Michael Des Barres keeps rocking, on radio and on record

Michael Des Barres interview


“I’m on top of the world even though the world is on top of me but I’ve been dealing with different angles my entire life,” says Michael Des Barres, the DJ, ex-actor and former frontman for Power Station and other bands. “I have a deep sadness about what’s going on with so many people but I’m joyous that I’m alive and healthy. I have my wife and my cats and my microphone and my radio show: my life.”

In addition to his show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on SiriuxXM satellite radio, and a new six-song EP, Des Barres is working on video game production and a musical.

He has been doing the radio show for seven years. “I began six or seven years ago, doing it here at the house, and it has been amazing doing it three hours a day. You know what’s amazing about it, though? After spending decades doing it, playing The Temptations and Howlin’ Wolf and The (New York) Dolls, Lou Reed … all of the great authentic R&B, and that world of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is a wonderful thing for me because you’ve got to be in some way self-obsessed to become an artist (laughs). When you’re playing other people’s music and extolling the virtues of other people’s work, a really interesting thing happens: You can lose yourself in someone else’s magnificence instead of dreaming up your own. So it has been very beneficial to me.

“I don’t really just play the music, though. I give context … I put things in a way that people can understand the music rather than it being this sort of repetitive mantra.

“Music is mantra: We play music that could be described as repetitious because we play Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Stones, Beatles over and over but if you can find a way of putting that song in a particular place where people can understand … what was it like in that studio? Who was in that studio? Who produced that record? Who wrote the lyrics? Who wrote that second verse? Who is doing the harmony? Who played the solo? I go very fucking deep into this shit and I think that’s what people want to hear. They’ve heard ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ many fucking times but if you set a context … Gary Brooker and what he and Matthew Fisher did with that, and how that came about … then you listen to it in another way.

“So it’s way more than just playing music. I talk about music and I try and let them understand and find out little jewels that make it sound better. What is Howlin’ Wolf’s real name? Chester Burnett. What is Little Richard’s real name? Richard Penniman. The point being is that I explore. I’m not just playing songs. I explore the artists involved and how they got to be who they were.

“If you read about Little Richard’s life … we all know ‘Rip It Up,’ we all know ‘Lucille,’ but this guy started in drag clubs wearing dresses and full makeup for gay men. Now, if you put that out to an audience, they’re going to listen to the music in a different way. This was a guy who was living in Macon, Ga., in the ’50s who was gay, sexually experimental, wore makeup, wigs and created rock ‘n’ roll because he didn’t give a fuck, and you can hear it. So now we listen to the music in a different way because he’s struggling and fighting to get out of the attacks that were made to him because of who he is. It’s almost a scream of joy and pain.

“There’s a lot more depth to music than just playing songs. That’s my job and that’s Steven Van Zandt’s ethos. The whole nation of Little Steven’s Underground Garage is to not just entertain but to educate in terms of, if you’re a teacher and you’re teaching music and you play a Sam Cooke song, after that has been played, then you can talk about civil rights. All of these artists and these songs mean so much more than just ‘Twistin’ the Night Away.’ It becomes almost educative as well as entertaining and Steven has created Teachrock.org, which is teaching teachers how to teach music where you bring up civil rights or gun laws or whatever it is, but you find that through music, which is so fascinating.

“A lot of radio people just play the hits, but we don’t do that. We play B-sides and stuff that you probably would not have heard, and that is what is fantastic for me, because it keeps me completely interested and also educated.”

The cover of Michael Des Barres and the Mistakes’ “Live! At the Hi Hat” EP.

As mentioned above, Des Barres and his band The Mistakes have a new EP. It was recorded at the Los Angeles nightclub The Hi Hat and is titled Live! At the Hi Hat.

“It’s so ironic,” Des Barres said, “because I’m talking to you ostensibly to tell folks about the live EP that I’ve done, which is one of the best things that I’ve ever done … and here I am talking about Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett when I should be talking about my band and my EP. But what brings me to those covers is that I know the heart of those songs and why they were written and who did them and I interpret them in my own way — our own way. The Mistakes is more about learning than anything else.”

According to Des Barres, the EP’s songs choices were easy to make, and provided a wide sampling of his career.

“A lot of it was my (’70s) band, Detective … and the other was Silverhead, which was my first glam band, and it was spectacular so I wanted to go back and just experience that with some great musicians playing. In terms of ‘What’s Going On’ with Marvin Gaye … I don’t really have to explain (laughs). I’m sick about what’s going on and it’s just as relevant today as it was when Marvin Gaye did it. The T. Rex thing … Marc Bolan was a friend of mine; I did ‘Get It On’ at Live Aid with that band Power Station.”

The EP’s songs “all have stories behind them, but the interesting thing about the EP,” Des Barres said, “is that there are no overdubs on that record. That is a live record that we did at our second show. I record everything I do live and I don’t really play live that much, but I wanted to go out and play just for fun. I recorded it and then when the pandemic hit and people are not playing anywhere … God bless them, my heart bleeds for my colleagues out there … I thought I should put this out. I thought I should put out a live record and that’s where ‘The Mistakes’ came from because there aren’t any mistakes and that’s the joy of it (laughs). The wonderful label Die Laughing Records, in conjunction with Golden Robot Records, put it out. It’s a punk label and I’m delighted, it really turned out good.

“I’ve got Matt Starr from Ace Frehley’s band on drums. He’s brilliant — I mean, really good … Paul Ill from Courtney Love and Pink and Christina Aguilera … one of those bass players who can play anything and everything. And Loren Molinare from Detroit’s The Dogs on guitar. Erik Himel, an incredibly tasteful Mick Taylor-esque guitar player. And what I did was, I went into the rehearsal room and I said, ‘Okay, we are all 17 and we are in our bedrooms. We’re playing our instrument. Go!’ So, it doesn’t have any thought. Rock ‘n’ roll’s heart beats below your fucking waist, don’t think about it (laughs), just play it and enjoy it. This was our second gig, this EP, and I don’t even know if we’ll ever play again, to be candid, and I don’t really want to. I mean, maybe.”

Wait. Don’t know if they will ever play again? Des Barres’ response to that question was rather quick and candid.

“Because I’m 72! Dude, I do many things, I’m now in the middle of a video game for Warner Bros., flying around in front of a green screen, and I’m writing a musical about the Marquis de Sade, I’m doing my radio programs. There’s very different things in my life than going onstage and singing ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor,’ and I have contracts with various things and I do those. The only reason that I did The Mistakes is because I felt like it and I might feel like it again. But after these eight months of doing different things I don’t know if I want to do that again. Maybe.”

Michael Des Barres sings with Power Station at Live Aid.

Since he performed at Live Aid in 1985 for one of the largest audiences the world has ever seen, one might think it difficult to adjust to a smaller venue and crowd. But most performers say there is no difference: They give the same effort no matter the venue or crowd size. Correct, Michael?

“It’s not the same,” he said with a belly laugh. “That’s very sweet and spiritual, but it’s not the same. Every stage is grand. They are no different but you have to really enjoy it, you have to be disciplined about it, you’ve rehearsed for it. You’ve got to enjoy yourself. I don’t care if there’s 200 or 200 thousand, I’ve been at this for what, 60 years? I think a lot of people lose sight of things, don’t they? I don’t care about that. I just like to entertain, and if they dig it, they dig it, and if they don’t, they don’t.

“I remember (original Power Station vocalist) Robert Palmer, who I loved 10 years before Power Station. I knew Robert, we used to get stoned together or whatever. Then I suddenly replace him and some snooty Rolling Stone writer says to me — and I despise all of that critique — ‘You’ve got some big shoes to fill, Michael.’ and I said, ‘I brought my own fucking shoes!’ That’s the way I feel about everything. To walk on that stage after three days of rehearsals with these boys who happened to be the Beatles of their era, Duran Duran — John and Andy Taylor — (and) Tony Thompson, Bowie’s drummer and Chic’s drummer. An amazing band with a horn section and girl singers, and to walk out on that stage after Dylan … that is a feeling that is indescribable.

“I’ve just been so lucky that things have fallen into place. I think it’s so much to do with your heart and your soul. If you treat people good and especially treat yourself well and don’t fuck it up with narcotics and cruelty and ego, great things will happen to you.

“Everything feels fantastic! I mean, I’m 72. I’m fantastic! I feel great. I quit heroin in 1981 and I’ve been sober ever since. I don’t smoke and I eat well, I run and I love my wife and I have cats and guitars and I’ve been very lucky in terms of my work. … it’s a beautiful life and I’m very grateful for it.”

Over those six decades he has had the chance to meet, friend and perform with many talented musicians and industry heavyweights. But some left a deeper impression than others.

“Tony Thompson, for me, was the greatest drummer ever. Clem Burke is brilliant, he is amazing, but Tony Thompson was in a whole other universe. That’s why Bowie had him, and all of the really thoughtful producers and writers would get Tony Thompson. The most important thing for a singer is the drummer. The drums are the most important instrument in rock ‘n’ roll — even though ‘That’s All Right, Mama,’ by Elvis … there was no drummer because Elvis was so rhythmic himself. That is interesting when you think about it. It was just a rhythm section, no drums, just a guitar player and a double bass player. But Thompson, fuck. It was an amazing experience to play with him. He was in another world apart from Steve Gadd and a lot of those guys because he managed to marry funk and Bonzo (John Bonham).

“By the way, I stayed with Bonzo at his farm in Birmingham and that jukebox he had in his house was all James Brown. I knew him good because I was on the label (Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records) but all he really wanted to play was soul and funk music. But the dynamics of Jimmy’s brilliant writing and producing … because he is the best rock ‘n’ roll producer, Jimmy Page. That album in ’68, (Led Zeppelin’s) debut record is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll record because of its incredible dynamism between tension and release, and that’s what Bonzo had, but his own musicality was funk and soul music. Bonzo was in a band before that — which was funk and soul, with Robert (Plant) — but it was Jimmy’s magic and imagination that created that powerful blues-oriented, sexy, bare-chested, Viking rock ‘n’ roll … I saw them many times.”

With so many irons in the fire and the current worldwide shutdown of so many things, the live EP was a change of pace, or was it? And what does he wish to convey to those who it up?

“I still make records. I mean, I’ve put out a lot of records in the last few years on Steven Van Zandt’s label Wicked Cool. I just did a version of ‘Anarchy in the UK” like Roy Orbison, with an orchestra. That was really fun, I had Steven Van Zandt on the phone because I’m in L.A. and he’s in New York and I’d hold up the phone and he’d go, ‘That’s a fuckin’ E minor, for God’s sake,’ to the orchestra (laughs). You’ve got to listen to it, it’s like a ballad. I did it right before the whole Black Lives Matter and COVID really began. That was about a year and a half ago that I did that tune. I really wanted to take a punk classic and turn it into something different. I’ve done ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ at 100 miles per hour and you know what? It makes perfect sense.”

So, what is next for Michael Des Barres? Seemingly whatever he wants. And he feels that we can all do the same.

“What’s next? I’ll probably go to the gym and do another interview,” he said. “Just have fun and enjoy yourself. Enjoy it because life is so precious and every second counts. Where I’m coming from with that is, I don’t reach or want for something. I do it and if I do it, like playing live, I’ll play live. But to plan it out … I would never do that because so many different things happen to you and when you get into that space, you’re suddenly in front of 100 thousand people. Age has nothing to do with it. If Mick Jagger can fly through the air, then so can you.”

For more about Michael Des Barres, visit Michaeldesbarres.com or facebook.com/MDesBarres.


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