On Cobblestone Streets: an interview with Mike Tramp
JJ Lee speaks to White Lion frontman and musical journeyman, Mike Tramp about his solo work, breaking away from past ties and the future. It’s a warts n’ all read …
Where do you think you’ve travelled from your first solo work, or even since “Stand Your Ground” (2011)?
M.T: The thing is, is that, you know, once I broke away from White Lion and formed Freak of Nature, you know, one thing led to another. I was done with White Lion and I needed to start something new. I needed a new sound. It’s kind of like, in better words, I grew out of that. There are people today, you understand the point, still trying to play [the same music] but when you hear the calling inside you to move on you can’t resist that. In the 90s with the grunge coming along and the scene changing, I had also changed and so Freak of Nature became the band that were and the sound and the lyrics. It was just completely something different. When that band ended, I knew I couldn’t give anymore to a band. It’s taken so much of my life.
So then I basically just went back to who Mike Tramp is. Mike Tramp is just one of the bricks that build the house and that brick is just one certain type. Once you take that brick away, you just have that one element. And obviously, those who know those two bands only know the final sound; they don’t know how the ingredients were put together. But the sound of Mike Tramp is much more different than the bands I was in. And it’s also why the band sounds like that because if they had had any other singer, or frontman or songwriter, so it’s the combination of things. So I returned to myself. But of course I’m starting with the 80s and 90s behind me and starting a solo career. So there’s going to be lots of searching and experimenting and all that kind of stuff and it went on for years and years and years. And then, a slight return to try and recreate White Lion with the new line up. A complete mistake.
You think it was a mistake? Why do you say that?
M.T: Oh yeah, of course it was a mistake. The reason I broke up with the band was because I was done with it. The reason you file for divorce is because the love is gone. You get tired of it. But I needed to do it to find out I’d made the mistake. I made the decision when I’d be on tour for my second solo album and when you’re playing to like 25 people and when people are goading you and saying “Oh, if you put White Lion back together…I knew White Lion…you’d play festivals and make big bucks…”
But it’s not all about that…
M.T: No and you find that out so you put together and it becomes heartaches and lawsuits, everything else. So now I came away twice the bitterest. But those are the mistakes you learn from. So I’ve been going in and out and stuff. My previous 2 albums were called “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus”. Because the guys who recorded that album were just too much of a band; even though these were my songs, it was not a solo album! They had too much influence in the performance of the album. So that’s why I called it the Circus. When I went to do this album, number 1, I didn’t plan to do an album: I just walked into my friend’s studio and said, “I need to hear some music, I’m feeling it.” He said, “every time we’ve worked together, we always talk about our heroes and how simple rock is. Why don’t you, for the first time in your life, follow your love of acoustic guitar.” So, you know, I went in the studio and recorded the first song. And he said, “You know, I heard a piano part, let me play it.” So he did and we sat back and then we went: this song is finished. At the end of the first day, the first four songs were finished, recorded and everything. In four days, the album was finished. And I had no record deal; I had nobody to introduce it to. Nobody knew about it, which is why now I’ve gotten the greatest reviews around the world that I’ve ever gotten for another album.
Has your source of inspiration changed?
M.T: No. Because right now this is a complete circle back. I grew up in the late 60s and 70s in Denmark, heavily influenced by folk music and there was the hippie movement. On every street corner there was stood someone with a flower in their hair with an acoustic guitar, singing something. Then there was Dylan and Neil Young. Then there were the Danish artists. And I had that in the youth club, singing it at camps, at school and stuff. But it never ever evolved into anything. I mean I was still young so I don’t really remember all of it but it wasn’t the message wasn’t about getting better. Folk music was an expression, it wasn’t “oh, I’m going to be much better than the last album!” You never heard Bob Dylan or anyone talk about those things! It was poetry, it was a message. Little did I know that as I ventured out in wanting to be the next Van Halen, stuff like this, that this would test itself so heavily on me. Every time I wrote a song, it came from that. Every song I’ve written for every rock band I’ve been in comes from the acoustic guitar you’ll hear tonight. They’re all written in the same way. And then they become electrified. So I go into the recording studio and I show the guys the song and we come up with the big rock sound. But the song itself was created in this way. So when I play the simple version today, I’m not playing it “unplugged,” I’m playing it where the song has come from. And this is where the new album is. I left it at that. There’s only me and my friend on that album.
Is that why you decided for this tour to be purely acoustic one?
M.T: Yeah, yeah, but this is who I am. This is the way I’m going to remain. This is the difference between me and all the other 80s rockers and do an unplugged tour. This is who Mike Tramp is and you’ll hear that in the album.
Where did the name “Cobblestone Street” come from?
M.T: Well, you know London is very familiar with cobblestones and so is Copenhagen. I had seen this vision in my head, remembering when they came with the big yellow machines to put asphalt of the cobblestone streets and in the opening track [of the album] I sing about the little shops closing but all the memories are still there. To me, it’s the closing of one thing and the start of a new thing but I belong under the asphalt, I belong with the original source. So I was using it more as a metaphor and when I did all the interviews in France they were like “Oh, we googled Cobblestone Street in Denmark but we couldn’t find it!”
Well, you must know of “White Lion Street” in Islington in London?
M.T: [laughs] Well, that’s a whole other thing!
What’s it like now, without the band? How is it choosing musicians?
M.T: Well these days I don’t do anything without it feeling right. And it feels right to be alone. I’m a man that loves to be alone. And even though I miss a little bit of music behind me, the feeling of just going out there now is an emotional challenge for me. The album is so personal: I sing about my marriage, about my children, about the fight and the struggle in life. And the great thing is is that my fans have, like, replied to that in the way that, a lot of them who followed me from Freak of Nature are going to grow up with me and my lyrics. When I left White Lion, I started writing about real life. I was raised in Copenhagen in Denmark and we’re very liberal and I was exposed to the world at a very early age. The Americans can be very closed in, living in a fantasy world. But you can’t escape your roots and I don’t want to escape the roots. I speak the truth, I sing about the truth. When you hear the word, me, it’s me.
Are you seeing new fans at your shows?
M.T: Well you can always see, and you want to see, new people venturing into a place. But my fans are almost as old as I am and they’re just growing with me. See, the difference between me and say, Whitesnake, I mean there’s many differences, is that I’m following a natural evolution and part of that evolution is growing old and not defying it! I mean, look at the Hollywood actresses and stuff like that, it’s vanity. Why should I fight life? It feels good! It feels the best I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve played Madison Square [New York] and some of the biggest arenas in the world. Yesterday I played for 25 people in a pub in Ipswich but I was almost in tears in my head, it felt so good singing the songs. Why is that? Why didn’t it feel like that in Madison Square Garden? It’s the make-up of rock’n’roll, you can’t get any higher! Why didn’t it feel like that when I stood there in 1988?
Do you think there’s something in that for smaller bands?
M.T: No, I don’t think I could ever translate that. I think it’s something you just experience. You either know it or don’t. Most people want to be in rock’n’roll for the wrong reasons. I came into rock’n’roll and learned how to be there. But I soon discovered that that part of rock’n’roll that most people know is not what’s right. I come from of a small part of Denmark and never had a car. So even though I could easily write an album or perform at those levels, I mean I played for 37 years, but I’m so at home looking the mirror and just saying, “You know, this is who you are, this is where you are, 52 years old. And you’ve made your best album.”
Would you consider this your best album then?
M.T: Yeah. I’m proud of all my albums! It’s the most fucking simple album there is but it just happens to be – say you were sitting in my living room and I changed my clothes six times and the seventh time I came out and you just said “They’re the clothes that fit you. They’re the clothes that connect with who you are.” And that’s the search. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with searching. My search just took 20 albums [Laughs]. It’s been a great search, I’ve had a great time and I’ve written some great songs. I’ll be performing them tonight, just in their most primitive form. The only thing I need to wear is a cave-man outfit.
Will you be?
M.T: When I run out of ideas!
You did a tribute song once to Ronnie James Dio, was he a big inspiration of yours?
M.T: Well I got to know Ronnie and it just felt [right] at that time. I was just about to record my last “Rock’n’Roll Circus” album and it came there while I was just sitting at home and it felt right. I took all Ronnie’s titles, like every title he had was like the title of a movie or something. Ronnie was representative of what that rock’n’roll was in many ways and so much of my own influence came from that, especially the Rainbow years inspired me just like Freddie Mercury did, Phil Liner, Bob Dylan. I toured with Ronnie and he was one of the greatest powerhouse singers that nobody could top. So I just felt it. When Phil died and Freddie died, my two heroes, I wasn’t in that frame of mind and I didn’t have that talent to write a song like that. I Was still searching, I was still lost. So yeah.
At the moment you’re enjoying your solo tour but who have you really enjoyed playing with? And who would you like a chance to tour with?
M.T: Well obviously right now, I’ve toured with all the hard-rock acts, from KISS to AC/DC, the lot. Each had their moments: KISS was all over the fucking place, Aerosmith was on the comeback tour so you saw the hunger again and AC/DC was like a machine that was so fucking perfect. So you learn from all different ones.
Do you keep up with that scene?
M.T: No but I’m a classic rock fan so I own all those albums. But it’s kind of like in later life you like to dine on red wine and cheese. But when you were 17 and wanted to get drunk, red wine was the worst thing you could drink; tasted like shit and felt worse when you threw up. I don’t know what it is. I came into a band when I was 15 and a half years old and I never planned to become a musician or a singer or anything, it just happened. The band was 10 years older than me, already had an album and were professional. So from the day I entered that band I was in a romanced world.
Were you singing then?
M.T: Oh yeah, yeah. So I never had those teenage years of fucking up. I never got to fall in love as a young kid and stuff like that. I was instantly in the company of older women and stuff like that. Yeah, it was cool, but sometimes when you look back and say, “It had an effect in later life” just like the effect of my father not being in my life. I’m not wounded but there’s something missing. I was not made for this business. I have all the ingredients to not be in this business: I am punctual; I have respect for so many things. But I learned to be a great rockstar. I learned it was not a natural ingredient of me. I don’t like to ride a limousine; I don’t like luxury, I don’t like decadence. I like to have an assistant so people help me at times! [Laughs]. But you will hear me talk and I will be me. Some people come to go get drunk but I charge people’s soul. Not by being an evangelist but just by telling the truth and being real. There’s nothing more powerful than the truth.
Where are you looking to go next?
M.T: Now I’m just looking to stay where I am and to just carry on. Then either the business decides if you become more popular in the commercial sense or you just remain and once in a while you might think “Oh, I’ve done nothing” because you’ve played, what, fucking 20 shows this year but you come around and maybe you play to 75 die-hard fans. I’m really looking forward to having much more time to talk and bringing people into it and into the music. I do feel I’m unique in my own way and that all those people would connect me with from the 80s do not do what I do; they don’t have the songs that I do and they don’t sing from the point that I sing from. They’re just carrying on. There’s nothing wrong with that, we’re just not the same. “But what about this guy?” No, no I’m not the same. “Even though we were on the same magazine and we both had long hair?” I’m not the same.
Anything else for the UK fans?
M.T: You’ll all be here. It’ll all be out there, self-explanatory. When people judge for themselves, which is obviously very difficult today, the response I get when people discover this album is almost unanimous across the world. The greatest reward is when people see the same thing, for what it is. I already succeeded in making the album that I wanted. But that’s the greatest reward, that’s much better than having a platinum album, even though it makes a lot of money. I have a lot of money in the bank and I have a lot of platinum albums. But I wasn’t happy. How does that work? I don’t know how to explain it to you?
The emptiness of materialism?
M.T: Yeah, I sometimes describe it by saying that I feel like I’ve had the longest puberty! It’s like later in life discovering how to make love. Whereas when you were young you were just going for your lust. But then you come to that point where you discover something: it’s like fish and chips! – It just feels right and it doesn’t need anything more.
Photos by Dinesen (from the MT website) / all words by JJ Lee.