Mike Roe is looking for production work...

I know that's kind of a weird way to start an article, but I told Roe that I would lead with that. What follows this introduction is a conversation with an artist who has produced a pretty amazing body of work.

As the anchor for pop/rock icons The 77's [well, they are icons among a lot of CCM fans, even if the general public hasn't realized it yet], Roe has done eight albums, as well as two solo efforts and two [about to become three] projects as a member of the Lost Dogs.

TLeM spoke with Roe two years ago, just prior to the release of The 77's seventh album, Drowning With Land In Sight. In that interview, which you can read here, Roe spoke at length about the band's struggles with Word Records over artistic control during the recording of that project.

This interview came about shortly after the release of Tom Tom Blues on the Brainstorm Artists International label. [After our conversation occurred, it was announced that The 77's and their Brainstorm catalog would now be part of the Innocent Media label, run by Ojo Taylor.] No longer associated with Word, the band found the recording process to be a much smoother ride this time out.

This album kind of sneaked up on us. I was taken by surprise, because we had absolutely no warning that it was coming and all of a sudden it was out.

That's pretty much what people have been saying.

How does it feel to be back on Brainstorm? The last time we talked to you was for the Drowning With Land In Sight album, about two years ago, and we spent a good deal of time talking about the "art by community" theory. You talked about the input Word had on the album, as far as direction.

That's right.

I'm assuming now that you are back on Brainstorm, it wasn't that way this time around.

No. No one said anything at all to us about the record. We just turned it in; and they put it out.

I think they were in such a hurry to get this one that they just didn't have time to complain. They wanted to make sure it was solid through.

How would you compare the two experiences then, as far as your time in the studio?

Gosh, it's like night and day. This was a positive, high-energy experience. And it was done all at one time in the summer. There was a lot of good vibes. It was hard, hard work, but it was a really uplifting experience; whereas, making the Drowning album was an extremely negative experience.

[This time there were] different people in the band, a different band really. Myself and Mark Harmon have remained the same. But even our relationship was different, because we didn't have Dave [Leonhardt, guitarist] and Aaron [Smith, drummer]. Instead, there was Bruce Spencer--who's got so much energy, it was like having two more people.

How did you connect with him?

I've known Bruce for years. We first played together with Charlie Peacock, back in 1984, on a long, long tour across the United States opening for many secular bands like The Fixx and General Public. We played together, on and off, over the years on different studio sessions, and things like that.

Bruce usually was the substitute for Aaron when Aaron was sick. So we'd already done shows with him in the 77's. There was a brief period back in '89 or '90 when we were considering him for our drummer, but then Aaron came back.

Bruce was the logical choice. He's the only world-class drummer who lives in our town, and who also likes our music and wanted to do it. Originally, we hired him just to do the tour last year.

Right--I saw you guys in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

It was kind of scary to go out as a three-piece act with a new guy. But we just did it; and after a while we got used to it--we really liked it.

While we were out on the road, we talked about maybe forming a different group and doing different kinds of music. Then when we got home, we decided to just be the 77's, and do all those ideas within the context of this band.

You still seem to stretch pretty far afield on this one, as far as cut to cut.

I think this one has a little more consistency. We wrote it all together and rehearsed it all together. We've wanted to do a record this way for a long time.

In the old days, everyone would bring their individual songs and demos and we'd pick the best of those and go with it. This time that happened a little bit, but for the most part, the songs came out of long intensive rehearsals and jam sessions. We recorded them and cataloged them, then just kept filtering and filtering until it boiled down to the songs that you hear.

What kind of reaction have you gotten so far from fans or critics?

I haven't seen any reviews of the record yet, so I don't know what the critics think.

Mostly, the fans are hot to get the lyrics right now. We've gotten a lot of lyric requests. Occasionally, people will write and comment on the album. They'll say they really like it, or this is the best one yet, or that it's "mind blowing." It kind of varies. Some people were disappointed with it, too, but that happens with every album.

A very nice young gentleman on the internet said that although he was shocked to see Aaron and Dave gone, he really didn't miss them because the album was so incredible. So, I guess it really resonates with certain people.

We knew it was going to be a big change for everybody--it was a big change for us. We played with Aaron for ten years straight. We wouldn't use anyone before we use Aaron... He's just so good.

But the thing about Bruce that's really great is that fact that he's a songwriter, arranger, lyricist, singer. In other words, he's an all-around multi-talented musician.

As far as styles of drumming--Aaron is more like a solid freight train, whereas Bruce is like an exploding pile of shrapnel. Bruce is far more explosive and expressive in his style, which I've wanted for many, many years in the band. It's a different style of drumming. I prefer it because I like hearing a lot of things going on with the drums. Now that we're a three-piece, we need someone to be playing more. We all have to play a lot more; and the drums have to fill in the space where there'd normally be rhythm guitar.

We are experimenting, here in our hometown, with adding other musicians to try different textures. Currently, we've got a weekly gig at a jazz club. There we've added a percussion player, another guitar player, and a sax player. We do all the pop stuff from the album, including my solo act. It gives us a chance to experiment with what it would be like if we added other people. But I think we want to keep the core of the group a three-piece now, because it's a real solid environment--kind of a perfect triangle.

It's kind of like what Genesis did. First, they were a five-piece; then, they were a four-piece; and finally, they whittled themselves down to three. But on the road they'd hire other musicians to fill in the sound.

But keep the creative core.

Exactly. I think that's what we want to do, at least for the immediate future [although I'd love to get Dave back--I miss him]. It makes it whole lot easier being a democracy when you have three guys. Being a quartet was painful all those years.

You ran into deadlock.

Yeah, deadlock. You have all the people ganging up on other people. It made it difficult to make a decision, because it meant four different lives had to be coordinated. Here there's three and that's hard enough.

As far as creativity--last time you talked about the jazz and classical music you found yourself drawn to. Is there anything else that you find yourself pulling into the mix as your inspiration now?

Yeah, there is. I've been listening to the Grateful Dead a lot. [Laughter]

[Laughter] You're admitting to that.

Yeah, I've listened to them for a long, long time. But more and more so now. I think the reason is that they are the only phenomenally successful group that was able to combine many, many American musical styles and appeal to a new generation of audience every so many years.

If you look at their audience, besides all the old folk, they were getting new, young teenagers every year. Now that says to me that there is a wide group of kids out there, who are willing and eager to mix-it-up and to hear a lot of different kinds of music with improvisation--which is the element of jazz--the Grateful Dead were very well known for that. So I look at them as a musical model, not that we're going to start sounding like them. A model as far as how they did their research, combined all their influences to create a lot of different things at one time, and gave a positive experience to the audience. They gave everyone a space to do their own thing and enjoy the music as they choose. Plus, I just love their music. I always did.

In addition to them, I've been listening to Red House Painters. They're from San Francisco. They're on the 4 AD label, which is just sort of spacey music.

We also listened to a lot of Soundgarden this year. I really like their sound and style. In fact, it's so overwhelming to me that it's really hard to get a grip on it. I only wish we could come off as good as that. Their two albums had a big impact on us while we were making the record.

I'm more open-minded to Pearl Jam and Nirvana now than I used to be--having gotten used to that sound for a long time.

What was your initial reaction to it?

Initially, I found all those groups sounding the same, a little boring, and with the same songwriting. As time has dragged on, I've become accustomed to their sound a little bit more. Although I wouldn't go out and pay money for it, I like it now. I hear it a lot more than I used to, so all the Seattle grunge things are seeping in.

But I still love Neil Young. I'm an old fart when it comes to certain music. I listen to the old music, the stuff that has survived all the decades. Neil Young is still making relevant records now. It's old but it's perennial. That's the kind of stuff I tend to go after.

That's interesting, what you said about the Dead, because one thing they proved is that, unlike what the music industry machine is always putting forth, you don't have to have mediocre music to have an enduring career.

That's right.

I mean they didn't stoke the radio machine, yet they still maintained an incredible fan base for a long time--without getting help from the industry.

That's right, they did it on their own terms. They did it the hard way--they took it to the street. I know they wanted a hit record. They tried for that, but very rarely pulled it off. Once in a while they did, but the point was they had the live performance thing going.

I think now what we're seeing is that there's a huge trend since Jerry [Garcia] died. Because of the big vacuum that's left, there's all these other bands rushing in to fill his void. They know there's a market for that kind of thing. So we're seeing Phish and Hootie [and the Blowfish] and all these people trying to move into that kind of spot. I think we're going to see a whole lot more of that, too.

I think the music industry as a whole tends to short change the general fan, assuming that they are interested in mediocre or mass-produced music.

Right. The thing is that they're in for the quick kill, the fast buck, and the problem is that this ignores the slow dollar, the steady dollar. I think that's why a lot of really good music gets left behind, because it takes longer to develop. You have to spend time letting artists develop their fan base and their music. For many, many years the record industry did that, but now they're less likely to take those risks. You find that job is left to the independent record companies, who are doing a good job. But they don't have the budget.

It's harder now to be a "working musician" and survive. You have to be very creative with your time and energy. We're struggling. I mean, it's an intense struggle to keep our head above water and buck the system this way.

Many, many times I find myself thinking about calling the major Christian companies and asking them if they'll let me play the "ball game"--I'll let them photograph me with a smile and airbrush my face, and I'll write lyrics that are nice or at least say things the way they want them said. Because I'm starving so much. I'm ashamed of myself when I find myself doing that. It just gets to the point where you've got to find a way to eat; and "art" doesn't always do that.

That's kind of a good segue into my next question. I've noticed on the Safe As Milk album, and then on this one, that you seem to be getting more blunt in your expressions. Is that just because you're tired of trying to express things in a "nice" way that people may feel comfortable with? Or is there something else behind it?

I just try to write the best song possible at the time--from the heart as much as I can. The 77's album Tom Tom Blues was hard because there wasn't too much turmoil going on in my life; it was kind of a neutral time. I ended up writing a lot of fictional songs, based on leftover emotions of the past. I'm not as proud of it lyrically. I think it's okay as craft; it just doesn't mean as much to me personally.

It was written as a skill rather than as an out-pouring, where Safe As Milk is most definitely a personal record. You can hear its depth of heart. I prefer it of the two--the group does also. Actually, both Mark and Bruce love Safe As Milk. I would only hope I could do more records like it. I think those are things that ultimately mean the most to the artist and the audience.

I have to admit, it's the one I prefer as well. I've been listening to you guys for more than a decade now and Tom Tom Blues didn't grab me as immediately as some of your other recordings have. But Safe As Milk, from the moment I heard it, just stuck. I think you're right, that there's more emotion in there.

Yeah and the production is a lot more sensitive. There's a lot more space in the music.

Even though there's a lot more all over the map, musically.

There's an ambiance and a feeling in that record that's really hard to capture with a loud, noisy, rock 'n roll clang. Tom Tom Blues was actually done for a certain effect. It was done to have a brash impact upon a certain audience. It was done in a hurry and conveys that kind of energy. Its kind of a summary record, where Safe As Milk will last you all winter long. I think it kind of went over people's heads, too.

I think people will be able to appreciate that record, maybe, in a year from now. I just don't think people knew what to do with it. Plus, it was poorly distributed. The record company ran off with the money on both that and our boxed set too.

Anyway, it was just one of those bad experiences, business-wise. It left me with a very sour feeling in the end. Which is too bad, because I think it's my favorite of the projects I've been involved in, commercially. We want to do another one like it. In fact, we're about to start it real soon.

This one's [Tom Tom Blues] barely cold, Mike. [Laughter]

I know. But "necessity is the mother of invention;" and the necessity is that we need money, so it's back to work for us.

Can we talk a little bit about your production work with Love Coma? In April '94, when I was at GMA, is when I first met [lead singer] Chris Taylor. I saw him again at Cornerstone and we spent some time talking about their efforts to secure a record deal. I knew that you were one of his heroes--he'd actually joked at that time about you being the ideal producer. Can you tell me about your reaction when you were approached by R.E.X. as well as about the subsequent experience?

I wasn't surprised, because Chris and I had talked about this for many years. They had been sending me demos for a long time. When it finally did happen I was pleased, because I knew that we had finally gotten to work together.

Their early demos didn't really impress me very much. I'm glad that it was only recently that we were able to work together--this batch of songs was more interesting. When they came to me, they said that they wanted to emulate our Island record, which was half rock and half pop. They brought in a bunch of rock songs that I didn't really care for; and a bunch of pop songs that I loved. So I begged them to do all the pop material and to forget about the rock, or just do that in concerts. But they were adamant about doing the rock stuff. So I got into it as best as I could.

Overall, I think that they made a really, really good record. When it was all over, both the band and the record company agreed that the pop stuff was the winning ticket. So that's the direction they will go from now on, leaving the rock stuff for the concerts. You always need rock in a concert because everyone gets bored if you just do a bunch of "nice" songs. It was hard work but a lot of fun. Some of the songs I really, really liked--I think they have a really good record.

It was interesting to me, when I first heard the album, because Chris had given me a copy of the Slightly Used [independent] tape at Cornerstone about a year and a half ago, and I had noticed then that some of the songs from that were on this album. The whole tape had been acoustic/pop oriented and I noticed that the sense was still similar. The intimacy was still there. To a large degree, that was what I most like about it to begin with.

What did you think of that record?

The Love Coma one? For the most part I liked it a lot. It definitely was one of my favorites for the year. There were a couple of tracks that, for some reason, I didn't connect with--probably a personal thing. But for the most part I liked it a lot.

I think the song, "And She Was" could be a huge hit. That one caught my ear right away. They weren't going to include it, but I begged them. It reminds me of the records I listened to a long time ago, like the stuff from the '60's, like Lovin' Spoonful. It reminded me of a throw-back from some older era. They also let me play guitar on it, which was great.

It had a slight country tinge, too.

Yeah, we were trying to get that kind of Neil Young/Crazy Horse, lazy sort of feel to it. That was a real challenge for the group. They didn't understand it, but it came out real neat anyway.

So is this something you'd be interested in again?

Oh yeah. They were fun to work with. It was cool.

I know you've done some production work on some independent projects, too. Have you done quite a bit?

Yeah. There was First Strike and Steve Scott during the old Exit days. I enjoyed producing Steve Scott a lot. We did some real epic work together.

You had him do a spoken part on Love Coma.

That was their idea.

What else have I done? Oh, I did a group called Perry and the Poor Boys.

I've heard that one.

When that record came out, no one liked it. But we did another one. I just got finished working with them in Canada a couple of months ago. It came out great, not anything like their other record. It's a whole new sound for Perry and I think he's going to end up way down the road with it.

That's another independent release?

I don't know yet, he's still shopping it around.

I'm also looking for more production work all the time. It's just hard to come by--people still don't trust me. They think I'm crazy, burnt out, too expensive, unapproachable, or whatever. I don't know; I just don't get the calls.

Tell you what, I'll start the article off with "Mike's looking for production work."

Yeah, right. Usually by the time a record company or group has decided to cast their lot with me, they're really ready to throw all caution to the wind. They'll go against the grain, despite all the warnings.

In fact, Love Coma was warned that I would hurt them and mess them around and all kinds of terrible things. At first they were afraid of me, but once they realized I was a guy with a goofy sense of humor, they enjoyed themselves and were really happy with the record.

You said this next album is going to be like Safe As Milk--does that mean its going to be your project (which, obviously, the guys in the band played on) or a band project?

Mark Harmon was my collaborator on Milk. Mark definitely made a huge contribution, because he wrote some of the songs, played bass, and assisted with the production.

This next one is going to be like that, except Bruce Spencer is going to be my primary collaborator. Bruce has already written enough tracks for a whole album. The music he writes, when he's left to himself, is very moody, atmospheric, and autumnal. It's a hard word to define [autumnal], but it's the perfect word to describe the music. The closest that I can come to is to say that it sounds like the real rich, emotional tracks that Sting or Thomas Dolby scatter throughout their solo albums. Not copying their sound or anything, but there are certain songs we do that bring up deep emotion. It's also very orchestrated--a lot of strings, a lot of harps--different kinds of colors and textures. Not quite as much air and space as Safe As Milk, a little more filled in. Another album that's a good example of the direction is Jeff Buckley's Grace (Tim Buckley's son). That album has been an inspiration to me, and to Chris Taylor, who forced me to listen to it before doing the Love Coma record.

Also, as far as moods, Talk Talk has impacted me. Their two most recent albums are wildly experimental, yet very soft, and strange. They've got odd orchestration. There's oboes, cellos, and other woodwind instruments, combined with the basic rock band. It comes off sounding like real psychedelic chamber jazz. That's the stuff that really gets under my skin.

So what's on the front, touring wise?

We'll probably tour the 77's in the fall, following our summer shows at Flevo, Holland and at Greenbelt in England.

I'm also trying to do solo dates as much as possible, with just my acoustic guitar. I'm always looking for those shows.

I wasn't aware that you did those until I saw a review of one. It said you were playing all the old stuff I've always wanted to hear.

That's what I try to do when I go out, play a lot of the songs that the band never does, or hasn't done in so long that people would be surprised. It provides another alternative.

We're also trying to do stuff with the jazz/pop version of the band, here in town. We're doing tracks like "Alone Together," "I Want, Never Gets," and "Kites Without Strings." All kinds of songs that normally wouldn't be presented in a live show because they're texturally difficult.

More suited for a club--certain clubs, anyway?

Yeah. It's easier when you have more musicians. You take the time to get the delicate, little parts. Our concerts are usually "take no prisoners"--wham-bam, thank you ma'am--a get in/get out, and wind everyone up so that it's all over before they realize what happened.

It was interesting--when I was at your concert in Lancaster, you really saw a range in the audience there--from guys in their 40's and 50's, all the way down to teenagers. I thought that was cool.

I like that, too. I hope that that continues. Maybe eventually we'll have a "Grateful Dead" type audience.

Do you feel like you have other creative talent to offer, aside from musical talent? Do you have any additional creative outlets? [Question from TLeM reader Suzi Bumbera]

I wish I had time to explore things like that. I always tell people that I wish I knew how to paint. I envy people who can put on music really loud, get on the canvas, and lose themselves in that experience.

There's just not enough lifetime to fill what I want to do, musically. If I was doing other stuff like that, I'd probably feel guilty that I wasn't practicing guitar to get better. All I want to do is play guitar better, write better songs, make better records, and be a better performer. I just can't imagine putting an ounce of energy into any other creative outlet.

People have always said that I'm a good writer. But again, you have to develop certain skills for that. To develop and to become a writer requires a different lifestyle than mine. Besides, there just isn't enough lifetime. In a parallel universe, maybe. But in this one, the answer is no. I know I will be sitting on my death-bed with a Mel Bay guitar chord book.

But I would love to act. I would even do that to the exclusion of music, temporarily. Acting was the earliest childhood ambition I had. I think I have talent in it, but I don't know. I'd love to explore that.

Being on stage is not all that different.


Would you even say that earlier in your career you developed or took on some sort of persona?

More so than now. I'm not as interested in personas as I am in music. But for a time, the persona thing was real important. You've got to establish something to make people notice you and to stand out from the pack.

The older I get, the more interested I am in exploring musical pastures. The idea of being a "rock star," or having some kind of unique look or stage persona, is really very boring to me now. It's been done to death by me and everyone else. It's like, who can stand it anymore?

Again, that's why the Grateful Dead appeal to me. They had more or less an absence of that. They had just enough to recognize the guys, but not enough to overwhelm what was essentially the music experience. With them, the audience created their persona in their head.

I'm very exhausted by people who come up to me and expect me to either do my old stage antics or to wear a funny haircut. To me, stuff like that's so juvenile compared to the musical experience as a spiritual entity.

What do you feel people project to you as an artist? When you run into a fan, do you find a consistency there, as far as expectations?

They expect me to act really weird, to be "controversial," and they expect some sort of angry, rebellious kind of thing. Again, to me that's pretty boring.

To me, the things that are happening that are radical and controversial are the intangible musical experiences or the musical/spiritual experiences that you can't really define or articulate--you just register it. Those are the kinds of things that I'm interested in, and all that other "show-biz" stuff is routine. It can be fun but only for moments at a time. To me it's just so small compared to what else there is available to experience. It's like packaging or an outer layer; I don't give it much thought.

Do you think that that type of image thing is getting better or worse in the CCM industry?

I really wouldn't know, I don't follow it. I'm just so wrapped up in trying to survive that it's hard to answer that question.

Is that also from being in Sacramento, as opposed to being in L.A. or Nashville?

You bet. I feel very isolated from the business, living up here.

We're in the middle of Pennsylvania--we're fairly isolated and that's fine, too.

But man, Pennsylvania of all places--such a hot spot right now--you've got Live, the Innocence Mission. You known they [Innocence Mission] are coming here in a couple of weeks. They're one of my favorite bands. I didn't tell you that, when you asked about what I listen to.

So they're one of your favorites?

Gosh, yeah, without a doubt. Simply beautiful stuff.

Roe's next album, The Boat Ashore, [you knew it had to happen sometime, didn't you?] is due to be released by Innocent Media, in June. Roe will be touring with his other musical collaborators, the Lost Dogs, for most of May as part of the Feed The Kids Tour, along with Dime Store Prophets.

--Beth Blinn

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