All Rebel Rocker: The Complete Interview with Michael Franti

The Mountain Xpress interviewed Michael Franti, who will be performing a double bill at the Orange Peel on Thursday the 26th, with his band Spearhead. Check out the complete interview here:

Mountain Xpress: Could you tell us about the second show you’ve scheduled in Asheville?

Franti: Well about four years ago we started doing “family matinees,” we call them, because a lot of our fans were saying, “You know I’ve got kids who are like 6, 7, 8 years-old and I take them to school everyday and we listen to your music in the car and then when you come to town they always get mad (at the parents) cause they can’t come to the show.” So we started doing these family matinees and we thought Asheville would be a really good place to do them. When the first show sold out real quick we said, rather than do a second show that’s just a regular show, lets do a family matinee.

You played at the Orange Peel in 2007, have appeared as a headliner for the LEAF festival in Black Mountain, and recently performed in the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Can you share a story or memorable experience from one of your shows in Asheville?

Well, the first one that comes to mind was the last show, the Christmas Jam, Warren Haynes came up to me and he says, “Michael there [are] a couple folks that would like to sit in with you, are you interested?” I said, “Yeah, of course, I’m always interested.” He said, “Mickey Raphael, who plays harmonica with Willie Nelson would like to sit in.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, of course, that’d be awesome.” And then he said, “And John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, would you mind if he played on a song?”  My mouth hit the floor and I was like, “You kidding me?”

So we went backstage and we just started jamming, and John Paul Jones picked up his mandolin and Mickey was playing the harmonica. You know, we were playing a bunch of my songs, and we ran through about 6 or 7 songs, and we were just having a kind of fun jam session.  And at the end of it, somebody said, “Hey you’ve got 5 minutes before you go on!” So I turn to John Paul and said, “Is there a song you want to play during the set?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I’ll play bass on that last one,” and I said, “Okay great.” And then he goes, “Do you mind if I play the mandolin on all the rest?” I was like, “You kiddin me!!” Come on lets go… So, instead of just sitting in for one tune, which I would have been just blown away by, he played the whole set. And I remember walking off stage, I wasn’t felling very well (I had the flu then), and I turned to Jay, who’s my partner when I do my solo things, and we walk into the dressing room, all cool, and shut the door. As soon as the door clicks behinds us, we go, “Holy f**king shit that was John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin!” We started calling all our fiends. (The Christmas Jam) brings out the boyish moment in all of us, with the spontaneity of it.

In your new album All Rebel Rockers the music conveys a strong message of unity and hope. The album also feels very celebratory, infused with love and positivity [especially in songs like “Hey I Love You” “A Little bit of Riddim” and “I Got Love For You.”] Can you tell me a about the larger messages behind All Rebel Rockers?

Well, definitely there’s a message of unity in the record. I was writing this album leading up to the last election.  And, you know, whenever elections come around in our country, the last few, have been really divisive. You see people choosing sides, and the media is all red states and blues states, and I really feel like today there are so many issues that face all of us that it’s really not healthy for us to divide up so much. There are definitely some political differences in our country that are worth people standing their ground on—from people’s personal beliefs— but there are certain things like, at the moment, getting our economy on track, creating a sustainable energy policy for everyone, bringing an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing our troops and our tax dollars home safely and as quickly as possible, I think those are universal things. That’s really the message of the record, and it’s been the message in my music from the start.

Why did you and the band decide to record All Rebel Rockers in Jamaica? How did working with reggae producers Sly & Robbie influence the album?

Well, I started writing a bunch of songs back home in San Francisco on the acoustic guitar and I called Sly & Robbie at a certain point and said, “You know I’d love to get you to do some rhythm tracks on these records.” They said, “Sure,” and we were trying figuring out where to do it, and they said, “Well, you should just come down to Jamaica.” It was kind of like when they said John Paul Jones wants to play with you, it was like… Sly & Robbie want you to record in their studio in Jamaica!! How do you turn that down? So we went down there.  Recording in Jamaica is a very unique experience because the studio doors are always open to the streets so people can hear the music. People would just come in and stand in the doorway, folks you have never seen before start commenting on the music, and you know, sometimes you’re kind of like, “Who the hell are you making comments about my music?” And then you realize, damn, he’s right, we need another keyboard part in the second verse or something. …. The people in Jamaica are so in tune with music cause it’s such a part of the daily life there.

Yell Fire (2006) was inspired by your trip to Israel, Baghdad, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while making the documentary I Know I Am Not Alone. Can you tell us a little about your experience traveling through the Middle East and about one of the greater challenges that you confronted on the journey?

You want to keep your heart open to everybody who is their, cause everybody is facing the challenges of this war. I’d go and visit a hospital filled with Iraqi children who had their limbs blown off, and spend the afternoon with them and then later that night I would go and I’d spend time and sing songs at a bar to U.S. soldiers who are off duty. You know, these could be the same soldiers who did this to these little kids, you know, and then I would try to keep my heart open to the experiences of these soldiers and hear their stories. You realize that it’s difficult for everybody, a war and the situation there; there is nobody who is not affected by it. And, you know, I guess it made me realize that I’m not on the side of just America, I’m on the side of the peacemakers, from whatever country they come from. Although my heart lies in this country, my heart also is extended out to people everywhere who are willing to work hard and take enormous risks to achieve peace and everywhere I meet people willing to do that: In Israel and Gaza, Iraq, and coming back and visiting soldiers at Walter Reid Medical Hospital in D.C., hearing their stories, their experience their dreams and their pains.

In the song “Hey World Don’t Give Up” a man struggles to find beauty in an imperfect and turbulent world. When you get overwhelmed by the many social issues you address in your music, what do you do to hold on to the sense of hope that inspires so much of your work?

Well, one thing is the music itself. For example, “Hey World,” that’s a song that I sing to myself in times when I feel frustrated, times when I feel worried or scared, or when I feel that I can’t do go on. The other thing is that I practice yoga almost everyday. I just came from a 3-hour yoga workshop here in Cincinnati. So, everywhere I go I’m on my mat, quieting my mind, going into my body and seeking my truth for that day. The final thing is that I surround myself with amazing people, my manager, band mates, my friends and family back home: and when I get down, they keep me up. And if all else fails, chocolate. [Laughs].

You said [in a press release] that, “As a musician and a man, I more than anything else want to be a unifier.” Do you feel like you are able to accomplishing this task through your musical career, and how so?      

At times I feel like that I’m pretty successful at it, and there’s other times when I feel like I’ve really missed the mark.  But everyday when I pick up my guitar to write a new song or step on a stage somewhere, I think about what’s happening in the world that day, and how I can present it to people in a way that is meaningful to them, and is something that people are not forced to take sides, but they can empathize with others. So some days I feel like man I hit the nail on the head and other days I feel like wow dude, you missed the mark completely. So it’s an ongoing thing.

Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at asezakblatt@mountainx.com.

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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