Left- Michael Jackson plays Jenga with Brad Sundberg, owner of BSUN Media Systems. Right- Michael and Brad at West Lake Studio D
After 18 years of installing his systems, Brad Sundberg saw everything from the King of Pop’s work ethic to his behavior to his chimps.
Integrators tend not to be star-struck since many cater to extremely affluent clientele.
There are celebrities, and then there was Michael Jackson.
When Brad Sundberg, owner of BSUN Media Systems, mentioned his work on Jackson’s infamous Neverland Valley Ranch during his CE Pro of the Week profile, questions came to mind:
What was Michael Jackson like as a client?
What was he like away from the cameras?
Sundberg, who says he worked with the famous performer on countless personal and professional projects over 18 years, wrote about his experiences in a long essay in a BSUN e-newsletter sent a year after Jackson’s June 2009 death. Following are some excerpts:
On meeting Jackson …
Michael was working on Captain EO for Disneyland and Epcot Center. He was fresh off the Victory Tour, the Thriller album, his dominance of MTV, and he was back in the studio. I wish I could remember our first meeting, but it was likely just passing each other in the hallway. He was always warm, yet shy. Over time we would chat now and then, but it took time to build the trust.
On Jackson’s nickname for Brad Sundberg …
Early in 1986 the team moved into Westlake Studio D in Hollywood to record the Bad album, and welcomed me in. I worked other sessions during the day, but at night I was invited to sit in and learn. Eventually I worked my way up to technical director for the team, and the trust was solidified. It was during this time that Michael nicknamed me "Really Really Brad," a twist on the chorus, "Bad, Bad, Really, Really Bad." Check the album credits, it’s there.
On what Jackson was like …
Not for a moment do I pretend to have been a close friend of his, or a confidant. Rather I worked for him and with him, and considered it an honor.
He was a consummate professional. If his vocals were scheduled for a noon downbeat, he was there at 10 am, with his vocal coach Seth, singing scales. Yes, scales. I would set up the mic, check the equipment, make coffee, and all the while he would sing scales for two hours.
He typically drove himself to the studio alone. For a while he drove a big Ford Bronco with dents and scrapes on it. He was not a great driver. More than once he called into the studio to say he would be late after being in a fender bender.
He was intensely curious about "normal life." He asked me about Christmas once, and couldn't understand how kids could wait until Christmas morning to open the gifts. You see, he was raised Jehovah's Witness, so Christmas was not celebrated in the Jackson family.
On working in-studio with Jackson …
A "typical" MJ album would take between 10 and 16 months in the studio. His budget allowed for as many as 100 songs to be recorded for any given project. Some would be discarded early on, while others were fine tuned. Musicians would be brought in to add their textures and ideas, but in the center of it all was Michael.
The team was remarkably small given the scope of the projects. Each project was slightly different, but typically there were less then eight of us working day to day, from the first day until the project was mastered. No entourage. No Elephant Man bones. No groupies. No drugs. Just music. And food.
On Jackson’s love of food and "family day" …
During the [making of the] BAD album, Fridays quickly became known as "family day." He would have his two chefs, affectionately known as the Slam Dunk Sisters, prepare a large dinner for the crew, musicians and any family members that might be around. Since I was working sometimes 80 hours a week, it was not uncommon for Deb to come have dinner with us. Michael loved these family get togethers.
In later projects I would bring my girls, whom he loved and would play with. There is one moment in time in my head when Deb brought my daughter Amanda, who was just a baby at the time, into the studio for the afternoon. She set up a play mat and brought some toys, and Michael sat and played with her for a while. He looked at Deb and said, "This is her own little world, isn't it?"
On celebrity visitors and chimps …
It was not uncommon for celebrities or VIPs to stop in. One day the Secret Service searched the building for a couple hours before Nancy Reagan came for a visit. Next it was Princess Stephanie from Monaco … The chimps were common guests in the studio, as was a giant snake, both of which I would wind up holding during MJ's vocals.
On watching Jackson write songs …
I have watched him write many songs, and the process is amazing. I asked him where they came from, and he said they were gifts from God. He could hear the entire song in his head before we could get tape on the machines. He would sometimes sing the drums, bass, percussion, keyboards, etc., and we would later bring in musicians to replace his demo tracks.
On Jackson’s childhood …
I remember him telling me about grown women throwing themselves at him when he was just 9 or 10 years old.
One story I will never forget was him telling of flying with his dad and brothers through a lightening storm at night. The plane was being tossed around, lightening was flashing, and he started crying in fear. His dad ignored him, embarrassed. A flight attendant sat with until the plane cleared the storm. Hearing him tell that story, with tears in his eyes, gave a glimpse into his life.
On working at Neverland …
Somewhere around 1991 he asked me to visit a ranch he had purchased, and design a sound system for a carousel. The next thing I knew I was at Neverland Valley Ranch, in Santa Ynez, CA. There was construction everywhere, and the amusement park was in the early stages of installation.
Over the next few years Michael asked me to build system after system, putting music on the bumper cars, in the petting zoo, on two trains, all around the amusement park, the boat lake, the train stations, and eventually inside the house, and inside his bedroom and bathroom. Deb loves to tell of the times Michael would call at 2 in the morning (his sleep schedule was never normal) to talk to me about a new attraction he had coming to Neverland, and if I would put music on it.
I still have an old answering machine tape of him thanking me for one of the systems we had built.
By Tom LeBlanc
August 16, 2010