Watching Michael Franti and Spearhead inside an intimate theater last month was one of the most life affirming experiences of my life. Trying to capture the incident in words is a unfeasible feat, but it didn't stop me from trying and you can read my in-depth review here. The impetus for the present tour is the release of Franti and Spearhead's first album in three years, All People their most diverse and uplifting collection of songs to date. Franti came on my radar seven years ago with the searing Yell Fire record and his eye-opening and deeply compelling documentary I Know I'm Not Alone which found Franti visiting Iraq and Israel. Since then he's toured continually never giving anything less than 110%. He has also released three records since 2008; All Rebel Rockers in 2008, The Sound of Sunshine in 2010 and most recently All People which fuses reggae, hip-hop, rock, dance music and pop into an exhilarating collection of songs that speak directly to the human condition. An important note about All People is that it is available in an eleven-track standard edition and a sixteen-track deluxe edition. The deluxe edition is essential for the dance floor jam "Gangsta Girl", current tour opener "I Don't Wanna Go" and the liberating arms-in-the-air anthem "Let It Go". During the course of our interview we discussed the current tour, All People, how he got Pink to duet with him, crafting a set list, working with the Matrix, why he admires U2, rearranging songs and how Factory Records artists New Order and Joy Division influenced his latest record.
antiMUSIC: You just finished a whole summer of gigs including festivals, which included a stop at Lincoln Park Zoo here in Chicago and now you are entering the theater portion of the tour for your new record All People. How do you manage the differences between big festival shows and theaters that are more intimate?
Michael Franti: The key in any show is to create intimacy. It doesn't matter if it's a big venue or a coffee house. I've gone to see shows at a coffee house where I felt the performer was a million miles away. I always try to connect with the audience in both songs and by physically going into the crowd and also by creating dynamics when it's a big loud rock show and other times when it is as if you are in a coffee house or on a street corner playing guitar talking to people.
antiMUSIC: One thing I have really noticed over the last few years whether it's opening for John Mayer, being in a festival or a club, you go into the crowd numerous times. Was this something that evolved over time or did you do it consciously to get closer to the fans?
Michael Franti: It's actually something that I started with my first band the Beatnigs; we played the punk rock circuit traveling around in a little van. It was part of being punk rock- jumping into the crowd! It's something I've always done but now that I'm tricked out with a setup with a wireless microphone and a wireless guitar, I can now go out and not just have a microphone but can play songs in the crowd, which is really great because it's a whole different thing.
antiMUSIC: When you start a new tour, you create a new set list. You've been cranking out quite a few records of the last seven years. How hard is it to construct now because "Everybody Ona Move" and "Everyone Deserves Music" are no longer part of the set right at this moment. Is this hard to pick one child over another?
Michael Franti: We try to change it up so it keeps it evolving and stays fun for us. When I make a new record, I feel a lot of closeness to those new songs, so you want to do as many new songs as possible. You want to touch up some old songs and you want to do songs people expect to hear when they come but you can never satisfy everybody. We've never been a band that had a string of massive hit singles that were the obvious songs people like. We've now turned to Twitter. Every now and then, I'll say "I'm making the set list, what do you want to hear?" I don't know if it helps because we will get 45 different answers.
antiMUSIC: It's a blessing and a curse, but you did an exceptional job in Milwaukee the other night. A few years ago, you dramatically reworked the song "Everyone Deserves Music". You had a folkish version that you did for years but it evolved and you were opening your sets with it and it was a tour de force. How did you decide to rework that one song in concert?
Michael Franti: "Everyone Deserves Music" has become an anthem for us because it is what our band is about. Even with this new album, All People, it's about the fact that everyone is significant. I remember when I wrote that song and we had gone into Iraq and Afghanistan. Do I have compassion for even the heads of state who are causing wars and problems in the world? It was something where I had to dig inside and ask if I can have compassion for people who at first appear to be on the other side of things. That is what that song is about; it's about compassion and connection. As we were on tour, we were finding new ways to play it. We worked out a big electronic dance version and we've done' acoustic versions of it. It's still one of the songs I look back on and think "you got it right". When you can do it different ways, you've got it right.
antiMUSIC: I wanted to talk about the song "I Know I'm Not Alone" which is also the name of a great documentary you created about going to Iraq in 2004. It's an apolitical documentary that broke everything down to a human level, a person-to-person level element where you went and talked to the people or Iraq directly. Did the song come first or did the trip come first?
Michael Franti: I started writing the song first, but didn't finish it until after we started editing the movie. I changed up some of the lyrics to fit with my experience I had in Iraq and traveling through Israel and Palestine. It's a song that is about there are times in life where you feel like "I'm the only person who feels the way I do". You think the whole world has gone crazy and then all you have to do is open your eyes and look around and talk to other people and realize I'm not the only person who feels this way. There are millions and billions of people who care about the world and maybe they have different perspectives, but is it within me to see their perspectives? If I can't see their perspective, how can I expect anyone to see mine? I think that's the thing that really changed for me in my experience in going to Iraq. I went there really hating the war and I came back visiting Walter Reed Hospital and working with veterans groups and having lots of soldiers come to our shows and spending time talking to them. It didn't change the way I feel about war. It should the absolute very last options after every possible idea has taken its course. But I do feel empathy for people who are put in harms way.
antiMUSIC: I also wanted to ask about another Yell Fire track, "One Step Closer To You", which is this beautiful ballad. How did you get Pink to harmonize with you on this song?
Michael Franti: I met Pink at a festival in Belgium and we were backstage. I had my guitar back there and I was strumming, singing and free styling lyrics and she came and joined in and pretty soon there were many bottles of red wine that were being passed around this circle of musicians and we were all jamming and joining in on guitar. She said we should get together and do some recording when we get back to the States and we did. I have really loved seeing her career blossom. I think she's great for pop music. She speaks from her heart about things that are happening in her own life and is not afraid to tackle difficult personal and emotional issues and put them in a way that retains emotion but is fun and entertaining for a lot of people. I admire her.
antiMUSIC: There's a lot of songs you wrote for your new record, All People. The deluxe edition has 16 songs. I'm curious as to when you feel you have a record? Is the process ongoing or do you know when you have a collection that weaves a theme or story?
Michael Franti: It's an ongoing process of just writing songs. I'm always doing it. Even the last couple of days I was writing a couple of new songs. Some of them are songs that you feel like will go on the next record. Then there are other songs I like to call my bathroom songs; which are songs I may only sing in my shower! I love the process of songwriting and it is always exciting for me. I guess the way you know when a record is done is I start listening to it in my kitchen as I am cooking and I start thinking, what's the first song and then a second song and then a third song. You go through ten or eleven songs and you try to get it down so that when you get to the end, you get excited when the first song comes along again. I always try to make the records just be 10 or 11 songs and now with the deluxe versions they mess that process up because you have to stick three or four more songs that fit in that group. We have a good amount of songs ready for the next record. This last record was a couple of years in-between records but this next one will come out maybe within 18 months or a year after All People did.
antiMUSIC: My favorite song on the new record is "Closer To You". I love the bass line. It's so simple, how did you come up with the arrangement for that one, did it start on acoustic guitars or did it evolve through the recording process or jamming?
Michael Franti: With that song, we just started strumming on an acoustic guitar and singing the lyrics and writing them out. We were working with this engineer/ producer named Adrian Neumann and we said "You know, let's put a dance beat to this acoustic guitar thing and he put a straight floor beat. Then J (Bowman), who is our guitar player, he started playing the bass on that one. I really love the Factory Records sound. I'm not sure if you know of New Order, Happy Monday's and even before that Joy Division. I love that music because it's sad music that you can dance to. I really like that feeling of the blues when it became funk. The blues was saying how sad you were and funk was like speeding up the tempo of the blues and expressing joy. I really like the simplicity of New Order music. The bass lines are playing the lead melody and there are soft-spoken vocals over loud dance tracks. That's what we did with that song ("Closer To You"). It's really a song about being alone and longing for somebody, you want to be closer to.
antiMUSIC: The song "On and On" was one of a few songs you did with the production team of the Matrix (who have worked with Korn, Liz Phair, Avril Lavigne). Was there a specific inspiration for that song and what was it like working with the Matrix?
Michael Franti: That was a great process. They were the first producers that I've ever really worked with who we walked into the room with nothing and said "let's make something and let's do it today". We had one day to work that day and we walked in the room and they asked what I wanted to write about. I said "I want to write a song about growing up from childhood to adulthood and the things you see in life". It was one of those magical things. One of them picked up an acoustic guitar and started strumming some chords and the other one said they had an idea for a beat. Lauren (Christy) and I sat down and said "let's come up with a hook for these lyrics". It was really fun and was the first song that I had done that way with another producer who wasn't someone in my own band. It was really fun.
antiMUSIC: What are your favorite Clash and U2 records?
Michael Franti: My favorite Clash record is Sandinista! . I just love everything about the evolution I hear in that record. First of all, it's this huge double album with tons and tons of material on it. You hear how they were going from this band who was a three chord punk rock band that could barely play and evolving into dub, jazz, reggae, hip-hop, punk, dance music, funk and they were starting to put it all together into something and then the record after that, Combat Rock became this huge pop record. That record showed me that they were always searching and questing for what was next for them. I love that about them.
My favorite U2 record and is hard to pick one. When I was on tour with them when Achtung Baby came out, I remember at the time thinking to myself "it's not The Joshua Tree and it's really different" and now I listen back on those songs and how classic they are. The song "One" is like "Imagine" which is really that powerful to me. They are a band that has always evolved and I love that about bands, even when they miss sometimes. I'm not crazy about every Radiohead song, but I love every Radiohead record because I hear that they are always trying to do something new and trying to change. It's the same with U2. I don't love every song, but I love every record.
The antiMUSIC Network was like to give special thanks for Michael Franti for finding time in his busy schedule to talk about music with us. Michael Franti and Spearhead are touring the US through November and All People is in stores and at digital retailers now.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter