Fireworks Magazine Online 70 - Interview with Michael Des Barres

An interview with Michael Des Barres

With a successful music career fronting Silverhead, Detective, Chequered Past and famously, the Power Station, Michael Des Barres has also enjoyed a prolific acting career, seeing him appear in hit TV shows and films alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood, Steven Seagal, Sidney Poitier and many more. He returned to music when he released the Faces and Steve Marriott inspired 'Carnaby Street' in 2012 and has just unleashed 'The Key To The Universe', a back to the roots, thunderous Rock record that has seen him receive some of the best reviews of his impressive career to date. James Gaden met up with Michael in London to learn more...

Michael-Des-Barres Fireworks-Interview

Is it good to be back? It's been a long time since you were last here!

Yeah, it's been amazing. Everyone told me that everything would have changed so much, but it hasn't really because you'll never change the British consciousness. It's the same sarcastic, ironic, cheeky chappy, elitist pot pourri of culture. It's been an amazing experience to walk down the streets alone, because it has been years since I did that. I had to put on an American accent to ask people where Piccadilly Circus was, because I'd forgotten. I felt like a fucking idiot! I couldn't say "'Scuse me guv, where's Leicester Square?'". They'd look at me like I was fucking insane! So I'm saying things in an American accent like "I love this Shaftesbury Avenue, what an atmosphere, we don't have this back home." (laughs) I had lunch with a couple of English guys the other day and they reminded me of what it was like to be around British people. It was all like 'Oh, he's a cunt, and he's a cunt" whereas in L.A. it's all "He does his best, man... he does yoga, he's meditating now, he's off the heroin..." – it's the complete opposite. You've got this sardonic, judgmental, cynical, funny English approach versus the wheatgrass, vegan Buddhist. (laughs) But yes, it's been very interesting to be back. It's a joy. I'm made an awful lot of bad choices when I was here last – bad in the sense that they hurt people. I feel a sense of forgiveness by coming back here and feel super powerful as a result of that.

Let's talk about the new album. It really threw me when I first heard it. I was expecting a follow up to 'Carnaby Street', which I really loved. But this – it's heavier, it's this raw, booming, powerful rock album, a completely different beast. I discovered you have recorded everything analogue and done everything how it used to be done, with completely different musicians. Why was that?

I didn't really come up with it on my own. Bob Rose, the producer, is someone I really credit with the inspiration behind it. He called me and said "Come to Rome and make a rock 'n' roll record." Nigel (Harrison, ex Blondie and longtime MDB co-hort) was going to be there, and two guys who I had yet to meet, which was Dani (Robinson, guitarist) and Clive (Deamer, drums). Bob said "I want to make a rock 'n' roll record with you Michael, and I want you singing like you're 21 years old." I just thought "Wow..." As you know, I've been through a lot of incarnations. I've picked up some habits, you duplicate things, you start doing things because you think people will dig them, and you get away from the original intent. The original intent was to sing the blues, and get laid. But other things cropped up, I ended up being a hired gun with the Power Station, it became like a job. I kind of lost the relationship of why I did music in the first place. When I got there, Bob played 'Johnny', an old Silverhead song which was done on acoustic guitar. So I sang it like I did when I was 21 years old. Bob then said "That's the guy I want to record." So I turned up with 20 sets of lyrics, ready to just be the singer. I didn't want to be cracking the whip, Nigel was there who was brilliant. Clive Deamer had played with Robert Plant, he's brilliant. I could just sit and listen to him drum. Dani Robinson – incredible. We wrote all but three songs, we had three covers to start with. We had 'Room Full Of Angels' from Peter Wolf, 'Burning In Water' which was by Jeff Silbar, and 'Can't Get You Off My Mind' which was Linda Perry's. We recorded those songs and it was effortless. You'll understand this James, because you're an aficionado – if I'm not certain what's going on, I'll chose a voice and I'll be that voice for the record. 'Carnaby Street' saw me choose a swaggering, Faces-like guy, and it was so much fun and the band was great. This though, is a whole other category. It's authentic and it rocks like fuck!

I did notice your vocal style was different here to how it was on 'Carnaby Street', I never thought of it as you being 'in character'. After the first listen, where it threw me, once I knew what to expect, I really got into it. I keep going back and playing it, on a daily basis.

I know, I hear that for so many people. I'm the number one most played rock 'n' roll artist in the United States at the moment. Six weeks – can you believe that? Extraordinary. It's taking off in Germany where I just did some appearances. Why? Because it's so infectious. It's addictive – it's like a drug. After having done so many drugs myself, I think I deserve it. (laughs) What a feeling! At this stage of the game, incredible.

You mentioned Linda Perry's song and it's a great fit. Was that written for you?

No. I know Linda well, she's fantastic, she's more rock 'n' roll than 90% of the dudes out there. She had written the song about a lover of hers who left her. She put together Deep Dark Robot, which was one of her projects. And Nigel, being the intuitive guy he is, he was an A&R guy at Interscope for years... he has this treasure trove and when he heard Linda's song he said "That's an M.D.B. song." He brought it to Rome with the other two covers and we had a starting point, rather than Clive, Dani, Nigel, Bob and I trying to create a sound. Nigel had brilliantly found material that worked and Linda's original is much slower and grinding, but it was instantaneous for us. Linda's married now and I know her wife, Sara Gilbert, very well because we did Roseanne together. It's an obsessive love song, it's the real thing and I could relate to that.

You did a great job with it live on German TV where you played it on your own with just an acoustic guitar.

Did you like that? Thank you, lots of people have said they liked it. A lot of people weren't sure I'd be able to pull it off with just one guitar, but I think it worked quite well. It's had a lot of hits. I love creating that energy, rock 'n' roll doesn't have to be all Marshall stacks, it's a feeling, you can bang on a tabletop. That feeling, that urgency, it's inside you. When we made this record, I didn't ad-lib much. I often ad-lib but I didn't here, it's almost like giving a bad performance as an actor. I just wanted to let the song tell the story, I didn't want to tart it up. That's what the album is all about.

With you recording it all analogue, and with the running time being about 35 minutes like an old vinyl record's running time, is that a format you would look at?

Oh yeah, totally. It'll come out on vinyl in a couple of months. People like to have vinyl – vinyl is rock 'n' roll. That crackle and hiss is as sweet as your first kiss. Analogue is rock 'n' roll. You can't compress it. Compression is exactly what it sounds like – you're compressing the very power you are turned on by. The next album I do will be even more fucking hard and loud.

There's some nice light and shade on the record though, it's not all bombastic. The closing track 'Supernatural Lovers' for example is more psychadelic funk.

Yeah! It has a great groove and I just wanted to talk over it. You know me, I talk a lot! If you listen to the lyrics, I mean every syllable and when we do it live, that will be a chance for me to ad-lib and improvise. There's a lot on this record I've never said before.

The other great thing about it is the more I listen to it, the more I change my mind about which my favourite track is.

Which one is it today?

At the moment, I'm really into 'Yesterday's Casanova'.

Great, that's the direction I'm thinking of going in, I've already written a new song called 'Revelation Boulevard' which is going to be so fucking heavy. I want to do something really powerful, without that overblown soloing. That's quite a complicated track because it goes into that Bossa Nova section, which Clive had a few problems with, but that magic take came and it was just "Wow!"

Fireworks - The Ultimate Magazine for Melodic Rock Music

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There are a lot of bands doing stuff which has been labeled 'Retro Rock', but your stuff isn't Retro, you are from that era, it's what you play!

No, I'm not reproducing anything, I've played the same sort of music for forty years. Silverhead, Detective, Chequered Past, they were all rock 'n' roll bands. I'm not going backwards, I've just stayed in a wonderful place. With Bob Rose, this wonderful label, Nigel, Clive and Dani... plus we have a guitar player who is going to join us and I can't tell you who it is yet James, but you won't believe who I'm going to have on the other guitar...

Intriguing! I think it's fantastic that we talked about 'Carnaby Street' in FW53 and you had taken some guys from your Soul band, put together a rock 'n' roll band and had great fun, and you seem to have almost stumbled into an even better band!

Oh yeah... this band feel the template of what we're doing, which is to take music form the early 70s and make it sparkle like today. 'It's Just A Dream' is charting, and that will probably be the next single in America. It does have a contemporary vibe to it and 'Carnaby Street' was so much fun to play live, I can't even put it into words. People would go apeshit for it. It was almost like a performance for a movie though, I was playing a role, I was "that guy" who played that stuff. Now, this is not a performance at all.

As a fan of yours, I discovered you during a period where you really weren't doing much musically, and I thought I'd missed the bus. Then you come back with 'Carnaby Street' and you seen so invigorated by 'The Key To The Universe', you seem happier about your music than perhaps any other point in your career.

Oh, absolutely. I think this is without question the best album I've ever made. It's the most cohesive, it's singular, authentic, personal and I'm telling the truth. The rest of it was often an infusion of a character. Silverhead were great, but I was 21 years old. That was a swaggering thing and I was learning who I was. This album is very much who I am.

I keep finding new things about it – on the way down here to meet you, that was the first time I'd listened to the album with headphones...

Oh my God, a completely different experience! That's a world class producer for you. Sonically, you hear bits and pieces you don't hear from your stereo or in your car. When you put on the cans, you really get the depth of it. You see, it was made in a massive room in this studio in room, which was where Ennio Morricone made all those sweeping soundtracks for those Spaghetti Westerns. It was built for orchestras and it was huge, so in the great tradition of Jimmy Page, where he would record John Bonham in this huge vestibule, we had a similar setup. It's all about where the microphones go, so Bob Rose would literally cup his ear to figure out where they sounded the best. You're getting the best possible sound – there's no effects on anything. There's no tweaking this, overdubbing that, doubling this... fuck off! You're hearing exactly what happened in that room. Isn't that incredible?

I'm assuming that technique, from microphone placement to recording, must be the original method before digital, Pro-Tools and the like.

Exactly. That was how Glyn Johns did it, how Jimmy Miller did it, how Sir George did it, all the great producers. They would place the microphones where it felt right to capture the best sound. These days, my maid could be a star. That's not my world. It's more like a video game. I'm not saying the past is better than the present, there are some great bands now - Jack White, Rival Sons, Alabama Shakes, The White Stripes, all great bands. To all be in this room, I was behind a baffle but they could see me, I could see them, and it's like a relationship. You communicate when you look into people's eyes. Two of these guys were strangers to me, but the bond we had was due to how great it sounded. They would be comfortable and relax, I'd be relaxed, and when we were told the tape was rolling, there was no tension. Imagine that – when it goes on tape, it's there forever. But we were relaxed, not tense about it. It was like being hypnotized by rock 'n' roll, we really enjoyed it.

A lot of those current bands you mentioned are using that old school mentality, they aren't users of the auto tune, ultra polished production.

No, they don't. With rock 'n' roll music, from a girl to a cello, if the music is true and authentic, if the artist means it, we'll embrace it. I'm not saying those days were great, these suck. There has always been crap, and there are a lot of people shining right now.

From releasing 'Carnaby Street', to this, I think you've made a big step forward. The fact that you're planning to do more –

I've written the next one. (laughs). Well, the words. I wouldn't be as presumptuous enough to work without what Dani and Nigel might have. I had Gregory Darling, who is a great artist himself, help with the melodies on 'The Key To The Universe' and this was a true collaboration. It's a beautiful feeling, to work with people who aren't greedy, it's the desire to make a really good album. I don't have to do this for work, I don't have to do this for ambitious reasons, I'm doing it to get out what I'm thinking and feeling, I want to go and play it. These guys feel the same. I haven't got to please a label's criteria. You know how most labels are now, you get one album and you do as you are told and if it doesn't work, that's it. I'm not part of that corporate structure. I'm signed to FOD records, which is run by Bob Rose and Dean Manjuris, and as you can see by this hotel, they're extremely generous. They're committed, I've been in Germany for ten days, I'm here now talking to you, I've just talked to The Telegraph, I go to New York on Tuesday, then I'm doing Brazil, then Rome, then Russia... it's exhausting to do all this and not play, just talk about the album, but I will do anything for these guys, the way they have backed me. And talking about the record, I'm not just talking about what I did, I can speak about the experiences, the places, the magic, the art. To go out there and do what we did, it was nice to get out of my comfort zone. I don't like comfort zones, they are what they sound like. They sound like a furniture store. Or a sensitive singer/songwriter band. Comfort Zone and Sons. (laughs)

That's so refreshing to hear – so many great records get lost in the shuffle because so much music comes out. You need to do more than just placd an advert in one issue of a magazine. You need to push the record, get people talking about it, get out there and talk it up – the way it used to be done!

You have to believe in what you're selling, and a lot of people maybe don't. Or they are already successful and have lost interest. You do your job brilliantly James, because you care, you give a shit. A record is, at the end of the day, entertainment, it's getting people off. I just want to make people happy, what else am I gonna do, just make myself happy? I might as well just spend the rest of my life jerking off. And a lot of people do that. (laughs) I don't care about fame, I don't care about stardom – I'm already a star. I was born wearing eyeliner. (laughs) And great boots.

The velvet cape was added later.

Yes, much later, not until I was about three or four. (laughs)

It's really nice to hear of a label offering you the support you have, it's unheard of nowadays.

You're right, you never hear of it. I'm allowed to express myself multiple times, because I have a five album arrangement. When was the last time you heard that? Never? They're committed to it and they believe in me, I have a lot of ideas which I can do now, I have very generous partners. To record this album – it basically took as long as it took to record it to tape. There was no conjecture, just execution. We wrote and recorded it in three weeks.

Technology offers so many choices now, you can have so many effects, plugins, unlimited tracks, sometimes people feel that because the option is there they have to use it, and it can lose that spark, become too polished or too overblown.

I think you've just described 'Chinese Democracy'. Don't get me wrong, Axl Rose is brilliant, I love him, but that was an example of a man who doesn't know when to stop. I wanted to do less. And Dani, our guitar player, I'd never heard anything like him. He fronts the Jimi Hendrix Live Experience and that's why we did 'Supernatural Lover', to allow him to weave in that Hendrix like wah-wah. He doesn't bend strings like every other guitarist who listened to Buddy Guy. I'm not into those fast, didddly solos. Mick Ronson, to me, was the guvnor. He played the song, just because there is a solo part in a song, that doesn't mean everything has stopped and all the lights are on you. The band are still playing so the track is what is important, the solo should pull you in, not be an indulgence. I know what I like. I like Marshall stacks. I like Les Pauls. I don't like Auto Tune. I don't like Photoshop. I don't like Botox. I don't like artificiality.

It's amazing you've lasted as long as you have in the States then.

(Laughs). America is very accommodating to the individual, even though it is riddled with artifice. I'm quite isolated from that world because I don't require their assistance, I can be as iconoclastic as I like. This album is a statement of individuality. You can remain an individual even if you're in a relationship. If our society stops producing individuals, it will never grow. I'm a great champion of the individual, whereas most people in America go for what is popular. 'The Key To The Universe' is a statement of individuality. That's why it hurts when a band you take to your heart breaks up. That's the thing with rock 'n' roll, usually it ends acrimoniously. Some bands might remain together simply to tour and make money, but it's hard. It is like a relationship. Fortunately, with this band, we had a beautiful locale, new material, everything was fresh, and we didn't stay long enough to get on each other's nerves. That will come later. (laughs)

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