Michael Roe - The Cream Rises

by Mike Scholl (thescholls@comcast.net)

For over a decade, Mike Roe has helped stretch the boundaries of the Christian music industry, by introducing us to the various musical influences that have meant so much to him. But far more than an impressive carbon copy of mainstream talent, Mike Roe is the proverbial big fish in a little pond. The impetus of his creativity is literally felt world-wide, yet mostly in Christian circles. Because his songwriting doesn't allow for compartmentalization, he has stripped more than a few gears in the Christian recording machinery. Whether he's describing physical love or spiritual anguish, the metaphors Mike uses seem to get lost in the transmission (i.e.,censored), as well as the translation. Mike is finding himself on a railroad track separating controversy and expression, and the locomotive of age is creeping up from behind.

Mike Roe, the "popstar," has had to deal with many rumors throughout the years. So, this interview is more than a trivial pursuit. It is an effort to dispel some of the falsehoods and the myths about the man. Curiously, when we talked shop, Mike looked at me. But, when it pertained to setting the record straight, he practically glared at my tape recorder. So, I know if I misquote him in this sucker, I'm going to be hearing about it for months. I caught Mike at Plaid Jacket Studio during his production gig with Love Coma.

Roe: (Referring to Love Coma's session) I really should be in there telling them what's going on. I trust Chris (Taylor - singer) knows what he wants.

TO: How did you get the whole Love Coma gig?

Roe: They've been fans of the band, and my work and wanted to work with me for several years. They finally got an opportunity to do it.

TO: And R.E.X. Records signed them and said, "Let's have Mike?"

Roe: I don't know how it transpired. All I know is that it's happening, and I'm thrilled.

TO: You've been wanting more of this kind of work, right?

Roe: Yeah. Well, I'm hoping that this project will open the doors for other projects like this. People will see that I'm not crazy, burned out or unable to deliver the product in time with the budget allotted without killing somebody or them killing me. (Laughs)

TO: "123" (first three 77 albums) is out, finally.

Roe: (Smiling) Yes!

TO: And you can't be accused of shortchanging your audience. All three CD's come with all kinds of extra...

Roe: Goodies.

TO: Even a promotional piece for Julissa Neely? (Daughter of Louis and Mary Neely - who ran Exit Records and who run Warehouse Ministries)

Roe: Not quite, that was a practical joke done by Charlie (Peacock) and some of the rest of us.

TO: That's an area that's been shrouded in mystery and controversy...the Exit days. A lot of people didn't know how you were able to acquire the tapes (of the first three albums) or that you even had them. Because there's not a whole lot of information about that, there's a lot of rumors and hinting as to how this came about. Would you care to talk about that?

Roe: I do want to go on record as saying that none of those tapes were stolen out of Exit's vaults. As a matter of fact the master tapes to make "123," did not originate in their vaults at all. They all existed elsewhere. Beyond that, I'm not willing to divulge where they were or how I acquired them, let's just say that they were all gotten legally and aboveboard.

There was never any stealing or any foul play involved. Let's just say that God sent little angels my way, because He knew that these records needed to come out and that, basically, God likes hi-fidelity.

Because you've got to realize that these albums have been available for years, and they've already been released. All we did was keep their release going in a higher quality format. Because we felt very sorry for all the people who had these albums, in a form that wasn't very good...either worn out cassettes or scratchy vinyl. It's not as if these records are like some secret document that's been under wraps. They've been out, forever.

We just wanted to make sure that everyone that wanted one had one that sounded good. It's just the problem is the record companies that were distributing them decided to stop distributing them for some reason. So, we felt we should continue that process. And basically "123" was a labor of love for the fans and for the music. It was not done to get at someone or steal something.

If the interest wasn't there, we wouldn't have bothered. Which is why I'm always interested in this idea that people assume that there's some kind of underhanded, underworld activity involved in this when, basically, these records were made for public consumption from Word, Island and Exit Records many years ago. And we're continuing to service that public. I don't see any reason why they should not still be available for those who wish to consume them. Plus bonus tracks (smiles).

Plus, I wanted to hear my own music on CD, thank you very much. I mean, my gosh...we were the one who suffered through it and wrecked all our lives for it. Why can't we at least have a CD copy of it? (Laughs)

I did find out why there was some reticence on the part of Exit to make a public statement of approval regarding the release of these records. It was based on a very false and vicious rumor that has persisted and dogged us since we left Exit. Records in 1989, and I'm not sure where this rumor started. I have a pretty good idea. However, somehow someone started a rumor that when we quit we made a deliberate decision to backslide (i.e., overthrow our faith and begin living like libertines and heathens...)

But, we quit our jobs at Exit, because we didn't feel like we belonged there anymore. Everyone has their own personal set of reasons for leaving. I can't speak for Charlie Peacock, Robert Vaughn, Jan Eric or any of these people. I just know that personally, professionally, spiritually, psychologically and emotionally keeping my job there was not healthy for me, at that time.

I kind of liken (the situation) to when your girlfriend dumps you for all the right reasons. She's probably doing you the biggest favor of your life. But, at the time of being dumped the dumpee is more likely to be very hurt and angry with his girlfriend and be irrational about all of these things and say, "How could she do these things to me? She doesn't understand my feelings." And maybe after a couple of years the guy will come to his senses and go, "You know, she was right, and she saw it before I did, and she had the common sense to end it at the right time."

But, in the initial, emotional state of the breakup, you're more likely to come up with irrational reasons for why it happened. We've all been through that in various kinds of relationships. Whether it was a boy/girl or parent/child relationship, with the child leaving home at 18 and the parents being defensive and saying, "I gave them everything, I raised them and sacrificed, and here they walk out on me. And they're probably out living like animals, taking drugs and getting drunk, and stomping on all the things I've prepared them for."

This is just a common human experience. When relationships change or end or move into another realm, there's always hurt feelings that bring about irrational responses. And I have a feeling that this situation was and is no different...and it's unfortunate, because we expect more from ourselves and our spiritual leaders in a church environment. One would expect the church to be a little more reasonable or rational. But, we're only human beings after all.

I'm going a long way around to say...I cannot speak for the other guys, but I know that at the time I left Exit I did not backslide. I, indeed, was attending church regularly. I was involved in a Bible study there.

It's no secret to myself, my peers and others around me, that since that time, I've gone down some very dark roads, personally. I would not say that I've actively chosen to backslide and leave the Lord. I would say that there have been situations and circumstances that come through my life or I have chosen that have not been too wise, that have lead me to all sorts of mistakes and bad situations. And I've hurt a lot of people, some people have hurt me. It's just stuff, you know. But, none of that has anything to do with Exit Records or leaving Exit or making a decision to leave God. I mean, things just don't work that way.

I think because we were such an active and visual part of the ministry, there was probably a lot of questions regarding why we left...and all at once. The reasons we left were so complex....it probably looked suspicious. It looked like something bad had happened. I don't think anything bad happened, I think there was a big change all at once.

I would never look back and say it was a terrible thing that we left. I think it was a good thing, because we all went on to more productive lives, careers and ministries. That's not meant to denigrate the Warehouse or Exit Records. That was a very active and productive time in our lives. But, I'm sure the church would agree that we were doing them a big favor (by leaving)...no longer is their money tied up in an outreach that is not productive. It's a whole lot easier to run that church without a bunch of complaining, whining artists hanging around with our demands for teen stardom, record and publishing deals and feeding our families. We felt that was really an awful lot of responsibility for a church to have.

TO: Has it been hard still living in Sacramento?

Roe: Absolutely. Because I've met up with people that kind of look at me funny like, "Gosh brother...I just want you to know I'm concerned and I'm praying." That's really good. But, I don't want to be prayed for my backsliding in 1989, which did not occur. If anything, I was closer to God that year then I've been in many years...my wife was six months pregnant, I was without a high paying job, without a record company and without church support, really. That made me feel very much like an outcast.

It's very unfortunate that situation has to occur concerning God's work. Really, we are only called to be water boys, to carry buckets of water. We are not called to dominate or control each other or determine God's will for each other's lives. We are (only) shepherds of one another.

These bad feelings that surround a person's change in employment or ministry should never come in play. I think it creates all kinds of things that would not please the Lord. Because, if they'll only know us by our love for one another, and we're not exhibiting that love, we don't have much to say to the world. I don't want to say much more about it. But, basically, I hold no ill will towards anyone at the Warehouse, Exit, or any of my band fellas. We all have our own differences and things that we like about each other.

TO: Three songs were taken off of Safe As Milk...another aspect of Mike Roe that's bound to start some kind of stink.

Roe: (Laughs) I'm good at making "stinks." I thought I was good at making records, but I'm starting to find out different.

TO: Honestly, I read this review in Kamikaze Magazine...

Roe: Wow! That was brutal! I think that guy had an ax to grind. Apparently, I did a show in his hometown, and I said some things that were perceived as derogatory about Christian bookstores. I believe this guy took offense to it, and used the review as an opportunity to slam me, a little bit. I love negative reviews when they are constructive. But, I think a lot of what he had to say had a sour grape feel to it. He admitted there was some great stuff, but he didn't even want to talk about that. He focused on the in cohesiveness, and anything he could find to cut it down. If you really like the other stuff, why don't you talk about that, too? But, it was kinda refreshing to me...because it gets to the point where you get sick of hearing about what you do is so great. I was glad someone had the guts to stand up and take a big knock.

But, the more I read it, the more I started to feel like it was a personal attack. Especially when he said I continued my little rebellions for no reason. Does he honestly think that I'm sitting there trying to find a way to rebel against something? I'm just trying to make a record that's fun to listen to (for the people who) I know are gonna dig it. After a while, you get to know your fans pretty well. I don't have anything to rebel against, except people being stupid and ignorant. (laughs) To me rock and roll records are an ephemeral art form that's meant to be fun, the way a video game or a trip to the carnival is. If they end up being serious and enriching your life that's frosting on the cake. But, bottom line, they're a fun temporal thing.

The older you get the more you start to realize that there are many sides to everything that you see, especially record releases by artists that you've come to know and love.

TO: You once said, in a concert, "If you steal from one guy it's plagiarism, if you steal from two or more it's research." It's in the liner notes.

Roe: I read that as a very young guitar player. I was always worried about copying or being really specific about my influences. When you write a research paper, if you pick up an encyclopedia and copy the article, which I did once (laughs), and got a real bad grade... that is plagiarism. However, most good books have got a myriad of footnotes, and they're drawing from a lot of different sources, with the person's own input. We've tried to do that, because we were never stuck on any one thing. We liked a lot of things.

For instance, one of my favorite songs on the solo record is "Go With God But Go." I love the recording, the performance, everything about it. It's one of the few things I've done where I can say, "It's perfect." A lot of people say it's Dylan, or Elvis. Yes, I was thinking of Elvis a little bit on the vocal delivery. But, I never once thought of Dylan. To me, it was Elvis doing like a Gordon Lightfoot song. But, the track was influenced by Simon & Garfunkel (i.e., "The Boxer" album), with Roy Halee engineering. It gets that specific. There was a certain thing that those three people did together that created an atmosphere...the bass playing is obviously Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead, and the lead guitar is Jerry Garcia. So, you've added two other really strong flavors, which come from another place all together. I've always wanted to (put) little things about all the music I love into a combination that works. It's all weaved together in a way that no one else would bother to do. I think at that point you've got something unique. It may not be original. In fact, it's highly derivative. But, I don't think it's hackneyed, I think it's a real good song.

I wish I could contribute something terribly original. Maybe "Bottom Line" was like that. I can't say that that sounds like anybody, it honestly came out of me. I'm hoping that there'll be more songs like that. It would be nice to feel like I came up with something that was all my own, but I don't know what that's like. I'm too in love with all of these people.

(Tape 2: Memories of Warehouse)

Roe: I loved the old building. It was cavernous, and it had a lot of reverb and natural echo. When people would sing on Sunday mornings there was this beautiful sound. I think something happens when you're worshiping in a room like that and the room is helping you worship with its resonance.

The concert ministry was really cool. Think of all the cool people that played at the Warehouse. Are you aware that Roger McGuinn came and played? T-Bone Burnette did several shows there. It was a very radical thing for a church to do. There was something for everybody and it was steady. That made a big impact on this community. People that weren't Christians would go regularly. It was the most happening free thing in town.

The fact that they even darkened the door step of a church is making headway. God can use that. Something they'll never forget is at one time they walked into a church and it was a cool experience. If they have nothing else in their life to base some opinion about God on, that's a hundred points right there.

You can't minister to people at a distance, you need to get right down in the cheeseburgers with them. If you're going to reach out to the homosexuals, you need to be there with them, making friends with them, loving them, without contributing or endorsing it. You're just there. That's where Jesus went. He would hang with people like that and be Himself. That was the difference. Rather than getting all absorbed, He always stood apart because He was Himself in that environment, in love. I think that's what attracted all the sinners to Him. He was going to tell them the truth, He wasn't going to insult or hurt them.

Of course, (Jesus being labeled a glutton and a drunkard) was just sour grapes. He appeared as such, because he was hanging out with people who were. The fact is, God designed the grape to ferment and make wine, and knows full well what it is and how it works, He's not stupid...as if God didn't know.

We just insult God's intelligence to think that we're the arbiters of all this good and bad taste. I think Christians in this country are really hung up on a lot of things, because it makes life easy and manageable.

Other cultures would be appalled at some things that what we do, that we don't consider evil, but are terribly so. (Like) our gluttony and our waste of money and food.

(Coincidentally, during the interview, I spilled my Super Hot Tamales. Immediately, Mike retrieved every spicy morsel and put them back in the box. I hope this interview has helped clear some things up about the man. No doubt, there will still be points of contention. As Mike said, "There are many sides to everything that you see.")