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Kurt Michaels

Interviewed by Gary Hill

Interview with Kurt Michaels from 2011


There was a major shift from the last album to this one. Can you explain how that came about?

Part of it was that I was getting restless to do something different from what I had been doing. The other part was that when my brother passed away in 2008, I wanted to write about it. Several months after that happened, one afternoon I picked up my guitar and this song just came to me...very suddenly. There wasn't a whole lot of indecision..... Within two days I had the whole thing sketched out...words and music...knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. It was clear to me that a more classic songwriting form was gonna be the way to go. I knew right away that I had stumbled on to a creative process that was gonna work. The project took on a life of its own very quickly. It took two and a half years to complete, but I had the vision immediately of where I was going to take things. It's always exciting to move in a new direction!

For the people that enjoyed my soundscapes, I'm not abandoning them. It is my intention to continue on and to devote a portion of my live shows to them, but the primary focus right now is going to be on introducing people to the new music featured on Soaring Back To Earth.


Can you tell us about the musicians you've got joining you on the disc?

Some of the basic tracks were started with guys I had been working with in other contexts over the last 20 years. Jim Gully is the one that people acquainted with my soundscape work (featured on Outer Worlds) will be familiar with, as he has been the keyboardist performing on most of those shows with me, including the Electro Music and M.A.R.S. festivals as well as the shows we opened for the Syn on their Syndestructible tour (whose members at the time included Chris Squire and Alan White of Yes).

Also performing on the CD are Len Szymanski doing some percussion and drum overdubs and Christ Andronis on bass. These are guys that I've done just about every kind of musical job there is to do with over the last 20 years, and I'm very grateful  to have their participation on this CD.

If people wind up liking the way this CD sounds, the guy that had a huge hand in making that happen was Steve Vining. He is another longtime musical friend, who served as co-producer on Soaring Back To Earth. On a project like this, you need a foil whose opinions you trust, who isn't necessarily gonna agree with everything you  want to do, and Steve was all of that and more. He also mixed and engineered the recording, and also provided background vocals, fretless bass, keyboards and miscellaneous percussion to the proceedings.

I was very fortunate to have some amazing guest artists that performed on the CD. Billy Sherwood, who many people know through his tenure as a member of Yes as well as YOSO & Circa played almost all the drums and four of the bass tracks on the CD. His brother Michael Sherwood, who also is a Yes alumnus of sorts (guested on Union) and current musical director for Air Supply plays some of the keyboards and also contributed a very special string arrangement on "Didn't Get To Say Goodbye," which is the song I wrote for my brother that got this whole thing started. Finally, we were also very fortunate to have the participation of Tom Brislin on keyboards, another Yes alumnus, whose credits also include work with the Syn, Renaissance, Blondie, Meat Loaf and Camel - mot a bad


What's ahead for you?

As many live shows as I can muster up... very important to me to bring this music to life! The writing process has already begun for the next CD. In the meantime, I've still got a big mountain to climb to find an audience for the music from Soaring Back To Earth. It's very personal music, but I think that a lot of folks will find things in the lyrics they can identify with and relate to. That's my intention - hope it works out that way.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Feeling like a superhero is not a place I get to, even when I dream. And even if I did I have no idea who that would be. I rarely have had the feeling like anyone was out to get me, or deliberately held me back, and when I have, I just moved on. If I gave you names, it probably wouldn't be anyone you'd know. Hard for me to conjure up a motivation to consider anyone an arch nemesis. There are a few "pain in the a**" and a**hole types though that for now shall remain nameless. If they keep p***ing me off, I'll give you an exclusive on the story! 
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr for starters. I'm gonna do a variation on the answer Billy Sherwood gave in a recent interview, and make a special request to bring back John Lennon, George Harrison and Billy Preston for this awesome show of shows.  “If” I'm available that night, I would like to include myself in that lineup. Do I really need to give you a reason?


If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

See the previous answer...I bet we could sell a few tickets for that one!


What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

Circa:  And So On


Have you read any good books lately?

I'm in the middle of reading "Fab: An intimate Life of Paul McCartney" by Howard Sounes


What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

Yes and Styx show in Nashville, Tennessee on 7/16/11


Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”

No...I don't feel guilty in the slightest about anything musical I'm into. Having a career in music that has exceeded three decades has afforded me the opportunity to work and learn to appreciate any number of musical styles.  Seeing as how I'm not into music that promotes violence or otherwise condones things that I would be reluctant to own up to, I can't think of anything to feel guilty about liking. That being said, it wouldn't bother me if my music became someone else's guilty pleasure!


What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

I would say it happened in that first show I did with Jim when we opened for the Syn. I was doing soundscapes in that timeframe, and wasn't sure how well I'd go over with a partisan crowd that was there to see the Syn (and Chris Squire and Alan White in particular). So I worked up an electro ambient version of Squire's song "Onward" that I figured would be my last song of the night, and would be virtually guaranteed to get me some enthusiastic applause....just in case I was really tanking.

The truth is, going into this gig, I was about as scared as I had been about performing since I was a teenager. It was hard for me to feel confident that hardcore Yes and Syn fans were gonna appreciate the soundscapes. Anyway, after all kinds of Spinal Tappish delays that were thrown at me in terms of getting started, eventually we did get to do our set. It didn't suck, but it was far from my best effort. So I do this sappy tribute on the mic to Squire to introduce the last song, and then I went right into the song.

As soon as I started playing I immediately realized I was dreadfully out of tune. It's not like I had a guitar tech handing me a freshly tuned guitar. All the string bending a crazy stuff I'd been doing on the previous number had really done a number on my intonation, My mind started racing, “What should I do?” There was a voice inside me that kept saying "Don't stop....keep going.” I tried as best as I could to tune on the fly and keep the song going, but it just got worse. What should have been a nice way to end the show turned out to be one of the weakest closes in concert history. I was thoroughly embarrassed. If I had been thinking straight, I would have stopped as soon as I realized how out of tune I was, made a joke about it, tuned up, and restrated the song. Next time, if this ever happens again, I guarantee you that's what will happen.

As embarrassing as this was to me, I was pretty determined not to let it get the better of me. I came back the next night and kicked it in the a**. The evidence of this is on the first three tracks on Outer Worlds, which were recorded at that second night at Martyrs with the Syn. That's the beautiful thing about mistakes in music, you get to come back the next night and take another whack at it. The saying "You'll never work again in this town" doesn't seem to apply to me so far - even if it should have!

MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?

I'd bring back my brother and mother for dinner with me and my dad!


What would be on the menu?

My mother and brother were awesome in the kitchen. I don't think unless it was my birthday that I'd get a vote on the menu. What I envision happening is that the two of them would be in the kitchen arguing about who would be doing the cooking and who would be doing the cleaning! Since my mom has been gone a lot longer, I think I'd have to give her the nod and designate her in charge of the cooking that night. One of my favorite dishes she used to make was BBQed lamb riblets, but really anything she felt like would be fine with me. She and Fred, and my dad for that matter were/are all very talented in the kitchen.


Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?

Just that I'm really appreciative and grateful for the gift of music I have been given. I don't have any other noteworthy lifelong pursuits other than getting through life and keeping my family together. Making music makes me happy, and I figured out some time ago (even when I was doing the corniest music at somebody's wedding) that I was making people happy with it. There is honor in that. I'm still trying to take my music as far as I can, but if all I ever do is all that I have done to date, it was a great ride! And for anybody out there that's hanging in there with me and supporting my musical pursuits, it’s all pretty unfulfilling without having people to share it with.

There's an adage: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" That is a philosophical riddle that raises questions regarding observation and knowledge of reality. But for me, it also serves as a metaphor for the sounds I make, and how empty it might feel if no one was listening. Thanks again to everyone who has listened and encouraged me to keep going....I will always be grateful to you!

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at
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