Mike Flanigin on tour 1992 with The Red Devils: “We were a gang … mowed everybody down”
Flanigin became the band’s second guitarist during its critical club tour through the U.S. In 1992, replacing Dave Lee Bartel.
But his connection to the band started before he was drafted one night in Dallas: Flanigin had already been associated with lead guitarist Paul Size, who he reunited with again in Texas after The Red Devils imploded.
Today, Flanigin is the go-to Hammond B3 player for Jimmie Vaughan (the two are off to New York Dec. 9 for a show with Steve Miller honoring T-Bone Walker) and Billy Gibbons (Flanigin toured and recorded with Rev. Gibbons’ solo BFG Band). He also has a sprawling musical travelogue called “The Drifter,” released last year, which is an all-star tour through American roots music.
But more than 20 years earlier, he was a key part of keeping the hottest blues band in America chugging up and down the highway.
In a nearly two-hour interview, Flanigin talked about his own musical journey, his relationship with The Red Devils members, road stories — including the infamous “destroyed hotel” story — and so much more. The Q&A is edited only for space and clarity; further comments will publish later with more photos, audio and video.
It was a laid-back, familiar conversation that was exciting to be a part of. We bounced from topic to topic; hope you can keep up.
[Apologies for the ridiculous delay on this … life and all. All photos by Tina Hanagan.]
Mike: I was fairly old when I started playing. I think my first gig was 24 or something like that.
Interviewer: Really? So and you’re from Denton?
Mike: My dad was in the Air Force, and so we were in California when I was young and then we moved to Louisiana — Shreveport. Then we moved to Michigan and then ended up in Denton. My dad retired and so my sisters were going to school in Denton. So that’s how we ended up there. I think when I was about 13 we moved there.
Interviewer: But had you been in music? Had you been playing instruments when you were a kid or how’d you …
Mike: I wasn’t really in a musical household. I always liked music but, I worked at a pawn shop in Denton and it was kind of a music store too, so I’d strum on the guitar or something. But, everybody else in the pawn shop, they were in bands and I thought well they’re good. They seemed like musicians.
I was never that guy. It wasn’t until — I didn’t really know people in bands, I was just kind of out of it — really it wasn’t until I met Johnny Moeller and Jay [Moeller] and Paul Size, they would come in the pawn shop and I had met Anson Funderburgh. Somehow I had stumbled onto a gig for Anson Funderburgh in Dallas. And I talked to Anson and then those guys came in. And so we started talking about Anson.
Of course then they sat down and started to play. I was like, “Well, who are these kids?” Because they were just kids. I don’t know how old they were but 16, Jay was maybe 13 or 14 or something. Paul and Johnny were little kids when I met them. They were in high school. I remember I use to go over to Johnny’s house and his mom would check — I would bring over some cassettes or something — she’d check. She thought I was selling them drugs, going through my cassettes.
Interviewer: Like, why is this older fellow coming by …
Mike: Right, yes. Who is this? Well you know at that age just a few years seems a lot older.
Interviewer: Right, right and why are you hanging out with him?
Mike: Especially their kids are that young. It’s weird because music bonds you but I probably wouldn’t have been hanging out with a kid in high school at that age, and it’s not that I was super old but those were guys were talented. Even then, you knew these guys were the best. What was great about Paul — Johnny — everybody knew Johnny was the guy. And Paul idolized Johnny. But Paul just had this natural thing, I think he sounded like Buddy Guy and I don’t even think he had heard Buddy Guy. He just does this stuff and then it all just comes pouring out and it’s this. You’ve seen it right?
Interviewer: Right, right. Yes.
Mike: No hesitation. He’s not preoccupied with trying to sound like a particular guy or whatever.
Interviewer: Just presence.
Mike: It’s just pouring out and Paul was always real natural like that.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. So, your first instrument, was it organ or was it guitar?
Mike: No, I was playing guitar back then. I didn’t play the organ until, I was 30 maybe was when I started?
How that started was, I was playing at Antone’s. Me and Johnny Moeller and I can’t remember if Paul — I guess Paul was maybe here still before he moved a little bit. But there had to B3 on stage.
Well, I was playing guitar, Johnny’s playing guitar and I was like, “Well Johnny, he’s got the guitar covered. I’ll go try and play the organ.” But I didn’t know how to play keyboard but I would try and play while we had our little gig. Someone said, “Well, find the key and then count up three, that would be a minor. Count up four, that would be a major.” So, that’s how I started. And then when the other bands were playing, Derek [O’Brien] and the house band, I would sneak up there and just try and play the organ. But Doyle Bramhall Sr. hired me after about three months, saw me.
And then after that I was an organ player. I thought, “Well this is so complicated — this organ. And people think I know how to play it, I don’t and so I better figure that out.” So, I never played the guitar after that. I just played the organ.
Interviewer: Well, I played drums for many years and a guy that I played with, he’s always trying to get a B3 player, we played in big horn bands and stuff. And he’d say, “It doesn’t really matter. If you are able to haul a B3 to a gig, you can pretty much get any gig you want.” Like, if you want to haul the organ, you can get a gig. [laugh]
Mike: Right, and that was the thing. We hauled the organ! I didn’t even have an organ. Because I was playing the one at Antone’s. Then when I got hired to play, I had to go find an organ, I didn’t even have an organ. Luckily, at that time that was pre-eBay and stuff so, I happened to find one in the paper that day. I was looking for a keyboard or something just to practice with or something. And there was an Hammond organ in the paper, 700 bucks. It was actually cheaper than the keyboard things. It was a little old lady when I went and got that organ. So that’s how all that started. But before then I just played guitar, that was it.
But I didn’t play it professionally until Johnny Moeller had to go to California with Hook [Herrera]. And he was in a band called The We-Bads. Johnny Moeller was in Dallas, that was a pretty popular band and they made good money. Back then in Dallas you could make pretty good money playing these gigs and there were a million of them. You could play every night of the week if you’re a good blues band. They were a good band and Johnny had to go to California. So, he knew I played. We had gone to jams and hung out and he was like, “Hey, do you want to play my gig for me?” So, that’s how I started playing “professionally.”
Interviewer: So, it wasn’t really a long time necessarily on meeting these guys and starting to kind of play versus going out and playing professionally.
Mike: No, I’m so bad with how long things are but, we certainly started going to jams and stuff, all of us. That’s what we did, Hash Brown [Brian Calway] had jams in Dallas and Anson and Sam [Myers] and those guys. So, we would go to the jams all the time, that’s what we did and then everybody would be in little bands or whatever you could get going.
But I remember, I played a gig at the Holiday Inn that was my first gig with Johnny. And I remember it was three sets and I thought my hands were going to fall off. Because there’s a big difference between playing in a jam a few songs and then playing a show that’s three sets long.
Interviewer: And it’s interesting in variety.
Mike: And that band was already a band so they were cooking and then all of sudden — and I was the only guitar player so, that was the focus. The guitar was the thing. I had to play all of Johnny’s parts and he was a good guitar player so, it was definitely all of a sudden, you’re in it.
Interviewer: Right. So, I think the first time you sent me a note, was when I had your name misspelled on our website [laugh] from, I think the Dallas Observer or something like that.
Mike: Oh that clip maybe.
Interviewer: Yes, that clip. And the story is about, OK, [The Red Devils are] on tour, their guitar player quits, they need to get somebody fast. So, you knew Paul was playing in the band.
Mike: Right. Paul had gone out to California, and I knew he was in that. Even just that was — we’re down here all playing and then, I don’t know how exactly, and you probably do — how Paul heard there was a gig even out there?
Interviewer: OK so there’s two stories that I’ve heard … that it was either Chuck [Nevitt, Dallas Blues Society] or Hook, that’s kind of turned [The Red Devils onto Paul Size].
Mike: Right. I believe that, because Chuck — I can imagine Hook, too, because that’s the West Coast connection out there.
Interviewer: Right, and that there was some sort of story that Paul didn’t have a [demo] tape so he sent a tape of Johnny Moeller, I think. [laugh]
Mike: No, that’s absolutely true. Because I remember that.
And you can confirm that with Paul. And I remember that because it was so funny but, I also remember thinking, “Well, it’s half a dozen to one.” But, at the same time, that being said, and I don’t know if this is true or Paul could tell you. I do remember, supposedly he went out there and sat in whatever, did the audition and they were like, “You’re the guy on the tape?” or there was like …
Interviewer: There was some disconnect.
Mike: There was a disconnect. So Paul didn’t get that gig initially. Supposedly, he kept playing because he was there and they were still looking. But in that interim, he got so good, that all of a sudden — and it was probably nerves. I don’t know if that story’s true or not but if it is, it’s probably Paul was nervous and Paul’s a very hometown guy. So, I could see where he might’ve gone out there and they might’ve thought, “Well, I don’t know.” But, Paul then immediately at some point you could tell, because he’s so talented like, “Oh shit, this is our guy.”
Interviewer: Right, right. Well it’s kind of funny. So the way I understand it, and I think Jonny Ray [Bartel] told me once because they had Junior Watson playing guitar and for whatever reason, Junior Watson was not going to fit or work out —whatever it was. Which is really funny to me because I mean, jeez, if all those California guys were so good. They just had a long line of guys but you kind of needed a spark.
Mike: But you know what? What set that band off was that Texas thing. That was added to. Paul Size, that would just come pouring out of him. And Lester [Butler] was the same way. Those two guys together — it was cathartic and they were individual and they just went for it and they were out there for real onstage and Paul brought that thing. I always think of West Coast as like swing guys. It’s more swinging. But, when you want to do those E and A shuffles really hard like that, that’s a Texas thing man and that you got to have. And Paul was the guy.
Interviewer: It’s really funny because when I think of that band, I think of this awesome rhythm section and these two differently charismatic kind of guys out front. Lester’s — good or bad — that’s his deal and Paul was quiet and when he gets his turn he just …
Mike: Oh my gosh. He just let loose.
Interviewer: Because I think he might’ve been a little younger than me when I saw the band [fall 1992]. And I was kind of into blues and had been going to see guys as best I could at the time in Indiana but I was like, “Oh my God, I cannot believe this dude is so far advanced.”
Mike: For his age.
Interviewer: For his age, and real sophisticated.
Mike: Yes and that Paul — he’s just a natural-born musician and at that time in Dallas, Denny Freeman would come hang out at a gig or you would see Derek and Lou Ann [Barton], [The Fabulous Thunderbirds] might’ve been around and Anson and Sam were the guys that we went and saw every Monday and ZuZu Bollin was still alive — we’d go jam with those guys. So, if you wanted to learn how to play that kind of music, man, there was no better place to be at that time because you had just the guys that were going to show you how. This was how it’s done if you had natural talent and of course, Johnny and Jay and Paul, they all had that right away. They were the stars of that scene. The young guys, nobody could touch those guys.
Interviewer: Well I remember the T-Birds would come through Bloomington [Indiana], we went to college there so we were there when we were 18 and 19 and the T-Birds where they’d come through like three-four years ahead and all the older musicians there would say that as soon as T-Birds came through everybody got rid of all their gear, got Strats.
Mike: [Fender] Bassmans and comb your hair.
Interviewer: Yes and just did the T-Birds thing. And Anson was kind of the same way. When Anson came through town, poor guy, because he probably wanted to see people dancing and girls and stuff at the gigs …
Mike: Right, it was just dudes.
Interviewer: and it’s just dudes going, “Oh my God what are you?” [laugh]
Mike: Anson, a matter of fact, he came and sat in recently I’ve seen him a couple of times just in town, we would hang out and he came out to my gig and sat in and it was so great because as soon as he started playing, it’s like, “fuck, nobody sounds like that guy.” It’s just the textbook way of doing something. You got to see that and we saw it all the time and we saw the best guys doing it.
Like The Red Devils, all those guys had a lot of mileage. Lester and Bill Bateman. I have that Blasters record with Bateman with the rose, when I was young. And Jonny Ray and those guys had all put in their time and a lot of miles so by the time. And Paul had, too, even at that young age, so when you put them all together, they were all good to go. They were hitting on all cylinders.
Interviewer: OK so, for somebody like you who kind of knew these guys. You kind of knew your Texas guys and everybody. And their gig, and this was at the time, but after all these guys didn’t tour anymore. The touring thing just totally dried up.
Mike: Just gone.
Interviewer: And so at that time, people were touring and playing around.
Mike: Oh, absolutely.
Interviewer: But The Red Devils were on this other track which was this weird rock thing, this kind of college club.
Mike: Well then think about it, there were a lot of blues bands at that time but outside of the T-Birds, who were on a major label, who was on Warner Brothers that was a blues band? Nobody.
Nobody was on a major label and all of a sudden you heard these guys. Rick Rubin produced it, it was on Warner Brothers. …
And it’s basically doing those E and A shuffles, all that stuff and they’ve got this guy singing. And that was the thing with Lester. Lester was that guy that came along and somehow made white guys playing blues cool like T-Birds did and that voice which was like a razor ,man, it would just cut.
Mike: But there’s a lot of harp players.
Interviewer: There’s a lot of harp but he’s doing — and I know he loved little Walter but he wasn’t doing a lot of little Walter. He’s doing Sunny Boy and Wolf and Snooky Pryor and all this real old Chicago but his voice was his own thing.
Mike: It was totally his own thing like he had the sense of phrasing that was so wild and he’d get up and just make up stuff and it was always about tombstones and shit. And you knew, the thing is it was believable. With Lester, you believed it because you knew his past and you knew how he was and he meant it. And that’s the thing with blues, those guys mean it, Howlin’ Wolf meant it, whatever, and Lester meant it and that’s the thing that’s really lacking. If you see a blues band or a jazz band, something like that, it has to be really authentic and if it’s not, then nobody’s going to buy it.
But when you saw Lester and The Red Devils play, you totally bought in to Lester sing and I’m [sic] necessarily didn’t even want to because I was a Texas guy. I didn’t want to think these guys from California could do it. Right? But it was undeniable. As soon as you saw him, you’re like, “These are the guys that are doing it better than everybody’s can do it” like they’ve blown everybody out.
Interviewer: Well it’s real funny because it was everything, just the sound. It was the tunes which some of them were like warhorses that — I mean that they put some life into, and the look of them … “OK wait, these guys aren’t wearing hats. They’re not wearing ties, they’re not doing the thing. They look like today.” They looked real current and they look like just guys off the street which we thought was just the coolest thing.
Mike: Right and that was such a great band because you saw Bill Bateman, he was perfect.
Interviewer: He’s perfect, right.
Mike: And then Jonny Ray Bartel could comb his hair and it was such a work of art like I’ve never seen anybody could comb their hair and it looked that good all the time and he was cool. You’d look over on the side stage, you’d be swaying, and you’re right, and then you had Lester and Paul who looked like they’re drinking, walked off the street or something. They didn’t care. So it was always like Cheap Trick, right? And the way you had two guys like this, two guys like that and there was something about it that made it current because it wasn’t like the guys that all had perfect hair and they all were the rockabilly guys and they had it down.
Interviewer: They had it cut.
Mike: There was definitely something street about it and authentic about it.
Interviewer: It looked dangerous. It looked like it sounded.
Mike: Right and maybe smoking on stage. Normally, we didn’t care, right? And when I was on that tour and that tour went on a long time. When you’re on tour like that in a band like that, you’re just like a gang of people and you’d roll in in town and you would just kill everyone and then you would leave. And that band could do it. And we did it every night man and all over the country on that tour. And I remember going into a bar in Detroit and I think we were super late — maybe an hour-and-a-half late for the gig. And we walked in, it was packed. I remember thinking, “Man, they’re really going to hate us” right? But man, since we started, we mowed everyone down. It didn’t matter because we were so well-oiled from being on the road every night.
And those gigs were like one-nighters long, no sleep, a lot of traveling. But everything was in pretty good shape back then. Lester, I’d never knew Lester when he was on heroin or anything. He was not on drugs back then or doing anything. What he was doing was whip-its, it’s crazy but the whole bottom of the van —
Interviewer: Somebody just told me this real recently.
Mike: Well see that was his jam on that tour and so nobody was really doing drugs or smoking some weed I guess but we were just smoking a lot of cigarettes and drinking and not even to crazy excess or anything on that. But yes, Lester loved whip-its … and I remember the whole bottom of the van was covered. It must have been covered that thick, and the little canisters, and then once we ran out of those canisters, we would go to the supermarket after the gig or something and buy … cases of whipped cream.
We buy two, three, four cases, how many they had, and then Lester would sit in the park and we’d be in there. And it’d be late, you’d be wanting — this maybe when I was in LA and I was living with Lester so you would just want to go home, super late, and Lester would just be like doing those a little bit, sitting in the driver’s seat just staring off into space. And I’m thinking, “Man, we’re going to get home or not?” But he was clean and he was super sweet guy to me, really nice. And a very thoughtful, kind person which you maybe wouldn’t get like just seeing him onstage or maybe the stories after that or before that. But I think I caught him right in that one window.
Interviewer: These guys, their record had just come out. I think they had done it — they’d started touring but this was really pretty soon after it came out.
Mike: You might even know the order of it better than I do because all I know is that the album was out and this was their first — this was their American tour. Now I know they’d been — I guess they had been to Europe already or did they go after, I don’t know.
Interviewer: Off the top of my head, I can’t remember — in ’93, they went to Europe and played at all those big festivals. That was in May of ’93, they did the Pinkpop Festival.
Mike: So when was I in? I don’t know.
Mike: ’92 so this was after me, right? Pinkpop and all that was after me.
Interviewer: So the video of Paul Size doing “Backstroke.” That’s from ’93.
Mike: OK that makes sense because I thought, “Where did they go before me?” because I don’t even know.
Interviewer: These guys were, to a certain degree, all five of them, for however long, had done like the King King had been playing then they got the record deal, do the whole thing and were road warriors essentially. Then you got the call, right?
Mike: I wondered about that and I don’t really know. I know they had been in California. They had made the record. They had been playing. Paul, right? I don’t know.
I don’t know beyond the King King what they were doing like if they had gone on the road but when I got there — this was supposed to be their American tour so I think their first stop was Austin and that’s when Dave Lee [Bartel] quit, right? He disappeared. So I always wondered, “Well, am I stepping in something or these guys have really been hitting it or did they just make the record? And they’d been playing obviously together in California but had they really even been out.” I don’t know.
Interviewer: Because Dave Lee obviously is Jonny’s brother, rhythm guitar which — that’s all he did, the sound of that band is a lot of the rhythm and stuff. So you just had fall right into it?
Mike: Well they called, Paul called and I said, “Hey man, we’re playing Dallas tonight. I think the club was Trees and we can’t find our guitar player, can you play the gig?” Well I don’t even know if I had heard the record. But I think at the time, I was playing with this all-black band … and it was one of those things where people would, you would have to check your gun at the door. They had a big table and you’d put your gun on. That’s the gig. That was my gig at that time.
So … I was like, “Yes, OK.” So I’d love to get out of here. Anyway I went to Trees and played that gig. No rehearsal or anything … But they would tell me it’s like this and whatever and so we played. Well Lester loved it right away.
He was like, “Yes. Dave Lee’s fired. You want to go on this tour with us?” Well of course you got Jonny Ray was his brother. And you got Bateman. These guys were all friends and I’m Paul’s friend and now Lester loves me, right? But it was definitely an odd situation and I think Dave Lee, I think at that point was like, “Hey I want to come back.” Like, “OK I’ve blown off steam” or whatever and Lester was — and I don’t know. This may not be true. This is what I’m trying to remember. I don’t know if Dave Lee wanted to come back or not but my recollection was he wanted to come back and Lester was like, “No. Flanigin’s on this gig …”.
Well I’m not saying I was better than Dave Lee but in [Lester’s] mind, he was like, “I got this guy and so I don’t need you.” To Jonny Ray’s credit and then Jonny Ray is the sweetest guy, I love Jonny Ray. He never made me feel weird or gave me the cold shoulder in that band over that. Everybody was really nice to me and given the circumstances, they didn’t have to be but they all were and they were all really cool.
Interviewer: So at that point, were you thinking, “Oh yes, I’m in this band for months. I’m on tour. I’m making a record.” Where was your mind at?
Mike: I knew I was going on tour with them and it was going to be for months. And so I remember after the Trees gig, they said, “Yes, you want to go on tour.” Yes and I remember getting in the van, Oklahoma was our next place to go. And so then it was on. We were on the road and I’ve got — I have a couple of things in my [scrapbook] because I had just gotten married that time and then I was on the road. [My wife at the time] had kept a scrapbook. It’s a little homemade thing. But it’s got homemade pictures and it’s got the itinerary in the back. Right? So that’s that.
[Flanigin pulls out a scrapbook with old photos, letters …]
Interviewer: That’s awesome. So you did the Los Lobos gigs?
Mike: And that was funny because we were so loud and Los Lobos, that was that Kiko tour and such a great band and everything. We would just come out there and be so fucking loud but we would just tear it up every time. I think it was hard to follow us because it was …
Interviewer: I have to say, when I saw you guys in ’92, it was awesome. I was so in to it. Anyways and Bill Bateman was just the nicest guy and you could tell — and I knew The Blasters — and you could tell he knew how to play the game. He was like, “You’re from the college paper? Let’s talk.” He’s talking my ear off and afterward, he was real cool.
Mike: I hadn’t seen those guys since this tour and about four, five months ago, they played at the Continental and I was playing upstairs and I went down and I saw Bateman and I hadn’t seen him. I was talking to him and I knew he had no idea who I was. I tell him like, “Hey, I’m Flanigin from back.” He was like, “Oh shit.”
Interviewer: Your correspondence. [laughter]
Mike: Yes, that’s all right. That’s me to my wife at the time but it talks about a gig in Nashville or something like that. I think the itineraries – this one, we got kicked out. The Days Inn for destroying it. We destroyed our rooms.
Mike: We destroyed several hotel rooms actually. This one was in Chicago but the one I really remember was destroying it was in Florida. So this is the one we got caught on and I don’t know what happened on the Florida one. But the money at a certain point ran out. We’re in California, that’s where I’m staying — so there’s Lester on the beach. We used to go to the beach and he would surf and I’d watch him surf. We hang out and that’s his girlfriend, Lori, when we were staying there. But I don’t remember the particulars of Chicago. That’s sad to say. I can’t even remember
Interviewer: This is just general band …
Mike: General band …
Interviewer: … merriments.
Mike: But I remember the one in Florida. It was really destroyed. Doors were torn off the hinges I think we were getting fueled at that point because we stopped getting paid at a certain point. I think we ended up getting paid eventually, but we were getting paid every week and sent at home or however you wanted it. Then we weren’t getting any money and we’d been on the road for a long time, so by then we were all stressed out or whatever; it’d been a long tour.
Interviewer: Let me ask about Rick Rubin. When you read the stuff, when you talk to these guys, it’s Rubin saying, “OK, we don’t like the look of the guitar player,” or, “We don’t like the name of the band. I’m going to produce this, it’s going to have this real particular sound,” then guys are on the road. Did he have any kind of control over any of that?
Interviewer: Or it was just like, “I don’t know what’s going on?”
Mike: No, Rick Rubin produced that record, and then we were on our own and we were on that tour. Of course, the band sounded like it sounded. I met Rick Rubin later when Lester was trying to fire everybody and we had to go back and re-audition for Rick Rubin; all of the different incarnations. That’s when I met Rick Rubin.
Interviewer: Did you do any recording with the band at all?
Mike: Yes, we were going to start a second album and we went in the studio and recorded some things, and then that was the end of it. This was right when we got back. No one ever heard that. I think the tapes were lost. But Lester gave me a cassette, so I have the one cassette of that session, and it may be the only thing that exists from it.
Interviewer: Isn’t that funny? They have an EP called “Blackwater Roll.” I think it’s one studio track, and there might have been two other studio tracks.
Mike: That, after “King King” they came out with, really?
Interviewer: Yes, Europe-only. It was a four-song EP and it had …
Mike: Maybe that’s it.
Interviewer: It has this tune called “Blackwater Roll” which I think is something Paul must have had.
Mike: Yes, it’s all on here. I got it. This is the tape of the session that we did.
Interviewer: When you guys did “Funky Worm,” he’s got a tune on there that has the same guitar lick.
Mike: Yes, what we did is we went in and recorded the stuff; some of the new things that we had on the road. A lot of them were just, “I’m going to take this Slim Harpo lick and put this on it,” or whatever it was. Me and Lester had written one thing, and all it was, was when we would do soundcheck, I would always do this riff, and then Lester liked it and so he did vocals over it. We did that. That’s recorded. I think that’s the first thing on here.
I did that whole tour, and then we went back [to California]. I remember they kept saying, “Oh man, wait ’til we get back.” “King King” — that’s all I heard on that whole tour, and “That’s our spot.” Of course, we’d been killing them all over the country, so I couldn’t wait. I was like, “Man, we’re going to go to Hollywood and play the King King.”
I remember when we got there, I was so underwhelmed because everybody was real Hollywood. I remember that first gig and that’s the video I have. I remember Billy Gibbons was there, Rick Rubin was there, and the audience was a Los Angeles audience, and I was so underwhelmed and, “Man, I thought this was going to be crazy.” Compared to every place we had been playing, people were going crazy; just out in the rest of the country. We come back, I remember going, “Hey, Lester, I thought you thought it was going to really be happening down here.” Not that it wasn’t, but it was ..
Interviewer: I guess I’m just cynical. It’s a Monday night blues jam, or whatever. The Monday night blues show down the street thing, but some of these people have never seen it. Like you said, if you’re down at Texas or someplace, there’s awesome musicians and you can go see them on a Monday night at your local bar, whatever, and they must have been blown away in Hollywood. Some of those guys going, “These aren’t musicians we know or have heard of. What is this music you’re playing?”
Mike: And plus we had been on the road for so long we were really playing, so when we came back, everybody was hitting on all cylinders and so you thought “This would be exciting.” I don’t want to make it sound like it was horrible, but I remember it was an LA crowd. When I was with them, when they really shined, was playing in clubs. Just on the road, not necessarily when we were opening for Los Lobos. People wouldn’t even necessarily know who we were. It was so undeniable once you saw, because they were just so unusual.
I remember we did the Charlie Daniels Band Volunteer Jam and I remember we were staying at a hotel right by the gate of the place, and I remember we all overslept; everybody, the crew. We were supposed to go on in a certain order and we had slept through two other bands. We woke up. I remember waking up and we hauled ass down there, and Charlie Daniels introduced us and everybody was super mad because we totally missed our slot. I remember just barely waking up and how those crane cameras, the Volunteer Jam swooping in and I was like, “Man, we just woke up.” I think that was the only big festival type thing that I’ve played.
Interviewer: This band; it’s weird. We can talk about how weird it is that we’re talking about it 23 years later.
Mike: It’s hard to believe.
Interviewer: It’s one record. The band was only really together for a couple of years. When you were there and would come to it late, were you thinking, “OK, this thing is built to last. This is hot, it’s going to be something,” or were you thinking. “It’s not sustainable”?
Mike: I didn’t know what was going to happen, because there were so many tensions in the band that you just thought, “This thing’s going to explode.” Because you had Dave Lee. Lester wanted to fire everybody. The only people he wanted to keep was me and Paul. He got a new drummer, new bass player, it was everybody. I can’t remember why, necessarily, all that was. But, of course Rick Rubin, he wasn’t having that; he wanted the original band, and for good reason. They had this deal where it was: “OK, we’re going to — to placate Lester — we’re all going to go to this rehearsal studio and Rick’s going to sit there and look at all your different incarnations of the band, and then he’ll decide.” It was like all the incarnations of the band, and you knew the one he was going to side on … was the original lineup.
We all knew our heads were on a chopping block. I think Jay Moeller had come down to play drums in one of the incarnations. I remember playing and just laughing. I remember Rick Rubin was on the far end on a couch and I just thought, “Man, the deck is stacked on this. There’s not much sense in this,” but Lester, he believed, “Hey man, this is going to be the new band.” That didn’t happen. Of course, I got married and I’d been gone all this time, and when I went back to LA, I lived with Lester and Paul and [Lester’s] girlfriend, Lori. And then I remember we did a West Coast tour with the Texas Tornados, opening for them in California. I stayed there, we went through all that, recorded that thing, and then did the Rick Rubin thing, and then at some point I just went back to Texas. That, I think, wrapped when I moved to Austin.
Interviewer: And Paul wasn’t in the band for that much longer.
Mike: Yes, because he was back down here.
Interviewer: ’94, I think, he was coming back.
Mike: When was the “Funky Worm”? Because we had a band by then.
Interviewer: ’96. I think that’s when that record came out, because I just wrote something about it, because I went back to look, because, when Chuck passed, I knew him for many years on email, and he was just … cantankerous.’
Mike: I had run-ins with Chuck. I don’t think Chuck ever liked me, but I always really appreciated what he did, in general. I had a couple of run-ins with him early on and he was right when I looked back. But he was definitely not cutting anybody slack, but he was the one that really helped us, put that “Funky Worm” album out and it was weird at the time. That record — it’s got — I don’t know. I’m playing the Hop Wilson steel guitar. We’re doing all sorts of weird stuff and he let us do what we wanted to even if what we wanted to do was stupid. He didn’t care and he let us do it. That was saying a lot for a guy that had made a record on Zuzu Bollin and these other things were just great.
Interviewer: For Paul, and you, who had toured, played in Hollywood, you both end up back home. So was this a great relief?
Mike: I always felt like my thing on that was I never there to stay in my mind. I just thought, “Hey I’m here for a good ride and this is interesting and this is a great band.” But I always figured Dave Lee will come back. They’ll figure it out. This isn’t going to be my thing. And plus I couldn’t stay in California. I had been married and I had to come back. I knew I had to come back to Texas. So I never thought too much about when I came back, but for Paul, he was so great in that band … I don’t think would have made it without Paul. He was such a spark but really, all of them. All those guys, Jonny Ray, it was just the perfect storm of personalities and players and Bill Bateman shuffling back there and Jonny Ray keeping it simple, Dave Lee keeping it simple and then those guys on top of it.
You got to go back to that time and remember what in the hell was going on back then and it was a lot of — blues is the one thing where it’s like, “Man that’s almost the graveyard for uncreative individuals who play music.” It can be because you paint by the numbers and you’re like, “Let’s do this and this and this” but music is about telling your life and expressing yourself and you have to live life and Lord knows Lester did. That’s what gave him credibility on all that stuff because when he was talking about dying, I always got the sense when I was with Lester that he was going to die. And he knew it and he wasn’t one of these guys that was going to be around and be 70 years old.
I just always got that feeling he was here for a certain amount of time and it probably wouldn’t going to be that long and this was even when he — he was not on drugs at that time that I knew. … But he sang about death so much and was so convincing about it. You just knew this guy’s for real and it’s probably going to be a short ride.
Interviewer: The kind of blues that — and I think that’s one of the things that’s really appealing about the band is the personalities, that sound of that record which doesn’t sound dated at all. That’s one of the cool things about it. It still plays.
Mike: Yes. Rick Rubin did it great.
Interviewer: Insane and the lyrics and that whole thing weren’t just the typical things you would sing about A, B —
Mike: And he had his own phrasing like as a white guy, it’s so hard. I had this like — I hate to compare it to John Fogerty but you know what I meant with that biting, cutting thing, and then he would phrase really oddly. He had his own unique way of doing it. It wasn’t built on somebody else’s phrasing vocally. He did have his own way of doing it and he was just a unique guy and I always felt after he got on heroin again and then everything, he died and so forth. And people would like to build up that like, “Who was this guy?” But the Lester that I know from that time was a very sweet guy and he took care of me. He would look out for me and he was, “Mikey,” he always called me Mikey. “Mikey man. Mikey, let’s do that” and would always watch out for me.
And he was a sweet guy but he was in himself. There was something detached about him to a degree and we would wake up — when I lived with him every morning, he would wake up and he would start playing “Riding In The Moonlight” on harp. Every morning [humming] like he had to get it perfect, he just did that every day and he was fun. We go surfing and he’d take me to the beach and I like being in California. I’ve never really been out there to live for any length of time like that. And so I had a lot of fun and he was a good guy to be with at that time.
Interviewer: Well that gig in ’92 and I saw you guys and I was — I didn’t really like a lot of pretentious music or artists and I remember Lester walked by me between sets. And he had this whole look. OK.
Mike: You remember he had that headband.
Interviewer: He’s got this crazy headband.
Mike: He had this huge headband.
Interviewer: It was like an Axl Rose-looking thing and a big pimp coat and all. He walked by and I said, “Hey, good show man.” He goes “unh,” just kept walking. I was like, “What an asshole.”
Mike: He didn’t care.
Interviewer: But then I met him in ’97 when he was touring with . He was super clear-eyed, really focused. He was really gracious. And it was cool because I got to gush and tell him, “Hey man. That record really meant a lot to me and my friends. We got that record and we all started playing instruments.” We said, “Let’s just do this. We got to do this. This is incredible.”
Mike: Well it’s important. It’s funny when you think about it because of course, at that time when you’re doing it, you don’t think about how it would affect anybody or if anybody would like it or you’re just saying, “Well hey man, here’s a guy.” And we’re all out here scuffling and maybe Lester will mean something to people or not. You don’t know how people will take it.
Interviewer: It must be odd to have two people in your home talking about this old record, right? And this tour and this band, and stuff.
Mike: I think it was such a finite time and over the course of it, that became a cult band because didn’t somebody just do an article on it and Classic Rock Magazine where you say — there’s something about that band and maybe it’s only because they made the one record and maybe because Lester died … And plus, it wasn’t just Lester. That whole band and I mean there was turmoil and I don’t know the half of it. Bill and Jonny Ray, those are the guys and I’m sure they’ve told you about it. I was naïve when I was in that band. I didn’t know the particulars or any of the things that had happened in the past or could foresee anything that was going to happen in the future.
And when I was in it, I was just, “These are all nice guys” and they were all nice to me and I knew there was tensions between Lester and the different guys. That happens in a band so I knew that was going on. But other than that, I pretty much stayed out of the line of fire.
It’s funny though. You see everybody play in the different bands and then I even saw a video of Lester and was later incarnations but nobody even got close to The Red Devils for that territory. It just took that combination, right? It was a singular thing and that’s why we’re sitting here talking about it now. Had it not been, you’d never be here 23 years later talking about something.