Sydney, Australia based producer Michael Guy Chislett may be the most prolific producer you’ve never heard of. After a stint in L.A. as mega-producer Butch Walker’s go-to session guitarist, Michael headed back to Sydney to become the producer for Hillsong Young and Free, Hillsong United, and Hillsong Worship, whose single “What a Beautiful Name” has a whopping 58,000,000 plays on YouTube.
[GTR] When you were doing session work for Butch Walker, you also played in his band. What are some of the things you learned during that time?
[Michael Guy Chislett] The first recording we did together was the Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites album. The engineer was having issues with the kick drum, so Butch gave them an hour to fix it. When it still didn’t get better he said, “OK, I’ll give you another twenty minutes and then we will have to move on.” Butch turned to me and said, “There are no big songs out there because of the sound of the kick drum sound, right?” This was the first time I was able to isolate the difference between being an audio-obsessed listener and a music listener.
I am a pretty quirky guitarist, and I sit pretty ahead of the beat. Butch actually sits way more in the pocket than me, but I think he enjoyed my vibe. A few times I would have an awesome riff that I just couldn’t nail – I would get three takes in and he would say, “I’ll give you two more shots and if you don’t nail it, sorry, but let’s move on.” I am guilty of getting something perfect that doesn’t necessarily make it better to listen to. Butch would be able to hear something that wasn’t perfectly played but call it perfect and we would move on to something else. Within two hours, I would be hearing it as a listener and decide that I loved that take and think, “It’s not perfect, but man, it has a vibe!”
[GTR] When you’re tracking guitar in the studio with Hillsong United, you tend to use different guitars versus a wall of amps to create your go to sounds. What is your strategy around this?
[Michael] I have a 1962 Vox AC30. I bought it when I was sixteen – saved every cent for a year or two. This was when the Line 6 stuff was going crazy and everyone was getting rid of their vintage amps. This amp is the secret weapon for most of our stuff. I don’t even change the settings! It sounds strange but I love guitars, I love the sound of a Strat, or a Gretsch White Falcon, but amps… I don’t love Marshalls and I find it hard to work Fender amps into the right spot. Sometimes I will use a Goodsell Custom 33 head I got about ten years ago, it’s a great amp and it blends well with the Vox. I have been using a popular guy here in Sydney named Dave Peach who is famous for modding amps. He has been looking after my Vox for years, and I plan to have him mod some modern amps for me.
[GTR] In addition to producing Hillsong United, you also play guitar with them on tour. As a producer, what is it like seeing songs you’ve labored over in the studio come to life on the road?
[Michael] It’s nice seeing the songs unfold in front of the listener! I toured with Butch for two years, and it taught me that without being face to face with the listener, how can you create something culturally relevant to them? Every night we play, I am reminded why some tempos work better than others, and why some keys are more sing-able for an audience than others. That stuff is pretty important!
[GTR] When you were coming up you spent a lot of time studying shredders like Joe Satriani and John Petrucci, as well as listening to bands like The Beatles and The Police. In the framework of what you’re doing now, what are some of the key things you learned from studying such a wide variety of music and artists?
[Michael] My father was quite strict and believed that any music with lyrics was bad for us kids – lucky I had four older siblings who were all obsessed with music. They all had their ways of sneaking music into the house. My oldest sister had every single Madonna and Michael Jackson album. My oldest brother had all the AC/DC, Stray Cats and Van Halen albums. My middle sister had all the Guns N’ Roses stuff. Then my sister who was closest to me was all about Stone Temple Pilots, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam.
My sister always used to put on the Bodyguard soundtrack by Whitney Houston. I once complained to her that I hated the guitar work on it, or lack of. She said to me “I just love the whole thing. I don’t care about drums, bass, or guitar. I just love Whitney Houston’s voice and I love these songs. This notion kinda blew my mind! It changed my views on what made music good. It made me start asking questions like, why do people love certain songs, and why do people hate some styles of music?
I started hanging out with some of the guys from church when I was around thirteen or fourteen, and I got crazy about Nuno Bettencourt and Extreme, Dream Theatre, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. That stuff taught me about technique. This was invaluable to me and I was doing six to eight hours a day of practice.
From age fifteen to eighteen, it was straight back to the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Queen, The Clash, The Police, The Cure, U2, and Radiohead because I grew up with lots of different styles being played in the house!
[GTR] There is an awesome post on the Hillsong web site from entitled Life and Lessons from the Studio > GTRMag.info/HillsongPost < where you shared the following insights…
- Try to always work with passionate, positive people.
- Value your first reactions to a song.
- Try to only work on music that you actually believe in.
- Respect the chemistry and culture amongst the people you are working with.
- The more you listen to a song you are working on, the less likely you are to hear it like the average listener would.
- Make sure your surroundings are designed to help you create.
- Either love (new) music or don’t create it!
- Plan break times wisely – a quick break for dinner might just save the song. Sometimes, you just need time away from it to gain perspective.
- The lead vocal is the first thing to draw the average person in, so always keep it the focus.
- People are drawn to honesty and conviction. Fashion and excitement will always help the song but not make the song.
Noting that post was from 2014, are there any additions you’d like to make to that list?
[Michael] I think I wrote those over a few days… I find them quite confronting. I still think it’s a pretty good list!