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Progressive Rock Interviews

Kurt Michaels

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Kurt Michaels from 2023

I can't believe it, but it's actually been about 12 years since we last did an interview with you. Can you catch the readers up on what's been going on in the world of Kurt Michaels during that time?

Up until 2020 when the pandemic hit, I was actively performing shows featuring the music of Soaring Back To Earth and, starting in 2016, was introducing some of the new music that has found its way onto my new CD Stones From The Garden. Starting in early 2016, it took secen years to write, record, mix and master, manufacture, find a label, prepare for release and pay for the music of Stones From The Garden...

MSJ: Your catalog has a pretty wide range of music within it. How do you see the new album fitting into and expanding on the "Kurt Michaels sound?"

It’s actually a combination of all of those things this time around. I’d like to think I/we have learned from my previous efforts, and that this one more closely aligns with my intentions for it.

MSJ: The late, great Michael Sherwood is on the album. Was this one of his last recordings, and when did he do his contributions?

Michael was a very talented guy…and hilarious, too. His nickname amongst friends was “Shecky,” and he was the one who facilitated my introduction to his brother Billy. I have a very clear image of how that all happened back in 2008. He was generous and perfect in his contributions to my music. The last sessions happened in 2019, with the final one in the summer of that year and included his brother Billy on bass and drums ("Will I Ever Pass This Way Again?). He died in November of that year. I doubt if his work with me was his last, because he was *always* working on something. He worked with a lot of people in his time, including some very well known ones. It was serendipitous for me to make his acquaintance.

MSJ: You have some other interesting guests on the album. Would you like to talk a little about them?

No man is an island, and I am very fortunate to have made some cool friends over the years in my musical journey. My hometown crew includes Len Szymanski and Jim Gully (on drums and keyboards respectively), who I started working with probably in the late “80s on almost every kind of gig you could make a buck with - great musicians to work with and have as friends!  Kathie Mills did some singing on this CD and totally nailed it. She also goes back that far with me on various bandstands singing her heart out . Scott Williams (who toured with the US Navy band for 30 years), Cory Hance and Annie Carlson all performed with my Continuum project at various times. Annie is a more recent participant in my music and is very intuitive when it’s time to get a job done.

John Abbey plays some bass on "Forever (So Completely)", and amongst other things is known for his work with John Cale. I met him at the studio we did some of the recording at (Kingsize Sound Labs – w Mike Hagler wielding the mouse duties). Chris Ussery I met originally back in the 80s or 90s doing some things at the studio he was running, but that was it…until 2020 when we reconnected and I asked him to help out with “Relax…Nothing’s Under Control!”.

Dennis Johnson is also someone I’ve known probably dating back to the late 80s. Dennis has done it all over his time but is probably best known as the original bass player with Chase, Survivor and was all over Dennis DeYoung’s first solo release Desert Moon. Cory Hance was onboard with Continuum for a while and added some stellar background vocals.

Jeff Abbott is a one man wrecking crew, who has made a nice life for himself as a musician and clinician world wide, I haven’t known him for very long, but I’m sure glad I do now. He added some piano to Relax.

Amanda Lehmann is best known for her work with Steve Hackett around the world and is making a name for herself these days with her own music. I originally met her (albeit briefly) around 2010 when  Steve Hackett and Renaissance were touring together. I already had plans to go see their show at the Park West here in Chicago. That afternoon, I got a call from Krista Walhagen (who I’ve known forever….she’s done a bunch of CD artwork for me over the years). For that tour she was road manager for Renaissance. Their equipment truck had broken, and they were gonna be running really late and she asked if I could get there early to help hustle the equipment in off the truck…and so I did. And that’s how I connected up with those two acts. Annie Haslam was kind enough to say some kind things about one of the songs on Stones From The Garden. 

And finally, I was introduced to Billy Sherwood back in 2008 by his late brother Michael. The two of them were all over  Soaring Back To Earth, which was released in 2011. Billy helped out with bass and drums on that CD and added that to some very cool vocals on Stones From The Garden. If I never make another record, I ‘m very proud of everyone’s effort on Stones From The Garden. I’ll do my best not to take 12 years to make the next one!

MSJ: Were there any particular messages or themes you wanted to get across with this album?

I think for the most part, "Relax Nothing’s Under Control" had a theme that’s pretty apparent, but I intentionally didn’t name names. I figured that the views I expressed are best left interpreted by the listener. In general, that’s how I choose to roll. It’s kind of like a joke…if you have to explain it, then it’s probably not funny…(laughter)

MSJ: How would you say the Covid pandemic has affected the music world from your perspective?

It definitely made me re-evaluate what I was doing and how I was going about it… At first, it was about COVID, but upon further review, I felt it was time to go in a straighter line towards making new music in the studio…and doing a better job of pointing myself out to the world with it instead of always worrying about  keeping a band together to play mostly little gigs around town to mostly the same people. You just can’t grow that way. Less is more for that kind of thing, I think. 

MSJ: What's the best thing that's ever been said about your music?

I’ve been told by a few folks that they cried (in a good way) as they were taking in a particular song. One of the coolest things that ever happened, was when a friend of mine in Colorado who was on the school board there, requested the use of "It’s Our Time” (from Soaring Back To Earth) as part of the processional for her daughter’s high school graduation. She interpreted it as something theme appropriate for that. It was one of two songs that were hastily written at a deserted poolside on a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona in February, 2010. In my mind, it was a more proggy first dance at a wedding kind of love song. But that’s the magic of interpretation. As an artist, you can’t really control that. But when someone goes somewhere else with it, and you look at it from that perspective, and it makes sense…you realize that giving people the opportunity to interpret is probably more important than hanging on to whatever your intention might have been when writing it. When it’s a living breathing thing that people can enjoy on their own terms, I think you’re closer to finding that universal sweet spot we’re all looking for. I think.

MSJ: What's ahead for you?

More and better…hopefully! Every dime I make off this one is going towards making the next one. The songs are there ready to be developed. The plan is for it not to take 7 years! (laughter)

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
The most recent one was This Moment by Shakti….it’s their 50th anniversary this year, and I’m the biggest John McLaughlin fan there is.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Who’s got time for books? (laughter)…I’m seriously busy with keeping all the plates spinning of the different parts of my life….seriously. The closest I get to that is occasionally bingeing some of the amazing TV that’s showed up in the last decade or so. But I did just buy a book written by my friend Ray Costello that I’m a few chapters into about his life. He’s got a lot of stories to tell!
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Last summer I attended a few. I’d say the highlight of it was seeing Brian Wilson and his great band at whatever they’re calling that shed in Tinley park Illinois now…which included Beach Boy compadre Al Jardine and Chicagoan Bob Lizik! We also saw Earth Wind & Fire and Santana there last summer, too! The concerts coming up this year on my calendar are John McLaughlin and Shakti at Ravinia, Yes at the Rialto in Joliet and Peter Gabriel at the United Center!
MSJ: Do you remember the first concert you attended?
Yup…it was 1968. I was 13 and had lifelong friends Peggy and Bob Eisenstein, who had just gotten married and were still in school at U of I in Champaign IL. They had me down for the weekend and took me to Assembly Hall to see Blood Sweat and Tears…how cool was that?
MSJ: Have you come across any new gear recently that you love?
I think I’m actually going more retro in my approach in this last decade. While I avail digital effects in my pedal board…and most certainly have in the studio, my idea of good guitar tone is more about what the guitar actually sounds like. Fenders, have their own distinctive twang. My Godin LGXT and Gretsch Streamliner do, too…as do all my others. I got rid of a Mesa Boogie Mark IV that I owned for 20 years and never had a problem with, but it had way too many buttons and slider pots on it for me to figure out. I used that money to  buy a pristine mid “90s Fender Blues Deluxe that is much simpler that I know exactly how to dial  in my sound with…or any other Fender tube amp for that matter. Whenever I’m working a bigger show with backline, they always seem to have Fender tube amps on the menu. I’m very comfortable in that world. Randy Dritz has built me some Frankenstein "Fenders” that I’m super happy with since the first in 2016. I’ve learned a lot from him about getting a guitar to sound good and do what I want it to sound-wise. I went my whole life without  really thinking much about tone…would just dial in on the fly and find something I thought would work in that moment. Effects pedals, I’m a lot more fickle with. Starting in the “90s I went through a few generations of Boss multi effects pedal boards. In recent years, I’ve abandoned that in favor of a pedal board of stomp  boxes that I’ve carefully curated, but never stopped experimenting.

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


The clock is ticking for us all. Musically, my plan is to do as much as I can with it and just like Elvis sang, I’m gonna follow that dream where ever that dream may lead me. I hope anybody reading this does the same with whatever it is they’re into. Life is all about this steel-cage death match we all have going on inside of us: chasing our dreams versus more pragmatic pursuits. There is no one I know who is totally black or totally white in this regard. We all seem to be varying shades of gray that seem to depend on the day. My wish for everyone is that they find a way be more about chasing their dreams. Happiness is a decision!

MSJ: This interview is available in book (paperback and hardcover) form in Music Street Journal: 2023  Volume 4 More information and purchase links can be found at:
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