Rival Sons’ Mike Miley Speaks To SonicAbuse

Mike Miley may, or may not be, insane.In a good way, of course, but insane nonetheless. Confident and brimming with enthusiasm there is no doubt who is in charge of the interview and it most certainly isn’t SonicAbuse. Still, with near boundless enthusiasm and the cerebrally challenging habit of darting off on a tangent without so much as a hint of warning, it turns into one of those rare interviews that is a  real pleasure to follow because Mike’s clear love of music, both that which he makes with his band Rival Sons and the many different elements that make up his influences, radiates out of every sentence.

Rival Sons. It seems implausible that you might have missed out on the phenomenon that is Rival Sons, but should you have been hiding in a particularly deep cave with nary a carrier pigeon in sight to drop you the latest vinyl releases, then Rival Sons are the musical force of nature whose remarkable album ‘Head down’ is such a heady combination of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and blues that it dazzles any venue in which it is played with the blinding light of brilliance. Easily one of the albums of the year, if you have, inconceivably, missed it then you need to rectify the situation before reading any further.

Currently conducting a sold out tour of the UK in which the band have been gleefully destroying every single venue, leaving their fans drawn and shattered, we found Mike in Nottingham’s brilliant venue The Rescue Rooms and managed to cover a surprising amount of ground over the course of our conversation. It was a lot of fun conducting this interview and we hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we enoyed having the opportunity to discuss the rise of one of the decade’s most enthralling bands.

Hello there – welcome to my layer! I’m Michael Miley and I’m with Rival Sons

SA: That’s… remarkably creepy!

SA: With ‘Pressure and time’ it seems you struck a chord with a lot of people and you got a pretty furious reaction from press and fans alike. It doesn’t sound like it, listening to the album, but I was wondering if it created an element of pressure when recording ‘Head down’?

No we don’t… really, it’s weird. Nobody in this band stresses out or anything like that. We were so preoccupied with our schedule to be honest that we didn’t have time to worry. And we knew we were going in without songs and we know that we can create on the spot and we know that we can trust each other’s musicianship to pull off a decent song. So, there were actually no nerves. We kept feeling like we were writing album cuts, as opposed to hit singles. Sometimes you write a song and you realise that it could be a radio hit – and it has that catchy something to it. But we kept writing like, it would seem like… deeper stuff and after everything is said and done it’s like a wild ride. There’s pop stuff that you want to dance with your girl to; there’s sexy stuff; soulful bluesy stuff; deep, heavy… like, ‘Manifest destiny (parts 1&2)’… those are really heavy songs; the lyrical content is incredibly touchy in America, with our Native American genocide that occurred a hundred years ago – so that’s a real, touchy one. And then the love song at the end is about a man and a woman, falling in love and having kids and living out their days together.

So, I hope I answered your question… and expounded I guess… but no – they just come together like Lego, you know, it’s like building blocks. So, no we were not nervous and we did not feel pressured to match the previous album.

SA:  You bought up ‘Manifest destiny’ and it felt like, despite the fact that it is rooted in history, there are a lot of parallels with interventions that the US and other countries are involved in too – particularly with its refrain of “we’re dealing with godless men”

Oh yeah – America is Godless!

SA:  Haha – I was thinking it was rather the other way with America finding its enemies godless…

Well, yeah, we can go so far with that but what I’ll stick to is our album and ‘Manifest destiny’ is an ironic chorus because the white man came to America and Native American soil and called the Native Americans ‘godless’ and ‘dirt worshippers’ and all these… Funnily enough, their being Christians not loving people and mass genocide of the whole culture. I’m Christian but there’s major crap that’s happened, so that chorus is very ironic and, yeah, I’ll give you that – it definitely translates to today. But I think people just need to stop… people need to take God out of the equation. Spiritual beliefs are personal. Go to you church – awesome! Fine! Have a mosque, have a temple have a synagogue, but to use it as a means to kill and start wars is just ridiculous. So… I didn’t know I was going to get on my high horse in this interview – please bear with me – I’m all about love!

I am! I am the crazy, bouncing off the wall drummer guy and now you’ve got me talking about all the deep shit! But no – I am multi-faceted… I can go there if you want. I’ll talk about George Bush if you want!

SA:  We could spend hours on that but I guess you haven’t long before you hit the stage so moving on… A lot of people have described Rival Sons, and similar music, as ‘retro’; which is a term that is a bit insulting I guess because it denotes what, for me, is a style of music that is timeless – you don’t take Led Zeppelin for example and describe it as ‘retro’ – and turning it into a fad, something that’s transitory; and I don’t think that’s the case – and I was wondering how you feel when you’re perceived in that way and described in that way.

Well, I’ll quote Jay. Jay was interviewed… and I don’t even know what it was… but Jay said… I read an article about him… and he said that it’s on our shoulders. It’s on ourselves to prove our worth to be timeless. Right now I see why someone might say ‘retro’ – we obviously drop from the same well as the Zeppelins, the Hendrix. The Cream, The Who, the Beatles. I’m not saying we’re trying to sound like any of those bands, but they were influenced by what we’re going back to. We’re going back to original rock ‘n’ roll. Obviously we grew up on Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction and Motley Crue and Iron Maiden… so we actually have the benefit over the Beatles, I think, so… I’m going to say it – yeah!!! So we can drop from the well of Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry: we can go back, and that’s what Zeppelin – they were all really into that, fifties American Blues… and Elvis – Elvis made blues pop so….

But we are current and we are modern and we do have other influences… disparate influences.So I initially – it kinda rubs you wrong to be called ‘retro’ because when I think of Wolfmother I think ‘retro’; and when I think of Wolfmother – they’re not going… they’re not deep. It’s a real superficial, fun, awesome band but there’s not a depth. It feels real unidirectional. I hope this doesn’t come off mean but they’re ‘retro’; Jet got called ‘retro’; Kings of Leon even had a little period of time when they were ‘retro’, but they superseded it and they are now… they’ll go down in rock history whether you like them or not. Kings of Leon are – they’ve got four really great albums and it’s up to us, it’s on our shoulders to keep going and keep working.

We’re really like – we hear those comparisons to Zeppelin… but what we’re doing is 32 gigs in 42 days and then we have a Canadian tour, and  a US tour in January. We’ll have Christmas off… and possibly Australia in February and back here in March so I mean … call us whatever you want – we’re working! We’re selling out gigs and people are coming and buying t-shirts. So fine, you want to call us ‘retro’ – shit… but when we’re here ten years from now (hopefully) we’re still going to be called ‘retro’? I ask those people that say that!!!

SA:  It’s funny terminology – ‘retro’ seems to be quite new because there a lot of bands who dug back to music’s roots – I mean Screaming Trees never got called ‘retro’ and it seems to be a new way of pigeon holing music.

I think… well I’ll give The Black Keys some credit and Jack White is, like, the original ‘retro’ guy. He’s playing Silvertone guitar amp. Like a Sears amp from the fifties, you know, and he’s the most creative genius, I think, out there. And all he is doing is playing the blues with a crappy, gigantic drum beat that is the most beautiful thing in the world. Meg White is one of my favourite drummers, she’s so close to my heart. If ever I saw her I would literally kiss her feet because she is the first… I’m going to go out on a limb and say… the first of these run of bands that have real mediocre drummers who end up making the most beautiful music. We could say Ringo – some people say that he was mediocre and I think he was one of the best because no drummer who plays with the greatest song writing team of all time can be a bad drummer. People like to make fun of Ringo… but anyway that was a tangent! Back to Meg White – she made it sound modern. Do people call White Strips ‘retro’? But Black Keys definitely got that tag and Wolfmother is the banner ‘retro’ band – they’re straight Sabbath. And Dick Sardy produced the hell out of that first album, it sounded so good and when we got it we were like thank god there’s a band doing something like, older roots.. you know, instead of being influenced by Perl Jam, Soundgarden, Disturbed and Staind. Some of the bands out there right now, they don’t even go back before ’94 or whatever and I understand that if that’s where you grew up and that’s what you were checking out but I mean – the eighties. Who copies The Police??

SA:  Well Machine head covered ‘message in a bottle’ but we don’t talk about that too much!

And Jane’s Addiction were one of the most awesome things to come out of the eighties but they did their own thing and who can copy that? But they brought back the blues guitar solo because all of the eighties… we called it ‘wanking’… sorry, I know that’s probably.. wanking is what you guys call masturbating right?? Sorry – yeah anyway you have that guitarist George Lynch with Dokken, you’ve got Mick Mars, Adrian Smith and Mick Murray and the eighties is pretty much when guitarists took the blues out of it. They might have played pentatonic blues scales but they weren’t … [imitates blues scale] you don’t hear that in Motley Crue! Dave Navarro bought back those blues licks and I love it – we all have very different opinions, that’s why we’re Rival Sons and I won’t even make fun of what they think of Jane’s Addiction. I think I’ve gone off on a tangent on every one of your questions…

SA:  Listening to the album – there are so many influences and it sounds like you’ve all absorbed a huge wealth of music to come up with your sound and I wondered what records you think are very influential for you as a band rather than as individuals?

Well we have.. early on we listened to ‘my generation’ the first Who album and it’s everybody’s iPod, everybody loves it and ‘live at Leeds’ as well. It’s that dangerous, destructive, about to fall off a mountain rock ‘n’ roll. Like the angst – that teenage, male… the logo… everything about the Who it’s just young man angst and I think that’s a lot of what rock ‘n’ roll is. The Who are the original punk band if you think about it, they had ‘my generation’ as an anthemic song that puts two fingers – that’s how you do it here right – to the man and the Who… there was a lot of me and Scott listening to The Kinks ‘ultimate collection’, two discs of forty songs. The Kinks are one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. They’re so formulaic, but it’s so charming. Like you hear [sings riff to ‘you really got me’] that riff is in like three of their songs. And The Who has a formula, and every band has these little things that they do – ours too – through our catalogue we’ve got ‘Gypsy heart’ and then ‘keep on swinging’ on the new album that’s mid-tempo, riffy as hell… riff-rock – that’s what we love.

And I would say The Staple Singers – a vocal, mainly acapella, but Pops– he played a tremolo guitar and then there were four or five singers and they were just singing spiritual music and Mavis Staples is just one of the most soulful singers in the world.; There was an album called ‘good to me’, which was unreleased… now released… but back at the time unreleased concert by Otis Redding at the Whiskey in 1965 and there were like 35 people in the club and you can hear like [imitates the sound of a desperately empty gig] rather than the huge roar of ‘live at Monterey’ right before he died and he did ‘Dock of the bay’… Otis Redding’s one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived on planet earth – we love him. So we like soul music man, and you know, the Who ‘live at Leeds’… I could probably name a bunch, but as a band these are albums that we’ve got and gravitated towards… as well as the Black Keys ‘brothers’ album. So we’ve toured and driven ourselves in our van in the US we’ve listened to the Black Keys ‘brothers’ album… It’s such a good road album, you put it on when you’re driving and it’s so cool… and we probably listened to that… probably… a hundred times on various trips. ELO is a fun one drive to and David Bowie ‘Hunky Dory’…

SA:  The lyrics in the album veer from the comic, to the auto-biographical to the metaphorical – it’s all Jay right?

Jay – 100% Jay

SA:  And how long does it take to develop the lyrics because they seem really deep and complete and there aren’t many bands where you can look at the lyrics and enjoy them in isolation from the music.

Well Jay, first of all, his lyrics – if you listen to any of his solo albums which you can get on iTunes if you look up Buchanan (without Jay, it’s just called Buchanan) – his lyrics have always been real honest. So he’s speaking on behalf of the working man a lot. There’s a lot of blue collar, calluses on their fingers kind of feeling. That’s what I get from Jay’s lyrics. Stuff you can believe, stuff you can see and feel and touch and smell. Like, that’s my initial, superficial, visceral reaction to his lyrics. ‘Manifest destiny’, that has allegory but it’s more direct. I’m hunting for buffalo, I see the tracks of the army’s wagons heading to our camp yesterday and then I killed your horse, but you made it home to dying bodies lying all around and this sacred piece, that’s sacred to the tribe, is broken and then he says… I’ve forgotten what it means at the end… and it’s like a ballad. It’s a story, you can almost feel like it’s being told by Black Oak . It’s very biographical. But ‘the heist’ is kinda fun, about a dude who’s going to rob a bank to put food on the table and that could be allegorical as well because there are so many people struggling for jobs right now and people are losing their minds and they’re at the end of their rope –that’s a lyric in there.

SA:  That seems to have quite a sad ending because it finishes with the alarms going off…

Yeah – you know what – at first I thought the same thing and I was like – ‘bummer! I want the guy to win! But it says [sings] and then I hear the alarm” but what do you finish on? [sings] “baby! Baby don’t worry, I’m coming home with the money,” right? So to me it says the alarm goes off, he grabs the money and runs and he escapes. I’m a glass half full kind of guy, believe it or not.

Rival Sons remarkable ‘Head Down’ album is avaiable now on Earache

All Photos Jola Stiles

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