Interview: Mike Ross

Multi-talented, multi-faceted independent UK rock artist and wizard of fuzz Mike Ross has just released his latest opus ‘Third Eye Open’, we chatted with Mike about the recording process and the lyrical content of some of the material featured within the album. Mike also spoke about his role as counsellor with the esteemed WaterBear College in Brighton.

Your new album, ‘Third Eye Open’, is here. Tell us about it; what does the album deal with?  

‘Third Eye Open’ is about seeing all the shit going on today, and making decisions that allow me to live with it and not let it steamroller me. It allows me to express my views in a way that I feel represents me but does not necessarily conflict with anyone else’s. Its intention is to just reach people, and I’ve always done that, previous albums have been really open and don’t really express any opinions, they just tell my story. But this time it is different because I am pissed off. I am so sick of hearing from people who think that it is okay to tell someone else who they can and cannot fall in love with. I am so fucking tired of that bullshit. The song ‘Third Eye Open’ is “Don’t you dare call me woke when you are all asleep…”. Everything happens for a reason and as soon as you figure out what that reason is then the less of an excuse you have to behave like an asshole. Basically, it’s just about responsibility.

You mean how people nowadays are fed an agenda by certain parts of the media and get upset and angry about things that don’t really affect them, rather than being angry about the thing that does affect them like the cost of living crisis?

Well, I have a theory about that…and again it is in the lyrics on songs like ‘Never No More’…it’s like “It can’t be our fault…it’s not my fault because I work really hard…I love my family…I’m the best version of me that I can be…how can I exist in these difficult times when people don’t give a shit about me and are robbing me blind…and are telling me that they are taking care of me and protecting our borders from people that want to steal my stuff…” when in fact they have all my fucking stuff. I mean look at the recent furor over Gary Lineker’s comments about the government and immigrants..they have not once addressed the actual issue which is that Tories own the BBC. Of course, it’s not about that, it’s about what Gary said. What I’m guessing is that it is really easy to blame other people for problems that you can’t see your own part [in] and when you can, then your victimhood is at an end. When you can see what it is then you can say “No, it doesn’t affect me but I am frightened of it because it is a change that I don’t understand”. So maybe just spend an hour or so reading articles from a considered, centralist point of view, and then maybe you will realise how important it is that everybody has the right to choose how people see them. Who are you to say that people cannot choose the wording they use to describe themselves?  Why would someone have an objection to the way that someone wants to be seen?

The lead single from the album is ‘The Preacher’, different people could take that title in different ways, and what one person might take it to mean, could be the total opposite of what another takes it to mean…so, what does it mean in regards to the song itself? 

Yes! [laughs] It could mean ‘Preacher’ as in the guy from the TV show – and I love that show, he is a badass – but you know, you get the last bus home in the North East of England and there is always someone at the back of the bus pontificating…are they a preacher? I was in a diner in Memphis listening to this old guy, and I had to bring a relative in because his dialect was so Southern that it could not be understood and it turns out he was saying [adopts Southern accent] ” A fella over there wants to borrow your ladder to go preaching on Sunday”…so I guess it just means people who have something to say. To me, it is a song of truths; when you are lonely, or having self-doubts; use the lessons learned from your past…so it’s not a church – I’m not a church-goer – I would describe myself as an intensely spiritual person, but not a conventionally religious person. I think that it is good to learn truths from people that share their experiences with you. But it is also a badass song! It’s got to have a bit of something for people to catch into!

Was it the obvious choice for lead-single?

Yes, it was always going to be the first choice because it was going to be played on Planet Rock! [laughs] I didn’t write it though just for Planet Rock! Some of the riffs on ‘The Preacher’ – and some other tracks on the album – I’ve had for a really long time.  During the second lockdown, myself and my drummer Darren spent three days tracking and we made three records worth of basic takes and then when I couldn’t go anywhere I was just working on them here in my home studio. The first thing that I did was to remix an album from a band that I was in during the 90s called Taller Than. I used the money from Crowdfunding to get the tapes converted to digital and then edited and released them. That was so popular, and it got such a strong response, that I then went back into my cassette library and found bits and pieces from bands that I was in when I was really young – like 16 or 17 – and came up with an album called ‘Origin Story’ and when I was compiling that, I found a load of stuff that I had forgotten about. Not finished songs, but bits of jams in the studio, a bit rough, but some were quite finished, and ‘The Preacher’ was one of them. I would say that ‘The Preacher’ was a riff that I started playing in maybe 1999! I probably just put it away and never thought about it. I’ve always been very conscious about a song that a guitar player would write, and the choices that they would make with the melodies as opposed to a lead singer who also plays the guitar. And I’ve been trying to learn how to do that.

The album is quite lengthy, with 12 tracks in total, did that happen organically or did you just have so much to say that it took 12 tracks to say it?

I usually aim for 12 – we recorded 14 – it nearly ended at 10, the vinyl is 10 because it is a long record…and I hate having to choose what ones to leave off! I really do! But I had to because I couldn’t afford to make a double vinyl. Thinking about it, it was going to be 10 with these 2 cover versions, and then late in the day 2 other songs went “Yeah, me as well…make space!” So to answer your question in a really long-winded way; I thought that it was finished on 10 but then 2 other songs reminded me that I hadn’t said enough…

The awkward buggers!

Yes! They are like my kids, man! They keep me awake at night, they make me really happy, they piss me off…I can’t control them! They say things that I wouldn’t necessarily say if I was just talking. They really are like my fucking kids!

Kerrang! called you “Burnt in Blues, Soaked in Soul!” – would you agree?

[pauses] Emmmm, yes! I grew up listening to the Stones, and it wasn’t until I got into AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ and had a poster of Angus Young with his red Gibson SG that I thought “Maybe I should do that…”. I am a rock musician really, some facets of myself I have kind of illuminated at different times in my journey to find a core audience. I listen to field chants from the earliest parts of the 20th century, recorded in parts of the deep South of America, and then last night I was listening to the Stone Roses with my 13-year-old son. I was listening to The Cramps the other day for hours on end. Everything…I like it all! Anything that is authentic. If I am going on a long car journey and I need to keep myself going then stay out of my way when the stereo starts overheating because I have Nine Inch Nails on so loud!

You are involved with WaterBear College in Brighton, yes?

Yes, I am the well-being manager for WaterBear College. Bruce…Bruce Dickinson, but not the Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson…and I have been mates in excess of twenty years…

Little Angels Bruce Dickinson…

Yes, Little Angels Bruce, we kind of look the same, talk the same, grew up in the same part of the world, and have similar tastes in music…so it was bound to happen. We always kept in touch and when he started up I lent him some guitars and amps…I work in GAK which is a big music shop here in Brighton…and I’ve always had a collection of gear, so I lent him stuff. I’ve never done anything except work in guitar shops and play music, and by the time I was 40 that had somehow turned into my whole fucking life. So I managed to unfuck that and retrained, and now I am a qualified therapist. A therapeutic counsellor. My intention was always to go and work for Bruce and then I started doing counselling with WaterBear once I qualified in 2019, and all through the lockdown. Last year it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be a quick fix to all our financial woes, and the college was big enough to warrant taking someone on to do the role…and I’ve been working there the past year. Saying that; I took the job on the Monday and on the Thursday I was offered a 26-date tour! [laughs]

That would have made for an interesting phone call!

The thing is, well-being therapy and the responsibility for people’s emotional and physical well-being is so terrifying to most people that if you are lunatic enough to say that you are going to do it…then they tend to give you a free hand! [laughs] So I was like “Well, I’ll just do it from hotel rooms…service stations…” and they were cool with that. The college is all about sustainable, DIY careers within music, so they can’t very well not have staff that aren’t the thing that they are training people to do. It’s good. It’s a great environment.

I would imagine that it would be quite a rewarding role?

It is, yes. I’ve been in this game for 30 years now…give or take…and I really smashed myself up along the way. Massively smashed myself up; emotionally, mentally, and physically…however you want to put it. And if I can use some of the experience gained from doing that into helping other people not having to do that in their journey towards finding themselves…then that is incredibly rewarding. I do one-to-one counselling, and I do song counselling…and that’s the shit, man. You know, when you are there and you just turn something around for somebody, and it could be something fundamental like hearing something in a mix that you have never heard before, so sharing moments like that with people and seeing them progress and doing well is really rewarding. It is closely connected to the feeling that I get when people experience my music. It’s like a non-verbal communication…they call it a liminal space, and it’s a space where it is really genuine and you are in it and it doesn’t matter what you say…it’s like being halfway through side two of ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ or ‘Who’s Next’ and you are like: “Oh, my God!… I get it!” and then the record finishes and it is like “Oh, shit!”. And it’s great because it gives me another way of experiencing that rather than just mashing myself up driving up and down the fucking motorway! [laughs]

You mentioned thirty-odd years in the music business; what frustrates you most about the music business?

Well, the unwillingness of people in positions of responsibility to invest in new talent. And as an extension of that; the unwillingness of people to value new talent in the same way that they value AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Guns N’ Roses, and I don’t know…fucking U2. That whole industry that grew up around those people, and is still mostly around those people. And all of the money is going to those people. That plus the number of people releasing new tracks, it’s a dizzying amount of tracks uploaded to Spotify on a daily basis, most of which will only get a few plays. And with that amount of uploads, you get the ambulance chasers: the Spotify playlisters, the professional managers that charge you a monthly fee, the record labels that do the same, and agents that don’t do a thing and tell you to wait until the time is right for them and not for you, and then they ditch you because they can’t be bothered doing any work. I’m not naive enough to think that this is an industry where it is easy enough to do things…so I don’t blame any one part of it. It might be different for young good-looking people! [laughs] Maybe, just maybe it might be different for those…but I don’t think so! What I’m trying to say is that I’m not bitter about this, I do this by choice. And I manage pretty well considering. You could always do with more record sales, you could always do with more engagement and you could always do with selling more tickets. But if your career is not dependent on massive growth in all of those areas – even though that would be nice – then that is what I’m striving for.

 

‘Third Eye Open’ is available now, more information here.

Interview – Dave

All images – Rob Blackham

Current live dates include:

May 2: Coulsdon TNMC
May 13: Stockton Blues Festival*
May 16: Broadstairs The Wrotham
May 20: St Austell Band Club*
May 24: Brighton The Greys
May 25: Bournemouth Poole Hill Brewery
May 26: Gillingham (Kent) Riverside Music Club

June 11: London Princess Alexandra, Crouch End*
June 23: Hastings, Black Box *
June 24: Sheffield Honey Bee Blues Club
June 25: Leicester HRH AOR Blues Crows

*solo show

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