Cruisin’ with Michael Nesmith

nesmith sqAm I talking to one of the Monkees, or am I talking to the guy who founded the concept that became MTV?

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Okay, before we do anything, let’s just get this out of the way: Michael Nesmith will most likely tour with The Monkees again. “Yes, we will tour again, I am sure,” he says. “M & P are good guys, talented and fun to work with.” It’s not that Nesmith is apprehensive about addressing the iconic band that started his multi-faceted attack on pop-culture. He’s just excited for the opportunity to revisit his eclectic solo career, with a library of songs that Rolling Stone has called “the greatest music never heard.”

The latest U.S. trek, dubbed the “Movies of the Mind Tour,” kicked off on Oct. 27 in Phoenix, Ariz. and lands at St. Louis’ Old Rock House on Nov. 19 as part of its Listening Room series. A sort of mad-scientist Forrest Gump, his influence spans decades, touching upon everything from art and culture, to business and technology. Admittedly, I found myself in a bit of a quandary, not knowing where to even begin when talking to him. Am I talking to one of the Monkees, or am I talking to the guy who founded the concept that became MTV? Is this the dude whose mom invented White Out, or is this the film producer who gave us the cult classics Repo Man and Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann? Leading up to the interview, I had his song “Cruisin’ (Lucy and Ramona and Sunset Sam)” in a seemingly endless rotation in the radio station of my brain, so talking about the tour itself ultimately became ground zero for our talk.

With all the time spent in planes, trains, hotels, and buses, has anything changed for the seasoned road warrior? “Certainly in the technology of travel” he begins. “The tour buses and support systems are better by orders of magnitude. Much more comfortable and efficient. The modern tour bus is like a private railroad car must have been like. Stages and live sound production are also up in the same way; huge improvements in sound and lighting at every level, even a local club.”

When I ask if he thinks technology is being used as more of a crutch for a lot of modern artists in the creative process, he responds “I use the latest technology that fits. Sometimes that is “old” stuff like a Fender Twin and sometimes new like Ableton Live. The song and the art drive all of it.” He continues, “It is important to me not to become influenced by the tools but let the tools conform to the need; which, of course, includes creating and building tools , i.e. technology.” Being that he’s the founder of Pacific Arts, a successful record, film and video production house and book publisher, I ask him what he thinks we have in store in the technological frontier. “The internet is the most powerful and pervasive new medium,” he says. “I think we have only touched the shallowest parts still. There is a lot there that seems revolutionary and evolutionary that is developing quickly.”

It is when we begin talking about his band, that he expounds on some of his more high-level thoughts and shows the enthusiasm that is driving him to hit the road in the first place. “They are all top players,” he begins. “Their mastery is now at a level where we can think up any idea and execute it, so we spend more thinking about the creative side of things than the production side.”

The musicians that make up his band are top-of-their-game players, and they’ve clearly stoked the fires of inspirada within their boss. “Paul Leim is my favorite drummer whether he is playing with me or not. He has a metronome in his head and all his excursions stay true to that so his fills and drumming take on a very fluid and artistic quality.” Multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs (grandson of Earl Scruggs), has played with Nesmith since March of this year, and “has moved his highly developed technique on many classic instruments into service, and it is informed by a prodigious knowledge of the cultural history of the music he plays. That by turns becomes a basis for creative new ideas.”

nesmith currentBassist Joe Chemay has “been with me as long as Paul. Paul and Joe share a sense of precision that makes for great rhythm section. Joe also has a great ear for background vocals and harmonies. He is our chord master in residence; no wrong note goes unnoticed. Last, but most certainly not least is key-man Boh Cooper who Nesmith says “has an orchestrator’s ear and a performer’s hands. His live solos are show stoppers just like Chris’. He also is able to round out the overall sound of the band with great synth parts and that includes parts that would go unplayed if it were not for the sonic range of a synth and Boh’s great orchestrating chops.” Summing it up, he states “That’s the best I can do.”

Knowing that Nesmith popped onto the public radar as a member of a “TV band,” I wondered if he ever felt any extra pressure to prove himself. “I may have in the past. It’s been so long now. But I think that was the same feeling one has after graduating school or completing some training. A new skill set makes one adventurous.” This sense of adventure is something that has motivated Nesmith since he first put on his wool-cap and beat out a tune on that famous Gretsch guitar. I was curious if he ever met the similarly adventurous Frank Zappa, a fellow quirky genius with a propensity for dry and literate humor. “I enjoyed his music,” he says, “but more specifically I was fascinated by his subversive artistry. That is, art that was designed to give the lie to myths of culture.”

As my time winds down with Mr. Nesmith, I’m able to make a hasty retreat from heady topics of art and technology, and sneak in a couple of “always-wanted-to-know” questions. Explaining that I am a huge fan of his film, the aforementioned Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, I ask if there is any chance the character of Lyle Swann could ever be revisited, in film or some other medium. “I share that appreciation,” he says, giving me a small sliver of hope. But it is not to be, when he continues “It is unlikely however that Swann would live in these times; as much as I would like him to.” Finally, I relate to him that many Monkees fans were wanting me to ask him about the absence of his wool cap on the most recent Monkees tour. Was this a case of not wanting to wade too deeply in the waters of nostalgia? “I still wear a wool cap,” he says, “but not on stage.” | Jim Ousley

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Michael Nesmith – The Movies of the Mind Tour

Old Rock House, St. Louis MO

Tuessday, November 19 • Doors 7pm • Show 8:30pm • $50 Reserved • $40 General Admission • All Ages BUY TICKETS

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