|The Idolmaker By
Tim Grenda | Photos by Sam Wells, courtesy of Stevie Salas
America has voted, but what happens to the winners and finalists after their season on TV’s top talent show ends? If they’re lucky—like Kris Allen, Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry—they work with music director Stevie Salas.
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It's a Thursday night in November in a Hollywood rehearsal studio, and Carlsbad's Stevie Salas is running at full throttle. Salas, an acclaimed rock guitarist and musical consultant to the American Idol franchise, bolts from one rehearsal room to another, giving advice to former Idols Adam Lambert, Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta as the singers get ready to embark on their postshow careers.
"Give me more bass," Salas says of one song, "less hi-hat, more with the snare" on another. With an exuberance that makes him seem much more like an excited teenager than a 47-year-old music industry veteran, Salas brings a savvy mix of high energy and calm experience to his role with 19 Entertainment, the management company that represents some of the biggest stars in the American Idol universe.
His official title may be "consultant," but a business card couldn't fit all the jobs Salas does. Musical advisor, mentor, big brother figure, comic relief—Salas is the music industry hired gun who helps the newly minted Idols prepare to hit the road for the first time since leaving the hugely successful show, working behind the scenes to create and shape their sound. Salas describes his work as sort of like a record producer who works on tours rather than albums. He auditions musicians for the backing bands, oversees tour rehearsals, plays guitar for some of the acts, and works as a musical middleman between the artists and their record labels.
The San Diego Chargers fan (who is no fan of their current coach, Norv Turner) says he sees himself as a musical version of Bill Belichick, the controversial but successful coach of the New England Patriots.
"It's a very odd job," he says of his gig.
Dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and purple tennis shoes recently purchased during a trip to Berlin, Salas is juggling artists in three different rehearsal studios inside the SIR Instruments compound on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
In Studio 2, Allen—the reigning American Idol champ—and his four-piece band are jamming through a jazzy version of "The Christmas Song" for an upcoming Disney holiday TV special.
"He definitely brings a lot," Allen says of Salas during a rehearsal break. "He’s a lot of fun to have around, but he knows a lot about music, too, obviously. Sometimes it is hard to put into words what you want from music, but he really does that well."
Down the hall in Studio 4, Lambert’s band is working on two songs for the American Music Awards, followed by a few other late-night and daytime talk shows. (For the record, Salas is mainly responsible for the music the Idols play, not their on-stage antics, such as Lambert’s controversial performance at the AMA show.)
In yet another rehearsal room, former Idol Allison Iraheta and her band are working out the kinks in preparation for her upcoming tour.
To Salas, working with some of the biggest young names in music isn't all that different than when he and his band, This Kids, used to rock huge block parties on the beaches of Carlsbad.
"Is the beat right? What's the sound of the guitar? Should I sing this harmony?" Salas says. "The elements of the music are the same as in the band back in high school. The big difference is, our first gig is the American Music Awards, it's in two weeks, and I have to have these kids sounding like they've been playing together for two years, and there is no margin for error."
Stroke of Fate
The story of how Salas launched his music career in Los Angeles reads like it's been ripped right out of a Hollywood script. It's almost too good, too unbelievable, to be true.
Salas was born in Oceanside, graduated from El Camino High School, and became a big name on the North County rock scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1985, he moved to Hollywood to further his music career. He soon found himself essentially homeless and sleeping on a couch in Baby O Studios, the Sunset Boulevard recording facility where he worked sweeping floors and fetching coffee for musicians.
Late one night, funk pioneer George Clinton needed some guitar chords laid down on a track he was recording. He roused Salas from his sleep and asked if he knew how to play. Of course he did, Salas said. His playing impressed Clinton enough for him to tap the young musician to become his new guitarist.
"You gotta get lucky," Salas says now of his long-ago chance meeting with Clinton. "Sure, you have to be good and you have to work hard, but you gotta get really lucky, too."
The work with Clinton's band eventually led to gigs playing guitar for Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, and other rock superstars. All the while, Salas fronted his own band, Colorcode, and has released nearly two dozen albums, both with the band and as a solo artist. He is often regarded as one of the greatest hard rock guitarists, alongside names such as Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani. He even provided the guitar solos for George Carlin’s character in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure". He's owned a home in Carlsbad and lived here at least between tours and gigs since 1989.
In 1993, Salas was hired by singer Terrence Trent D'Arby to serve as musical director for D'Arby's upcoming tour, and in 2001, Jagger hired Salas to do the same for the Rolling Stones' singer's solo tour. Then, in 2006, the people behind the world's most popular singing contest came calling.
Salas was hired to serve as musical director for singer Chris Daughtry, who competed on the fifth season of Idol in 2006 and attracted a legion of devoted fans. The next year, the Idol bigwigs hired Salas to work in the same role for 2007 winner Jordin Sparks, and in 2008, he worked with Idol champion David Cook.
Earlier this year, the American Idol brass asked Salas if he'd be willing to work with three of the Idols from the past season: Allen, Lambert and Iraheta.
"I'm always up for a challenge, so I said, 'Let's go for it!'" Salas says. •
As if Salas isn't busy enough, he's got another project on his plate. Salas and fellow Carlsbad resident Laurence Dorazio have formed a new company called Rockstar Solos, which is set to release musical apps and games for the iPhone. (Dorazio is the CTO, chief technical officer; Salas is the CRO, or chief rock officer.) For more information on the company and its products, visit www.rockstarsolos.com.
The Carlsbad Connection
In his role as musical consultant to American Idol, Salas has repeatedly reached into the Carlsbad music scene, picking members of local bands and players he’s seen jamming in spots such as The Alley to go on tour with the Idols.
So far, Salas has had a hand in taking these Carlsbad musicians from relative obscurity into the big time as a member of an American Idol contestant's band: