Rival Sons Interview: Michael Miley

Rival Sons has toured mightily around the world for years in pursuit of an enthusiastic fan base. Though the Sons have had difficulty establishing a large following in the United States (like most other blues-influenced rock ‘n roll bands these days), the four-piece is popular in Europe and recently had the chance to play for an estimated 1.6 million people while opening for Black Sabbath during the iconic metal band’s final world tour. The Sons have now returned to the U.S. and are bringing a bit of Europe with them through Teatro Fiasco, a festival-styled tour that originated in Europe and will visit 20 U.S. cities before the end of this month.

Drummer Michael Miley spoke with Blues Rock Review over the phone on a rare evening off in New Orleans to explain the unique festival tour’s artsy offerings and to hint at the band’s plans for album number six.

You mentioned that you’re in New Orleans today. What does the band do on its rare nights off?

Tonight we might go see some music. There’re a lot of people in town because it’s one of the jazz fest weeks. It was a beautiful day, so we went and got some nice food at Café du Monde, had some coffee and donuts and beignets. Some guys from the Meters are playing tonight, so we’ll probably go check that out. George Porter is the guy we might go see.

On April 29 you launched a new U.S. festival tour, called Teatro Fiasco, though it first started in Europe. How did Teatro Fiasco begin?

No offense to any other bands, first off – we’re tired of the same old layup where you go see three bands before you see the band you paid the ticket for. By that time, your ears are kind of melted already. That’s the utilitarian reason. It’s amazing: you walk in and it’s just a vibe. You have ‘50s and ‘60s garage rock, a lot of underground rock ‘n roll. Then you get a poet who is a wordsmith. He’s an amazing guy, he’s super funny, he gets the crowd to laugh a bit. So you get super cultured on rock ‘n roll, then you get poetry and the humor. We feel like it’s a perfect foreplay, if you will, to prep one for the impregnation they’re about to receive with Rival Sons. Sorry to use a crass metaphor. [Laughs] It’s been successful all through Europe, and we wanted to bring it to the States. Even though we’re not well known here, we don’t want to sacrifice our artistic integrity for the region we’re in.

I love that you called it a festival because it’s like a microcosm of what we want to be a macrocosm. A future festival where you have three tents: a deejay tent, but it’s not electro EDM deejays, it’d be real deejays doing everything from actual hip-hop spinning to the rock ‘n roll stuff. Another tent would be poetry and art, wine tasting, I don’t know. Then there’d be the rock ‘n roll tent. Sort of Lollapalooza-esque. You walk into Lollapalooza and there’s an instant vibe, an instant energy change.

It sounds like a celebration of art in all its forms. Are you open to any type of artist that wants to be involved?

Open is one thing, but accepting is another. It’s not a free-for-all. We’re the producers, so we approve everything that comes in. We had SuicideGirls passing out a program at the door. The program has all our lyrics to all our albums, so when you walk through the door, you’re getting a program for a show. It has a description of each of the performers, just like if you were going to the theater or a symphony. If you’re a big fan, having all of the lyrics is a major thing, because a lot of our lyrics aren’t printed on the album and it’s a big bonus to have those. It’s a program you’d want to save, a keepsake.

How do you hope this will impact the way listeners experience your music?

Your ears are going to be ready, for one thing. They’re not going to be blown out from rock bands or metal bands. I don’t know why we always get paired with metal bands. It’s kind of like our pendulum effect, so to speak, to all the pairings we’ve had in the past with these crazy metal bands. They’re usually nice guys, but music-wise it hurts our ears before we go on. I hate hearing metal music before I’m going out to play drums behind Jay Buchanan, who has a soulful, beautiful, amazing voice.

[The festival] really preps everybody for the main attraction, the main course. It’s had a positive response across the board, across Europe. The first night in Atlanta went just balls to the wall. It was so great, the crowd was amazing. They loved it. They loved Derrick Brown, the poet. Look him up, he’s great. He’s a true wordsmith.

Rival Sons has always showed an interest in art outside of music, most notably through the album artwork designs you’ve used, like for Pressure and Time and most recently for Hollow Bones. Who drives the push for creativity in album artwork? Do you go into each album cover with a design idea, or are you presented with options?

Jay and Scott are really the artistic direction leaders of the group. I distinctively remember Scott was looking at art on the Internet and found Martin Wittfooth, who did Hollow Bones. As we were coming to a close on making Hollow Bones, Scott saw that picture and showed it to Jay. They were immediately drawn to that painting. If you look at it while you’re listening to the album, it kind of goes with it. It’s unexplainable how art can make you feel sometimes. Same with the Head Down record, with the flowers and the snake. It just really captures the mood. And for Pressure and Time, we really wanted to work with Storm Thorgerson, and we were one of his last album covers before he passed. That was an honor. He was a trippy dude to work with. The guy with the lantern going down the stairway, I personally don’t know what that has to do with the album, but we thought it was cool to work with Storm Thorgerson.

Photo by Emilia Pare, courtesy of Earache Records.

Great Western Valkyrie is another cool one. We worked with Matt Wignall, he did the photos. When we were doing Great Western Valkyrie, there’s “Belle Starr” on there, she’s an 1800s Wild Wild West bandit. That album had the mood, with “Rich and the Poor.” While we were [recording], we were looking at these mug shots from the 1910s, I think an Italian artist released them. It looked really cool, and we were like, “We could get one of those old cameras and actually reenact that, with us being the criminals.” So we did the mug shots on the inside, as if we were a gang. Which is kind of a…oh what’s the word? I might think of it before the end of the interview. [Laughs]

Blues Rock Review spoke with Jay Buchanan in January of 2016, right as Rival Sons was beginning its world tour opening for Black Sabbath. What was that experience like for you and the band?

Goodness. It was a great experience for us…the word I was thinking of is confrontational! Our band name is confrontational, but the Great Western Valkyrie album cover is confrontational in that we’re like a band of brothers, a band of bandits, with the mug shots on the inside. Our music has this confrontational energy to it. There’s a challenging aspect. It’s super soulful, from Jay’s lyrics to the music to the way we record it. We write a song a day in the studio, we do nothing by the grid, we do nothing to a click track. It’s very confrontational in so many ways. I think it makes us really unique.

Moving on to answer your question about Sabbath. It was a long tour, 81 shows. We played for 1.6 million people over the course of that. It was very educational, seeing what the big boys do on so many shows: seeing how their crew works, what they’re using for lighting. It gives you hope, because these guys are 70 years old and still rocking. It makes me know that I have at least 30-something years of a career left, possibly.

But we were very excited to move on and do our own thing. We went right on to Teatro Fiasco. Teatro Fiasco in and of itself is confrontational. People are walking in going, “What? No opening band? A poet? What the f­–.”

It fits for Rival Sons. The band is constantly pressing on to the next thing. While some bands have been known to fall into ruts after their third or fourth albums, Rival Sons has avoided that slump.

Taking a yearlong tour with Sabbath was also challenging, to go out in front of 20,000 people every night, and maybe 5 percent of the audience knew who we were. Maybe another 5 percent looked us up on the Internet. The rest of the people probably just got their tickets for Sabbath and went on with their lives, drank beer in the parking lot and completely missed us. That’s a challenging thing.

Doing something like Teatro Fiasco is a very challenging thing because it’s not like anything is certain. There were some haters, there were some people giving Derrick, our poet, a hard time. There are people standing there, not knowing what to do during the deejay. People aren’t coming to Rival Sons shows to dance, but there’s a deejay spinning, the lights are dimmed, we have ‘50s burlesque dancers on the screen. There’s an energy. But everyone’s staring at the screen, not knowing what to do. Maybe we could have put that in the program: “Be prepared to shake your ass.” I don’t know. But we’re always up to the challenge for getting better and making the art better. The next album’s not going to be anything like the previous six.

How do you maintain such a rigorous pace? It seems like Rival Sons is always either on the road or in the studio, with very little time to stop and take a breath.

I would say it’s partially due to logistics. It’s how we make a living. We’re not a one hit wonder. We don’t have hits, we don’t have a ton of money, so we have to work our asses off to put food on the table. We’re all married with kids, we have families back home that need to eat. So our work ethic, we’re very blue collar, man. We’re literally gone more than half the year, easily. It’s very challenging. We want to write a song that could be considered a hit, but we’re not going to bend our morals to write a hit that might be on pop radio. I think the most crossover we would do is in the mainstream alternative, triple-A, maybe even Hot AC with a ballad. Jay writes amazing ballads; I can’t believe we haven’t been out there.

Whether you love our music or hate it, the guys in the band are talented musicians. We’ve worked our asses off for a long time. We’ve all had record deals in our other bands, and we put this band together knowing that these people can play their instruments and can improvise on their instruments. This is the music business, and we’re very much looking forward to the next chapter, to have an actual major label marketing us, promoting us. We’ll still be Rival Sons, but we’re going to take this thing to the next level on our next album. We’re really excited for what’s on the table right now.

Which means we will continue to work hard for the next two to three years, at least. But I would love a break; I would love to take a year off. A lot of bands, all of a sudden you don’t hear from them. I don’t know how people can take so much time off. So I’m really looking forward to taking time off, building a house or something and just being with my family. But for the next three years we’ll be working our asses off. I can promise you that.

What do you and the Sons have planned for the next record?

Right now our main focus is this U.S. tour and then some festival dates in Europe through July, August. Recording would be in the fall sometime. But the focus is touring, making the shows great.

Rival Sons don’t take it lightly that we get to play music for people. Everyone has a ritual before we go onstage. Every night we give it 150 percent. We never phone in a show, ever. We’ll play when we’re sick. We’re going out there, guns blazing, every night.

Interview by Meghan Roos

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