By Kevin Porter
Mike Zito is a man of many musical talents—a great guitar player, singer, songwriter and producer—and he displays them all on his most recent album, First Class Life, his 15thin 20 years. His new album was recorded at Zito’s new studio that opened up last year, and not surprisingly, artists are flocking to it to take advantage of Zito’s experience and knowledge. He also formed and played in Royal Southern Brotherhood and tours with other blues stars as part of the Blues Caravan tour. Zito is thankfully long past the drugs and alcohol problems that threatened to derail his career, and several songs on First Class Life express his gratitude and thankfulness for a “second chance at living a first class life.” He kindly talked to us by telephone from the road.
KP: Congratulations on the album, First Class Life, and for winning the Blues Rock Artist of the Year from the Blues Foundation—it must be gratifying.
MZ: Thank you, and yes, it was.
KP: When you started recording First Class Life, my understanding is you wrote a lot of songs, took a step back and realized they’re all blues songs. Is that how it went?
MZ: Yeah. Sometimes, I have an idea for an album or a story I want to tell, and I kind of draw an outline in my head. This is usually over the course of a year of gathering material. For my album, Gone to Texas, I wanted to tell a story, so I wrote songs that each told part of the story. Sometimes, I know I want to put a record out, but I don’t really know what I want to do, so I just need to start writing songs. Some of the songs I write are more elaborate than others, and I just kind of keep them and put them aside. I try not to stop myself—maybe something seems really corny or terrible, but just because it doesn’t seem very good, it might lead to something.
In this case, like six months in, I started looking at some of the tunes and thought that there are a lot of blues songs here. Of course, a lot of my stuff is bluesy—some of it is more country, some of it is more rock, or whatever. I just noticed this pattern—I’ve been playing more blues, and it looks like this is going to be more of a blues record. To me, writing good blues songs is very difficult because, sure, it can be simple, it can be three chords, and it can be simple lyrically, but it has to have something. There’s too many bad blues songs—just really corny and cheesy. It’s a fine line. There has to be something to it. That’s just the process, of going back and getting things tighter and tighter the closer you get to setting a date to record. In that last 90 days or so, I’ll have 15 or 20 songs, and I’ll start weeding them out. I was very happy with what it came down to—not that it’s the greatest material in the world, but I like the material, which is important because I can perform it well. I felt like this is good blues material that I can put in the set and go out and play that I think people will enjoy.
KP: When you say it has to have something, what is that something? Is it depth?
MZ: It’s hard for me to put my finger on. I can pick up a guitar and sing “oh my baby left me and I’m feeling bad,” and you know, well, that’s not going to work. You need to have some angle of originality and something that’s cool about it. It could be the riff or the way band plays it, or maybe it’s just traditional blues, but there’s something to it. An example is “Dying Day” on First Class Life. I really enjoy that song. Of course, it’s not like we rewrote the book or did something original, but it has this phrasing to it in the vocals and the swing in the music that makes the song work. The lyrics are simple and I could get behind it vocally. I have to be able to sing it, and I have to be able to sell the story. Delbert McClinton is a master at selling the story. As a listener, I got to believe you in some way, even if it’s funny or ridiculous. Delbert always has a way of pulling you in and making it believable. I have to feel like I can do that, too. I’m not looking to write subpar material. It doesn’t mean it has to be complex, but it has to have something.
KP: One thing I really liked about First Class Life is that you had the blues foundation, but you had several blues styles that are built off that foundation. One example is “Back Pain,” that kind of reminded me of “Call My Job” by Albert King that had a conversation running through it.
MZ: I don’t know if I had that particular song in mind, but yes, exactly, Albert King, Albert Collins, that kind of funky, telling a story kind of song. I really enjoy playing that song live—it’s fun and I think people can relate. Everyday, as we get older, everybody has back problems. I thought I would write about back problems but add other problems like wives, jobs, children, whatever.
KP: There’s a cool lyric in “Mississippi Nights,” that goes: “You can love the life you live or live the life you choose.”
MZ: Yeah, there’s a lot of stolen blues connotation in that song on purpose. I took a trip with my wife when I played the King Biscuit Blues Festival a couple of years ago. We were just together, the two of us, without our kids, and we went from Memphis to Clarksdale (Mississippi), stopped at the Crossroads, and had a great time. When you go there, it’s all still there—all the blues, all the history, all the spirits—everything is still there. That particular line is from a Muddy Waters song (“I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love”). There’s a lot of blues connotations in “Mississippi Nights”—the devil at the crossroads, sell my soul for the blues, things like that.
KP: I understand you built a recording studio by your house.
MZ: I live in a small town in Texas, and we have a pretty big backyard. There was an old building in the backyard that was like a mother-in-law’s quarters. It was bigger than a garage and it was all unfinished. It had stairs leading up to an unfinished attic. It looked like someone started to build something and then stopped. My wife had the idea about building a studio, and we did it last summer. We turned the building into a studio and there’s a full apartment where people can stay. Downstairs is basically an old school, one room big studio with a vocal booth. It’s fantastic. We’ve done nine recordings out there since last September, including First Class Life. One of the reasons to open it, of course, is to be creative. I’ve done a lot of producing over the past ten years, and I have a lot of friends in my local community that are just fantastic musicians. I wanted a place where they could write and record their songs and get their music out there. I also use it to get some professional work, too. It’s been great.
KP: In addition to First Class Life, who else have you produced at your new studio?
MZ: There’s an older, local musician who is a great guitar player, and he’s been talking for a long time about making a blues record. He was the first one to come in. My rhythm section has some projects they are working on, and they did some recording. I had another rhythm section in St. Louis that I worked with for years, and they came in January to record an album. Then a young man from Florida by the name of David Julia, who is an up and coming blues artist, recorded an album, also in January. A singer songwriter in our area just finished an EP. I recorded a new one for Ruf records, a roots artist named Jeremiah Johnson. He’ll be a pretty big artist for Ruf records next year. I’ve got an engineer who works for me—he’ll bring in groups when I’m out on tour. He’s had two projects that were more alternative rock. He’s younger and hipper than me (laughs). It’s really cool and I’m very proud of it. We’ve got a great space—it’s certainly not comparable to a large professional recording studio that’s been around a long time, but it certainly is not a home recording studio, either. It’s got great mics, great amps, and it’s got a great feel to it.
It’s fun, it’s really fun. We have two more projects lined up this summer. We have another recording for Ruf Records in September, another one in November and another one in December. That’s three more professional-like recordings. I can’t say we’re in the studio every week, but I would say at, the least, two weeks out of the month. It’s been really good and I could see where there’s a possibility that it just takes off because there’s a lot of work available. I have to just pick and choose what I want to do, and I am very fortunate to be in that position.
KP: How do you pick and choose?
MZ: There’s always something that you want to do. The first album I produced professionally was Girls with Guitars, for Ruf Records in 2010 or 2011. That was Samantha Fish’s first recording. Six months later. Samantha and I return to the same studio in Germany and we do Runaway, and she wins a Blues Music award for like best new artist. She is, of course, a great artist and that was a great opportunity to start with. There’s a lot of young people, new artists or people that kind of like what I am doing and will ask me to work with them or get involved. I’m not the greatest producer in the world, but I’m good at helping them with songs, good at finding material, or just making them comfortable when they’re kind of new. If they’re really heavy on the guitar playing, then I want to make sure the singing is good and the tune is good for them. The guitar playing is great but it’s always better if it’s in a great song.
KP: That sounds like what a producer should do.
MZ: I’m not going to take their music and change it—I’m not Daniel Lanois (laughs). I’m there to be of assistance. There are people that like Tom Hambridge who are really spectacular, and I can’t necessarily do what they do, but that’s why they work with Buddy Guy and all the bigger artists. It’s been great—it’s something that I never ever thought I would do, producing records for other people, but looking back through my own history, I rented drum machines and four track recorders constantly to make my own songs and to write songs, and I’ve been doing that since I was fifteen years old. Coming back to your question, there are people like Albert Castiglia, who is one of my dear friends. I produced two of his records and he’s coming in November and we’re going to do our third record together. In my mind, three records is the most you ever get to do with an artist so I don’t know if we will get to work together again.
KP: You did that with Samantha, right? You told her after the third record that you get a new voice.
MZ: That’s right. I read about that in interview with Jimmy Iovine. He talked about working with Bruce Springsteen, and if we didn’t get the sound Springsteen wanted in three records, then Bruce definitely needed to fire him. But yes, I did work on three with records Samantha, and I’m really grateful because it was the perfect time for her to move on and work with somebody else that was coming from another direction. I realize that now—I made four records with David Z, I made two with Jim Gaines, and one with Tom Hambridge. I’ve worked with some great producers, and I’ve produced some on my own. When we made Make Blues Not War, I had no idea what to do but I knew I wanted to play my guitar and get back to having fun. I went to Tom Hambridge and told him I needed him to help make this record. Everyone needs a producer, usually at the beginning, when people are not really sure what they’re going to do or what they are doing. There’s also certain points in your career point where it’s getting stale, and I know I need someone to help me through that.
KP: I really like the story behind “Momma Don’t Like No Wah-Wah.” The story, as I understand it, is that Koko Taylor didn’t like gimmicks, that you should play the music straight.
MZ: She was very old school, and this is all from Bernard Allison, who played with Koko Taylor. The best part of the story is that Bernard is 19, and his first gig out of high school is playing with Koko Taylor. It’s also 1988, and guitars are advancing in terms of technology, tricks and toys, and all of the things you can do to a guitar are really changing and advancing guitar playing. So you have this young dude (Bernard Allison) playing guitar who is into all the modern stuff, and he gets this gig playing with this straight, old school, artist that says, “turn that (stuff) off, I don’t want to hear it.” For months, he plays rhythm guitar, stands in the back, just does his job. Time goes by, and he decides he would try to see if he can sneak something on stage. By the way, Koko doesn’t know what anything is called, it’s all a wah-wah to her, but she picks it right up and said you have to turn that off, Mama don’t like no wah-wah. I’ve been waiting forever for a story like that (laughs), and I told Bernard “that’s a song” and we both wrote it. Everybody needs to hear that story, that’s blues history. That’s me keeping my ears peeled and being a huge fan and student of the genre. I love the blues and all the history, the characters and the people. All those stories are like working with gold for me. I’m just lucky to be there to help tell it. It’s a fun song to play, and it’s fun playing with Bernard. We’ve been playing the song on the Blues Caravan shows.
KP: I understand you’ll be remastering and reissuing your first album (Blue Room) with bonus tracks.
MZ: Yes. The album was recorded and released in 1998 in St. Louis, where I’m from. It was the first group where I decided I was going to play my own music, and it was going to be what I thought was blues (laughs). I had gathered enough songs, and we recorded them all in one morning in a matter of three or four hours. It cost a thousand bucks to record it and a thousand bucks to print it. That changed everything because I was holding a CD with my name on it, with the songs I wrote, and with my band. It was loud, and it sounded pretty good, like the other CDs I had. I thought this is what I’m doing, I’m going to do this, I’m going to play music. We started selling the CD and people started coming to our shows. I listen back to it now, and I get a good laugh. The singing is not spectacular at all, and the guitar playing is really wild. I’m not embarrassed by it, and there are a lot of people who think it’s my best record. We still have all the recordings and we’re going to remaster it. I also have some great live recordings of that same trio playing at some concerts in St. Louis. We’ll put a few more tracks on it, and Ruf records will release it by the end of the year. I’m so excited about it; I think it will be spectacular.
KP: It sounds great, I can’t wait to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us; I really appreciate it.
MZ: Great talking to you as well, and take care.
Mike Zito is currently on tour. For his tour schedule see here https://www.mikezito.com/shows
He also keeps a blog at http://www.bluesmaninrecovery.com/