Talk about a distinctive voice. I remember hearing Mickey Thomas on his debut for Jefferson Starship for the first time and was riveted by his amazing vocals. I later found out I had actually heard him a few years earlier on that amazing performance with the Elvin Bishop Group ("Fooled Around and Fell in Love") but I never put the two together.
With "Jane", Mickey started a successful run as singer for the veteran San Francisco band cranking off hit singles like "Sara", "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and, of course, "We Built This City". After a long absence under the Starship banner, Mickey is back with a tremendous record, Loveless Fascination, produced and primarily written by Foreigner bassist Jeff Pilson. The record is filled with one great song after another. Picking out a highlight is useless because they're all excellent.
It was an absolute pleasure to speak to Mickey recently to talk about the new record and a bit about his days with Jefferson Starship.
antiMusic: I remember distinctly the first time I heard "Jane" which was three or four days after it was released. And your voice is forever carved in my memory banks. I loved the song but I almost couldn't wait for it to be over so I could hear who the DJ say it was doing it so I could go out and buy it, which I did later that day. Anyway, this is just an absolute pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Mickey: (laughs) Well, you're so welcome. Thank you.
antiMusic: Loveless Fascination is absolutely amazing. I've been longing for new product and you haven't failed anyone on any level. Congratulations on this record.
Mickey: Well thank you. You know it HAS been a long time coming. (laughs) It's like I've told people, I've started and stopped several times over the last 15 years or so to make a new Starship album, and you know for one reason or another, it just never materialized, never came together, never felt right. And then, you know, the more time that goes by, the harder it gets, and the higher the bar gets, and the greater the expectations become and so finally, the real key was when I was able to hook up with Jeff Pilson. I mean, we just clicked together. Once it became clear, 'Okay, this is the musical direction, this is the album we're going to make', then it happened real fast.
antiMusic: What was it that he brought to the table to the table to assist with things? I mean he might have had a common viewpoint but what did he bring to the table that other people had not in the past.
Mickey: Aside from his talent which is great on so many levels, Pilson just has a true rock and roll heart --- rock and roll spirit. He is a quintessential classic rocker. And he brought all of that to the record as well as his playing and his songwriting and his production work and everything else that goes into it. He's very exuberant, very energetic and that's good for me because I can get a little passive sometimes. (chuckles) so Jeff's energy kept kicking me in the butt.
antiMusic: I don't have the liner notes to the record, just the tracks. Who wrote the songs?
Mickey: Yeah, it was 80 per cent of the record is written by Jeff and there's also Richard Page of Mister Mister who contributed a song. And then of course, I think this record, generally speaking, is more '70s, early '80s, Jefferson Starship sound than it is a Starship sound, but I figured that, in kind of a nod to the Starship era of the band, I also included a Diane Warren song which my female vocalist and I do a duet on, which is kind of more in keeping with what people would identify, or associate more with the kind of mid '80s Starship sound
antiMusic: What significance does the title track have for you that you thought to call the record this and love gone wrong seems to be a whole overall theme for the record? Were you going through a bad time recently personally or were you just mining a universally relatable topic?
Mickey: Love gone wrong...you're right. (laughs) It is kind of a recurring theme on the record. The last track that we cut was "Technicolor Black and White". So I thought, you know, lets do this because that's more of a topical theme, kind of about what's going on in the world around us, on the news, in newspapers, and politically and stuff like that. So I thought we needed at least one song that wasn't love gone wrong. (laughs) But as far as the title track, one of the songs is called "Loveless Fascination", I just thought that that made kind of an interesting sounding title for the album because to me, I kind of came up with this cover concept because loveless fascination has this obvious meaning of like carnal desire. In other words, being maybe fascinated with somebody without the love aspect of it. (laughs) But to me it could also mean, as exemplified I think, by the man on the cover. He's kind of mesmerized by his own image that he's staring at in the pool. So I figured that he was fascinated by looking at himself but is there love involved or is it just fascination?
antiMusic: I thought the title track had a really interesting chord structure and melody lines. That sounds like a song that may have enjoyed a couple of different lives in different forms for short periods of time. Would that be correct?
Mickey: Yes, that is correct. I think it definitely evolved. Sometimes Jeff would come in with you know, great songs but maybe not complete songs, or maybe not completely defined songs. Then I would contribute my stamp a little bit to bring it all into focus a little more.
antiMusic: "It's Not the Same as Love" is the first single and it's tremendously reminiscent of "Jane". Tell us about this track and why you chose it as the first single?
Mickey: Well you know, it's funny you say that because the "Jane" comparisons cropped up more than once during the recording of the song so that was a sort of a conscious effort that hopefully that song would have that same sort of calling card that "Jane" had expressed when it first come out, a strong first impression, which you just mentioned. (laughs) Which is shocking obviously. "Jane" made that on you back in '79 so we were hoping that maybe we could at least create a little bit of that with "It's Not the Same As Love".
antiMusic: The swirling keys in there really help color it nicely and the guitars sound like mid-'80s Foreigner, possibly due to Mr Pilson's day job?
Mickey: Yes, there's that obvious influence, Jeff's been with Foreigner for, I don't know, I think 10 or 12 years. To me, when I heard "Loveless Fascination", I thought it sounded like a blend, a synthesis of Foreigner and Billy Joel, when Billy Joel was kind of at his rocking best.
antiMusic: Yeah, yeah, right.
Mickey: You know like "Moving Out" and that kind of stuff.
antiMusic: Yeah, that's interesting, that kind of comparison. There are three or four tracks that I'm freaking over but possibly my favorite is "How Do You Sleep". What a wicked hook and your voice sounds just amazing especially with that wild soaring run at the end of the bridge. Tell us a bit about this song.
Mickey: Ah, yeah, there are three or four songs on the album that are kind of
I was kind of more like spitting the words out rather than singing. (laughs) There was a lot of pent up aggression and pent up anger and "How Do You Sleep" is one of them. And you know it's funny because that's not anything that's happening with me in my personal life. I'm very happy and content with my relationship (laughs) but there is an element of bitterness to a lot of the songs. For me, I thought, well, I'm just going to go with that, express that, much the way I guess as an actor might express a role. I always kind of looked at singing a little bit like acting --- for me personally, like taking somebody else's written word and expressing my own interpretation on them.
antiMusic: "You Deny Me" and "Where Did We Go Wrong" are just dripping with emotion. Tell us about these tracks and what you were thinking about when you recorded them?
Mickey: (laughs). Again, as I said, it was easy for me to sort of put myself in the character for even singing the song even though, once again, it wasn't something that was happening to me in my own personal life but it's happened to all of us at least at one point or another in our life, where I think you feel that betrayal, denial, the anger of love gone wrong, the hurt that sometimes comes out as anger. So I guess you just have to remember when you did feel that and tap back into it and express it that way. Because again, there are a lot of songs on there that seem to have that theme. We were talking about it in the studio, Jeff and I, and I was like, there are also a lot of questions (laughs) on this album. "How Do You Sleep", "Where Did We Go Wrong", "What Did I Ever Do", "How Will I Get By". (laughs) I would tease Jeff, I said, man you are quite the question man. (laughs). So the next album will be all answers. (laughs)
antiMusic: I was interviewing Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night earlier this year
Mickey: Oh Chuck! He's a good friend of ours.
antiMusic: Oh, is that right? He was saying that for a lot of singers of the classic rock era to have success, they should be picking keys that are more appropriate to their more mature voice. Now you're obviously not as seasoned as some of those fellas but there is evidently not one loss of power or control with your voice. Do you have to baby it or do you just naturally have great abilities to withstand any strain on it?
Mickey: I think it's just the ability to withstand strain. You know, I haven't lost any range but what I do like, I've developed more of a thickness to go along with the range, kind of a darker, smokier quality in my voice I think. I definitely don't baby it. I met a famous opera star about 15 years ago and we were talking about that and taking care of the voice and what a fragile instrument it can be and she said, you know I used to just baby my voice and pamper my voice---and this is coming from an opera singer---and she said, finally I just realized the best way to maintain it is to just beat the sh*t out of it. (laughs) So I certainly beat the sh*t out of my vocal chords for the last 40 years or so.
antiMusic: Hooking up with Pilson and Loud and Proud, can you see this being a prolonged period of creativity or are you just looking at things as one record at a time?
Mickey: I think this is going to be a prolonged period of creativity. Just last week I listened to the record again. A week ago Monday when the single was released to classic rock, my wife and I got out the CD, had some wine and listened to the whole thing again, start to finish. And I sent Jeff an email and said, "Man, thanks again. This is great. I think the sequencing is really good. Let's do this for the next 30 years or so." (laughs) And he emails back, "Let's make it 35." (laughs) Alright deal.
antiMusic: You've had a few solo records out over the last decade but a couple of those contained other people's songs. I can only imagine that how much you're looking forward to hitting the live circuit with some fresh material to deliver to people.
Mickey: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It's been my experience over the years too when you add two or three new songs to the show, it kind of re-invigorates all of the songs. It carries over not only to the new songs but to the whole set and the whole show and it brings new life into everything that you do. Two or three new songs can just like I said, re-energize the whole set.
antiMusic: From what I've read, you've pretty much had the same band for an extended period of time now,
Mickey: Yeah, a long time now,
antiMusic: Did that kind of magic now have make it easier to turn this record knowing that you had such familiarity with everybody and
Mickey: Yes, definitely. My drummer and my keyboard player have been with me for 20 years each and my bass player for 15 years. I had a guitar player who had been with me for 15 years but we suddenly, tragically lost him last year. Really when you look at the core of this band, it's been together longer than any incarnation of the bands
ever, if you go all the way back to the Airplane, even. The pattern's been every six or seven years for a changeover of the personnel or music direction and then another 6 or 7 years and another reinvention of the band. That kind of pattern. But these guys have basically been with me, the whole band, at least 15 years or longer.
antiMusic: Perhaps because there's not as many chemicals involved as there was the first two times around. (laughs)
Mickey: (laughs) That's part of it, (laughs) but also the other part of it is, it's just really hard to keep a band together. And when I came into the Jefferson Starship it was really like a situation where you had lot of hired guns. (laughs) You had Aynsley Dunbar who had come in right before me. And there was Craig Chaquico who not been an original member of Jefferson Airplane or Starship. He had come in at a later date. So everyone had sort of come in at different times and everybody had their own personality and their own ego and their own idea of, okay this is what the band should be or this is the musical direction we're going in. So it was quite a juggling of egos and differences of opinion. And so when I reformed the band, I had the luxury sort of picking people that I really liked personally and liked playing with and I kind of had the advantage of saying, okay, this is what it is and this is what it's going to be. Are you in? (laughs) It makes it a lot easier when you could sort of captain the ship.
antiMusic: Absolutely. Can you take us back and recall what you were thinking as Freedom at Point Zero became such a success. At that point you were definitely carving out your own audience because in no way could you be confused with Marty Balin.
Mickey: Right. It was not without some trepidation and much consideration that I went through before I decided to take the plunge and join Jefferson Starship because, as you mentioned, I was coming from a completely different musical background, coming out of the Elvin Bishop band and with my sort of R&B, soul, gospel roots, and not really having been a fan of Jefferson Starship, I'm thinking, 'Wow, how is this going to work?' or 'IS this going to work?'
And it really, again
this song is going to come up again, when we first played "Jane" tighter at rehearsal, and that song came together, and I thought, 'Wow, this could work'. Because the remaining members of Starship at that time were all interested in again, reinventing the band and going into a different musical direction with a much harder edge, hard rock sound that had been associated with the kind of mid '70s Jefferson Starship. So with Aynsley coming in and then with me coming in at roughly the same time it made it a lot easier for each of us I think. When we played "Jane" I knew, this had a shot. So it was kind of the first song that we worked on and the first song that we rehearsed, the first song that we recorded for Freedom at Point Zero. And again, it was the first single, and debuted at number 1 on the rock tracks back in '79.
antiMusic: I can only imagine that surviving in the Jefferson Starship era was an exercise in patience. With strong personalities such as Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and Marty Balin to name a few, did you try and inject your own personality into the mix or did you just try to stay out of the line of fire as much as possible?
Mickey: I'm sure I did inject my own personality in to the mix but I think fortunately for the band, my natural personality was one of non confrontation. The former manager of the band, used to call me the Henry Kissinger of the band. (laughs) Because you kind of had Paul on one side, and then Aynsley Dunbar and Pete Sears, both with very large personalities and egos, and very strong musical opinions. And honestly, there were many moments in my first couple of years with the band, where I really thought I was going to have to physically separate people. Like nose to nose, red faced, just going at each other. So that kind of ended up being my role in the band, that of the go-between, between different factions and trying to unify everybody and keep it on track.
antiMusic: How did you personally get along with Grace?
Mickey: I got along with Grace wonderfully.
Mickey: Yeah, super relationship, yeah. Really, really fun. And great memories. You know, Grace and I made a conscious effort again to deconstruct and reinvent the band with the Kneedeep in the Hoopla album and so, obviously it worked pretty well. (laughs) Being able to sing "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" together, and you know just great times. Great fun on the road. Great tours. Great experiences in the studio. We sang together for
I guess 7 or 8 years all through the '80s and it was 95 per cent good until last 5 per cent right at the end where things started to go south a little bit. And it really wasn't so much between Grace and me as it was outside forces which impacted the two of us.
antiMusic: Were you surprised at the fallout over "We Built the City" because I never understood it? I love that song.
Mickey: Well, I do understand it. You know there was a lot that was going on in rock and roll music in the mid '80s that a lot of purists or critics didn't care for, the whole what became identified as corporate rock sound, whatever that is. (laughs) Because honestly in the lyrics of "We Built This City", we're actually making a statement against corporate rock, but sometimes people don't really dig deep enough to get that part of the message.
But I think "We Built This City" sort of became the poster child for a lot of what people didn't care for that was going on in rock, mostly just a style of recording, a sound which we thought was, wow, this is pretty cool. We've got machines, we got samples, we got synthesizers, and we've got all this new stuff we can use. And we had fun with and enjoyed it and used it for what it was. But I think it's a little unfair (laughs) that "We Built This City" has taken some of the criticism that it has but I do understand it.
And then of course Blender magazine which kind of started that whole fad of lets make the worst list of things, the worst song ever, the worst album ever, the worst guitar solo ever played, and that whole negative way of thinking. And that kind of snowballed and then when they picked "We Built This City", the worst song ever, obviously people picked up on that. Nobody remembers number 2. (laughs) Or number 3. Ever.
antiMusic: One final question because I know you have to go: What are your expectations for this album, considering in 2013, everybody knows record sales are down but are you hoping to mostly sell this record at shows and keeping building your audience that way or do you think people will go out and support great product?
Mickey: I hope people go out and support great product and buy it. I hope it finds some places in radio where it can be exposed and be played and give people a chance to hear it. I'm hoping, you know in this day and age for bands of our ilk if you can get attached to a movie or a TV show or a commercial anything like that is good way of exposure for the album. I'm hoping to sell a million copies
hard copies. (laughs)
Preview and purchase the new album here.
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