Michael Des Barres Unlocks the Key to the Audio Universe

Chances are you know the name Michael Des Barres, but just exactly how most likely depends on your entry point. If you’ve read I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, then you know him as the ex-husband of Miss Pamela, Pamela Des Barres. If you’re a devout fan of ’70s rock, then you know him as the frontman of cult-fave bands Silverhead and Detective. If you’re a TV aficionado, you know him as Murdoc from MacGyver — and maybe even as Dog, the nattily dressed lead singer of fictional punk band Scum of the Earth from an all-time classic October 1978 episode of WRKP in Cincinnati. And if you’re a dedicated listener of Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Channel 21 on SiriusXM satellite radio, then you’re probably quite riveted to the insights, encyclopedic rock & roll knowledge, and cheeky humor he provides between the tracks that spin during his always exhilarating weekday shift.

While the man’s far-reaching C.V. is indeed impressive, Des Barres is a musician first and foremost, and all of his killer instincts have converged on The Key to the Universe (FOD Records), his strongest and most consistent record, well, ever. The proof is in the deep grooves of tracks like the hard-charging admiration of “Black Sheep,” the alt-rock psychedelia of “Yesterday’s Casanova,” and the funk ’n’ roll of “Supernatural Lovers.” Notes Des Barres, “People go insane for these new songs. It’s so astounding to me, after having not really done anything on this scale in 25 years, that people are responding to them. I think I sound better on this record than I’ve ever sounded.”

Recently, I rang up Des Barres, 67, to discuss the sonic philosophy behind The Key, how to avoid including any “twiddly bits,” and finding one’s own voice as an artist. MDB is a true rock & roll survivor who knows how best to overcome adversity and get it on.

Mike Mettler: Well, first, I have to thank you for giving me The Key to the Universe, because previously, I only had the “Key to the Highway.” So thanks for that.

Michael Des Barres: Dude, you know — things change, and sometimes, the road is just not enough.

Mettler: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” somebody said at some point.

Des Barres: I do love all that imagery, though I try to stay away from it — I mean, the road, the highway, the outlaws, and all that stuff. (chuckles)

Mettler: I’m in New Jersey, and we have plenty of songwriters out here who cover the road thing quite well.

Des Barres: You’re in the fast lanes of those kind of tunes. (chuckles)

Mettler: Anyway, I like that I can take The Key to the Universe with me on any road I travel, though I’m not a fan of MP3 —

Des Barres: Hate it.

Mettler: The subtlety and detail in songs like “Yesterday’s Casanova” or “Supernatural Lovers” just aren’t there in MP3s. And I don’t like missing out on any of those details.

Des Barres: There’s a lot of details in those tunes I wrote with [guitarist] Dani Robinson, who’s going to blow your mind. You must come see us play in the New York area. It’s going to be exciting for you, because it’s everything that you loved then and love now, and it hovers between those two places. It’s truly shocking how rocking, it truly is.

Mettler: I like the sound of that; count me in! Did you have a blueprint for how you wanted the record to sound when you got into the studio? What was your idea?

Des Barres: I’ll try not to be glib, but it’s the best record I ever made. I knew that when I went to Rome and Nigel [Harrison, bassist, a former Silverhead bandmate who was also in Blondie] was there, and Clive [Deamer, drummer, with Robert Plant and Portishead] was there, and Dani Robinson was there, and most importantly, Bob Rose was there. Bob did a solo record for me 30 years ago, and on that record was the Tower of Power horns, Steve Jones, Andy Taylor — a fantastic record, but it absolutely disappeared between the cracks. Somebody Up There Loves Me (1986) came out the year after Live Aid [where MDB sang with Power Station, having just replaced Robert Palmer in the band]. Boom boom. But it just disappeared, man. I was so disconsolate that I took that job on MacGyver and was just in telly for the next 25 years.

To answer your question about the blueprint — I got to Rome, and was trying to get by without any preconceptions at all. I had a stack of lyrics, and we went in and wrote it right then and there — the whole album, in a matter of days. It was the most un-preconceived album I’ve ever made. It was totally thrashy and clean, and to work with Bob Rose, I would wish that on anyone. He just brought out stuff in me that has been long-dormant.

Mettler: I love how you start the album with the Linda Perry-esque vibe and the obsessive nature of the song she wrote, “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind.” Well, you co-wrote a song about obsession a couple decades back, so it fits right in.

Des Barres: Yes, we’ve all been obsessed with something. And that song by Animotion [“Obsession,” penned by Des Barres and Holly Knight] was written about heroin; it wasn’t written about a relationship. I was obsessed, and I knew I had to quit. And I had to write this song. I had to get into a way out of this romantic heroin love affair. (laughs)

Mettler: That’s a testament to your own fortitude and will. Just as you say, the highway, or rather, the universe is littered with people who didn’t make it.

Des Barres: Very, very, very clever. Think about that for a second — because, let’s face it, I’m the last man standing who a) isn’t dead, and b) hasn’t had a facelift. (MM laughs)

Mettler: And we appreciate that. I like the energy and the rawness of this record. Do you think about the way that people listen to music these days? Is either high-resolution audio or vinyl your preferred method of listening?

Des Barres: Well, if it’s from analog, that’s where I’m coming from. I want to hear crackle and hiss. The best thing to do is crack an LP open, look at the sleeve, and listen to the crackle and hiss on vinyl. That would be optimal. But I’m not being naïve or ingenuous — I really love the technology today, and I use it a lot in several forms. If you hear this music in a gym on an iPod on a Stairmaster, that would be great. In fact, I should do an aerobics CD.

Mettler: “Burning in Water” would be a good track for that, just to get your blood pumping.

Des Barres: I love that song. Nigel found that one. He was in A&R at Interscope, working on Steve Jones’ record, and he found that song. Steve never cut it, and he brought it to me and said, “Do this.”

Mettler: “Burning in Water,” “It’s Just a Dream,” “Yesterday’s Casanova” — to me, that’s the sweet spot of the record; the real heart of the album.

Des Barres: I agree! I agree with all of those three choices, completely.

Mettler: Those harmonies on “It’s Just a Dream” put me in the mind of ELO and The Beatles.

Des Barres: Yeah! All that Jeff Lynne stuff — I love that! It’s me and Gregory Darling, who is a brilliant singer and composer. We got along really well in terms of melody. He was very, very inspiring.

Mettler: I feel like there’s a whole generation who don’t know Jeff Lynne and what he’s done over the years.

Des Barres: There’s a whole generation who don’t know who The Beatles are.

Mettler: That’s a scary thing, right? That music’s in our blood and our veins, but you can’t think that everybody knows these reference points anymore.

Des Barres: Yeah, exactly. I don’t particularly rail against that — it is what it is. Whatever my inspirations are, I can nuance them into something personal, and that’s what that record is; it’s f--ing personal.

“Burning in Water” is a beautiful song, one I’m very proud of. People go insane for these new songs. It’s so astounding to me, after having not really done anything on this scale in 25 years, that people are responding to them. I think I sound better on this record than I’ve ever sounded.

Mettler: It’s more of a timeless production, where maybe some earlier records of yours were “of era,” because that’s how it went in those days. But now, you’re in the prime of your voice. You’ve grown into it.

Des Barres: Thank you, brother. I feel that way. I don’t think I’m impersonating anyone. No one quite sounds like this. It’s not some egocentric reasoning. Bob [Rose] said something to me that was very funny and very interesting. He said, “Michael, it’s a baby free zone.” So you won’t hear me sing, “Hey baby! You’re my baby!” here.

Mettler: I like that! Baby Free Zone. Maybe that’s an album title.

Des Barres: It’s certainly a description of this album. I maybe say it once in context. Really, it’s a metaphor for “Don’t be clumsy, don’t live like everybody else.”

Mettler: To borrow a song title, you don’t want to be “Yesterday’s Casanova,” right?

Des Barres: “Yesterday’s Casanova” is f--ing awesome. That’s where I’m going. And the next thing will be so heavy — the heaviest. Meanwhile, this band is so good, and so loud. And that’s what I want. I want to be a loud three-piece rock band.

Mettler: I really love that triply section and the dreamy organ on “Yesterday’s Casanova.” Who did that?

Des Barres: That’s Mike Rowe, from Noel Gallagher’s band. He flew in from London, and just blew everybody’s mind with what he’s playing. That sound is filling it out, and not with what Steve Jones would say is “twiddly bits.” (chuckles) There are no twiddly bits!

Mettler: It gave me a Strawberry Alarm Clock vibe, for just a moment.

Des Barres: I love Strawberry Alarm Clock! Absolutely underrated; totally fantastic musicians.

Mettler: I bought Incense and Peppermints (1967) and Wake Up It’s Tomorrow (1968) on vinyl, back when I was in college.

Des Barres: Are you into Rhinoceros at all?

Mettler: Yeah — you guys have at least one or two of their tracks on The Underground Garage playlist, right?

Des Barres: They were incredible. They were put together in 1967 by Elektra — these wonderful Laurel Canyon musicians who didn’t know each other. It was an experiment. Didn’t work, in terms of sales, but it certainly worked creatively. I always thought of them as forerunners of the more complex prog music to come.

Mettler: You, as a songwriter, have been very autobiographical throughout your career, from Silverhead to the Detective days up through now. That has to be a conscious decision: “I’m going to talk about myself.”

Des Barres: Well, I think so. One hears so many things about, “She was a rock and roll goddess.” I’m not interested in journalism; I’m interested in diaries. There’s a big f--ing difference. My point being, you’ve gotta be yourself. I write about myself all of the time, and I always will. When I was young and in Silverhead, we’d been to America, and it was so astonishing that one sort of had to address it, because I was in love with Elvis, Walt Whitman, and Coca Cola — and you want to write about what you saw. You see these girls wearing three sequins, and you want to write about that — “16 and Savaged” [the title track from Silverhead’s 1973 release]. But then you start thinking about exorcising demons, and maybe sharing joy, about my own experiences. (chuckles)

Mettler: And there’s no reason to stop being creative, at any age. Why stop putting out albums? Did anyone tell John Updike to stop writing books when he was 70? Why is it any different for rock music? Why do you have to stop being creative because of your age?

Des Barres: I love you right now! I will always use that metaphor — but I use Picasso, while you use Updike. Not only did he keep painting until he was 90 or something, but he kept on creating.

Mettler: If you’re an artist, it’s the evolution of you, your craft, and your creativity. Age is irrelevant. The creative part is what’s interesting.

Des Barres: You’ve just got to take care of yourself and love yourself enough to want to stay cool. And “cool” is not cigarettes and turned-up collars — “cool” is joy, and compassion.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.