A Conversation With Michael Des Barres – Part 3
There are two videos at the end of this post: One is a live clip from Michael Des Barres’ concert in New York City on March 7, 2013 at the Bowery Electric, and the other is Michael’s music video for his terrific new single, “Life Is Always Right.”
When it comes to how to distribute your music, how do you decide what works best for you?
Well, what works best for me is ownership. Autonomy is everything. As you can imagine, I’ve been owned for 40 years as a recording artist. And I don’t like that. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now…so I don’t do it. I’m in the position where I can sit down and figure out how I want to get my music out to people and bandcamp is fantastic. iTunes and Amazon clearly have an infrastructure that works, and I have my own infrastructure. We do our own artwork. Photographers, for some reason, like to take my picture, so I have an enormous amount of content to turn into the graphics required.
People enjoy working with me because I’m enthusiastic and it’s fun for them. It brings the best out in them. Half of this endeavor is being able to inspire others to do great stuff. And I don’t mean great in the sense of being better than anybody else. I mean just great, fun work that they enjoy doing.
And in terms of distribution, there are a particular ways to go. You have iTunes and Amazon, and then it becomes about building a fan base. I fully accept the notion that music is free. And I have no problem with that; I think it should be free. Then it becomes about selling other things, t-shirts and merchandising or licensing songs for TV shows or movies – whatever it is to make a living out of it. But let’s not forget, I am 65 years old, I’ve got 45 movies, 100 hours of American television and I’ve sold a lot of songs to people. I am not struggling in the back of a van. I have autonomy, in that I can do whatever I want. What a great place to be.
With your rich body of work in acting and music, I think of you as a Renaissance Man. You’re just an artist at heart, right?
Yeah, I just want to express myself. The trick about self-expression is knowing who the self is that’s doing the expressing. So, you have to work on who you are to be an authentic artist. You can be anything. You can be a sculptor, a painter, a photographer, a choreographer, a rock and roll star, whatever. What do you want to express, and who is doing the expressing? If I’m coming from an inauthentic place and I’m trying to be somebody else and I’m writing songs for an audience, or through a persona I’ve invented, it’s inauthentic. The audience doesn’t know why it’s inauthentic, but they know that there’s something wrong. So, half of the work as an artist is figuring out who the fuck you are – who’s doing the expressing. That’s why they say a writer “has a voice.” A writer has a voice because it’s true; it’s a true voice. Whether it be Hemingway or Voltaire, they had their own form of expression. They knew what they wanted to say – a point of view, about art and life and the human condition. And if you feel that way, you’ve got a shot at other people feeling the same way. If’ it’s authentic then it will reach the authentic part of the audience and you’ll have a career.
That’s why Hollywood is such a tainted place. The houses and cars are leased. It’s a land of fantasy, smoke and mirrors and illusion. And that’s why the movies suck and the majority of the music sucks – because they’re trying to figure out what the people want, rather than creating what they love. And I’m not interested in mainstream success. I was never interested in the mainstream. I drown in the mainstream. I have no desire to be there, none whatsoever. And yet I continue to do the TV shows, and I’ve got a couple movies in the can coming out. Of course I do…because I’ve got to fund the work that I love.
If you could collaborate with any musician, living or dead, who would it be?
It would be Booker T & the M.G.’s. I would sit with them and write songs. These were the guys who were responsible for Wilson Pickett records and Otis Redding records. I would love to play with them: “Duck” Dunn, Steve Jordan and Al Jackson. And the other band I would have loved to play with is Muddy Waters and Little Walter Jacobs’ band. I would have loved to have played with them.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but I love Vintage Trouble. They’ll drive you crazy, they’re so good. They’re a young black singer and three white rockers, and they’re fantastic. Their influences are clearly the blues, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about on my radio show. And when they really get it right, it’s beautiful.
Poison, god bless them, was a parody of the New York Dolls, as were most 80s’ hairnet, Aquanet hairspray bands. They had catchy little songs with the same riffs since time began. My favorite band of them all was Motley Crue – I thought they were fantastic. I’m very generous with this stuff. I can honestly say that I admire anybody that plugs in because it’s so dreadful. You’re putting yourself, literally, in an execution firing line – they can shoot you. It’s very brave to get up and play, so I never put anybody down. God bless anybody giving it a go. Having the balls to to stand up and say, “Look, this is what I do!” That’s great. Do I have preferences? Yes. And I’ll get on the bike in the gym and listen to Motley Crue. Sure, why not?
You mentioned the two movies “in the can.” Can you reveal any details about these projects?
One has just come out. It’s called California Solo with Robert Carlyle, which is just fantastic. He’s the actor in Trainspotting and he’s on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Wiry Scottish actor, you’d recognize him. Fantastic movie – very fun to make. Grab a DVD and watch it with your girlfriend. It’s really one of the good movies about rock and roll. I play his manager and it’s all very sinister. And there’s this movie I just finished that’s being edited. It stars Gina Gershon, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Molly Ringwald, and myself, and it’s called Me. And it’s improvised. It was incredible to work with those 80s’ ladies. It’s going to be a hell of a movie. Very sexy, very troubling – very much about what’s going on today. It’s about a guy who thinks he’s in a reality show. I can’t tell you anymore about the story, but it’s going to blow your mind and it’s called Me.
How do your various acting opportunities come about?
I have to audition like every other actor, and if you get it, you get it. For NCIS, I believe they called me in, but they want to see you. They don’t know if you’re 300 pounds or if you’re a junkie. They want to speak to you, and that’s fine; I’ll go in. If there’s something really cool and it has the potential to reach a lot of people, I’ll stand in a parking lot naked to get it. If it’s something I don’t want to do, I simply don’t go in on it. That’s the bureaucratic side of it. Then, there are friends that I’ve worked with and if they think there’s something right for me, they’ll get in touch. That’s usually followed by the sentence, “There’s no money in it.” (laughs) But you do it anyway because it’s challenging and a labor of love and lust.
The way I discovered you was through MacGyver. When you were on the screen you brought gravitas to the scenes.
I’m so glad you said that, and I’m so happy when someone says, “Hey, Murdoc!” It happens every day. I’m in Trader Joe’s with my girlfriend and there’s a guy shaking with item in his hand and I said, “What’s going on? Are you OK?” And he said, “You’re Murdoc!” I said to myself, oh god, that’s so great, and I gave him a hug and an autograph – signed the Trader Joe’s bag and moved on. I loved that character, it was great. And people still dig it to this day. How fabulous is that?
Were you able to make it your own, or was the role of Murdoc already defined for you?
Oh, fuck no! What happened was I just came off The Power Station tour, and I remember I had this big vintage white Rolls Royce and drove onto the set at Paramount for the audition to play Murdoc, a killer in one episode. And the producers were all smoking outside the MacGyver offices and I pull up in my Rolls Royce. I, to this day, know that I got that job because of that entrance. (laughs) They saw me getting out of a white Rolls, all dressed in black and said, “There’s our guy!” And I did it for the next few years, as you know.
Did you have a good working relationship with Richard Dean Anderson?
Oh, I loved him! Sweet, soulful, generous dude. And it was a hard job – being in a TV series. Wow! Hard work. 16 or 17-hour days, especially if you’re the star. You have to know about pacing, and he did. He paced himself well for such a physical role, and he did a fantastic job. And it was a huge show for many years. It wasn’t an under-the-radar show. It wasn’t a pop culture Twin Peaks, water cooler show. But it had a steadfast audience and I was very grateful for the opportunity.