This week, just a couple of weeks shy of the 18th anniversary of Michael Hutchence’s death, a new single, Friction was released into the Australian market. AM’s Greg Phillips spoke with Danny Saber, the guy who not only co-produced Michael’s solo album but was also responsible for this new recording.
On November 22nd, it will be 18 years since the death of enigmatic Australian rock singer Michael Hutchence. His band INXS achieved amazing success both here and overseas with their 1987 album Kick selling over ten million copies, spawning four top ten global hits. They were at one point, the most popular band in the world. Before his death, Michael had commenced work on a solo album with the assistance of Melbourne based musician Gus Till, who was also part of his Max Q project. The album was almost ready when Michael died and was completed in late 1997 by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and Black Grape’s Danny Saber but not released until 1999. The last song Hutchence ever worked on was track 2 off the album, ‘Possibilities’. It was co-written with LA based producer Danny Saber, who has also worked on music for David Bowie, Madonna, U2, Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy, as well producing a range of movie soundtracks.
Apart from the material which featured on Michael’s solo album, there were many more song ideas, vocal takes and assorted audio recordings which had been created in the process of making the record. Recently Danny Saber has been sifting through that material and from it, constructing new Michael Hutchence songs. This week saw the Australian release of one of those songs, Friction, as well as a couple of remixes. The international release initially came about in conjunction with the launch of a Michael Hutchence T-Shirt by fashion house Astrella. Saber had already been working on the Hutchence material for use as a soundtrack for a documentary which he hopes to get the green light on soon, when the American T-Shirt opportunity was presented to him.
“We wanted to put something out but didn’t want to just throw a song out with no mechanism behind it,” explains Saber. “We’re working on a documentary which looks like getting made and we’re holding most of the music back for that. When that gets made, we want to have a soundtrack to go with it. In the meantime, this T-shirt opportunity came up and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to put a song out, start some momentum and get Michael’s image back in people’s consciousness again in a fresh way. At the same time it was a cool, cutting edge way to put something out.”
For the track Friction, Saber had a complete Hutchence vocal take to work with, as well as some musical sketches which they had made at the time.
“There was some music there but I pretty much reworked all of the music,” Danny says. “There’s a lot of stuff … ideas he had been working on. He had really been trying to find a sound outside of the band. He had been working on this for a few years, even when I came into the picture. He had been making the rounds and writing with all different sorts of people and had built up a bunch of material. So we started with the material that was there and kind of got the sound right and then me and him started writing. There were tapes and all kinds of stuff that are in varying degrees of development. Friction was one of those. The way I approach everything is, I like to serve the song and in this case, the vocal. I mean, I knew Michael’s sensibilities. I knew what he liked and he’s always in mind when we are doing stuff. There was enough of a road map there. The vocals were so rich. If you listen to it, it will tell you what to do.”
In regard to the remixes Danny created for the track Friction, his philosophy was the same.
“It’s always about the vocal man,” he stresses. “There’s got to be something there with the vocal. The better the vocal is, the better the remix is going to be. I did this Bowie remix once where I literally stripped it down to a vocal and a click and grabbed an acoustic guitar and rewrote the whole song. I was able to play guitar to the vocal and come up with these whole new chords for his song Little Wonder. The vocal just made you want to play guitar, it was amazing but again, it’s David Bowie. There is so much vibe there. So to me it is all about building everything around the vocals and then within that, there is usually some sort of piece of the puzzle … one little sound or beat that will start the snowball effect creatively and open up the door.”
For a lot of the sounds used on the Hutchence track, Saber used the palette provided by Arturia’s Origin hardware and software.
“A lot of those sounds are from that box, the Origin and it’s a really cool box,” he tells me enthusiastically. “It’s funny with electronic stuff, a lot of times if you are working on a track, sounds unto themselves sound really cool but then when you put them with the track, sometimes they don’t sit right. But that Arturia thing always had a knack of fitting in real good. It’s an interesting box because I guess they recreated all of the architecture of all these synths virtually but this thing was really organic sounding. The sounds were frickin’ amazing.”
Saber is grateful for the time he got to spend with Hutchence and views it as a pivotal moment in his own career. He also looks back at it as a wonderful learning experience. “For me it was a special time because I had just broken through as a producer,” he explains. “I had done this Black Grape record and it was doing really well and it was cool but then it sort of opened up the door for me to work with all these other people by working with him. He had come to me because he was huge fan of that record. I was really young. I’d only made two or three records at that point.”
It was not just Michael’s talent that impressed Saber but also his thirst to develop as an artist and experience new things.
“Michael was the consummate front man but when a band is really successful like INXS, it becomes sort of like the changing of the seasons,” he says. “Nobody wants them to fuck with anything because they’re making all this money but then at the same time this guy needs to grow, he’s an artist. I remember we were going to record record stores and CD stores. Michael would go in and buy everything that came out. Like 200 CDs and just go through them once and throw them just to find that one. I don’t know what the fuck he was looking for. He was always on that mission you know to find a Black Grape, to find whatever, something that was really going to turn him on. He’d probably go through a hundred records to find that one that he could just leave on non-stop for 30 days cause he used to do that. When Beck’s first record came out, evidently he drove around with that in his Jeep in the South of France forever. He’d have the same record on over and over and then he did the same thing with Black Grape too, so when he was into something he was really into it. He was always on this mission to find something that was going to maybe spark something in him or open up some door for him.”
Saber is a busy guy. As well as working with the Hutchence material, he has just completed a documentary on rock collective The Dead Daisies about their tour of Cuba. He is also excited about his production work with a UK act called The Winachi Tribe, plus he’s producing some mixes for Rolling Stones’ backing singer Bernard Fowler. For now though, he’s thrilled to be keeping the Michael Hutchence legacy alive and providing fans with new music which would otherwise not have seen the light of day. It would be easy to view the release of Friction as opportunistic and Danny knows there’s going to be an element of that no matter what he does or says. However throughout the course of the interview it quickly became apparent that not only did Saber have Michael’s musical reputation and credibility at the forefront of his mind when producing this new music but I could also gauge a sense of loss, of someone who had a great effect on him both artistically and as a human being. He asked me what I thought about the single and I told him I was impressed after initially being suspicious of the release, fearing it might be just another cash-in type situation.
“Well you know we would never do that man,” he tells me. “That’s the whole point of this. There’s enough of that already… of people doing that shit. Let’s be honest, the reality is that this is not a perfect science, any of this shit. It’s a tricky situation but if you have some sort of integrity towards it … I mean, my whole thing as the music producer…I’ve always tried to do right by the artist, cause as a producer you’re really there to back the artist. If you do right by the artist in the long run it’s going to benefit you the most. That’s always been my theory. Especially someone like Michael, who is such a huge international superstar kind of guy. It’s about putting something out that he would be proud of and its not going to tarnish his legacy, it will enhance it you know. Unfortunately once someone is gone it sort of becomes a free-for-all. People can do whatever they want cause he’s not around to defend himself. Naturally the essence of this whole exercise is that people want to hear it and they deserve to hear it. It’s good, so they should hear it. It’s making a lot of people happy. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people out there, I know for a fact with his Facebook pages and shit, just screaming for more. I mean there’s very few guys who have that effect on people that he had. He had a really, really strong connection to his fan base.”
Released by The Music Sales Group, Friction and its remixes are available from all online music stores and streaming services now.
OR you can enter our competition and not only win the new single but also a compilation of the best of Michael’s solo material. Enter here.
For more info on Danny Saber, visit his site