Interview: Mike Ross

Guitarist, singer-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Ross recently released his new solo album ‘The Clovis Limit Pt.2’, and a rather fine album it is indeed. Through the magical powers of the interweb, Mike was on hand to answer some questions fired at him regarding the writing and recording process for the album, as well as his own personal musical memories.

Hi Mike, hope you are well and staying safe in the minefield of #lockdown2!

Hi, I’ve just been keeping my head down in the studio! Got a couple of new projects I’m working on so they’re keeping me out of trouble – I’ve barely noticed any change to my normal routines tbh.

Let’s begin with the new album ‘The Clovis Limit Pt.2’, enjoying the album immensely, and it’s just what the Doctor ordered! What was the gestation period of the album like? How quickly did it come together, and how long have you had the songs brewing?

Well, it took a while! I wrote all the songs for both Clovis albums around the same time, mostly on the road between 2016/2017. I really wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go in as the material kind of ranged from old-fashioned country to fairly heavy rock so I thought I’d just record everything and decide afterward. I got started in April 2018, heading out to Nashville to record a bunch of songs with session guys out there then I came home and went into Brighton Electric studios with my regular touring band to record the rockier stuff along with the first RHR album. That was four busy days, we tracked about 30 songs! The RHR record released first and that was obviously pretty rocky so for my next solo release I thought I’d offer up a different side of myself by putting out the more laid-back Americana material first. That’s The Clovis Limit Pt.1 and it came out in April ’19, however the whole time I had this smoking hot rock record just sitting there begging to be finished but what with promo for the RHR stuff and Clovis 1 I just didn’t have the time to start until summer ’19. I’ve got a studio at home now so I just locked myself away for about 10 days at the end of July and cracked through most of the work then. I was still fiddling about and finishing things off up til about Christmas and then I handed it over for mixing.

The album is obviously very personal, you wrote all but one song, produced and co-engineered it, took the photographs for the album, and played most of the instruments: can you be “too” close to an album? Did you find yourself having to take a step back at times? And who was your sounding board with the album?

Yeah, I certainly put my whole self into it! That was a conscious decision tho, I wanted the record to reflect exactly the person that I am it’s even got childhood references in there – snatches of the first sounds and melodies I remember hearing. Having the time to layer parts, play keys and whatever, I’d never had that before as budget constraints always got in the way so the leash was very much off this time! I was definitely aware that I didn’t want to overcook things but I’d done a pretty comprehensive set of demos which helped me to stay focused on the project as a whole. I didn’t really have to step back so much tho, in fact, quite the reverse – the was almost a year between the initial sessions and me getting stuck into finishing it off so I had plenty of time to plan out exactly what I wanted to do. I have an excellent sounding board in the person of Al Scott, he’s the one that really pulls things together as he does all the mixing and mastering of my stuff. I really trust his judgement so if he says it’s OK then I believe him!

The album has a very analog feel, what way was it recorded?

The basic tracks were recorded live in a big room with mostly vintage mics running into a big old ’70s NEVE console (like the one John Lennon had apparently!). I have lots of vintage gear at home too – mics and studio gear as well as guitars, amps, and FX so the sounds you hear were mostly done live ‘in the room’ rather than assembled digitally or whatever. We use ProTools as tape just isn’t an option for me (or most people anymore). The recording quality is as high as possible and the aim is to create a big, fat 70’s sound with lots of punch and not too much nasty hissy treble.

The sound is immense! Now, as mentioned previously, you cover most of the playing on the album, out of all the instruments you play, what was the hardest to master? And, how top does the Wurli & Moog sound?! Very cool!

Well, I wouldn’t say I was a master of anything, to be honest! Guitar is my main thing, it’s the instrument I feel most able to express myself on certainly, followed by my singing. I’m a bit of a ham-fisted piano player but I do love to bash out some chords on my Wurli piano. The Moog is amazing, it a vintage ‘Moog Rogue’ and it’s the simplest of all of them but it’s so powerful and exciting to play even though I don’t really know what I’m doing with it – I just mess about with all the knobs and buttons until I get the sounds I’m after really. There’s this one sound (which I actually looked up in the manual!) which is supposed to emulate a violin and it’s such an incredible tone that whenever I dial it in the sheer purity of it almost makes me weep – that’s the swooping tone you can hear doing the glissando in the middle 8 of ‘None Of Your Business’. The rest of it is just necessity really, playing percussion isn’t something I set out to have as a life skill, but, needs must!

I know you must be sick of being asked; but where did the album title come from?! A quick Google tells me that…“Clovis” was king of the Franks and ruler of much of Gaul from 481 to 511, a key period during the transformation of the Roman Empire into Europe”…

That’s a new one on me! It actually comes from a novel called The Peripheral by William Gibson (he’s the guy that basically came up with the concept for The Matrix btw), it’s an amazing story about future history and there’s a shop in it called The Clovis Limit which sells ‘exclusively Americana’. Also, there’s a town called Clovis in New Mexico where ancient human remains were found that were thought to indicate that the original colonisation of North America was from people migrating up from the south, rather than across the ‘land bridge’ and into Alaska. For contacts, remember that all these songs were written at a time when Trump was just becoming president and immigration was a big topic (all that ‘build a wall’ bullshit) so I found it hilarious to point out (in my own subtle way) that EVERYONE in North America is an immigrant.

Exactly! Back to the album, there are some absolute stop-you-in-your-tracks moments on the album; loving the variety between ‘None Of Your Business’, ‘The Only Place You Ever Take Me Is Down’, and ‘Hammer’, these tracks seem quite personal – what can you tell us about these ones?

Well, Hammer is an old one – the only song on both records I didn’t write, I used to play it years back in the band Mother Sugar and it was written by Paul Dent our singer. He wrote some amazing tunes (I covered another one of his ‘Loveslide’ on my ‘Jenny’s Place’ album) and the laid back feel really gives Clovis 2 time for a breather after the triple punch of the first three songs! When I wrote None Of Your Business I was thinking about my experience with know-it-alls, the kind of person that always manages to find a way to put you down. And ‘The Only Place’ is really me just extemporising – improvising around a set of experiences to come up with an imaginary narrative that justifies blaming someone else for my own bad behaviour really! Like a lot of the songs on TCL2 there’s a lot more anger and vitriol to be found in these lyrics, some of which is directed or influenced by the kinds of things I see going on in the world these days and some which derives from experience in my own personal relationships. I guess at the heart of the matter my songs represent facets of my personality, so maybe I’m just angry at myself?

‘Hammer’ is a seven-minute epic, a feat bettered by a few minutes, later on by ‘Shoot You If You Run’. When gigs return, how will these sound live? They both seem organic and free-flowing, will they take flight and spread out?

Well, I was just this morning listening to the first mix of the launch show and both of those songs stand out as being perfect for live – I really look forward to getting stuck into the extended soloing and reprises once we can get back out on the road!

Fingers crossed it won’t be too long before that happens! Now, the album features instrumentals ‘Tell Jerry’ and ‘Unforgiven’, how much structure goes into an instrumental, and how much of it is “let’s see where this takes us”?

Honestly, I never set out to have two instrumentals on the record. Tell Jerry was actually a groove with a couple of different sections that I was intending to turn into a song, we recorded what was supposed to be a run-through just to play with the feel but what ended up on the album is that whole take – everything from the extra little bit of guitar at the start while I was tweaking my delay unit to the laughs and my elevator music quip off-mic ‘we can have that on in the lift’. So there’s an unrecorded version of that song kicking about somewhere that might surface one day. Unforgiven was originally supposed to be this Who-inspired piece with crashing guitars and a repeated vocal (and indeed you’ll find that version as an unlisted bonus track on the CD) but the twin guitar version came about as I was planning to have my late friend Jules Fothergill (from the band Northsyde) duet on guitar with me but he sadly died before we had the chance. I ended up recording both parts myself and our mutual friend Rob Millis played some organ on it so it became a tribute to Jules instead.

On your Facebook page, you recently asked your followers for their favourite Duane Allman lick, riff, or song; what’s yours? And what is it about Duane that makes him your favourite guitarist?

It’s his ‘voice’ or his tone I guess – so clear and confident, like he’s singing rather than fretting. Every. Single. Note. I hear him play is just on the money, even the ‘bum’ ones! My favourite piece by him changes from day to day – today I think I’d say it’s the solo from the 1971 Fillmore live version of ‘Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ where he disappears off the top of the fretboard, his playing is so high!

What made you pick up the guitar? And what was your first-ever guitar?

Angus Young, hands down. I loved my parent’s Beatles and Stones records and my dad had a ‘Cream of Eric Clapton’ tape in the car which I was interested in but it was definitely Angus. I had a life-size poster of him on my bedroom wall brandishing his Red Gibson SG when I was about 12 and I just thought he was so COOOOOOOL! My parents had a vinyl copy of Back In Black (which I just ‘recovered’ from my mum’s loft the other day!) and I played it to death the year or so before I got my first guitar My mum bought me a ‘Fame by Hondo’ strat copy in ‘EC Black’ when I was 13 – I’d just been to have some nasty dental work done and she took me to Durham Guitar Centre as a treat afterward.

How did you feel performing your first gig? And how was it?!

Funny, actually just found some photos this morning from my first ‘proper’ gig – it was playing three songs in some battle of the bands competition in a nightclub in Middlesborough in 1992. It was a weird venue with a stage above the bar and I just remember this incredible combination of exhilaration and terror! We didn’t win but I didn’t care, it was ‘game on’ from then I guess.

Personally, who has been the biggest influence on you becoming a musician?

My parents. I’d never have been able to do it without my mum forking out for that guitar or my dad giving me all those lifts to my lessons and to early gigs. Neither of them played an instrument but they each had a parent who was musical – my mum’s dad was a singer and comedian doing stand-up in North East working mens clubs and my dad’s mum played piano and organ in church. Talk about opposites! Mind you, I’ve got a bit of that ‘angels and devils’ split going on in me so that’s probably where it comes from.

What was the last gig that you attended as a fan?

I went to see Rosalie Cunningham play at The Green Door Store in Brighton in early March, that would have been the week before lockdown I guess. She’s f**king incredible, such a fantastic singer and guitarist, brilliant onstage and her songwriting is off the scale great, can’t say enough good things about her!

Agreed! Rosalie is amazing! Purson were an incredible band, and her solo material is breathtaking. Now, what current social issue are you particularly passionate about?

Mental health, partly how our hyper-consumerist society actually thrives on creating anxiety which we’re driven to fix through buying shit, and how that relates to addiction – ‘treating’ that anxiety with drink and drugs. I’ve been through some really tough times emotionally and as a direct result I actually studied and became a qualified therapeutic counsellor, I do some work with young people in music further education and it’s very rewarding.

There is great debate at the minute about whether or not musicians should use their platform to talk about political issues, some for and some against. Music has always been a form of protest, surely an artist has just as much right as the next person to offer an opinion? Or should they “just stick to the music”?

I can’t speak for other artists but for me, the goal is to reflect emotions rather than to ‘pick a side’. For example, Brexit – personally I think that humanity is better off connected rather than isolated but I respect the views of people who feel differently, I guess just so long as their opinions are formed from facts rather than populist tripe. But I can see that people on both ‘sides’ of the argument have a lot of deep feelings – anger for example which is a primary emotion and often masks fear, doubt, guilt, shame, or whatever. So my goal is to use my music to create a narrative that appeals to ALL people on an emotional level, rather than f**k the Toris/f**k Corbyn or whatever.

The album that you have in your album collection/Spotify playlist that would surprise most people?

The Power Of One soundtrack! I love African rhythms and voices, it’s the source, the root of all music on this planet I reckon.

Although 2020 has been a year to forget, there has been some great music released; what would be your album of the year?

Troy Redfern’s lockdown album ‘Island’ is pretty damn fantastic IMHO.

Who would you class as an underrated songwriter?

Rosalie Cunningham. See above!

What are your plans for 2021 should COVID ever disappear?!

Well, I’m not going to kid myself – 2021 isn’t going to be a great year for live music is it? However, I have some pretty exciting plans for new music releases lined up – a ‘companion work’ to the Clovis Limit duology and a surprise re-issue of an album I recorded over 20 years ago that’s hopefully going to see the light of day.

 

Connect with Mike here:

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Twitter

 

Interview – Dave

Images – Adam Kennedy/Paul Winter

 

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