I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, in Marin County, before people started making fun of it, and before 100,000 dollar houses started costing nearly a million. I grew up wanting to be three things: A musician, a comedian, and a professional football player, preferably all at the same time.
I used to hang out at the Record King on 4th Street in San Rafael. That's the same corner as the old Rafael Theatre, the newsstand and the Candy Jar. I think there's a Starbucks there now, and some store called Papyrus or something.
I remember listening to my Dad's Flatt and Scruggs records when I was two. And show stuff. I loved Oliver and Man of La Mancha. Then, of course, I got into the Beatles. When I picked up the guitar, my biggest influences were the rhythm players, particularly the Fogertys and Tom Johnston. For years I wanted to be Tom Johnston. He was the blackest white guy in the world to me. It was always all about rhythm, but when I started to play lead, I got into the great rhythm players who also played great solos, namely, Ed King and Jerry Reed.
I started my first band, The Colours, with guitarist John Hussey (also a future member of Little America) when I was in college in Santa Barbara. The Byrds had completely kicked my **** a few years before and now I wanted to be Crosby and McGuinn. We wore a lot of turtlenecks and pointy boots, and I made sure my hair was combed straight down. We won a battle of the bands and decided to move to Los Angeles. (I had just graduated in Philosophy and Religious studies and wasn't going to make any money with those degrees anyway.)
Our bass player wanted to go to grad school, and our drummer was having time problems, so John and I made the trip in my '67 Cutlass convertible, which made it just past Carpinteria when the block cracked. I quickly purchased the worst vehicle ever designed, the '71 VW fastback, and we limped into L.A. under intermittent fuel injection.
John stayed with family and I moved in with my friend Mike, who played in The Turn, a North Hollywood band on the fringe of the Paisley Underground. Mike had a great voice, and he looked a lot like Gene Clark did in those early Byrds records. So I started calling him "Psychedelic Mike" even though Mike hadn't been anywhere near hallucinogenics. Mike had a great voice and The Turn had a great drummer, Kurt Custer (later reduced simply to Custer, for some reason). Despite the fact that Mike had recently purchased a sitar, which sat next to the television in their upstairs apartment ("That thing's a piece of ****," Mike's dad would say), the four of us decided to form a new, less psychedelic band, with two lead singers, Mike and me. We played about two gigs at Madam Wong's as The Colours when we met Stu Sobol and Julie Shy, who had a pretty impressive list of management credentials. Stu convinced us to change our name from The Colours to something else. "You guys aren't even English!"
John came up with Little America and we went with that. In late 1985, we cut some demos financed by Capitol. "Step on Fire" (later changed to "Walk on Fire"), "Standin' on Top" and "Lost Along the Way". "Walk on Fire" was Mike's, and would prove to be our big hit. The last two were mine-"solid rockers to round it out," Stu said. Capitol passed after a miserable showcase, but Geffen and Chrysalis both wanted to sign Little America. We settled on Geffen for one major reason: The Plimsouls were on Geffen and they were cool, and the coolest act on Chrysalis was Robin Trower, and the label had dropped him.
We ended up using the demo version of "Walk On Fire" for the album and it reached #10 on the AOR charts. We made a video, did some TV shows, and toured for seven months in a yellow Winnebago with no air conditioning. We had a VCR on board with two movies, "Spinal Tap", which we watched everyday, and "Big Trouble In Little China", which we didn't. We were huge in Dallas. Big in the midwest, and completely unknown in Philadelphia. See Pic
After shows, I seemed to attract strange girls. One kept following me around, calling me by her ex-boyfriend's name. "Michael, Don't leave me again. Michael!" Another thought she could predict the future by reading the bone in my elbow. Still another would not leave until I autographed her breast.
Our first album sold 100,000 units, but the second album, "Fairgrounds", tanked at 20,000, and Geffen dropped us. I went back to being a truck driver for awhile, and Kurt (who was still, simply, "Custer") and I decided to form our own thing. We called ourselves Custer and Logan. We figured nobody knew who Simon and Garfunkel were in the beginning either, so it was OK.
In 1993, we released our first and only CD, the music being a radical departure from the arena rock Little America sound. With the production in our hands, we were able to create a much more earthy, grass roots album. We were actually going for a more organic, almost "lo-fi" sound. The lyrics got better, the sound a bit more unique.
Unfortunately, our momentum was hindered a bit by Kurt's drum gig with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Recording became more sporadic-shows even more so. I still dug it in a way because Cus was being recognized for his talent, and I got to hang with Ed King and Gary Rossington , but I hated that truck.
In late '94, we decided to move from LA to Nashville. Kurt had left Skynyrd, wanting to put his full attention to our project. We felt certain our "CSN/Beatles/Creedence" type sound would floor people. Ed and Gary liked us. Steve Earle liked us. Kurt played drums on the "I Feel Alright" album and we did our harmony thing on "More Than I Can Do", but nothing happened.
Kurt and I formed a comic band The Johnsons as a way to laugh off the stress. We decided that our girlfriends, not us, should sing most of the lead vocals. Everybody's last name would be Johnson, except for me. I would be McJohnson, because I'm Scottish. Anything went. The only rule was: Instrumentally, we would play our asses off. There were plenty of inside jokes for musicians. Chromatic diminished chords, ridiculous modulations, oblique Beatle references, drums crashing on every syllable of the vocal, and tons of sound effects and filthy lyrics. After completing The Johnsons: "Hi. We're the Johnsons. Nice to meet you", Kurt moved back to LA.
Now I wanted to make my own record. "Shadow On My Trail" had been a finalist in the 1998 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and with the prize money, I put together my studio, and started recording the next track "Congratulations". For the next two and a half years, that's what I did. In my free time I recorded and worked on my Mustang, but rarely at the same time. I didn't play a single show. I'd spend hours on a phrase until it suited me just fine. "The hardest part of writing is re-writing", Steve Earle told me once. I mixed and remixed and scrapped and started over. I sent master tapes to LA with a click track, and Kurt played drums on them and sent them back. Mostly though, I wanted to make do without drums…keep it bare, intimate and a little lonely. In 2001, I placed again in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest with "Money 1, Soul 0", this time as a runner-up, and it gave me a renewed confidence.
"Last Dance On The Wild Frontier" was released in March of '02 to quite a few favorable reviews, though I think the folk/blues bare-bones sound may have baffled a Little America fan or two. To be honest, I wasn't a fan of how those Little America records sounded at the time. Don't get me wrong. I loved the songs, but I always thought we came off a bit like we were playing in a giant handball court. My current recordings are actually more a reflection of what I'd always envisioned, though I have more trouble writing those upbeat rave-ups now. I'm a little more reflective......and I don't want to pull a muscle.
So now I've got a new one, "Ride". This is pretty much a culmination of the recordings I made between April, 2002 up until April of 2006, with the exception of "Na Na Na", which came from the early '92 Custer and Logan archives. I flew Cus out to play drums on "Ominous" and "Soul Inspiration", and then it was mix time. A few more songwriting accolades on this one as well (See Song School), and of course, Ed playing slide on "Ominous" and "Mr Wizard" definitely ramped things up for me.
Again, I'll be popping up locally in Nashville, playing some shows to keep the chops up and I hope to see you!+
AMERICA NORTH: USA: Tennessee (TN)