Mike Zito Talks About Making Music, Success and the State of the Blues

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Mike Zito Keep Coming Back

Royal Southern Brotherhood veteran and Ruf Records recording artist Mike Zito is a busy man.  He has recently released two CDs, Keep Coming Back, and Troubadour, tours with his band, The Wheel, and creates instructional videos, yet insists on spending time with his family. He now does weekly podcasts as well.

Recently, we were lucky enough to acquire a few precious moments of his time just to chat, so we sat on a couch outside Uncle Bo’s, a great little blues venue in Topeka, Kansas and did just that. Zito had just played an early show and had two performances lined up at Knuckleheads in Kansas City the very next night.  One was a solo, acoustic performance in their “Gospel Lounge” and the second was a throwback to the days of the Midnight Special television show, where Zito and The Wheel would play on stage with as many invited guests as they could squeeze in.  This is the type of thing that sets him apart from the wash of some other artists today.

“So we line up like eight or ten people and say, just come on out and we’ll start putting people up one at a time and just sort of let the night go where it goes”, he said of the upcoming performance.  “There’s some R&B, some songwriters,  some blues jammers;  its gonna be interesting. I’m excited.”

JD Nash for American Blues Scene:  Have you had some pretty good success with Keep Coming Back?

Mike Zito:

Keep Coming Back is doing really well.  Its the most ‘not blues’ record I’ve ever made.  But I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to have developed a really good fan base and they support me.  I used to really dream of the cross-over, and this is the most cross-over record I’ve ever made, but there’s no where to cross-over to.  I mean, you used to have a really good track like “Blue on Black” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, play on rock radio, but there’s no rock radio anymore.  Its all classic rock, and I thought well, here’s the record that can get played as another genre, but there is no other genre.  There’s no where to go.  I’m not a Top-40 or country guy so, the track that got the most play was the title track, and that’s because its a blues song.

But still you’re a pretty busy guy.

It seems like I purposely continue to make myself busier.  I mean, Keep Coming Back is my album and Troubadour isn’t really out for distribution; its just something I put out on my own for the fans.  People were always saying, ‘I wish you had acoustic versions of those songs’ and so I took my first three records from Delta Groove, grabbed my guitar and sat down and sang them.  Its really just for live shows and for the fans.

So how many dates do you play in a year?

I don’t play as many dates as I used to five years ago and I look at that as a success.  Probably last year maybe 125 to 150 shows and we’ll probably do about the same this year, but I used to do like 250 shows.

Was that just you, or combined with Royal Southern Brotherhood?

No, that was just me.  Even The Brotherhood in their most busy did maybe 200 shows.  I remember when I had to play almost every night. I mean you have to make money and I was playing a lot. I’m not trying to get rich obviously, by playing the blues.  That’s what’s funny, you know, I meet young people sometimes and I see that dreamy, starry look in their eyes and I’m like, you’re not going to get rich and famous playing the blues.  You should really enjoy doing this, that’s why you should play blues.  The idea has always been to make enough money to live and not have to work as much and be home more.  I’ve been really blessed in that I can work more if I want to, but don’t need to tour as much.

What other things do you do?

I produce records, I do instructional courses for a company called TrueFire and having done ten albums with songwriting and stuff, all those things have added up to help out.

And now the podcast.

Yeah, right.  This is sincere, I’m a really big podcast fan.  I drive the van a lot and drive a lot by myself, and I listened to talk radio shows for a long time.  Then I found some podcasts and thought, ‘oh man, this is great’.  My manager kept telling me for two or three years, maybe you should do a podcast, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it.

What changed your mind?

About two years ago I talked to Tony Colter at Bluesville and I asked if he would consider letting me do a pre-recorded show.  I have access to all these great artists.  I’m friends with them all and we play a lot of the same festivals and its really easy for me to say, ‘hey man, let me talk to you over here’.  So I did about eight interviews over the course of a year and I saved them; I didn’t do anything with them.  So just this year I was thinking the way the world is today, its all about content…you have to keep coming from different angles.  I thought to myself, I want to be busier, so I’m doing it.  My recordings were good and when I did the first one, it sounded like what I thought podcasts were supposed to sound like.  I uploaded it one week ago today and its had 2,500 downloads in that week.

With the decline in the amount of terrestrial blues radio stations, podcasts seem to be a brilliant way to keep blues artists in the forefront.

Yes.  Sincerely, I’ve been on podcasts for blues or for guitar playing and there is plenty of blues out there.  It was amazing to me that no one had one called simply, The Blues Podcast.  Really?  Nobody has this web site?  So I got thebluespodcast.com and its something people can relate to.  Someone is hosting that you know, talking to their friends who are other artists…and no one is doing this in our genre.  I have all these great interviews with Tab Benoit, Samantha Fish, Devon Allman, Danielle Schnebelen and a killer 45 minutes with Mike Finnigan talking about recording with Hendrix.  It was just phenomenal.  I figure people want to hear this.  I’m going to do it every week and again, I don’t think it will make me rich, but it seems to get people talking.  I also get to plug myself, my new album and tell them where I’m playing.

This isn’t your first venture into the world wide web though.

No.  I’ve been writing a blog now for almost four years and its been well received.  I also write a column for The Blues magazine over in the UK.  I’ve kind of been diving into these other things because I’m a fan.  I love the genre.  I love the acts, the old music, the new music, so its kind of fun for me to do these other things.  I do love to play, and that’s my first love, but it really doesn’t take that long to do this other stuff.  If I could do more of that, then play the shows I want to play and go home and see my kids, that would be perfect.

What shows are you really looking forward to this year?

Well, I’m going to the Blues Bender this year and I’ve already talked to AJ Gross about maybe doing a couple of live podcasts there.  Get Keb’ Mo’ or Delbert McClinton in a little theater for 45 minutes or an hour with like 50 people in there.  You could go so many ways with this.

It sounds like there’s still some pretty major Texas influence on your live playing.  Do you agree?

Obviously, but I think sincerely, there’s a lot going on in blues right now, everywhere.  There’s some shit happening and its gonna be cool.  It seems like about every twenty years man and its getting ready to come.  You know, Kansas City and this whole area, Lincoln, Topeka, is really doing awesome and they’re super supportive.  Its cool for me because I’m like a friend of the area.  I never feel like I’m just some guy that comes through, you know.  I’ve been playing this area for a long time, I know a lot of people and I’m a friend of the area; maybe even more so than my hometown.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends and fans in St. Louis and there’s a lot of blues there, but this new thing isn’t happening there like it is here.  It seems like there’s really something going on in Kansas City.

What do you say about people who try and pigeon-hole the genre?  Like, it has to be this or it has to be that to be the blues.

Its over now.  I mean, I think there will always be traditional blues, but there’s new blues and there’s new American blues.  Its not rock & roll, but its rockin’.  Its got more of a foot back in the old blues the way rock & roll came about, you know what I mean?  Sometimes it might even have a Zeppelin sound or a Hendrix sound, but its definitely a new American blues thing where its not as exclusive as it used to be.  There’s a mixture of blues, R&B, soul, Americana…you know blues is Americana so I see it broadening.  The young people, they don’t see it like, this isn’t traditional, they don’t see that all.  The traditionalists, that are really strict about it, to me its not nearly as bad as it was say fifteen years ago.  Things have got loosened up.

Do you think artists need to continue to take chances?

Yeah, I mean the King is gone man.  You can go down the list of the greats that are gone.  What are you going to do, just let it die because we’re not playing exactly like BB King?  Nobody is going to play exactly like BB King, except BB King.  It doesn’t mean he can’t be revered and we can’t pay homage to him and continue that music.  I can guarantee that he felt that way.  Buddy Guy feels that way. Why are doctors and lawyers opposed to it?  There are always going to be people that learn the traditional music, and I respect that, but its got to move around too.  Its got to go somewhere, to be true, so that it can come back around.

So what’s next for you?

There’s different things.  I’ve been enjoying playing with The Wheel for the past four years or so, and at some point in the next year or two I’m sure Devon and I will get back together with Cyril and maybe do something with the original Royal Southern Brotherhood lineup again. But right now its fun for me to go out with just the rhythm section of The Wheel and get back to this 3-piece, grassroots kind of thing.  I look back and think its been seven years since I did Pearl River, so to me that’s the last what I consider, blues record, that I’ve done.  I mean like my version of a blues record.  There’s always blues in there but I’ve always done my own thing.  So I feel that in the next year or so I need to really come back and really dive into blues guitar again, because I love it.  I can see that coming around, something really raw and dirty; back to the drawing board.

All in all, do you feel successful?

I’ve been very fortunate in the fact that my record label and my fans have really let me go kind of sideways at times.  I’ve only had a few people along the way say, ‘what is this man? Why aren’t you doing what you used to do?’  But most people have been really cool.  I feel like its a cycle for me.  I always have to go somewhere else with my music to have it come back around.  That kind of thing happens to me all the time, in many, many ways.  In music the most.  So I just let it happen.  Its part of the process and its exciting to me now because I see it coming back around.  Things are fun for me.  I’m very lucky.  I get to make records, play and make music.  I look at where I started and where I am now; I have no interest in being a famous pop star but I get to make records and will probably get to do it for the rest of my life.  That’s a big deal.

Mike Zito

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