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Interview with top entertainment figure Michael Des Barres (Includes interview)

One of Michael Des Barres‘s first film roles of note was as one of the students in the classic Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir, with Love in 1967. Since then, the 67 year old has gone on to appear in many other movies and TV programmes, most famously MacGyver, where he played the gloriously villainous Murdoc (MacGyver’s arch-nemesis) from 1987 to 1991.

Musically, the outstanding rock vocalist’s career has followed a similarly successful trajectory. He formed his first band Silverhead in 1972 and later in that same decade, his second outfit Detective were signed to Led Zeppelin‘s Swan Song label. In the ’80s he replaced the late Robert Palmer in rock supergroup The Power Station and fronted them at Live Aid in 1985.

Next month, the former husband of famed groupie-turned-author-and-magazine journalist Pamela Des Barres is going back to his first love, rock music, with the release of The Key to the Universe, his first LP of new material since 2013’s Carnaby Street.

Though a resident of California for over 40 years, Des Barres hasn’t lost his English accent, something I picked up on immediately as he greeted me warmly over the telephone from his home in Los Angeles. I began by asking after his general state of health and well-being.

“I’m terrific, thank you for asking,” he replies in his polite, softly-spoken tones. “I recorded this album last summer with Nigel Harrison on bass – from my first band Silverhead and BlondieClive Deamer on drums and Dani Robinson on guitar, produced by Bob Rose.

“Really thrilling to go to Rome and make a rock ‘n’ roll record – the timeless city, it’s so beautiful – rather than making it in L.A. or New York, which is customary for me. But I’m just so happy with it. I’ve been doing a show on Little Steven’s Underground every day too, Monday through Friday, three hours of music every day. That’s been very exciting and I’m about to do Rob Zombie‘s new movie, so I’m a busy man – thank God.”

I was curious to learn where the title for the new album came from, an album for which the star co-wrote seven of the 10 tracks. “I wanted to ask a question really… I’m very intrigued by the hip-hop community’s way of getting their music across. I don’t really listen to it that much, but I find that they’re so much more interesting than their white rock group counterparts…

“They always have these very bold statements, so I thought I’d make a really bold, tongue-in-cheek statement which gets people talking, and because I don’t really get a big audience on the radio, it sets up a conversation because when you say something like that, it’s like Charlton Heston calling you up – it’s a big statement.

 The Key to the Universe

‘The Key to the Universe’
Aaron Feterl

“I didn’t want to call it ‘Roman Nights’ or ‘Meadow Creek,’ singer-songwriter-y sensitive. I wanted to make a bold and brash statement because that’s what we need. We need bold and brash statements in a world that is extremely challenged.”

Is it a reaction to the mediocrity of a lot of modern music?

“I think the unimaginative music… Mediocre has been around since there were instruments, but I think that the imagination of a lot of artists has been co-opted by pastiche and parody of whatever’s gone before… Now that’s not a new phenomena in music. In rock ‘n’ roll, we seem to have hit a medium of blues-based rock bands, Black Keys, Rival Sons on one side, which is great, and on the other you’ve got anger or irony or super-sensitive.

“There’s nothing that really beats below the waist out there, to me. There’s no music that’s physical. Perhaps the sensuality, the carnality of rock ‘n’ roll is, shall we say, standing in the middle of the rubble of the Apocalypse, right next to Iggy Pop, who’ll be the only one still living – maybe I’ll be next to him, who knows?

“The point is I’m not dissing anybody, but what I’m saying is there seems to be a vacuum. It’s lacking focus. In the old days, there was something to rail against. There was a ‘them’ and an ‘us.’ There isn’t a ‘them and us’ anymore.”

Michael Des Barres has been making solo records since the early 1980s (his first effort was I’m Only Human in 1980) and I asked the former addict – sober since 1981 – how The Key to the Universe might be considered different from his previous work.

“It’s not really that different from the music I’ve been making for 50 years,” he surmises. “It’s Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker music, but this album sounds sonically very different. I just want to get down to a minimalistic rock ‘n’ roll record…

“I’m not trying to be obscure. I’m trying to be simple, and I think the music that I’ve made, from Silverhead in 1972 when I was 20 years old to today when I’m 67, has changed very little. It’s the same impetus, the same influences, the same roots, but I’ve learned how to write songs that are, I think, more universally acceptable because I don’t want to be obscure.

“I’m out there to sweat and dance with the audience. It’s not as if I’m proselytising or letting you in on a secret that only I have! I find it very difficult to absorb that sort of pretension. It’s just three chords, Les Paul through a Marshall Stack, and if you dig it, you dig it, if you don’t, you don’t.”

The Key to the Universe will be revealed on April 7th.

For more information on Michael Des Barres, visit his official website.

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