Micki Free has had a long and celebrated career, beginning with his band Smokehouse which opened for heavyweights such as KISS back in the early '80s. That resulted him in being managed by Gene Simmons and doors began opening up. He joined the pop/R&B band Shalamar just in time record a mega-Platinum record (Dancing in the Sheets) and win a Grammy. Shortly after, he was approached by Prince to join his Mazarati project. Although legal issues scuttled that move, Free had the opportunity to hang with the Princely one for awhile and further expand his ever-growing music profile.
Hooking up with ex-Plasmatics member, Jean Beauvoir, the pair put together Crown of Thorns, gaining tons of fans with their melodic hard rock. Then Free began to concentrate on his solo career, issuing several blues-rock records cultivating the sound that is the essence of his musical blueprint. However, along the way he also began to delve into Native American flute music, at first a seemingly sudden left-turn but as you listen to the material, you realize that it is just another venue for the fertile garden in his note factory. Same roadmap, different car.
Earlier this year Micki released a superb flute record, The Native American Flute as Therapy and I play it whenever I want a break from the maelstrom of usual selections. The disc is undeniably soothing and you can feel your blood pressure retreating after the first few bars. He followed that up this past summer with a re-release of his first solo record Tattoo Burn and re-titled it Tattoo Burn Redux. Excellent new songs like the first single "God is on the Phone" (featuring guest vocals by Shalamar singer Howard Hewett) make it a winner from beginning to end and the record is jammed with tasty blues-rock riffs and memorable song hooks.
I had the great opportunity to speak with Micki recently about the records and as always, it's a fun conversation. The guy has so much enthusiasm for music and it flows out via his stories, always flavoured with lots of laughs. Here's our talk:
antiMusic: To start with, you've brought back one of your older CDs for release. Tell us about the decision to bring back Tattoo Burn. Did you feel that it might not have received the attention it deserved first time around?
Micki:You know what? That's exactly the reason why we re-released Tattoo Burn Redux, as I call it, meaning it's just a re-release of something I thought was a very great cool, blues-rock CD. It never really got any exposure because it was a deal I had done with Cargo Records and a really small deal at the time. I have to be honest with you; we never released it in America so people were getting it as an import. By design the deal was made really small because I knew at a later time I would want to re-release it.
So this year I added new songs to it, remixed it, played some new other stuff. "God is On The Phone", is my new duet with Howard Hewett from Shalamar. I also put, "Sometimes in Winter", a totally new song on there as well. and we remixed some other things on the CD. But yeah man, that's EXACTLY what I did. I didn't feel that Tattoo Burn was heard by anyone. and it really wasn't significantly. But Redux has been getting serious blues play since we re-released it in May.
antiMusic: Tell us about the awesome title track and I'm guessing because it was chosen as the record title, it must have some particular importance to you. Lyrically speaking, particularly about the woman's name tattooed on you, is this autobiographical?
Micki:(Laughs) You might say that, man. I mean, right? If you look at me, (laughs) I'm covered in tattoos and people always ask me the silliest questions, either in a tattoo shop or when I'm walking on the street. They always say, "Did those hurt while you were getting tattooed?" and I'm looking at them like, "Yeah, they hurt. They burn." And so that title, "Tattoo Burn" I mean, that is me and this record reflects me and what I do. "Tattoo Burn, I've got her name burned on my body." I mean that's significant right there. I don't really get girls' names tattooed on me but somewhere in that maze of tattoos I think there's an inkling of SOME woman SOMEwhere. I don't know. But yeah, "Tattoo Burn" is me.
antiMusic: The things that separates you from a lot of people are your licks and your tone. I mean, there are lots of blues/rock guitarists out there but "Tattoo Burn" sounds like if Robin Trower had gotten a massive B12 shot of soul at birth. You've had an undeniable groove to your sound since the Shalamar days --- how has your tone and ability to interpret the blues that you hear in your head evolved from your early days?
Micki:Ah, that's a GREAT question, man. You know, from the beginning I've considered myself a basic blues-rock guitar player. Even way before Shalamar. I was digging Hendrix as a boy and Trower and even Keith Richards man. And then we can go back to Howlin' Wolf and all those guys. but traditional blues really wasn't my thing. I was digging classic rock. English classic rock especially in the day, and was very heavily influenced by those players. Eric Clapton and Steve Marriott, Humble Pie, all of those guys. And when we get into the American stuff, I mean, right off the top is my top three which was Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Billy Gibbons. There's no doubt you hear all of those guys in my style and in my playing. For sure, Morley, for sure.
But I've got to tell you, I learned from the very beginning, as a guitarist, and this is before I met and recorded with Billy Gibbons and met Carlos---(he's still my friend. I'll be seeing him in two days as a matter of fact in Vegas at the House of Blues. He calls me up to jam every time I see him, which is an honor ) But from Billy Gibbons, I learned early on that tone is everything. I loved tone when I was young. and I wanted to GET tone. I knew it was the key to making what you wanted to hear. So I tried to emulate Hendrix. I tried to emulate Eric Clapton's tone in Cream. As he got older I really wasn't as interested in Eric Clapton but Cream was the days that I dug him. And Steve Marriott and Humble Pie and even Keith Richards and, Robin Trower, it goes on, those early guys with TONE.
So I think I established my tone very early in the game. People that play guitar may not know this, or this is my take --- I'm a three piece guy, mostly. So you have to be a pretty good rhythm player to play in a three piece band. I spoke to Cindy Blackman Santana about this on my radio show a couple of weeks ago. Rhythm is everything in a three piece band because when you let it off the rhythm, you know, you've got a solo but you want to make sure you can get back into your rhythm groove and consistently play both of those parts. That's what I do. I don't try and never have tried to be a shredder, to play really, really, really fast because I could not care less, and to be a speed demon guy. It's just not for me.
And as far as technique, I definitely think I have my own style and it's very recognizable like you said. Even Cargo Records in England, they called me the Inimitable Micki Free, which is very cool, and thank you for the compliment John Dryland. Inimitable means, "Cannot be duplicated" and when I play, I think that yes, you know it's me and I've got signature licks and tone and space, Morley. That's how I do it, man.
antiMusic: There's several of the songs on the record that are competing for my favourite cut but there's nothing better on there than "God is on the Phone" for me. Before we talk about Howard, tell us about how this song came together. Did you get the line "God is on the Phone" before the melody?
Micki:Yeah, it's weird. I write in two different ways; it's either the lyric I write around or it's a riff I write around. This started out as a funky, bluesy riff as I was playing it. and I have to tell you this: I was going to give this song to Carlos Santana, but then I wanted to keep it and put it on this record because I wanted Tattoo Burn Redux to have some new blood. So I never played this for Carlos. (laughs) I wrote this for him really and I wanted him to do it.
And I started with that Micki Free meets Prince-ly-esque funky rhythm that I actually learned by playing with Prince and jamming with Prince, that just very staccato funky rhythmic sound. Then as you can tell going into the solos, it's a cross between me and Santana and even Gibbons. My influences are just so there in that whole thing. but I wanted to keep it bluesy-rock, you know? People seemed to like it, especially with the addition of my brother Howard from Shalamar doing a duet with me, who is probably one of the most incredible singers of all time, Morley.
antiMusic: How did Howard come to be involved?
Micki:I was in LA recording it and I was staying at Howard's house and we were doing a video for his video show that he does online, I said "Dude, come sing on this song with me." and he said, "What is it?" And I said, "God's on the phone." He said, "Oh yeah, great title." So I said, "Okay sing me something." So I just played it for him on guitar right there. and he said, "Okay, I'll come in. He came in and knocked it out in one day. I produced it and wrote it and arranged it and the whole thing.
Howie came in and did his thing, which he does and it's just so stellar having him on that song. And I'm really happy with the way that it turned out. I then took it to my friend Gary Clark Jr. who is another guitar player that I am totally into and admire as a blues guitarist but on the cutting edge. His producer, Mark, remixed it for me and we then submitted it to the record company as a gospel remix for the Grammy Awards in that category. Tattoo Burn Redux was also submitted for Best Contemporary Blues Record and my Native American Flute Record as well in New Age Music category. Is that funny or what?
antiMusic: Fingers crossed, man
Micki:Yeah right? You know, I've won a Grammy already but you know, winning another one wouldn't hurt. (laughs)
antiMusic: You'll take it.
Micki:I'll take it.
antiMusic: Tell us about the song lyrically.
Micki:Ah, you know, it's just a song, really that the lyric says everything about it. Whenever you're down, feeling really down and lonely, God is always on the phone for you. He'll always take your call and you guys can work it out through a phone call. That's exactly what that song means. No matter how bad it seems or you feel, call God. He will pick it up. He will answer because God is on the phone. That's it exactly and the lyric says it all.
M: What kind of things were you thinking whenever Howard was adding his vocal. Did that bring back any memories?
Micki:Yeah, lots of memories of him and I in Shalamar, man. I just played with Shalamar like two months ago. Sometimes when I've gone and done my own thing and Shalamar calls on me, I'm happy to play with Howard. I love him to death as a friend and brother and he's an extraordinary vocalist. When I joined Shalamar, I didn't even know who they were. Gene Simmons and I had a conversation after we'd checked them out. They were really huge with "Dead Giveaway" and all their smashes that they had. Gene was just starting to manage me at the time, and he said to me "Look if you join Shalamar, you'll be getting into a limousine instead of a taxicab the first time out." So I knew what he meant by that.
Long story short, I joined Shalamar and won a Grammy in one year. "Dancing In The Sheets" triple platinum. Then you know, meeting Eddie Murphy and you know, it goes on and on. Shalamar opened a lot of doors for me. But then I was stuck in the Shalamar mode because people didn't really know that I was a blues rock guitarist and not just the Princely-looking guy in Shalamar. Yeah, there was a lot of memories with Howard around.
antiMusic: "Mojo Black Coffee" is another great track with a "Mannish Boy" rhythm. Tell us about writing this one. Are you a coffee drinker?
Micki:Yeah, yeah man. (laughs). You know, I'm really not a heavy coffee drinker, but "Mannish Boy", is one of my favorite songs and such a distinct blues vibe. But I didn't want to do it like Muddy did it, like (sings riff). I wanted to switch it up my way, the Micki Free way, the way I hear it. Thus my riff comes out. I didn't want to sound like George Thorogood or any of those guys. I wanted to do it my way because it's like a very recognizable lick. But most people try to copy it. But I'm not like one of those guys. I don't copy. It's all interpreted through me and through what I hear.
But my mom had a coffee that she used to make that was like mud and it would get you going in the morning (laughs) and I was always like "woaah" after a sip. So I called it Mojo Black Coffee because it got you going. And in the video I really wanted to have a bit of humour instead of the usual Micki Free thing that seems to be going around about me. So you see me waking up in bed with this beautiful tattooed native girl with my hat and boots on Morley. (laughs) I mean I wanted everything to be funny. And Billy Gibbons thought it was a hoot as well. Yeah, it's really one of my favorite songs too.
antiMusic: I love "Six Feet Down in the Blues" and that's a real tasty B3 lick to start it off. Tell us about this real traditional blues song.
Micki:That was traditional straight up. I was inspired by Billy Gibbons, no doubt, on writing that song. I was hanging out with Billy, that whole period when I originally recorded the original Tattoo Burn songs. Billy was a big tone influence. We had just recorded in the Bahamas, Billy and I, at Compass Point Resort Studios so I was deep into my Gibbons tone and sound phase and I wanted to write a traditional blues song, my way.
And Mark "Muggy Doo" Leach from Buddy Miles Band played Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes on it and he is probably the most powerful and stellar Hammond organ player I've ever played with. And he'll be on tour with me world-wide in 2018. To me, he was a seriously deep part of the whole Tattoo Burn record. His vibe...his skill on Hammond...and my love for the Hammond, from Booker T and the MGs baby...."Green Onions", that set me off. So yeah, he's just stellar on Hammond. And the song is just straight up Micki Free meets the blues my way meets Billy's influence on me....no doubt.
antiMusic: You've put out several flute CDs in the past but for those out there like me that are new to that area of your musical library, tell us how you first got interested in the flute and how it progressed to making entire records.
Micki:It's crazy, right? I mean I'm mixed blood Native American Cherokee and Comanche. Most people who know of me, know that. And I was never really interested in Native American flute really until my wife and my young son and I were travelling in about 2005 and doing the pow wow circuit where I would play blues rock stuff. And we had this huge Native American company called Cherokee Free's as a family business. We had all sort of killer Native American merchandise. And a flautist was playing a couple of booths down and I was listening to the sound of this and just going, "Man, this is the most beautiful sound I've ever heard (besides guitar of course)." I went over there and met him and he gifted me a flute.
Like I do on everything, I'm self-taught. I can't read. I teach myself just by listening to things and then I play 'em. So probably within three weeks to a month, I was playing it and playing it well --- my style. I can do a couple of different styles like traditional is just Native American flute and drums but my favourite is probably contemporary depending on the record which means contemporary instruments like piano particularly. And I kept hearing this record out by Peter Kater and Carlos Nakai. And I knew Carlos Nakai was an incredible Native American flute player and Peter Kater was just an amazing pianist, Those were the records I was listening to when I was learning to play the flute. And it's so crazy that now, years later, I'm on the same label as Peter Kater and Carlos Nakai which is Mysterium Music that puts out their records as well as my latest flute record, The Native American Flute as Therapy.
Then I came to find out that my flute playing is a lot like my guitar playing. People tell me this all the time. I have the same emotion that runs through me playing the flute as when I play guitar. I guess that makes sense. But I play it with a lot of runs and trills just like blues guitar. Space. Air. Same as my flute.
I think I've got four flute records now. I've won five Native American Music awards. And the music is very important to me now, spiritually-speaking.
antiMusic: To non-musicians like me, what sets Native American flutes apart from the rest of the flute family?
Micki:Well it's a different scale for one. And it's wood as opposed to the other kind of flute that is played sideways like Jethro Tull. It's a totally different instrument. There's only five holes on the Native American flute and the scales are totally different. I'm not that educated on it, I gotta tell you (laughs). I just pick it up and I play it and whatever works for me, just works. I play about seven different instruments and that's the way I learn to ply them. Just by beating on them or blowing through them or whatever.
antiMusic: How did this new CD come about? Did you just feel like it was time to switch gears for a bit or did you have melodies that demanded a lighter touch such as the flute?
Micki:That's a great question, Morley. I wrote most of the music for this record probably in about 2006 but I was busy being blues-rock guy. I started playing a lot for the Hard Rock Cafe chain and touring around the world, you know...London and Buenos Aires. Even with the Crown of Thorns stuff with Jean Beauvoir, I was starting to get back to the heavy stuff for much of the time. I was at a benefit about two years ago for Dick Wagner who used to play with Alice Cooper. This really cool Hammond player called Brother Paul Brown who is the Hammond player in The Waterboys which is one of my favourite bands in the world. I played guitar and I also played flute when I did that benefit and I said I was going to do an honour song on flute for Dick Wagner. And Paul's wife at the time had cancer and he asked if I would include April in it. And I said, "No doubt. For sure, brother."
And so we played together for this rock & roll audience, Morley, I tell you was SO quiet. You could hear a pin drop. We got a standing ovation and people were tearing up, And after that Brother Paul said to me, "You know there's a woman called Trish Bowden who owns a label called Mysterium Music that would love your music." And he put me into contact with her. She asked me if I was going to do a record and I said, "Yeah maybe I am. I've got some songs that I've been holding onto." And that's how The Native American Flute as Therapy came to light.
The only song on there that I didn't write was one that I had been waiting to play for my whole career was "Down by the River" by Neil Young. And I did it between the way Buddy Miles did it and the way Neil Young wrote it. I thought it turned out really good.
antiMusic: I was going to ask you about it later and I feel bad about saying it because it's the one you didn't write but it's my favourite song on the record.
Micki:It's one of my favourite songs of all time as well.
antiMusic: Tell us about how you decided on the themes for each piece of music. Was the music written first and then you worked the themes around them or were they written with each in mind?
Micki: It was written with each one in mind. First it was the titles. The way that it all started on that record was...I was playing in Sedona, Arizona in full regalia in about 2005. After a show, a some lady comes up to me in a wheelchair at the CD signing and meet and greet. She said, "Micki, I've heard that the Native American flute can cure cancer. Please tell me it's true." I was really on the spot then and there. This lady's sitting right in front of me in a wheelchair.
I knew obviously that in medicine the flute couldn't cure cancer but she was so sincere that I just looked at her and said, "If you believe, the Native American flute can ease your pain and take you to another place on your journey with any kind of ailment. I can't tell you that it can cure cancer but if you enjoy the music, we can go on a journey together and we can forget the present and just live in the now." And I wrote the record right after I met that woman.
antiMusic: Let's talk about a couple of the songs. "Lavender Kiss" has a real melancholy vibe. You dedicated this to a special someone who was part of your life and left us recently. Can you talk a bit about this song?
Micki:Well that song really was written around 2005 and it was originally called "Lavender Touch" and I had been recording in the studio that day Prince passed away. I was getting all of these messages and people were calling me on the phone and texting me, saying that Prince had died. I was like, that's bull, that's BS. I would have known. I would have heard about it if it was real. You know, that's what I'm thinking. So I didn't reply to anyone. But then I started getting texts from people who KNOW Prince, like from his camp. I don't want to say any specific names but girlfriends, old friends and asking me, "Have you heard the news?" and so forth and so on. And I called someone very close to him and she told me it was true. And that broke my heart in so many places so instantaneously I wanted to dedicate that song to Prince and I changed it to "Lavender Kiss" for Prince, basically.
antiMusic: That was an awesome video for it as well.
Micki:Oh god yeah. It was done by Jamie Burton Chamberlin. He's ZZ Top's videographer. I actually met him with Billy Gibbons when we went to the Bahamas to record at Compass Point. He filmed the whole thing of Billy and me in the studio and documented it for ZZ Top and we became friends. And when I need a good video I call him. He did "Lavender Kiss" and "Down By The River". Both of them are just stellar.
antiMusic: Although I love the other tracks on the record, I have to say the most amazing song is your cover of "Down by the River", my favourite Neil Young song. What made you include this song on the record?
Micki:Well, "Down by The River", you know, being mixed blood Comanche, water is healing. and it has a deep meaning to Native Americans. Water is life. We all know that. Thus "The Healing Bath" off that CD. Neil Young's song "Down By The River", to me, I wanted to interpret it a little bit differently, as you notice on my version of it, I don't say, (Morley and Micki together) "I shot my baby".
antiMusic: I was going to ask you about that.
Micki:Yeah, yeah. I never go into that part because that's not what interested me in the song. It's the melody of his song and if you really listen to it, you know I'm singing every part of that and playing everything on it----everything---. Harmonies are very Bowie-esque and very the way Buddy Miles did it, that really sexy, airy vocal. But I think David Bowie's vocal style really got me on that song. If you listen to it, you'll hear it, you know? I think I'm doing three or four harmony parts on that song, all together. I love that song, and the chords on it. I loved it ever since I heard it by Neil Young. It's special to me.
antiMusic: I almost get the sense while listening to this record that putting it together required a way different mindset than say Tattoo Burn, almost like you were changed in some ways at the completion of the project. Would that be fair to say?
Micki:No doubt. No doubt. It's a total, completely different approach. I listen to my own record, this record, Native American Flute as Therapy, in the mornings and sometimes at night to go to sleep and for yoga exercises. That's what it was made for, a spiritual journey with oils and so forth, and you know, jasmine and lavender.
It really changed me in a way of appreciating different things in life NOW and trying to get peace through music and healing through oils and sounds, Native American sounds to be precise because most of the instruments I used were all Native American. The only thing that isn't Native on there is the Hammond Organ and the Fender Rhodes. But dude, for the bell sounds on there I used, like a .99 cents chime that I heard. And I said, "Oh man, this sounds so good I want to use it." I had heard different new age music, that to me, I gotta say is kind of corny. but some of the sounds in SOME of it, is quite interesting to me. It kind of inspired me to use different sounds on this record.
But you see on the record, I'm in full Native American regalia. Even "Down By The River", there's no electric guitar. I mean, there's none at all in that record. It's just an acoustic guitar and all wooden instruments and nature stuff.
But yeah...you've got good perception because it changed me a lot, that whole period of making that record. It was kind of difficult to get back into Micki Free guitar-guy mode (laughs) after that. Very serious. And I was seeing someone at that time and she said to me, "We all know you're accomplished as a blues guitarist and this and that but I really believe that this is your calling. And this is probably the best work that you've ever done in your life on an instrument, The Native American Flute as Therapy."
antiMusic: Yeah, absolutely.
Micki:Yeah, I would almost have to agree with her. I play the flute like I play the guitar, very melodic, with holes---I like space. It always usually complements something else that's going on in the song. So the flute was actually playing with the sounds of nature and the sounds that the water was making me feel like, so forth and so on. Yeah, for a minute there man, I gotta tell you, I was lost in a cloud. Probably for about six months until I started to work on Tattoo Burn Redux. And then I started getting back into blues-rock mode seeing Carlos, seeing Billy, digging on Dave Mason, whom I'm going to jam with in February. But yeah, you've got good instincts bro because that's exactly what happened.
antiMusic: You've done some live dates this fall promoting the blues record, some with Ike Willis from Frank Zappa's band. What were those shows like?
Micki:It was awesome. It was awesome. What we wanted to really do was just to see how receptive people would be to my blues record. It has been getting some very nice airplay on contemporary and traditional blues stations across America and even in Europe. All over the world. We used a company called Blind Raccoon --- Betsy Brown, her company that Gary Clark Jr. used for publicity and promotion radio. And she got involved and got it placed everywhere. And Ike's team approached me with doing something with Ike Willis and it sounded like a pretty cool idea because Ike Willis used to be with Frank and he's kind of rootsy music as well. Roots music with Zappa, his own stuff and then he's got the cool Zappa songs.
So I said "Yeah, let's do a couple of dates and see if it works." So we did about four dates on the East Coast. And man, we just slam it. It just sounded so good. I would do my set, burn it down, all Tattoo Burn stuff. And then Ike would do his set with his stuff and Frank Zappa songs and it worked really nicely. So in 2018 I'll be doing more dates with him, like Darryl's House. My whole plan with the label is to tour to get me where I'd like to be musically which is as a blues rock guitar player, starting in small blues venues, worldwide: Germany, France, Spain, anywhere, small clubs, my ego doesn't flip out even now.
I played Hyde Park with 100,000 people but I don't have to think that I have to play to 100,000 people. I could play a room with 20 people, 30, 40 people. It doesn't matter as long as we connect doing what I like to do, especially with my blues rock stuff. So that's the plan for 2018; to play as many blues dates as possible, hitting festivals as well. they've got some really nice festivals in Norway that are just incredible. I was speaking to Jack Daly who's out on tour with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul and he was telling me that it's chillin' in Europe.
The blues is a European thing these days. Americans almost killed black blues players, almost destroyed the entire genre of music, until the Rolling Stones jumped in and saved it. They literally...me and Bill Wyman of the Stones have had that conversation MANY times. You know, the black blues players were just beat down and everybody stole their music and they never got credit. But the Stones gave it to them man. The Rolling Stones took them out on tour, Muddy and everybody like that. They gave the credit where credit was due.
And I love Keith Richards in his book, he goes, "Yeah we were left with a bunch of black cats and playing blues, we thought we were black playing blues." I love that. And out of that came the sound of the Rolling Stones, which is VERY cool as we all know.
antiMusic: How much fun are you having with your radio show?
Micki:Oh man that is like the best time. as you know it's called Micki's Free Ride and it's streaming live on 93.9 worldwide. They approached me with the show and it's so cool because I talk about my life in the business and all my superstar friends and what I've done and my interaction with these people. and then I chat with them.
I don't say I interview them. I just call them up and chat with them. I'm like, "What's goin' on, dude?" and we start talking. Mark Farner from Grand Funk, Cindy Blackman Santana from Santana, Steve Stevens from Billy Idol's band. I've got Lita Ford coming up. Dave Mason coming up on the show. And we just chat. And most of these people I've interacted with and have been in bands with or have recorded with them so, you know, it makes it very cool.
And then there's this segment called Micki Free's True Rock 'n Roll Hollywood Stories. And I tell stories about what really happened to me from the time I've been in the business to present day which is constantly going on all the time. You know, running into Billy, running into KISS, running into everybody that I know. It's pretty fun. I love it. And it's on every Saturday, 7 to 10, Arizona time, It's a blast. you can get it streaming online worldwide.
antiMusic: OK Micki, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak. Congratulations on both records. I love them both and wish you all the best with them.
Micki:Ah man thank you. You know, it's good talking to you. I like that you see it and you call it as you hear it and see it.
Morley and antiMusic thank Micki for doing in this interview
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