Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hair Apparent: The Rest of the Sean Michel 'Electric Delta' Story

On September 3, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing the 34-year-old gospel-blues warrior musician Sean Michel (pronounced Michelle) at length for WORLD Magazine.  The occasion was the recent release of his fire-breathing gospel-blues album Electric Delta.  Much of what he had to say landed on the cutting-room floor.  The partially edited portions of the transcript below pick up some of the pieces.

Electric Delta, according to your website, “was recorded completely analog to two-inch tape.”  What are the advantages of using such a process to record loud, electric, gospel-blues?  

There’s a lot of different advantages.  What we were trying to accomplish as a three-piece band--one, we wanted it to be live.  You can do that digitally.  But there’s something about the fact that all music recording, especially blues or gospel or early rock-and-roll, was all done live to two-inch tape.  We wanted our project to sound real, like it did back in the day.  For the album we did before Electric Delta--Back to the Delta--we stripped everything down in an old church in a Mississippi town called Rolling Fork, where Muddy Waters was born, and we did everything live to tape.  There was no post-production work or anything.  We wanted it to feel like a ’30s or ’40s blues record, and [Electric Delta] was the natural progression of that into electric, early rock-and-roll.

What inspired you to try this approach?
We were trying to get back to our roots, to what had been inspiring us musically for so long because we’d kind of lost our way, and we were getting real scatterbrained as far as what direction, musically, we were going.  This brought us back to the foundation.  We just wanted to give back to the people what we had been learning.

Is it your intention to record your next album in the same way?
Well, I hope it’s just a further progression of “Hey, this is what we’re doing musically.  This is what we’re learning.”  But sometimes that can be dangerous.

Because an artist is constantly evolving.  You hope your listeners can join you in that and be cool with it.  But sometimes, if you find your niche and your wheelhouse--you know, artists tend to want to stay there so that people will buy records.  We still want to do that.  There’s part of that too.  It’s just sometimes it’s difficult because it’s difficult to find that wheelhouse.  I think we found a good chunk of the wheelhouse with Electric Delta.    

What is your next project?
The next project we’re working on is going to be a short EP, maybe six or seven songs.  And we’re planning on doing that in a studio of our friend’s, and he does all-digital stuff.  So, you know, it’s not going to be to tape, but we’re still wanting to do it live and have the bulk of the instrumentation done with the three of us at the same time.

Any plans to keep the word delta in the title? 

(Laughs) It’s going to be called Raise the Dead, after a song that we did for a friend of ours who wrote a book for Thomas Nelson.  He basically had a soundtrack for the book, and he chose us to do one of the songs.  We wanted to write songs in that vein as far as rock-and-roll’s concerned--a little bit more aggressive--and toy with that.  It’s kind of just for fun.  So we’re hoping some good songs come out of that too and that it doesn’t confuse people too much as far as what our sound really is (laughs).

You mentioned having lost your musical way.  How did it happen, and how did you know that you had?
In 2003, my manager at the time helped me form a band, and we toured for about four years.  It was a completely different style of music, which I didn’t feel was completely me but which was all I really knew.  Then, after a dramatic turn of events, my whole band, after four years, quit on me.  That was pretty heartbreaking in itself.  And that’s kind of how the whole blues thing started, with me anyway, or gospel-blues at least.  I was starting brand new with this different style and learning how to play it.  I was always influenced by that kind of music anyway, so singing it wasn’t that hard of a transition, but the playing was.  Anyway, in the midst of that, I never had a full band again.  I think that was a big reason for being so all over the map, because I never had these set guys that I always worked with.  It was, like, several people from different backgrounds, different influences, and we were doing covers and doing this and doing that.  I was so scattered because I didn’t really know where or who I was yet with the music.  My manager could see that too, and I guess he had the vision to see that the best thing for me was to get back to those original artists I was listening to after my band quit and I went into, like, a huge depression.  I was listening to all this gospel blues from the ’30s and the ’40s, and it’s real stripped down.

Was one of those gospel-blues artists Blind Willie Johnson?
Yeah, he’s a huge player in that--and Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Massive.  He didn’t do a whole lot of gospel stuff, but he has this one album called Amazing Grace that he did with a choir of people from Como, Mississippi, and that album is basically almost the full foundation of Back to the Delta.  I listened to that record a hundred million times.  It’s just Fred McDowell’s slide guitar and four vocalists and him.  And that’s what we did.  I had four vocalists and me.  I had a guitar.  We added harmonica, and we also had foot stomping and stuff like that.  But [Amazing Grace] was pretty much the album that guided me through Back to the Delta.

Who is most responsible for the prominence of the glam-rocking drums in Electric Delta’s final mix?  I’m thinking mainly of “While I Run This Race” and “Unbelievable.”
As far as “Unbelievable,” that was our idea.  A lot of people said, “You sound like the Black Keys on that song.”  I was like, “Well, yeah.”  But the Black Keys are basically just ripping off Gary Glitter, you know, with the Jock Jams kind of tune.  And that’s the same feel we wanted to have.  “Unbelievable,” at first, like a lot of songs, was just a jam.  We were messing around one day in the practice room, and that was the beat that we were fooling around with.  And then we built on that.  So, as far as that song in particular, the foundation of it had always been that (orally mimics Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” drum beat).  But it’s funny that you mention “While I Run This Race.”  We had several different options.  We could track drums live in the main tracking room, or we could track them upstairs in this reverb hallway, which we did on a couple of songs.  And “While I Run This Race” is the only song for which we tracked the drums in this enclosed, super-dead room to give you the kind of dead drums that they had in the ’60s and ’70s.  But in the mix it ended up being a little more prominent than maybe I would’ve liked.  But it still sounds cool.  

It sounds good to me.
That’s cool.  And the thing with us with the drums--and I told our engineer this, Chris Mara--he had done some early-on mixes, and this was two weeks after we had tracked everything.  He gave us a CD of mixes straight from the board.  They were basically just premixes.  So I’d been listening to that for two weeks.  And they had a lot of energy.  It was basically what you hear on the album.  And the reason we chose to mix with him and not just record with him was that he told us, “I’m going to mix straight from the two-inch tape through this analog board, no whistles, no bells.”  And we were like, “O.K., cool.  That’s what we want.”  And the the rough mixes from the board were awesome.  Then he sent us these preliminary mixes that he’d worked on one day, and they sounded horrible.  They sounded like radio-station--“Let me take a wet blanket and throw it over these big huge drums we’d just recorded and loud guitars and crazy vocals.”  And I was really heartbroken and kind of losing my mind.  It sounded like demos I had made in previous years, and I wanted to break away from that and make a legitimate record to where when I handed it to people I could say, “This is as close as we could get to what you experience live right now.”  That was a big problem with our recordings before.  They could never stand up to what people were experiencing live.  

So what happened?
We went back into the studio, and he was like, “What’d you think of those preliminary mixes?”  And I didn’t say anything.  I just stayed silent.  And he was like, “Crap!”  He was really distraught.  And I was like, “Look, man, I just want to get back to those rough mixes you had on the board.”  So then he tells me, “Well, I dumped the songs down into Pro-Tools.”  And I was like, “Why did you do that?  The whole reason we’re staying with you is that you said you were going to mix straight from the board and were not going to do anything digitally, just analog.”  And he was like, “All right.  Well, I can do that.”  And I was like, “I know you can.  That’s why we frickin’ chose you and we’re staying with you.”  So he said, “Let’s do it.  Let’s give ourselves only 45 minutes to an hour for each song to mix,” which is kind of unheard of.  A lot of studios--they’ll spend a few days or hours upon hours on mixing.  Anyway, we kept ourselves to that limit.  We never spent longer than an hour mixing a song.  And we kept it essentially to the rough mixes.  I feel like we captured so many great tones on the front end that we didn’t need any compression or anything on the back end.  We just basically needed to set the levels right and roll with it.

Good job of standing up to Pro Tools.
Yeah.  But I’m not saying this to say I’m on this personal journey of trying to destroy Pro Tools.  I think there’s a lot of good that can come from that.  And, like I said--hopefully in January or February--we’re going to be making an EP on Pro Tools.  There’s a lot of convenience to it.  It’s just not what Electric Delta needed or wanted.  If we knew in our hearts that we put out a record that was a follow-up to Back to the Delta, which was all mixed live to tape, and then we recorded Electric Delta live to tape but then we mixed it in a digital format, that would’ve been compromising the original intent of that project.  And I feel like it would’ve been cheapening that when we gave it to people.  We had to stay true to what the format was, which was all analog.

You released Back to the Delta on vinyl and cassette only as a protest of sorts against our increasingly impatient music-listening habits.  Did you at any point consider releasing Electric Delta the same way?
Uh, well, we were kind of over tape (laughs).  I mean, cassette tapes are cool and everything, but they’re not a great seller (laughs).  I mean, all the tapes came with digital-download cards, and that’s the only reason we sell those.  But we did release [Electric Delta] on vinyl.  Honestly, we had to pay a lot more than we were wanting to because we had it mastered twice.  We mastered all the songs so that it would be better formatted to CD, and then a guy named Tommy Riggins mastered it another time for vinyl.  So if you sit down with the vinyl and you sit down with the CD, they sound a little bit different.  It’s not drastic or anything like that.  But you can definitely tell.  It’s almost like the difference between two really good coffees and just the way that they’re brewed.  They’re both really good.  It’s just that they’re different.

What does the term Delta mean to you?  
Man, it conjures up a lot of things.  The first thing, I think, is just life and death.  There’s so much that happened in the Delta that produced life, I mean as far as soil, the crops, which offered life to so many people, growing essential things that the country needed back in the day, whether it was cotton or food that was shipped wherever in the country, feeding families that worked there.  But it also brought a lot of death and destruction.  I mean, you think about the Mississippi River and the power behind it-- the power to offer life, the power to offer death.  And there was so much flooding that went on in that region, things that human beings could never control and still can’t today.  We just had a flood recently, a couple of years ago, to where most of the traffic along the Mississippi River on the interstates had to be completely re-routed.  And even living in a technologically advanced society, you can’t control those things.  So, in a lot of ways, the river is great symbolism for who God is.  He brings life and--not to say that God’s bringing death.  I don’t believe that.  But there are factors that come in to where humans can’t control God.  So when I think about the Delta, I think about those things.  I think about the kind of people--it’s usually the poor, especially the sharecroppers, where a lot of the music came from originally.  It was coming from these slaves that were shipped over and from generations of slaves that were chained down to poverty and--just hard work, man.  I mean, every single day at work that I will never probably ever experience, the intensity of being out in the fields thirteen hours a day--crippled hands, crippled backs from having to bend over picking cotton, and bruised hands from trying to pick cotton bolls and getting stabbed, no air conditioning, no electricity.  Yet that suffering produced art that, as far as these songs that they sang out there.  All the songs they sang were basically to help bring some relief to the suffering that they were having to endure with the work and the bondage.  And from that suffering and from that art sprang, I think, the greatest music ever, which has influenced so many styles of American music, which has influenced the world, whether it’s blues or country or rock-and-roll.  It all came from those Delta boys.   

Talk about “Hosea Blues.”
I don’t really venture into the Old Testament a lot, but I sat down one day and started reading Hosea.  And I started blushing. I mean, that is a dirty book, man.  It was a scandalous book.  It was meant to be a scandalous book when the prophets wrote it.  It was meant to be scandalous to wake the people of Israel up to the horrible things they were doing--to other people, to their own people, in their disobedience to the Lord.  So I started writing it originally as if it was God talking to Israel, specifically mentioning Israel.  But it sounded kind of dumb like that.  So my manager, Jay--he helps me with songwriting as far as lyrically and the content and the concepts--he was like, “Man, you just need to change it to a woman, like you’re a man talking to a woman.”  So we rearranged the wording, and it worked.  It was what the song needed.  I just chose Hosea because that happened to be the book that I got it from.  I wanted to let people know “This is where we got this imagery from” because if you look at the lyrics, they’re pretty scandalous as far as gospel music.  But, honestly, I was just taking some of those lines almost straight out of Hosea.  So I wanted people not to blame me.  I wanted them to see, like, “Oh, the Bible really did this, not Sean Michel.”  I didn’t want to get in trouble (laughs).   

How does the song go over live?
Sometimes churches don’t want us to play it.  And it’s kind of ridiculous to me that the people who get it the most are the people in the bars--which is not really that surprising, I guess, because it was the same way with Christ a lot of times when he preached.  It always seems like the “sinners” got his message a lot more than the priests did.  But sometimes churches don’t want us to play that song because it’s offensive to them.  And I’m like, “It’s straight from the book of Hosea!  Go read it!”  But, when we play that song, a lot of times I have a little story that I tell at the beginning to set the song up, and it’s basically just the imagery of Hosea itself, uh, marryin’ a ho and, you know, the ho never leaving except leaving the house to skip out on her man and all this stuff.  And then when she’s being auctioned off, the only one who’ll buy her back is Hosea, the man she’d been skipping out on the whole time.  It resonates with people from the get-go because we tell that story and then we start playing it.  I think it helps people get it better.  It’s a special song to me, man.

So you play both sacred and secular venues.
Yeah, we do both.  We play a lot of bars.  We play a lot of churches.  We play clubs, theaters--you know, we go around the world.  We just got back from Senegal in West Africa in December-January.  We did mission work through the music.  We’ve been to Chile.  We’ve been to India, Nepal--anywhere the Lord opens up a door for us to play some gospel rock-and-roll, we’re going to try to step through that door for sure.

Do these opportunities result from your being contacted one gig at a time, or do you work through some sort of organization?
The stuff overseas has been missionaries that contact us and have this vision to use a rock-and-roll concert to bring people in the community together and to start to share the gospel with them.  We just fly over there to facilitate that.  

Talk about your religious background--churches attended and the like.  How did you become this gospel-shouting, preaching guy?
My religious background is a bit schizophrenic.  My father was an atheist for the longest time.  He didn’t come to Christ ’til I was a senior in high school.  So my mother was my hugest influence spiritually.  She came to Christ when I was about five, through Jimmy Swaggart’s ministry down in Baton Rouge a long time ago.  So I grew up with, like, this heavy Pentecostalism influence--you know, watching a demon exorcism when I was six years old at a Bible study.  That’s  never a good thing for a kid to experience (chuckles).  But I also grew up with grandparents in New Orleans who were strict, old-school Roman Catholic.  So I attended Mass a lot.  I had a blend of high church and, you know, sometimes-crazy church.  Then my mother ended up going to this non-denominational church.  The pastor lived next door to us.  It was still very Charismatic, but they were really sound doctrinally, and that was a big influence on my life.  That’s when I first really started getting serious about who Jesus was.  

How old were you?
I was probably thirteen, fourteen.  I “said this prayer,” and I guess that’s what started my journey with the Lord.  Then, when my family moved up to Arkansas to Little Rock, when I was, like, fourteen, the Lord led me to a Southern Baptist church mainly through one of the only guys at the school who would befriend me at the time.  I got involved in their youth group, and they had an amazing student ministry.  That’s when the Lord really started rockin’ my world.  I got involved with Bible studies with guys my age and a little bit older as these dudes were mentoring me through the Scriptures.  That’s when things started really getting serious between me and the Lord.  

Are you still Southern Baptist?
I’m still Southern Baptist.  So, yeah, I guess something stuck.

At what point did you stop shaving?
Uh, I think I was 10 (laughs).  No, I stopped shaving in college.  In my junior year in college through a movie that I’d seen at that time--

Which movie?
Girl Interrupted, with Wynona Rider and Angelina Jolie.  Anyway, Jared Leto was in that movie.  And I was like, “Man, that dude looks good with a beard.  I’m going to try that.”  So I started growing one.  I grew it for two or three weeks, and come to find out I could grow a pretty sweet beard.  But it really freaked me out, so I shaved it all off.  Then I was like, “Why did I do that?”  So then I grew it out again, and it freaked me out again, so I shaved it all off again.  Then, after that, I was like, “Forget this.  I’m just going to grow it out.”  So I grew it out for about a year-and-a-half, and it was pretty nice looking.  Then I had to shave it for graduation because my mom was embarrassed of me and didn’t want me to get my diploma “looking like a homeless bum.”  So I shaved it.  I had a two-tone face (laughs).  I looked like a freak of nature getting my diploma instead of a homeless bum--or as if I’d had a mishap at the tanning bed.

What was your degree?
Biblical Studies.  Studio Art was my minor--painting and drawing and stuff like that.  So I guess my beard fit my degree perfectly.  I’m not sure why my mom made me shave it off (laughs).  But that’s how things are in the South and Western culture.  Everything’s about outer appearance.  Anyway, that was in, like, 2001.  I’d shaved my face for graduation, but I still had long hair.  Then I went to a prayer meeting shortly after that and just felt like the Lord completely wanted me to shave my head bald.  So then I looked like a skinhead.  The sad thing was is that that was in January, and it was really cold.  And I was like, “Why did I do this?”  But it was almost like getting rid of everything before new growth was going to come out.  So in February 2002 I started growing everything back again, and I haven’t had a clean-shaven face since.  

Well, you look like the guy that I hear when I listen to Electric Delta.
(Laughs) Yeah, my drummer, he always jokes--well, I don’t think he’s joking honestly--but he’s like, “Man, if you ever cut your beard, I’m quittin’ the band.”  

In retrospect, what do you make of your American Idol experience in 2006?
It was real awkward.  I’d never watched the show, and I didn’t like it at all.  I only went to the tryout because I had some friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time who were going to try out.  I’d just found out about the tryout the night before.  So we really just drove to Memphis, which is a couple of hours from where I live, to hang out with some friends and eat really good barbecue.  I got cut just before the live show, and I’d forgotten all about it because the show didn’t air for another three months.  Then they ended up showing my clip, and then things got really crazy publicity wise.  

In what way?
I was basically on the phone for two weeks, non-stop almost, doing interviews.  And I got super depressed and super tired.  I couldn’t leave my house because I was getting bombarded by people.  A lot of people that do music do it for the fame, and I struggled with a lot of that when I was younger.  The Lord used certain books and certain influences to get me away from that, from the fame aspect.  But when a little taste of fame did come, it was really hard for me to deal with.  I went into a bit of depression.  But the Lord used all that to teach me a lot about myself and how he interacted with the crowds when he was preaching.  He was kind of a big deal, you know.  He was a rock star, basically, before people changed their minds and wanted to murder him, which is what a lot of what “Unbelievable”--the song, the lyrical content--is about.  Anyway, the Lord taught me a lot through that experience, about how to love people and take the time to talk with them and get to know them even though they were strictly like, “Oh!  You’re on a TV show!  I want to be your best friend!”

(Photos by Tyler Andrews, courtesy of Sean Michel's website.