Jennifer Batten Interview
What led to you getting a guitar?
I was motivated by jealously, when I was 8 years old Itold my parents I wanted a guitar for Christmas. My dad got me this really cool looking electric guitar that kind of looked like something the Beatles had. Although it was a long way from a Rickenbacker.
Who were some of your influences when you first started?
Oh gosh. Well, when I first started I was 8 years old so it would be The Beatles. That would be the main ones. And the Rolling Stones were hugh at that time too. And the Monkees. Any pop bands that were on the radio.
When was your first band?
My first band didn’t happen until I graduated from G.I.T in 1979. I was with a band called pearl, spelt purl, in San Diego. We were together for 3 years. We did a lot of cover band gigs. We did weddings and we had fusion gigs also. So it was a really great way to cut my teeth on stage.
You mentioned G.I.T, that’s where you met Steve Lynch, right?
Yeah! He was in my class when I was in G.I.T. It was a very young school. Only 60 people. 59 guys and me.
Oh nice! I bet they liked that?
Well, it was no big deal. Once a month we would get a seminar by one of the monster players. And one month it was Emmett Chapman who invented the Chapman stick. And 59 of us saw this seminar and were like “yeah, great. But we’re just trying to learn guitar right now” but it had planted a seed in Stevens head and this was simultaneously and independently of Van Halen. And Steve got the idea to experiment with tapping with the right hand on the guitar instead of picking. Because that’s how the Chapman Stick is played. And I saw what he was doing and I was super intrigued. The curriculum was too intense to even think of learning outside stuff. So I waited until school was over and then I dug in and took a lesson with Steve. And tried to learn the solo’s that he had worked out with tapping. And the session paid off. And I’m still tapping!
Yeah, good! But you had never heard of Van Halen then? It was just from Steve?
Yeah, that was my introduction to tapping. I will say that at some point during the year somebody played Eruption by Van Halen. Someone had headphones and put them on my head and said “you gotta check out this guy”. And I just remember it was really loud and I didn’t like it. In my mind I was still in Jazz mode. And later when I first started listening to Van Halen I thought the lyrics sucked and I wasn’t into it. But I’m always a late bloomers, I got into Nirvana about 15 years after Kurt Cobain died.
I think I’m the same! So how did that then transition into going for a Michael Jackson audition? Because it seems kind of a big jump?
Yeah, it was a hell of a leap! In 1984 I decided I needed to go to Los Angeles. So I moved there. In 1987 was when I got the Jackson audition. The 1980’s was really thriving in Los Angeles, Hollywood area. So I was in the middle of that. Just trying to do as many gigs as I could and when you play original music, you’re not playing 5 nights a week. You’re playing maybe once a month. But yeah, I was lucky enough to hear about the Jackson audition and that came through the referral service at musicians institute because I had been teaching there and was a graduate from there. And when they said they were looking for guitar players I was one of the lucky ones that got a call to go audition. So I took 3 days off of all the teaching and whatever else I was doing to just sit home and work on his songs. And when I went in there was no band, it was just me and a video camera. It was actually more comfortable than if there had been a band. Because I could just do what I wanted. The only guidance I was given was to play some funky rhythm. Because that would be 95% of what I would be onstage doing. In the cover band I was in we had been playing ‘Beat It’ for years, ever since it came out I had learned it. So I ended my audition with that. And I got a call a couple of days later that Michael was interested and it was a matter of coming down and playing with the band and seeing how it goes.
Wow! So did you get to keep the audition tape or have you seen it since?
I got a hold of it 3 or 4 years ago. There’s a guy named Steve Sworski that’s doing a documentary on female guitar players. And he dug it out. And it’s kind of funny to see it all these years later. And Michael had notes in with the videotape and he had put a big star next to my name and wrote ‘Great’. All these years later it was really cool to see that. So for whatever reason he hired me I’m very grateful.
Is that videotape actually out there somewhere on DVD?
I’d love to see it.
It’s obvious that I was trying to look cool that it’s sad.
Well, Michael didn’t think so. So it must have worked.
Well, I think Michael did think so. And he had a vision of what I could become. So he hired an artist for all the performers on stage. To create a look and to create costumes for us all. And so, it was his vision to have the big white hair Mohawk and he hired somebody to make that happen. He created the vision he wanted.
So when did you actually first meet him?
It wasn’t for a month after had been playing with the band. The band was in one room by themselves, so were the singers and dancers. After that month we all got together and met Michael on a huge soundstage so that they could do all the special effects and blow off the bombs and lasers etc. I remember we heard that if he was happy with what he was hearing, he would start dancing. And he started dancing immediately. The moment I met him, he just looked radiant. He came in with his manager Frank Delao. A little mafia looking guy with a ponytail and cigar.
Like Joe Pesci.
Exactly! Yeah! Very similar. He was very kind and respectful and things worked out.
So how long after then did the ‘Bad’ tour start?
Oh immediately. We did 2 months rehearsal, 1 on our own and 1 with full production and costumes. Then we took off to Tokyo.
Was there any favourite memories from that first tour?
Oh god. That was the best tour of the three. He was on the top of the world, really. It was a wild ride. And we only played 2 or 3 days a week so we had plenty of time to really see where we were. Which is not the norm. Its so expensive to keep people on the road. In fact, I remember his manager told me one time that it took $500,000 a week just to keep us on the road. There was a hundred people that were travelling. 26 semi-trucks full of stage gear. Catering people. Tech people. Make-up, hair, wardrobe. It was like a small city.
Did he actually get to travel by himself?
We had different modes of transport. He would take international flights with us. He would be in first class with these bodyguards that were so big that you couldn’t even see Michael. By design. He didn’t love flying so sometimes he would take a van places instead of flying. But mostly once we were in a place, like Europe, we would travel after the shows by bus to get to the next city. So we would wake up in the next city. And check into a hotel. Having said that, we took up 3 different hotels. He was in separate hotel from us. Roadies were in a separate hotel. And at first I thought ‘that’s kind of a drag, I thought we’d be hanging out with him’ but there were several times where we were in the same hotel and it was a super drag. Because he had these fans that would be singing outside of his hotel. So we got a small insight into as to what it was to be that famous and lose your privacy. So we were more than happy to have separate places after that.
Did you ever have a conversation with him about that level of fame? Because he pretty much couldn’t go anywhere or do anything.
No, we never did. Even though I was in the band it was a little bit awkward to speak with him. Because he wasn’t a friend. I was an employee. And here I am sitting next to the biggest star on earth. So typically conversations would be kind of surface. I remember one time when we were at rehearsal during the ‘Bad’ tour he came over during a break. And there was a cluster of us talking and he wanted to know how many of us had never been to Europe before. And I remember the other guitar player John Clarke and I raised our hands and he was really excited because he got to offer us that trip. And I’ll never forget he said “boy, I’ve been there so many times I feel like an old man”. And he was 29 years old. He started at a very young age, seeing the world. I think he was pretty burnt out towards the end.
It’s crazy just imagining his life style, what it must have been like. And I mean, you were there at the time.
Yeah, he was a bit of a prisoner. Because it’s not like he could just leave the hotel and go for a walk somewhere. I was at his hotel once when they were trying to arrange to get him somewhere. He had half a dozen security guards and they had to make sure the radios were charged. They had to look for the secret exit in the hotel where the fans wouldn’t find him. And he was hidden in a dark van and they would call ahead to a bookstore to close down to host him.
Yeah, like it doesn’t sound fun, I dunno if it was fun for him?
Any memories of filming in Wembley, because you said you played in Europe, right? You shot the DVD there.
Yeah! My biggest memory of filming at Wembley was that being the second time I met Jeff Beck. That day I went to his house and I was really nervous about getting back to the gig in time because it’s down all these little country roads. I had no clue where I was and I hung out with Jeff and a friend for a couple of hours. And then I saw that time was getting a little scary and I did the most amazing thing. I walked into his food closet thinking it was the door to get out. It had all these cans of food. So I make a u-turn and I’m looking at them and they’re looking at me thinking ‘what is wrong with you?’.
Yeah! There was a few goofs in the beginning with Jeff where I was just completely airheaded.
I can see his picture in the background there.
Yeah that top one was after a gig in New York. A woman who writes for guitar magazine named Lisa Sharkin took it. I will say that was definitely after half a bottle of champagne.
Yeah! You look pretty wasted.
It was always a good laugh after the shows.
I bet, yeah. Did you ever get to meet Eddie Van Halen. Because obviously the ‘Beat It’ solo was kind of your shining moment every tour.
I did! And it was a really weird situation. During a break in the ‘Bad’ tour I had a gig booked with a band that I had played with before. And I went to rehearsal and the manager came up as soon as I pulled up and said “Eddie Van Halen is next door and he wants you to prove you can play the Beat It solo”. And it was one of those LA days where I was just exhausted and late and sweaty and hot and just said “No!”. So eventually his tech came over and said “well, can you just come over and say Hi?” and said “absolutely”. So I went to where he was rehearsing and it was just him. It wasn’t the band. I guess he was working on sounds or something. As soon as I got in there he put his 5150 Stratocaster on me and wanted me to play the ‘Beat It’ solo. So I did. And I tell you it was a little awkward, I mean, no pressure, right? He would keep his tremolo bar loose and mine is always in place, so I can always grab it. And every time I put a guy’s guitar on me it just hangs way too low. So it was uncomfortable to start with. But I did it. And then he grabbed the guitar and tried to remember it. So I was kind of showing him his own solo. It was hilarious. If I only had a video camera there. It would be a film I would treasure forever.
Yeah, like a bizarre moment.
I did go back the next day hoping he’d be there and he wasn’t.
But he was cool or kind of intimidating?
He was very respectful. In fact, he came next door later whilst my band was rehearsing and with a potty mouth gave me one of the highest compliments ever. He said “You’re a mother fucker!” It’s not something you wanna share with your parents because they wouldn’t understand but I’ll remember that moment forever.
You said about the weird outfits earlier, who came up with those? The strange outfits you had to wear.
Michael had a team for everything. The ‘HIStory’ tour was a hideous outfit with a leather mask attached to a wig and there was leather across my nose and…
Did you enjoy those?
Oh hell no! I thought it was awful. But, you have to remember, it’s not just about the music with Michael. It’s more like a theater show. So you’re playing a character. At least that’s what I told myself so that I wouldn’t absolutely hate it.
I remember one time where you had like lights coming from your head and there’s like a giant tree or something on your back?
‘Beat It’ was a song that was such a big hit it had to be in every tour. And he wanted to do something different with it every tour. So the first tour I had this leather headdress with a couple of pieces of leather across the face. Fiber optic strands that would pop out. And then there was a big chunk that would go across my back and across the floor. A computer operator would change the colours as I walked across the stage. And it was hard enough to play the ‘Beat It’ solo, but when they turn out the lights…
Yeah! I remember seeing one show, I think it was in Tokyo, where it just went completely dark and I’m like ‘How is she possibly playing this solo?’
Well, it’s because the very first time I played it at rehearsal and they turned out the lights and I could not see the frets. I went and got glow in the dark tape. So that’s how I managed it from there. And then the second tour, they had an option of Viking horns with fiber optics coming out or this big ass dragon that they made to fit my body. They did a mould of my shoulders to have the dragon thing on me. That thing was so heavy! I felt like it was gonna break my back. It was just awful. And several people said “you do not look happy when you’re doing that” and I said “it’s really difficult” So kindly they let me just go to the Viking horns. And that was it for the rest of the tour.
So speaking of masks have you ever heard of a guitar player called buckethead?
We do a lot of his stuff on our channel and I know he's cited you as an early influence when he was younger.
Yeah, he was very cute. I met him when he was 16 years old and he sent me a love letter of reasons why we would make a great couple. That would probably embarrass the shit out of him right now but it was very sweet. I wish I still had the letter. I don't think I have it.
Yeah! Were they valid reasons or not?
Oh, we are both guitar players! And also, early on he did a spoof of guitar workshop videos that he sent me. I had a Westie dog at the time and his mother used to raise Westies. So that's another reason we'd make a great couple.
So did you ever see the article where he kind of cited you as the influence? because that was in the Guitar Player magazine, too. Which you mentioned earlier.
Oh, is it wow, that's sweet. That's sweet that you remember that he remembered after all these years
Because most people have seen that because I think that's like the first unmasked image of him and right below it is your name, influence = Jennifer batten.
I'll have to look that up. That's really cool.
I'll have to send it to you
So what do you think of this guitar playing?
Oh, he's a monster. He's one of those guys that just digs in and digs in and digs in and evolves over time And he's weird as hell. You know he's fearless as far as what he's gonna do with the guitar. Which is it's great for breaking boundaries.
And he's kept up that look for so long. I can't even imagine keeping it up that long.
I know! That's dedication! And also there might be some issues behind the bucket.
Possibly yeah. Possibly.
David Bowie was saying all the images that he came up with early on are because he didn't wanna show his real self. He wanted to present on stage as a character. Nothing wrong with that.
Yeah, I guess it worked for both of them.
So how did you then release your first album after the ‘Bad’ tour?
I actually started it before the ‘Bad’ tour. I did three song demos with Mike Sambelo and his studio. And then the tour came up and I bailed, obviously. So when I came back it actually took 3 years because a guitar record was not gonna be the biggest moneymaker that he was working on.
Are you proud of that album, looking back. Because it’s a great album!
Yeah! A lot of hard work went into that album. Gut wrenching, it was so hard. We would start sessions at 11 or 12 and would go on and on and I rarely got any sleep. I just turned into a bat. In fact, I put aluminum foil on my windows at home like a heroin addict so that I could sleep during the day. It was really hard. I think once anybody does their first record, your expectations is way more than is ever gonna happen. In my world it was all about guitar. I thought ‘doesn’t everybody love guitar’ well, not really. There’s a small amount of the population that’s into it.
So how did the 2nd tour with Michael come about? The ‘Dangerous’ tour.
I never assumed he would hire the same people back. So when Dangerous came up I was like ‘great, this is awesome’. And that was about a year of my life and then when the ‘HIStory’ tour came up, once again I had no idea what he was doing. They would hire people last minute. So you’d have to cancel everything that you had going on because it was not at the level of what he could offer.
So did you feel like he had a level of trust in you by having you back?
Sure, yeah! He gave me a special part of the show as one of his special effects. The big blonde Mohawk, ya know? He did try to get me to dance which was a bad move. I remember even the most basic moves, I can’t even talk and play. If I’m at rehearsal and I wanna say something to someone, as soon as my mouth opens my fingers stops. I remember I came to rehearsal one day after he was working out the moves to ‘working day and night’. And one of the dancers came up to me and said “Michael wants me to help you with this”. I thought ‘Oh Jesus’. Is there any help for this white girl? I don’t think so!
Yeah, you either have it or you don’t.
You had Slash onstage right? From Guns N Roses.
It was really weird because nobody said he was coming. I showed up to soundcheck and there’s all these Les Pauls where my guitars should be. And I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’ Next thing I know Michael asked me to come into his tent and that’s where I met Slash and he was talking about the moves we would do, which is basically following Michael. And I’ll never forget, I think Slash might have been nervous. He was in the center of the stage and at one point we were supposed to run over to the left of the stage and be on top of these floor fans that would blow our hair up and blow shit into my contact lenses. And I’d turn around with tears coming out of eyes. And Slash wasn’t moving when that move came up. So I grabbed his arm and pulled as hard as I could and it was like a tree. It was planted. I don’t know if he ever made it over to meet us. But I head banged so hard that night that my neck was about to come off.
So how was he backstage? Did you ever get into an argument because I remember reading an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said you had an argument with him back stage?
No, that’s not true. Fake news. It was Rolling Stone? Ah, Jesus. Ok. Fake.
I think it was actually a Slash quote.
Well, that’s news to me.
So any memories of the half time Superbowl?
Oh yeah, that was a blast. It was a once in a lifetime thing, will never happen again. Biggest television audience in the history of the planet. 80 nations, 1.5 billion people. It’s live! It’s very live. If you look at that, there are some funny things that happened. There’s one place where they’re enveloping Michael and I in stage fog. And when it’s outside, it’s hard to gauge how much you need. At one point, you can’t see either of because of the fog. Also, I was not given any information about all the other stuff that was gonna happen at that show. In fact, if you do a freeze frame in the beginning, there’s impersonators at the top of the scoreboards that just come out of a puff of smoke. And I’m looking at them going ‘Wow!’ and I didn’t know that was gonna happen. And I didn’t know all the kids were gonna be there for ‘Heal the World’.
Nobody told you?
I didn’t get the memo.
Wow! Crazy. Is that one of the most nervous you’ve ever been?
No, but I will say it’s the only time where I felt Michael was nervous. Because, I can’t imagine the pressure. Because if something major went wrong, its forever, it’s on video, there’ nothing you can do about it.
And you know the news and press would love it and keep pushing it out there all the time.
Yep, just like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Some people only remember that about her for the rest of their lives.
So when was the last time you spoke to Michael?
It would have been at the end of the HIStory tour.
And what was the conversation? Like a goodbye or see you again or?
It wasn’t memorable. I just don’t remember. I don’t remember if we got together for a goodbye or we got a memo.
So obviously you must remember where you were when he passed away? Because everybody does.
Yeah, it was 10 years so it must have been in Portland. I was driving around town and a fellow musician up here called me up and said “did you hear the news?” and I hadn’t. So he told me. At first I didn’t believe it because there was nothing but rumors. Most of the stuff you would hear about Michael was rumors. For years and years. And then when I found out it was true, I felt relief for him because of all the ugliness that had happened from the media. But I felt deep sadness for his children. I was invited to the funeral, and it’s so ironic that I couldn’t make it because I was obligated to go to England to do some work because of the career he created for me.
Right, yeah. I don’t know if it’s something you wanna speak about but have seen the documentary that came out or not interested?
I have absolutely no interest. I think that the guys are totally full of shit. These days news comes in headlines. People see a headline and believe it. I think its 100% wrong to take a case like that and give it to Hollywood instead of the court room. It was a one sided story, he’s not here to defend himself. Those two guys in their late 20’s said he was absolutely innocent. And it was not like they were 12 or 13 where their minds could have been manipulated, they were gown ass men. They knew the truth, they spoke the truth. But now, they’ve got failed careers. They’re trying to raise kids and its super expensive. I saw the film maker do a couple of interviews where they said ‘ya know, these guys weren’t paid to do this documentary’. Yeah but it’s a big promotion for a lawsuit where they’re asking for 1.5 billion dollars. There’s so many holes in their story, the timelines don’t add up. The molestation in the train station that wasn’t even built.
I read one thing where one of them said he was molested at the ranch hundreds of times. Well, he was only at the ranch 10 times and of those times Michael was only there 4 times. So, its bullshit. And it’s so sad that Hollywood can manipulate minds in that way. And I just start thinking ‘who’s the next person they’re gonna wanna take down?’ And the filmmakers are gonna make a bundle of money, you get the dramatic film, music, script or whatever. Improvised talking. And it’s just super unfair. The sad thing is, with HBO’s muscle behind it, its reaching way more people.
And even Oprah, that was a surprise she gave them the platform. Because Michael was always close with Oprah.
Yeah! A lot of people lost respect for Oprah at that point. That she would just take their word for it. And she’s coming from having been molested herself. So she’s super sensitive and has a chip on her shoulder for that. But to just outright believe them without doing any research is super irresponsible.
Especially when the one had already been to trial and said that nothing had happened. And it was proven nothing happened. So, I mean that right there is nonsense.
So after the final tour you released your second album, how did that come about? Because it’s really different to your first one. It’s got more of a jungle vibe, I guess you could say.
Yeah I got 4 CD’s out now and they’re all night and day different. My latest thing is a CD called ‘Sherer/Batten’.
Yeah, I’ve heard it. It’s great.
Oh, thanks! Yeah that was the easiest record ive ever done. We did it in Chicago and I did like 3 songs and wrong a song with Jim Peterik from ‘Survivor’. A couple of months later they called me back to do more. And then Mark called me up and said “you know it’s kind of like your guitar is another voice on the record so I want you to be a bigger part of the project”. So without having to make those gut wrenching decisions, it’s like ‘boom’ here’s a new record with your name on it.
And to me it’s very like Bon Jovi, with big power ballads.
Yeah! It’s very 80’s. A lot of the stuff was written in the 80’s.
Any plans to do another one with him?
Not right now. The music industry is so shit right now. If you find an investor, they’ll put money into it but the likelihood of getting the money back is this big. Because people take music for free now.
On top of that, trying to get support for touring is next to impossible. So it’s unlikely.
So, talking about Jeff Beck, what would you say is the main difference between him and Michael Jackson as far as personality and touring?
Michael is all about working on all the nuances and details on each song in the studio. And then recreating that live. And Jeff is way more off the cuff, he’s an improviser. Although he wants us to provide a main palette to launch off of during live shows, he gets excited if we change things up a little bit. Throw in a little curve that might excite him to go in a new direction each night. So that’s night and day different. Michael’s show would be set weeks and weeks before we ever took off on the road and Jeff is changing his mind at the last minute. It’s one thing learning the turns and doing that, but getting me feet together or triggering guitar synth sounds is hard. Having 2 separate volumes and 2 different modules and all the guitar stuff, the worst thing in the world would be to ‘Because we ended as lovers’ and have trumpets playing.
Any memories of doing the Letterman show? I think that was one of the first times I saw you together.
Yeah, I think I was more excited to do that anyone because I’m an American and grew up with Letterman. And the rest of the band are from England. I don’t think the band thought too much of it, it was just another gig to them. Getting Jeff to do it was hard, because he gets so nervous in front of a camera. You can tell when he’s talking to Letterman he was nervous. In fact the guest is supposed to stay until it goes to commercial. But as soon as Dave said ‘thank you’ Jeff got up and fucked off. Well also did Conan O’ Brien and we ended up doing a few takes because he was so nervous and screwed up. It took a lot of convincing to say ‘Well all wanna do this Jeff, please’ because you can’t buy publicity like that.
Do you still keep in touch with Jeff?
Yeah, I was there last year. I’ve done a bit of touring in the UK. When we get towards his area I’ll send an email see if he wants to get together. We’ve gone to dinner a few times. Last time I went to his house.
So who would be on your Mount Rushmore of guitar players? (4 favorite players) I assume Jeff is one, who are the other 3?
Yeah. I love George Lynch’s sound, for sure. There’s a new guy coming up, a Brazilian named Matheus Asato. Just brilliant. He’s doesn’t have a record out, he puts instagram videos up of potential songs. After the 80’s and 90’s and shred wars and all the non-stop musical diarrhea, the meaningless shit, to have a guy like that come along that has an original feel, it just resonates at a deeper level. There’s another Brazilian named Lari Basillio, she’s on her way too. Theres some about the water in Brazil, there’s a lot of great Brazilian players.
What about Buckethead?
Honestly, I haven’t heard him in many years. So, sorry Bucket.
You’ll have to find the letter and reply to him, see if he writes back.
Alright, well I’d better let you go. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. I’ve loved hearing all the stories, you’re a true icon and much respect.
Well, thanks for thinking of me. I look forward to seeing the cartoon of myself.
I hope you like it.
It’ll be hard to mess up.
Maybe, we’ll see. Well, thank you so much. Have a great day. I look forward to seeing the rest of the tour.
Ok, cheers. Bye bye.