Michael Monroe’s place in rock history was sealed with Hanoi Rocks, but he has never been one to rest on his laurels. Through the years, he has continued to evolve as an artist and raises the bar with each new outing. Monroe’s last two releases – “Horns And Halos” and 2011’s “Sensory Overdrive” – were both critical and commercial successes, with the latter winning “Classic Rock” magazine’s Album Of The Year award. Monroe’s new album, “Blackout States,” continues the trend of rock‘n’roll excellence and builds on his formidable strengths.
Recorded in March of 2015, under the guidance of producer Chips Kiesbye, “Blackout States” brings fans 13 powerful new recordings that will undoubtedly leave listeners rocked to the core. The Michael Monroe band features a collection of the most seasoned rock warriors, consisting of bassist Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks, New York Dolls), guitarists Steve Conte (New York Dolls, Willy DeVille) & Rich Jones (The Black Halos, Amen) and drummer Karl “Rockfist” Rosqvist (The Chelsea Smiles, Danzig). This new collection of songs are as hard-hitting as ever before and continue to honor tradition while bringing new kick-ass ingredients to mix into the primordial rock‘n’roll stew. Together, Monroe and his band explore more melodic material with a punky attitude which the songs wear with style. In short, “Blackout States” is high energy rock‘n’roll at it’s finest.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Michael Monroe to discuss his longevity, the creative process that brought “Blackout States” to life, his evolution as an artist and what the future may hold for him in the years to come.
You have had an amazing career as an artist. Tell us a little about how it all got started and what lit your creative fire.
My grandfather was a cello player, a classical musician, by profession. His father was an oboe player in a symphony orchestra and was acquainted with Jean Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer. My mother and father were both musical as well but they weren’t professional musicians. My father was a radio voice in Finland. Back when I was young, there were really only three radio channels in Finland: Channel One, Channel Two and The Swedish Channel. On TV it was TV One and TV Two, so there wasn’t much to go by! [laughs] They had some pop and rock programs, which featured the pop and rock album of the week. Sometimes it would be Nazareth “Loud and Proud” or “Led Zeppelin II.” My first brush with rock ‘n’ roll and what really got me going was seeing, believe it not, Black Sabbath on TV live in Paris in 1970. We had a black and white TV and for some reason they showed that live concert on TV. I just thought, “Wow! This is something else!” I saw that long haired guy in the front going crazy and heard that powerful sound. I thought, “Wow! I could do that!” I saved up my weekly allowance and went out and bought their album. I also saw a few documentaries on rock ‘n’ roll history on television. Little Richard always fascinated me because he is so wild and crazy with his hairdo and his makeup and everything. My father also bought us some albums. I guess he just went into a record store and asked for what was popular. The second Led Zeppelin album was the first one we had in the family. Then I got Deep Purple’s “Fireball.” That was the first album that I owned personally. My two other brothers got “Love You To Death” by Alice Cooper. That was it for me! I was like, “Wow! This is the coolest band!” Alice was so cool with his makeup and everything. I really got into that because I thought it was the coolest looking band and they had a cool attitude. I loved the sense of danger that Alice brought. He made everyone be on their toes! Parents would tell their kids not to go and see Alice Cooper because it was dangerous and he was a threat to society! That’s just right because society sucks and there are so many things wrong here! There is a good reason to rebel, shake ’em up and tell the truth in their face! That to me was like the punk thing and kind of like what rap was supposed to be when it started, which was street music that was telling the truth. It is similar with reggae, as well. They tell the truth, raise questions and have lyrics that really mean something.
I really just came into my own as a songwriter when I started my solo career. That is when I specifically found lyrics were as important as the music. I had something to say and could make some points. I was able to sing the songs with some conviction and believe in what I say and not just say some superficial, phony stuff. I didn’t do that anyway but I had to have something to sing about to be able to sing like I do, get into it and do it with conviction. I also wanted to maybe get some points across. I think you can have a good time and be entertained but you don’t have to turn your brain off. I think music has a lot of power and you can change the world much better with music than with what the politicians are doing because their motivation is wrong. They want to raise their salaries or whatever. Musicians really care. Bob Geldof proved it by doing the Live Aid. It proves that if musicians join forces, they can actually get something done!
As an artist, you raise the bar with each new album. What were your goals on this latest album and where do you look for inspiration these days?
I get inspired by life in general. Everything I see, hear and experience comes through in my music. We have a great chemistry in this band and I have given everyone a lot of space. We have a democracy and it is really like a band situation because I am a band oriented kind of guy. I do want to have the collaboration. I have done albums alone where I have written all the songs and played all the instruments except for the drums and I know what that is going to sound like. I have encouraged everyone in the band to write songs. Everyone writes except for the drummer, Karl Rockfist, who doesn’t write that much. Sami Yaffa, Steve Conte, Rich Jones and I all write stuff together. I think you get a better result that way.
The band has been together since 2010 and the “Sensory Overdrive” album. As you said, each of the albums have their own personality and sound. I think the chemistry is just getting better and tighter. I am always inspired and there is always room for improvement. I try to get better at what I do, write better songs and do better performances with every show but you are never good enough! That keeps me hungry and going! Having an album like this new one, when it is finished, is very rewarding. Listening back to it after it is all mixed and done, you hear it and say, “Yeah. Wow, It’s good! It’s real. It’s authentic, honest and has all the right ingredients for good rock ‘n’ roll the way it should be.” It’s high energy, you know.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process for the album and how it came together.
Oh yeah! Everybody in the band lives all over the world. I live here in Finland. Sami used to live in New York but now he lives in Mallorca, Spain. Rich Jones used to live in London but now he lives in Berlin. Steve Conte lives in New York and Karl Rockfist lives in Stockholm. Luckily we are very good musicians, so we don’t have to rehearse that much! We hardly ever rehearse. With the previous album, “Horns and Halos,” we had the chance to get together at the rehearsal place from the beginning, started throwing ideas at each other and started songs from scratch. With this new album, “Blackout States,” we didn’t have the opportunity to do that. We worked on a lot of stuff on our own, separately at first, and then got together for a few days at the rehearsal place before we headed into the studio. For example, “Good Old Bad Days,” came to me one night like stream of consciousness. I thought, “Oh God! I have to get up and record this on tape or otherwise I will never remember it in the morning!” That is something I have to do these days! [laughs] I knew that if I didn’t record the idea down, I would be going crazy in the morning trying to remember what it was! That song came out like stream of consciousness and was really easy. The song “R.L.F.,” which is “Rock Like Fuck,” Sami had written the music at home. He has a lot of cool punky stuff. He had the working title as “Fuck Shit Up.” [laughs] I said, “Alright. You want to swear? Let’s swear for real! How about rock like fuck?” We had never written a song like that and that has always been my slogan since the ‘80s! So, I wrote the lyrics and Sami and I put it together. Steve, Rich and Karl had a few days in New York together. They got together at Steve’s rehearsal place and came up with some stuff over there. “Bastard’s Bash” is a song where I had the melody and the music. That is one song where I must have had five to seven different lyrics and titles for it. I was never happy with it, so when we were in studio, we recorded the basic track. I hadn’t sung it yet and I said to Steve, “I’m kind of stuck with this one, so feel free to help if you have any ideas.” A couple of days later, I heard him sing some lyrics upstairs where he was doing a demo and trying things. I heard him and thought, “Oh! I think he’s got something now!” We finished the lyrics together that day in the studio just before I sang it. That is how that came about.
This time, when we went into the studio, we recorded the whole thing in less than three weeks. We had a producer, Chips Kiesbye, who plays in a band called Sator in Sweden. They are a good band and they have the same generation of musical tastes as us. We wanted an extra pair of ears and perspective on the whole thing. We have all produced ourselves and we all could produce an album by ourselves but we wanted to have an outside perspective. Also, he was very reasonably priced! These days, you don’t want to pay some big name tens of thousands of dollars just to have them sit there and say, “Yeah. It sounds good.” [laughs] That was part of the process and how it all came about. I am really happy with the way it all turned out. There is also the Dee Dee Ramone song. In the 10 years I lived in New York, there was a time in the early ‘90s where I hung out with Dee Dee quite a lot. He had left The Ramones and was offering all of these songs to me. I still have two audio tapes with Dee Dee’s demoes. I had his handwritten lyrics for this song, “Under The Northern Lights.” That song he especially wanted me to do. [Michael switches into his best Dee Dee Ramone impression] “Hey, Michael. You’re from Finland, right? Hey man, I think you ought to do this song, man. I’ve got some outstanding material, man!” [laughs] I loved the way he talked! He was such a character! Anyway, I was Finnish and the song had a line that reads, “Under gray Finnish skies, frozen, like her ice cold eyes that say no … ” It was kind of cool! I never had a demo of that but I remember him playing it on the acoustic guitar. Over the years I have thought about doing it and I knew that one day I was going to record the song and put it out for real. Almost 25 years later, it came time for it to be done! The guys and I rehearsed it and rearranged it and made that version. Then we got in touch with Dee Dee’s widow, Barbara, and the guy who is taking care of his estate. We made sure we had permission. They didn’t even know about this song. No one knew about this song because Dee Dee really meant it for me. They were very happy when they heard our version and thought it was a cool way to keep Dee Dee’s name alive. We even have in the credits of the album a line that says, “If you are interested in finding out more about Dee Dee Ramone, check out www.deedeeramone.com.”
You certainly show no signs of slowing down. Where do you see yourself headed in the future?
I have never really planned anything in my life to be honest! Well, not to be honest, I am always honest! [laughs] To tell you the truth, it really is that way. I have never planned anything. It is the same with this album but it still has a theme that appeared. There seems to be a punky London theme with this album that came about inadvertently. We never planned it. We have a song called “Old King’s Road,” which is about King’s Road in the old days and today. Then we have “Dead Hearts On Denmark Street,” which is about the whole entire block they demolished in London. Denmark Street was where all the guitar stores where. A legendary place! Now, that whole neighborhood looks entirely different and not at all like it was when we were younger. That is part of the magical chemistry. It is kind of like a higher force guiding this band. For example, there is a line in “Dead Hearts On Denmark Street” that says, “Walking in Westbourne Park like Dee Dee Ramone.” It mentions Dee Dee in that song but that was before we decided to do the Dee Dee song on the album. It had nothing to do with the fact we were doing a never before recorded or released Dee Dee Ramone written song, which was a great honor. It just so happened that his name was mentioned in another song. Things just fall into place by themselves and I believe it is divine guidance or whatever. Call it what you will! In terms of the future, I don’t plan anything. I just try to get better at what I do.
There is always room for improvement and, like I said, it keeps me hungry. Every show I do, there is always something afterwards where I think, “It was great but this could have been better. How do you feel guys? What do you think? I think we could do this better.” You will never be good enough but you strive for greatness, even though you may never achieve it. Let’s say we are all perfectly flawed and always will be! That is rock ‘n’ roll! As you said, I think we have certainly improved over the last three albums. We certainly have not gotten worse. It is hard to compare them because, to me, the past three albums are some of the best stuff I have done in my entire career, as well as “Not Faking It” and “The Demos in 23” album. Those are other favorites of my solo career. I would like to think I am improving and getting better at what I do! That is what I want to keep doing! That is my future plan!
You have had an amazing career. I am surprised we haven’t seen a full book on your life and times here in the States. Any plans there?
As a matter of fact, there are two books. There is a guy in Finland who had never written a book in his life but he worked for a magazine. He wrote a book about Hanoi Rocks in 2009. It came out in Finland and that is the only real book about Hanoi Rocks. I was involved in the process and so was Andy McCoy. Everybody was interviewed but Sami wasn’t a part of it at that time. It was everyone else from managers and the people involved. There were a lot of comments from Ian Hunter to Slash to Duff McKagan to Bob Ezrin and everyone else who was involved in one way or another. It is a great book. Finally, we are getting it translated with the guy who wrote the book. He had a guy start translating it about a year ago. Now, there is a company in The United States, Cleopatra Records, who looks like they are going to be releasing it now. That is a great start! The same guy convinced me to do an autobiography, which is much longer, where Hanoi Rocks is just the second chapter in that book.
I really was skeptical about getting into all of that because you have to tell everything. With the Hanoi book, I could keep my distance a little bit, even though I did open up about a lot of stuff. I didn’t have to be totally open and tell everything. With my own book, I had to be completely honest and not leave anything untold. Everything had to be out in the open. The most concern I had was for fans. I have done some pretty crazy things in my life and I had to experiment to see what this or that was about. With things like drugs, I was never really self-destructive but I wanted to experience it and expand my horizons until I saw what I needed to. I had my periods with different things like acid for example, until I had one trip where I had an out of body experience. I was talking to my guardian angel, God or whatever you might call it and I went all the way to the other side. I thought, “Ah, this is what I needed to see. Now, if I am still alive after this, if I come back into my body, no more acid necessary.” It was a learning experience for your soul. I believe we are here to evolve and learn about things. It is all OK as long as you don’t get hooked or stuck on anything. My concern was that there is always going to be some kid out there who says, “Michael Monroe did this, so it’s going to be cool.” I have a very to the point introduction in the book where I really make it clear that I really don’t think all this crazy stuff, partying and being self-destructive behavior is cool. I don’t want anyone to think it is admirable to get wasted, party and screw around with groupies. You know, I have never been with a groupie in my life and I could never imagine spending an intimate night with some complete strangers and never seeing them again. God forbid should they have my baby somewhere! [laughs] It is a very different autobiography compared to most rock autobiographies about bands. It is very unusual because at first I thought I didn’t have that much to say. Then I thought about it for awhile and said, “Wait a minute. I do have some great stories and I have been in a very unique position in life and the rock world.”
I lived in New York for 10 years across the street from The Hells Angels. Little Steven Van Zandt was a dear friend for many years and still is to this day. There was a time when I was good buddies with The Hells Angels! My debut solo gig in America was the Hell’s Angels Block Party on the 4th of July in 1987. They blocked off the whole street and it was great! They had the American Flag hanging above the stage, along with the Hells Angels New York City logo. I played a set with my band there. There was also a time were Little Steven was playing a set at The Ritz in New York and the Angels vice president was downstairs at the bar with another guy. They said, “Hey Mike! You aren’t going to leave without having a drink with us, right?” I said, “Yeah, well, twist my arm!” [laughs] He said, [slipping into a gruff biker impression] “You want a beer, man? It’s ice cold, man!” Anyway, I asked him what he was doing there. He was a big guy and a big Bruce Springsteen fan. Bruce had come up to do a duet with Little Steven, a song called “Native American” from the “Freedom — No Compromise” album from Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul. He knew that Bruce was going to be leaving that way and said he just wanted to be there when Bruce walked by. I knew Bruce through Steven. He had introduced me to him at the “Sun City” project. I knew Bruce enough to say, “Hey, would you say hello to my friend here?” So, I introduced Bruce to the vice president of The Hells Angels. Bruce is so nice he talked to the guy for almost an hour! After that, it was like, “Hey Mike! Anything you need, just stick your head out the window and ask!” Situations like that were perfect for the book.
Another story is when I had Steven Tyler call me out of the blue. I had never met him. I had always loved him. My sound guy, Night Bob, used to be the sound guy for Aerosmith back in the early years. He had run into Steven after not having seen him for a long time. Steven asked him what he had been doing and he said, “I was just in Japan with Michael Monroe.” Steven said, “Oh, I love that guy! Give me his phone number!” One day, I came back home and I listened to my answering machine. Steven Tyler’s voice comes on and says, “Hey Michael. Steven Tyler! Just wanted to pass on some stuff!” Bob called me later and said, “Hey man. I ran into Steven and I am sorry but I gave him your phone number. Sorry I didn’t ask you ahead of time but I thought it was OK.” I said, “Yeah, well, I guess it’s OK. I don’t mind!” [laughs] I wondered what he wanted and it was so cool that he called me. He called me back. They were going to be doing a cool blues set for a half an hour at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City for Les Paul’s 75th birthday party. They presented him with a cake shaped like a Sunburst Les Paul. Steven called to ask me to play saxophone on one song, “Big Ten Inch Record,” the R&B kind of song from “Toys In The Attic.” I said, “Oh, yeah! Absolutely!” That was a nice feather in my cap, jamming with Aerosmith at Les Paul’s 75th birthday! Things like that I felt were interesting stories for people.
The autobiography is really nice and features pictures all the way through. I have a lot of pictures I have saved over the years and there are two big color spreads. There is also a cool cartoon character that a Japanese cartoonist draws. She draws the best Michael Monroe cartoon character and I have always loved her drawings. Her name is Atsuko Oshima and she used to draw for “Viva Rock” magazine in Japan. I put my cartoon character here and there on the pages because I kind of look at myself as a cartoon character at times! [laughs] That is the next step. Once we get this Hanoi Rocks book out in the world, the next mission is to get the Michael Monroe autobiography translated and released in the world, so people can hear my story too!
Before I let you go, I have one last question. What is the best lesson we can take away from the life and times of Michael Monroe so far?
The best lesson is that you can’t take away anything from me! What I have is something no one can take away from me and that is my integrity! That is what everyone should have! [laughs] Stay true to yourself, make no compromises and you will have no regrets. It’s all about integrity! You will sleep good at night and have a clear conscious because you know you haven’t sold your soul or taken the easy road. It may not always be easy but it is worth it! Stick to your guns, stay true to yourself and don’t let anyone bullshit you or tell you any different. You know best. Follow your heart and be honest with yourself. It is worth it! I can tell you that from experience!
Michael, you are truly an inspiration! Thanks for your time today, my friend!
Thank you, Jason! Take care! See you soon!
Michael Monroe will release ‘Blackout States’ on October 9 via Spinefarm Records. For the latest information on Michael Monroe, visit his official site at www.michaelmonroe.com. Connect with him on social media via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.