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article imageInterview: Michael Nesmith on his solo tour and 50-year career Special

By Mindy Peterman     Mar 2, 2013 in Entertainment
The ex-Monkee and artist formerly known as "Wool Hat" has had a long and varied career. Now he is setting out on his first solo tour in over twenty years.
Michael Nesmith, or Papa Nez, as he is sometimes called, is not a man to rest on his laurels. He started his career as a folkie in the early ‘60s, playing clubs in and around Los Angeles, then went on to become a bonafide star as Mike "Wool Hat" Nesmith, a member of The Monkees. When the smoke cleared from those hectic teen idol years, Nesmith formed The First National Band. I fell in love with their records and assumed critics did too, although Nesmith is adamant that this was not the case.
He was always on the cutting edge, making videos an art form years before MTV was a twinkle in the media’s eyes. His ‘80s recordings were experimental yet accessible. Although none were “hits” in the truest sense of the word, they were fun and somewhat strange, combining a country twang, calypso, and a dose of cabaret. Here was an artist doing what he liked, despite what was considered fashionable. And isn’t that part of what true artistry is all about?
Now Nesmith is embarking on his first solo tour since 1992, a real treat for those who know him more for his 40 years as an artist than his years as a Monkee. In a recent email interview, I asked Nez about his long and varied career and the forthcoming tour.
Over the course of your career, you seemed to enjoy pushing the boundaries of your craft. Releasing The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, the instrumental album you made while you were still a member of the Monkees, was a bold move at the time. What inspired you to make that record?
The professional music scene was in a strange state in LA at that time. There were some extraordinary players held in harness for commercial and short scoring cues and TV theme songs. I wanted to see what would happen if these guys were let loose in a creative unrestrained romp -- and I wanted my songs to have a life in that kind of orchestra. Those two motives met in a deal from Dot records and the session was born. 
When you left the Monkees to go out on your own, your First National Band records were well received. Do you look back fondly on those days when you were finally free to make the music you wanted to make?
The First National Band was not well received. It was shunned and mocked. The press was unreservedly cruel, the crowds never came, and the other players and my peers of the time actually laughed at us when we played festivals with them. Birth is painful no matter the gender of the birther -- and yes, I look back fondly on those days. I liked standing up against the hurricane of disrespect and saying "I like this music and I stand behind it". I didn't choose the fight -- but I am glad stood up to it. The scars have long healed and left great lessons that still support me. The music and songs have become great companions.
You later released excellent, albeit, very different sounding records like Infinite Rider On the Big Dogma and From a Radio Engine To a Photon Wing. This was the late ‘70s, the disco era, and your music was unlike anything on the radio at the time. Could you talk about those records and how you were able to meld various styles of music so successfully?
The die was cast after the Monkees -- and I had nothing to lose. It was scorched earth. It (the Monkees aftermath) turned on a creative faucet that never turned off. The main part of creativity for me is curiosity and receptivity -- so when new and unusual ideas popped into my head I did not have to measure them against any past, or my own preconceptions, or need to provide something to a fan base or a market. These flashes of inspiration need a free reign because many times they come from such strange and unexpected places -- the relationship of ideas is not always obvious -- so it is good to watch and listen carefully, quietly and receptively. When ideas are natural they have a natural connection to each other -- strange bedfellows sometimes -- and it takes no effort other than to let them connect and to provide a safe place for them.  It's simple and effortless. No special skill or talent required.
The idea to combine the printed word and music for The Prison was another very different idea. Do you feel you succeeded at what you set out to do with this project?
I think it was entirely successful. I sometimes wonder if the music got short changed a bit -- the sense that one must read the short story at the same time the music plays was a bit misunderstood. The music stands alone and I love listening to it by itself. It is a simple work but I think there is an elegance to it -- in the mathematical sense of the word elegance. Clean and pure. It is as fully realized as I could make it. There may be more to it -- but it will take another artist to mine it.
You’ve been called ahead of your time when it comes to your videos like “Rio” and the full-length film Elephant Parts. How did you come up with the ideas for these projects? What are your thoughts on the “MTV Generation” you helped to inspire?
See above. Again -- Ideas naturally connect on many levels -- it takes time and curiosity to find those connections but once one does they are obvious and self fulfilling. There is no work to be done -- no creativity or innovation or special talent. Just look around and see how things naturally fit together. Most things have a point of connection that is there for the finding. Music and Film are naturals -- just like Food and Fire -- MTV has this as part of its legacy. I brought it to Warner/Amex with that element in place. It is still there if the new owners want it. The generation that watched it was the generation that understood it -- saw their own face in it. They have all grown up -- and are on to other things. I like living in the world they have made and are making.
Why did you choose this time in your career to do a solo tour? What can people expect when they go?
I feel as if now is when I can most completely realize the full artistic and aesthetic value of these songs and records -- and I was handed a chance to do it. There is a public mandate now that I can respond to. I will play my solo writings from over the last years. 
What musicians will be playing with you?
Boh Cooper (Rascal Flatts, Peter Cetera) on Keys, Chris Scruggs (M.Ward, Justin Townes Earl) on Mandolin, Steel,and 6 string, Paul Leim (Kenny Chesney, Whitney Houston) on Drums, and Joe Chemay (Elton John, Pink Floyd) on Bass 
You’ve said that The Monkees phase of your career will be represented by only one song in the show, “Papa Gene’s Blues”. Is there a reason you chose that particular song?
It was one of the first songs I wrote. There are elements in that song that have stayed in my writing over the years. I learned a lot from writing that song. 
Have you written any new songs for the show?
I have several new songs but I won't include them in this show. They are still in the "oven" and need time to mature -- the latest songs I will do are from Rays which was 2006. 
What do you think of the music business these days? Are there any newer artists you’re  listening to?
It is starting to turn the corner into the digital distribution business and I think that is promising. I am enjoying Mumford and Sons and Bruno Mars -- and some other more electronica kinds of things that are way off in the margins. Lots of soundtracks -- like Hugo -- and lots of re-mixes. Electro-Swing has been on the top of the playlist for a while.
Do you have any plans for a new album or video project in the near future?
Yes -- many --  and everything is on the front burner of a very big stove.  All in different stages of growth.
Thurs., March 21  FRANKLIN, TN  Franklin Theater – SOLD OUT
Sun., March 24 AGOURA HILLS, CA Canyon Club
Tues., March 26 SANTA CRUZ, CA  Rio Theater
Wed., March 27 SAN FRANCISCO, CA  Palace of Fine Arts
Fri., March 29  PORTLAND, OR   Aladdin Theater
Sat., March 30  SEATTLE, WA  Neptune Theater
Wed., April 3  BOULDER, CO  Boulder Theater
Fri., April 5  ST. PAUL, MN  Fitzgerald Theater (Sue McLean & Assoc.?)
Sat., April 6  CHICAGO, IL  Old Town School of Folk Music – SOLD OUT
Sun., April 7  FERNDALE, MI  The Magic Bag - SOLD OUT
Tues., April 9  MUNHALL, PA  Carnegie Music Hall of Holmstead
Thurs., April 11  NORTHAMPTON, MA  Iron Horse - SOLD OUT
Fri., April 12  RAHWAY, NJ  Union County Performing Arts Center
Sat., April 13  SOMERVILLE, MA  Somerville Theater
Mon., April 15  PHILADELPHIA, PA  World Café Live - SOLD OUT
Tues., April 16  NEW YORK, NY  Town Hall
Wed., April 17  WASHINGTON, DC  Birchmere
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