Often life takes many of us through unexpected paths and journeys. Journeys which are not pre-designed in the slightest by us but it just happens that, sometimes, we people suddenly find ourselves, at a point of our existences, to start swimming in deep waters, facing tough times and difficulties that really make or break us.
The music business has witnessed, through the years, stories of many artists struggling with personal issues of different sorts, some of them, unfortunately, embarking a journey of no return, others, like the highly talented Blues/Rock guitarist, singer/songwriter and producer Mike Zito, battling their way back to life after, in Zito's case, defeating his personal demons displayed under forms of alcohol and drug addictions.
Whilst Zito has victoriously overcome through the years said demons, thanks to his sheer willpower and the love and support of his family, fans and close friends, as part of this new-found positivity, Music has possibly been one of the best alliances that helped Zito to keep the fight on against adversities and to produce, especially in later years, some of his best work to date, both as an artist and as a producer.
With a new album in the making, which is rumoured to be a tribute to the late great Chuck Berry, a new record label called Gulf Coast Records, of which he is the co-founder and the huge success of his latest 2018's album First Class Life, it is truly a magic moment for the Texas-based guitarist and singer/songwriter's career.
Our website is fortunate enough to meet Zito while touring his latest album in London, UK, at one of the city's most historic venues called The Borderline, which, rather sadly, will close its doors for the very last time in few days time. Zito welcomes us with a huge smile and handshake and it is rather wonderful to see the artist in such great shape and form.
BR - Hi Mike, thank you for finding the time to talk to us at Bluebird Reviews. First Class Life, your latest record, it is a body of work that takes you straight and deeply back to your Blues roots. Did you intentionally record First Class Life with a more Bluesy vibe than some of your latest releases or the songs of this album just happened to come out that way, during the recording process?
MZ - No, I definitely wanted to make a Bluesy type of album, with First Class Life. I am always trying to kind of working my way back to my roots, when making a new record. It sounds silly but, you know, I have to do my own music and to write my own Blues in my own way. You know, it’s nice to play Muddy Waters every so often but it feels like mimicking a little, do you know what I mean? I rather prefer to tell my own stories, through my songs, because I know that they are my stories and nobody else’s and trying to do so still in a way that connect and get back to Blues. I know that, at times, my music can go slightly sideways and some of my songs may sound a little bit Country or Rock’n’Roll but when I write songs, I don’t really think about that aspect. Whilst making First Class Life, my idea was to keep the album as Bluesy as I possibly could. I hope that people can feel that, what they hear on the record, it is just Mike Zito writing and playing songs like Mike Zito normally does.
BR - The record is lyrically focusing even deeper than any of your previous works on social issues. First Class Life seems to be asking people to become more sensitive about the dramatic and sometimes violent changes this world is going through and, in that respect, songs like the intense The World We Live In, Old Black Graveyard and Time For A Change speak volume about those matters. Do you feel like music is becoming one of the very few weapons left in the world to try and shake up what we call, rather ironically, Modern Society?
MZ - You know, I have been wanting, for some time, to make a more political record about what I think it is right or wrong, in this world, but the way you have to do things nowadays, like, writing a record about stuff like that or about your views or beliefs, which may differ from what other people think or believe, it’s not OK anymore, in modern society. In this business, you may even risk to ruin your career, if you pick the wrong side, politically speaking, as incredible as it may sound. It is really odd and, speaking for myself, when I write songs, I try to be as honest as I can, using some diplomacy and appeal to what we have in common, as people, which I think it is something that politicians should rather be doing, but hey-ho! In my case, as an artist, what I can only do with art, it is to try and sensibilize people through my songs and to ask them to try to communicate more openly with each other, about who we think may be the good people or the bad people, in this world. With songs like The World We Live In, what I just tried to say, is, like, you know what? Everybody can relate to this, no matter what religion or color skin you are. There are different stories in each verse of that song, all very simple. I know it may come across as corny but, to me, I feel that it is time for changes and for people to change their minds, to be more open-minded and don’t be fooled by media, news. We have got so much in common with each other than we think. Yes, we may disagree, sometimes, on social issues but everything else we have, it is in common. Old Black Graveyard is definitely one of those songs I had thought about recording for a while. There is a grave site in Beaumont, Texas, where Blind Willie Johnson is buried and it is 20 minutes from where I live. To cut a long story short, the place is not even a cemetery. It used to be as such, but with hurricanes come and gone, the place is in a very bad state. The site is in a very poor African-American neighborhood and looks like it has not been taken care at all for a very long time. I remember the last time I went there and even the whole neighborhood was appalled to see the state of the place. I just wished, through that song, to tell a story that it is close to my heart and share it with the fans and with whoever, perhaps, may be empowered enough to try and do something for that particular site in its entirety and to help raising some respect for the burial place of one of the most talented Blues musicians of all times.
BR - Mike, family has a great importance in your everyday's life and we found particularly moving, on First Class Life, your very own statement of eternal love to your wife Laura through a splendid and emotional song like Dying Day. How much, do you feel, has your family contributed to your artistic and personal renaissance in the last decade?
MZ - Oh, wow, 150 per cent, absolutely! I was always trying to be creative before, but the outlet wasn’t a positive one for me. I would get myself caught up in drinking, sex, drugs, whatever and that wasn’t doing any good to myself and to help me finding that right energy to do “the work”. I needed to start over and to build the right foundation with my wife and our family and sobriety and just all the things and they helped me massively on that. There’s a new found confidence there, where everything else is kind of like, settled. That was and is the key factor that helped and still helps me finding that energy I was telling you of. Their support and their love enabled me to be free, certainly a lot more freer now than I ever was before. Everything is there now, for me and gives me the chance of really work hard on my craft.
BR - You must be, right now, one of the busiest men in the music business. Between being a guitarist, a singer and songwriter and a producer too, how much, do you reckon, the latter activity has impacted the level of speed with which you recorded First Class Life?
MZ - It has helped me a lot. I wrote the previous album Make Blues, Not War with the great Tom Hambridge, who is a great producer, simply because I needed that fresh start and sometimes, an artist needs a producer and he really got me going again! With First Class Life, I was ready to produce myself, this time and I knew exactly what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve, as a producer, on my last album. I would say that I am now at a stage where I definitely know how to make a record. I am sure there’ll come a time, sooner than later, where I hit that wall again and I shall be in need of a producer myself, to make a record. It’s the same thing that somebody like Bruce Springsteen is always doing, like on three consecutive records or so, he’s trying to achieve something and by the third one, he seems to get to where he wants to be and then he starts all over again. To me, that process makes a lot of sense because you don’t want to make the same record forever but I have this idea in mind right now that a record like First Class Life is a step in the right direction, for where I think I wanna go, as an artist.
BR - On your latest album you have worked with your fellow friend and brilliant artist that is Bernard Allison on that tremendously entertaining song called Mama Don't Like No Wah-Wah. Can you take us please to the genesis of that tune and is it really true that the song is inspired by a real story?
MZ - (Smiles) We were in Memphis, recording the song Low Down And Dirty for the Blues Caravan (a Ruf Record’s Live Tour project), which ended up on Vanja Sky’s record (another Ruf Record artist). We were at Jim Gaines’ recording studio just outside of Memphis, hanging out, having dinner, sitting outside. Bernard had a glass of wine or two and started telling stories. And I was listening! It was there that he told the story about when he played with Koko Taylor and the fact that she didn’t like Bernard’s guitar playing style, being a bit old school, when it comes to guitar playing. With that in mind, not knowing what Bernard was playing, she just called everything that Bernard was laying “wah-wah”, because she couldn’t describe it in any other way. Bernard brought a chord pedal, because he was playing Rhythm Guitar that day and he thought Koko wouldn’t even notice it, but he got caught and Koko said to him “Hey, turn that shit off, Mama don’t like no wah-wah!” So we both are cracked up laughing and I told Bernard “Dude, that’s a song!” and he goes “No, I don’t think so”, then I turned to him and said “I think it is! Can I write it?” and he goes “Yeah, if you can write a song about that, go ahead!” So I worked on the lyrics and send them to him and then we worked on the music, we went back and forward and all worked out in the end. It’s a great idea for a song, I bet everybody wanted to hear that story! That’s the Blues for you, Man! (smiles again).
BR - 2017 marked the 20 year's anniversary of the release of your very first album, Blue Room. Do you ever happen, from time to time, to listen to that album again and, if so, would there be any aspects of that album that you would now change, with more experience and artistic maturity on your belt?
MZ - I am not sure that I would re-work any aspect of it, because I like it the way it is and that is why we then re-released it on vinyl for its 20th Anniversary. The guys that were with me in the band, for the Blue Room album, we were all very young, at the time the album was released and the boys are still good friends of mine. They have a rock band in the States on their own and they came and recorded their stuff in my studio in January 2018 and we discussed the idea of putting the Blue Room album out on vinyl to mark the occasion. So we listened again to the album all together, all three of us and we just smiled and laughed, while listening to the immediacy of that record. Personally, there were times, while listening to the album, that I might have thought that some vocals here and there were not perfect or some guitar playing was sounding kinda weird, but now, when I hear it, I cannot help myself smiling and enjoying the purity of sound of a bunch of young guys that were trying to make music and enjoy themselves. I think that the album sounds great and by listening to it over and over again, I also believe that in there, there was more quality music than I originally gave it credit for. There are some good songs in it, some cool Funky grooves and I am sure the fans did enjoy and hopefully still do the decision of re-releasing the album for such an important landmark.
BR - How come that, given all that you went through your personal and artistic life, you have never written your autobiography? We know how good you are too on writing (Zito has collaborated in the past with music magazines, writing his own columns monthly) and it would be surely a fantastic reading!
MZ - I have a book ongoing called Gone To Texas and it’s not an autobiography but it is my story of getting clean and sober from drugs and alcohol. It’s the story on why I ran away from home in St. Louis, lived homeless for six months and then ended up in Texas. It’s that story. I felt like sharing that story a little like you would do when you are going to recovery meetings, where people share their own stories, a bit like that. I think I have got something like more than half of that book already done and I guess that I should have finished it, by now. But with all the different musical projects I am involved right now, it gets a bit tricky to find time to spend on that too but I really hope to get it finished and published as soon as possible.
BR - At this stage of your life and career, do you really feel that the title of your latest album mirrors accurately the happy and very successful moment you are living right now?
MZ - Most certainly. I really feel like living a First Class Life in many ways. That feeling of comfortability is something that we are all looking for and for everything we do, as artists and as people. We want to be good at what we do and we want to feel good about what we do. And it works in the same way about me wanting to be a good husband, a good father for my kids and a good neighbor for the community where I live. I think that it is an age thing. I am 48 and I guess that you get into that stage where you realized that all that you are living, it is real. It’s the point of my life where I feel very comfortable with who I am. It makes me happy that I can go and play and enjoy myself. I surely don’t play and think that I am the greatest guitar player in the world but I am very happy and comfortable with what I play. I feel good about it as I feel good with everything else. Singing, being on stage, being able to communicate with people and being good in relationship with people overall. I guess we always want to be the best that we can possibly be and when you start feeling like that, I think it is a good sign and something very rewarding for me. It’s exactly that place in my mind and in my soul where I wanted to be, my own personal First Class Life!