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Music is full of superstars the world looks up to but who do the superstars look up to? There are two answers to that question. One is superstars of the past but the other people they look up too are not publicly known superstars. They are the studio musicians that actually make visions of sound come true. They are the musicians that play their instruments better than a majority of the superstars on stage or in the studio. They are so good it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is… they can play it. These are the guys that musicians look up too. Mitchell Townsend is one of these musicians.

If you have met Mitchell Townsend consider yourself lucky, if you call him your friend you are blessed, and if you have played music with him… forget about it. Mitchell plays music the way angels wish they could. He has spent half of his life on the road from his first band Red5 to his most recent tour with Social Distortion and a ton of bands in-between. He’ll tell you a story from the road that will captivate you as if its music folklore. That is why this is one of our most entertaining interviews. Below is his 5.

G/A: What, or who, influenced you to start playing music?

MT: Severe delusion. Just kidding. I was really lucky when I was a little kid to have parents who were super into music. My Mom and Dad were always playing records in the house. Good ones. Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, etc. My Dad was also really into traditional bluegrass music. He was close friends with the guys in a pretty legendary bluegrass band in Maryland where I grew up called The Seldom Scene. So I came up going to bluegrass festivals all up and down the east coast from the time I could walk. Those guys would play in our family room when they would come over for barbecues. When you are 7 years old and you have master instrumentalists like Mike Auldridge, John Duffey and Ben Eldridge making that level of sound two feet away from you all the time, there really isn’t any way for that not to rub off on you. Even at such a young age, whenever Mike Auldridge would pick up a dobro anywhere near me, the second he made a sound it was like earth stopped spinning and all the sudden nothing else was worthy of what little concentration I was capable of. My fascination with it wouldn’t have meant much if I had the type of parents who thought music or any kind of art was something you do as a pointless little hobby while between bouts of studying for the SAT test or some hogwash. Music was important to them in their own lives, so when I started showing interest in learning how to play guitar and they subsequently realized that I was teaching myself how to do it, they were all for it. They let me run with it and were nothing but encouraging about it, always. I also have two older brothers, so once I started getting closer to being a teenager, they were responsible for exposing me to all of the proper keg party jams of the time. Especially my oldest brother Dean, who is 6 years older than me. He was a teenager in the late 70’s in the prime of arena rock, so he was the one getting me and my brother David into Van Halen, Aerosmith, KISS, Rush and all that kind of stuff. Again, I was lucky because whenever I showed interest in something him and his friends were cranking on the stereo in his bedroom while they killed the case of Schlitz tall cans hidden in his closet, instead of being a typical older brother and yelling “get out of here you little shit”, he would show me the record and say “check this out it’s great.” So yeah, being lucky enough to grow up in a house where everyone living inside of it was really into music and was listening to it constantly, is basically responsible for me being the immature, irresponsible musician person that I am today.

G/A: You started touring around the time tapes were fading out and CDs were taking over. Now we are living in a digital generation. A traveling band that is not backed by a major label survives on guarantees and merch money. The money bands make from their merchandise sales can significantly increase the quality of life on the road. Has the digital age affected touring artist and if so, how?

MT: It has affected everything. Profoundly. The age of the budget, in virtually every aspect of both making records and touring, is long gone. Record labels, the small amount of them that are still functioning, don’t see fit to spend money on anything anymore. Recording budgets, tour support, artist development, things like that are mere ghosts in the vapor now. Artists have limited financial means to get out on tour for any sort of necessary, effective period of time. Minuscule recording budgets, zero tour support, lower guarantees from promoters, higher ticket prices, perpetually-inflating gas prices, it all makes something that was already difficult enough to pull off, exponentially more difficult. With the digital technology revolution, at least in relation to music, everything has basically been created based on the concept of convenience and simplicity, whether it be Pro Tools in recording, Facebook and Twitter in marketing, all of it. Obviously convenience can be great, but sometimes it can come with a price, in this case a willingness to accept lower levels of quality due simply to the fact that things are easier to do. Labels aren’t going to go out and pound the pavement to try to find the next Stevie Wonder when there is software that can make the guy who fixes the toilet in their office sound like he has been singing his whole life. They aren’t going to build a marketing department behind new artists when all their audience is doing all day long is staring at Facebook and sending out 400 tweets about what kind of sandwich they ate that day. That is the problem with all this digital monkey business. It isn’t the technology itself, it is how it is being used. Something like Pro Tools is really useful in the hands of people who are musically-skilled, creative people. However when it is being used to make someone who can’t sing a note to save their life suddenly sound like they have perfect pitch, or make someone who can’t even clap in time sound like they can play drums in perfect time, the end result tends to be homogenized nonsense and it’s pretty sad that it is accepted so willingly when the absurdity of it all is so easy to see through. When the top TV show in the world involves someone like Jennifer Lopez actually judging other people on their singing ability, when she doesn’t even sing on stage because she can’t sing for shit, something has gone horribly wrong. Next time you watch the Grammys, play a drinking game where you take a shot of tequila every time an artist who writes their own songs and doesn’t lip-sync on stage wins an award. When it’s over you’ll still be fit to drive your car blindfolded down the street 100mph in reverse. Unless you’re a total lightweight.

G/A: Life on the road has its ups, downs, and interesting moments in between. I’m sure you have enough stories to write a few books. Please share one of your most interesting tales from the road.

MT: “Interesting” may be a stretch but yeah, so many good tales. I’ll tell you one that involves me being an idiot, which isn’t all that rare. When I was still playing with Matt Costa, we went out on the road with Oasis for a month. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals were the other openers on the whole tour. One night we were playing the Target Center Arena in Minneapolis, which is right across the street from First Avenue, the club where they filmed all the live scenes for Purple Rain. The Black Crowes were playing at First Avenue that same night. The Crowes and the Oasis guys have been good friends for years, so earlier in the day a bunch of us made a plan to go over there and check it out after our show was done. Before we walked over, Chris Feinstein and Brad Pemberton from Ryan’s band invited me onto their bus. We sat down in the front lounge and at some point someone whipped out a jazz cigarette. Not wanting to be rude to my lovely hosts, I imbibed in what I thought was a very reserved amount of the space-cabbage with them, never pausing to ponder the likelihood that what I was inhaling was of a rather “professional” grade. So we all walked across the street. Me, Liam, Noel, Spacewolf, Brad and my bud Chris Fenn. When we walked in, The Black Crowes were in serious full-flight, just crushing through an epic 30 minute space-jam with like 58 guitar solos in it. They were destroying, it was incredible, until about 15 minutes in when that satanic hippie-lettuce started coming on like a bullet train from the moon and ignited a cosmic inferno in my brain. Before I knew it the insane jam that was occurring in front of me was way too much for my cerebrum to accept as functional reality. I started freaking out and soon leaned over to Chris Fenn to inform him that I had suddenly found myself doing handstands on the surface of Mars and had to remove myself from the building immediately or I was going to have a psychiatric meltdown in about 12 seconds. I walked out, fell down in the snow and couldn’t get up for what felt like 300 days, walked across the street in the wrong direction through swift traffic to a blaring symphony of car horns, and spent the next 25 minutes struggling to locate a basketball arena the size of San Francisco that was about 50 yards away from me the entire time I was searching for it. Oops. Stay in school kids! (Sorry Mom)

G/A: You have toured with some amazing musicians. Have you ever been on the road with someone and thought to yourself, wow I’m on tour with…? If so, who is this musician/band and why were they so impressive?

MT: As far as just straight-up surreal experiences go, probably the most ridiculous thing I ever did was when I was in Red Five years ago and we opened for KISS at The Forum the first year they did the reunion tour with the make-up back on and Ace Frehley back in the band. When I was a tiny long-haired rugrat, I had a poster of Ace Frehley on the back of the door to my bedroom. My bed faced it and I would stare at it every night before I went to sleep. So when I suddenly found myself at age 25 walking by Ace in the corridors of The Forum as he was talking to the seamstress sewing up holes in his spaceman costume, the same one he had on in the poster on the back of my door, and he looked at me and said “what’s up man”, that was definitely a bizarre full-circle moment. That whole night was a monumental mind-fuck. Going out on that Oasis tour was pretty classic as well. Caravanning all over the US and Canada for a month playing massive arena rock shows with those maniacs was a pretty surreal and very fun time, brutal hangovers aside. Liam and Noel Gallagher had me laughing hysterically all day long on that trip. I needed a stomach transplant when I got home. The two funniest people I have ever met in my life. Playing some songs with Jack Johnson at the 2005 Coachella festival was a pretty good one. Playing in front of 8 billion artsters while seeing your weird face on a jumbo-tron the size of a football field is pretty bizarre. I have somehow been allowed to do some pretty amazing shit. I have to remind myself of that sometimes when I get crusty (also not all that rare).

G/A: If you could make a band with any musicians, live or dead, who would it be and please explain why you chose them.

MT: Good lord man. Tough call. I’ll have to cheat and go with a big-band style setup. How about Jim Keltner and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Dr. John on keys, Jeff Beck on guitar, Ry Cooder on guitar, Mike Campbell on guitar, David Lindley on lap steel, pedal steel, dobro and the fifty other stringed instruments he blows minds on, Aretha Franklin on vocals, Emmylou Harris on vocals, and Blind Faith-era Steve Winwood on vocals. Why? Jim Keltner and Zigaboo are my favorite drummers ever, nobody else on the planet can play the way those two wizards do. Duck Dunn is Dr. Feelgood, him Keltner and Zig together in a rhythmic 3-way would be absurd. Dr. John is the Mr Spock-meets-Anton LaVey of funk and soul, one of my favorite artists of all time. Jeff Beck, Ry Cooder and Mike Campbell require zero explanation, three of the biggest guitar idols of my life. David Lindley is The Pope of multi-instrumentalists and my hero, any stringed instrument he touches becomes an excalibur of pure beauty. Aretha Franklin is the best singer who has ever lived. Emmylou Harris’ voice is one of the most beautiful sounds my ears have ever been graced with. Blind Faith-era Winwood is stellar. The most soulful british honkey ever. Me, I’ll just sit in the back pretending to play a bunch of junk that isn’t even plugged in, just so I can watch that arsenal of monsters lay waste to the earth. Only problem is they would probably all need their own buses because none of them would get along. Shit would get pricey real quick. Maybe I could get Jennifer Lopez to sponsor the tour…

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  1. BlessRheart says:

    Everyone loves to hear Mitchell play…listening to him speak is pretty entertaining, as well.

  2. This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would wantHaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

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