Interview: Mike Tramp of White Lion
Interview: Mike Tramp The Voice of White Lion
The fact that Mike Tramp is best known as the former lead singer of White Lion doesn’t do his nearly 40 year musical career justice. If you think you’ve got Mike pegged as simply the “Wait” singer and video star from the 80’s… you’re way off. He is in actuality, one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of his generation with no fewer than 10 solo albums to his credit (so far). Check out my recent interview with Mike as we discuss his career past, present, and future…
I’m not ditching White Lion; they were the greatest years of my life, and I am so happy to all the people that raised their hands and cheered for me out on stage. But right now, I’m a father of three. I’m a guy with a guitar around my neck. And I do what I can, not what I can’t.
Tom Leu: Hi Mike, thanks so much for taking some time for me today. Mike. My name is Tom Leu with AntiHero Magazine, and I also have a radio show called Sound Matters Radio that this interview will air on as well.
Mike Tramp: Hey man, thanks for the interest in talking to me, you know? I mean, we all know where we are these days. This is not the glorious 80’s anymore, the depressing 90’s, or the question mark 2000’s. It is… I don’t know where we are.
You know what, that’s a great synopsis of the last 30 years in music. The crazy 80’s… Do you ever miss those old days?
Well, yes and no. I mean, I think that if it comes down to just the energy, and the love for rock and roll, the doors that were opened easily, the hoards of fans that showed up at autograph sessions in record stores… Just the name record store puts a smile on my face. Just the overall feeling because, I mean, at times you forget about that you were part of a still, evolving… a time that still hadn’t… wasn’t done growing. You know? I mean, as the 80’s started, it was a new movement that a lot of people didn’t know where it was going to take us or if it was going to end, or something like that. You know?
Definitely. Do you find it surprising that the music from that era, especially since it was pretty much dead in the 90’s, has seen a resurgence in the last 5 to 10 years? Does that surprise you?
Well, no it doesn’t surprise me. I have to analyze this at times, and I have to ask myself, “How much of an expert on human behavior am I?” You know? I can only really look at what’s happening… looking at myself personally, looking at the business, looking at the business as non-existent, and stuff like that. I think a lot of people, maybe, are sometimes confused about, what is the resurgence of the 80’s really about. Are you really thinking that the whole movement is going to come back, or whatever? Because, I mean, at times we also have to look that this was also a time when the whole world was different.
Of course, much different…
I mean, in anything, there’s so much more going on today, so much bad stuff. And everything was affected. How about if we just go… nobody was walking around with a mobile phone. Nobody was downloading music from the internet.
There wasn’t the internet of course…
It’s so crazy to me because I’m of a certain age. I’m not that much younger than you. Those days seem like a million years ago, yet it seems like yesterday. But I’m with you, Mike. It’s amazing how different the world is today. The fact that we’re talking right now via Skype was unimaginable back then.
Exactly. I mean, we would still have been able to make a classic, old-fashioned interview via the phone. So that wasn’t really going to change. And what I would have said, and what you have asked me, would maybe just have been some different questions. But we would still have been able to do that.
Now, the way music is today, and the way the whole business is going, would not have been possible back then, because it would have separated the men from the boys. Back then, we were still talking about an old-fashioned craftsmanship. Today there is so much involved in the standard making of bread dough, in a sort of way of saying it. Back then rock and roll was still down to: Can you play the guitar? Can you sing? Can you get up on stage and shake your ass and entertain the people? Today, people making stupid statements on Twitter, people making videos on their iPhones and calling them.. It’s just a different world. It’s a different marketing. Everything like that, you know?
Absolutely. I think you made a key point a minute ago when you said you had to try to understand human beings, and how we think and how that affects music. It’s still all about the song, is it not? I’ve listened to much of your solo music, particularly the last few records, and it’s really all about the song still, isn’t it?
I think it still is. There are [still] fans… Mike Tramp has taken part in these monsters of rock and roll, monsters of rock cruises, the last couple years. Like, 80 to 100 80’s bands gather on a cruise ship with 5,000 rock fans. And you go out there, and it’s almost like a class reunion. I think a class reunion would be the perfect description of what that is, because in a class reunion, you meet your old friends and they’re not as slim as they were back in school. They don’t look the same and some of them have changed. And the same goes with the rock bands. Not all the bands look the same. Not all the bands sound the same. Not all the bands are good. And it’s just one of those things. But it is a fact of where we are.
And, the thing is that, I am aware of who I am. And I am aware of what I’ve chosen to be in today’s world. Because when I said goodbye to White Lion in ’91 and started my other band Freak of Nature right after, and once Freak of Nature ended and I started my solo career in ’96, I decided where I was going to go. And where I was going to go was basically just following who I was as a songwriter, as an artist, when I stood on my own two legs. And now basically, for the last 22 years, it’s what I’ve been doing.
Yes, it’s impressive. I did some research and looked back at your more recent work. It’s quite amazing actually. You’re about to release your 10th solo album, called Maybe Tomorrow. It’s coming out on February the 24th. It’s your fifth album for Target Records, yes?
You have two new singles out there now that I’ve listened to recently. “Coming Home” and “Would I Lie to You,” both of those are on the new album, correct?
That is correct, yes.
“Coming Home” is a great song. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, perhaps more of the same [from the old days], but it’s different. To me, it’s got a real smokey, bluesy, slice of Americana style… reminiscent of the best of Tom Petty and Springsteen. I hear a bit of The Wallflowers, if you will, in some of your music. Though you have a lot more solo material than they’ve put out, I hear some of that in there. Is that a fair analogy from where you’re coming from?
Well it’s a very, very fair analogy. I’m the one going out there and writing the pre-words to the press release that’s been sent out. And one of the sentences that I made there, if I can remember it correctly what I wrote, is that I’m a torchbearer of my heroes, an extension of my inspirations. Basically meaning, I wouldn’t be here today had it not been for Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, later on, Springsteen, Tom Petty. These are the people that I’ve been passing along the road of songwriting. On the other hand, I was very highly inspired by David Lee Roth and Van Halen when they came to the bombastic show, and a lot of the other great rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s.
But when it comes down to pure songwriting, and the way of seeing it as a solo artist, all the bands that I’ve just mentioned… And of course, later on, you mentioned The Wallflowers. I mean, a huge fan of especially the first two albums. Huge fan of Ryan Adams. I don’t think you can deny that. It’s not necessarily like you sit down and copy them. It’s just that you drink coffee at the same coffee bar they drink coffee.
It’s a statement. It’s a standing. It’s a place where you belong. It’s just a way of looking at things. And like you say, down-home Americana, John Cougar Mellencamp. I mean, it’s the acoustic guitar. I mean, it’s everything that Woody Guthrie created. It’s just that nobody spoke about Woody Guthrie in 1986. But that’s the background of where and how I was raised.
Sure. And it comes through loud and clear. Just some really solid, solid songs. Can you talk about the track “Would I Lie to You” for a second? So melodic, and it’s got the big chorus. It has that big sing-along chorus that’s, I guess, a little bit reminiscent of some of the big songs back from the 80’s.
I mean, without a doubt, without a doubt. You know what? Besides the production, that song could easily have come out in the 80’s. Maybe Poison wouldn’t have released it, but maybe John Waite would have.
So what does it all come down to? It just comes down to, basically, strong songwriting. Now, in a song like “Coming Home”… “Coming Home” will be added to the list of the five strongest songs that I’ve written in my career. Instantly as that. And at the same time, the song is, 100% everything Mike Tramp is, and has become. But it also, at the same time, goes through three big verses and three big pre-choruses. And it tells a story from start to finish, and asks the questions… You know, like, “Don’t regret what you did wrong. Man, you had your share of fun.” You know, “You would do it all again, maybe with a different end.” I mean, it’s all fucking there.
It is, and it is a great song. I really like it.
I mean, you could also add a bit of R.E.M. in there, because it’s just good, old-fashioned rock and roll. The song does not scream image. The song does not scream any specific time period. The production, the sound, does not place it in one particular place, which is probably about the best thing about it all.
That’s a good point. Is it a conscious decision on your part to separate the music that you’re making today and have been making the last several years, to move away from any kind of image?
Oh definitely, because all that matters right now is the songwriting and the performance of the song. The image was something that exploded with the birth of MTV. Let’s just, for one second, imagine that MTV did not happen in the 80’s. That it still was Circus Magazine, Hit Parader, Creem Magazine, the places where I discovered Van Halen, for example. And so much was still left to the live concert. Then MTV came in. They built the bands. They made the bands, overnight, famous around the country. And, later on, around the world. But it also took so much away from the live show.
Agreed. And on that note, you’ve probably heard this a million times, but my first recollection of you is seeing you in the “Wait” video on MTV in ’87, I believe it was. Bigger than life, and boom there you go. But, like you and I both said earlier, it comes down to the songs. And man, you’ve got those in spades on these first couple of singles from the new album, Maybe Tomorrow. Going back to your last three records, Nomad, Museum, and Cobblestone Street, I read that you had described those three records together, as kind of a trilogy. Can you talk about those records?
Yeah, of course, I said that, and actually, somebody asked me the other day, “Was that something that was planned?” And no, it was not planned. This is not The Lord of the Rings. This is not a concept that I sat down with. But in my own way of explaining it is that, through that trilogy, I found my way back to where I wanted to be. And I ended up with the final album being Nomad. So, from Cobblestone Street, I went back to my basic songwriting roots and everything was all folk, all acoustic. And from that, I went to Museum. Well, Museum just took it one step further towards where Nomad would end up, where Nomad is a complete band album. And with that completion of the trilogy it gave me, complete satisfaction that I could go into Maybe Tomorrow completely satisfied and confident in who I am as an artist, who I am as a songwriter, and where I wanted to be on Maybe Tomorrow.
Did you work with [producer] Søren Andersen again on Maybe Tomorrow?
Well, this is the sixth album with Søren Andersen. What this relationship is about, is that when I come in with my songs, Søren just knows where to take that last little step, okay? When I met Søren, even though I’d met him prior to recording my first album in 2009 with him, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Circuz, this was the first time somebody really sat down and understood who I was as a songwriter.
And it’s also why, after the two The Rock ‘N’ Roll Circuz albums, which basically took me to the max of how powerful I could be on an album, when I came in, confused, one day to Søren, I said, “You know what, I have songs, but I don’t know where I’m going.” And then Søren said, “You know what, from recording the last two albums with you, and knowing who you are as a songwriter, and sitting, at the end of the night, drinking a glass of red wine listening to old Dylan and Cash songs, I understand where you come from. So why don’t you go in, for the first time in your life, and just play and sing the song the way the song was written, without thinking about if this is going to be a band song and stuff like that?” And this is when I went in and recorded Cobblestone Street.
And I came out, back out, from the microphone, and I said, “You know what? Let me just play a little piano on that song, and that song is finished.” And four days later, that album was completed. And this was all about climbing back up the ladder, finding the path back to who you were.
I’d like to ask about a specific song that I really, really like. It goes back a little bit, it’s the song “High Like a Mountain.” Can you talk about that song for a minute? What was the inspiration there?
Well, yeah, “High Like a Mountain”, I mean, actually the inspiration came from the feeling of the song. This was a song that I was… Sometimes you ask, “Where do songs come from?” Sometimes the music comes before you settle down on the lyrics, or sometimes vice versa. But this time, I was in Indonesia, where I partly spend a lot of my time because my wife and two young children are there. And the guys I was doing a project with there, which was basically a live project, were late. And I’m sitting in the rehearsal room, and suddenly I just started playing this riff. And after rehearsal I came back home and I said, “You know, there’s something in this.” And I started writing the song. And sometimes you just start singing that line over the chorus, before I’d written the verse “It’s getting high like a mountain.” And you know, it’s sort of reflected…
You know my older brother has been an alcoholic and a drug abuser through his entire life. But it’s not necessarily about him. It was more just about these careless people that get hooked on these things, and forget about the responsibilities they have in life. It could be to their family. It could be to their friends, or whatever it is.
Yes, I really like that one, and wanted to know the backstory there.
I mean, the narration, you know, it comes back down to some of the times when I’ve heard one of my other heroes… Phil Lynott, the late Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy you know, sometimes when he would go in and he would do a little bit of narration in the middle of a song? In many cases, he was singing and talking about himself.
Exactly. I’ve had a couple of conversations about this topic recently with Stephen Pearcy from Ratt, and Jack Russell from Great White…
Stephen is a good friend of mine, good friend of mine.
I’ve had good conversations with both of them about their sobriety now, and their recovery journey. They’re real open about it. And they’re doing really well, and things are different for them now. And so, I’ve got that in common with them, and we had a good connection there. And that’s why I wanted to ask you about “High Like a Mountain”, really, really like that track.
Yeah well, interestingly enough is that Mike Tramp has lived, almost, the life of a monk when it comes to alcohol and drugs. You know?
It’s just something that never connected with you?
No, it never connected with me. I’ve always seen my life more as an athlete, and how I felt the next day when I woke up. And it’s probably one of the reasons why I was able to, sort of, go through life the way I did it. I mean, I really, really paid attention. And I didn’t want to let people down, and stuff like that. But most of all, I didn’t want to let myself down. And I’ve seen people fall on their ass. And I just think it’s one of the most disgusting things in life, is when you let go of yourself. You know, I have enjoyed, many times, sharing a good amount of beer at a ball game, or in front of the TV, or in the bus when we weren’t playing the next day, and stuff like that. But I’ve always been able to go to bed when I still knew my name.
Good for you. You’ve probably seen a lot of that collateral damage throughout your career…
Oh my God, oh my God. And, you know, I’ve had to fire people that I played with, you know?
Speaking of people you’re playing with, on your current tour, which recently kicked off in Europe, is your band the same [Lucer] that you’ve been playing with?
No, actually not. The story behind Lucer… it’s a young trio from Denmark, which by “young trio,” I mean they’re in their mid-20s. And it’s something that I decided to do in 2015 when the Nomad album came out. I said, “How would it be like if I found a little bit of a younger band that also could be my support band?” I mean, this is also taking it into the consideration that touring these days is not the way it was. I mean, there’s almost no financial support. It’s very little pay. So I found this way that I was able to tour across Europe with these three guys. And it lasted for a year and a half. But we always knew that we would end at some time.
And we finished this relationship, as a band, in December of 2016. And they haven’t been involved in recording my album, and stuff like that. And I always knew that when the new album would come out, I would put a different band together and deliver a different show. So these are three old guys, older friends of mine, that I’m bringing with me, including guitar player, co-producer, engineer Søren Andersen, by my side when we do the European tour. So it’s really good. It’s really good. It’s a great, great band, and we’re able to play on a very serious level.
Excellent. Looking forward to that. Søren in the group as well, that’s neat to hear. I know you’re touring through August in Europe, but are you going to be in the U.S. at all on the Maybe Tomorrow record?
Oh, I hate for you to… I was worrying, man, that you would ask me that question.
You know what? I mean, I’ve been touring the U.S. for the last four years. Solo tour, unfortunately, you know, for people wanting the band. Large tours. I’ve been doing almost 60 shows on each tour. I don’t think 2017 will bring me to the U.S.
Okay, fair enough.
You know what? It’s simply… it really comes down to one thing, and that is that… Maybe many other bands would not say that and be that honest. You know, as I’ve been playing these tours, and I’ve been grateful to the fans who have come, you know, it’s not like the career is getting any bigger. And this time, I cannot do another solo tour. I can’t go any further with the music. I can’t play as much as I want from my solo catalog. And I don’t want to get trapped in old White Lion songs and stuff like that.
So if the budget isn’t there, allowing a band even to play the same club circuit as I’ve been playing, [it’s] unfortunate, but it’s not going to happen.
Makes sense. Speaking of your tour then, will you be doing an eclectic mix of cuts from your entire career on this run coming up?
Yeah. I mean, naturally I’ve always done it. I’ve done it on the first solo tour I did off my first solo album. I mean, I’ve always included some White Lion songs. But I take the songs, and the fans know that, you know, I change the songs. I make the White Lion songs sound like they’re being played by Mike Tramp the solo artist. And they fit where I am today, both in the key I’m doing the song… I’m not 27 years old anymore on MTV, doing splits in tiger-striped pants, I’m 56 years old with a Telecaster around my neck. And the White Lion songs fit right together with the songs from all my solo albums, so it’s not like the songs jump out. Good or bad, they fit together. They fit together because they were written almost in a similar way as I write the other songs.
You put the “When the Children Cry” on Cobblestone Street as a bonus track, the acoustic version, which is really, really great. And I think that hits on exactly what you’re talking about.
I really appreciate the honesty Mike. It’s refreshing. You know, you said, “Maybe not everyone will say it…” But touring these days, and the music business these days, you know better than anyone how different it is.
You know what Tom? You know, and including all your listeners, I simply would not be able to get out of bed and get my day started in the morning, if I had to be, or pretend being, someone else or something else than what I really am. And the thing is that, first of all, I’m a human being. I own some guitars, I got some great songs, I’m still in decent shape, I can still sing a good song et cetera, et cetera. But I understand that I’m not playing the big concerts, arenas, around the world. I understand that I’m not on the Billboard top 40, or 100, or top 200. I understand that I’m rarely being played on the radio these days. I understand all these things, so I just try to cater to what I can do. But one thing that I have not done is gone down in quality.
Agreed. And the new music that I’m hearing from the first couple of tracks from Maybe Tomorrow, to be released on February 24 on Target, are evidence of that. And I would encourage anyone to go back to Nomad, go back to Museum, and Cobblestone Street in particular, there’s some great stuff on there. And you mentioned it earlier, Mike, these great influences that you grew up on, and myself, and many others, it’s all there. But it’s also really distinctive ‘you’. It’s your voice…. Your voice is very distinctive, and sounds great, stronger than ever. I’m very happy to hear what you’re doing.
Last question for you… what’s a question you’re never, or rarely ever asked, but you wish you were?
(laughing) Yeah, you got me there. And I’m sitting there being prepared to say, “Is there going to be a White Lion reunion?”
Well, I already know the answer to that, because I’ve done my homework. I know you get that a lot; you’ve made it clear where that’s all at. You’ve talked about it in numerous interviews.
In reality, I mean, the question could be turned around, since it’s what most people know me from. And nobody ever seemed to ask the question, “Why won’t there be [a White Lion reunion]?”
Well, what’s the answer to that?
And then you can explain it, and you… I mean, you have to do drastic things. It’s like, for all of you people out there who, unfortunately, happen to be in a divorced family, or come from a divorced family, could you ever imagine your Mom and Dad back together? I mean, sometimes, when something’s split, it is for the purpose of it needs to split. And there’s so many reasons. But the most reason is that the band does not want to be together. And this is not a matter of us having offers on the table, you know, for big money. It’s not a matter of us, you know, think we should do it because Cinderella’s doing it, or Tesla’s doing it, or Night Ranger, or FireHouse. White Lion broke up because we did not want to be together anymore. And [I’ve stuck to that] ever since.
Okay. Fair enough. I appreciate you going there with that. And I know that Vito [Bratta] has made it clear he’s not into music, he’s not doing it anymore. But, if he ever changed his mind and called you, would you do it?
You know what? I would be very surprised to see this guy ever with a guitar in his hand again. I mean, how would you expect that to happen for somebody that’s basically been sitting at home for 25 years? Not been in the music business, and then suddenly come out? No, it would not happen. And you know what? Sometimes, I’m forced to having to say it in another way so people can understand it. Unfortunately, a lot of other singers don’t follow the same recipe. I can’t be Mike Tramp [at] 27 years old. I don’t sound like that. I sound like I do today, and I’m much more at home and happier with the way I sound today. I’m not ditching White Lion; they were the greatest years of my life, and I am so happy to all the people that raised their hands and cheered for me out on stage. But right now, I’m a father of three. I’m a guy with a guitar around my neck. And I do what I can, not what I can’t.
Well, I appreciate that Mike. And again, your honesty and candidness is very refreshing. You tell it like it is… as it should be. You’re very prolific. You’ve got a great solo catalog. Your 10th solo studio album is about to be released on Target Records titled, Maybe Tomorrow. I think it’s excellent from what I’ve heard so far. I can’t wait to hear the rest of it. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. I greatly appreciate your time.
Tom, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for allowing me to answer the questions the way I choose.
Absolutely, Mike. Thanks so much. Best of luck out on your European tour. I hope to get a chance to run into you at some point down the road to talk again.
Any time, hit me up.
Mike Tramp Discography:
1985 Fight To Survive
1989 Big Game
1991 Mane Attraction
1992 The Best of White Lion
1993 Freak of Nature
1994 Gathering of Freaks
2002 Recovering the Wasted Years
2003 More to Life Than This
2004 Songs I Left Behind
2009 The Rock ‘N’ Roll Circuz
2011 Stand Your Ground
2013 Cobblestone Street
2017 Maybe Tomorrow
Mike Tramp: www.miketramp.dk
This piece was originally published in AntiHero Magazine on February 14, 2017.