Stuck In Sacramento With the Tom Tom Blues Again
an interview with Mike Roe by J. Edward Keyes
from the archives of The Cardigan Journal
J. Edward Keyes: What is the lineup of The 77's this time around?
Mike Roe: Myself, Mark Harmon on the bass, and Bruce Spencer, formerly of Vector & Charlie Peacock, on the drums. We've pared the group down to a three-piece, which means that [live] every instrument plays more, there's more improvisation and jamming. The music becomes much more aggressive, more groove-oriented rather than rhythm-oriented. I guess, mainly, it's more rock-oriented than pop-oriented.
JEK:What's the overall mood on "Tom Tom Blues", as different from past 77's records?
MR: It's more along the lines of the tracks on Pray Naked and Drowning that are the more rock-oriented tracks. Fundamentally, the sound has not changed drastically, but with a new member...see, Bruce is far more than just a drummer, he's a writer, an arranger, a producer, and a lyricist.
JEK: So, does he do a lot of lyric writing on this one?
MR: No, but he does feed me ideas from time to time, like catch phrases and things. Like this song "Flowers in the Sand", the whole song was written around a phrase that he handed me which was: "She plants flowers in the sand". From that line, the entire song wrote itself. The music is more complex. So it's different, but it's not so drastically different that it doesn't fit within the context of our other records. It's far more colorful than the last two. The last two were sort of black and white and gray, and this one is Technicolor.
JEK: Could you take us song by song through the record?
MR: The first one, "Rocks in Your Head", is a really good single, a basic rock tune. "Honesty", is a real sort of Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz kinda thing with two big psychedelic guitar solos. The third song, called "You Still Love Me" is a really heavy production piece, that's hard to describe. Again, very psychedelic, very pop. The fourth song, "Outskirts", is another in our series of 'Jungle Blues' things, a la early Fleetwood Mac. That track probably sounds the most like classic 77's, if there is such a thing. The fifth track is "Flowers in the Sand". That, again, sounds like a Fleetwood Mac track, more like a Christine McVie-type. The next track is the most contemporary sounding, it's called "Don't Leave Me Long", and that sort of reflects alot of what's going on in female pop sound right now. It's got that kind of strummy, folk-rock-pop style. And yet other people hear it and say "Oh, it sounds like Dylan", so... It's got a gang of guitars. It's the first time I did so many guitars that the illusion of a string section was created. The next one's called "Gravy Chain", and that sounds sort of like Led Zepplin meets Beastie Boys with James Brown doing the lead vocal. Next track is called "Five in the Nave", which is a novelty track. It sounds like Jimmy Durante on speed in a very very bizarre nightclub with a jazz band out of control. It's very sad (laughter all around). The next track is called "Earache", and that is very much Frank Zappa, very long guitar solo. The next track is probably my favorite because it's really spiritual for me, it's called "Deliverance". The choruses sound like Zepplin, the verses sound like The Police, and the long instrumental coda sounds like the Grateful Dead, in full swing, like when they're doing a real intense psychedelic jam. Then the song melts down into this backwards Beatles' guitar thing, and then takes off in this intense pounding groove a la King Crimson. That's a real movie soundscape type thing. It's based on a recurring nightmare that I had.
JEK: Would you like to talk about that?
MR: Well, it's a hard thing to talk about, because it's so personal and so scary. I don't want to scare any of your readers.
JEK: Our readers have strong stomachs.
MR: I started having a recurring nightmare about two years back, I would wake up with the sense that I murdered somebody. In the dream, I'm frantically searching for the body, trying to remember who it was, when it was... I'm walking in a field looking for where I buried it. And then I wake up, and what's really horrible about it, this is the kind of dream where you wake up and you're still convinced that you did it, and sometimes it would take as long as 45-minutes to sit up in the bed and convince myself that I didn't commit this crime, there really is no body. It's just a horrible, horrible feeling. It really wigged me out. I knew that usually when you had dreams of this nature, they're usually trying to tell you something about yourself. Although I know for certain I never did murder somebody, I'm very curious as to who or what I did murder symbolically. The dreams did eventually stop, so I thought "Now it's time to write about this to see if I can be of any help to anyone else who's ever experienced this..." I called the song "Deliverance" because it reminds me very much of that movie where one of those guys murders one of the hillbillies, and he's out on a fishing trip at the end of the film, and the murdered hillbillie's hand comes up from the water, and he wakes up in his bed jus terrified. The haunting feeling that you may kill someone like that, but wondering when they're gonna come back to get you. It's very heavy stuff.
JEK: A lot of your lyrics, especially on some of the songs on "Safe as Milk", deal with some fairly personal issues. Is it odd for you to know that thousands of listeners are getting sort of a window into your soul?
MR: No, because I really welcome their comments and their insights. I also try not to be too biographically specific. I've gotten into a lot of trouble personally with friends and relatives who are quick to interpret the song specifically to them, and that has caused a lot of problems at home because alot of times the songs sound like they're chapter and verse from my life. I almost invariably will add other details, so a song may be 90% about one situation, and the 10% about something totally different. As far as the general public, since they don't know me or my life, I'm quite happy to share it. It's not like I have anything to lose. I never really had a good reputation to begin with. I suppose if I were Michael W. Smith or whatever... (laughter all around).
JEK:...but since we've already been through "This old old has kicked my ass..."
MR: Yeah, I think people pretty much know my life has been a series of ups and downs. I think it's more important for people to know your life is real rather than unreal.
JEK: That's probably a good place to be at as an artist. I know I relate to alot of your stuff, I think "Ache Beautiful" is a gorgeous song...
MR: ...that's one we could talk about... That was the last thing I could write about a specific relationship that inspired many, many songs. When I knew that it was over forever, I had to write the song because I felt so deeply about it. It helped to sort of close the chapter for me in a certain way. Plus, I was hoping that I could shop the song to Julio Iglesias, he would record it, and I would make a million dollars... (laughter all around)
JEK: I have the official uncensored version of "Safe as Milk", I was wondering why those three songs ("It's For You", "Sneakers" & "Stellazine Prophecy") were pulled, and how do you feel about that as the artist?
MR: I can't express to you strongly enough what a disgusting experience that was. They apparently felt that there were things in those three songs that were offensive, and in order to keep me from going ballistic, they agrees to do a second version which would be in secular songs, which served only to pretty much kill sales of the album altogether. Once fans found out about what happened, they brought the other record back. There were so many returns, it ended up being a negative seller. Just a really, really bad experience for a record I felt was the best thing I'd ever done. In fact, one of the best songs that I recorded for it is not even on the record, it's called "Tall Trees". There's talk of releasing Safe As Milk in Europe with the original title and cover. The cover was supposed to be of me naked.
JEK: Oh yeah?
MR: Yeah, when I was six months old. It was supposed to be called It's For You.
JEK: This must drive you nuts. This has happened a couple of times now.
MR: It happens almost every time. I'm amazed Tom Tom Blues did not become censored as well. We don't go out of our way to be dirty or controversial, I think what it is is that we have a reputation for it, and then people look for it. That's what causes the problem, is they go over the thing with a magnifying glass, and convince themselves "Oh, I know they're trying to pull something..." Rock 'n' roll & pop music is supposed to be fun. It's not the Bible, it's not a church service, it's not a sermon, it's a rock 'n' roll record. There should be things on there that are outside what you would talk about in church. I'm not trying to encourage people to do wrong things, or to be deliberately obscene or profane, if anything, the kind of stuff that is censored is things that would raise an eyebrow in first grade. That's why I become angry, because these people don't even have the maturity to get a grip on the level of what it is their censoring. It's not as if I'm using the f-word 20 million times. My gosh, when you look at what's out there now, the stuff that I might choose to do that is considered "wrong" or "offensive" is laughable.
JEK: Is it discouraging for you sometimes to not have the large audience somebody of your caliber deserves?
MR: My answer is yes, but it isn't so much the recognition, or even the size of the audience, it's the money. Because without financial security, it just makes doing the whole thing a nightmare, you know, constantly worrying how you're gonna pay your rent. If I could get my share of the money, I'd be willing to remain anonymous. I've given up worrying about how much credit I get, how much glory or recognition I get. I'm more into getting enough money so I can keep doing it. I'm not even asking for anything beyond just enough. Just enough so that I know...so that that's not a constant thing in the back of your mind scaring you all the time. It gets scary after a while, you know? You start thinking "My gosh, I'm only one month away from bankruptcy."
JEK: Anything else you wanted to say in closing? Any random thoughts from the imagination of Mike Roe?
MR: Oh, gosh...I dunno...someone get us a gig...