An Interview with Mike Zito

Mike Zito 75My heart is to follow my own music that I have been doing for so long.





Mike Zito 500

August 6, 2015

Marsha Buehler: Good afternoon, Mike! We have Mike Zito here with us today. What’s new and exciting with you Mike?

Mike Zito:  Well, we just finished a tour of Italy; we played a blues festival in Norway.  We’ve had a busy summer doing the festivals in Europe. I did record a new album in June, and it will probably come out later in the year.

MB:  What is the name of that album?

MZ:  It’s called Keep Coming Back. It’s on RUF record label. That album will come out towards the end of the year. That turned out really well; I’m very excited about the album. That’s my 12th album. It should be good, I’m excited about it. You know, we’re just doing well. I was in the group called Royal Southern Brotherhood, with another St. Louis artist called Devon Allman. We played in that band together for four years. But since then, both Devon and myself have both left the band in the last year.  This is my first year back touring fulltime as Mike Zito and The Wheel Band. So, that’s big news. Everything has been going well.

MB:  How difficult was that decision to leave Royal Southern Brotherhood?

MZ:  It was difficult to pull the trigger. I knew that I wasn’t going to do that forever. When we first created the group, the idea was, I’ve been doing my own solo career for 15 years, and I didn’t want to just give that up. At first, I was hopeful that I could do both. But the group became very popular and successful very fast. It kind of took over, so for a few years I had to put my own career on hold and focus on that, but I also knew that I couldn’t just do this forever. It wasn’t in my heart; my heart is to follow my own music that I have been doing for so long. But it wasn’t easy; I gave them 9 months’ notice.

MB:  That’s a lot of notice!

MZ:  That was last year in 2014. But it all ended on a high note; no one was angry, nothing was ugly or anything like that.

MB:  Well good, that’s the way it should be. Now, you mentioned that you have been playing festivals in Europe. How would you describe the differences in doing festivals in Europe as opposed to festivals in the U.S.?

MZ:  That’s a common question, how the different audiences are. It really depends on where you are at.  I can tell you that in Germany or Belgium, they are wild from the get go. But in Switzerland, they are very quiet and silent. It depends on where you are at. Some of them are beer drinking and wild and crazy. But for the most part, in Europe they are really there for the music from the get go. Whether they are there to party or whatever, they are really there for the music. They come out for American music—maybe even more than here in America. I think it’s just something they are passionate about. I think it’s always been that way. American music is sometimes more popular in other places than maybe it is in America. Both are very similar, it’s got the festival vibe and it’s live performance.

MB:  Tell me a little bit about your song, “Roll On.”

MZ:  Well, “Roll On” was from my Greyhound album. It was released in 2011; it was featured on the show Sons of Anarchy, which is really cool.

MB:  How did you go about getting that opportunity?

MZ:  Well, they got it. The album was nominated for a blues music award, and it was my third award on the Delta Grooves label. We had already had some success. It just got picked up by a marketing promoter, and I guess someone heard it, and they really liked it. So I just got a call and they said ‘hey, Sons of Anarchy is going to use your songs for the show.’ I wish I really could tell you how it happened, but I don’t really know. I think generally, they heard it on the radio and someone said, hey that would be a good song for this show. We had similar success for this song called “Death Row”—it was on my Gone to Texas album—that was featured as a song for a reality show called Outlaw Country. It’s a show filmed in Missouri. I don’t even think the show is still on. 

MB:  That’s pretty awesome!

MZ:  Yeah, yeah it was great! What it really tells me is there is a big difference between, you know. I made five albums on my own when I lived in St. Louis, but I put them out as independent releases and then was just trying to get them out there. It’s a big difference when releasing music from an independent label; it’s a catalog that’s released for distribution, and it’s put out there legitimately. It’s such a difference. Once I signed with the label, and they were getting my music out into the world, you know, that’s when things started happening for me—you know, getting songs on TV shows and being recognized for award nominations. I received an award for my song called “Pearl River,” that was a big deal for me. In 2010, we won the song of the year award from Billboard Albums. Things like that started happening, and it took us to the next level. It’s a wonderful feeling to see your music start to be recognized and utilized and to receive accolades and nominations. All those things feel really good, but it’s when they all start adding up and that’s what matters—you know, TV shows and commercials, those things add up. It feels really good, and I’m hopeful about the success we’ve had so far … we are always hopeful for that kind of compounding success. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

MB:  What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician? Did you have a second career in mind?

MZ:  Well, first and foremost, I am a father of five, and I’m married to a school teacher, so I’d have to do something to work, to help pay for my family. I worked at a music store in St. Louis for ten years, in South St. Louis, a place called Tower Grove Music. I worked in the store, and I talked the talk. If I were not a musician, or if I were not involved in music whatsoever, I would want to do something to be involved with people. I enjoy being around people and that kind of thing. I’m really not sure, I never thought about it.

MB:  Well it was just an off the cuff question. You obviously didn’t need to have a second choice.

MZ:  Well, I don’t have a degree or anything. I just went to high school. 

MB:  You didn’t have to; you picked up your guitar and here you are!  So, a lot of people have the image that its nonstop partying while you are out on the road. Is that true?

MZ:  While I’m sure it’s true for maybe some or even a lot, but for me, I’ve been clean and sober for coming up on 12 years, so it is not like that. Not that we don’t have fun, we do, there’s a lot of joking around; everything is pretty light hearted. We are working hard, and the travel is hard. Even though things have graduated to maybe we are still flying in or sitting around on the tour vehicle, it’s still like a grind. Things are kept light hearted from my particular group. I can’t imagine doing it; it’s hard enough now to get done and get to the room to get five or six hours of sleep and get up to the airport to get the next flight to get to the next show—a half hour to get changed, get ready, go, and play, it’s hard enough to imagine, especially at 44 years old. It’s hard to think about man, how could I do this if I was hung over? It’s already painful and we’re just working hard. But I attribute the majority of my success in the last 10 years to my recovery. I did have some early success in St. Louis, things were going well and things were moving forward, and I was going to Chicago trying to get the label going there, but the drinking and the drugs really caught up fast. So, you know, like it all ended really fast. I was caught up in drugs and drinking. I’m sure there are normal musicians who can party and drink some and still make their gigs on time and have success. It seems to me, my success has been attributed to—sure there is talent involved—showing up on time and doing a good job. That seems to have brought things a long way.

MB:  So how do you feel about censorship in music?

MZ:  Censorship does not play a big role in my music and probably not in my genre, whereas in rock or Americana it might. I’m not sure if that’s where you were going with the question.

MB:  Well, do you ever have material you have written and later think that maybe that was too harsh for an audience and tone them down? Do you censor your own words?

MZ:  Oh, no. There may be music that I recorded when I was younger that seems silly, you know, because now I’m not 25. Maybe I don’t play some of those songs as much now because some of those songs are about sex or alcohol, and that’s some of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs out there.

MB:  Yeah, because there are people that identify with that.

MZ:  Sure. But maybe I don’t play those songs as much anymore, but not out of censorship. After putting out 12 albums, and when you have 150 songs, you just can’t play them all. You know what, when everyone is in St. Louis, because I still play there from time to time, people that came to watch me play 15-20 years ago on the landing, playing at Rivers or Pops, playing in Soulard, you know they all want to know why I’m not playing this anymore. I’m thinking it’s 15-20 years ago, things changed. They want to still hear me play Jimmy Hendricks (which I love doing), so I will pull some stuff out and like ‘here you go.’ It’s interesting to me, but it’s definitely not out of censorship. I just don’t play that stuff anymore.  We have a lot of songs out now, so I don’t play many cover songs now—the only songs I used to play when I was drinking and it was 2 in the morning. It’s difficult for me when I come to St. Louis, and they want to know why I’m not the same guy I was 20 years ago. 

MB:  Where do you live now Mike?

MZ:  I live in Southeast Texas in Naderland. I’ve lived here for 12 years. Moving away is sometimes necessary, especially if you are an artist or a musician. You need to get out of the rut. I think getting stuck in the same place, you never get out. When I lived in St. Louis, I never toured because you could work from St. Louis all the time. I never went out on the road, so when I moved to where I am now—it’s a really small town—you have to drive if you want to play. I started driving to Louisiana, Austin. So if I wanted to play, I had to get out. That really helps when you start touring.

MB:  Do you ever play South by Southwest or any of the larger venue festivals?

MZ: Yes, we used to play there, but we have played there a couple of times. We played all the big blues music festivals all over the country. But Austin is not a big blues town. We do great in Houston, we do great in Dallas, San Antonia, Corpus Christie, all over the state, but Austin is where bands play with tip jars and stuff like that; unless you are really famous or willing to play for free, but we don’t do that. 

MB:  Who does that? So, what’s next for you?

MZ:  We have a new album coming out, and we have summer tours all summer. Every weekend in August we are doing summer shows—Wheeling, VA; Denver, CO; New York City, Massachusetts, we’re playing the Big Muddy in St. Louis.

The Big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis is on Labor Day weekend, and we play on Saturday. We are the last two headlines, which is a big deal for me, growing up in St. Louis. When I put my first album together in 1998, we tried to get into play at the Big Muddy Festival, but they told us that we were too rock ‘n’ roll, and fortunately there were more popular rhythm and blues artists. I had always been hopeful to play the Big Muddy Blues Festival. It’s really exciting to me, to have Mike Zito and the Wheel to have the second to last slot on Saturday night! 

MB:  I plan on coming out to see you. So what is next for you?

MZ:  We are just doing all the summer festivals and then in October and November we go to Norway and then the new album will be coming out, and we’ll go back to work and try to make it all happen again.

MB:  Thank you for your time today Mike, I wish you the very best of luck. Looking forward to seeing Mike Zito and the Wheel at the Big Muddy Festival. You have a really great start. I’m really happy for your success!

MZ:  Thank you!

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