"I'm a great assassin playing Chuck Berry, and it's hilarious! We've got a great team together, and I get a shot, I've got a real shot at being the last guy standing, and to be the singer in the band, the house band at the apocalypse." ~ Michael Des BarresThe Key To The Universe is E major. It's also the title of Michael Des Barres' just released four star masterpiece of rock 'n' roll, and here is a man on a mission, spreading the word to every corner of the globe for at least three hours most days as a host on SiriusXM radio's Underground Garage, the legendary creation of "Little Steven" Van Zandt.
Des Barres' new album is the best of the veteran vocalist's career, and he's continuing on a meteoric upsurge that began a few years ago with several successful podcasts and a solo project entitled, Carnaby Street, and now finds an audience in the millions awaiting his words, thoughts, music, and more on an ever increasing level. The Key To The Universe sees Des Barres reunited with bassist Nigel Harrison (Silvered, Blondie) and producer Bob Rose (who collaborated with the singer on his vastly underrated, Somebody Up There Likes Me in 1986), but just as importantly sees new arrivals to the Des Barres camp in guitar whiz Dani Robinson, and drummer to the stars Clive Deamer (Robert Plant, Portishead, Radiohead) who contribute brilliantly to this album. This sounds like a band, and evidently they'll be hitting the road to prove just that.
I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Des Barres as he was completing work on the band's first video and prepping for the album's release, and one does not pass up a chance to speak directly with Michael Des Barres - it's like walking into the Church of British Rock Royalty and getting a sermon from atop the Himalayas. Amazingly free of pre-formulated pablum, and fresh with every answer, Des Barres is the very definition of a man living in the moment to help himself and his world awaken. This is one of those interviews in which somewhere along the way it became very apparent why I interview people - sometimes you come across an example of the breed that teaches, excites, inspires, and entertains us along the way if we will only listen!
One begins such things with greetings and pleasantries, and it's always a joy to speak with someone who has no walls set up around him, and a healthy curiosity of other human beings:
Michael Des Barres: "I'm terrific, man. How lovely to talk with you again, how are you, Tony? Is your family good? You should come visit me and my crew sometime soon."
I brought the meeting to order by asking Michael to tell me what someone can expect from The Key To The Universe:
Michael Des Barres: "A punch in the face.
"A punch in the face with a great deal of affection. One of the songs on the album is called "I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face", which is very important because I think that we're in a coma. I think the country is in a coma of fear and repetition, and we need to be woken up. And the only thing that's going to wake us up is the notion of love and compassion for everybody around us, and if we don't have that, we're fucked.
"I mean, we can't go to Syria and solve their problems, but we can play music and get on another frequency, and that's what the album is about. The Key To The Universe sounds glib, and it is glib - I could say, people have asked me, 'What is the key to the universe', and I've said, 'E major!'
"But, I've also said, love your community and support it, be there for your friends and your family because without that little pebble that you throw in that lake of tranquility, there won't be any tranquility, because you have to take care of those around you.
"Now this record, to me, is the most important record I've ever made, and for many reasons. The most important is that I had the most fun making it.
"I was flown to Rome to work with my old friend Nigel Harrison, and my old producer Bob Rose. Clive Deamer on drums from Robert Plant's band and Radiohead, and Dani Robinson on guitar - the best new guitarist I've ever heard. It's a guitar, bass, drums rock 'n' roll record, and it was made in a studio that was built for an orchestra, and Morricone to do all those spaghetti western scores, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, so on and so forth - a massive room with guitar, bass, and drums, just like in the old days.
"We made it looking in each others' eyes in this beautiful city, in this timeless place, and I am so excited about people hearing this. Carnaby Street was the opening act, this is the headliner."
I was curious as to how a figure so immersed (at least seemingly) in the culture of Los Angeles came to record his new album with a decidedly non-angeleno cast in an exotic locale:
Michael Des Barres: "I think when you say I'm immersed in LA culture, you know, I'm immersed in entertainment, and the idea that I live where I can express myself best.
"I am really very oppositional to what Hollywood stands for, I'm from the Iggy Pop school of life. I don't subscribe to the rules and regulations, and never have. And when you say I'm immersed in this lifestyle, what has happened is that I've been immersed in movies, and television, and making music - now, if I could do that in the foothills of Lake Tahoe, believe you me, I would, and in my head? I am.
"But, my body has to be in the gym and then on the set by 5 a.m., so that would be a hell of a commute!
"But, the short answer to your question is, Bob Rose, who produced this record, produced a record of mine years ago, right after The Power Station, called Somebody Up There Likes Me. On that record with me were The Tower Of Power Horns, Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols, Andy Taylor of Duran, and Jim Keltner on drums, Nigel on bass, so we go back a long way. An incredible band. He (Rose) had went to Italy and was tremendously successful in recording Italian and European rock bands, and Julian Lennon.
"He called me out of the blue this summer, and he said, 'Michael, I have the resources to make the record I've always wanted to make with you, and that is a balls to the wall record - would you like to come to Rome and do that?"
"And I said, "Uh....yeah." I said I would love to, especially with Nigel, and I went there armed with twenty sets of lyrics perhaps, no music, one song I had written for the album, and we created it in the studio.
"You know, I did Linda Perry's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head', which she wrote, it's our first single, and I just finished the video for that with David Russeau, who is a brilliant five time VMA (Video Music Awards) nominee, a very accomplished director, so everybody involved was really, really committed to making as best a rock 'n' roll record as we could, and when I say rock 'n' roll, we're talking about music that beats below the waist - you know what I like, more than anybody! You've been so supportive of my trip, you know what I'm trying to do.
"I'm trying to bring the heartbeat below the waist back! I'm trying to bring rock 'n' roll back, never mind sexy! It's a diminishing breed, and I'm the last man standing, in a way, that hasn't had a face lift, hahaha!"
Talking about being immersed I asked Michael whether being so involved in the garage rock universe that is Underground Garage had informed the in your face, balls to the wall nature of The Key To The Universe:
Michael Des Barres: "You know, trust you to be so perceptive.
"Yes, it's been incredibly informed, because, you know, Tony, I know that you love music, and you support music - well, I do too! I support music.
"Not just my own, I'm talking about like albums, so like the last year we've spent with Little Steven, playing to six million people a day, music that they love, and that I love. So of course, it is going to inform what I did in Rome, and what I could boil it down to is the idea that it's the essence of it.
"I use this metaphor often - if you look at the great painters, they end up doing a few brushstrokes, and it means everything - and that's what I'm trying to do. To minimize all of the affectation, and all of the ad libbing, and all of the posturing of rock 'n' roll, and trying to sing a fucking song. And do nothing but that.
"And, have the band play the fucking song with no virtuosity, just groove. Frequency and energy that is so entertaining and provocative, and all those wonderful things about rock 'n' roll, just simplify, simplify, and that is what I've learned from the playlists that Little Steven has created over the years, and that I am privileged to be a part of.
"Never for one moment did I think I'd be asked to contribute, but now, I can't imagine a world in which I didn't play music for others - that has informed my work."
One of the best things about The Key To The Universe is the guitar playing of Dani Robinson - he comes on like the perfect combination of Hendrix, Steve Jones, and Mick Ronson, steeped in rock history, punk energy, and melody, but with an eye towards the stars, fearlessly taking song after song to the stratosphere - Des Barres is not the only preacher in this church of music and love:
Michael Des Barres: "Well, thank you, Tony - you're a guitar player, you know.
"I played it for Steve Jones, and he lost his mind. Steve Jones is one of the sharpest people I know, certainly one of the most intelligent, and he has just a genius about him, and here's the first thing he said. 'Michael, who the fuck is that guitar player?'
"And there is a reason for that. Because, this guy... we just did the video, and we've been playing between setups. Dude. When we go out live, people are going to lose their minds when they see this guy.
"He's sort of Hendrix-y, but it's like tomorrow. It's like the way that Hendrix was this futuristic blues player, and it's the same with Dani. Dani has his feet firmly planted in the blues, and he's reaching for the stars, and he is the key to the universe.
"Bob Rose found him in Prague, and had him play on Julian's album, and he said, 'OK, I think you and Michael Des Barres would be pretty good'.
"I've always needed a foil, you know?
"I had Monarch in Detective, but you've got to have a great guitar player, otherwise, you're lost. And I've found one, and as you've said, nobody's really hip to him, but the response to this record has been bigger than I have ever experienced, plus, we have international distribution, and a huge team behind it.
"People are going to know who he is, and for that reason alone, this project makes me happy."
The fact that this band will be playing shows pleases me to no end - I'm hearing too many great rock 'n' roll records of late that aren't getting the honor and pleasure of being played upon the road on stages, and for the people, so it's fantastic to hear that this record will be played live:
Michael Des Barres: "Oh, big time.
"I'm going out to do a promotional tour for the media for the next month here and in Europe - already American radio has embraced it, the Linda Perry song, and "I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face" have gone to radio, and in Europe, it's an even bigger reaction in the UK and Germany because Murdoc (His character in television's MacGyver) was really big in Europe, and now they've got this guy that kills people on the telly playing rock 'n' roll music, and they seem to be delighted with that!
"I'm a great assassin playing Chuck Berry, and it's hilarious! We've got a great team together, and I get a shot, I've got a real shot at being the last guy standing, and to be the singer in the band, the house band at the apocalypse."
So, we have this man who was a child actor (To Sir With Love) who became a rockstar (Silverhead, Detective, Checkered Past, The Power Station), who then went back to being a huge television star (MacGyver), only later to re-emerge as a very real voice of a generation as an on air communicator of all things rock, love, and compassion. What made Des Barres go to the microphone now as a quite brilliant commentator/spokesman:
Michael Des Barres: "Well, first of all, thank you so much, coming from you that means a great deal to me.
"I have a lot of energy?
"And, I'm sick to death of playing punks and rock stars on television, and killers.
"I wanted to express myself in my own words, Tony. And, the only way I could do that is on the internet. So, I started out on the internet very humbly, interviewing friends, who just happen to be famous, and I got an audience - and from that audience Steven Van Zandt's wife heard me, and recommended me to Little Steven.
"When Andrew Loog Oldham broke his leg and couldn't do the shows, Steven called me, and said, 'Michael, you know, we've been watching and listening to you on the internet, would you like to substitute for Andrew?', and I said, 'Yeah.' Because, as you said, I had done all these Roots and Branches, and things on the web, and I really loved doing it, and I did it for nothing - nobody paid me to do this, so, Steven called me up, and I said sure.
"So, I did it for six weeks, while Andrew got better, well, Andrew then decided that he didn't want to come back, and Steven asked me if I would take over the morning slot, on his Underground Garage, and it was like one of the great days of my life! I admire him so enormously, and now I have this platform that reaches so many people.
"Everyday, three hours a day, and I do it from my home, and the difference is, and why I am doing it is because I've got a chance to talk, you know how I love to talk! Now, I could talk about stuff that people are interested in, and that's music, and then I could use that to potentially talk about sex, and the psychology of our culture, and why Brian Jones was important, and why Muddy Waters has a statue in the town's square, and so on, and so on, and that's what I do.
"And it makes me happy."
And, it is here where we get to the heart of the matter. If you've come along this far, you can now congratulate yourself on making it to where it really gets good.
We've made the case in conversation for the fact that The Key To The Universe is an album that must now be heard, that there's no place better for a fire breathing advocate of rock 'n' roll such as Michael Des Barres than on Little Steven's Underground Garage, but all that is a preamble for what really counts. It's when Des Barres talks about his life, your life, our lives, and when he examines the human condition that we see what compels this man to seek the highest mountains from which to communicate, be it the air waves or via rock 'n' roll records:
Michael Des Barres: "Well, everything I say is a surprise, so therefore, I'm not only turning you on, I'm turning me on - I promise you this.
"I am just a vehicle, a vessel, if you will, on something that is going down that is way bigger than I am, and when I say this stuff that I say, and I write the stuff that I write, and the thousands of people who respond to what I'm saying and writing is in and of itself satisfying. Because, what I am underscoring, what I want to believe, and what I wish for is the things that I write about.
"Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I really do feel that way, and at other times I plug into a source that enables me to get to what people want.
"See... everybody wants to be kind - if you ask anybody to do something for you, they'll knock themselves out to do it, but nobody asks.
"Because, they don't feel they're worthy of asking. So, my mission is to make people feel good about themselves - strong enough mentally, physically, and spiritually to be able to ask for help. Therefore, they are then giving help by asking someone, who then gets self esteem from that request. Make sense?
"When you are asked to do something, you feel good about yourself. Now that ties in with my whole idea of unity - of a divine unification of us all, and that's all God is, God is the unification of our higher selves. It's not Charlton Heston! It's not some mythical figure sitting on a cloud looking complacent!
"It's our higher intelligence unified, we can still remain individuals within that paradigm.
"So, I don't know, man... It's like On The Road To Damascus, I had a flash! And I just explained it to you."
Michael Des Barres' heart is not too hard to find - he wears it on his sleeve, unafraid of getting it handled a bit. That's one of the great things about the new album. The Key To The Universe is straight up tough, rough and ready rock 'n' roll, but it's also got that rock 'n' roll heart that is always willing to love enough to get hurt. I wondered aloud if perhaps the lack of vulnerability and heart are not exactly what is missing in this age of corporate rock:
Michael Des Barres: "Yes, absolutely, utterly and completely.
"The most attractive thing to people is vulnerability, because that way, you're letting people in - I don't profess to be an arrogant man. I can be!
"But, there's another word for it, it's called confidence. If you can get up there to play in front of two million people with just twenty minutes of rehearsal, you know the story (the story of which he refers, is, of course, the tale of his coming to front the supergroup The Power Station at Live Aid in 1985, at that point the largest rock event in history)!
"That taught me a huge lesson, which is, it's not about me. It's about entertainment, it's about a conversation between you and the audience, so, in terms of vulnerability on this record? You bet!
"It's about being dumped, it's about, oh my god, "Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames" that is a terrific lyric - it's not by me, it's by Jeff Silbar, a wonderful writer, and I wanted to explore... Carnaby Street (Des Barres' 2012 solo album) was a cocksure record, I just wanted to shake my ass, and tell them what time it was on a rock 'n' roll street level, but this record goes a lot deeper than that lyrically, which you have observed, and I believe that's gone. It's all, I'm bringing back sexy, I got a big dick, I can drink more champagne than you, my cigars are the biggest cigars ever made, Lamborghini makes my cigars.
"I mean, what the fuck?
"Are we in the school yard? My dick is bigger, my God is bigger, my daddy's bigger and will beat up your daddy?
"I'm not going to play around in a playground, and get my knees muddied up in some brawl with some idiot, some judgmental fool, some racist mad man - dude, I'm here to explore the human condition, I'm not here to piss around in some absurd sandbox, unless I'm working with Brian Wilson!"
Michael Des Barres has led by any measure an interesting life, and I wrapped up our conversation with a question - What moment was the most surprising?:
Michael Des Barres: "This fucking moment, Tony.
"Right here surprises me, because I don't know what I'm going to say, I don't know what you are going to ask, but I know one thing - I know it's going to be smart and informed, and that's why I'm taking this call with you. I'm not going to talk to everyone about this stuff, I'm not going out there, and proselytizing some pre-arranged speech. Those days are over, I don't need that anymore. I've got to stay in the moment, and surprise myself, and surprise you, and the audience.
"I think "Yesterday's Casanova" is a song that I think sets the direction I'm going in, I'm going to get really heavy with this stuff, and live, it's going to be The Who, it's going to be very powerful live, and Tony, I'd love for you to see it - the record is the best record I've ever made, but live, I think it's really going to move people.
"I've never been in a room with people that were so good, and really focused, and that's what happened. Written and recorded in five weeks - it's not how fast you do something, it's how committed you are.
"When you have a producer like Bob Rose, and a band like this, magic happens, and we got lucky - I'm so happy, and so grateful, and so delighted to talk with you, Tony, thank you for talking with me. Give my best to your family, and we'll see you in LA."Class dismissed. I'd have paid to have done this one.