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Progressive Rock Interviews

Kurt Michaels

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Kurt Michaels 2007
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

It's always interesting to see what artists think about their music. How would you describe it?
I think as an artist, my goal has been to find a way to express myself in a way that is as true to my nature as possible, while simultaneouly making it easy for people to tell me apart from the next guy.

Going through the musical experience of playing about 2000 gigs in night clubs and bars, followed by another 2000 weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events and oldie shows with acts from the 1950s created this huge desire in me to find a way to make music that wasn't about selling alcohol, making people "get up and boogey" or selling some kind of dopey corporate message, etc., etc., etc. - music that was more representative of who I was. Finally at age 48, in the process of learning how to digitally edit my wedding band demos, I stumbled into this other creative world that seemed to give me permission to start making up my own musical rules. Six months later I released my first CD.

Currently in my live shows, I play guitar and work with keyboard accompaniment, and improvising musical soundscapes in more or less a prog/ambient fashion. That's not to say that I won't get back to playing within more structured forms in the future, but a big part of the buzz for this creative energy I've ressurected in myself comes from the fact that I've given myself permission to get up on a stage and randomly draw from my lifetime of musical experiences. Rather than recreate art I've already done, I let people see the art being created right in front of them. I do it because I can, and quite frankly it's a lot of fun.

When people ask me to describe it, I conceptualize by saying that it probably best resembles a surreal movie musical score in search of a movie.
MSJ: Your new CD differs quite a bit from the one that came before it. Can you give us a bit of a rundown on the reasons for that and the process involved in creating the discs?
Outer Worlds is a collection of live performances I've archived over the last three years, and indeed I am back to being a guitar player on this recording. Where Inner Worlds part one was sort of a "Photoshopped" together solo performance by me on a computer, Outer Worlds features 100% real time musical performances with other musicians accompanying me on each of the tracks.

While making these two CDs was an "apples and orange" experience, what the two have in common is my ears and my harmonic sensibilities and judgements. The first CD, Inner Worlds part one was a project that sprung out of my attempt to learn all these various audio software applications so that I could take responsibility for learning how to digitally edit my wedding band demos. Once I was up and running with that, I couldn't help but start experimenting and asking myself "What would it sound like if I did this...." and the next thing I knew I was on fire with all this creative energy, and at a relatively late stage in my life, finally got around to making a record, seeing the project through from start to finish without any outside influences or commercial considerations.

As a musician that had spent virtually his entire career with a guitar in his hands, it was a curious thing to people who knew me that what finally motivated me to make a record was 85% dominated by keyboard work and my ability to manipulate and program music with these various software applications. Only 15 % involved real-time guitar playing. I didn't question it, because I was so deliriously happy just to be making music in a purely creative mode. It didn't matter that I wasn't performing it on the instrument with which I am most facile.

Inner Worlds was received pretty well and got me into the game as an artist. Soon after releasing it, it became a priority to be able to go out and play shows to promote it. What I discovered immediately was that I had no desire whatsoever to get in front of people pushing buttons and triggering samples. That's what it would have been to recreate most of Inner Worlds, with very little real time playing going on. At that point it became my mission to figure out a way to get back to playing my guitar and creating live music in real time while capturing the spirit of what I created with Inner Worlds.

It took me about 6 months to conceive and piece together a way to go about this, and sort of resembled some of the stuff Robert Fripp was doing with his one-man Frippertronics show. I found, though, that while initially it was interesting, that it wasn't satisfying enough to me to interact with myself all the time. At that point my dilemma became finding suitable musicians to help me out. The economics of trying to break original music and getting other musicians involved with it is not something that happens easily, particularly when you've worked with the caliber of musicians I had become used to working with. By the time you reach my age, the musicians I have come up with all have lives, families, responsibilities. Motivating them to contribute their time and efforts to *your* creative project is just not going to be a priority, even if they are your best friends. But, I was determined to get it done and find people of a particular mind to work with. Over the next three years, while I played a few shows by myself, I got lucky and was able to find some great musicians to participate in my project and help create these wonderful improvised sets presented on the CD. "Outer Worlds" is a nice cross section of the shows I've played over that time. You hear several musicians working with me on it, with each one bringing a very unique approach to the table. It's a great way to keep things fresh. In the midst of going through all these different situations with different people, Jim Gully is the multi-keyboardist who has emerged as the "go-to" guy for this project. He is featured on 4 of the 6 tracks on Outer Worlds. Mike Cosentino plays an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) on "Hitch Hiker On Venus" and John Melnick plays keyboards on "One."
MSJ: Can you give folks a rundown of your musical history?
I think genetically I was hardwired into a musical life. My dad, while not ever having pursued any particular musical endeavors is a natural. He sings like a bird, has a professional level sense of pitch and phrasing, and can accompany himself on piano by ear. My mom studied piano from the time she was a child and all the way through college. I'm told she was a wonderful player, but she apparently was pretty burnt out on it by the time she got married and started a family as I have no recollections of her ever sitting down at the piano to play. There is a picture I've seen of her performing with an orchestral ensemble at Roosevelt University, but that's about all the evidence I have of her musical life.

When I was about 5, my father's step sister, Aunt Joyce, was faced with a move and was forced to get rid of her baby grand piano She decided to give it to me as a gift, and so the piano lessons began. It was OK, but I was way more into the rock and roll coming out of my transistor radio, and guitar was the instrument I wanted to play it on. Don't tell anyone, but the first band that I ever fantacized about being in was Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I thought they were great...loved singing those falsetto parts.

Around the time I turned 8 the Beatles burst onto the scene and my life was changed forever. It was like a force of nature had taken over. To no avail I pestered the hell out of my parents to buy me a guitar. Eventually my Aunt Joyce, who must have visited a pawnshop to purchase it, presented me with this huge jazz box brown sunburst Kay guitar on my 10th birthday. I was off and running.

While I was essentially self taught, I sought out mentors anywhere I could find them to learn more about playing the guitar and music in general. In those days, there really wasn't much useful literature that addressed a guitar curriculum that I had any interest in so it was certainly an aural tradition that I drew upon when I was getting started.

Now mind you, I had a great deal of interest in playing baseball, too. By the time I got into high school I discovered I was much better at playing guitar. That's when I started playing in little neighborhood jam bands. The hot shot guitar heroes of that era were Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Hendrix influenced me a great deal. I'd get together with my jam mates and attempt to do these extended improvised jams like our heroes. So really, right from the start, what I was doing had a direct correlation to what I find myself doing today. I progressed and eventually had to take my guitar and little amp on the bus and go across town to pursue broader musical horizons, playing what I perceived to be progressive music at the time. I was also starting to play with guys much older than me, as the kids my age weren't keeping me interested.

The big left turn occured when I dropped out of college to start going on the road with lounge/show bands around 1974 throughout the US and Canada and made a living churning out cheesy Top 40 disco dance and lounge music. I was listening to and aspiring to be Yes and Mahavishnu all rolled into one, but was making my living playing KC and the Sunshine Band. Unfortunately what happens is that once you get hooked on making a living in music, it's very hard to pull the plug on it. Doing this kind of work is about the only thing I could find to do that I could get paid for. I really resented the fact that this was the only thing I could play music and get paid for. Furthermore, lounge gigs really don't prepare you for anything other than more lounge gigs. In 1980 I got married, and in that same time frame is when the 5 nite a week lounge gigs started to dry up. More and more places were going DJ and I panicked. I wasn't prepared to do anything else. It was a very dark time that I had to work my way through.

In 1982, in an attempt to do the right thing by my wife and soon-to-be family, I started selling insurance for Prudential and did OK with it. Simultaneously I started retraining myself musically to become a jobbing freelancer and began to take on damn near any kind of musical situation that paid, although the big money for me seemed to be in weddings and corporate events. I also started writing little songs and recording them on an old Teac 3340. Most of it came out sounding pretty amateurish and Beatle wannabe-like, but at some point I may attempt to rework some of this material.

So from this point on I was mostly doing weddings and corporate events. In 1992 my time at the Prudential was up, and I drifted back into playing music full time, using the acquired marketing skills that I'd learned in the insurance industry. It allowed me to come back into music as a leader/contracter and gave me a knowledge base to "create" my own work. This is the only reason coming back to music full time was feasible, and just barely at that. One of the things they don't teach you at music school, is how to market what you do. Musicians are notoriously inept on the business side of things, not necessarilly by their own fault. Let's face it, if you have spent your whole life honing your craft as a musician, that can be an all consuming thing. When I was coming up, so many just never had the opportunity to develop the real world skills that would allow them to flourish and make enough of a living to support a family. My time with Prudential allowed me to come back and have a 15-year run as a danceband leader - 9-piece band (with a horn section). I'm very proud of the work we've done.

Another type of work that I started taking on about 20 years ago was contracting musicians to back up oldies acts that are still touring. It gave me an opportunity to work with acts like The Drifters, Platters, Coasters, Temptations, Spencer Davis, Badfinger, Bobby Vinton, Wolfman Jack, Otis Day (from "Animal House"), The Crystals, Shangra Las, Marvelettes, etc. Aside from the musical heritage that I absorbed from this experience, all of these people were great showmen and women. There are some universal concepts about putting on a show and entertaining people that one should be exposed to. There's an old adage that says: "Good musicians are a dime a dozen, but a good entertainer is worth their weight in gold." While I don't think I've assimilated that concept yet to what I'm doing with my music, it's definitely on my mind to find ways to be entertaining in my own way within the scope of what I do.

Finally I got to a point in my life, where through a series of happy accidents, I stumbled onto a creative path (that started at age 48) that has allowed me to shift my musical focus towards my original creations. I don't think I would have been able to deliver the music that now flows so freely from me when I was a younger man. I'm sure I'm much more prepared to fully appreciate it now at age 51. It's very satisfying for me, having waited until this point in my life to assert myself as an artist, when most everyone I came up with has long since abandoned their dreams for any number of practical reasons. It's important I think, to hold on to your dreams throughout your life time. When I was 16 years old, I was sitting at home listening to Yes (my all time favorite band besides the Beatles) and last year I opened for the Syn, whose members at the time included Chris Squire and Alan White of Yes. It was great having the opportunity to work alongside musicians I grew up revering so much, but more importantly to me, I was simply proud to be introduced to them as a musician. Those are great moments.
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music, what do you think you'd be doing?
Hard to say. Over the years I've been very involved with the marketing of what I do, so I'm sure I'd probably be selling something. I enjoy being with people. You never know though what you'll do until you're in that situation.
MSJ: What can you tell us about the other musicians on the disc?
No man is an island. Over the years I've made a lot of great musical friends. When I got started with this project, even with the friendships in place, it was still no small feat finding and convincing suitable musicians to participate. But I got *really* lucky with this.

One of the guys on the disc (playing an EWI on "Hitch Hiker On Venus") is Mike Cosentino, a very in demand reed player on the jazz and jobbing scene here in Chicago. Mike and I have worked togther in numerous situations going back over the last 25 years.

John Melnick, who plays keyboards on "One" is damn near a legend around the Chicagoland jobbing and session scene, not only for his extreme talents as a keyboardist and singer, but also for his spirited sense of humor. He in fact is the guy, who is most responsible for mentoring me and getting me on the path to create music in the digital realm. Additionally, it was our recorded performance of "One" that convinced me to release a live album. He's an amazing musician and a very generous and giving man.

The guy who has really stepped up and had a big impact on my live shows is Jim Gully, who plays keyboards on tracks 1-4, and is really the anchor of my live show. I originally met Jim when we both were working in on a Phil Collins tribute band. I lasted about 2 rehearsals with that before walking away from it, but finding Jim on that bandstand was a real coup and I started using him on all the oldies shows I was contracting, which he nailed from day one. What I discovered along the way, was that aside from sharing a love for a lot of the prog and pop bands that I was into, he also was a big fan of the syndicated electronic music shows, "Hearts of Space" and "Musical Starstreams." It became clear very quickly that he was gonna be the "go-to" guy for this project. From the very first ambient/electronic show we did together in 2004, we hit a musical sweet spot that is very hard to get to and maintain. He's a very special guy, as you will discover when listening to the tracks on Outer Worlds.

All these guys are great musicians, and even better, I am very fortunate to be able to count on them as friends as well. This project wouldn't have happened without their contributions, and I'll always be grateful to them.
MSJ: Are there musicians you’d like to play with in the future?
Well of course there are! How about Paul McCartney, John McLaughlin, John Paul Jones, Trilok Gurtu, Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz for starters? We had the release party for Outer Worlds a couple weeks back and originally Steve Nardelli of the Syn was planning to be there, but wound up being held back in London on business. Jim and I had worked up a couple of Syn tunes to perform with him, and I'd love to get a chance to play those songs with Steve at some point as well. I could go on forever with this particular wish list.
MSJ: Who do you see as your musical influences?
Well I think everything you absorb along the way influences you in some way, but if we are going for the major ones, I can certainly name a few for you: Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin, Yes (Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin), King Crimson/Robert Fripp, Bernard Herrmann and Igor Stravinsky.
MSJ: Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It’s been said by the major labels that it’s essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales – would you agree?
In the real world, the only thing that is constant is change. As it relates to technology, it is surely gonna change. You have two choices. You can either embrace it and make it work for you, or you can resist it and become a dinosaur. What has happened with digital downloads is pretty evident. There are a few forward thinking people emerging from this, and I feel fortunate to be working with one of them. Steve Nardelli, who (aside from being the leader of the Syn) also is a managing director with Umbello Records and TheOne TV and quite the visionary guy. It is understood that digital downloads are impacting traditional music sales, but rather than complain about it, Steve has come up with a great alternative that promises some great things we are not getting now, in terms of choices with TheOne TV. In a couple of years, internet-based TV broadcast sources will be a greatly utilized delivery system of propreitary content and one that will be more much more difficult to steal as opposed to MP3's and such. As a consumer, I know that I personally am so bored with the limitations of terrestrial radio and TV, I think the idea of having a TV equivalent of XM radio is an idea that is going to literally explode, and I'm thrilled to be getting involved with it on the ground floor!
MSJ: In a related question how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Well, I certainly have accumulated a few of those along the way, so it would be hypocritical of me to say that I'm against it. I think as an artist, there is a certain amount of vanity involved in wanting to control your art. Obviously if there's interest in it, you'd like to be able to get paid for it as well. Some artists have begun manufacturing and distributing their own boots, and at least giving fans an opportunity to obtain recordings of a better quality. I have a hard time now listening to audience recordings for the most part. I think TheOne TV is certainly going to be addressing the desire of fans to have easily affordible access to some high quality shows.
MSJ: What’s ahead for you?
Who knows? A few years ago, I would have never dreamed I'd be releasing Outer Worlds and having the kind of support I've received from Steve and Umbrello to date. Right now the job at hand is to get the word out, play some shows, and be prepared to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves. We will be taking the Outer Worlds experience out on the road as the appropriate opportunities present themselves. When the Syn hit the road later this year, no doubt we will be doing some shows with them again. The lineup Steve has planned for those shows should prove to be very interesting. I've been sworn to secrecy as to who may be involved, but it will definitely be a lot of fun for me to be a small part of.
MSJ: How has the CD been received so far?
Well I think at two weeks into release, it's outsold my first self released effort from 2003 (Inner Worlds part one), so that's reason to be pretty optimistic. I believe in what I'm doing musically, and I think I just have to be patient and keep playing and putting it out there. Eventually it will find its audience. Getting the support that I have from Umbrello has everything to do with the exponential increase of exposure and interest. I'm just trying to figure out what I should be doing next.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately?
The last CD I bought was Kevin Gilbert's Shaming Of The True - a truly brilliant conceptual effort about the rise and fall of mythical rocker Johnny Virgil vividly presented as a tragic rock opera. Listening lately to Emerson, Lake & Powell's lone cd (borrowed from a friend) and Tori Amos' American Doll Posse, a great CD with Tori's amazing voice and edgy spirit rapped around a decidedly Beatlesque/10cc accompaniment.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Lindsey Buckingham at the House of Blues.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
The first show I played when I opened for the Syn, I was pretty insecure and nervous about whether or not a club full of die hard Yes/Squire fans would enjoy what I do, as I'd never played my music for that size or type of audience. So I prepared a version of "Onward" to close with that I figured would guarantee me some kind of applause to close with. So I got through my set, and for the last song did this dedication to Squire in my introduction of the song. I started playing it, and immediately realized I was hopelessly and irretrievably out of tune and I started freaking out, getting the flop sweats, and trying trying to decide what to do. A million thoughts go through your head at that point. Something inside made me continue on into the tune and further subject this audience to what has to be one of the weakest closes to a show in the history of western civilization. I completely butchered the song. After playing for 30 minutes straight, I should have thought to make a joke of it...stop...and tune up...and then restart the tune. The audience was pretty forgiving, but I was so embarassed. Each performance that followed was much better and it all turned out pretty well.
MSJ: Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there?
I am very grateful for the opportunity afforded me by everyone who has contributed to this project: the musicians, Umbrello, the DJs that play this music on their shows, the people like you who help spread the word and most importantly the people that have come out to the shows and/or purchased the music. It is only through the sum total of all of this support working for me (as well as some I'm not yet aware of) that I have any hopes for being able to continue on making new music. Being able to make my way as an artist and musician is not some God-given right. It's an opportunity and a privilege, and one I will try my best to justify the good faith shown me. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story with your readers!
 
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