By Jim Hynes
An old pal of Elmore, Mike Zito, chats with senior writer, Jim Hynes, about his new album, Make Blues Not War, and provides a bit of career perspective as well, reflecting on his time with Royal Southern Brotherhood, his choice to leave behind the Wheel, the vibrant Houston music scene and, most important of all, recruiting a key new member for his touring act.
Elmore Magazine: How does it feel to have the album out that you’ve long wanted to make and see it rise immediately to #1 on the blues Billboard chart?
Mike Zito: You know, in the roots and blues world, this is as good as it gets. I try to put more stock into going out to play, but in order to do it; you need to keep making records. It feels especially good for this record, because we are not breaking any new ground. We’re just cutting loose and having fun. So, to see it be successful is like a bonus.
EM: I really liked what you were doing with the Wheel, and the band seemed especially tight live. Why go in a different direction?
MZ: The Wheel is a great band. I’d been doing it a while, from 2012 through 2015. I enjoy being in a band, I love writing songs, playing blues, blues-rock and playing guitar and jamming. The jamming part is not easy to do in a band, and the Wheel didn’t really like it. It got to a point where I felt like I was fighting for space in my own project. When you’ve been doing the same thing, things start to get stale at a certain level. I could sense that, and it just seemed like it was time to take a break. Going out and just playing guitar like I’m doing now… heck, I haven’t done something like this since the ‘90s.
EM: I’m curious, because your former bandmate in RSB, Devon Allman, (and we grieve with him in the loss of his mom) also sought out Tom Hambridge for his Ragged and Dirty album, with some inspiration from Luther Allison. You took a similar path. Is it coincidental, or did you and Devon talk about it?
MZ: I introduced Devon to Tom Hambridge. Tom and I have been talking about doing this record of mine for eight years. Devon wanted to go more in the direction of blues, but really didn’t have a lot of background and needed someone to help him. Luther Allison is my favorite artist. I was a big fan of Ruf Records and Luther in the ‘90s. I have all of his records. In fact, I always wanted to be on Ruf Records, and when I got the chance, I encouraged my manager, Reuben Williams, to get on the label. Cyrille recorded Luther’s “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide,” Devon did “Ragged and Dirty” and I just produced Big Dog for Albert Castiglia, and he did “Drowning at the Bottom.” I learned that Ruf had two of Luther’s guitars in storage in New York and one of them was a Flying V Gibson that had been in storage for fifteen years that still had Luther’s original strings on there. That’s the guitar I played on “Bad News Coming,” and also the guitar Albert used on his Luther song. Wow! What a feeling to be playing his guitar while honoring his song.
EM: What’s it like working with Tom? What does he bring that makes him so highly sought after?
MZ: I’ve worked with many great producers: David Z., Jim Gaines, Trina Shoemaker – everybody has something special that they do. Tom Hambridge is an “all in one” producer. He is very sensitive to the artist and knows what their strengths are. A lot of producers want to make you what they want you to be. Tom lets you be yourself. He loves all the same music I do. He is an old rocker that likes Johnny Winter, Zeppelin, Ten Years After. I’m used to writing songs for a record, but this time I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I just started riffing on guitar and Tom would write a song around it. That’s why I say he is “all in one.” He could write a whole album for you, and he did most of the writing for this one.
EM: What is your touring band now? I know you’ll be featuring the new album but I imagine you’ll represent your catalog too.
MZ: I have a trio now with these guys from Houston. Houston has the best music scene in Texas right now… far better than Austin even. You know, with the Wheel, I had guys from several states, so when you start a tour you’re paying airfare and travel expenses just to get everyone together to start. This is much easier. Yes, we’ll be playing the record, and of course delving into my catalog, too, because there are plenty of songs that the fans want to hear.
EM: Your son Zach plays on the album and is going on tour with you in the summer, right? I bet you’re excited about that.
MZ: Zach is 22, and he is going on tour with us. I am so excited. He’s been playing guitar since he was ten years old. I didn’t force him to do it. He’s graduating from The University of Missouri – Columbia in May. He has a minor in music and is into a lot of other kinds of music besides blues. He has his own indie rock band. I never tried to put any pressure on him. I just asked if he’d like to play on my album, and he enjoyed that so I asked if he’d like to try touring. And, then, “maybe if you like it, you’d like to join the band.” It all seems to moving in the right direction, and we’re both excited about the father and son thing.
EM: What about your other four children? Maybe there’s a family band in the making…?
MZ: You never know. Zach is the oldest, and my youngest is seven. The youngest and oldest are the ones most interested in music. My oldest daughter is a really good singer, but her attitude is “music is for you,” as if she wants to let me have my own space.
EM: This is your 13th album. Some of those early Delta Groove albums were maybe oriented more towards singer/songwriter than blues. You left Royal Southern Brotherhood because, I believe, in your own words, they weren’t doing enough blues. Talk a bit about your evolution as an artist.
MZ: I did my first album in 1998, and it was a trio rocking guitar record. But, you know, ten years ago nobody wanted guitar records. On that record, I had an acoustic song called “Today,” that I still often play and am still very proud of. That was the foundation for those first few Delta Groove records that were, as you say, in the singer/songwriter mode. When we formed Royal Southern Brotherhood, I thought Cyrille and I were forming a blues band because we won a Blues Music Award for Song of the Year. And, you’re right, I did cite the lack of blues as the reason I left, but since I left, it’s funny, but they’ve moved more in that direction. Ironically, I began working with the Wheel and got further away from the blues. The last record was the least blues record of any I’ve made. Now, as the leader of my band, I’m having fun playing. It’s not just shredding. It has to be emotional.
EM: Let’s go back to RSB. What did you take away from that experience?
MZ: Looking back on it, to play in a band and to learn how to make your statements within the context of a group was important. Let me tell you, Yonrico Scott has to be the best drummer in the world. He really taught me how to play with freedom and expression.
EM: You collaborated with folks like Anders Osborne and Tab Benoit. Do you see any of those kinds of projects in your future, or are you focused entirely on a solo career now?
MZ: Something will happen with Anders. We’re really close, as we share some similar past experiences. When I saw him this past October, we talked about doing something at some point. Heck, we might even start a rock band. Tab is really generous when it comes to the stage, and I look forward to sharing the stage with him, but don’t really see projects with him.
EM: You’ve produced albums too, most notably for Samantha Fish. Yet, she worked with Luther Dickinson on her latest album. Do you feel that your mentorship with her had reached the point where she could make her way? I’m sure that you are proud of her.
MZ: She is amazing – so awesome – so commanding. I’ve learned a lot from her and, in a way, I think she’s inspired me to do what I’m doing now. I was learning along with her. I was learning how to produce, too. When I’m producing, I’m more like a cheerleader. After working three records with her, I felt she needed a change. Working with Luther was the best thing she could have done. You know there’s this famous saying– “after three records, fire your producer”– because you won’t be moving forward. I guess we followed that.
EM: Who would you cite as your major musical influences?
MZ: Well, we talked about Luther Allison. He is the true modern bluesman, giving 110% in everything he ever did. I never saw Luther, Muddy, or these guys live. I grew up on Johnny Winter, Led Zeppelin and even some metal stuff that’s influenced me. So I guess it’s mainly blues rock, but Lyle Lovett is one of my favorite artists too.
EM: What are listening to lately when in the van or when you’re off the road?
MZ: I listen to blues, the same old shit over and over again. I guess I annoy people by that. I listen to Johnny Winter – Guitar Slinger, Johnny Winter- Live, Muddy Waters with Johnny Winter Live and I’ve been listening to the new Stones album – Blue and Lonesome every day since it came out.
EM: What are your favorite venues and festivals to play?
MZ: I love playing the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s this old blues bar, nothing fancy, that’s been there since 1971. Muddy, Luther, Koko… all the greats have played there. Maybe it’s just the history, but it is just really inspiring to play there. Locally, I like the Dosey-Doe in Houston. One of my favorite festivals is the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, which I’ve played twice– once on my own, and once with Royal Southern Brotherhood. Briggs Farm is another good one, because of the setting and relaxed atmosphere. I love the North Atlantic Blues Festival, because you get lobster when you walk off stage, and there are fans stretching a line about a mile long to buy your CDs. This past year, we had a great jam with Ronnie Earl, Bruce Katz and Elvin Bishop.
EM: If you were to look ahead five years, what you envision you’ll be doing?
MZ: I’m just about to turn 46. When I was 20 years old, I met Joanna Connor, and from that point on all I’ve ever wanted to do was play guitar. I said to myself, “I need to do that.” I got to make records, I got to play live and my goal now is to be able to continue to do that. It’s not about being famous, or even about being the best. I’m not the best, but I’ve been able to make records, play live and support my family. Fans and people in the business seem to like me, so I’m really thrilled to be able to do this. There is no master plan. I do have a dream one day about making a heroes record, where I’m playing a track with Ronnie Earl, another with Tinsley Elllis and another with Walter Trout. Someday I’d like to be able to make a record like Blue and Lonesome. Those would really be fun, but as long as I can continue to do what I’m doing and being able to support my family, I feel really blessed.