Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Hello My Name Is…Michael Des Barres

| January 6, 2020

Michael Des Barres doesn’t want to sound jaded like he’s seen it all before. But at a sage-like 71, he has, in many ways. So don’t fault the Renaissance man for his cynical view of most pop stars’ careers: “They pretty much have a formula now,” he chuckles. “Young kid writes some songs, has some hits, buys his mom a house, becomes drug-addicted, gets sober, and now works with rescue animals. And I say ‘Bullshit’ to that time-worn cliche.”

In fact, he’s spent his entire life fighting against such a staid, predictable existence, ever since he landed his first roles in films like To Sir, With Love and unleashed his raspy rock and roll pipes in the early-‘70s glam juggernaut Silverhead. He would go on to appear in over 100 TV shows, including the classic Seinfeld “Smelly Car” episode, where he played a restaurant maitre d’ who, like Jerry, is also physically repulsed by his valet’s overpowering BO. He also appeared in 30 movies and released three albums a piece with not only Silverhead, but Detective, and under his own name. He did all of this while fronting punk supergroup Chequered Past, and The Power Station after its original frontman Robert Palmer opted out, playing 1985’s historic Band Aid in the process.

Currently, he maintains a new backing outfit called The Mistakes, has a recurring role as Murdoc on the new MacGyver reboot, anchors a daily show on that hippest of Sirius XM radio stations, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, and also doubles as an otherworldly video-game creature in the Dishonored franchise. Just don’t ever make the mistake of casually addressing him as ‘dude.’ “Because if anything, I am not a dude — I’m not a bass player in some blues band,” growls the London-born, Los Angeles-based luminary, an actual European Marquis, the 26th in the long, historic Des Barres line.

IE: How did you meet Little Steven and become one of his most trusted Underground Garage allies?

MICHAEL DES BARRES: Very easily. In the early ‘80s, he did a series of albums that very politicized, and we toured with him. And when I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about Chequered Past with Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison from Blondie. We were opening for him, and we’ve been friends ever since. And when Andrew Loog Oldham left Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Maureen — his wife, who I’d become friendly with over the years, because they’re absolutely the most fantastic couple, ever — whispered in his ear one night, “Get Michael!” So that’s when my radio career began, which has been SO satisfying.

IE: And there are rules you have to follow with airtime. You can’t just start playing, say, a new Vaccines song you like.

MDB: What it is, is, Steven has a playlist, rock & roll music that he adores and that he thinks the audience will like; a very specific audience. So we do not choose the music unless we have specific features, which I do. Every week I deal with one iconic artist, and then I play their songs once a day. But essentially, it’s a 5,000-song playlist which we stick to, and I’ve found over the years that if I’m in a band that people enjoy, then I’m gonna play those songs — I’m not gonna play somebody else’s songs. It’s the same thing with the radio station — you tune in because you want to hear Howlin’ Wolf, The Temptations, Ry Cooder, or Jefferson Airplane. Or Janis, Elvis, and Sam Cooke. And if you come in with The Vaccines, you’re probably gonna NEED a vaccination if Stevie gets hold of you.

IE: Have you scanned through his archives and thought, “Holy crap! I’ve never heard of THESE guys!”?

MDB: No. I’m encyclopedic about music. That’s why I’m on the radio. I have a huge vinyl archive myself, and I keep it in my storage spaces. I collect cars; I collect records, guitars, books — all sorts of things.

IE: What are your three most prized possessions?

MDB: My wife and my two cats. But seriously, my three possessions would be my signet ring from my father, and we’re an 800-year-old family. And I would say the Les Paul that I got when I was 18 and the Vox AC-30 that came with [it]. So an amp, a guitar, and my family ring, once used to seal letters.

IE: But wasn’t your first high school band broken up by a drama teacher?

MDB: (Sighs) Ah, that’s Wikipedia for you, where I’ve also slept with Montgomery Clift and was in The Knack. Gimme a break. Bullshit. No, that didn’t happen. I was in this to express myself, so I didn’t see any delineation between acting or singing — I’m either killing ‘em on television or in some dirty little club somewhere. I think it’s all just one wonderful way of getting that out.

IE: You have to admit, Silverhead was way ahead of the curve.

MDB: We actually sell more Silverhead records today than we ever did 40 years ago, and I’m heading over to Japan in January to tour with Silverhead songs. It has an audience. Did it breakthrough to the rock and roll stratosphere? Absolutely not. But did it influence a lot of bands? Absolutely. So when you think about it in terms of ‘What is Success?’ I think those two years I spent with Silverhead was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. Mainly because it was the first thing I’d ever done, so you had that innocence and that naivety. You didn’t question yourself — you were so confident that you just wanted to sing and write songs. So the more you know how to do it, the less “in the moment” it becomes. So I had an extraordinary time in that band, and not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me in an e-mail or a Tweet about them.

IE: And only a handful of artists were signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records. How did you befriend Jimmy Page?

MDB: We were playing in a club, and we needed another guitar player, a slide guitar player, because our original guy had left. And this guy named B.P. Fallon — who was the right hand of Jimmy Page —asked Jimmy if he knew of any good slide players. And Robert Plant, specifically, he asked. And Robert said, “This guy Robbie Blunt is amazing.” So we get him, we get in a club in Birmingham, which was where Robert lived, and the club had eleven people in it that night, and four of them were Led Zeppelin. And that was it. We ended up spending three days and three nights in this mad, debauched vacation with Led Zeppelin. But it wasn’t fanboy stuff, like, “Whoa! Wow! Led Zeppelin!” It was my life, and my job to make things happen for me. And if you just believe in yourself, things happen. That whole ‘Wow, Whoa’ thing doesn’t go down well with the people that you’re ‘Wowing’ and ‘Whoa-ing’ at. You just have to believe in yourself and get on with it.

IE: You’ve interviewed tons of people on your show. Journalistically-speaking, what were some of your most significant ‘gets’?

MDB: Marianne Williamson was really fascinating — she was running for president. Don Johnson was great, too — he’s lived an incredible life, and it’s his 70th birthday on Sunday, which we’re going to. He introduced us at Live Aid, actually, and we did Miami Vice [with] The Power Station. And Weird Al Yankovic was incredible.  He’s not only smart and really funny, but he has a full view of what he does. It isn’t just high comedy; he had a lot to say about politics. He’s just a brilliant guy.

IE: I can’t believe you were in To Sir, With Love as the ultra-cool kid in shades.

MDB: I auditioned to play the black teacher, but I ended up with the shades. And Lulu was there! She was 15 years old; I was 16. It was great, an incredible moment.

IE: Your schedule still seems to be continuously booked.

MDB: I’m on the air three hours a day. I do MacGyver, I do a voice in a video game — which I’ve been doing for a year, hanging off cables in front of a green screen, playing a demon. Sometimes everyone will leave for coffee, and I’ll still be hanging there. And I work out like a slave in the morning, so there’s not much time for anything else.

IE: What period in your life was the most illuminating?

MDB: This morning. I think that you’ve got to get on with it – in the moment. I never reflect too much on what happened — I’m more interested in what’s happening now. So I don’t think about Live Aid too much. I just like being here now, hanging with my friends, and making music.

Michael Des Barres appears on SiriusXM Radio Mondays – Fridays, 8 am – 11 am ET and Tuesdays – Saturdays 12 am – 3 am ET.

-Tom Lanham

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