FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Chats With Monkee Michael Nesmith About His Return To The Stage
March 22, 2013
In a career spanning five decades -- his first single, "Wanderin" b/w "Well, Well" was issued in 1963 -- Michael Nesmith has worn a lot of hats: singer/songwriter, country-rock icon, actor, video pioneer, film producer, book author, philanthropist and of course, the famous "wool hat" as a member of The Monkees. But in 2013, his loyal legion of fans are most excited by the hat he's currently wearing, that of a live performer. With many fans assuming he'd retired from live performing, in October and November of 2012, Nesmith surprised everyone by embarking on not one but two tours, a short solo tour of the U.K. followed by a hugely successful Monkees reunion trek with Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. Marking his first U.S. solo dates in 21 years, Nesmith and his new band just kicked off a 17-city Stateside jaunt on March 21 in Franklin, TN. Retro-Active'sKen Sharp spoke with Nesmith about his return to the stage.
In 2012, we've seen your return to the stage both as a solo artist (with a short U.K. tour) and on a tour with The Monkees. What inspired you to play live again after a long absence?
I found myself at loose ends, and with lots of options, late in 2010. So I decided to go out and play live since it had been so long and I missed it. I mentioned this decision in a Facebook post and offers came in that fit with the way I wanted to develop my playing and so tours came together quickly.
For those who'll never experience the magic of a band connecting, a feeling you've likened as "being of one mind" with each other in a live setting, can you describe the feeling like when it all comes together?
A live music performance is sui generis -- I know of no other artistic effort that produces the same results with performer and audience. There are different types of live performance events, of course -- plays, dance, stand-up. etc. -- but the performance of music carries a unique connection between the players and the listeners. The best I can describe it is as a suspension of time -- a moment that continues throughout a piece of live music that develops emotionally and holds everyone poised, rapt -- words like eternal, timeless, infinite come close, but nothing fully describes the actual experience. Music sustains this moment in a way that is satisfying and exciting -- holding everyone in the same place and time around a common feeling. It is remarkable to me that an experience like this is in such easy reach -- so close and so natural.
You have a new solo band with Boh Cooper on keyboards, Chris Scruggs on guitar, mandolin and pedal steel, Paul Leim on drums and Joe Chemay on bass. What ingredient does each member contribute to the musical stew?
The approach to pulling the band together was to explore the concept of each member taking over his "station" like the elements of an orchestra. These are exceptional players and musicians, so handing each one of them the opportunity to control all the bass elements or all the treble elements or all the rhythm elements was new for them but it allowed them to reach beyond just playing a single part. This was made possible by the new technologies and virtual instruments and so forth. When Paul tackles the rhythm section of a song he can interweave and play parts in his performance that was impossible before these new tools came along. In the hands of real musicians these virtual instruments come to life in a way that is not possible to describe in print. I find it inspiring and deep -- the boundaries of a band are pushed way beyond the usual limits and each member has the opportunity to contribute things that were simply out of reach in the past.
You're in the enviable position of being graced with a large body of quality work. What's the criteria in deciding upon what songs to include in the set? What can fans can expect from the show itself? Will the shows retain the narrative thread that was a part of your U.K. concerts?
The band itself played a big part. Few people I have talked to realize what extraordinary talents "session" musicians have. They are very different from orchestra players and concert performers and they have an ability to play music at an astonishingly high level -- flawlessly and soulfully and precisely. Giving the band members their own section to control --Treble section, etc. opened up an orchestral side and a new musicality that felt very natural for certain songs. It is extraordinary to have an ensemble of players who can render songs in almost any way possible -- to have such a range of choices of presentation. I chose the songs as they came to life in rehearsals -- the ones that took on new aspects of expression due to the expanded capabilities of the band members. The musical palate was the broadest I have ever worked with and certain songs blossomed in ways that were obvious and compelling. We only touched the top surface of my songwriting over the years. I will only do one Monkees song, "Papa Gene's Blues," as our opener. The songs we chose are from all the years after the '60s. The narrative will follow the songs and is an important part of the show.
In late 2012, to the joy and surprise of Monkee fans, you embarked on a reunion tour with Micky and Peter. What prompted you to take part in the shows? Share what was it like for you to briefly step back into the role "Monkee Mike" and revisit those songs -- a good portion, which were written by you. Also, were there any Monkees songs you particularly enjoyed revisiting?
Monkees fans have always been extremely affectionate. They are a joy to perform for and I particularly enjoyed channeling "Monkee Mike." It was a lot of fun when I was a kid -- and it has its charm for me even now. The four of us were discussing going out and playing when David died. That was a real surprise -- very unexpected -- and it seemed that if we were ever going to do it we should do it now. Each of us had his own agenda with the tour I think -- but mine was to give the fans another pass at their Monkees -- which for many was a big part of their childhood -- and to perform the songs. I enjoyed the songs from Head and really enjoyed playing "Circle Sky" again.
In 2013, what's Michael Nesmith listening to these days, who's capturing your ear?
I particularly like Mumford and Sons -- I am a fan of the way they have expanded the Folk form. The banjo has always been overlooked as an emotional instrument -- and they do a good job of integrating it. I am more interested these days in remixes and DJ's and mash ups -- I very much like the electronic and mantra-like music especially when it becomes orchestral. I like the usual pop stuff as well -- P!nk is a favorite, just because of the attitude and the way she sings. I think Bruno Mars has real talent -- and I like the college bands like Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes, although I think they will not like to be called college bands. Music is well integrated into visuals for me now and I listen closely to sound tracks. I enjoyed the soundtrack to Hugo. My continuing loves are Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Henry Mancini. The '50s were the Golden Age of the soundtrack orchestra for me.
Do you have plans for a new studio record? Can you describe the vibe/direction of the songs?
I am writing away. I am recording as well. I have never stopped writing songs. I discovered years ago that I was writing my own life -- the songs came true. Now that I am in the end game I am focusing in on those ideas that mean a lot to me: love and lasting treasures of the heart.
Michael Nesmith 2013 U.S tour dates:
March 24 Agoura Hills, CA Canyon Club March 26 Santa Cruz, CA Rio Theater March 27 San Francisco, CA Palace of Fine Arts March 29 Portland, OR Aladdin Theater March 30 Seattle, WA Neptune Theater April 3 Boulder, CO Boulder Theater April 5 St. Paul, MN Fitzgerald Theater April 6 Chicago, IL Old Town School of Folk Music April 7 Ferndale, MI The Magic Bag April 9 Munhall, PA Carnegie Music Hall of Holmstead April 11 Northhampton, MA Iron Horse April 12 Rahway, NJ Union County Performing Arts Center April 13 Somerville, MA Somerville Theater April 15 Philadelphia, PA World Café Live April 16 New York, NY Town Hall April 17 Washington, DC Birchmere