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THE METAMORPHOSIS OF MIKE WEST
Mike Butler tracks down Mike West,
ex-Man from Del Monte, to a levee in New Orleans
from The Big Issue In The North, June 1999, Great Britain

It seems laughable that Mike West ever worried that he was not as pretty as Ian Brown.

Back in the early Nineties, only the Stone Roses challenged the regional dominance of the Man From Del Monte, Manchester's archetypal jangly beat combo. One of the more unlikely reinventions of recent history concerns West's metamorphosis from androgynous pop tart (inseparable from his cocker-spaniel, Roger), to grizzled, left field American troubadour. His powers of observation, and slightly camp persona, seem to have survived the makeover.

It's a far cry from Longsight to West's new home in Ninth Ward, New Orleans. "They're very similar in lots of ways," West replies in a lazy unclassifiable accent (he was born in Sydney, Australia). Cheap rent is the common attraction. "You can get a whole house here for 300 dollars a month."

Mike WestThe conversion came when West chanced to see Texas tunesmith Guy Clark. ("It changed my life," he says). West disbanded the Man From Del Monte to chase the lonesome, 'ornery sound to its source in Texas, and subsequently to Louisiana. An outsider's perspective ("built-in distance") gives West more than usual insight into the American experience. His new album on Binky, 16 Easy Songs for Drill & Banjo, is quite one of the most wonderful records released so far this year. Beneath the apparent hokum and jive, the songs overflow with the strangeness, terror and charm of American daily life. Significantly, the album was recorded in a converted bubblegum factory, "in what used to be the big vat of liquid fat they boiled to become Chicklets Bubblegum."

With the ease of a first-class novelist, the singer credibly inhabits the skin of a bigot (Bartender Song), or a jealous redneck, terrorizing his daughter's boyfriend (Melissa). Like Randy Newman, West dares to write from the vantage of dislikeable people. Family conflict is a specialty. In Father's Son, a parent declares: "I'm gonna whoop you like my father whooped me." Corporal punishment is an expression of love. West admits: "Every now and again people will ask, do you have kids? They relax when I say no."

Is he ever misunderstood in the land of the irony-free? "I have been thrown out of a bar, but that was due to the banjo-playing," he says. "It wasn't," West adopts an exaggerated Southern accent, "that fellow is being ironic.' It was more, 'Shut that fucking banjo up, pal." He sighs. "Cultural differences, you know?"

He met Myshkin, his personal and musical partner, in a bar (naturally).

Their special chemistry is based on equality. Myshkin is a strong singer and composer in her own right, and once led a band called Myshkin Impossible.

She was born in Indiana, and favours a more contemporary sound than West, who tends to dip into the ragbag of rootsy American with relish.

"I've been trying to create a new genre," he declares, "or modifying the existing ones to create a new one. I call it New Orleans Hillbilly. Usually, you go looking for gigs, and you say, "I'm a folk singing songwriter.' It's the surest way to shoot yourself in the foot. By definition, New Orleans Hillbilly is unusual, if only because there are no hills in New Orleans."

Conversation turns to the invigorating properties of the air in Louisiana, and the magic of a city that seemingly routinely produces such life affirming individualists as Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill and Coco Robicheaux (the latter, a medicine man and R'n'B veteran, prefaces Drill & Banjo with a hearty endorsement). "That's the other great thing about New Orleans," laughs West. "You can never feel too old to play here."

 

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