30 Days Out Interview: Michael Des Barres
If you are truly known by the company you keep, then Michael Des Barres is most certainly the real deal.
He’s a rocker first and foremost, one who counts among his friends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, as well as former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. Surrounding himself with players who share his authenticity and love for music that hits below the belt, Michael Des Barres and his band deliver a potent shot of rock and roll on the new album Carnaby Street.
Des Barres is perhaps best known as the touring singer for The Power Station, a 1980s supergroup with players from Duran Duran and Chic. Des Barres has also played with the 1970s band Detective (featuring ex-Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye) and British rockers Silverhead.
“For me, the best rock is below-the-waist music,” says Des Barres. “Plain and simple, rock and roll is a synonym for fucking. It’s not a synonym for meditation … it has to get your body moving and your fluids flowing.”
He says he reached deep into his soul for the songs on Carnaby Street. The album is a passionate, profound testament to the power of rock and roll, played in the classic style of British rockers Humble Pie, the Pretty Things and that band with Page-Plant.
The mission statement of Carnaby Street is its title track, where Des Barres remembers growing up as “Oscar Wilde in velvet jeans” and discovering rock and roll in a time when “the Union Jack was in the hands of the Who.”
“I went to school with Mitch Mitchell, and he said ‘I’m playing in a band with this black bloke, come ‘round and see us at the Marquee Club,’” recalls Des Barres. “So it’s 1967, I walk into this club and see Jimi Hendrix. It really blew my mind!
“So today, that feeling has never left me. The same music still moves me, and gets me to moving.”
The songs came when Des Barres was experiencing what he calls “some metaphysical changes, without trying to sound too pompous.” On one of his frequent jaunts to Austin, Texas, Des Barres picked up an acoustic guitar and started to write lyrics and poetry that articulated his new outlook on life.
“I had come to the realization that my life has always been about rock and roll,” he says. “That’s always been my great love.”
So he hooked up with Beaumont’s Jesse Dayton, a mainstay of the Austin music scene and a potent rocker in his own right. Together they wrote the songs that populate Carnaby Street.
As a result, the album begins on the streets of swingin’ London but eventually finds its way to the heart of the Lone Star state. “Hot and Sticky” has a down-South sexiness that Des Barres says embodies the humid sensuality of Texas.
“I love Austin and I spend a lot of time there. I have some beautiful friends living there and when the album was in its formative stage I was fortunate to be around those authentic, great Texas musicians who helped inspire me,” Des Barres says.
In fact, we met Michael Des Barres in Austin once – strangely enough, at a Best Buy store. Former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones appeared during SXSW 2009 for an in-store promotion, and Des Barres tagged along with his old friend.
With Jonesy on guitar, the appearance spontaneously turned into a punk rock karaoke session. Des Barres took the mic to sing “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the place rocked out. Even Des Barres’ ex-wife Pamela, (in)famous as the greatest rock groupie ever, materialized to dance along.
“I remember that … it was small, intimate and completely improvised, which is how good rock and roll should be played,” says Des Barres.
So, Des Barres carried the rock and roll flame that was stoked in Texas back to his Los Angeles home base. He huddled with his friend Paul Ill, a virtuoso bassist, and assembled a powerful band of rock players to flesh out the songs.
“Five guys in one room, we played one song and that was it: a single, grand brush stroke,” recalls Des Barres. “We immediately realized what we had. We knew we are more into Little Richard than into Lil’ Wayne.”
The band of rock veterans includes Paul Ill (who’s also played with Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera), guitarist Eric Schermerhorn (The The, David Bowie’s Tin Machine, Iggy Pop), keyboardist Jebrin Bruni and drummer David Goodstein (Nil Iara, Jackson Browne, Edgar Winter).
“We get a huge charge in playing music that gets people off,” Des Barres explains. “When we played Coachella, I looked out over an audience of 50,000 people and it seemed like at least half were wearing Led Zeppelin shirts.”
Des Barres’ point is that there is no iconic substitute for the classic rock bands who people once idolized – the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, the Doors. “Don’t get me wrong – I love the Alabama Shakes, and Jack White … they’re tremendous. But it’s all inevitably a pastiche of what’s happened before.”
As he wins over 25-year-old listeners with his aimed-for-the-balls rock sound, Des Barres chuckles at the irony that these listeners believe they are hearing something new. “And it is new to them … hearing ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by a band that can play it is a true novelty these days.”
So the next step for the Michael Des Barres Band is to get on the road and take the music to the people.
For Des Barres, that will mean putting aside a prolific acting career – over the past 25 years he’s appeared on such TV shows as “Seinfeld,” “Roseanne,” “Rockford Files,” “Northern Exposure” and many more. His best-known recurring character was the evil mastermind Murdoc on “MacGyver.” This fall he will be seen in a guest shot on the USA Network’s “Suits.”
He was so successful as an actor, in fact, that Des Barres got a little bored. “I was hitting my marks, I was pulling out my gun and getting shot – but not dead!” he laughs. “So I could come back in another episode!”
He loves acting, but he maintains his heart is firmly back into rock and roll, his first love. “If I get an acting gig that I like, I will still do it but if it interferes with playing with my band … sorry,” he says. “I’d much rather be in a small club in Kansas City, rather than in front of a camera in Hollywood.”
Carnaby Street web page (U.S. and U.K. sales of the new CD and DVD)
YouTube: “You’re My Pain Killer”
YouTube: “Stay With Me” (live at SXSW 2010)