Michael Lee Firkins
Photo by Ross Pelton
Michael Lee Firkins has released “Yep”, his latest studio effort which is his first album in the past 6 years after releasing “Black Light Sonatas”.
Michael Lee Firkins debuted in the 90s with his self titled rock instrumental album. His unique guitar style and tones of blending melodic rock tunes with country music techniques quickly gained him recognition as a new generation guitar hero. Later, Michael went on to record albums with stronger influences from country and blues music, in which his powerful and deep vocals, and persuasive guitar performances have fascinated countless listeners. Michael Lee Firkins talks to MUSE ON MUSE about “Yep”, his latest studio album containing all the fascinating elements of country, blues and rock.
Photo by Ross Pelton
Interview / Text Mamoru Moriyama
Translation Louis Sesto (EAGLETAIL MUSIC)
Muse On Muse : “Yep” is your first release in 6 years since “Black Light Sonatas” released in 2007. Please tell us about your musical activities during the past 6 years.
Michael Lee Firkins : In 2009 I started singing live. While working on this record, there would be times where I realized I was not getting far enough with the recording and I needed to go out and play some more gigs. Getting out and playing live really helped me finish the recordings.
MM : What is the meaning behind the album title “Yep”? What was your concept for this new album?
MLF : I just like Yep because it short and sweet and you can Google it and it doesn’t have a bunch of weird people using it ha ha. It just symbolizes no BS. There’s also a southern bluesy style to this record and Yep kinda tells the story of something country something Classic Rock. The concept of this record is pretty deep and can’t be summed up in one little paragraph let’s just say it starts in the 70s when people were listening to records and goes through all the way till today.
MM : Please tell us about the musicians participating on the album.
MLF : Matt Abts and Andy Hess: the rhythm section of Gov’t Mule and Chuck Leavell Keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, and Eric Clapton. It was so nice of them lend their talents for me and I couldn’t have had a better rhythm section! The Dream Team!
MM : How were the recording sessions with the participating musicians? Any episodes to share?
MLF : Chuck Lavell keyboardist for the Rolling Stones was incredible. Wherever he put his hands the timing just worked! It seemed impossible for him to ever make a mistake! He was very much conducting the sessions most of the time with his hands in the air. Those three recorded their parts live to tape old-school style. Matt and Andy had been playing live all year and had just finished playing the Bonnaroo Fest. The next day they came to Nashville to record my record.
MM : “Golden Oldie Jam” has a great groove and sound, and definitely acts as a great opener for the album. It also seems to raise expectations for the listeners that you’re about to listen to a great album!
MLF : Thank you! –Album sequencing can be successful! Golden Oldie just has the right ingredients that I wanted people to hear right up front. It has the B3, it’s bluesy, but it’s got a lot of rock: classic rock!
MM : Throughout the album, we are able to listen to very strong and soulful vocals that are a great match the songs. What artists have influenced you as a singer?
MLF : Everything that’s classic rock and blues always influences me. But if you want to mention one singer, I’d probably say Ronnie Van Zandt of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were a big part of my early years and their music still sticks with me every day.
Photo by Ross Pelton
MM : The songs on the album definitely have a live feel to it. On the other hand we can also hear that you have overdubbed various guitar parts that seem to add a lot of color to the tunes.
MLF : Yes, like I mentioned we recorded the drums bass and keyboards live together with me playing along – then over the next years I added little parts over their performances.
MM : “Long Day” sounds very melancholic and the long tones with the slide bar sound very impressive.
MLF : Thank You- that song is my Favorite. I was very lucky in that my best song on the record with the best lyrics also has probably the best solo as well. It also has the best keyboards on the record. For the solo I’m using my old Oahu Diana lap steel guitar. Yep
MM : We can hear a very unique guitar sound in the middle part of “Wearin’ Black”. Can you tell us a bit about this part?
MLF : What that is about four different guitars in harmony and instead of putting them on their own tracks they were kind of clustered into one sound. I didn’t want to have a separate set up for each harmony so I just put them together and bounced it old-school style.
MM : The intro rhythm guitar and solo in the middle of the song on “Last Call” sound very cool.
MLF : Thank you, that was one of the first songs for this record. I had already recorded it years before on a demo. Used to be much faster and up-tempo, but it turned into more of a midtempo dramatic kind of song.
MM : Can you please explain to us how “No More Angry Man” and “No More Angry Man (Part 2)” are related?
MLF : Essentially they are the same song with the same lyrics. Part two is recorded in 1997 with Michael Bland of Prince on drums. Only the drums survived from the older recording everything else is new. It’s more up-tempo and hard rock and groovy. The newer version features the other band Matt Andy and Chuck. We’re definitely playing it more mid tempo and it has kind of a Zepplin feel to it. They both sum up a lot of what this album is about conceptually. It’s kind of the Time Machine through my life.
MM : When you started out your career, you used the whammy bar and created sounds as if you were using a slide bar. Now you have shifted to actually using a slide bar. Would you say that in the course of playing and pursuing blues and country music, you changed and developed to your current guitar style?
MLF : It’s hard to say, I’m playing the music I’ve always wanted to play. I still use the whammy bar many times on this record. I like to use both techniques equally and never think of shutting one out.
Photo by Ross Pelton
MM : Similarly, you used to use a mix of country style finger picking along with using a regular guitar pick. Has your current pick/finger ratio changed? What is your approach and/or perspective on playing with a guitar pick as well as playing with your fingers in regards to the different songs that you play, guitar tones, sound etc.?
MLF : I don’t really think in terms of approach when it comes to pick. Some songs just sound great with the pick and others when you’re writing maybe you write a fingerpicking pattern. I use the thumb pick quite a bit as well. I like the Jim Dunlop yellow pics. Lately a friend turned me onto them. I don’t really work on techniques anymore but something just pop-up. I’ve been messing with really aggressive bluegrass style picking as of late.
MM : Please tell us about each song on the album. How the song came to be, what you feel about each song, and/or any special meaning behind the song, etc.
“Golden Oldie Jam”
Golden oldie is all about the Golden age of records -vinyl. I wrote it in 10 seconds and had 1 million different lyrics. That was probably one of the first vocal songs I wrote where everything just came together instantly and it’s a song you can play with just me and a guitar and it still sounds great.
This is just your basic fun southern boogie. The lyrics talk about how it took so long to get these words to fall out of my mouth. I don’t consciously sit and write lyrics so when I’m playing it just all comes out in one big moment.
“No More Angry Man”
This song is about powerful corrupt leaders and propaganda we use to create them and destroy them. It’s definitely guitar extravaganza on this one. One of my favorites on this album.
This song was strangely written months before the Katrina disaster. The lyrics talk of a night drive escaping New Orleans searching for answers while driving in the rain to Memphis. The ghost of Elvis is in there. My father was a huge Elvis Presley fan.
This is MY SONG! The way everything came together with my song, the players, the lyrics, the harmonies, the solo. I refused to sing or play a solo over the song for many many many years until it was the right time. The B3 and piano Chuck Leavell plays on this song is so Classic. When I drove away from Nashville after doing those sessions I knew I had: this song. This is a song about suffering. It’s about darkness. It’s about how beautiful life is even while the world is dying. Life and Death as one.
This was originally about Johnny Cash. I struggled with the lyrics for years on this and just couldn’t come up with the lyrics. Then unfortunately after my friend Ronnie Montrose committed suicide, I finished it one night soon after his death while mourning for my friend. It’s now my song about that event in my life.
“Out Of Season”
Out of Season is a song about breaking up a friend or a marriage. Even though there is pain, you know you have made the right decision. It’s OK.
“Take Me Back”
Take Me Back is just a nice little feel-good song. It’s lyrics talk about not wanting the world to end- wanting to go back to where it all began. It’s got a nice classic southern rock sound to it. It’s a driving tune.
This song has been around a while. For a while it was not my favorite song, but as it developed, the solo turned out really great and the harmonies ended up how I originally wanted them. I am very happy with the outcome. I was always trying to think about making a Pink Floyd rock song.
“No More Angry Man (Part 2)”
This is the original version of the song with Michael Bland of Prince on drums. This was originally a way faster song. I bounced the drum tracks to tape then slowed them down and transferred them back to ProTools at 96 Hz. Super Fat! I just wanted the groove to dig in a little more. I’m extremely happy that this song sat around for all these years and I was able to use it. Michael Bland plays so great – I love the craziness at the end. Sort of a Hendrixy jam going on there.
This is a crazy one take guitar I did in the middle of the night while out of my mind. I built a drum part and bass line behind it. There’s no click or any consistent tempo other than my pretty darn good timing. But the tempo does fluctuate quite a bit and I just built something out of nothing. The lyrics talk about white lines in a road, driving at night and falling asleep while driving. Most people wouldn’t release something like this: it’s too raw-Almost demo unfinished like. But I like that honesty.
Photo by Ross Pelton
MM : Please tell us about your gear. What guitars, amps, effectors, foot pedals did you use for this recording?
MLF : I used so many things over the years – but in the end I ended up using my VOX AC 30 head hand wired for a lot of it. The recording I hardly ever used pedals. The AC 30 has a foot switch which bypasses the EQ and creates a higher gain stage, so I use that for most high gain stuff. I use vintage 25 watt Celestion’s for a lot of it. I used my resonator telecasters, Fender Custom shop Nocaster, Fender custom shop 57 Strat re-issue, OAHU Diana lap steel, 1972 Gibson SG, Burny late 70’s SG.
MM : We can hear some magnificent guitar sounds with warmth and emotions on the new album. Is there anything in particular that you keep in mind when making your guitar sound? Any tips on sound making if possible?
MLF : After years of experimenting with speakers and amps and tubes etc… I think you finally get to a point where your ideas are more important than anything else. I recorded with the $10,000 signal chain, as well as plugging directly into some cheap modeling software. I think you can have great results with either one if you just let the player play!
MM : As a guitar player, you definitely have great dynamics as well as having a distinctive fineness in your tone. What would be your advice to guitar players that are pursuing a style similar to yours?
MLF : Respect your elders – go listen to your heroes imitate them as much as you can. If you are a true original it will eventually come out. If you are destined to imitate your heroes for your entire life that’s great too!
MM : I am sure there are many fans in Japan that would like to hear another album similar to the style of your debut album in Japan “Michael Lee Firkins”. Any chances of recording a guitar oriented instrumental album like your 1st album?
MLF : Yes, I can’t wait to do another instrumental record!
MM : What do you have coming up next? Tell us about your upcoming schedule.
MLF : I’ve written so many songs while recording this record, I can’t wait to get to those next! I pretty much write a new song every single time I pick up my guitar. My current philosophy is that of the Beatles – fuck the live gigs and get in the studio and create! But at the same time playing live is very fun and so good for your playing so we’ll see.
MM : Please give a message to the Japanese fans.
MLF : I love the Japanese people – every time I’ve played there they are a very kind audience! I hope to play there again when I am ready! Peace To You All!!!!
Michael Lee Firkins official site : http://www.michaelleefirkins.com/
Michael Lee Firkins / Yep
1.Golden Oldie Jam
3.No More Angry Man
7.Out Of Season
8.Take Me Back
10.No More Angry Man (Part 2)
Michael Lee Firkins – Guitar, Vocals
Matt Abts – Drums (Gov’t Mule)
Andy Hess – Bass (Gov’t Mule)
Chuck Leavell – Keyboards (The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones)
Michael Bland – Drums (Prince, Paul Westerberg)