Len Kasper interviews Mike about new figgs record and more!

Uncategorized 15 June 2015 | 0 Comments

The play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs, Len Kasper interviews Mike.

LEN KASPER: Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk about your career with The Figgs and beyond. I want to start by asking you about your prolific nature. This side of Robert Pollard, I don’t know of a songwriter in your genre who writes as many songs as you do. Do you roll out of bed every day with a riff or a lyric in your head?

MIKE GENT: Hi Len, my pleasure. As the years roll on, I find myself writing less. Busy with family and life I guess. When I do get in a writing mode these days, I put little fragments of ideas (a vocal melody or riff) down on tape and I might forget about it for a year. When I am sometimes blank on ideas, I will go through tapes for a few days and compile some cool ideas I may have missed. A lot of editing happens, then all of a sudden I have 10 or 20 new songs. Hopefully a few of them will be useful. Going back to almost the beginning, a lot of my songs just start with a decent title and I go from there. On the other side of that, I have stuck lousy titles on good songs! There was also a period where I would sit down, start a song, and would force myself to finish it. Sometimes that would work and within 30 minutes I would have a great one. Most of the time, 5 hours later I would have half of a crappy one. I haven’t been doing that lately. As soon as I get stuck or bored, I move on. 

LK: What is (roughly) the percentage of songs you’ve written that actually have been not only recorded, but released in some fashion? And furthermore, any stories about a song or songs that you wrote long ago that sat there forever before you finally finished? Any song(s) that you liked enough to keep on the shelf not too far away but for whatever reason were unable to finish for years?

MG:  I never did a head count on how many songs have been released. No idea. If you totaled everything I have written, I also have no idea. A thousand? I will check my BMI account and see how many are listed in my catalog. Hold on…152 published songs. Maybe I have written 500 that are not published? There have been a few times I have found a song whether finished or not, from years ago, in a notebook or on a tape. Sometimes I will use it for something. Silver Boogie from Brass City Band was one of those.

LK: I find this idea interesting and maybe it’s a song-by-song thing but is there a point with a certain idea at which you say, “Man, I’ve spent so much time on this song and it just doesn’t work,” or “While I don’t have a complete idea here, I will not let it go until I figure this out.” What’s the calculus there? Is every idea ultimately worth keeping in your cache of ideas just in case you’re later inspired?

MG: There was a time I would work on a song too much, trying to recapture the initial spark that started the song. Sometimes you lose that magic as soon as you begin “working” on the song. Countless times I have sat with a guitar on the couch watching T.V. and something starts happening that is fantastic. As soon as get up to reach for a pen or recorder, it could be lost. It’s similar to when the band is recording. We could be warming up, playing the song, and it feels great. As soon as we start recording, the feeling is gone. So no, every idea is not worth keeping, hell, every finished song is occasionally not worth keeping.

LK: This is almost impossible to verbalize I’m guessing, but can you explain “the feeling?” In my business, the equivalent is probably the “it” factor, but is it just something you intrinsically know based on your experience and your ear?

MG: Same thing. When the three of us link up to the same musical thought , either in the studio or on stage, we call it “Experiencing IT.” It’s a natural high that may only last a few seconds, only comes around once in awhile, and maybe only one of us will be “Experiencing IT” at the above mentioned moment, but it could be why we still do this….chasing after that buzz. As Townshend sings “There once was a note, LISTEN!!”

LK: On top of the incredible amount of songs you’ve written for The Figgs, The Gentlemen, your solo records and The Needy Sons (I’m probably missing some other projects too!), you love playing covers too. Have you thought of doing a covers record of your favorites at some point? Or is merely a fun diversion when you’re on stage?

MG: For me, it’s more important in the show. For people who have never seen the band, they can get a feel of where we are coming from, and might enjoy a song they know. Plus, when we started, we had to play 3 sets a night of covers. It’s in our blood. There are millions of songs out there. Why not play them? A full record of covers is alright. I don’t have too much interest in doing it. Wait…what am I talking about.. I covered an entire Petty record! Only a few people have done them that I enjoy. Lennon, Bowie…

LK: Wait, you covered an entire Petty record?

MG: Yes. A couple of years ago I recorded “Long After Dark” in my front living room. I started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Just acoustic and vocals. Some of the songs I had been playing since the mid 80’s, some I had to learn right before I pushed the record button. Still my favorite Petty record.  My version is called “Long After Stan”. You can find both sides on Soundcloud for free.

LK: I am all over that. Cool. So, what’s the difference between a Mike Gent solo record song and a Mike Gent Figgs song? Pretty sure you dropped the “soft roll” tag on your last solo effort, which I loved. Is that the main thing? That you and Pete Donnelly can explore a little more of your singer/songwriter side when you do your own thing?

MG: With the bands I am in right now, it comes down to either which band shows the most interest in the song, or whoever plays it the best. I will try the same new song with all three of the bands, if none of them get it, maybe it will show up on a solo record, or it will be tossed. I have this idea that I have been trying to make happen over the last few years and that is, I want to play any songs with any of the bands. Meaning, if The Figgs want to play a Gentlemen song, why not? I wrote it. That’s what I am digging about The Needy Sons, we play our own stuff, covers, some Buffalo Tom, some Figgs. Same with Rapid Shave. Just grabbing from that list of millions of songs I was talking about. Trying to break away from that thing where you only play released songs from your own records.

LK: I love that and I’ve seen The Figgs play some Pete Donnelly or Mike Gent solo tunes and in fact, there was a Donnelly tune that you guys really rocked out on live and kind of changed the vibe of the recorded version. I thought that was fantastic that you made his song the band’s song for that performance. It totally worked. I’m also guessing it’s nice to just have variety in general in a live show, no? You don’t strike me as the kind of musician who likes to play the same song too many times.

MG: No I don’t. I get burned out on songs pretty quick, probably to a fault. I constantly want to move forward with learning or writing new songs. I like putting certain songs aside for awhile, so when you come back to them, they are fresh. I think with The Figgs, we have basically been on the same small club circuit for almost 3 decades, so we have escaped that “spinning our wheels” feeling with always trying new stuff out all of the time. Moving forward with the music keeps us going.

LK: OK, let’s go back to the beginning. Can you remember the first song you wrote? If so and if there’s a recording of it, what’s your analysis of it as a veteran songwriter? In other words, if a snotty-nosed kid handed it to you, what would your assessment be?

MG: I don’t remember the first, just a group of them when I switched to guitar. I was a drummer before I got into guitar. They were horrible. Aside from a few flashes of decent writing, I honestly think I didn’t start writing songs that were really good until I hit my mid thirties. If a snotty-nosed kid handed me my first song I would ask him where he found it.

LK: Why did you go from drummer to guitar player? Is there some sort of Dave Grohl-esque back story here?

MG: I had this beautiful early 70’s Ludwig kit that I got for Christmas. I was very into playing drums. I think my mom was the reason I switched to guitar. She was sick of hearing the drums!! Plus, I realized early on that a guitar and amp were a lot easier to lug around than a drum kit.

LK: How did the name The Figgs come about? Weren’t you the Sonic Undertones at first?

MG: I think Guy came up with Sonic Undertones and we switched it to Figgs probably because Sonic Undertones was too close to The Undertones. I never liked either name. I wish we could change our name again, but I think it’s too late.

LK: Haha, yes, probably so.
MG: The name may have confused people through the years. What do they sound like? I guess we were going for something close to The Raspberries with our name. 
 LK: “Central Stumble” might be my favorite Figgs song. It has that timeless vibe and the production of it is sparkling. But interestingly, it’s not on a proper Figgs record but was released as a single. How did that song come about and why didn’t it end up on a full-length record?

MG: That one came together pretty quick with my friend John Powhida. We’ve had a little songwriting thing going on the last few years. This is the first one we did. I will come up with the idea and music, John does the lyrics and usually the vocal melody, and then I will make a few edits with lyrics and bam! There is song we wrote called “Keith & The Buddha” on the new Figgs record that came out in March. “The Central Stumble” and “All The World Will Fall” were written and recorded specifically for a single right as we were in the middle of making “The Day Gravity Stopped”.

LK: All songs are not created equal. Having said that, it’s tough to ask a songwriter for his favorites because it feels like you’re slighting others. But I have to ask. What Mike Gent songs do you hear/play and think to yourself, “Now that’s what I’m talking about”?

MG: hmm…. “No Time Is The Wrong Time To Groove”, “Stuck On Leather Seats”, “Top Heavy”, “(Romantic Needs Led To) False Alarms”, “Paper Knives”, “Smoking Guru”, “The Great Unwashed”, “Follow Jean Through The Sea”, “Chasing After Words”, “I’m Coming Over Later” Sometimes I love the track and the song is just alright….”Metal Detector”, “Bristol Sisters”. Sometimes I love the song and the track is not right….”A One Man Fiasco”, “Dorado”.

LK: OK, I wanna stop you right there. “Dorado” is a GREAT song. It’s pretty buried on the “Gravity” record, but it sounds like a long lost gem from The Replacements’ “Don’t Tell A Soul,” which really hit home with me. I also recall you telling me you had some regret about the final version of that tune. Is it hard to separate the process or production or who-knows-what secrets exist that only you know from the actual song itself? Because, again, I think that’s one of your best efforts, but I don’t have listen to it with anything attached to it like you do.

MG: Yeah, with “Dorado,” I knew I had a decent song. Sometimes trying to capture a song on a recording is really difficult. I’m not sure why. Out of the 20 songs on that album, I probably spent the most time on “Dorado.” It turned into a bit of an OCD thing where I would email Ducky in the middle of the night asking him to change one little thing that no one would ever notice or pay attention to. 

LK: What has your experience with Graham Parker been like? Has he had an influence on your songwriting at all?

MG: Oh yeah, influenced by his whole thing right from the beginning. Songs, singing, vibe. I had the first few records in my house as a small kid. My whole time working with Graham has been so cool. We became friends which is what matters the most, right? I love the guy. He’s the best band leader I have ever worked with. Super focused, yet open to ideas. We have been writing some interesting songs over email. I don’t think he has ever co-written with anyone before.

LK: I feel like the Figgs/GP marriage was perfect for all involved in that it gave GP some great updated cred in playing with you guys while it hooked you up with one of the great icons of the era that preceded you. Any fun moments with him that stand out in particular?

MG: Too many to think of just one. I’m going on 18 years of working with him. One time we were rehearsing near Woodstock for a tour, and we were eating pizza at this place. I see this old guy with a big santa beard walk in and pick up a few pies. I say to Graham “I think that’s Garth (Hudson).” Graham goes “Hey Garth!” Garth replies “Hi Graham, needed to pick up some dinner” and walks out. He had a “Late Night With Letterman” jacket on. 

LK: “Hobbie Skirt” and “…And Here’s Some More” both have that late-‘70s Stones (She’s So Cold/Shattered) guitar thing that I absolutely love. But while I hear some Keith in there, it’s also very Mike Gent-ian to me. That’s kind of the essence of rock, isn’t it? Being influence and inspired by your heroes but ultimately making it your own, right?

MG: Right. The riff on “…And Here’s Some More” was so close to “Hobble Skirt,” I thought the title fit well. I’ve always worn my influences close and steal from the best. In this case, myself!

LK: You are and have always been a vinyl aficionado. What is it about hearing a record on an actual record player that separates it from all other media forms?

MG: Well for me, it’s one of my earliest memories, playing records. I have done it my whole life. I have been collecting since the early 70’s and never stopped (even in the 90’s). Part of me is bummed that it is making a comeback. The price of most new records is ridiculous. Plus, for my own records, we have to wait much longer now because the few plants that do it, are slammed. That being said, I do like the fact that some records are being released that never were to begin with during CD’s heyday. I remember in the 90’s writing into any of our contracts at the time that they must release vinyl. My only demand. Haha! I just get the full experience of a recording when it’s on vinyl and not just audio. I pay attention more. I get nothing from digital really. Unless I’m in a car I guess. At home, 99% of the music I listen to is on wax. Tracks On Wax.

LK: As you look ahead as a guy with a few decades under his belt in the business, is there stuff out there that by an artist or band younger than 30 that you hear and think, “OK, they’re carrying the torch we grabbed way back when”? 

MG: No. Haha! I don’t listen to a lot of new music. I will hear something on a college station that grabs my attention, but 9 times out of 10, the DJ never says who it is. 
LK: If you could collaborate on one original song in the future with anybody alive today, who would you pick and why?

MG: Chrissie Hynde, because she writes great songs!

LK: Great choice. You and Chrissie would fit perfectly together. OK, lastly, The Figgs have a new record out, Other Planes of Here. And another one in the works. There’s kind of a ‘70s feel to Planes with only 8 tracks and some longer tunes. Give us some analysis of that record and the “new” new one too.

MG: We wanted to make a really focused record that had 8 songs with more of a 70’s thing, stretch out a bit more, yeah. Including the artwork. We left a lot of mistakes also. In the studio, our initial instinct is to always fix things. This time we pulled back on that urge. The record we are working on right now has more of a Who vibe to it. We are maybe half way finished. The band has been really creative this past year, I’m excited about it. All we need now is a booking agent. Know any?

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