Michael Des Barres’ is a man who has lived a thousand lifetimes and whose bio is more riveting than the script for any highly sought after Hollywood script. “What is the connection between Sidney Poitier and Iggy Pop? Whose first gig fronting A Very Big Band immediately became the most watched TV music event of all time? Who stole Jimmy Page’s girlfriend, then married her and inspired the best and most read groupie bio in history? Who appeared naked on the London stage in the 1960’s and then immediately formed a band that helped kick start the glam rock movement? Who is supposedly un-cool enough to be a Marquis by birth but subsequently cool enough to have lived with Don Johnson (during his “Miami Vice” phase) as well as Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, who he also boasted as a band-mate? Who appeared as a maitre d’ in the penultimate episode of “Frasier” and also appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in the 1989 movie ‘Pink Cadillac?’ And who wrote and recorded a song called “Obsession” in 1983, subsequently recorded by Animotion two years later and ended up selling millions of copies and becoming a worldwide hit? It’s time to let the cat out of the bag – and that cat is Michael Des Barres.” Now that we have you throughly intrigued, here are just a few of the particulars…
Michael Des Barres roller coaster ride to rock ’n’ roll glory begins innocently enough. This Sussex-born boy’s first foray into film in 1967 landed him alongside Sidney Poitier for the film “To Sir With Love” in which he played an East End pupil who always wore dark sunglasses. After further acting success was found in “The Dirtiest Show In Town,” he officially abandoned acting in 1972 and decided to follow his rock ’n’ roll dreams by forming the musical powerhouse known as Silverhead. Success was short-lived as in 1974, Des Barres disbanded the group after two well-received albums and subsequent tours of the USA, Europe and Japan and moved to Los Angeles (with $200 and a hairdryer) where he was met at the airport by a girl who would turn out to be the future Pamela Des Barres. Pamela was dating Jimmy Page at the time but the two soon fell in love and Des Barres managed to remain friends with Page who subsequently signed Michael’s new band, Detective, to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. By the time 1978 came along, Michael had radically altered his view on rock music after witnessing an extraordinary Sex Pistols’ gig in San Francisco and split Detective up to later sign a solo deal with Dreamland Records in 1980. Des Barres co-wrote and recorded “Obsession” in 1983 which was covered by Animotion two years later, becoming a multi-million-selling worldwide hit. The late ‘80s saw Des Barres head back into acting with roles starring opposite Clint Eastwood in “Pink Cadillac” and he continued to take lead film roles in Midnight Cabaret, Under Siege, Poison Ivy, The New Seduction and Sugar Town along with playing the master assassin and master of disguise Murdoc in TV series “MacGyver.” Des Barres’ more recent forays into the public arena have seen him return to his true love—rock music—and included stints with The Usual Suspects (featuring Steve Jones and Mick Rossi), Down Boy (featuring Paul McCartney’s guitarist Brian Ray) and a 10-piece soul band called Michael Des Barres and Free Love Foundation. In 2012, Des Barres released two albums: a studio record called Carnaby Street and a live album called Hot n Sticky Live, recorded at Los Angeles’ Viper Room.
In 2015, Michael Des Barres shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he has unleashed the most powerful and highly spirited project of his career — ‘The Key To The Universe.’ The album, debuting on April 7th 2015 on FOD Records, is produced by Robert Rose. Rose, a legendary man in his own right, has worked on albums by Julian Lennon, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Des Barres 1986 album “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Recorded at Forum Music Village in Rome, ‘The Key To The Universe’ is a pure and unadulterated does of authentic rock ’n’ roll delivered at the time the genre needs it most. It only takes one listen to know Michael Des Barres firing on all cylinders. This robust album once more reunites Des Barres with Nigel Harrison–former bassist of Blondie and Silverhead–on bass and guitar in addition to showcasing the talents of Clive Deamer (Portishead, Robert Plant) on drums and the ace Dani Robinson on guitar. The album is a return to down and dirty rock music with heavy guitars and unflinching lyrics about life lived to the fullest. Simply put; ‘Key To The Universe’ is a must hear album for all fans who crave music with an edge and unbridled honesty.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the opportunity to sit down with the charismatic Michael Des Barres to discuss his incredible life in the spotlight, the blood sweat and tears poured into his spirited new album, the challenges involved and the lessons he learned along the way.
Thank you for taking time out to talk with us today, Michael. I have been listening to the album and it is a terrific piece of work!
Thank you, Jason. I am so grateful for people who dig it. It was really a lust and love and we are very proud of it!
I wanted to start by touching on something you mentioned on Facebook recently. You said 59 of your 67 years have been spent in show business. What drew you to that world early on?
You know, I have no idea. My mother was a singer but she was also a schizophrenic who was in and out of institutions for most of my childhood. There was a certain drama to that in a mad way! [laughs] My life has been a series of mad moments, unconventional moments and bizarre moments. I think as a protection, I created this guy who made people laugh or titillate people or provoke people. It just became my job. I sought out an agent when I was very young and found one when I was 8 years old and I started to do commercials. I did these little commercials and it just grew and grew into what it is today, which is just one big commercial! [laughs]
Is there any secret to your longevity? Any keys you can share?
Yes! Yes, there is a secret and a key to it and that is passion! It is commitment and discipline! I don’t know any other way of living to be an artist. I know that could sound pretentious but it happens to be true. I am not interested in anything else. I am interested in creating stuff and trying to move us towards a free and liberated place psychologically, metaphysically and sexually with equal rights and community. I suppose the difference with me as a junkie and today is I lived my earlier life for me in an ambitious and amoral way. When I got off heroin, coke and all of that bullocks, I changed. I started thinking, “Wow! There are other people walking around with skulls and hearts that I must recognize!” [laughs] I also realized I had to recognize myself in them. Hence this record! Everything really has come to some sort of conclusion here with this album without sounding pretentious.
What made now the time to do this album? Was there a catalyst that made getting back into the studio a must for you?
I don’t know if you know much about me but I am an actor. I have been killing people on American television for many years. I got kind of satiated by that. I went to Japan with Silverhead, my first band, and we played. Nigel Harrison (Blondie, Silverhead) was there and I sort of had an epiphany. I looked over and I said, “I love this guy. I have loved the guys in this band since we were teenagers.” You know, since back in the 14th century! [laughs] Ironically, my life being what it is, the phone rang and it was Bob Rose in Rome. He said, “Come to Rome! Let’s make a rock record with Nigel and Clive Deamer from Robert Plant’s band and Radiohead, Dani Robinson on guitar.” Incredible! We do a guitar, bass, drums record and now here we are! It is just a matter of the phone ringing at the right time, which has really been the story of my life or the story of your life! Things just happen when they are meant to and you have to be open and ready for it! That is all!
For both fans of your previous work and those who may just be discovering you, what can we expect this time around? Was there a particular spirit or feeling you wanted to capture?
I think you will feel everything that you ever possibly wanted to feel below the waist!
I have to be honest, I have never heard a better endorsement for a record!
Were there any particular goals or expectations for this album? Was there anything you hoped to accomplish as an artist?
That is a great question, Jason. Here is my answer. I don’t have expectations anymore. I enjoy the moment. Writing and singing it with these guys is the prize. The process was the reward. The outcome, I stay away from all of that because really, when you think about it and you know this as a writer, you write for yourself. You write about what you love and what you know. If people agree with you, great! If not, fuck them! [laughs] I feel the same way about music. I don’t mean “fuck them” in an aggressive sense. I just mean it doesn’t matter. What matters is, “Am I getting off? Does the woman I love dig it? Does my son dig it? Do my friends dig it?” Really, everything is gravy. What has happened with this one is that everybody loves it! It is a great album! It is a great rock ‘n’ roll album! I have never said that about anything I have ever done. I would highly recommend everybody go out and listen to it, steal it if you will, but listen to it! It is a diminishing art form and I don’t think there are many people even capable of playing that type of music anymore. It has some swagger to it but it is loving and ironic. I think there are very few people working in that area.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process? Has it changed much through the years?
No because, if you look at it from 1972 to 2015, I have only written three chord rock ‘n’ roll songs. There is so much there. Having done Little Steven’s show for the last year, I have been playing other music and it really consolidated what I began with which was Muddy Waters, Elvis and Little Richard and all of that. The blues based roots of rock ‘n’ roll have never changed. Even when I was in The Power Station. Remember, they had one album. They had 40 minutes of music and we played for two hours up there. We did a lot of my songs and that was incredible! If you look at all of the specifics of how I have written and what I have written, it has been very consistent.
What challenges did you face with this record? Were there hurdles you had to overcome in the creative sense you found really rewarding?
Love your questions! [laughs] Yeah! Of course! The main challenge or hurdle for me, as you put it, for me was that I wanted to sing with no affectation. I know you understand what I am talking about. I didn’t want to assume a persona through which to sing. So often you hear, whether it is Chris Robinson, the guy in Rival Sons or Adam Levine, and it is like wearing your inspirations very clearly on your sleeve. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to sing like I sing. Sometimes you get into the vibe where I want to sound like Sam Cooke or Terry Reid or this one or that one. In the R&B field, they often want to sound like Michael Jackson in the falsetto or Sam Cooke and that world. I just wanted to sing like me! Bob Rose, as the project progressed and the band started to coalesce, it became very clear that all I had to do was not think about it but just sing it. Bob would say, “Just sing the song. There is nothing extraneous or necessary.” So, the biggest challenge for me was not pretending and not assuming the characteristic of the singers and influences of the past.
You have a solid band behind you on this project. You worked with many of the players in the past. What did they bring out in you as an artist?
Authenticity. For example, Clive Deamer as a drummer is one of the greats. I have worked with Clem Burke, Tony Thompson and I have sung with John Bonham. I have played with the greatest drummers in rock ‘n’ roll, you know. Clive Deamer is very much part of that rarified atmosphere in that he is incapable of playing something that he doesn’t really feel. He is a master technic but he lets all of that go. That in itself, to a singer, to sit on that groove and sing and not try to push the drummer or direct traffic is very rare. I was just on that motorway with these cars and we were weaving in and out of the traffic together! I have never used that metaphor before! [laughs] It was a beautiful ride and it brought out the best in me is what I would say!
What is the biggest thing you learned about yourself from bringing this album to life?
That I can sing really good! [laughs] It just feels really real to me. When I say that, I am cavalier but so what?! [laughs] I have been through everything. I have been playing music for 50 fucking years! [laughs] I know when I am doing something right!
With all of those years of experience under your belt, what do you find most intriguing and inspiring about moving forward as an artist?
There are two different answers to that question. One is from the side of the artist that wants his music to heard. The main thing I have learned is that you need infrastructure in order to get your music across. The most important thing to me about music as an artist is playing live. Live rock ‘n’ roll music! That is the most important thing to me and where I think it all coalesces. With new technology, in terms of making music, I am not interested in auto-tuning or any of that stuff. This album was made analog. I think being in a room with those three guys, four including Bob Rose, was the most important thing. You know full well, covering rock ‘n’ roll, that the best rock ‘n’ roll is from when they are in the room looking at each other, grooving on each other and loving what they are hearing. It inspires everyone to greater heights. You can’t do that with overdub! It is not possible! There are people who can execute it brilliantly but I am not that guy. I’m not putting it down but I am just telling you what I feel it is all about. To me, it is guitar, bass, drums and voice — pure and simple! You can’t diversify and categorize that and put guys behind baffles and hide them. Thats is not my thing at all.
However, I do believe in the importance of technology in rock ‘n’ roll in terms of social media. I love social media! I love to reach out and connect with people. I have a terrific collection of people who follow me! [laughs] It is a really positive thing! People get to know you. If they get to know you, then they will want to know what you are up too. I adore these people and consider them friends. Social media is redefining what friendship is, friendship in cyberspace especially. They want to know what you are up to.
The lyrics on this album are true and real. I am not assuming some character and saying, “I was born in a crossfire hurricane.” I wasn’t born in a crossfire hurricane. I was born in a light shower in London, which is not the greatest opening line of a song! [laughs] You get my point, I hope.
Absolutely. It is so interesting because we are only getting the tip of the iceberg today with the stories and lessons you learned in your life. Do you have any interest in doing an autobiography at some point?
I think so. I mean, I have kept journals quite consistently throughout the years. What has happened to me lately, in the last five to 10 years, is that I have been writing. Not so much, “I was born a young black child in South Africa … ” or “I did drugs and now I am off drugs and now I work with rescue animals” or whatever these bios are about, which are pretty hideous and boring for the most part. Dylan’s book was great because it was not chronological and it was pretty associative. I think any book that I write will not be on any particular trajectory but it will be more of a feeling than a history.
Are you excited to get out there and tour on this album?
I can’t wait, Jason! I can’t wait to play live! It is everything to me! It is my favorite thing, microphones, sweating, dancing, grooving and looking in their faces as they are looking in my face. As I am fond of saying, “I’m not making a speech, we’re having a conversation!” [laughs] It is a beautiful thing to see when you look at them and see people enjoying themselves. It is the best feeling in the world and makes cocaine look like Advil! [laughs] You are going to lose your mind when you hear this record live. You are a rock ‘n’ roll guy and you are going to lose your mind. I don’t just do the album, you know. I do Humble Pie songs and other songs from the past you will not believe. It is so rockin’! It is a pretty devastating hour and a half! I can’t wait to do it, so please come and see us when we are playing!
Well said! Michael, when you picked up that microphone or stepped into the spotlight all those years ago, did you have any inkling it would lead you down the roads it has?
That is a great question but one I can answer in a thousand ways. Yes and no. I have always felt very, very positive about myself, especially when I make mistakes. You see, when you make a mistake and you don’t fall apart, that is as good as an Academy Award. If people could only understand that you can take anything and you learn from the accident, especially in rock ‘n’ roll, where accidents are incredibly commercial! [laughs] You can slip into a chorus by mistake and it ends up being the best thing on the record! Long, long ago, I gave up the idea of, “Gosh, I have been here a long time in the spotlight … ” I guess the longevity of it all surpasses the idea of thinking about why I am here and what it all means. I am just here!
We are certainly thankful for that, Michael! Thank you for your time today and I can’t wait to help spread the word on this incredibly spirited record!
Thank you so much, Jason! Have a beautiful day, man!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.