Any time I get to talk to the wonderful Michael Des Barres, it’s always a treat. He’s an incredibly talented artist brimming with charisma and bursting with positivity. While some may know him as Murdoc from MacGyver, I know him best for his impressive body of work as a musical artist. Speaking of which, Michael has a new album out called The Key to the Universe. It’s an excellent follow-up to his last studio album, the equally fabulous Carnaby Street. If you enjoy balls-to-the-wall classic rock, then I highly recommend both of these albums.
Michael took the time to sit down with me and discuss TheKey to the Universe. We covered everything from his recording the album in Rome to writing one of the tracks with guitar virtuoso Steve Stevens. It was a fun interview and I hope you enjoy it.
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.
Do you have a favorite new band?
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.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of my favorite musicians and actors, Michael Des Barres. Many of you may know him for his role as the sinister Murdoc on the TV show MacGyver. Others may know him from his tenure as lead singer of Silverhead, Detective and The Power Station. While music is Des Barres’ main priority, he still makes time for acting, including his recent role in the wonderful film California Solo.
Below is part one of the interview. Stay tuned for parts two and three. And at the end of each part I’m including live clips from Michael Des Barres’ concert in New York City on March 7, 2013 at the Bowery Electric. I was in attendance, and it was an awesome show. Enjoy!
Hello, Michael. You recently announced your new radio show, Roots and Branches. How did this come about?
I had a relationship with David Lynch because I had done Mulholland Drive with him when it was a TV show. And what happened was he cast me to play the bad guy in the pilot for a TV show for ABC but ABC passed on it because it was incomprehensibly Lynchian, ya know? (laughs) So, a couple years go by and he invites me to the premiere and I realize I’ve been absolutely cut out of it and replaced by these two chicks fucking. And I thought, oh man, this is very exciting, but where the hell’s my footage? (laughs) So, we’ve had a relationship for a while.
But he’s got this amazing TM (transcendental meditation) movement going, and he just created this network, Transcend Radio, and he’s contacted people and asked them to produce some content for that and it ended up my door. And I came up with a show called Roots and Branches, which is essentially about influences, where lots of musicians got their influences and passed it on to the next generation, and the next generation. I deal mainly in American blues music and also the edginess of Manhattan rock and roll, heroin rock and roll, I call it – the psychosis of rock and roll. So I do various genres. I play a song and then I play a song that was obviously influenced by that song or artist, hence the title Roots and Branches, because it’s very important for me. And I do it in the vein of Stevie Van Zandt, who flies the flag of the lineage of rock and roll, the history of rock and roll, soul, pop, and rockabilly, and all of the wonderful music that is, in a sense, threatened by extinction today because of the advent of technology.
If you can see relationships between artists, you can go deep into it and that’s what I want to create: A sort of atmosphere of research, ya know? You start at Zeppelin, then you back to the blues and where that came from. You listen to Jack White and then who influenced him, and equally groundbreaking musicians that inspired them. And it becomes this enormous organism, and hopefully an enormous orgasm (laughs).
I recently read Rod Stewart’s autobiography, and in it he talks about how his music as well as other artists’ music, including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, was influenced by the blues. What was it like during this time period?
I was in the clubs at the time you’re describing with Mitch Mitchellsaying to me, “Why don’t you come see me play with this black bloke?” And I did, and it was Jimi Hendrix. I was there in London at the birth of the skinny rock and roll dudes being inspired by the blues. It was a phenomenal hybrid, which I’ll explore deeply in my show. It’s why working working class English boys and girls would turn to the oppressed black slave music that came out of oppression – out of Chicago and the Delta. Why would that be? I think it’s because it’s almost the same today: You get out of the ghetto by being a rapper or a sports figure. It’s the same man, you know?
Yeah, Jeff Beck was heavy. But there were a lot of people that were plugging in and turning up because rock and roll was blues real loud, essentially. And if Chuck Berry hadn’t existed, there wouldn’t be a Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. I mean imagine a world without Chuck Berry in it. What a horrible thought. (laughs). But they were smart enough to marry that with the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the style of Oscar Wilde. It was this pop-hybrid of Muddy Waters, Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron with a slide guitar. It was this incredible cocktail of stuff.
Your modern music seems to harken back to that classic three-chord rock and roll.
Yes, because what happens is, as an artist in the beginning it’s all about passion. Then you learn how to do it and you learn the chords that are complicated, and to keep yourself interested you start experimenting. And you lose sight of why you did it in the first place. Rock and roll is a synonym for having sex. It’s not a synonym for meditation. So you’ve gotta roll with it. And, for me, I went on all sorts of tangents because I was thinking too much. But when I got back to it three years ago, when I was in Texas recovering from an accident, I broke a lot of bones, I had time to reflect on what I really wanted to do, so I started to write. I couldn’t write with my right arm because it was smashed, so I wrote with my left hand these social media updates and people started to respond. So I took those ideas and put them to simple chords, blues-based music and I wrote “My Baby Saved My Ass,” (laughs) which sounds funny and cute but it’s true. It’s a redemptive song about the redemption of love transcending a drug addict’s downward spiral.
Stephen King once stated that, “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.” Like King, you’ve overcome drugs and alcohol. Do you agree that these substances don’t enhance an artist’s creative work?
He and I are the only ones that have said that. I mean, I’ve been saying that for 30 years. The myth of the self-destructive genius is bullshit. And I can give you one and only one example: Jim Morrison did not write the “Great American Novel” … and he could have. And it’s as simple as that. Genius is divine; it’s a talent you’re given by the universe. It’s like being born beautiful and you fuck yourself up.
I always think of Chet Baker and his beautiful face and how ravaged it was at the end of his life when he fell out of a hotel room window and smashed his skull because of heroin. So, I’m with Stephen King. It is a myth, and I’m 100% more creative with clarity than I am in a fog. I might think I’m a genius, but I’m not.
What made you stop using drugs?
I looked in the mirror and I looked like a monster. And I’m way too narcissistic and vain to look like that. I can honestly say vanity got me through it (laughs). I felt like a fool, and there’s nothing worse for me than feeling foolish. And being a slave to something? Good lord! I can’t be owned by a bag of white powder…unless it’s foundation. It’s absurd; it’s childlike. Unfortunately many of our greatest artists capitulated to it and died, and that’s a shame.
To answer your question, I’m not being glib when I say I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. It was absolute vanity. But once I got into that spiritual groove, I woke up from the trance of drugs. And I wrote “Obsession” within the first few weeks of being sober. Everybody around me was saying “I’m obsessed with this” and “I’m obsessed with that.” Is it an obsession? Yes. So I thought, OK, and I wrote that song, which was a worldwide hit because people could relate to the thing.
MacGyver ran for seven seasons and spawned two television films. While Richard Dean Anderson embodied the lead role perfectly, perhaps MacGyver and his Swiss Army knife get too much credit for the show’s success. After all, a hero is only as good as his villain. And in MacGyver’s case, his villain was the maniacal Murdoc.
Expertly acted by Michael Des Barres, Murdoc appeared in nine episodes of MacGyver throughout the series run and was widely considered MacGyver’s arch nemesis. According to the show’s story arch, Murdoc was a master assassin employed by the Homicide International Trust. He always succeeded at taking out his targets, expect MacGyver, which became his obsession.
I always got excited when Murdoc made an appearance because he was a fantastic character. His devilish charm, clever disguises and over-the-top weaponry made him a treat to watch. Most memorable of all was when he yelled “MacGyver!” each time his plans were foiled.
My favorite episode featuring Murdoc was episode eight of season three, “The Widowmaker.” You can currently stream it on Netflix, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you should check it out. It features mountain climbing, death, retribution and, of course, Murdoc. Need I say more? Below is a fan-made trailer for the episode to give you a taste.