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,
laughable that Mike West ever worried that he was not as pretty as
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.
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."
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."
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."
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,
Myshkin, his personal and musical partner, in a bar (naturally).
special chemistry is based on equality. Myshkin is a strong singer
and composer in her own right, and once led a band called Myshkin
born in Indiana, and favours a more contemporary sound than West,
who tends to dip into the ragbag of rootsy American with relish.
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."
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."