BBP: How many times have you been to the IBC (International Blues Challenge)?
Mikey: Four. I was there in 2005; I was there in 2007; I was there in 2011 and 2012. I’ve been there competing four times; however I’ve attended six times. Because ever since 2005 I’ve been going every year except one year. It was the year I was buying my house that I told you about. Because it was a fixer-upper house, it was a construction site. I basically bought a house that needed to have a new roof, new siding, new windows, the whole shebang, so because of my construction background I was the one who was being the contractor on it. So I had to be here for it and that was the one year I missed going to the IBC.
BBP: This year I think you were in the quarter-finals?
Mikey: We were in the finals. We made the finals this year.
BBP: Right! Yeah! Have you ever won?
Mikey: No, I never won and I never made the finals. This was the very first year that I even made the finals.
BBP: What does that say that you’ve been there five years and you’ve finally made the finals? Do you feel like your getting closer to…
Mikey: No. It’s great, but I don’t look at it like—first of all, and please put this in there, music is a cooperation, never a competition. To me. And the reason I take part in the IBC is I like what it is as a place to promote your music to a mass amount of blues fans, promoters, agents. I don’t look at it as “Let’s go win a competition.” The competition is always secondary to me. What is most important about going to the IBC is to get people who have never heard the Mikey Jr. band, Mikey Jr. and the Stone Cold Blues, to hear us and say “Hey, we’d like to have them at our place. We’d like to have them come play for us at our festival.” We’ve already gotten three festivals from playing the IBC this year. And I’m sure we’re going to get some festivals next year off of it as well. It’s basically a promotion thing for me; I really like to promote myself at the IBC.
BBP: I see. One thing I noticed—getting back to playing the harmonica—I was listening to a couple of your album: did you listen to a lot of jazz growing up?
Mikey: Not a whole lot, but it might be because I listen to a lot of William Clark a little bit and maybe he’s like a lot of the jazz horn players. That could be where it comes in at, a little third hand, third party. But yeah, I’m really into jazz. I’m getting more into it. But I like the really slow kind of boring… you might say, jazz…for lack of a better word. I like the slow, down-and-out, really bluesy jazz.
BBP: You know the reason I asked that, because, if you don’t mind me saying, it seems like you sort of approach a solo like a jazz person would do. Like a jazz saxophonist or trumpeter. I mean I was listening to some of your albums and I was kind of thinking that.
Mikey: Well thank you. I just try to take my time in the studio because less is always more, and sometimes I try to not play….I try to play with space.
BBP: Okay, I see what you’re saying. Another thing I noticed was that—when I saw you at the IBC—you had a four piece band—a guitar player, yourself (on harmonica), Jimmy Pritchard on bass and the drummer. And I noticed that on some of your albums you use other instruments, like keyboards and stuff. What’s the ideal band for you?
Mikey: Well I’m looking for—of course I would love—a horn section, a piano player, upright bass—but right now, I think—I just added a guitar player to my band by the name of Dean Shot—so now we’re a five piece band. I would just love to have, first and foremost, a piano player that plays Otis Spann type piano, in my band. I’m looking for someone who knows and loves and wants to play like Otis Spann on piano in my band. To tell you the truth, I love the band the way it is right now. I’m very happy. Musically we’ve all got it together as far as being on the same page with each other, which is very important, and we all have a lot of fun when we play. So basically my ideal band is the band I have now with some sort of piano player. Like we love Bill Heid but Bill Heid lives a little further away so he can’t be on a lot of our stuff. Bill’s the guy who was on the last two albums of ours out of D.C.
BBP: Mikey, I wanted to ask you. You have talked about Sonny Boy Williamson. Would that be Sonny Boy Williamson the first or the second?
Mikey: Two. Aleck Miller.
BBP: Is he the harmonica player that you like the most? The one who has most influenced your playing?
BBP: Okay. Tell me what you took from him listening to his records and why he stands out from the others.
Mikey: It was just his whole character. His demeanor. The way he just had…. It was his presence too. Just his presence and I just liked the way he performed. And, seeing his old videos, I was a big fan of him and his music, but being able to see all of the stuff on YouTube now, I had all of the DVD’s especially of the American Folk Blues Festival. But being able to see a lot of this stuff on YouTube that’s coming out, and being able to see even more his demeanor, he just was very personable, he was a born entertainer and he was just musically just really good.
BBP: Is there somebody who comes a close second? Another harmonica player?
Mikey: Well, you know I never really put nobody first. But what I’m saying is, he’s probably my most influential. I could never put nobody first because that’s how people develop their styles, by taking a bunch of different styles from a bunch of different artists. But I definitely, without them being in any order, for me it’s Sonny Boy, William Clarke, Little Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith, Gary Primich, Big Walter, Snooky Pryor, I mean I can go on and on. Steve Guyger—those are right off the top of my head, they’re probably the ones that influenced me the most. There’s a lot of harmonica players out there…but those are the ones I mostly liked. If they were all playing up the street from me, I would definitely probably have to go see Sonny Boy Williamson. And I’m pretty sure that all of the other harp players, I would go. And Junior Wells is one that I forgot to mention, but he was very influential, I would say the most influential to my playing when I first started playing the harmonica.
BBP: And Sonny Boy is at the top of the list? And Junior Wells, you’re not that much influenced by him anymore?
Mikey: No, I’m very much influenced by all of them, all of the time. When I first started learning, I learned a lot about Junior Wells and a lot about Sonny Boy, and then when I started getting into chromatic of course, I started getting into George Smith and William Clarke and you know, I wanted to start getting into third position or what have you, then Gary Primich, and of course William Clarke again.
BBP: So you’re talking about different harmonica techniques…
Mikey: Yeah, I love them all. See, I don’t think I could put any one harmonica at the top, any one player and go, “this is my favorite,” because they’re so many techniques out there. For instance, guys like Kim Wilson and guys like Rick Estrin are my favorites living these days because they can play like those people. And if you say hey, play me this song, play it like this, play this song, play me a Sonny Boy song, or play me a Big Walter song or play me chromatic William Clarke, or play me Junior Wells—they can play it, you know. And they can do it just like that.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about the songwriting that you do. I know that songwriting’s a very integral part of what you do as well. How does that kind of figure into things? And when you write a song, where does it start, the process you have for writing a song?
Mikey: We usually start with some sort of saying or some sort of—I don’t know it’s like a gift that kind of comes to you. And basically all I can say about songwriting is you better have the paper and pen, because it only comes to you then, and if you go “I’ll remember it,” and “I’ll get back to it later” you never do. And so many of my songs are probably lost in the wind like that, because you know, I’m busy throughout my day. I’m like:”Oh, I’ll get back to that later…” I have a lot of unfinished songs, because you know it’s just sometimes you get that vibe; you know sometimes you’ll do a song and you’ll write a song, for instance, you take a song, and you’ll be pouring your heart out into it and you say exactly what you feel. But then in the middle of the song, you might feel it’s a little too personal, so you might write it for the song next. You might have been writing the beginning of the song for you, because it’s really how you feel, but sometimes you say “ah, it’s getting a little too personal. I’m going to start making this song fictional.” So you never know, with me and my writing, you never know where the fiction stops and the truth begins….All of my songs basically have a lot of truth and a lot of fiction in them. And some of them are just written fictionally. But I think it’s hardest to write stuff that’s really really really real. I put a lot of fiction in my songs, because I’m not very open like that, you know?
BBP: Tell me in your albums, what percentage of your songs are covers and what percentage are originals? You know, typically.
Mikey: The record labels want to hear originals. But when I go out to see a blues band, I’d love to hear Little Walter just like Little Walter. But just like him now, I don’t want to hear Little Walter play where I can tell where the guy is really like, doing it the right way. I want to hear just like it or very—I want to hear it with the feeling. That’s just me, and it’s very opinionated. Back to the IBC, that’s another reason why you can’t look at it as some concerts, because it’s opinionated. People like what they like and don’t like what they don’t like. And they like a certain thing. And it’s just like me; it’s my opinion that I want to do covers, but the radio people or anybody making money trying to make a living promoting blues music or whatever, they want the originals. Because you get royalties, you want original music. They want something new and original.
Mikey: I do want that too, but I like being able to do covers. But do I believe you should do just the same old covers? I don’t know. I did “Can’t be Satisfied” on one of my last records, and yeah, maybe it should be left alone. Muddy did it the way he wanted, but I wasn’t doing it because I thought I could do it better than Muddy or whatever. I was just doing it because it’s a song I like to perform. When I perform it, if anybody ever asks me, “Hey, do you have that song on your record?” the next time I go to the studio, maybe I can record that song. Because if people like it when I play it live, the whole point is that I want to try and sell the CD so they come see me again and I get my name out there. And now I’m in their household. So basically that’s also how I choose to record what I record on a CD is, if someone asks me, “Hey is that song on your CD?” and it’s not, sometimes the next time in the studio, I’ll record that song.
BBP: Sort of like you do at the nursing home…
Mikey: Yeah! Exactly! I try to make people happy, and if people come out to see my show, they’re getting in their car and they’re driving out to come see me perform somewhere, and if they ask me to do something, I want to try and do it for them. And especially if they’re asking me, “oh is that on your CD?” The way I look at it is, if it was on my CD, I could have sold a CD right there. Maybe next week they have my CD and they go “oh, we’ll listen to Mikey while we’re cleaning up our dishes here. Where’s he playing at this weekend? We’ll go on his website, you know.” I want to get CD’s into people’s hands.
BBP: So it’s a matter of giving people what they want to hear…
BBP: Gotcha. Tell me, I was looking at your itinerary and you got a gig coming up with Bnois King and Smokin’ Joe Kubek. That sounds like it’s a definite step in the right direction. How’d that come about?
Mikey: Well, we’ve been working up at Stanhope House, and we’ve been trying to beef up our attendance there because quite frankly not a lot of people know who Mikey and the Stone Cold Blues band are. So we try to go places and try to say “Hey, can we open up for one of your acts” where we can try and get people to see if they like us and want to come back. So that’s what we’ve been doing over at the Stanhope House; we’ve been trying to develop sort of a following. We’ve got a few shows over there, and we’ve gotten more and more people to attend every show. So now they’ve got us opening for Smokin Joe and Bnois King, so hopefully we can get some more people to attend our show after we open up for these guys.
Mikey: And we also opened up for Smokin’ Joe and Bnois King for the Diamond State Blues Society in 2005.
BBP: So they know you. They’re familiar with you.
Mikey: I’m not sure. I’m sure that they’ve been on the road. They’re musicians their whole lives so I don’t know if they remember being on my show, because I’m pretty sure they came in after I was done. But it’s nice to be on the bill with them. Absolutely. I don’t know if they know me, but …
BBP: But you’ve opened for other people that have national prominence…
Mikey: Oh we’re going to be opening up for Johnny Winter again, for the second time since July. We’ve opened for like Michael Burks…probably the list goes on and on. I’ve never had a list of who I’ve opened up for, but I’ve opened up for a lot of people. It’s great; we’ve opened up for Nappy Brown before he passed away. Bob Margolin. So it’s been really good.
BBP: Yeah. And I also noticed that you tend to kind of favor the East Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, I guess. I notice that you’re doing a show in Florida, a festival—I forget which one it is—
Mikey: Daytona Blues Festival…
BBP: And that’s coming up in…
Mikey: October. October 6th.
BBP: That’s definitely sort of a step-out as well. How’d that come about?
Mikey: That was a gentleman who had seen us at the IBC.
BBP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mikey: Yeah, I’d like to tell all of the blues fans out there, to work hard and try to get some new blood out. Bring your friend out to a blues show, become a member of any kind of local blues society, go to a blues club, and it’s an American art form and we have it and we need to nurture it so that it can grow. And I just encourage everybody to be members of blues societies. I’m a current and up-to-date member to almost ten blues societies. Which means I pay between $20 and $60 a year to maintain my membership. It’s because I believe in the societies and what they do. Even though I’m an artist, I’m also a blues fan. Before I was an artist, I was a blues fan. And it’s very important that we support your societies. If you send them that $25 a year, that really helps them to bring talent from all over the world, and all over the country to your local neighborhood. You know, be a part of something to preserve something that needs to be preserved, it needs to grow. And everybody should try to—buy a CD, buy a blues CD, give it to someone, buy a book about blues and give it to someone. There’s a lot of young people who are intrigued about the folklore of Robert Johnson., because they heard this guy sold his soul to the Devil to be able to play great guitar. That intrigues young people, and then they’ll say “I like Robert Johnson.” And the next thing you know you have a new blues band. You’ve got to be able to educate people and tell stories so that we’ll be able to keep these guys alive. That’s what I’d like to close with.