have a mic pre that you prefer when you do the re-amping?
[Michael] I go out of the Radial X-amp 500 Series Reamper, and then I go into the pedalboard and then back into the room. Another thing with guitar amps, the Chandler Germanium preamps are really awesome. With the feedback quite high it makes them nice and harmonic. But the Radial Reamp is what I’ve been using a lot.
[WM] You’ve said that there are sometimes three or four guitar parts in the mix. As you’re crafting parts with Dylan Thomas, how do you decide who is going to play what part? And then how do you go about divvying them up when you play them live?
[Michael] I’ve known Dylan since we were really young. His dad used to be the manager for the first band that we were all in, so I’ve known him since he was about twelve years old. He’s quite a bit younger than me, but he’s one of the few people who are pretty much on the same wavelength as me. I’ll get caught up on a concept of what I want the guitar to feel like, but I won’t really have the notes figured out. Dylan will grab the guitar and get seventy percent of the way there. Then I’ll grab it and get eighty percent. Then he’ll grab it and get ninety percent. And it’s usually whoever is playing the part when it gets to one hundred percent will be the one who gets to play it. We’re not too precious about who gets to play it on the albums.
Dylan was in a car accident when he was young, so he has kind of a funny memory. He remembers some stuff really well, and other stuff not so well. We’ll work on a guitar part for maybe three hours in the middle of the night, go home, and come back the next day, and Dylan will be like, “Wow! This is an amazing guitar part! When did we do this?” And I’ll say, “This is what you played last night!” And he’ll say, “I played that? That sounds awesome!” It gives me an extra sense of assurance that we’ve done a good job, when he loves it the second time as though it were the first time. And that’s happened at least twenty times.
There’s a style that Dylan has and some stuff that comes very naturally to him. Even parts that he plays sometimes will be something that I’ve come up with. You can see on the albums that there’s usually a particular taste. So we kind of just stick with whoever can reproduce that part naturally. It’s pretty easy for us to figure that out.
[WM] For me, Wonder is a very different album from a production perspective. It finally dawned on me as I was listening to it, that this is more like Sgt. Pepper meets Abbey Road than anything I’ve heard you guys do. There is this Beatles-esque element to this recording where it feels like an album versus a bunch of worship songs that got recorded. How conscious of that were you?
[Micheal] I was very obsessed with George Harrison when I was growing up. He was another reason why I thought the Gretsch vibe was so cool. There was a period with The Beatles where it went from being a four-piece to the song being the most important thing. They would do all sorts of different things, like strings and horns and full orchestral sections. I produced an EP for Hillsong Worship, What A Beautiful Name, which came out at the start of this year. One of the things it has is a string section. The song is called “What a Beautiful Name (Orchestral Selah)” The guy that worked on the strings lives in Melbourne, and I reached out and asked him if he’d be interested in doing some stuff for us. We had a really tight turnaround, but I had a really good idea of what we wanted. The concept was that we didn’t want to have big thick guitars and stuff, we wanted it to feel like the emotions comes from strings and orchestra sounds. Rather than having beat guitars it would have horns fitting that same spectrum. We sent him a bunch of MIDI stuff, and he got a bunch of players together from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Orchestra. He tracked that for us pretty early in the process, and then Dylan and I had the funny time of trying to fit the guitars back into it. I can mute anything I want, because I’m in charge, but at the same time I felt like some of the emotion was a better payoff coming from the horns than it would have been doing beat guitar parts. I feel like trying to fit guitar back into it definitely made me play more like George Harrison than some of the other stuff that we’ve done in the past.
When Joel was writing the song “Shadow Step”, which is the second song on the album, he kept trying to finish the song, and while finishing it realized that the lyrics didn’t fit on the album, so he would then put some of those lyrics onto another song. He did that six or seven times, so the whole album has a theme. Like, the word “wonder” is sung about eight times on different songs. So that helps people see it as a concept album. Actually, you could probably see the last four Hillsong United studio albums as concept albums. Joel has a really interesting way of framing songs, but then also making them fit into a jigsaw puzzle as a whole album. It gives me a headache when trying to produce it, because I have to record so many lyrics and vocals, and then when one song changes I have to change a couple of different lines in each song. But when it’s all finished it is definitely a nice body of work.